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Expansion Aids Visitors and Wines

June 2012
 
by Laurie Daniel
 
 
Much of the history of Tablas Creek Vineyard in Paso Robles, Calif., is well known. The winery was founded in 1989 by wine importer Robert Haas and one of his French clients, the Perrin family of Château de Beaucastel in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. They legally imported Rhône grape varieties from France, propagating them in a nursery at the winery after they were released from quarantine. The availability of this new vine material helped raise the quality of Rhône grapes in the U.S.: Wineries all over the country are growing the so-called Tablas Creek Vineyard Selections (now marketed by Novavine) in their vineyards.

But as the business evolved, the facility that the partners built on the west side of Paso Robles proved to be inadequate. When the winery opened in time for the 1997 vintage, for example, there was no tasting room and no plan to add one. When the decision was made to start a tasting room and wine club in 2002, the tasting space had to be squeezed into an entryway. “There was no other space that made sense at all,” says Tablas Creek general manager Jason Haas, son of the founder. Three years later, the tasting room was expanded into what had been a conference room.

“We had eight years, nine years of shuffling people through a tasting room that was supposed to be a lobby,” Haas says. On crowded weekends, tastings would sometimes spill over into the adjacent winery production and aging space. That made it hard to keep the temperature and humidity at proper levels, Haas says.

Meanwhile, as production increased, the winery part of the building proved to be inadequate and inefficient, too. “We had to move 10 things out of the way to get at something,” Haas says. The need for more space accelerated in 2010, when Tablas Creek added a tier called Patelin de Tablas, blends that use purchased grapes. In 2011, the winery made about 10,000 cases of Patelin red and white. Total annual production for all Tablas Creek wines averages around 25,000 cases, and Neil Collins oversees winemaking in consultation with François Perrin, who has been in charge of winemaking at Beaucastel for three decades.

“We had outgrown everything more or less simultaneously,” Haas says. An expansion was in order. In 2007, they had contacted Nick Gilman, the Paso Robles architect who designed the original winery building, and he finished the expansion plans in mid-2008. “We were just getting ready to send them out to bid when the bottom dropped out of the economy,” Haas says. “We thought it would be a good idea to be cautious.” But he adds that the winery kept growing throughout the recession, and by the end of 2009 “we were convinced we were going to be OK.” They broke ground in June 2010 and moved in nine months later.

The addition added about 70% (or 8,000 square feet) to the original building, at a cost of $2.5 million. But in addition to adding more space, the design was intended to “bring the experience of the cellar to people who are coming to taste,” Haas says. “We wanted to emphasize that this is a working winery.”

Hospitality space is centerpiece
The centerpiece of the new addition is the hospitality space designed by Marilyn Farmer of Habitat Design in San Luis Obispo. Although the tasting room is spacious at 2,400 square feet, it’s divided in a way to provide a more intimate experience with multiple tasting areas. There are also two smaller rooms off the main tasting room that can be used on a busy day or closed off for private tastings. A staff of about a dozen works Saturdays in the tasting room. There’s also a large patio off the tasting room that is landscaped with rocks from the calcareous soils of the Tablas Creek property.

The floor of the tasting room is made of three colors of cork. Besides the obvious tie-in to wine, the cork floor is soft underfoot, which is particularly important for the tasting room employees, who are on their feet all day.

“And it absorbs an amazing amount of sound,” Haas says. Further sound reduction is accomplished with Insul-Shield semi-rigid thermal acoustic fiberglass panels from Johns Manville that are hidden in the ceiling.

The tasting bars are made of bamboo with stained, sealed concrete counters. The merchandise display area, which includes items such as books, ceramics, logo clothing and high-end handbags made from cork, is made from the same bamboo. John Egbert of Egbert Design and Fabrication in nearby Santa Margarita, Calif., did much of the woodwork.

For wines that need refrigeration, the tasting room has two large Transtherm wine refrigerators behind the main bar. There are also five small Marvel wine refrigerators at the individual tasting bars. “We pull wines from there to pour as needed so we don’t have to leave customers and go into the back storeroom,” Haas says.

Tastings are poured into 15.5-ounce Vintage Premier glasses from Glass Tech that are etched with the Tablas Creek logo. The point-of-sale system is from AMS Retail Solutions and includes a wine club module. Tablas Creek has three tiers in its wine club, including one that offers access to library wines, with a total of 5,500 members.

To accomplish the goal of letting visitors see what’s happening in the winery, large windows were installed in the tasting room to bring the red wine fermentation and aging area into view. A blackboard announces what’s on the work schedule that week for the vineyard and winery—for example, the week’s bottling schedule. Haas says visitors are sometimes disappointed when they aren’t able to see actual work going on in the winery.

Separate areas for reds and whites
By enlarging the production space, the winery is now able to separate the white and red winemaking. The new area, where reds are fermented and aged, has six 1,500-gallon upright tanks made by Seguin Moreau. Haas likes their versatility: They can be opened or closed for fermentations and can also be used for aging. He says the winery plans to add more in the future.

The winery also added three more 1,200-gallon Seguin Moreau foudres (large barrels), for a total of 19. Four foudres are used for whites, 15 for reds, and Haas says the winery plans to add one or two a year. Barrels for aging reds are also housed in the new space, which has a concrete floor sealed with red epoxy. The sealant makes the floor easier to clean, and “we also thought it looked nice,” Haas says.

The old production space, which is more utilitarian, is now used mostly to ferment and age whites. It also houses the presses—a 5,000-liter Scharfenberger Europress for whites and a 3,000-liter Bucher Vaslin for reds—and a Delta destemmer from Bucher Vaslin. New for the 2011 harvest was a Key Technology Iso-Flo vibrating conveyor, which regulates the pace of grapes into the destemmer and aids in sorting—although Haas says most of the sorting is done in the vineyard.

Pad filtration is done on a case-by-case basis, Haas says, adding that he finds the aromatic whites, the rosé and the Patelin red (all bottled under screwcap) aren’t negatively affected by filtration. With the exception of the Vin de Paille dessert wines, few Tablas Creek wines have significant residual sugar, but any that do are filtered. Wines with measurable malic acid also are filtered. The winemakers try not to filter the Esprit de Beaucastel red (which is based on Mourvèdre) and white (based on Roussanne.)

The addition also included more office space—“I was sharing my office with three other people,” Haas says—as well as a bigger kitchen, which can be used for winery events and has space for the staff to eat lunch. And the conference room can once again be used for meetings, rather than tastings.

$2.6 million for adjacent land
The opening of the building addition isn’t the only recent change at Tablas Creek. Soon after the building was finished, an adjacent property came up for sale. “It was not meant to happen together,” Haas says of the winery and vineyard expansions. Purchasing the land was a financial stretch on the heels of the building expansion, but the owner needed to sell. Tablas Creek paid $2.6 million for the property.

Fourteen acres of the 154-acre property already were being leased by Tablas Creek and planted to grapes. The property also had about 50 acres of walnut orchard, which are being cleared for vineyard planting. One appealing feature for the estate winery is that both properties can be contained within one fence line.

The soils are similar to those at Tablas Creek—which is important, because the calcareous soils are what attracted Robert Haas and the Perrins to the location on the west side of Paso Robles in the first place. “There’s calcareous stuff littered all over,” Haas says. “It’s very limestoney.”

The new property also comes with a pond and the water rights to Tablas Creek, the stream from which the winery took its name. Haas plans to use the water for frost protection when necessary; he estimates that about 40% of the 2011 crop was lost to frost. “The chance for mitigating (frost) was huge,” Haas says.

The 120-acre Tablas Creek vineyard, which has been certified organic since 2003, is not irrigated in most years; much of it, Haas says, isn’t even plumbed for irrigation. The vineyard is currently being converted to Biodynamic practices. “We’re curious about what the effect will be,” Haas says. In keeping with Biodynamic principles, the property is now home to sheep, donkeys, chickens and alpacas. The constructed wetlands that are used to recycle the winery’s wastewater will be used for pastureland.

The next project that’s being planned will add more solar panels. Tablas Creek currently has enough solar panels from REC Solar in San Luis Obispo to supply about one-third of its electricity needs. In the next couple of years, Haas says, the winery plans to install enough panels to supply 100% of the winery’s needs. The existing panels are next to the parking area; a site for the additional panels has been identified in the vineyard, in a spot where no vines will have to be relocated.

A resident of the Santa Cruz Mountains, Laurie Daniel has been a journalist for more than 25 years. She has been writing about wine for publications for nearly 15 years and has been a Wines & Vines contributor since 2006.

 
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