California Slide Show
At a Thursday morning seminar, an international panel of growers addressed the state of winemaking. The panelists were Robert Haas (left), president of Vineyard Brands/Robert Haas Selections and managing partner of Tablas Creek Vineyard; Jean-Michel Valette (right), president and CEO of Franciscan Estates; Peter Hayes (next slide), viticulturalist at Rosemount Estate in Australia; and Sandro Boscaini (not pictured), president of Masi Agricola in Veneto, northeastern Italy. Wine Spectator's Harvey Steiman moderated, beginning the session with a reminiscence about his first trip to Burgundy before turning the microphone over to the panelists.
Valette began with a retrospective on the three phases of California winegrowing. He dubbed the 1970s, the "getting started" period, when growers' objectives were simply to grow big vines with good yields and to not screw up. The '80s was an era of "fixing what you didn't get right in the '70s," especially with canopy management and cover crops. With the economic downturn, Valette said, growers also moved to reduce risk, planting in warmer climates that would more reliably ripen grapes. The 1990s have brought a fresh start, as growers have applied the lessons learned over the past 20 years and--with a nudge from phylloxera-- replanted. Valette described the enormous scale of the replantings, saying that in the last three years, California has planted more Cabernet Sauvignon than in the previous 20 years combined.
Haas took the podium next, reminiscing about his first visit to California grape country, when the vineyards looked more like overgrown orchards than the compact, controlled vines of France. But now, he said, "Californians have realized that what the French were doing with 2,000 years of experience maybe wasn't so dumb after all."
Along with his partners at Chateau de Beaucastel in the Rhone Valley, Haas started Tablas Creek Vineyards in the 1990s to produce Rhone varietals. After three years of searching for the right place to plant Rhone varieties, Haas and his partners settled on a site in the Central Coast's Santa Lucia Highlands. Next, disliking the vegetal character of the wine from many American clones, Tablas Creek imported clones and rootstock from France, which Haas said impart additional intensity and silkiness. The first wines were released nearly 10 years later. Haas said his next challenge is to increase the diversity of the clones, and therefore the complexity of the wine.