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October 2008

50-Mile Dinner with Cass House Inn & Restaurant

Last week, we had the pleasure to participate in a 50-mile radius dinner at the Cass House in Cayucos.  This sort of dinner, where all the components served are sourced locally, and most are organic, is particularly gratifying to be able to support.  When the food is great, the setting beautiful, and the people terrific, so much the better.


The Cass House Inn & Restaurant is a historic building on the main street in the tiny seaside town on Cayucos.  Formerly the mansion of ship captain and Cayucos first citizen James Cass, it has been a bed & breakfast for the past few decades.  Last year, new owners Gary and Nancy Bagnall began a complete restoration of the house, and it reopened early this year to much excitement in the local community. 

The Bagnalls hired Chef Jensen Lorenzen and General Manager Grace Wingett to run the restaurant.  Formerly the proprietors of Papillon in Los Osos, Wingett and Lorenzen came in with a growing reputation in the local foodie community.  At Cass House, their menu focuses on local and organic foods, and the restaurant has been getting great reviews. 

For the 50-mile dinner, all the ingredients (produce, cheese, fruit, herbs, bread, meat and wine) were sourced from farmers within a 50-mile radius.  One of the pleasures of the dinner was getting listen to them talk about the struggles of finding all the components.  Our protein was braised goat!


We were proud to support the mission of eating locally by featuring four Tablas Creek wines to pair with the four-course meal: our 2006 Vermentino, 2006 Bergeron, 2005 Mourvedre and as a special treat, the 2005 Vin de Paille "Quintessence".  The setting (above) in their garden was gorgeous, and the meal full of good cheer and good company.  We sat next to Bill & Barbara Spencer of Windrose Farm, which is always a pleasure.


The awareness that all food has a place, and that the place has an impact on how that food tastes, has been known for decades with wine as terroir.  If we can have more meals where we support local farmers and reduce the environmental impact of transporting food far from where it was grown while exploring food's sense of place, sign me up.

As for the Cass House, we'll be back.  Soon.

Harvest, Week of September 15th: Watching and Waiting

Last week saw continued moderate temperatures, with most days peaking in the lower 80s and nights in the 40s.  This is perfect ripening weather... as long as you're not in a hurry.  The grapes are gradually accumulating sugars, and the cold nights mean that acids are remaining intense.  All this adds up to a week where we harvested very little.  We harvested just two days, and brought in roughly thirteen tons.  Half of this was our first Grenache Blanc of the season, and the rest evenly divided between most of our remaining Viognier and some additional Syrah.

So far for the year, we've harvested about 48 tons.  This puts us behind last year's pace (at the same time last year, we'd harvested 76 tons) but well ahead of 2006, when we didn't begin harvest until September 14th.

I thought it might be interesting to check in on the different red varietals to see what almost-ripe looks like.  I didn't feel the need to repeat the Mourvedre photos I took last week, but visited the blocks of Syrah, Grenache and Counoise.  First, Syrah, ready to pick (most of it has in fact been picked, but this is at the bottom of one of our hills in a comparatively cool spot).  Note the deep blue-black color and the berries starting to deflate:


Next on tap will be our Grenache.  We're scheduled to bring in our first picking later this week, from the top of one of the hills.  This photo is from a cluster toward the bottom of the same hill, which we probably won't pick for three weeks at least.  Note Grenache's traditional pink-purple color and relatively generous cluster size:


It was challenging to take a representative photo of Counoise, which had clusters already turning to raisins alongside others that were only mid-way through veraison. (If you click through to my post on veraison you'll see that Counoise was also the last to begin to turn color this summer).  The following cluster seemed pretty average, with the majority of the grapes a pretty blue-purple but with a few pinkish grapes too:


As we get deeper into harvest, we're getting more concerned about our yields.  Many other wineries nearby are reporting yields even smaller than the tiny yields of 2007.  The drastically lower yeilds seem to be concentrated in vineyards growing Zinfandel and Cabernet (both of which were afflicted by shatter this year) but even other Rhone producers are starting to sound alarmed at the size of their crops.  We still think we'll come in ahead of 2007's quantity numbers, but I have a lot less confidence saying that than I did two weeks ago.

United States wine consumption and production changes (and what they mean for California wineries)

You probably have heard that wine consumption in the United States is rising, and poised to pass France and Italy over the next few years.  What you may not have realized is how much more growth potential we have, and how positive this trend is for the prospects of California wineries.  Key to this is looking at growth trends, and not being afraid to do a little math. 

First, the consumption numbers (courtesy of VinExpo; all figures are for 2007 vintage except those for Argentina, Russia and Chile, which are 2006 vintage):

Country Consumption (9L cases, millions) Projected 5 yr. Change
France 357.8 -2.6%
Italy 298.8 0.4%
USA 294.4 17.8%
Germany 225.6 1.9%
Spain 147.8 -9.2%
UK 134.4 2.5%
Argentina 118.9 2.8%
Russia 58.9 29.1%
Australia 53.3 69.5%

At the end of five years, if the above projection holds true, American consumption will rise to around 347 million cases (coincidentally, French consumption should be at almost exactly the same total after moderate declines).  This growth is a good thing for producers around the world, but particularly the American producers who make up 69% of the American wine market. 

Adding 52 million cases of wine consumption in five years sounds like a lot.  But, the United States is a much more populous country than either France or Italy, so our per capita consumption still lags behind most of Europe. This just means that as American culture changes to increasingly embrace wine, we can expect a lot more growth.  The 294.4 million cases, divided up among 228 million American adults, shows an average consumption of 15.5 bottles per year... or about five glasses of wine per month.  By contrast, the average American drinks 230 12-ounce beers a year, or about five beers per week.

The assertion -- much repeated within the wine community over the past few years -- that wine is surpassing beer as Americans' beverage of choice is more accurately stated that wine sales have surpassed beer sales.  The average bottle of wine is, apparently, about fifteen times more expensive than the average beer.  Multiply that price by the quantity purchased of each and the two figures come out more or less equal. 

The trends of the market are strongly toward wine.  Per capita beer consumption actually declined slightly over the last ten years, while wine consumption continues to grow.  A recent assessment of the state of the market by Dan Berger was notably pessimistic about the prospects for the American wine industry (chiefly due to the growing penetration of imports into the American market, but also due to the continued production of large quantities of cheap grapes in the Central Valley).  I don't agree.  The American wine market is growing fast enough to absorb significantly more imported wine while still providing homes for increased domestic wine production.

Adding the production numbers (again, courtesy VinExpo) gives some additional perspective:

Country Production (9L cases, millions) Projected 5 yr. Change
Italy 554.4 -5.7%
France 504.4 -3.0%
Spain 418.9 -5.1%
USA 222.2 6.4%
Argentina 166.7 1.9%
Germany 116.7 8.8%
South Africa 108.9 20.1%
Australia 106.7 23.4%
Chile 93.3 14.2%

Imports make up 31% of American wine sales.  American wineries sell about 203 million cases of their wine to the American market.  In five years, based on the projected growth, American wine production will have grown by about 14 million cases.  American consumption will have grown by over 52 million cases.  The American market could absorb its entire increased production, and still buy more than half the combined production increases of Argentina, Germany, South Africa, Australia and Chile. 

Far from being a pessimistic picture, I find this an extremely encouraging one.  Our home wine market is growing faster than any other in the world, and the increased exposure to imports means that the American wine consumer is becoming better educated on wines beyond the "big six" of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc.  Plus, American wineries, spurred by the declining dollar, have opportunities in other countries.  Right now, American wineries only export about 19.1 million cases (8.6% of American production).  I know from the increased visits and inquiries we're seeing from international buyers that many other countries are looking to California as a place for value.  We project that our exports will grow 20% next year alone.

Mix it all together, and what do you get?  Despite potential short-term difficulties in the domestic wholesale market due to economic uncertainty (I've written about how much more sensitive the wholesale market is than the direct sales market to economic shocks) I think that we can look with confidence at a vibrant, growing market, and great prospects for growth over the next decade.

Some nice photos of ripening Mourvèdre

We're not harvesting today, but I took a walk through the vineyard to see the state of things.  We'll be bringing in more Syrah, our Marsanne, and perhaps starting the Grenache and Roussanne next week, but there is a lot more of the vineyard that is still weeks away from ripeness.  One section that is looking good, but not tasting ripe (yet) is the Mourvèdre from the hill behind the winery which we call Mount Mourvèdre.  I managed to get a few nice photos of ripening clusters on the vines:


Last harvest, I ran into Cris Cherry of Villa Creek Cellars and asked him how his harvest was going.  He replied that his Mourvèdre vines had lost all their leaves, so he was beginning to think about picking them.  He was only half-joking.  Mourvedre vines always look awful by the time we pick, with any remaining leaves mostly brown.  I like this second shot for the way that it shows the Mourvèdre leaves, already turning brown despite needing another month at least of ripening:


A Symposium on Roussanne (AKA three days spent with an infuriating, unpredictable, enticing, lovely grape)

Don't be fooled by this Roussanne cluster's
innocuous appearance.  It's a relentlessly
challenging grape.

Last month we hosted a producers-only symposium on Roussanne.  Roussanne has tremendous potential, and at its best makes wines with richness, striking minerality, ageability, and balance.  Robert Parker has called it "clearly the most noble of these [Rhone] white wine varietals".  Still, it has frustrated nearly everyone who has worked with it.  It grows erratically and is prone to shutting down mid-ripening, losing its leaves and turning yellow.  It is (unusually for a white wine) prone to reduction in the cellar, and yet is renowned in France for its oxidative periods as it ages.  The market for Roussanne is challenging, with even the best producers capping their production around a few thousand cases.  Most are smaller.

Although there are only about 180 acres planted in California (10% of which are at Tablas Creek), Roussanne has made an outsize impression on the wine community, with highly publicized, highly scored wines from producers such as Alban, Konsgaard, Qupe, Sine Qua Non, Bonny Doon, Linne Calodo, and Stolpman. But plantings of Roussanne have slowed in recent years.  According to the USDA's Wine Grape Acreage Reports, just 12 total acres of Roussanne were planted in California between 2003 and 2005 (compared to an average of 20 acres each year between 1998 and 2002).  This reflects both a period of assessment after the early adopters jumped in and the reality that Roussanne has proven to be more difficult to make in California and to sell to American consumers than most of us expected.

So, we figured that the time was right to get some of the leading producers of Roussanne together to discuss this uniquely talented but undeniably challenging grape.  The response that we received is an indication both of Roussanne's appeal and its challenges.  The list of attendees (Adelaida Cellars, Alban Vineyards, Anglim Winery, Bonny Doon Winery, Cass Winery, Château de Beaucastel, Cline Cellars, Curtis Winery, Domaine de la Terre Rouge, Halter Ranch Vineyard, J. Lohr, JC Cellars, McCrea Cellars, NovaVine Nursery, Qupe, Rosenblum Cellars, Starr Ranch, Stolpman Vineyards, Tablas Creek, Truchard Vineyard, Turley, and Zaca Mesa) included most of the leading lights of Rhone whites in California.  A photo of the attendees is below:

Standing (from left): Dan Cuzzi (JC Cellars), Tom Nemcik (NovaVine), Tony Truchard (Truchard), Doug McCrea (McCrea), Linda Truchard (Truchard), Tegan Passalacqua (Turley), Chelsea Magnusson (Tablas Creek), Steve Anglim (Anglim), Pierre Perrin (Domaines Perrin), Neil Collins (Tablas Creek), Charlie Tsegeletos (Cline), Lood Kotze (Cass), Ernst Storm (Curtis), Steve Lohr (J. Lohr), Ryan Hebert (Tablas Creek), Ruben Solorzano (Stolpman), Jeff Meier (J. Lohr). Front Row (from left): Jason Haas (Tablas Creek), Burke Owens (Bonny Doon), Sashi Moorman (Stolpman), Judy Starr (Starr Ranch), Molly Dow (Halter Ranch), Bob Lindquist (Qupe), Robert Haas (Tablas Creek), Kyle Knapp (Stolpman). Sitting: Phil Stevens (Starr Ranch).

The results of the symposium were fascinating and helpful to us as a producer, but also brought to light some items that seemed to be of general interest.  Hence this blog post. 

We began the three-day symposium with presentations on the history and current state of Roussanne in France by Pierre Perrin of Beaucastel and in California by Patrick Comiskey of Wine&Spirits Magazine.  Roussanne appears equally as challenging in France as in California; the appellation best known for it (Hermitage in the Northern Rhone) has almost entirely replaced Roussanne with the easier to grow and more reliable Marsanne.  Yet producers, seduced by the heights that great Roussannes have attained, continue to try it in new places.  Plantings of Roussanne in France have increased over the last 40 years from 58 hectares to 1074 hectares.  Eighty percent of the acreage is located in Provence, Languedoc-Roussillon and Vaucluse.  In California, Roussanne arrived in the 1870s into Northern California, but was not found to be particularly well suited to the needs of the day for grapes that grew easily and produced immediately appealing wines.  Acreage declined gradually and the last vines were pulled out in 1927.  There followed a long fallow period until the 1990s, when several producers intrigued like us by the Vieilles Vignes Roussanne from Chateau de Beaucastel (including John Alban, Bill Easton and us) brought in new cuttings of Roussanne and planted our first vines.  The modern history of Roussanne in California is still remarkably short.

The following day we spent focused on problems in the vineyard.  The principal challenge that we were looking to solve was that of leaf yellowing.  We and several other Paso Robles producers have seen Roussanne vines whose leaves will turn yellow and fall off early in the season (as early as mid-July) with grapes still hard and acidic.  Grape ripening stalls and the grapes can end up achieving desired sugar levels through dehydration but never achieve physiological ripeness.  Other vineyard problems with Roussanne include widely variable yields, uneven ripening (we typically harvest Roussanne a minimum of three times through each block), often searing acidity and late ripening in cool climates and low acids in warm climates.  Other than that, it's easy.

We feel that we might have made a breakthrough on the problem of leaf yellowing.  The attending producers who described the problem were all located in high-calcium soils with a fairly extreme temperature variation (Paso Robles or Santa Ynez).  The symptoms are consistent with stress exacerbated by a nutrient deficiency, and intensive foliar fertilization appears to have some minor positive impact, though soil analysis has not shown any specific nutrient is missing.  Young vineyards appear to be less affected than older ones.  The key to the solution appears to be found from vineyards in similar conditions who did not see the leaf yellowing.  All such wineries acidify their water to keep the high-pH soils from restricting nutrient uptake.  Knowing that (or at least suspecting that) the yellowing is a stress-induced reaction to a vine's mineral deficiency caused by an overabundance of some other mineral gives us a hope of a solution to a problem that has been bothering us for years.

The final day included six panel discussions on different winemaking and marketing challenges of Roussanne.  The topics included Roussanne from different regions/climates, Fermentation choices in Roussanne, Roussanne in Blends, Roussanne in the Marketplace, Roussanne as a Dessert Wine, and Roussanne with Age (what a treat to taste a 1990 Bonny Doon Le Sophiste, 1987 and 1996 Beaucastel "Vieilles Vignes" and 1996 and 1999 Qupe Roussannes).

The discussion of Roussanne in the marketplace (a panel on which I sat, along with John Alban and Burke  Owens of Bonny Doon) was for me the most fascinating.  Roussanne is not a widespread varietal; no producer there made more than 2500 cases of their Roussanne-based wine. Further complicating matters, the market generally associates it with blends, and the consensus was that in a crowded marketplace, unusual varieties can't just get by with being unusual. They need to be great. Roussanne (in the words of John Alban) "tends to be a rollercoaster". It varies often widely depending on where it's grown and where it is in its life cycle. And it's a polarizing wine; different people will love and hate the same wine. This makes it more of a challenge.

The successes are not always intuitive.  Wineries report some success focusing on red wine drinkers, who appreciate the textural and structural character of Roussanne, as well as its ageability. Roussanne is a great "winter white", and pairs naturally with the richer, creamier flavors of winter. Many wineries who have had the most success have taken it out of the category of a varietal and put it into proprietary blends where the wine becomes an artistic expression rather than one of a category. Similarly, many wineries have associated their Roussanne-based wine with their better-known red blend.  Examples include Bonny Doon's Cigare Blanc or our Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc.

One particularly hopeful note is that at the end of the first day of the event, we held a group tasting of Roussanne wines from any of the participants who brought one (most did).  Although styles varied, the quality of the wines we tasted was remarkable.  Even better, most wines were priced in the $20 range. 

I'm not sure I've ever written a blog post which has attempted to cover this much ground.  And I'm sure that I've never taken this long to write a blog post (I began writing this nearly six weeks ago and have worked on it, on and off, ever since).  But Roussanne seems to me a wine of such great potential, and the  producers who attended showed such passion for this Quixotic grape, that it seems worth a special effort to share what we learned.  Anyone who would like more details can find them in the symposium notes (in PDF format) from the Tablas Creek Web site, or is encouraged to ask questions here.

One addendum: anyone who is interested in Roussanne is particularly encouraged to come to this year's Vintner's Holidays event at the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite Park.  We will be one of the presenting wineries of the December 2-4 session, and my seminar will be on the many faces of Roussanne, including two different single-varietal versions (our traditional Roussanne and our earlier-picked, more mineral Bergeron), as a blending component, and as a dessert wine.  This is a great event anyway, and one of my favorites each year.  What could be better than to have great wineries, terrific educational seminars, a dinner in the Ahwahnee's grand dining room, and one of the most beautiful spots on Earth almost entirely to yourself?  Oh, and our company for the session?  Randall Grahm, Merry Edwards, and Rombauer.  Definitely the A-list.  I hope to see many of you there.

Harvest 2008 (Week of September 8th): Viognier, Syrah, Vermentino, and Chardonnay

Upright_fermenters After a hot stretch in late August and the first few days of September caused several varietals to race toward ripeness simultaneously, last week saw more moderate temperatures and a much slower harvest pace than we'd feared.  We actually had a few foggy mornings out at the vineyard (unusual for September) and didn't harvest at all on Monday, September 8th.  Over the last four days of last week, we brought in just under 20 tons of fruit, including more Viognier (we're now about 70% done with our Viognier harvest) as well as the first twelve tons of Syrah.  This Syrah is fermenting in our new upright, 1500-gallon oak fermenters (foreground at right, with stacked foudres looking deceptively small behind and to the left).

In addition to the Syrah and Viognier, we also harvested our entire small-lot productions of Vermentino and Chardonnay.  Both were affected by the frosts this spring and came in light in yield, even more so than in 2007.  Our Chardonnay yielded just under two tons of fruit off of about two acres.  Our Vermentino yielded 2.75 tons, 30% less than in 2007.  This will impact our wine club shipments for next year, as neither variety will produce enough wine to include in a shipment.  Viognier yields, though, are up.  We're already 33% above last year's totals and not yet completed harvesting.  We have tentative plans to again make a varietal Viognier.

Overall, we're still of the belief that overall yields will be between the relatively high yields of 2006 and the extremely low yields of 2007.  We're estimating about 15,000 cases overall, maybe a little more.

This week, we expect to be harvesting Grenache Blanc, our first Roussanne (for our "Bergeron" program), and more Viognier and Syrah, though nothing too urgently.  The weather is forecast to remain moderate through the end of the week, and then to heat up again starting over the weekend.

Finally, I'll leave you with one more photo from last week: blooming sunflowers from the field surrounding our straw-bale barn, which we planted earlier this summer to attract beneficial insects.


Updated "How's it drinking" Vintage Chart

We've received a growing number of inquiries over the last few months about how our older wines are evolving in bottle from customers who have the wines in their cellars and are wondering if the wines are ready to drink.  We've had a rudimentary vintage chart on our Web site for a while; you can see just how rudimentary it was in the post where I introduced it from December 2006.  But, it didn't have our small-production wines, and it didn't capture all the complexity I wanted it to.  Rhone wines, particularly those based on Mourvedre and Roussanne, go through stages of openness and closedness (if that's a word) depending on their evolution and the wine's inherent character.  The model of a linear evolution for these wines, or even a simple bell curve (where a wine improves for a while, peaks, and then declines) doesn't capture the reality that we see.

So, I created some more categories in the vintage chart, including three different levels of maturity (early, peak and late) as well as two "hold" phases (too young, and closed phase).  This is still shorthand, but it's hopefully a useful tool for people who are wondering what stage their wine is at at the moment.  The basic chart is below (click on it for a larger image), or we also have a PDF-format vintage chart that can be printed for easy reference.

As always, any suggestions of how to make this tool more useful are welcome.

On a related note, I'm really pleased to be receiving this level of evidence that our customers are laying down our wines.  We very much try to make wines that will grow in complexity and depth with time, and it's often discouraging to read how 90% of wines (or more) are drunk within a few weeks of purchase.  Of course, most wines are really not built for aging, but I think that many people in the industry make the discouraging leap that it's therefore not worth making ageable wines.  I would argue to opposite: that if you make ageworthy wines, there is an audience who will be excited to find you and who will support your efforts.  Even ten percent of the US wine market is still enormous!

Harvest 2008 Begins!

Viognier Well, we've finally begun this year's harvest.  Yesterday and today, we've been harvesting our Viognier, which as usual is our first varietal in the cellar.  2008's harvest started about a week later than the 2007 harvest did, consistent with a slightly later veraison and overall moderate temperatures in August.  Compared to our 14-year history, a start in the first week of September is just about average.

Quality looks very good.  Our yields look to be higher than the historically low yields of 2007, but still slightly lower than average.

It looks like we'll continue to see some of the early varietals coming in next week, including Chardonnay and maybe our first Syrah.  The comparatively warm weather (highs in the upper 90s) of the past few days will moderate next week but remain seasonable.  Highs are forecast to be in the upper-80s with lows in the upper 40s.

A ripe Viognier cluster is pictured above, just before harvest.

A family wedding (and a wonderful 1983 Pommard: Prince de Merode "Clos de la Platiere")

Regular readers have probably noticed a gap of about 10 days since my last post.  Yes, this means I have broken one of my fundamental rules for winery blogging, but I can only offer the excuse that I've been busy in Vermont preparing for my sister's wedding.  It was this Sunday in Vermont, and was wonderful.

For those of you who don't know my sister, she does some occasional work for Tablas Creek from her base in Brooklyn, NY, but her principal occupation is a jewelry designer.  Many of you may know that her jewelry is offered for sale in our tasting room.  Still, she grew up in a wine family, loves to eat and drink well, and gave us a terrific opportunity to have a wedding party that celebrated food and wine. 

To cook the feast, my sister decided on Montreal-based chef, baker and author James MacGuire.  His menu (charcuterie, halibut with beurre blanc and melted leeks, and rack of lamb with gratin dauphinois and ratatouille) was simple, classic and beautifully done.  For wines we had 2006 Cotes de Tablas Blanc with the charcuterie, 2006 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc with the halibut, and an ethereal 1983 Pommard Clos de la Platiere from Prince Florent de Merode with the lamb.  The wines (including the 2007 Rosé that we poured as an aperitif):


The Pommard was gorgeous: soft, pale ruby and fully-mature, with berries and underbrush, spice and mineral.  It's in no way an imposing wine.  It is delicate and gentle, and was quietly complementary to the lamb.  You were left remembering the lamb and its accompaniments, but it had the presence to stand up to the acidity of the ratatouille and the creaminess of the potatoes.

A couple of other photos of the evening's events show the setting at the Vermont farmhouse I grew up in, and some key participants.  First, the bride, and my parents as they were walking down the informal aisle:

Haas_hutton_wedding_rebecca_2 Haas_hutton_wedding_parents

Then, a cute photo of my son Eli (age 3) as ring bearer and a late-night photo of the bride and her new husband Tom Hutten dancing that I love for how it captured the after-celebration feel:

Haas_hutton_wedding_eli Haas_hutton_wedding_dance