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July 2008

Not an Easy Life...

When I was out the other day taking the photos of the strange smoky weather, I hiked up to the new block of vines to the extreme western edge of the property.  We planted about 6 new acres here earlier this month, divided fairly equally between Grenache Blanc, Vermentino, and two new clones of Mourvedre.  We're in the third year of a six-year plan to plant an additional 30 acres, with the goal of gradually raising production from our current 16,000 cases to around 22,000 cases.

(I wrote about this in April's planting new vineyard post, where there are photos of the landscape and soils in mid-preparation.)

Now, with the vines in the ground, I was struck by how rugged life is for these little vines (like the Mourvedre "C" vine below) in an area like ours.  The soil is obscured by limestone/clay chunks, and the ground is nearly white:


Of course, this struggle is what allows the vines to produce grapes with concentration and character, and I know it's a mistake to anthropomorphise the vines.  But it  was still a striking reminder of why an area like this, where the vines do struggle and vineyards produce 2 or 3 tons per acre can make wines of so much more distinction than areas where life is easy, average yields are in the 8-10 tons per acre, and farming can be done with machines and chemicals.

An excellent beginning to the growing season, strange smoky weather notwithstanding

With two big fires burning to the north of us in Monterey County over the last few weeks, including the Indians Fire that has burned nearly 60,000 acres in three weeks and the Gallery Fire (just south of Big Sur) that has burned over 13,000 acres since Saturday, we look outside on strange yellow-gray skies and hazy sun.  A photo from earlier this afternoon looks west toward the Santa Lucia Mountains:


The smoke is at its most dramatic in the evening, when sunsets have been brilliant orange.  During the day, I keep looking outside waiting for the thunderstorm to hit (I'm betraying my East Coast origins here).

The smoke actually helps keep things a little cooler around here as the sun's intensity is reduced.  After some very hot weather the second half of last week -- including three consecutive days Thursday 6/19-Saturday 6/21 where high temperatures topped 105 -- any relief is welcome.  Even better, a front passed through and the normal pattern of onshore flow has reformed, meaning that we get a sea breeze in the afternoon and temperatures are usually comfortable by dinnertime.  Lows last night actually dropped into the upper 30s.

The vineyard itself looks very healthy, with a good fruit set and no pressure from any pests except for ground squirrels.  Two photos should give you a sense of what things look like out there.  Typically, what we'd worry about at this stage is shatter (where a large percentage of flowers are unfertilized, leading to clusters with only a few scattered berries) which is most common in Grenache.  No worries on that score.  Two shots in the Grenache (left) and Grenache Blanc (right) show excellent fruit set:

Fruit_set_grenache Fruit_set_grenache_blanc

And finally, a long view of the vineyard, looking from our "New Hill" section north across small plots of head-pruned Tannat and Picpoul to our main south-west and south-east facing slopes of Grenache.  Note the strange (for Paso Robles) pale blue-grey sky:


A Library Wine Club?

For years, we've been struggling with how and whether to create a second wine club.  Right now, we're one-size-fits-all.  Each member of our VINsider Wine Club receives the same selection of wines in each shipment.  We have at times toyed with the idea of creating certain customization of shipments, and always retreated due to our unwillingness to accept the added risk of mixups that doing so creates.  And, we think of our club as really an introductory sampling of our wines.  We rarely include more than one bottle of any particular wine in any year, and have felt that a principal goal of the club is to introduce our members to wines that they might otherwise have overlooked.  Club members who love a particular wine can always order more, and we don't want to burden anyone with lots of bottles of something that may not be to their tastes.

The benefit of introducing a wine through a shipment to our club members was driven home to me today when I showed around a couple of club members and, at the end of our tasting, pulled two of our Vin de Paille dessert wines -- the Vin de Paille white blend and the Mourvedre-based Sacrerouge -- out of the back.  They commented that they'd always seen the dessert wines on our order form, but because they hadn't received them in a shipment (we don't make enough to send even one bottle to each club member) they hadn't ever felt comfortable pulling the trigger and ordering.

The one wine that we've always struggled with how to share has been our Panoplie.  It's an elite wine, really the best that we can produce in any vintage, and is priced accordingly.  It's $95 retail, and even with the 20% wine club discount, it's still an expensive wine.  We absolutely believe that it's worth the tariff, and the press that the wine has received (the most recent 2005 got a 94-96 from Parker and a 94 from Tanzer's IWC) supports that.  The wine sells out, even with a 2-bottle order limit, within weeks of its release.  Still, as we price our club shipments at 20% off of the retail prices of the included wines, its inclusion in a shipment puts pressure on the price of that shipment.  We keep the shipment within our promised range of $150 to $190 by selecting other, less expensive, wines to complement it.  Nevertheless, we receive a handful of comments each spring from VINsiders who challenge why we include such an expensive wine in their shipment.  Our explanation always has been that we feel, if we can include the very best wine we make to all our club members while keeping the overall shipment price within the range we promise, it's a net benefit to them.  Most accept this explanation, although one or two decide each spring that the club no longer suits them for that reason.  I think I saw four or five responses in our recent canceled member  survey (I wrote on this with respect to wine shipping costs a few months back) that listed this as a primary reason for cancellation.

The Panoplie has spurred our search for a second club -- with our initial thinking that we should try to create some sort of "elite" club where members would receive some special wines otherwise unavailable to "regular" members.  The problem was that, with the exception of a few dessert wines, VINsiders already get all our best wines.  Taking wines away from them to give to an elite club seems wrong on lots of levels, and to take us dangerously down the road of taking our club members' loyalty for granted.  I don't ever want to think of our VINsiders as just "regular".  Other wine clubs are what we call "hostage" wine clubs, where you have to buy increasing amounts of wine you don't really want to get the good stuff.  I hate that model.

So, we think we've hit on a solution, and I'd love any feedback any current members (or, for that matter, anyone) has.  We have been saving 200-300 cases of our signature Esprit de Beaucastel red and white wines from each vintage since 2003.  We had always vaguely envisioned using these if we were to have a disastrous vintage and be unable to make an Esprit de Beaucastel.  But, we think we've hit upon a better idea.  We would create a library club, available only to current members (but optional to them) that gives its subscribers the opportunity to receive a shipment each year of wines that we've aged at the winery and think are at or nearing their peak.  This solution seems much more appropriate for who we are and for the sorts of ageworthy wines we try to make, and seems to provide a real benefit for its members without taking anything away from our VINsiders.

What do you think?  Please share.

Wine Blogging Wednesday (WBW) #46 focuses on white Rhones!

Wbw For nearly four years, Lenn Thompson of the blog LENNDEVOURS has coordinated a once-a-month mid-week tasting called Wine Blogging Wednesday.  The theme changes each month, and can be varietal, regional, or topical (numbers 41-45 were, respectively, Just Seven Words, Comfort Wines, French Cabernet Franc, and Old World Riesling).

This month, the theme was White Rhone Varietals, and the host was official-friend-of-Tablas Dr. Debs of Good Wine Under $20.  Each host assembles the different contributions and does a summary writeup.  Deb's writeup runs through the reviewers and the wines in traditional fashion, but also adds a new twist I hadn't seen: a tag cloud as a way of getting a quick feel for the descriptors participants used in describing their wines.  The most common descriptors emerge as "flowers, mineral, apple, lemon, gold citrus, honey, peaches, pear" -- about as classic as you'll get for Rhone whites.  I love that "oak" is way down the list.

I think it's an interesting testament to the growing popularity and influence of the category of Rhone varietals that the 43 bloggers from around the world who participated in the tasting chose 66 wines to taste from seven countries (France, 33 wines; USA, 25 wines; Australia, 3 wines; Argentina, 2 wines; Spain, Canada and South Africa 1 wine each).  Within France, entries favored the South, with 25 wines coming from Cotes du Rhone, the Languedoc and Chateauneuf du Pape.  Eight wines were sourced from the Northern Rhone appellations of Condrieu, Chateau Grillet, and St. Joseph.  In the United States, the Central Coast saw 8 entries (including one Tablas Creek wine, the 2004 Roussanne reviewed by Dr. Debs herself, and one other wine made from Tablas Creek grapes: the 2004 Edmunds St. John "Tablas Creek Vineyard" Roussanne).  The North Coast saw 7 entries, while the North Valley (i.e. Lodi and the Sierra Foothills) saw 6.  Three other states were represented, with two entries from Washington, one from Texas and one from New York. 

By my unofficial count, at least 11 of the American wines were made in part or in whole from Tablas Creek cuttings.

I think that this demonstrates pretty conclusively the diversification of origin and growth of reputation that white Rhones have attained, just 30 years after they were limited to just a handful of acres in the northern Rhone, some more (but little-regarded) acreage in the Southern Rhone and some older plantings of Marsanne in Australia.

I wonder what this picture will look like in another 30 years.  I'd predict, at least for the West Coast,that  you'll see more of the richer white Rhones (like Roussanne and Grenache Blanc) and less Viognier.  I'd also think you'll see more blends and fewer single varietals.  And I think that you'll see the Central Coast move conclusively ahead of other California regions in representation.

Then again, I'm not exactly powerless in this effort.  How to proceed?  I think I'll go back to planning the producers-only Roussanne conference we're holding this July!

An update on corks, screwcaps and consumer preferences

In the late-March post Consumers choose... cork? I reported on the the results of the first six weeks since we'd offered on our online order form the option of choosing between cork-finished and screwcap-finished versions of our 2005 Cotes de Tablas.  I was surprised that of the first 21 orders we'd received, 15 had chosen to order the cork-finished version.  I speculated that the reports of widespread consumer acceptance for screwcap-finished wines, at least for red wines, had been exaggerated.

In a very thoughtful comment, a reader named Russ suggested that I might have influenced customers' choices simply by putting the cork-finished version first on the order form.  I agreed to switch the order of the two wines on our online order form, and have been meaning to report back on the results in the three-plus months since.

Russ may have had a point.  Since early March, we've received 135 orders that have included the 2005 Cotes de Tablas.  Of these orders, 56 (42%) have selected the cork-finished version.  62 (46%) have opted for the screwcapped version.  And, perhaps most promisingly, 17 orders (13%) have included both cork and screwcap versions of the wine.  This is a much more promising outcome than what we'd seen in the initial 21 orders, and it's great to see a significant percentage wanting to recreate the experiment for themselves.

It also strikes me that the initial sample size of 21 orders was too small to conclude much with any degree of assurance.

On a related note, the more that we taste the screwcap-finished version of the Cotes de Tablas, the more we appreciate the vibrancy and freshness that it gives the wine. It does seem that, at least for Grenache-based reds, screwcap offers an appealing option, and barring any unexpected developments in the next 8 months, our plan is to put the entire production of the 2007 Cotes de Tablas in Stelvin screwcap.

Our conclusion is probably not too surprising; in our experiments (which I wrote about in the summer 2007 post Corks and Screwcaps: Not an open and shut case) we've  consistently preferred the vibrancy and freshness of the screwcap finish for our aromatic whites and our Rosé, while preferring the softer, sweeter mouthfeel of the cork finish for our Roussanne-based whites and our Mourvedre- and Syrah-based reds.  The Grenache-based Cotes de Tablas, always a lighter, fruitier red, falls somewhere in the middle, and seemed to be the right red wine on which to experiment with screwcaps.  And, we are enjoying the evolution of the wine under cork as well.  But, when we're equally happy with cork and screwcap, the argument of avoiding a thousand or more TCA-tainted bottles (about 3% of a wine with 3000-case production) becomes overwhelming.

Tannat, Heart Health and Longevity

Is it possible that we make the single healthiest California wine?

In the last year, we've seen a growing trickle of requests for our Tannat, often from people who are not our typical wine consumers.  The most recent of these was a request from a gentleman in Mississippi (which is unfortunately not a state to which we can ship) asking for whichever wine we make that contains the highest percentage of Tannat.

Tannat Tannat is a thick-skinned grape native to south-west France that makes wonderful dark, dense, smoky wines renowned for their ageworthiness.  We imported it to Tablas Creek in 1996 thinking it would be a good blending component.  It turned out to be too dominant to play a minor role in wines based on other varieties and as a result we pulled it out of the blends.  We have been producing a small amount of one of California's only Tannat-based wines since 2002.

Do I think that the Mississippi gentleman is a Basque transplant who has had to leave his sources of Madiran at home?  It doesn't seem likely.  Neither his nor the other requests we've received ask for wines that have the flavor profile of Tannat.  Instead, these requests appear to be driven by recent research suggesting that Tannat is the single healthiest grape to consume.

The correlation between red wine consumption and health (particularly heart health) has been recognized for some time, and burst into American consciousness following the 1991 French Paradox broadcast on 60 Minutes.  However, the mechanism by which red wine contributes to health has not been well understood, neither why red wine (and not, say, white wine or other forms of alcohol) is so beneficial, nor whether different red wines or different farming or fermentation techniques provide different levels of protection. 

In his book "The Red Wine Diet", Dr. Roger Corder (a cardiovascular expert at the William Harvey Research Institute in London) makes the case for oligomeric procyanidins (OPCs) as the source of red wine's health benefits.  Dr. Corder researches other possible sources -- the most publicized of which is resveratrol, which does exist in grapes and has been known to discourage cancer but would not be of nearly sufficient quantities in wine to be of clinical use -- before identifying OPCs as the most likely culprit.  All red grapes, particularly those with thick skins and high skin-to-pulp ratios, contain OPCs.  But, after measuring the OPC concentration of several common red wine grapes, Dr. Corder identifies Tannat as the grape with the greatest concentration.  The real-life evidence of Tannat's benefits can be seen in the surprisingly long lifespans of residents of the département of Gers in southwest France, whose local wine appellation is Madiran.  Gers contains more than double the national average of men in their nineties.  Madiran's principal grape is Tannat.  From the conclusion of an article in Nature:

"The higher OPC concentration in wines from southwest France is due to traditional wine-making, which ensures that high amounts of OPCs are extracted, and to the flavonoid-rich grape Tannat, which makes up a large proportion of grapes used to produce local wines in the Gers area but is rarely grown elsewhere."

If thicker-skinned, darker red wines contain more procyanidins, I am not surprised that Tannat should rank at the top of Dr. Corder's list.  Its skins are so tenacious that it is often difficult to de-stem, and the wines are dense, dark, spicy and tannic.  According to Dr. Corder's measurements, Tannat wines contain three to four times more procyanidins than other red wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon. 

While making one of California's only Tannats seems enough to put us in the running for healthiest wine in California, I find Dr. Corder's identification of traditional winemaking as a contributing factor to the OPC levels in French Tannats also very appealing.  If it is possible, as Dr. Corder asserts, that wines that are less processed, with longer fermentations, less or no filtering and fining, and a minimal reliance on technology exhibit higher concentrations of OPCs, then it's possible that the Tablas Creek Tannat is the single healthiest wine made in California.

We're grilling ribs tonight.  I think I'll open a bottle of Tannat to celebrate!

Wine Festival Etiquette

No, I'm not going to write another piece on how you're supposed to spit rather than drinking when you attend a wine festival (hint: you are).  Nor am I going to rant about perfumes and colognes that are likely to overpower the wine for you and the next dozen attendees unlucky enough to trail in behind you (hint: don't wear perfume to wine-related functions). No, this post is focused on the other side of the table.

More and more, I'm going to wine festivals where there are a handful of wineries who are intentionally bringing less wine than they need to last out the event.  And doing so, I think, is disrespectful to the attendees, to the other wineries, and to the event itself.

I'm not talking about bringing as much wine as festivals suggest.  Most festivals wildly overestimate the amount of wine you'll need to bring.  As a general rule, I calculate based on a bottle of wine total per attendee.  So, with 500 attendees and 40 wineries, if each winery brings 12 bottles of wine total, there's plenty of wine at the event.  If you know, because of the demographics of the festival, you're likely to be busier than average, you round up.  It may seem counterintuitive in this situation to bring just 4 bottles each of 3 wines, but the math works out.

(Incidentally, most festivals estimate based on each attendee being able to taste each wine.  So, with this hypothetical festival, most suggest that each winery bring 500 tastes of each wine you show.  At 20 tastes per bottle, that would suggest that each winery bring 24 bottles each, or if you're showing 3 wines, six cases total.  You don't need to do a lot of complex math to understand that this all adds up to nearly every winery bringing lots of wine home at the end.  This is not the least desirable outcome, as I'll explain, but it's inconvenient, particularly if the festival is not local, or if it's in a state where you have to order the wine from your distributor in advance and then can't return it.)

Still, what I see as the larger problem is what we've started to call the "cool kid" phenomenon.  Because real scarcity is rare, wineries are in the business of creating perceived scarcity.  One way to do this is to be sure you run out of wine early enough at an event that people will notice and make a mental note to come earlier next time.  If you've got good wine, and your ploy is not too transparent, you can even get attendees to start planning which wineries they have to hit in the first few minutes of the event.  This makes the strategy even more effective, as other attendees see the swarm around your table right at the beginning and, in true lemming fashion, squeeze in to find out what all the fuss is about.  Then, you can run out even earlier.

Sauntering around the room tasting other wineries' wines after you've run out (with the implication that the rest of you are suckers for still being pouring) is just the coup de grace.

Of course, the net effect of this phenomenon is that other wineries either hate or envy you (mostly depending on whether they feel you've brought a reasonable amount of wine to start with).  And consumers who weren't quick enough on the uptake or who didn't have the patience to wade through the scrum at the beginning are cheated of getting to try some of the hottest wines.  But, the stakeholder who should be the most upset is the event, who get the benefit of their biggest-name attendees for only a portion of the event's time.

I have started to see some events threaten that if wineries run out of wine too early, they won't be invited back. But most events are all too happy to have the hottest wineries on their Web sites and in their promotional materials to help sell tickets, and so accept behavior they probably shouldn't.

I can only hope that in the long-term, consumers understand when they're being manipulated and push back.  But I'm not holding my breath.  Meanwhile, feel free to come by the Tablas Creek booth in the last half-hour of the the next festival in your town.