In 1989, not a single Paso Robles winery produced wines from Rhône grape varieties. Today, nearly all do. The credit starts with Robert Haas, a wine merchant who became a vintner when he cofounded Tablas Creek Vineyard in California and helped propagate over a million buds and cuttings of French vines. Haas died March 18 at his home in Paso Robles. He was 90.
Born in Brooklyn in 1927, Haas started his foray into wine at an early age when he worked at his father's Manhattan wine and sprits retailer, M. Lehmann. He attended Yale University, taking a hiatus to enlist in the Navy during World War II.
In 1950, Haas began working as a buyer for his father. His travels throughout France lead him to an interest in the import side of the business, so he developed a direct import branch for Lehmann. When his father retired in the 1960s, Haas took the connections he had developed and created his own import business. (Fellow retailer Sherry Wine and Spirits Co. bought M. Lehmann in 1965.)
“He loved the hunt for great wines,” said Jason Haas, Robert's son and general manager of Tablas Creek. During Robert's first buying trip to Châteauneuf-du-Pape, he visited Château de Beaucastel and convinced Jacques Perrin to let him taste through the cellar and select a few barrels that he would bottle and market under the "Pierre Perrin" label.
Haas established Vineyard Brands in 1973, in Vermont, with Beaucastel as his primary client. Other clients included Marqués de Cáceres, Domaines Gouges, Warre's Port and many others. During this time, he began bringing the Perrins to California for sales trips.
Haas' love for the hunt eventually lead to a quest for land to produce his own wines. In 1989 Haas and the Perrin family went searching for limestone soils and a maritime climate in California, similar to that of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. They purchased 120 acres in the western hills of Paso Robles. Rhône varieties were not extensively grown in California at the time, so they decided to import cuttings from the Beaucastel estate, which meant the vines had to go through a federally mandated three-year quarantine to ensure they were virus-free.
Perhaps the most lasting contribution that Haas and his partners had on the American Rhône movement came in 1992 when they built greenhouse facilities to propagate the cuttings, planting the first vines in 1994. Shortly thereafter they began selling the grafted vines and budwood to growers. Over the next decade they sold more than 1 million cuttings to vineyards throughout the United States. Tablas Creek Vineyard debuted with the construction of the winery in 1997.
“The cuttings were enormously important,” said Jason, noting that it was significant to provide not only new, high-quality clones of the more well-known Rhône varieties like Syrah and Grenache, but also relatively unknown varieties, such as Grenache Blanc, Picpoul and Mourvèdre. “Another big decision was to not make the cuttings proprietary, but to share with community,” said Jason. “They felt like if the tide rose up for everyone, we could stay at the front of it.”
Jason believes that Tablas Creek, with the Perrin family behind it, gave respectability to Rhône wines in California. More than 600 vineyards and wineries have purchased Tablas Creek cuttings over the years.
Jason says that despite all of his dad's accomplishments and influence on the industry, he tended to avoid the spotlight. “It was important to him that he wasn't part of the story,” said Jason.
Haas also achieved much as an advocate for California wineries, introducing some of California's most iconic names to the national market, including Chappellet, Freemark Abbey, Joseph Phelps, Hanzell and Kistler. Haas also helped launch Sonoma-Cutrer and founded the symposium "Focus on Chardonnay" in 1984 to promote dialogue between producers in Burgundy and California, as well as the first French-American Rhône Symposium, which was held in 1990. Haas also cofounded the wholesaler Winebow, now one of America's leading importers.
“I've had a unique opportunity in my working life to see my dad through other people's eyes,” said Jason, noting that he's heard from hundreds of people who were impacted by his father. “We are all sad, but he had a great, long life, and knowing he squeezed every bit he could out of it is an inspiration for me, and it has been wonderful to hear from all the people whose lives he touched.”
Haas is survived by his wife, Barbara, sister Adrienne Sands, sons Daniel and Jason Haas, and daughters Janet Conway and Rebecca Haas, as well as several grandchildren.
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