From the desk in his home office, Robert Haas has a wide view of the well-trimmed grounds around his family’s restored 1806 farmhouse, and he overlooks a colorful raised garden bed and the lush green of the Chester, Vt., countryside.
He also can see the barn where he and his wife, Barbara, started and ran Vineyard Brands, one of the country’s premiere importers of wines, and if he turns his chair around, there’s a large photograph of the vineyards at Tablas Creek in Paso Robles, Calif., a winery he and partners founded in the late 1980s.
During his more than six decades in the wine business, Haas has seen a lot of things. He’s seen trends come and go, and he’s been part of setting some of them, guessing which wines would catch on in the U.S. or which way American tastes would shift.
Sometimes, his gamble would be wrong, but quite often, the 89-year-old Haas was right.
For example, when he started in the business in 1951, after getting his Yale University degree in history, politics and economics, Haas had a feeling Americans would come around to French wines, and he set his future career in that direction.
He was working for his father’s midtown Manhattan wine and liquor store, selling Chateau Lafite Rothschild for $3.50 a bottle, and Chateauneuf du Pape on sale for 99 cents.
“I started as a clerk on the floor at slave wages, and it was barely enough to afford rent on an apartment,” the soft-spoken Haas said during a recent interview at his Vermont home.
“I learned about wine through tasting and from some books. We didn’t have a real appreciation of wine in our house when we were growing up. My father was a merchant, but not particularly a wine merchant.”
There were four major New York wine retailers when Haas started: his father’s store, M. Lehmann, and three others. About 80 percent of Lehmann’s sales were liquor, and wine was the rest, said Haas, hobbled slightly by a recently broken and repaired hip.
In the 1950s, the only people who drank wine were people who traveled, he said, adding that the store did business with customers from all over the United States, including film director Alfred Hitchcock; Haas knew him well enough to call him Hitch and to be on the set during the 1954 filming of Rear Window.
Compared to other countries, the United States was not a big consumer of wine. Beer and liquor were the alcoholic drinks of choice. Other than a few from Bordeaux and Burgundy, there weren’t many other fine, dry wines in stores for more than 20 years after World War II, Haas said.
Americans liked sweet wines. A 1955 attitude poll by the California Wine Institute found most Americans regarded wine as an “old world custom,” a prestigious but inexpensive drink for special occasions and better suited for older people, particularly older women. The favorite wines of the day were: port, sherry, kosher, sauterne, Burgundy (from California) and Muscatel.
“There was no room underneath the first growth French wines. We were selling second growth wines for 99 cents on sale from $1.50. They couldn’t market it at any kind of price.”
Haas’ interest in wine was growing when a key player in his father’s small import company died — the man who had been buying wine from the French chateaus and shipping it to New York.
“I went over to France to find another buyer,” Haas said. “It was like paradise. There was a freedom that I hadn’t had before. I really didn’t have my heart in finding a replacement. So, I took the job.”
Within a few years he’d learned to speak French like a native.
After his father sold Lehmann’s in the early 1960s and eventually the import business, Haas joined a wholesale firm in New York. He sold French wines to the city’s French restaurants, customers he cultivated over the years. He met Barbara, and they married. After a few years, they grew weary of the dirt, grime and noise of the city, and in 1971 they moved to Vermont and started Vineyard Brands, bringing in wines from Burgundy.
“We chose Vermont because it had a good reputation, and we considered the Norwich area because it was faster to get to New York from there.”
But they settled on a partially restored farmhouse in Chester on 170 acres, which they bought for $170,000, about $40,000 over their budget.
Initially, Haas acted as a broker because he didn’t have the capital to take possession of the wines. He would reserve them in France and then sell them to wholesalers in Vermont and adjacent states.
“There weren’t enough customers in Vermont to make a living. Wholesalers didn’t carry wine inventory, so you sold to the retailer, who would find a wholesaler, and we’d move the wine through them.”
In the beginning years of Vineyard Brands, selling French wines was difficult and Haas put a lot of shoe leather and time into developing relationships and educating his customers, said Sheilah McGovern, who started with the company in 1985 and is now a vice president based in York, Maine.
“It took him a decade to make it profitable. Bob is an amazing man. More than a few of us wish he’d write a book. There are only a couple of guys like him still around who know the import and the domestic business from its start. He’s clairvoyant. He’s always ahead of his time,” McGovern said.
When McGovern started with Vineyard Brands, Haas was trying to sell California wines made from single grape varietals in an East Coast market that knew California only for table wine blends labeled as Chablis or Burgundy. It was an uphill battle. Such single varietals as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay didn’t become popular until later.
“Bob decided to sell varietals from France. French wines were blends. Nobody had ever heard of Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay. He knew it was the future, but after three or four years of trying, he gave up. It was not long before it was the trend. He was just ahead of it,” McGovern said.
“You can grow the best grapes and make the best wine in the world, but if you can’t sell it, then it’s no good,” Haas said.
McGovern said one of the keys to the success of Vineyard Brands was the sales staff, and Haas hired young, smart and attractive women to fill the positions.
“He empowers his people to grow and do their best. He would give us the tools to do the job, and he’d say ‘you know your market, now go and do the job.’ He would make you very confident in your own ability.”
During the 1980s, Haas began thinking about the next phase of his life, and he established an employee stock ownership plan, which allowed the employees to purchase Vineyard Brands from him, a process completed in the early 1990s. In 1997, the company moved its headquarters to Birmingham, Ala., under the direction of a new president.
“When we started out, that first year we barely did $1 million in sales. Now, they’re doing $150 million or more,” Haas said.
From his proceeds from the sale of the company, Haas, who had always wanted to try his hand at making wine, started Tablas Creek with his partners, the Perrin family, the owners of Chateau Beaucastel and close family friends since the 1970s.
“We bought 120 acres of pasture land in Paso Robles and founded Tablas Creek in 1989. The idea was to do a Chateauneuf du Pape (type wine), and not make Chardonnay. California felt like the Rhone Valley with the rosemary and olives. We had really chalky soils, solid chunks, like the Rhone Valley.
Unlike the Rhone Valley, Paso Robles is in the throes of a drought. The titular Tablas Creek has run dry. Haas and his partners had to adjust. They started the vineyard with minimal irrigation because they wanted the vines to grow deep roots to reach the deep water. At first, they planted the same density as Chateauneuf du Pape, about 1,800 vines per acres, but then they cut it by two-thirds.
Haas is an advocate for organic viticulture and minimum-intervention winemaking. With the farming methods used at Tablas Creek, there is a reduced yield, but the grapes have more intense flavors.
“You also tend to get lower alcohol, which is what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to get a more classic balance between acid and alcohol. You still get plenty of alcohol. We make around 14 percent. We don’t make the higher alcohol, wines, 15 and 16 percent. (Wine critic) Robert Parker made those wines popular, and everyone started going that way, and they became very popular.”
Norwich Wine and Spirits owner Peter Rutledge has been friends with Haas for more than 15 years, and has great respect for the types of wines being made at Tablas Creek, he said.
“Bob Haas is one of the great characters in the wine business who has done a lot for the industry. He’s one of the big shots, but he stops by here and visits. We’ll go somewhere and try his wines. It’s always very casual, and he lets his wines speak for themselves.
“He’s making Rhone-style wines using grapes that you don’t find in California. They’re low alcohol, not oaky. They don’t focus on any particular varietal, they’re Rhone-style blends. I love what they’re doing. They’re well made wines,” Rutledge said.
Bob and Barbara Haas now spend most of the year California, but return to Vermont for summer and early fall.
Their son, Jason, is the general manager at Tablas Creek, and their daughter, Rebecca, is a jewelry maker who lives with her husband and children in the Vermont barn that once housed Vineyard Brands.
Bob Haas has received national and international recognition for his contributions to the wine industry as an importer, vintner and advocate for quality wines.
And in the future?
In addition to the big players continuing to get bigger and bigger through mergers and takeovers, Haas predicts there will be hope for the little guy.
“I see a proliferation of smaller regional and national importers and wholesalers importing and selling craft wines of quality from all over the world, some with very small production, but generally over the $15 retail price.
Warren Johnston can be reached at email@example.com.