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July 2007
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September 2007

Hand Harvesting

Handharvest While my wife was in the hospital this week with our second baby, we were lucky enough to be paired in the post-delivery room with an acquaintance: the well-respected Central Coast grower relations director of a major international wine consortium, who I've known for several years, and whose passion and efforts to introduce sustainable practices to his growers I admire.  In the conversation, we were discussing the beginning of the 2007 harvest (more on this soon) and I mentioned that we had begun with a "cherry pick" of the ripe clusters from the top-of-hill blocks of Roussanne.  He lamented that with the machine harvesters that the company favored, such a selective harvest was impossible.

This got me thinking.  At Tablas Creek, all our grapes are harvested by hand.  This is partially dictated by topography (our hills wouldn't permit mechanical harvesters to enter) but is, beyond this, a quality-driven choice.  Many Rhone varietals, most notably Roussanne but also including Grenache Noir, Grenache Blanc and Mourvedre, are uneven ripeners.  This means that some clusters on a plant will be ripe (usually those on the Western side, or those exposed to the sun) while others (typically those in the shade) are still underripe.  Often, ripeness can vary widely.  We address this difficulty by harvesting the same section of the vineyard multiple times, going through to bring in the ripe clusters first, often making another pass a week or so later and then usually finishing up another week later with the last clusters to ripen. 

It is probably evident to all of you that this sort of discrimination is impossible with a mechanical harvester.  Even within producers who hand-harvest, it's difficult for people who purchase grapes to assert this sort of control over their vineyards.  A grower receives parameters from the contracting winery that will require the grapes to average a certain brix number, a certain acid level, etc.  So, he'll do his best to pick when the average ripeness of the grapes matches what his or her winery wants.  But, averaging doesn't work that well.  What you get with grapes that ripen unevenly is a mix of underripe, overripe, and ripe fruit.  The numbers may average out to what is expected, but the flavors will contain components of underripe (green tannins and thin, herbal flavors) and overripe (raisiny, porty flavors and an oxidized character).  Adding overripe flavors to underripe flavors does not, as the British might say, a good wine make.

At Tablas Creek, not only do we use exclusively estate fruit (giving us the ability to make very selective picking decisions) but we also have committed since 1994 to giving our field crew year-round employment.  Most of our crew have been with us since 1994, and have learned the specifics of what we want.  When we need to bring in short-term seasonal labor (when we're really pushing to bring in fruit, or when several varietals ripen at the same time) we divide our crew among the newcomers, and they act as the best guardians of quality we could ask for.  There is no way that they're going to allow these guys here for a few days or few weeks to compromise the quality that they've worked on for the past year.  Furthermore, we pay all our crew (full-time and seasonal) by the hour rather than by the ton picked.  This is even more unusual in California, and it further reduces the incentive to harvest grapes that are not exactly what we want.  Yes, it slows down the pace of harvest slightly, but it largely eliminates the need to do an aggressive sorting of the harvested clusters before fermentation.  If you look at our grapes as they come in, they could look like they come from a grocer's table.

If you add the percentage of grapes that are machine harvested (70% in California in the mid-1990s, and surely higher today) to the portion that are purchased from growers (more than 80% of what's left) you can get a sense of what contributes to the cost of production of artisanal wines.

But, it's worth it... quality grapes coming in means you have at least a chance of making truly fine wines at the end.  If you have grapes of mixed quality to start with, you'll never have that chance.

Welcome John Morris, Tasting Room Manager

John_tr_manager We're excited to welcome John Morris as our new Tasting Room Manager. John joins us most recently from Per Bacco Cellars in San Luis Obispo, but honed his retail, wine and management skills in locally with Bonny Doon, and in Seattle, where he worked at De Laurenti Food and Wine and managed Torrefazione Italia. We're sure you'll love his low-key expertise and his passion for wine.

Please say hello to him and introduce yourself the next time you're in the tasting room!

Wine Pricing

Earlier this year, I was browsing through some recent reviews online (at the content-rich and interesting site Wine Review Online) and came across a writer's comment that said "all of the Tablas Creek wines are conspicuously expensive, and if there is an explanation for this that would justify the pricing, I am unaware of it."  I was surprised to read this (about a $22 bottle of wine, no less) and started a conversation with him.

His comment brings up an interesting issue on pricing, and how to measure value.  There's an unspoken hierarchy of pricing for different grapes which goes back to France.   Bordeaux commands the highest prices, so wines that use Cabernet from elsewhere have a higher ceiling.   Burgundy is next, and similarly, Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs have a relatively high ceiling.   This has nothing (or at least, only very little) to do with cost of production of these grapes.   Rhone wines (the originals, from the Rhone Valley) are still tremendous values, and although the best Chateauneuf du Papes have risen considerably in price over the past decade, it is easy to look at a good Cotes du Rhone that is available for $12 retail and use that as a main point of comparison for what a wine of this general complexion should cost. 

Of course, we feel that you can put even our Cotes de Tablas wines ($22 suggested retail) in a blind tasting with the best wines from Chateauneuf du Pape and they will hold their own admirably.  The reviews that we've received tend to support this. But, there will always be a less expensive option out there that are good (and that's a great thing).  But, does this fact mean that no Grenache-based (or Mourvedre-based) wine can be worth $20?  Or $30?  Or only if it bears the Chateauneuf du Pape appellation? 

If you change your perspective and compare our wines to others from California, I think that the comparison reflects well on their value; when we were pouring at the Wine Spectator's California Wine Experience this past fall, there were 170 wineries there pouring red wines.  The 2004 Esprit de Beaucastel (at $45) was the third least-expensive wine at the tasting, and it's the most expensive of our wines.  So, for wines that clear the bar, however arbitrary, that the Wine Spectator sets for its "best of California" show the Tablas Creek shows off as a value.  At around $20, the Cotes de Tablas wines are, I think, even more unusual for California. 

And, of course, there is good reason for the pricing: even the least expensive Tablas Creek wines are done by hand, entirely estate grown on our certified organic vineyard, with low yields, from vines that we brought in ourselves from France and propagated in our own grapevine nursery, etc., all of which do cost more to do.

Yet writers (and consumers) taste wines from all over the world, and have to make judgments both relative (which Cabernet, or which second-growth Bordeaux, provides the best value for money) and absolute (what is the best $20 wine I can buy that will fit with what I'm eating).  Everyone has different standards, and a wine which is reasonable to one person may be exorbitant to another.

I'm interested to know more about how you, as readers, measure value.  Do you compare a wine to others similar in varietal?  From the same region?  That may receive the same review or score from a journalist?

Varner Pinot Noir "Hidden Block" 2004, Santa Cruz Mountains

I've been wanting for a while to start a section where I can post about other wines that I've tasted that have made an impression on me.  The world doesn't need another wine reviewer, and I'm not in the business of assigning points or using lots of fancy wine jargon.  But, at the same time, I've wanted to be able to post on wines that I have found memorable, and (when appropriate) turn a few people on to them as well.

Varner_bottle The first wine in this series is the Varner "Hidden Block" 2004 Pinot Noir from the Santa Cruz mountains.  It is easily one of the best Pinot Noirs I've ever had from California.  I was fortunate to stumble upon it; a friend from college who has been completing his pediatric residency at Stanford brought it down on a visit he made with his family earlier this spring.  We didn't open the wine while they were in town, and it wasn't until a couple of months ago that we opened it up.  It was a revelation: rich but focused, vibrant with fruit but not jammy, with nice acids and good structure holding it all together. 

I did a little research on it, and became even more impressed.  The brother team of Jim and Bob Varner work in many ways similarly to how we do at Tablas Creek: estate fruit, organic farming practices, native yeasts, minimal intervention in the winemaking, and a push, whenever possible, for producing wines that express the place in which they're grown.  I flat-out loved the wine, and consider myself very lucky to have gotten one of their last cases before they sold out.  If you want to learn more, you can read a little at