When influential Paso Robles winemaker Robert Z. Haas, 90, died in his home in Templeton on Sunday, he left behind a decades-long career in the wine industry, and a family legacy spanning from the end of the Prohibition to the dawn of the San Luis Obispo County wine boom.
Those who knew Haas said he was a man of long-term vision.
"There's very little that is more a declaration of your optimism than starting a vineyard in your 60s," said Jason Haas, Robert Haas' son.
That vineyard — Tablas Creek Vineyard, founded in 1989 when Robert Haas was 62 — would go on to become a cornerstone of the Paso Robles wine region; known for its Rhone grape varieties, Tablas Creek was influential in introducing that variety to vineyards along the West Coast, said Stacie Jacob, the former director of the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance who worked extensively with Haas.
"Robert Haas was always looking out for the greater good of this region," Jacob said.
WWII vet and Yale grad
Born in Brooklyn in 1927, Haas enlisted in the U.S. Navy after attending a single semester at Yale and served the duration of World War II.
At war's end, he returned to Yale, graduating in 1950. From there, he "began what would be a nearly seven-decade career in the wine industry by joining his father's Manhattan wine shop, M. Lehmann," according to an obituary written by his family. Haas' father, Sidney Haas, was among the first to receive a legal import license following the repeal of Prohibition.
While spending time traveling Europe and meeting with winemakers, Haas found his calling as a wine importer. During that time, he met the Perrin family, with whom he later opened his winery "and helped usher in the modern 'Rhone Rangers' movement by importing new cuttings of more than a dozen grape varieties common to France's Rhone Valley and making them available to the American grape-growing community."
In 2000, Haas became the first American elected president of the Académie Internationale du Vin; he was recognized in 2007 as the Paso Robles Wine Community's Wine Industry Person of the Year; and in 2014, the Rhone Rangers honored him with a lifetime achievement award.
Building a legacy
Through it all, Jason Haas said his father wasn't building Tablas Creek for himself, or even for his children.
"Everything was done with the perspective of how is this going to look a couple generations down the road," Jason Haas said of his father.
"What he built, they will see the fruits of that labor," Jacob said.
As they so often are, for Robert Haas wine and art were two great loves.
"He was a real believer and a supporter of the arts in the community," Jason Haas said.
He said his father never liked to talk about himself, but was always ready to talk about whatever project he was currently working on.
"That was fundamentally a reflection of his generosity," Jason Haas said.
"He had this kindness and gentleness about him," Jacob said. "He always had time for other people."