Direct Shipping is not a Zero Sum Game

Earlier this year, I was having lunch in Boston with a key account manager from our Massachusetts distributor.  We were talking about what I'd done on my last visit, which included a really cool dinner at (sadly now closed) Blue Ginger that had such a large consumer response that they had to move the dinner into a larger room.  I also conducted a sold-out tasting seminar at the terrific retailer Gordon's in Waltham.  I mentioned that we'd sent news about the events out to our mailing list and wine club members, and that I thought this was a big reason why we'd gotten such a good turnout for the events.  His response took me by surprise, though it shouldn't have.  He said, "I know, we oppose direct shipping, but I guess it can have its uses."

I've been meaning ever since to write a blog post about how misunderstood direct shipping is among most actors in the wholesale market, and how short sighted their opposition to it is. After all, our wholesale business in Massachusetts is up 38% this year, and was up in 2016 and 2015 after nearly a decade of essentially flat sales.  Our Massachusetts wholesaler is on a pace to sell 55% more wine than it did in 2014.  Most businesses would kill for this sort of performance.  So, what turned things around?

Direct shipping opened in February of 2015, bringing Massachusetts into the growing majority of states.

Shipping State Animation

At first, it seems counter-intuitive that opening up a state to shipments of wines from wineries in other states should help the sales of that winery's wholesaler.  Doesn't each sale offset another in-state sale?  Not really.  Here's why the ability for a winery to ship to a state has generally increased our wholesale sales there:

  • Wineries are better able to make and cultivate fans. This, I think, makes a lot of sense, and it works in at least a few ways. Each year, a winery like ours sees visitors from every, or nearly every, state.  Of course, more are from California that anywhere else, and a disproportionate number are from the larger western states, but we see at least a few hundred visitors from a state like Massachusetts last year.  
    • If these visitors can't sign up for our wine club and can't order wine from us, it's a lot harder for us to establish a meaningful connection with them.  That means that when these people return home and see a Tablas Creek wine on a wine list or the shelf of a wine shop, we're less likely to have developed enough of a connection with them that they choose that wine over others.  
    • They are also less likely to bring Tablas Creek to friends' houses, and therefore the critical peer-to-peer market is harder to activate.  
    • I also think -- though this would be hard data to gather -- that shipping bans discourage wine tourism from those states, since those consumers are likely to experience some degree of frustration in getting any new discoveries home.
  • The wines that people order are not the same wines they buy at retail. The idea that consumers will exchange a purchase at their local shop for a purchase of the same bottle online is pretty far-fetched.  Consider why:
    • Wine is fundamentally a difficult product to ship direct to consumers.  It's heavy and perishable, which means that even if (like us) you subsidize the shipping costs, it's at least a few dollars per bottle to get that product shipped across the country.  Because it's alcohol, all packages have to be signed for upon delivery.  You have to wait at least a few days to get the wine.  And because of the mess left behind by Prohibition's repeal and the 21st Amendment's decree that states have the rights to legislate how they treat alcohol, wineries have to jump through significant legal and compliance hoops to get shipping permits.  The net result is that it's not worth it to ship inexpensive wines, or wines that have good representation in distribution, direct to consumers. The average price of a bottle of wine sold in the United States is about $7. Even with growing demand for higher-end wines, the vast majority of wines won't ever make sense to ship direct.  From a winery's perspective, it's not until you get to the $20 and up category where the shipping costs don't outweigh the extra margin a winery makes on a sale.
    • So, what sorts of wine do make sense for both wineries and consumers to order direct?  Those they can't find, or at least can't find nearby.  Direct shipping opens up the power and opportunities of long-tail marketing to wine lovers and producers.  We don't produce enough volume or have enough demand to have wines on the shelves of dozens of stores in each state outside of California.  So, in many cases, consumers don't have any Tablas Creek on the shelf anywhere near them.  And if they do, it's likely that what's easiest to find is our Patelin de Tablas line, which makes up about 70% of what we sell wholesale nationally.  What if they've read about our Vermentino, or our new Terret Noir?  Too bad.  As you would expect, the Patelin wines represented a much smaller proportion -- just under 15% -- of what we sold direct last year.  What did we sell?  A mix of everything.  But more than half of what we sold was our small-production varietals and blends that aren't found in distribution.  
    • I would guess that most wineries' data would show the same thing, and it's backed up anecdotally.  On a visit to another high-end winery near us last week, our server explained that they have two entirely separate lineups of wine for their wholesale sales and their tasting room.  And, of course, a large number of wineries don't distribute any of their wine nationally. 
  • Restaurants work differently. Although many restaurants offer corkage, where customers can bring in their own wines and have them served at their table for a fee, and there are some states who allow wineries to sell direct to restaurants, the challenging logistics and planning (and cost) required means that nearly 100% of wine sold in restaurant comes through a state-licensed wholesaler.  Does opening direct shipping impact restaurant sales negatively?  Not at all.  And we have found that it is our wine club members -- read superfans -- who are the most likely to order our wines at a restaurant.  They feel a proprietary pride in the success of their favorite wineries, and when they are dining with friends it is often these restaurant opportunities that encourage the peer-to-peer sharing that starts new customers on the path to fandom.  If we can't ship direct to a state, it's a lot harder to sign up wine club members (they can, of course, have wine shipped to friends or relatives in nearby shipping-allowed states, but that's cumbersome and difficult). And the restaurant sales those club members will make don't happen.  
  • Direct shipping changes wineries' incentives. All those reasons aside, I think the most important reason that we have seen our wholesale sales increase in state after state after that state opens to direct shipping is this last one.  Judging from our own actions, it's not in our interest to lavish the same amount of attention on states to which we are prohibited from shipping directly as we do to states to which we can ship.  I know that before 2015, I hadn't visited the Massachusetts market in several years, despite that I went to both high school and college in Massachusetts and have lots of friends -- and sports teams -- in Boston I love to see.  It just wasn't worth it.  In a state like New York or Illinios, where we can ship, I can go, spend my days working with our distributor reps to get the wines into new accounts, and spend my evenings doing consumer events at restaurants or wine shops.  I can help ensure that those events succeed, making the accounts that host them happy, by promoting the events to our consumer mailing list in the area.  And I can hopefully come out of those events with a new collection of names that I can add to our mailing list.  This makes these people more likely to come out to Tablas Creek, and to eventually join our wine club or buy wine from us.  Everyone is happy.  In a non-shipping state, I can still do the work days with the distributor, but I can't do much to help promote consumer events (so they're less likely to be successful) and I can't do much with any consumer contacts I make at these events.  Both time and marketing dollars are finite for any winery.  Wineries are only behaving rationally by focusing their attention where they can have the greatest impact, which means that states without direct shipping don't get as much winery-level help with their wholesale sales.

Whatever the reason or combination of reasons, Massachusetts isn't the only state where we've seen wholesale sales increase in the aftermath of the state opening to direct shipping. It has happened again and again.  Between 2005 and 2013, our wholesale sales rose an average of 8% per year.  Check out how much some of the larger states (that opened to direct shipping over that period) grew in the first two years after they allowed direct shipping.  The year that we started shipping to each is in parentheses:

  • New York (2005): + 68.0%
  • Florida (2006): -38.1%
  • Texas (2006): +61.7%
  • Ohio (2007): +14.3%
  • Georgia (2008): +24.0%
  • Washington DC (2008): +72.5%
  • Maryland (2011): +160.9%

On average, our wholesale sales in these seven states increased 51.9% in the two years after we received our direct shipping permit.  Why was Florida the one state to decline?  I didn't realize it had, until I pulled this data.  But I have a few guesses.  First, it's a state from which we see relatively few visitors, at least for the size of its population.  It's also a state with a very spread-out population, where (unlike, say, in New York or Washington DC) it's hard to schedule events in places that are central to a collection of mailing list members.  We also struggled to set up good consumer events in our early years there, so I doubt we were able to leverage or build our mailing list particularly efficiently.  Anyway, the rest of the states show a pretty strong trend, and our sales in Florida have rebounded strongly in recent years, so I'm not going to worry too much about the one data point.

Instead, just booked my flights for my second work trip this year to Boston.  I'll fly in Tuesday.  Wednesday, I'll work with one of the distributor's top reps, and we'll try to get the wine into some more cool restaurants, before I host a dinner at Porto in Boston's Back Bay.  Thursday, I'll do it all again, and Friday I'll fly home.  I'll catch the Patriots season-opener on TV with some friends who live there.  And none of this would have happened if Massachusetts -- with a push from former Patriot turned vintner Drew Bledsoe -- hadn't decided to open their borders to wine shipping two years ago.

 


Grapes of the Rhone Valley: Picardan

Wednesday morning, we bottled our tiny (70 case) production of Picardan.  What's the big deal?  Well, this grape is one of the rarest in the world, with a total footprint of only a couple of acres.  And this bottling is likely the first 100% Picardan -- made anywhere -- in a century or more, given its general application as a blending grape.  It's so rare that we're working really without a road map; even our Perrin partners don't vinify it on its own. If that's not enough to get a Rhone geek like me excited, I don't know what is.

PICARDANHistory
Picardan is rare nowadays, but its first mention in the historical record from 1715 talks about it being "very common", with "greenish, sweet and soft berries".1  It was cultivated under various names, including Araignan Blanc, Oeillade Blanche, and Gallet, in much of the south of France.  The twin 19th Century plagues of powdery mildew and phylloxera appear to have dealt it a blow from which it never recovered2, and as of 2008 there was just over an acre reported in all of France. In fact, there is some debate as to whether it has survived a separate grape at all, as many of the samples that were selected for testing turned out to be either Clairette or Bourboulenc.3  Nevertheless, it is recognized in the official Chateauneuf-du-Pape regulations as a distinct grape, and the Perrins had enough confidence in its distinctiveness to supply us with a cutting when in 2003 we decided that we wanted the complete collection of Chateauneuf-du-Pape varieties.

Picardan's name comes, apparently, from the same root as Picpoul: the French verb piquer ("to sting"). That said, it is not the same as Pacardin (note the different spelling), a white blend of Clairette Blanche and Picpoul Blanc that was widely exported from the Languedoc in the 17th and 18th centuries.  Nor does it have anything to do with the French region of Picardy, a district north-east of Paris (including the Somme) that saw some of the most famous battles of World War I. Confused yet? Because of the confusion with the name, and the grape's scarcity, even the small amount of literature that's out there on this rare grape is suspect.  So, we really are breaking new ground here.

We have Picardan not because of any particular expectations for it, but because we wanted to complete set of Chateauneuf du Pape grapes to evaluate. We took cuttings from Beaucastel in 2003, brought it into quarantine at UC Davis, and it spent seven years in quarantine at U.C. Davis before being released to us in late 2010, propagated, and in 2013 planted into a half-acre block at the extreme western edge of our property.  Our first production of Picardan off of these vines came in 2016.

Picardan in the Vineyard and Cellar

Picardan buds out in the middle of the spring cycle, making it somewhat less prone to damage in our spring frosts than early budding grapes like Viognier and Grenache Blanc. Its vines show moderate vigor, although they tend to hang a heavy crop, which we've had to thin the last two years.  The vines seem to struggle in areas where there is relatively little topsoil and the limestone layers are right at the surface.  Now this is true of all vines to some extent, but Picardan's reactions seem more pronounced to us, with significant variations in vigor between the lower down areas where the topsoil is deeper and the higher vines forced to contend with calcareous soils just a few inches below the surface.  We're not sure yet whether the vines will overcome this with more age, or not, but we'll be keeping an eye on it.

The canes are relatively thin, and the clusters small to medium sized and fairly loose. Berries are also medium sized and have an oblong shape. Although it is head-trained in Chateauneuf du Pape, the thin canes suggest that it might struggle in the wind, and we planted our small block double-cordon on trellis.  It ripens just past the middle of the harvest season, after grapes like Viognier, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc, and Syrah, typically right as we're starting Grenache Noir.

As with any new grape, our initial picking decisions are educated guesses, and in 2016 we experimented picked our Picardan on September 22nd at 22° Brix and a pH of 3.6, all numbers pretty close to our targets for whites. We will experiment this year with a slightly earlier picking, to capture a bit more acid, but think we got a nice balance of richness and freshness.

Ultimately, we expect Picardan to join our blends. That said, we always bottle new grapes on their own the first few vintages, so that we can wrap our heads around them and so we can show them to other people and get their feedback.  So, it was with no small excitement that we bottled California's first-ever Picardan last week:

Picardan in bottle

We'd like to give the wine a couple of months to recover from its recent bottling, but look forward to releasing it this fall. If you're in our wine club, keep an eye on your monthly emails. 

Flavors and Aromas
Picardan is on the nose reminiscent in many ways of a softer take on Picpoul; in our newly-bottled 2016 I found aromas of chamomile, mint, and a little chalky minerality. On the palate, soft, rich, and peachy, with a sweet/tangy crystallized pineapple note. The finish was the brightest part of the experience, with flavors of Meyer lemon zest and key lime pie leavening the richness.  We have absolutely no idea how the wine will age, but are looking forward to finding out.

Footnotes

  1. Jancis Robinson, Wine Grapes, HarperCollins 2012
  2. P. Viala & V. Vermorel, Ampelographie, Vol VI, Jeanne Lafitte 1991 Reproduction of 1905 Edition 
  3. Harry Karis, The Chateauneuf-du-Pape Wine Book, Kavino, 2009

Veraison 2017 suggests an early, but likely not record-breaking, harvest

I returned on Wednesday from three weeks away to a significantly changed vineyard landscape. When I left, we were through flowering but many of the grape berries were still pea sized, bright green, and hard. It looked like early summer. Fast forward three weeks and the grapes are much more mature. While almost all the grapes are still green, many varieties are full-sized. The white grapes -- except for Roussanne -- don't look all that different than they will at harvest. And, when I got to the Syrah block, I found veraison.

Veraison marks the point where a grape stops accumulating mass and starts accumulating sugar. At the same time, red grapes start their color change from green, while white grapes take on more of a yellow tint. Both red and white grapes start to soften. [For more about what's happening chemically, check out this veraison post from the archives.] This landmark comes roughly six weeks before the onset of harvest, and gives us our best estimate for when harvest will begin. One of the most advanced Syrah clusters shows the beginnings of this color change:

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It's important to note that this cluster is exceptional. Even at the top of the hills, most of the Syrah clusters are green. Go even halfway down the hills (where it's cooler, since cold air sinks at night) and there's no color change to be found. And as for the other grapes, only in Mourvedre could I find even a hint of veraison, and that took some searching. The cluster below is about the most advanced I could find:

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Although it may seem like wineries mark veraison as a moment, it's probably better understood as a continuum, with the percentage of berries that show the telltale signs. By that measurement, I'd say we were 5% through veraison in Syrah, 1% through in Mourvedre, and 0% in Grenache and Counoise. So, we've got a ways to go. But still, when we first note veraison is one of the five major signposts in the vineyard year, each of which helps us know how it compares to other years. Veraison is the third, after bud break and flowering, but before first harvest and last harvest. 

While six weeks is a good basic guide for the duration between veraison and harvest, it's not totally constant, and can be influenced by the weather that we get in the interim, as well as by the amount of fruit the vines are carrying.  For example, in 2014 our earliest-ever veraison (noted on July 9th) was mitigated by a very cool August, and we started harvest 45 days later, on August 23rd. By contrast, last year's first veraison was noted on July 13th, and combined with a very warm August to produce our earliest-ever beginning to harvest, just 36 days later. The last ten years are compiled in the chart below, with each year linked to my blog post about that year's veraison:

Year First Veraison Noted Harvest Begins # of Days
2007 July 20 August 28 39
2008 July 23 September 3 42
2009 July 20 September 1 43
2010 July 30 September 16 49
2011 August 5 September 20 47
2012 July 25 September 5 42
2013 July 17 August 26 40
2014 July 9 August 23 45
2015 July 18 August 26 39
2016 July 13 August 18 36
2017 July 20 ? ?

Using the range of durations between first veraison and first harvest (36 to 49 days) we can have good confidence that we'll begin picking sometime between August 25th and September 7th. If I had to lay bets, I'd guess we start toward the early end of that range, given that it's been a very warm summer so far and we've already made up ground from bud break that was two weeks later than 2016. 

What's next for the vineyard? We'll watch the different grapes go through veraison. Syrah and Mourvedre will be followed by Grenache soon, and Counoise a bit later. The white grapes have already started veraison -- though it's not something easily shown in photographs -- with Viognier and Vermentino well underway and the others soon to follow. It's an exciting time, with the view changing practically daily. I'll be posting regular photos of veraison's progress on our Instagram page. In the cellar, we'll be getting the last of the year's bottling done so there's space in barrels and tanks for the coming crush, and starting the process of pulling out and cleaning all the tanks, barrels, and equipment we'll be using once harvest begins.

So while veraison doesn't herald anything immediate, it's still a significant milestone. The timer has been set, and we now know -- roughly -- how much time is on it.


Back from the Rhone River Cruise

I am in Vermont, relaxing for a short time after a wonderful cruise up the Rhone River. And what an experience it was. We (Meghan and I, as well as our winemaker Neil Collins and his wife Marci) led a group of 62 up the Rhone, from Avignon in the south to Lyon in the north, with a short extension up the Saône to Macon for a little Burgundy experience to cap it off. From this floating home base, we made shore excursions each day to cultural, historic, culinary or oenologic destinations, reconvening each evening for a dinner paired with wines from Tablas Creek, Famille Perrin, Chateau de Beaucastel, and Maison Nicolas Perrin.  For those who made it, I wanted to share some photos. For those who didn't, but are considering coming next time (and yes, there definitely will be a next time) I hope this will give you a taste of what to expect. 

Our Home Base

Our home for this eight day trip was the Uniworld S.S. Catherine. This ship is one of the newest in Uniworld's fleet, named after Catherine Deneuve and showing much of the same glamour and elegance as her namesake. The exterior:

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The interior was beautiful, but the highlight for me was the roof deck, from which you could watch the countryside go by, the moon come up, or the sun go down:

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The Focus Visit: Beaucastel and Clos des Tourelles in Gigondas

Most of the itinerary of the cruise was that of the Uniworld ship we were on. However, we worked with our travel partners Food & Wine Trails to create two special experiences just for our group. A visit to Chapoutier, including both a tour of their Hermitage vineyards and a focused tasting and lunch in their cellars, was amazing. I'll dive into that more below. But the centerpiece of the trip for us (and, speaking to the attendees, for most of them) were the twin visits to the cellars at Beaucastel and to the Perrins' newer property in Gigondas: Clos des Tourelles. So that both visits could be more intimate, we divided the group into two. One half visited the first day of our trip, and the other half the second. We started with a tour of Beaucastel's Chateauneuf du Pape vineyards, with head-trained vines growing out of what looks like a moonscape of rounded river stones. That's Beaucastel's Hospitality Director Kirsty Manahan speaking to the group:

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Kirsty then brought us through the remarkable cellar, with stacks of bottles aging gracefully and big wooden tanks identical to those we use at Tablas Creek:

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We then moved to a tasting of the wines, including vintages back to 2001:

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One of the cool discoveries for me was a photo of my dad and Jacques Perrin from 1973: the beginning of the Haas-Perrin collaboration that ultimately resulted in Tablas Creek:

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From Beaucastel, we continued by bus to Clos des Tourelles, the Perrins' property in Gigondas. A former monastery -- the first permanent structure built outside the town's medieval city walls -- Les Tourelles is being renovated as the headquarters of the Famille Perrin umbrella, and is just a few months away from opening. We got to enjoy a reception on the property's patio, overlooking the walled vineyard that is the appellation's only "Clos":

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Charles Perrin joined us there, which was a treat for the guests:

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We walked up a short stairway to the town center, where the Perrins' restaurant l'Oustalet is located on a pretty shaded patio. I would submit Gigondas as one of the most picturesque villages in the south of France.

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The meal was delicious -- summer truffles, anyone? -- and the wines equal to the challenge:

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From there, fully sated, we continued to the first of our shore visits, a walking tour around the ancient town center of Arles.

The Shore Excursions

Each day, the participants in the cruise got a choice of ways to explore the towns and countryside we were passing through. Because it was a river cruise, and because we didn't have massive distances to travel, we woke up each morning in port, so the shore opportunities were daily and varied. Some were more sedate, like walks through quiet towns like Viviers (in which we also got to hear a short performance on the basilica's pipe organ):

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Other shore visits offered more activity, like the chance to kayak down the Gardon River to and under the remarkable Roman aqueduct known as the Pont du Gard. This was one of my top highlights of the trip, and a bucket list thing to do:

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One nighttime excursion was a bus tour of Lyon (the "City of Lights"), serendipitously as the full moon was rising:

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And, at the end of the trip, we spent a lovely day in Beaune, including a visit to the weekly market:

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And a tour of the lovely, historic Hospices de Beaune, a hospital for the poor started in 1433:

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Focus Visit #2: Chapoutier and Hermitage

As we made our way north, we watched the landscape change from the southern Rhone's broad valleys and pebbly soils to the northern Rhone's steep terraced vineyards. When we reached Tain l'Hermitage, we stopped for the night. The next day, we were greeted at the ship by two representatives from Maison M. Chapoutier, the historic wine family who have farmed their vineyards in Hermitage since 1808.  We walked through the town and into the vineyard blocks at the foot of the hill which forms the town's northern border:

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The small size of the appellation was striking, as was knowing that this hillside has been the inspiration for a high percentage of the world's producers of Syrah. The tasting in Chapoutier's cellars was equally convincing, as we got a chance to taste wines from Hermitage (both red and white), Cote Rotie, and even Chapoutier's Chateauneuf du Pape, which was particularly interesting given where we'd just come from.

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We finished with a lunch in their cellars, which was a remarkable way to end a great day.

The Towns

We were docking in a new town each night, which meant new places to explore. Some of these I knew well (Avignon, for example) so I skipped the planned tours in favor of some simple wandering.  Others I'd visited, but rarely or not for a while, and in these cases I very much enjoyed the more formal narrative on the town's history and culture. Arles was one of these. The remarkable Roman amphitheater is one of the best preserved anywhere in the world, and was actually hosting a bull race -- the Camargue version of the "running of the bulls" famous from the Spanish city of Pamplona -- that day.

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The small town of Tarascon, just south of Avignon, has one of the best-preserved medieval castles in the south of France. 

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The castle had been converted to a prison during the French Revolution, which saved it from destruction. It also meant that the rooms had graffiti (largely from 18th & 19th century English prisoners) carved into their walls, which I found fascinating:

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It's particularly nice, I found, approaching these towns from the river. Unlike the typical entry points of railway station, airport, or even outside-of-town road sprawl, the river typically shows a historic face, and the docks were all in the middle of town rather than the outskirts. And it seemed like our schedule meant that we often arrived at dusk, which is hard to beat:

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The Onboard Program

As our group represented more than two-thirds of the passengers, whether we were mingling at breakfast, taking in the views of the river topside, or exploring the differences between pastis and pernod in the lounge, the ship's activities became group activities. And the length of the stay meant that after the first day or two everyone felt like family. But we did add a few enhancements to the ship's program. We sent over (or procured in France) special wines for each night's meal, doing our best to mirror what we were drinking to what we had seen that day or the parts of the Rhone we were passing. That meant wines like Beaucastel Chateauneuf du Pape and Miraval rosé in the south (and the Tablas Creek equivalents), Famille Perrin Gigondas and Vinsobres as we made our way north, and then the wines of Maison Nicolas Perrin in Tain l'Hermitage and Lyon.  It was a particular treat to be sipping on the (delicious) Nicolas Perrin Condrieu with dinner as we passed the tiny village of Condrieu on our way north from Tain to Lyon.

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Neil and I also hosted a seminar, where we got the whole Tablas Creek group together during a longer sail and deconstructed our flagship Esprit de Tablas and Esprit de Tablas Blanc blends, tasting these wines and varietal bottlings of each of the grapes that go into them. Coming toward the end of the journey, this also gave Neil and me a chance to put the visit into context:

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The River

But the star of the show was ultimately the Rhone. The engineering on display as we traversed 13 locks, each bringing us 60 vertical feet higher, was a recurring highlight of the trip. We would slow down and the windows would get dark as we entered the lock, massive yet barely larger than the ship. Then, after a pause, we'd begin to climb out of the manmade canyon, up to a new landscape at a rate of a foot every few seconds:

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It was equally impressive watching the technology required to pass under the low bridges, with the ship's awnings, railings, and even the captain's wheelhouse retracting into the deck:

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Wherever we were on our journey, we had the Rhone's patchwork of grain fields, vineyards, lavender and orchards on display, with the honey colored building stone of the old towns sprinkled in. That landscape was the constant backdrop of the many visits, and a lovely reminder of what draws millions of visitors to the south of France each year:

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If you joined us on this journey, thank you. I'd love you to share your own highlights in the comments. If you weren't able to join us this time, we'll definitely be back. And we look forward to sharing this experience with you then. 


Grapes of the Rhone Valley: Clairette Blanche

Terret Noir isn't the only new grape that we're getting to explore right now. In that same batch of imports, we brought in a white that is fairly widely planted in the Rhone Valley but new to California.  Clairette Blanche (pronounced Kleh-RHEHT BLAHNSH) is a grape that was once one of the most widely planted white grapes in the south of France, and while acreage has declined, is still used in a variety of ways, including as a component of the Rhone's best-known sparkling wine.

Clairette lithoHistory
Clairette is an ancient grape, first mentioned in the historical record in 1575 and famous as a component (along with Picpoul Blanc) of the renowned Picardin white wine that was widely exported from the Languedoc in the 17th and 18th centuries.1  Then, as now, it was valued for its adaptation to hot, dry climates; it can be picked early to show freshness and minerality, or can be left on the vine for a richer, more alcoholic result. As recently as the late 1950s there were more than 34,000 acres planted in the south of France, and while acreage has declined to some 6,000 acres now, it is still a major component of the white wines in the Rhone, the Gard, the Var, and the Drome.  In Chateauneuf du Pape, it is the second-most-planted white variety after Grenache Blanc, with about 175 acres planted2 and is actually enjoying a bit of a moment right now, with a growing number of Chateauneuf-du-Pape producers turning to it to produce wines with more freshness and minerality.

Although it is rarely acknowledged as a varietal wine in France, it is the only variety permitted in the appellation Coteaux de Die, in the Drome region east of the city of Valence. Curiously, it is not the lead grape in the sparkling wine "Clairette de Die", which must be at least 75% Muscat. Up to 25% Clairette is permitted, and it is used to provide "elegance and finesse" to the otherwise intensely floral Muscat grape.3

Clairette Blanche's name is somewhat redundant, as "claire" means clear, fair, or bright, and "blanche" means white. There is a pink variant (Clairette Rose) that is not widely planted, so much so that for most French winemakers, they simply refer to the white version as "Clairette". For the Francophiles out there, Clairette is one of very few French grape names that is feminine.  Most grapes are masculine, and the white variant is "Blanc". Because Clairette is feminine, the adjective white becomes "Blanche".

In 2003, we decided that we wanted the complete collection of Chateauneuf-du-Pape varieties, and took field cuttings from Beaucastel of the seven grapes we had not yet imported. Clairette Blanche was one of these.  It spent seven years in quarantine at U.C. Davis before being released to us in 2009, propagated, and in 2010 planted in a half-acre block at the extreme western edge of our property.  Our first release of Clairette off of these vines came in 2014.

Clairette Blanche in the Vineyard and Cellar

Clairette Blanche is relatively late-budding, and therefore less vulnerable than most of our white grapes to the spring frosts that are the chief weather hazard we deal with each year.  It grows vigorously and very upright, and produces large, oval grapes. Its upright growth pattern means that it can be head-trained (and typically is in France) but we planted our small block double-cordon on trellis.  It ripens in the middle of the harvest season, after grapes like Viognier, Marsanne, and Syrah, and typically right as we're finishing Grenache Blanc and starting Grenache Noir.

As this grape is new to us, in 2015 we experimented and picked our block twice: once in mid-September (at 21° Brix and a pH of 3.6) and once late in the month (at 22.8° Brix and a pH of 3.9). We found that the grape lost more than it gained with the later harvest, picking up some additional richness but at the cost of the citrusy expressiveness we liked from the earlier picking.  To give more richness to the earlier picking, this year we fermented Clairette in neutral oak and stirred the lees regularly, and feel like this treatment gave us the best of both worlds: freshness and expressiveness, but also richer mouthfeel.

Clairette

As we do with our new varieties whenever we're in our first few years of production, we have bottled our Clairette Blanche on its own in 2014, 2015 and (just last month) 2016. That said, we expect it to ultimately be a blending grape most years. We were excited to be able to source in 2016 some Clairette from a nearby vineyard to include in the 2016 Patelin de Tablas Blanc. It's only 3% of that wine, but its citrus character fits in nicely with the Grenache Blanc that leads the blend, and its modest alcohols moderate the higher-sugar Grenache Blanc and Viognier components.

Flavors and Aromas
Clairette Blanche is quite pale in color (it name means "clear white" after all), and on the nose reminiscent in many ways of Picpoul; in our newly-bottled 2016 I found aromas of pineapple, key lime, and mint. In the mouth, it stands right on the edge between sweet and tart, with flavors of kaffir lime, green plum, and lemongrass. The finish is clean and slightly nutty, with an anise note. If you are interested in trying it, we will be releasing our 100-case production of the 2016 Clairette Blanche at the end of the month.

Footnotes

  1. Jancis Robinson, Wine Grapes, HarperCollins 2012
  2. Harry Karis, The Chateauneuf-du-Pape Wine Book, Kavino, 2009
  3. Clairette-de-Die official Web site, June 2017

Bringing Sustainable Eating and Drinking Full Circle; Grilled Spareribs and Full Circle Pinot Noir

By Suphada Rom

What is the best thing about summer? Some may say it's basking in the heat of the sun's glow. Another may say it's about exploring nature in it's prime, with trees and flowers in full bloom. Here at the winery, summer's are some of the best times for us and it's not hard to see why. Clusters of grapes are thriving on the vine, the tasting room is packed with visitors on holiday, and our vineyard crew is prepping the property for what is most assuredly going to be another busy harvest. But what about the weekends and times when we're not at work? Chances are you'll find us outside and if it's around dinnertime, we'll most likely be grilling and cooking outside because that, to some, is the best thing about summer.

When you're going to a summer barbecue or cookout, chances are there'll be some sort of grilled meat. This spring, we unveiled a project that put the spotlight on our collaboration with Larder Meat Co., introducing sustainably harvested lamb (available now through 7/12) off our organic property to the local community (We wrote a blog piece on this back in February, titled Tablas Creek Lambs and Tablas Creek Lamb). This gives you all the opportunity to enjoy some delicious lamb, and hey, if you decide to have a bottle of Tablas Creek wine alongside, even better! And although the lamb program is fairly new, an event we have been hosting for the past 13 years is our annual pig roast. Something that our wine club members come back for year after year is a favorite among not only our members, but our staff as well! A fair amount of the meat is served at the event, however, we do hold onto a small amount for our staff to enjoy, and with the busy week coming to a close, I thought what better way to end the work week than with an Eat Drink Tablas pairing of grilled pork ribs! Here are the results from today's efforts:

Ribs and Pinot
Cherry glazed pork ribs, proper barbecue accoutremant, and a glass of our 2014 Full Circle Pinot Noir

Cornbread
Barbecue isn't complete without delicious crumbly cornbread!

Meat
A close up of the ribs (not shown, the aftermath- for lack of clean hands and faces!)

If you know a little bit about Tablas Creek, then you know that we're known for our Rhône wines, primarily blends but showcasing single varietal bottlings, like Mourvédre and Roussanne. You may also know that foundation of Tablas Creek started with the shared vision between Robert (Bob) Haas and the Perrin family of Château Beaucastel. What you may not know much about is the Pinot Noir we produce. If you're thinking Pinot Noir isn't from Rhône and more specifically, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, you'd be correct- it's a grape found most famously in Burgundy. Burgundy, for Bob was the gateway for loving French wine. He fell in love with Burgundy and one of his many career highlights was introducing the American palate to the austere wines of the region. It was only fitting, since he started his career in Burgundy and with Pinot Noir that he would bring his love for the grape full circle by growing a small parcel at his home in maritime affected Templeton. 

Graced with some American and French oak character, the Full Circle Pinot Noir is rich on the nose with vibrant aromatics. Whenever I'm tasting the Pinot Noir, I am reminded of a talk led by Bob, out amongst the vines in his backyard. Describing the wine perfectly and giving a very interesting talking point that, through most of the wines at Tablas Creek, there is a certain fluidity and consistency that you can count on. The Pinot Noir still has the Tablas Creek stamp of elegance, but with slightly different character. The wine ages in year-old Marcel Cadet 60 gallon barrels, which is quite different than the 1200 gallon neutral oak Foudres we employ on a day-to-day basis. That being said, I love pouring this wine for people who know our wines, love our wines, and are curious to try something different. Combated with the fantastic story of Bob's importing career, this wine resonates on both the heart and palate. In the glass, it's gorgeous, deep, and just one whiff lets you know it's rich. Aromas of cherry and figs are fully present with nice spice notes, making me crave one of my grandmother's homemade pies. I also get this smell that reminds me of raspberry liqueur, rich and concentrated. On the palate, I get a lot of that cherry, but in the form of cherry cola. There's a lot of this creamy chocolate character that brings out the chocolate enthusiast in me. Drink this wine now, or don't. I think 2014 has to be one of the most lush and approachable vintages, allowing for youthful consumption.

If you do drink this wine now, drink it with a side of grilled spareribs. The recipe I pulled for this pairing (via Bon Appetit) called for reducing some cans of cherry cola with cherry preserves and Dijon mustard for what feels like hours, until you're left with this sticky, thick glaze. The glaze plays up the fruit notes in the wine and with the added vinegar and soy sauce, there's some tanginess that plays well with the mouthwatering quality of the wine. We loved this pairing for many reasons, one of them being that we brought our "work" outdoors for a delicious lunch at the top of the hill in the vineyard! A satisfying meal with friends, I'm not sure there's a better way to end the day.

If you recreate this dish (or create a TCV wine and food pairing of your own!), be sure to let us know on any of our social media handles - Facebook or Twitter or Instagram - or just leave us a comment here! When you do, tag @tablascreek and use #EatDrinkTablas

A few resources:


Tasting the Wines for the 2017 VINsider Wine Club "Collector's Edition" Shipment

Each June, I have the pleasure of tasting through library vintages of our Esprit de Beaucastel and Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc to choose the wines for the upcoming VINsider Wine Club Collector's Edition shipment. We created the Collector's Edition version of our VINsider Wine Club back in 2009 to give our biggest fans a chance to see what our flagship wines were like aged in perfect conditions. Members also get a slightly larger allocation of the current release of Esprits to track as they evolove. This club gives us a chance show off our wines' ageworthiness, and it's been a great success, generating a waiting list each year since we started it.

This year, our selections will be the 2007 Esprit de Beaucastel and the 2011 Esprit de Tablas Blanc. You couldn't pick two more different vintages; 2007 followed our driest winter of the last two decades, which combined with a warm summer to produce blockbuster wines, luscious with plenty of structure and tannin to age. 2011 followed our second consecutive wet winter, and was marked by the effects of a spring frost (reducing yield) and the coldest summer, and latest harvest, in our history. These factors combined to make powerful wines with a persistent coolness to their personality that matched the vintage.

Where the vintages overlap is that each produced wines that benefited from (and in many cases, really needed) a few years in the cellar to show their full potential.  What I found most fun about these wines was that both show the signature of their vintage with crystal clarity. And yet time has, in both cases, made the wines more complete. The 2007 Esprit de Beaucastel spent longer in its closed phase [for more on that, see here] than any other wine we've made: nearly 5 years, opening only gradually over the last year as its tannins softened and the finish lengthened. The 2011 Esprit Blanc was powerful but not very giving in its youth, a wine that impressed more than charmed. Its flavors have opened and deepened, without losing the characteristic spiciness and lift of the vintage.

It's worth noting that this isn't the end; both these wines will go out another decade, at least. The duo:

CE Wines 2017

Tasting notes, from tastings today:

  • 2011 Esprit de Tablas Blanc:  Medium gold, only slightly deepened with time. Spicy beeswax Roussanne on the nose, lifted by cool vintage signatures of menthol, tarragon, and crushed rock. The mouth is clean, with a cool dryness taking precedence over flavors that sound -- but aren't at all -- sweet: orange peel, dried pineapple, cream soda, and lots more honey. A cool mintiness and more lemon zest come out on the finish, along with a walnut oil character that is the strongest indication of the wine's time in bottle. Still quite youthful at age six. 64% Roussanne, 26% Grenache Blanc, 10% Picpoul Blanc.
  • 2007 Esprit de Beaucastel: What a pleasure to see the highest rated Esprit we've ever produced in all its mature glory. A meaty, minty, dense nose: like a leg of lamb roasting with garlic and juniper, with notes of baker's chocolate and crushed rock. On the palate, more dark chocolate, creme de cassis, rich and mouth-coating, with chalky tannins that will help this go out another decade at least. It tastes like a special occasion, and only improved with time open; it will almost certainly be better in another 6 months, and we strongly recommend a decant if you're drinking this in the near term. 44% Mourvedre, 29% Grenache, 21% Syrah, 6% Counoise. 

The complete Collector's Edition shipment is pretty stunning, if I may say so myself:

  • 2 bottles of 2007 Esprit de Beaucastel
  • 1 bottle of 2011 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc
  • 3 bottles of 2015 Esprit de Tablas
  • 1 bottle of 2013 Esprit de Tablas
  • 1 bottle of 2015 En Gobelet
  • 2 bottles of 2015 Esprit de Tablas Blanc
  • 1 bottle of 2016 Cotes de Tablas Blanc
  • 1 bottle of 2016 Grenache Blanc

We will be adding to the Collector's Edition membership, subject to available space, in the next few weeks. If you're on the waiting list, you should look for an email with news, one way or the other, of whether you've made it on for this round. We add members, once a year, in the order in which we received applications to the waiting list. If you are currently a VINsider member and interested in getting on the waiting list, you can upgrade to the Collector's Edition online. And if you are not currently a member, but would like to be, you can indicate that you would like to join the Collector's Edition when you join the VINsider wine club.


A Vertical Tasting of Every Vintage of Esprit de Beaucastel and Esprit de Tablas, 2000-2015

Some of the best days at the winery are the days when we open up back vintages of a specific wine, for the dual purposes of better understanding how it ages over time and better advising our fans which vintages to open if they're looking for peak drinking1. Somehow, the last time we'd done this with our flagship Esprit de Tablas/Beaucastel wines was December of 2014. So, it was with significant anticipation that we assembled each vintage of Esprit we've made, from our first (2000) to the 2015 that is going into bottle this week:

Esprit Vertical June 2017

An additional goal of this particular tasting was to choose a selection of Esprits to show at a public retrospective tasting. Fifteen wines would have been too many, but we figure we can pick a representative sample that will give guests a great sense of how the wine develops in bottle, as well as how the vintage affects the wine's composition and flavor profile.  If this sounds like fun, we'll be hosting that tasting on August 27th.  Details are here.

I thought it would be fun to share my notes on each wine. I have linked each vintage to that wine's page on our Web site, if you'd like to see production details or what the tasting notes were at bottling. Note that we didn't make an Esprit red in the frost-impacted 2001 vintage.

  • Esprit de Beaucastel 2000: A meaty, leathery, minty and smoky nose, very appealing, with dark red currant fruit lurking behind. On the palate, consistent with the nose: deep and meaty, with tobacco leaf and dark chocolate savoriness, and lots of texture. Chewy, with enough tannins still to suggest it's nowhere near at the end of its life. This is the best showing I can remember for this wine, and notably improved from that tasting in 2014.
  • Esprit de Beaucastel 2002: Smells younger and also more powerful than the 2000; menthol and crushed rock and brambles and meat drippings. The mouth is still quite tannic but also shows sweeter fruit than 2000: milk chocolate, plum skin, juniper, and black cherry, with a finish that turns spicy, tangy and floral among grippy tannins. Still on its way up, we thought. We're looking forward to trying it again in a few more years.
  • Esprit de Beaucastel 2003: An incredibly inviting nose, my favorite of the tasting: toffee and leather and milk chocolate and malt and black cherry. The mouth shows a mix of sweet dark fruit (plum jam, chocolate-covered cherry, figs), nice acids keeping things fresh, and a little minty lift on the finish. The wine is a little less dense than either 2000 or 2002, with tannins that are fully resolved, and I can't imagine this getting any better. Drink up.
  • Esprit de Beaucastel 2004: On the nose, showing density reminiscent of the 2002: menthol, roasted meat, sage, anise, and red currant. The mouth shows a mix of sweet fruit and big tannins: milk chocolate, dates, and candied orange peel, and a chalky, powdered sugar texture to the tannins that becomes more pronounced on the licorice-laced finish. I get a little alcohol sweetness on that finish, a pastis-like character, that seems heightened by some still substantial tannins. A big wine, with life left.
  • Esprit de Beaucastel 2005: A very meaty nose, gamy, with tobacco leaf and mint, and pine forest undergrowth. Savory, not fruity. On the palate, all that savoriness is leavened by dark red fruit, tangy acids, and bold but integrated tannins. The finish shows plum skin, black cherry, and an iron-like minerality alongside bold but integrated tannins. Neil's comment was that it was great now but would be even better in 10 years. I thought it on a similar path as the 2000.
  • Esprit de Beaucastel 2006: Smells less dense and more integrated/evolved (and more refined) than the earlier wines: cassis and mint and cherry candy and malt and meat drippings, with a pretty rose petal note coming out with air. On the palate, beautiful sweet red fruit, but great acids too: rose hips and ripe plums. A minty eucalyptus note comes out on the finish. Beautiful texture: just the right amount of tannin for the fruit, young and supple, and in a great place.
  • Esprit de Beaucastel 2007: A meaty, minty, dense nose: like a leg of lamb roasting with garlic and juniper, with notes of baker's chocolate and crushed rock. On the palate, more dark chocolate, creme de cassis, rich and mouth-coating, with chalky tannins that will help this go out another decade at least. It tastes like a special occasion. What a pleasure to have this wine out of its closed phase and firing on all cylinders, though it's still a little youthfully thick and blocky. It has plenty of complexity and richness to gain elegance without losing its fruit.
  • Esprit de Beaucastel 2008: This vintage is in the unenviable position of being squeezed between two blockbusters, but it showed nicely, if quieter than its brethren: a nose of mint and marinating meat and rosemary and soy. The mouth is gently delicious: raspberry and mint chocolate and clean, piney brambles. Seemed very Grenache dominated, with strawberry preserves and baking spices coming out on the finish. Not a dramatic wine, but a very pretty one.
  • Esprit de Beaucastel 2009: Bold on the nose, spicy and minty with garrigue and raspberry liqueur. The palate is still quite tannic, with plum skin, crushed rock minerality, and both red and black licorice flavors. The wine is showing very youthfully both in its relatively high toned fruit and its tannic structure. I'm looking forward to seeing what it's like when it turns the corner into maturity; my guess is that it will deepen in tone.
  • Esprit de Beaucastel 2010: A very different nose than the last several, clearly reflective of the cool 2010 vintage: soy and sage, but not much fruit. The palate is almost Nordic in its tone: elderberry and crushed rock and charcuterie and wild herbs. The texture shows nice chalky minerality, and the tannins are modest. I feel like this is still quieted by being in a closed phase, and will get more expressive in the next year or so, but there were several around the table who gave it votes as their favorites. Note that this doesn't mean either of us is wrong.
  • Esprit de Tablas 2011: Love this nose of spicy juniper and blackberry, with deeper notes of chanterelles that I'm guessing will turn meaty with a few more years. On the palate, nice poise and cool dark fruit, but lighter in body than the nose suggested to me. The finish is nicely balanced but shorter than I remember it, with chalky tannins and some lingering dark fruit. I suspect this is entering its closed phase, and will likely become less expressive over the next 6-12 months before reopening sometime next year.
  • Esprit de Tablas 2012: An appealingly brambly nose with both red and black components: soy and spice and plum and menthol and new leather. On the palate, mostly red: tart cherry, red licorice, sweet baking spices. Medium weight, some youthful tannins, good acids.  A baby, still.
  • Esprit de Tablas 2013: Dark on the nose, more like 2010/2011 than 2008/2009/2012, with soy and eucalyptus predominating. Not hugely giving. The mouth is tangy with blackberry fruit and baker's chocolate, black licorice, and good acids. Structural elements come out on the finish, with a spiciness to the tannins that Chelsea pegged as "Mexican hot chocolate". Still very, very young.
  • Esprit de Tablas 2014: So youthful on the nose: like cherry pie (both the fruit and the buttery crust), red licorice, and sweet spice. Beautiful on the palate, with red currant, rhubarb compote, and big, chewy tannins that show the wine's youth. Pure and primary right now, but with an exciting future ahead of it.
  • Esprit de Tablas 2015: At the time that we tasted it, this was about 2 weeks from bottling. A really appealing nose of blackberries in a pine forest. Deep. On the palate, beautiful dark fruit, tobacco leaf, black plum, and soy marinade.  Great structure and weight on the palate, with a finish showing black raspberry, black licorice, and lingering tannins. I am very excited to start showing this to people this fall.

I asked people around the table to offer a few of their favorites, and the wines that got votes included the 2000, 2003, 2006, 2010, and 2015, with the 2003 pretty universally among everyone's top picks.  There were other wines (notably 2005, 2007, and 2014) that got lots of positive comments for their structure and their potential, and which I think will end up in the next round's top picks.

We ended up choosing the following vintages for August's public tasting: 2000, 2003, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2014, 2015.

A few concluding thoughts:

  • These wines really do reward patience. If we have consistently underestimated the wines' ability (and need) to age, I'm sure that most of our customers have. Look at a wine like the 2000: three years ago, I commented that it was the best showing for that wine I'd ever seen. This year's was better yet. Nearly every one of the older wines was better now than it was at the last tasting in 2014. This long aging curve wouldn't be a surprise for Mourvedre-heavy Chateauneuf, and I think we need to be recasting our expectations along those lines.
  • The degree to which the wines showed primarily red fruit vs. primarily black fruit was -- somewhat to my surprise -- not exclusively tied to the relative proportions of Grenache and Syrah.  Sure, some of the wines that show more red fruit than black (like 2006, 2008, and 2014) did have high percentages of Grenache. But others (like 2003 and 2012) didn't. And the cool 2010 and 2011 vintages both show mostly black fruit, despite their high percentage of Grenache. Variety matters, but vintage matters at least as much.
  • The tasting reaffirmed my belief that the 2014 and 2015 vintages are the best back-to-back showing we've had in some time, probably since 06 and 07. Both 2014 and 2015 Esprit de Tablas wines were beautiful examples of how this blend can have power without excess weight, fruit without sappiness, and structure without hardness. Both offer lots of pleasure now, but will age into something remarkable. And each shows its vintage's signature in an expressive way: the warm 2014's generous juiciness, and 2015's alternating cool and hot months in its tension and complexity.
  • Those of you coming out for the tasting in August are in for a treat.

Footnote

  1. We update a vintage chart at least quarterly with the results of these tastings.