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January 2008
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Please DO sniff the Cork!

So, I've seen a proliferation of articles recently that promise to educate wine novices to not come across as novices.  Whether this is a good thing is debatable; wouldn't you want an expert to explain things to you if you didn't understand how they work? It's not always a great thing appearing more expert than you really are, as you miss out on lots of opportunities to educate yourself.  Still, even worse is when advice on how to appear expert is just plain wrong.  One recommendation I see again and again that I just don't understand is that sniffing the cork of a newly-opened wine will make you look like a novice, as it tells you nothing about the wine inside.  A quick search of Google shows 302 matches for the phrase "don't sniff the cork".


Sniffing a cork may tell you nothing about whether a wine is oxidized, or tannic, or whether it smells like cherries, or whether it's ready to drink, but it does tell you a lot about whether a wine is corky.  I open thousands of bottles of wine each year, at tastings here and around the country, as well as in a more relaxed setting at the dinner table.  I always sniff the cork, not because it's a guaranteed indicator of whether a wine is corky or not, but because it's a warning flag.  Sure, it's possible that a wine whose cork is suspect might taste fine, but in my experience, at least 90% of the wines that taste corky have corks that smell corky.  And, the more I open and taste wines, the more convinced I get that even if it isn't apparent at first, wines with suspiciously musty corks usually are flawed.

Another interesting factor is that most sound corks have an appealing smell, like a fainter version of a new oak barrel.  Wines under those sweet-smelling corks are nearly always in good shape.  You do get the (very) occasional false negative, where a cork smells fine but the bottle is slightly tainted.  And, of course, there are plenty of flaws that have nothing to do with the cork (oxidation, reduction, and refermentation are probably the most common).  So, it's not a foolproof test and everyone should taste as well as sniff a newly-opened bottle.  But, I don't see what good it does consumers to be denied a fairly reliable indicator of when they should at least be suspicious their bottle of wine might be bad.

Have any readers out there had experiences where people have looked down on you for investigating the cork?  Or been fooled by a bottle (either with a nice bottle under a musty cork or a bad bottle under a sweet-smelling cork)?  If so, please share.

A Supreme Court tobacco ruling that may have implications on wine direct shipping: Rowe v. New Hampshire Motor Transport Association

I was intrigued by a story in the New York Times today on a unanimous ruling by the Supreme Court on a tobacco case.  This case, Rowe v. New Hampshire Motor Transport Association, was brought by the New Hampshire Motor Transport Association in challenge of a Maine law requiring shippers of tobacco products to identify and intercept packages from sellers unlicensed to ship tobacco, and to conduct age verification on delivery.  The law seems unexceptional, except that the federal government is given exclusive authority over common carriers under the 1994 Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act.  The First US Circuit Court of Appeals overruled Maine's law, and the Supreme Court agreed that the 1994 act (which established the deregulation of trucking to put it on a level playing field with the newly-deregulated airline industry) superseded a state's desire to achieve specific public policy goals through regulating the distribution and delivery of a controlled substance.

Particularly interesting as the ruling might apply to wine is the Court's dismissal of a public health argument by states as a means of overriding the federal legislation.  From Justice Breyer's opinion:

"Despite the importance of the public health objective, we cannot agree with Maine that the federal law creates an exception on that basis, exempting state laws that it would otherwise pre-empt."

As the regulatory patchwork allowing direct shipping of wine has coalesced, it has become clear that the compliance costs for wineries will be enormous.  Each state has different regulations, requires different remittances and reports, and exacts different fees.  An industry has developed around knowing these regulations, with companies like Ship Compliant arriving to fill the growing needs of wineries to handle the regulations created by filling the orders of their customers.

It will be interesting to see whether the statutory authority of states to regulate the sale and distribution of alcohol within their borders (granted by the 21st amendment repealing prohibition) takes precedence over the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act.  All state regulations (and the model direct shipping bill drafted by the Wine Institute) include portions requiring shippers to verify age upon delivery.  This specific clause was singled out by the Supreme Court as:

"the very effect that the federal law sought to avoid, namely, a State’s direct substitution of its own governmental commands for 'competitive market forces'"

Certainly, the phrasing in the recent ruling suggests that the Supreme Court is not likely to look favorably on many of the "risk to public health" arguments put forth by the states and their distributor financiers.  Again, from Justice Breyer's ruling:

"Many products create “public health” risks of differing kind and degree. To accept Maine’s justification in respect to a rule regulating services would legitimate rules regulating routes or rates for similar public health reasons. And to allow Maine directly to regulate carrier services would permit other States to do the same. Given the number of States through which carriers travel, the number of products, the variety of potential adverse public health effects, the many different kinds of regulatory rules potentially available, and the difficulty of finding a legal criterion for separating permissible from impermissible public-health-oriented regulations, Congress is unlikely to have intended an implicit general “public health” exception broad enough to cover even the shipments at issue here."

Of course, there are constitutional debates involved in the debate on wine shipping, as the Granholm v. Heald ruling demonstrated. The Commerce Clause has its own contradictions with the 21st Amendment.  I don't know whether the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act would be viewed as bowing to the 21st Amendment as it impacts the common carriers who deliver wine shipments.  But, I am cheered by the Court's understanding of the difficult burden that various state regulations put on a business trying to deliver a product within the fifty different United States.  This recent ruling gives me additional hope that when the next direct shipping case reached the Supreme Court, wineries are likely to receive a sympathetic hearing.

Pruning Mourvedre - an excuse to go out walking on a warm winter's day

We're experiencing a warm, sunny interlude in the middle of winter, and are taking advantage by getting out into the vineyard to begin pruning.  As usual, we're starting with our latest-budding varietals, since the act of pruning the vines encourages them to begin to push for spring.  So, we save the early-budding varietals like Viognier and Syrah for last to minimize our exposure to late-season frosts.

The beautiful afternoon gave the opportunity for some nice shots in the vineyard, starting with a closeup of a two-bud Mourvedre spur:


In our typical double-cordon system, we leave three spurs per cordon and two buds per spur.  This gives us a dozen buds on each plant, and we can project on average about one cluster per bud we leave.  The complete Mourvedre vine, newly pruned:


Unlike most vineyards, we don't just discard the prunings.  Through our partnership with NovaVine in Sonoma, we market our cuttings through the Tablas Creek Grapevine Nursery to growers around the West Coast.  So, we have bundles of pruned vines awaiting NovaVine's pickup.  Here is one bundle, sitting between Mourvedre rows and framed by an old oak that could have come out of central casting:


And finally, because I couldn't resist the shot once I'd seen it, here is a nice view from up on top of our solar panels, with Mourvedre vineyard to the left, oak-lined Adelaida Road at the edge of our property and Halter Ranch on the hillside across the road:


Some nice recognition for my Dad

Bob_haas_in_vineyard A few months back, I got a phone call from Stacie Jacob, the Executive Director of the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance, letting me know that their board of directors had decided to honor my dad as their 2007 Wine Industry Person of the Year.  It was a secret, so I had to figure out how to get my parents to go to the Wine Country Alliance Gala (the sort of event that they normally avoid) without letting on why.  I eventually figured out how to do it by donating wine to the event and telling them that we needed to go and show our faces in support, and like the good sports that they always are, they got dressed up, came to the event and made a good showing.

Still, it was clear that it was a complete surprise to my dad when at the end of the event, his friend and fellow vintner Stephan Asseo (of L'Aventure Winery) got up to begin the awards speech.  Even more impressive was the short, eloquent speech my dad gave (with no advance warning) after having received the award.  The whole time, my wife Meghan was elbowing me and saying "if you ever do this to me, I'll kill you."

The evening was a wonderful acknowledgment of the contributions he's made to Paso Robles over the last two decades, against the backdrop of a career that has now spanned six decades.  It's still amazing to think that when we founded Tablas Creek in 1989, there weren't any Rhone varietals planted here, and there were less than two dozen wineries.  Now, there are nearly 200 Paso Robles wineries, and about 70% of these wineries are producing at least one Rhone.  Paso Robles is finding its voice.

It's also been fun for me to see my Dad get calls from friends and acquaintances, many of whom he hadn't spoken to in years, congratulating him on this honor he genuinely didn't expect.

You can read the complete press release on Business Wire:
Robert Haas Honored as Paso Robles 2007 Wine Industry Person of the Year

Consumers choose... cork?

Many of you will remember my post from last summer with our take on the cork-screwcap debate.  It suggested a more nuanced approach than many of the polemics that you read asserting that one closure was always better than the other: that some wines evolved better under the more reactive closure of natural cork, and others under the more hermetic Stelvin screwcap.  It did not address consumer preference, because we've assumed that consumers more or less have become accustomed to screwcaps and make their buying decisions based on the wine's (or winery's) reputation rather than the closure.

Up through the 2004 vintage, we'd only made the decision to put our aromatic whites and our Rosé in screwcap, and leave the cork finish for our reds and our Roussanne-based whites which seem to benefit from the flavor and oxygen exchange with the cork.  That said, the red wine we've been most curious about watching under Stelvin is our Côtes de Tablas.  It's based on Grenache, which is notoriously prone to oxidation.  It's our blend of wine lots in the cellar we think will be approachable younger.  Even though they make up between 20% and 40% of the blend most years, it tends not to show the reductive characteristics of Mourvedre or Syrah.

So, with the 2005 vintage, we decided to bottle about 350 cases of Cotes de Tablas in screwcap and the balance in cork, with the idea of showing the Stelvin version only our tasting room.  We like to start experiments in our tasting room because it ensures that we're around to notice anything unexpected.  We're opening bottles every day, and can see if the wine is showing reductive characteristics or other undesirable development.  For the other 3000 or so cases, including everything we're releasing wholesale into the national market, we finished the wine with cork.

We started pouring the Cotes de Tablas in screwcap in our tasting room in mid-January. At that same time, we posted it alongside the corked version on our online order form.  I wasn't conducting some conscious sociological experiment; I just wanted people to be able to buy the closure they'd tried, wherever they'd tried it.  I figured that since about three-quarters of the people who order online are our wine club members, and an even greater proportion first became familiar with the wines at our tasting room, we'd sell mostly screwcap-finished Cotes de Tablas on our Web site.  This has not been the case.  Since I posted both versions of the wine, 15 of the 21 orders we've received that have included Cotes de Tablas have specified the cork-finished version.

Granted, this is a small sample size.  As people have a chance to sample the wine in the tasting room, I think that more people will be more comfortable with the screwcap finish on one of our red wines.  Still, I wonder if the consumer acceptance of screwcaps, even among the more-educated, more-progressive audience who orders direct from a small winery specializing in Rhone blends from California, has been a bit overstated.

Would these people shy away from the wine if their only option was screwcap?  It's impossible to know.  I suspect not.  Certainly, with whites and rosé, we've noticed no consumer resistance.  When we released the Cotes de Tablas Blanc in screwcap (exclusively) with the 2005 vintage, our monthly sales of that wine went up 30%.  Again, I don't think that this was because of the screwcap (the wine was terrific, and got some great press) but I think that any momentum it inherited from its closure was positive.  I'm suspecting that were we to release the Cotes de Tablas red into the national market in screwcap, it would get a little negative momentum from its closure.

It may just be that consumers have more background with screwcapped whites than reds.  New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs have been imported almost exclusively in screwcap for years now, and many California producers have switched white production into screwcap while leaving red production under cork.  I have a feeling that this will change with time.  Certainly, the bulk of the wine press is solidly behind the screwcap. Laurie Daniel, in a recent article in the San Jose Mercury News used the results of a Tablas Creek library tasting of wines bottled in both cork and screwcap to advance her thesis that even for big reds, screwcaps are an attractive option.

Still, I'm happy that we didn't move our whole production of the Cotes de Tablas 2006 into screwcap, as we were considering after our initial taste trials of the 2005.  We'll give ourselves another year to assure ourselves that the screwcapped wine is at least as good the cork-finished one, and give the wine market another year to become accustomed to the idea that top reds can be found under screwcap as readily as under cork.