In 1999, after 20 years of working for the brokerage firm Charles Schwab at the still relatively young age of 48, Steve Cass was looking for something that would fill his retirement years as well as find a new home with his wife Alice that would take them out of San Francisco. They had traveled to Paso Robles a few times, 200 miles South of San Francisco – a short plane ride away, and they loved how different it was with wide open spaces, the Mediterranean climate and a close knit community. As Steve discovered the blossoming wine industry there he said to his wife during one of their Paso trips, “Maybe my second career will be something in the wine industry because I can hire a vineyard manager, find a nice property and grow grapes and maybe one day we will put in a tasting room.” Fate would have him meet Jim Smoot, one of Paso Robles’ most respected viticultural pioneers who specialized in small vineyards, although Steve chuckled that his project “turned out to be not that small”.
After looking at about 20 properties, Steve finally found the one – pastureland in what is considered to be the Geneseo District in the Paso Robles wine region today; Jim Smoot also gave his expert opinion that it was a place with lots of potential for making “unique” quality wine and so Cass Vineyard was born. In 2000, they planted 145 acres of land with 12 grape varieties but Steve noted that they currently only had 142 planted with 11 varieties as they are replanting a vineyard; when talking to Steve it becomes quickly apparent that he has a keen mind that focuses in on the details like a laser and he appreciates precision. In 2002 Steve took a golfing/wine trip to Stellenbosch, South Africa, with Ted Plemons, the general contractor who built Steve’s barn/winery as well as his home, which wound up inspiring both men on what they wanted to pursue in the future. Steve and Ted were taken aback by the jaw-dropping beauty of the landscape and how seamlessly the South African wineries incorporated that landscape into their tasting rooms. Steve and Ted talked about the possibility of building a winery, visitor’s center and tasting room in the middle of Steve’s vineyards back home as they gazed out taking in the magnificence of South Africa. After a couple bottles of wine they agreed to become partners in the Cass Winery project that has become a welcoming, impressive symbol that would become a sign for the serious yet still friendly wines that would be made in Paso Robles.
Despite Cass Winery vineyards being located in the Geneseo District in Paso Robles (the more eastern section that is generalized for making riper, bigger wines), there are cooling influences in the Cass vineyards; altitudes from 900 to 1,200 feet moderate temperatures and there are never issues with water as Steve has a deep well that goes beyond 1,000 feet in the ground and the water is loaded with bicarbonates (salts) which is an important point since his neighbors won’t fight him for it as they can’t use it in their house – Steve simply treats the water with sulfuric acid, bringing down the pH, which makes the vines happy. So the Cass vineyards are often times ten degrees cooler than surrounding areas with higher altitudes and no issues with water as well as the surrounding hills creating a tunnel effect bringing the wind into his property that brings some of the effects of the famous “Templeton Gap” cooling breezes. Rhône varieties do very well on the Cass property and they sell their grapes to other Rhône specialists as well as work with Bordeaux varieties.
Tablas Creek Vineyard
One of those Rhône specialists is the producer who started it all in Paso Robles with Tablas Creek Vineyard, established in 1989 by Robert Haas and the Perrin Family, the owners of Château de Beaucastel in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Rhône Valley, France. The Haas and Perrin families were very close since Robert had been importing French wines into the U.S. since the 1960s, and they would take trips together such as the ones they had in the California wine regions. Robert was a strong believer in the potential of California wines and Paso Robles struck both Robert and the Perrin family as being the ideal Mediterranean paradise for Rhône varieties, hence they started a partnership called Tablas Creek Vineyard. Today, Robert’s son, Jason Haas, is a partner and general manager of Tablas Creek and spoke about his father and the Perrins bringing over better clones for the grape varieties Grenache, Mourvèdre and Viognier as well as introducing new varieties to California such as Grenache Blanc, Picpoul and Counoise and making the conscious decision to not make these clones proprietary as they wanted the bar of quality of U.S. Rhône wines to improve across the board so they were made available to everyone. Over the last 20 years, the Tablas Creek nursery has sold five million grape vines to more than 600 vineyards up and down the West Coast, from Paso Robles to Washington State.
Although Tablas Creek mainly sources their grapes from their own 120 acres, they do source some of their fruit from other wineries such as Cass Winery. Jason Haas spoke about the Roussanne grapes they use in their Tablas Creek Vineyard Patelin de Tablas Blanc (2017 blend is 44% Grenache Blanc, 29% Viognier, 12% Marsanne, 12% Roussanne and 3% Clairette Blanche) that states on the back that the Roussanne is from a Cass vineyard. He talked about the differences between the Tablas Creek and Cass vineyards as having more sand in the soil like what is found in the Geneseo District at Cass will have lushness without the alcohol and that the calcareous soils in the Adelaida District at Tablas Creek brings a saline minerality to the wines.
Steve Cass stated that all of his grape varieties were ENTAV certified. He explained, “ENTAV is an agency in the French government and it is the department for the improvement for grape growing practices. They certify clones, so for example, if I have this clone of Grenache that people seem to like, I will give it to ENTAV and they are going to assign a number to it and then they will grow five acres of it for five years. So during the course of that growing year they are going to take out clones that have a virus, plants that produce a super heavy crop, plants that produce a light crop, plants that break bud early, break bud late – the idea is that I want every grape to ripen as close as possible at exactly the same time as I need consistency.” The U.S. hadn’t approved ENTAV clones when the Haas and Perrin families were first bringing Rhône varieties over to California but now ENTAV offers a whole new level of quality with vines in the vineyards. Also, Jason was able to announce that Tablas Creek now has all 14 grapes of Châteauneuf-du-Pape (he counts 14 instead of 13 because he counts Grenache Noir and Grenache Blanc as separate grapes) as he recently planted Bourboulenc and Vaccarèse as well as top grafted Muscardin onto other vines.
Thacher Winery and Vineyard
The tiny operation of Thacher Winery and Vineyard has worked with Cass for many years sourcing fruit from them and tag teaming when it came to sales. At one time both wineries worked with the same distributor on the East Coast and they would take turns showing each other’s wines when either would make a market visit. Thacher was started by Sherman Thacher who was a brewmaster for beer for around 15 years in the Santa Cruz area of California. As a side passion he started getting into making wines and then he left beer to follow the winemaking dream with life leading him and his wife to Paso Robles. Originally, Sherman thought he would mainly make wine from old Zinfandel vines but “Rhône varieties became a big part of our program” in Sherman’s words and he is gravitating towards fresher, lighter styles now.
Thacher has a wine that 100% sources Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre fruit from the Working Holiday vineyard at Cass and it is duly noted on the label. Sherman likes to use a certain portion of whole cluster fruit, foot stomping to break up the skins and foot stomping sometimes to get the fermentation going that uses native yeasts, as well as never watering down or acidifying and he proudly gets his wines around 12% abv. “We love working with these guys” Sherman exclaimed about Cass and he continued “the fruit out here has been great; the plants are mature, there is no disease out here, they farm sustainably, the fruit is really consistent, they don’t hang too much or too little fruit – even too little can make it too concentrated and lose that elegance that I am looking for.”
Cass Winery took on a new winemaker, Sterling Kragten, in 2014 when their former and only winemaker retired. Sterling has worked at wineries around the world but decided to come back to California and lay his roots down with his wife in Paso Robles. He came knocking at the door of Cass saying that he wanted to work there as he was blown away by the elegance of their Grenache. But Sterling is bringing some exciting things that include using Russian oak for some of their varieties. He explained, “Russian oak is the same species as the French oak barrel (Quercus robur) but it is grown in a much colder climate [his oak comes from Sochi where the 2014 Olympics took place] and so it is a tighter grain. I do a light toast on it and it is gorgeous with the Roussanne [2017 Cass, Rockin’ One white blend]. Russian oak is hard to get because of our tough trade relationships with Russia but the owner of the French cooperage I use has a Russian wife so I get it through this loophole.” He said that the Russian oak brings out a creamy texture in the Roussanne and that he also uses Acacia barrels for the Viognier in the same blend of the Cass Rockin’ One white blend as it brings out a high, floral tone; Sterling also uses a small amount of Russian oak with their red blend of Rockin’ One for the Grenache.
The next thrilling project for Steve Cass has been the addition of the Geneseo Inn that is still in the midst of being completed. Steve realized that they were getting lots of requests for weddings and major life events but people wanted a place down the road where they could stay. So he didn’t decide just to build a nice bed and breakfast on the property, he decided to bring the “wow factor” using recycled steel shipping containers with interior flooring, decking and ceiling finishes integrating elements of the earth while utilizing natural and locally available materials into the architecture, lots of light that will be enhanced by elevated vineyard views from private bedroom decks and farm education programs and guest experiences (vineyard tours, wine seminars, cooking classes, beekeeping) with gourmet breakfasts served daily. Steve said he wanted to create an environment that would be unique and an experience that could be shared by a group of friends and family that they would never forget. He said he was lucky to find the company that is using these shipping containers in creative ways called Crate that is also using these containers as units for the Los Angeles Unified School District as well as FEMA contacting the company for potential future projects.
Different Past, Same Future
The above three producers come from very different backgrounds from each other and it would seem in most circumstances that there would be little that would bring them together; but the wine world has an interesting way of connecting those that would have never crossed paths simply with their passion for wine. Steve Cass left a world where, many times, a personal victory could seem like a threat or deterrent to someone else in his industry, to live in a place where he is surrounded by those who recognize that a win for one of them is a win for everyone. Sometimes it is not just about changing jobs or cities, it is about finding a place that any personal achievement will lift everyone else around him and in a nutshell that is Paso Robles, and that is the common element one tastes in all Paso Robles wines.