Jason Haas: Natural Common Sense in Paso Robles

Tablas Creek vineyards

Tablas Creek vineyards

Tablas Creek has all the credibility a winery operation needs. They do not need to get natch’l to sell bottles. They already make terrific wines; possibly the best Paso has to offer. So if they practice natural methods it is not because someone else is. When Mr. and Mrs. tBoW visited TC two years ago we were natural wine dummies [ed. dum da dum dum]. We did notice walking through the TC westside plantings that Jason had a bunch of piggies running through the vineyards, and the weeds were still high!

Jason spoke about the ideas behind what we were marveling at but we really thought maybe the place was looking for more cost effective solutions. Now that we know just enough about natural wines to be dangerous we asked Jason to weigh in on what we thought was cute but unfathomable… then! Read what the owner and manager of TC has to say about sustainability, organic farming and biodynamic practices in the vineyard. Be patient. He starts carefully; finishes with a flourish [ed. just like TC? Yup.].

Question 1: If this natural wine activity is a movement what, in your opinion, are the movement aims?

JH: I think the movement’s aims are to de-industrialize wine, and to rebuild closer connections between the land, the farmers, the winery and the end consumer.

Q2: Terms including sustainability, organic, and biodynamic are principles of natural winemakers. How would you define these terms?

JH: Organic is the easiest… it’s basically a list of things you can’t do: no chemical herbicides, pesticides or fertilizers. It’s also the most regulated, typically with strict governmental oversight for use of the term. Biodynamic is a more holistic approach of things you should do in order to build the most vibrant, healthy soils and ecosystem, starting with eliminating herbicides and pesticides and then moving into adding things like composts and compost teas, releasing beneficial insects and planting beneficial plants, encouraging biodiversity and eliminating monoculture, and working in synch with the natural cycles of the plant world. Sustainability is squishier, and largely unregulated. It implies a desire to work in a less-interventionist way, thinking longer-term over shorter term, but I find that in practice it doesn’t mean much in the way of specifics.

Q3: The phrase “farm to bottle” characterizes natural wine. One often stated lament is that winemakers in the New World are not involved with the farming as are Old World winemakers and that this creates a dysjunction in the winemaking process. Comments?

JH: I think it’s a huge overgeneralization. There are many, many – and the number is growing – of New World winemakers working in a classic farm to bottle way. And plenty of Old World winemakers who are mechanizing more and more, and, as a result, are ever more removed from their vineyards.

natural selection

natural selection

Q4: Wine made to a style is inconsistent with wine made by the vintage. Wine made to a style (Parker scores takes the heat here) is inconsistent with the concept of terroir. Allowing the vineyard and the weather to make the wine is consistent with terroir. Which is it?

JH: I think that terroir is something more essential than implied in this question. It’s the character that is given by a place, independent of vintage, weather, winemaking, varietal character, etc. Some winemaking techniques bring out terroir, others – I’m thinking new oak here as the largest culprit – tend to muffle them. But I don’t think that allowing the vineyard and weather to make the wine is anything other than common sense, whether you’re making wine in a bigger, riper style or looking for more elegance and soil expression.

Q5: “Nothing added, nothing taken out” is a natural wine axiom. Does this have meaning in how you make wine?

JH: I don’t want to speak for the natural wine movement, as I’m generally not a supporter of polemics, no matter the end of the spectrum. I do support making wines that have elegance and balance, and allow the character of the soils and vintage to speak. This involves farming with the minimum necessary additions from the outside, so we dry farm whenever we can, and have built up the vineyard’s ability to be self-sufficient. We have brought in our own herd of animals and make and use of our own compost, to reduce our need to bring in outside fertilizer.

It also means cropping appropriately for your location, neither too high which leads to dilution nor too low which leads to wines out of balance. It means picking at appropriate ripeness, not over-ripe, not under-ripe, not covering up that character with winemaking characteristics, we don’t add yeasts, and we tend to use larger, older barrels. We do add sulfites to the wine, in moderate quantities, as I don’t believe that oxidation or bacterial spoilage contribute to the expression of terroir, or to the enjoyment of the end drinker.

We will filter wines that we feel will benefit from the process, and many wines do benefit in clarity of flavors. Basically, I would say that you should intervene as little as you feel comfortable with in order to make your wines as expressive as possible, however, being dogmatic about it works against you more often than it works for you.

Fave quote#1: “… allowing the vineyard and weather to make the wine is… common sense.” TC certainly knows something about terroir. Consider that Tablas Creek is the leader of the second wave into Paso Robles. Consider that TC changed how wine is produced in the Central Coast region, leading the switch from Cabernet to Rhone varietals. Finally, consider that TC has had it right from the start. They are the folks who matched the varietal to the soil; they searched for just the perfect soil to plant their vines in precisely the right location. Then they brought all their Old World cuttings from their French holdings – Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, Rousanne, etc. to the New World. Let’s agree the natural wine movement should be about thoughtfulness [ed. oh, really stick your neck out here tBoW].

Fave quote #2: “… intervene as little as you feel comfortable with in order to make your wines as expressive as possible.” Common sense, no? Perhaps not so simple. We all realize the pressures to score points and make a familiar “monocultural” product that can be easily understood by a customer who is not so informed nor so interested. Pressure to conform frequently will trump common sense. Thankfully, Jason and TC have bridged this chasm.

Natural wines are much more and much less than we think we know. Jim Moore – our first contributor to this discussion – finds the best source for high quality top value varietals in the state in a location that is still a “best kept secret” among trophy wine hunters and hedonists alike. And he works it like a pro. Jason Haas leveraged all the considerable resources from the Perrin and Haas families to become a big New World wine macher. However, that was not the vision.

Between Moore and Haas we have two sides of a triangle on what it means to be natural in the wine business. Time to complete the triad and get the views of a hard core natural wine wine maker. Suggestions and volunteers please chime in… especially if your name is Mallory.