Robert Z. Haas, a Paso Robles pioneer and one of the leading figures in the American wine industry, died on March 18 at his home in Templeton, surrounded by his family. He was 90.
Co-founder of Tablas Creek Vineyard and Winery, Haas left an indelible mark on California’s Central Coast over his seven-decade career. He helped usher in the modern “Rhône Rangers” movement by importing new cuttings of more than a dozen grapes varieties common to France’s southern Rhône Valley and making them available to the American grape-growing community.
Although there were other vintners such as Randall Graham and Gary Eberle growing syrah on the Central Coast, Haas’ efforts in partnership with the Perrin family of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, brought in many more Rhône grape varieties, now amounting to 14 at Tablas Creek, commented Jason Haas, the winery’s general manager and partner.
“He was a dreamer but he accomplished all his dreams,” said Jason of his father, in a phone interview.
In addition to spearheading Rhône varieties in Paso Robles, Haas planted a small 2.5 acres of pinot noir in front of his Templeton residence, producing a small quantity of Full Circle pinot noir.
“He loved pinot noir because he first started his importing business with Burgundies,” commented Jason. Haas was active up until a year and half ago when he would visit Tablas Creek vineyards and the winery, Jason added.
Haas was born in Brooklyn in 1927 and raised in Scarsdale, NY. After one semester at Yale, he enlisted in the Navy for the duration of the Second World War. He returned to Yale after the war, graduated in 1950, and began what would be a nearly seven-decade career in the wine industry by joining his father’s Manhattan wine shop, M. Lehmann. As a retailer, he organized the world’s first-ever futures offering on Bordeaux wines from the 1952 vintage (an annual tradition now conducted at Tablas Creek Vineyards offering futures of their wines).
Haas continued his career as a wine importer, founding the company Vineyard Brands, in a converted barn in Chester, Vermont in 1973. As a broker he represented such esteemed Burgundy and Bordeaux estates as Chateau Lafitte, Chateau Petrus, Domaine Ponsot and Mongeard-Mugneret.
As an importer he introduced labels such as La Vieille Ferme and Marques de Caceres. Among some of his brands was Chateau de Beaucastel from Chateauneuf-du-Pape, in France’s southern Rhône Valley. Here he met the Perrin family, and the two families would go on to establish Tablas Creek Vineyard in Paso Robles in 1989, focusing on grapes like grenache, mourvedre, roussanne, counoise, grenache blanc and syrah.
The partnership brought in rootstock from the best French nurseries and established the Tablas Creek nursery, with a goal to sell the vines to other growers. This decision encouraged the California’s Rhône movement, blossoming with now more than 600 vineyards and wineries around the United States using Tablas Creek cuttings.
In the 1970s, Haas was an early advocate of California wines, representing Napa and Sonoma Valley wineries such as Clos du Val, Kistler, Joseph Phelps, Chappellet and Spring Mountain. In the 1980s he helped launch Sonoma Cutrer.
Upon retiring from Vineyard Brands, instead of selling the company, he turned it over to the employees with an employee stock ownership plan. The company has continued its success with many senior employees who began two to three decades ago still working with the company.
Haas was elected the first-ever American president of the Académie Internationale du Vin in 2000. In recognition of his contributions to the Paso Robles Wine Community he was recognized as 2007 Wine Industry Person of the Year, and in 2014 he received a lifetime achievement award from Rhône Rangers for his contributions to the American Rhône movement. He served on the board of the Paso Robles AVA Committee, which researched, proposed, and shepherded eleven new Paso Robles AVAs through the federal process, and continued to be a regular presence at Tablas Creek well into his tenth decade. In addition to his wine community work, he was a dedicated supporter of arts in the community, including serving on the board of the Foundation for the Performing Arts Center in San Luis Obispo.
Haas is survived by his wife Barbara, with whom he recently celebrated his 50th wedding anniversary, sister Adrienne Sands, sons Daniel Haas and Jason Haas, daughters Janet Conway and Rebecca Haas, grandchildren Lisa Conway, Susan Conway, Elijah Haas, Sebastian Haas, Emmett Hutten, and Ellery Hutten, and great-grandson Hollis Adams.
Family, friends, and the many people whose lives Robert touched are invited to a celebration of his life at Tablas Creek Vineyard on Sunday, April 15. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests a donation to the Foundation for the Performing Arts Center in San Luis Obispo, CA. www.fpacslo.org