Traffic was slow on U.S. 101 as we drove past SLO (San Luis Obispo), and I feared I may violate my own number one rule about being on time when visiting a winery. But we just did make it at 10:00 a.m. to the Tablas Creek Vineyards just west of Paso Robles where Joell A. Chiff had a couple of white wines ready to pour as we walked in.
Tablas Creek Winery is an interesting partnership between two distinguished wine families thousands of miles apart. Robert Haas of Paso Robles and Jean-Pierre and Francois Perrin of Chateau Beaucastel in Chateauneuf-du-Pape looked far and wide to find the right California plot for producing Rhone-style wines. I witnessed their success some years ago when Jason Haas (Robert’s son) came to Bloomington to introduce us Hoosiers to Tablas Creek. As I sipped his wines back then, I could only recall my visits with the Perrins over the years. Tablas Creek had become a priority visit for me on my first detailed look at Paso Robles.
I like their flagship wines — Esprit de Tablas: red based on Mouvedre, white based on Roussanne. So too do I appreciate their Cote de Tablas – Grenache red and Viognier white. Of course, as in the Rhone Valley, the Tablas wines are blends requiring skillful juggling of harvest and fermentation times as the various grapes ripen at different times.
It took the Perrins and the Haases four years to decide that the soils along Tablas Creek were just what they needed for the vines they brought from France and which had to be put in quarantine for three years. That was in the 1960s when they decided to go organic and have done so from the beginning. They keep herds of sheep, alpacas, and burros to help with weed control and fertilization.
Joelle smiled when I asked her about the significance of the new American Viticultural Areas for Paso Robles. “For one thing,” she said, ” “it means that producers over here on the west side of town can no longer bring in grapes from the east side!”
Tablas Creek may not rival the Rhone River in size or ancient history, but it certainly holds its own in the growing of quality grapes, and these two friendly partners have taken full advantage of that.
At the end of the twisting, hilly Ballard Canyon Road the words had become almost a mantra: “Harvested two and three weeks early. Water not yet a problem but…” The Rusack winery has its own well system, but the tannish-brownish Santa Rita Hills tell the story. Like the rest of California, Santa Barbara County is experiencing extreme drought.
Joe Melatti, our host at the handsome bar in the tasting room, beautifully ornamented with native pottery, told it like it is — a really very early harvest this year. Though the Ballard Canyon seems more like the Rhone Valley and the wines it produces are predominantly Rhone-style, Joe says the Zinfandel is “History in a bottle.” The Zinfandel cuttings were saved from the cuttings on Santa Cruz and Santa Catalina Islands after Prohibition, hence the history. In Ballard Canyon, they vinify Zinfandel in the style of the Old World, imparting a more feminine, nuanced style than one expects of a Zinfandel from California. The connection to Catalina Island goes back to Alison Wrigley Rusack’s childhood on that island when her family owned it, the chewing gum industry, and, of course, the Chicago Cubs, which endeared the place to me immediately.
More than half of their 17 acres are planted in Syrah, the flagship Rhone-style wine. Here the Syrah finishes with a touch of licorice and a concentration of cherry and chocolate, not unlike those of the Northern Rhone. But the Rusacks also source Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from the cooler Santa Rita Hills and Santa Maria Valley to produce some Burgundy-style reds and whites. Though total poroduction is only from eight to ten thousand cases, the diversity of production is impressive.
Particularly noteworthy is the extent to which the Rusack vines follow the contours of the surrounding hills, making for excellent drainage and maximum exposure to the sun. Ballard Canyon is not defined as either a cool or warm climate. From the hills, as mentioned, the grapes are Burgundian; the opposite end of the canyon is the warmest land in Santa Barbara County, where they produce some Merlot and Cabernet for a Bordeaux style red.
My first day of work ended on the redwood deck fronting the winery, basking in a late-afternoon sun sipping a refreshing Santa Maria Valley Reserve Chardonnay. Next time, I’ll remember to bring a picnic lunch.
As clocks finish chiming at midnight tonight, the 2014 Beaujolais Nouveau will be released. Those who know and care will be on hand in their favorite watering hole to be among the first to taste the fruity run-off of the first pressings of this famous wine region, whose Gamay grape was banned from Burgundy way back in the Middle Ages.
I suppose it’s possible to cheat somewhere in the world and get a sample before midnight, but that would destroy the fun. It used to be that on the evening before the third Thursday of November, the trucks and helicopters and corporate planes would begin parking in meadows and along roads around the major producers in and around Beaujeu and Villefrance-sur-Saone and Romaneche-Thorins to load up in time to start moving on the stroke of the witching hour. I suppose — and I hope — they still do, because it’s exciting to witness what resembles a military invasion in full throttle; but mostly today, the New Beaujolais is shipped well in advance to world market places under sworn oaths not to sell any of it till after midnight on the designated day.
Part of the fun wherever you are on New Beaujolais Day is knowing you are among the first to get it. Truckers have been well paid to get the stuff to Frankfurt and Paris and Geneva by dawn, and jet planes have stood by at major airports to get on the way to London and New York and Sidney.
I saw it brought by horse and carriage at daybreak to a pub in a Cotswold village where the licensing hours had been adjusted so we guests could enjoy a glass or two in the morning twilight. I have seen it sluice into the Thames by London Bridge on a small plane equipped with pontoons, and I once saw it dropped by parachute into downtown Indianapolis. Rick Hofstetter and I launched the first-ever New Beaujolais parties in rural southern Indiana some twenty-plus years ago at his Story Inn where the tradition continues.
Still, there’s nothing quite like shivering in the night air outside George Duboeuf’s immense winery to watch the take-off, then partake of the same wine that you watched head off around the world, accompanied by catchy posters, occasionally a bit bawdy, announcing l’Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivee!
But don’t store it in your cellar; it isn’t intended to age. And, though it is really tasty and juicy, take care — it is alcoholic. Above all, enjoy it, because its annual appearance is cause to celebrate.OLDER POSTS »