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September 2008
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November 2008

End of Harvest 2008: two weeks of Mourvedre, Roussanne, and Counoise, and a better picture on yields than we'd been expecting

We're concluding the 2008 harvest today.  Yesterday, we brought in 6 tons of Mourvedre, and today added another 2.5 from from a last pass through late-ripening areas where we left odd bits here and there.  Yesterday's bins of Mourvedre are below:


We were pleased (and surprised) to see how the fruit continued ripening after our freeze nights earlier in October.  The handful of rows in the swales that were frozen stopped ripening (and provided the fruit for our whole-cluster fermentation experiment) but the rest of the vineyard, which we expected to also be impacted, recovered quickly.  The weather over the last three weeks has been gorgeous... warm days in the upper 80s and nights in the lower 40s.  You couldn't ask for better weather.  This has allowed fruit to continue to gain intensity and sugars but not lose acids too fast.  The fruit looks gorgeous: soft and ripe, with nice color and great flavors.  A Mourvedre cluster below is a good example of how the grapes start to deflate when they're fully ripe:


Over the past two weeks, we've harvested about 69 tons of fruit, including Mourvedre (38 tons), Roussanne (19 tons), Counoise (10 tons), and our last ton of Grenache.  This puts our final yields at 251 tons, or 10 tons more than last year.  Broken up by varietal:

Grape 2008 Yields (tons) 2007 Yields (tons) % Change
Viognier 19.4 9.2 +110.9%
Marsanne 9.8 6.2 +58.1%
Grenache Blanc 23.5 19.6 +19.9%
Picpoul Blanc 6.6 4.9 +34.7%
Vermentino 2.8 3.9 -28.2%
53.4 39.9 +33.8%
Total Whites 115.5 83.7
Grenache 46.9 54.8 -14.4%
Syrah30.141.6 -27.6%
Mourvedre 44.7 45.8 -2.4%
Tannat 5.4 5.5 -1.9%
Counoise 14.2 13.8 +2.9%
Total Reds 135.9 157.4
Total 251.4 241.1

This is a prettier picture than what we were projecting two weeks ago.  It will hurt to be down in reds, though not for a couple of years.  It will be great to have more whites than we did in the 2007 vintage.  Of course, we're still below our high water mark for yields (121 tons of whites and 177 tons of reds) we saw in 2006.

The weather is turning, with a forecast over the weekend for three separate storms and perhaps an inch of rain or more.  That would be great.  We really really really (really really really) need the rain to come this winter.  But whether it comes this weekend or not, it's a lot better to know that what we have in the cellar is really good, and fairly substantial in quantity.

Autumn Images in the Vineyard

As I was leaving the vineyard yesterday, I was struck by the quality of the light, which was quintessentially autumn: low and raking, illuminating the turning colors of the vineyard.  It was so dramatic that I ran back inside to grab the camera and clambered into the Mourvedre block behind the winery to try to capture how it felt.  I'm reasonably pleased with the results; the only thing that I would like to have captured was the pale blue of the sky.  In all these shots, exposing to pick up the colors of the leaves meant losing the sky to white.  First, the hillside from below, with the riot of red and green:


Next, a shot of the colors, through one of the bottom rows of Mourvedre:


And finally, a look between two Mourvedre rows into the setting sun:


Appellations of Origin

Cdp_poster_0001A few days ago, I was in our tasting room when I was struck by the reproduction of a 1935 public notice to the proprietors of Châteauneuf-du-Pape displayed on the wall. It occurred to me that this affiche I’d been looking at for ten years had an important story to tell.

In a recent post on our blog entitled Terroir, Then and Now I reviewed the importance that place of origin has historically played in identifying the character of a wine. This tradition stretches from Egyptian, Greek and Roman times to French appellation controllée and American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). In that blog I wrote that “our American Viticultural Areas are a pale and [often] meaningless imitation of the French system.” Our system may be about to get worse.

As the best growing areas, identified by their labeled origin, developed reputations for quality and commensurately higher prices, enterprising but unscrupulous merchants have been encouraged in a variety of frauds, most commonly blending or simple substitution of wines from cheaper growing areas for the best ones. Naturally, growers in the most reputed areas brought pressure on their regimes to pass laws to prevent the counterfeiting of the produce of their valued vineyards. As far back as Egyptian times wines were stamped upon sealing with the regnal year, name of the vineyard, name of the wine maker and often the quality of the wine, and wines were inspected by special “inspectors of the wine”1. In Roman times, Pompeian wines were so valued that fraudulent stamps were used to mark amphorae of non-Pompeian wine.2

The pressures and counter-pressures continued through medieval, renaissance and enlightenment times to modern France, which had become the world model for fine wine production. In the heart of the Great Depression, on July 30th, 1935 the French government followed up earlier attempts at control with a decree establishing the current controls of appellation of origin for the traditional fine wine growing areas of France. Controlled were not only the boundaries of the larger recognized growing areas, such as Bourgogne and Bordeaux but also, in diminishing concentric circles, the villages and the crûs, creating a nesting of geographic appellations within appellations. The traditional boundaries of these appellations were verified and certified by independent respected grower personalities of their regions. So concerned were the commissions to preserve a strict impartiality that in Burgundy, Henri Gouges and the Marquis Sem d’Angerville (founding members of the Institut Nationale des Appellations d'Origine) not only did not name any of their own vineyards as grand crû, but excluded their entire villages (Nuits St. Georges and Volnay) from grand crû designation. Gouges’ Les St. Georges in Nuits and d’Angerville’s Caillerets and Clos des Ducs in Volnay could, and probably should, have been so named.

The new laws have not eliminated fraud, as shown by the recent convictions of producers and négociants such as Henri Cruse in 1973, Bernard Grivelet in 2001, and George Dubeouf in 2005, but they have provided a disincentive and punishment for those convicted. More recently, wine fraud has moved into the auction market, often for very old wines, as with the hundred thousand dollar “Jeffersonian” bottles referred to in Benjamin Wallace’s excellent Billionaire’s Vinegar.

The 1935 regulations codified and regularized traditions that had developed gradually over 2000 years. Not only was the geography of the appellations controlled, but the production in hectoliters per hectare, the variety or varieties of grapes permitted (thirteen in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, two in Bourgogne), and the pruning methods. Irrigation was prohibited in AOC vineyards to prevent overproduction. Regulations sought to control two principal areas: yields (and therefore quality) and geographic origin (and therefore typicity).

Other European wine growing countries followed the French lead in promulgating their wine laws. And Italy, Spain, France and Germany, like France, all have well-established traditions to follow. But what to do in a country where there is no long established tradition of grape growing? How does the producer use the label to inform the consumer about the likely style and content of the wine in the bottle? What regulations does the government promulgate to protect consumers from misleading labeling and to protect producers from fraud? These are knotty questions.

In the United States, very little government effort was made to control wine labeling until after the Second World War. At that time, most wines were named after European regions (such as Burgundy and Chablis) whose wines they usually resembled only in color. Beginning in the 1950s, finer wine producers began pushing for greater authenticity in two ways. First, they began identifying their wines by grape variety. Second, led by Napa Valley producers, they began to emphasize their place over a more general California appellation. Together with their political representatives, they encouraged government regulators to pass regulations for varietal labeling (50% or more in the blend to call a wine by a varietal name, increased to 75% in 1978) and geographic denominations (American Viticultural Areas or AVAs).

Although, unlike in Europe, AVA regulations did not specify particular grape varieties for particular growing locations, the combined use of a varietal name plus the geographic AVA and the name of the producer on the label allowed for a greater degree of specificity than ever before. More recently, established regions such as Napa, Sonoma and Lodi have allowed for an even greater degree of geographic delimitations by creating appellations within appellations, as in Europe. And, for the ultimate expression of place (read crû) wineries have begun designating single vineyard wines. The Tax and Trade Bureau (the agency responsible for regulating the wine industry, commonly know as the TTB) protected this designation with its most rigorous requirement: that vineyard designate wines contain at least 95% of their grapes from the named vineyard.

Last year, the TTB interrupted this steady progress toward better protecting the producer and better informing the consumer with proposed new regulations that favored (even misleading) brand designation over geographic reality, and included a startlingly phrased proposal that questioned the “nesting” of appellations, one within another, even though there are already strong precedents for it in Europe and the United States. This surprising proposal was an attempt to balance the interests of a proposed Calistoga appellation and two wineries who had registered Calistoga as a brand name but whose grape sources were largely outside the proposed Calistoga AVA. The TTB’s proposals drew stinging critiques from regional associations such as the Napa Valley Vintners Association, the Anderson Valley Winegrowers Association, the Oregon Winegrowers Association and the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance. You can read our initial critique of this proposal in the December blog post A Well-Meaning Step in the Wrong Direction.

One could argue that we do not need further regulation: that experience will dictate the future identification of growing areas. But we surely do not need regulation that will encourage and reward fraudulent growing area designation on wine labels. Such brand labels already exist and those already in use in 1984 are given grandfather protection.  No new exceptions, such as those proposed by the TTB notices 77 and 78, should be allowed.  What's more, all producers that have geographic identities on their labels, whether or not they are designated AVAs, should, within ten years, be required either to source 85% of their grapes from that geographical area or to change their brand names to eliminate it.

Robert Haas, October 2008

1 Wine Making in Egypt by Menna El-Dorry
2 Hugh Johnson, Vintage: The Story of Wine, 1989, pp 64-67

Harvest, weeks of October 6th and 13th: Lignification, Whole Cluster Fermentation and a Yield Assessment

We've had two busy weeks of harvest surrounding last weekend's cold snap.  Before the freeze, we pushed to bring in the last of our Marsanne, Syrah and Grenache Blanc, our Picpoul, the bulk of our Grenache, and a significant chunk of our Roussanne.  We figured that anything that we could bring in that was ready we should, to avoid a rush after the frost. 

After the frosts, it warmed up again nicely and last week we brought in the rest of our Grenache, some more Roussanne from the frost-impacted section of Nipple Flat, and our first Mourvedre.  It only looks like the frost really hit the coolest sections near Tablas Creek and the bottoms of some larger hills.  But, in those sections, the vine leaves are dried and brown, the grapes are starting to fall away from the clusters, and there's no point leaving them out.  Most were ready anyway.

We're now done with our Viognier, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc, Picpoul Blanc, Vermentino, Syrah, Grenache and Tannat.  It gives us an opportunity to compare yields with last year.  The picture is not particularly pretty:

Grape 2008 Yields (tons) 2007 Yields (tons) % Change
Viognier 19.4 9.2 +110.9%
Marsanne 9.8 6.2 +58.1%
Grenache Blanc 23.5 19.6 +19.9%
Picpoul Blanc 6.6 4.9 +34.7%
Vermentino 2.8 3.9 -28.2%
Grenache 45.6 54.8 -16.8%
Tannat 5.4 5.5 -1.9%
Syrah 30.1 41.6 -27.6%
Total 143.2 145.7

At this stage of harvest, any assessment is necessarily a snapshot.  We are still waiting for most of our Mourvedre, much of our Roussanne and some of our Counoise.  Still, it appears that the later-ripening varieties are if anything going to be below last year's quantities.  So, our hopes that yields would recover from 2007's historically low levels do not appear likely to be fulfilled.

In the cellar, we have taken advantage of the unusual year which has produced completely lignified stems in our Mourvedre.  Lignification occurs when stems turn from green to brown, and is one sign of physiological ripeness.  Two photos below show clusters of Mourvedre, with the cluster on the left fully lignified and the one on the right still mostly green:

Harvest_08_oct_0001 Harvest_08_oct_0002

In Paso Robles, grapes generally achieve ripeness (by most measures, including sugar and acid levels, berries softening, and seeds turning brown) while the stems are still green.  So, we de-stem our reds because we feel that fermenting in whole clusters is likely to transfer some green-tasting tannins from the stems into the wine. De-stemming is standard practice at Beaucastel, and we have de-stemmed every year.  Until now.

One of the several novelties of 2008 has been that the stems of our Mourvedre are more lignified than we've ever seen before.  This has allowed us to try some whole cluster fermentation as they do in traditional Bandol. So, we dumped the grapes into an open-top fermenter and have been crushing them by foot.  Cellar Assistant Chelsea Magnusson demonstrates:


We split this Mourvedre lot in half, and did the other half in the traditional de-stemmed method.  We'll keep the lots separate and hopefully be able to isolate the contributions of the whole clusters.

It's interesting to note that in recent years, producers in Bandol have had to abandon their traditional whole-cluster fermentations in favor of destemming.  They suspect that this is because the grapes are achieving sugar ripeness faster than ever before due to a warmer and warmer climate, and the sugar accumulation is outpacing the signs of physiological ripeness.  That we have seen such complete lignification is one of the best pieces of evidence that 2008 is properly termed a cool-climate vintage.  Given that, it's probably not a bad thing that yields have been low.  If we'd had higher yields, we might still be in the early stages of harvest.

Cold, Cold, Cold: A Harvest Freeze in Paso Robles

Until now, harvest 2008 has been proceeding under nearly ideal conditions.  Daytime highs have been in the 80s, lows in the 40s, and the grapes are ripening beautifully.  Enter this weekend.  A cold, dry arctic low dropped down into California about six weeks earlier than normal, and we have seen three consecutive nights below freezing in most of the Paso Robles AVA.  The weather report from the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance shows the results for last night:


As you can see, temperatures dropped well into the 20s both of the past two nights through most of the AVA.  Perhaps because of our proximity to the Pacific, or due to our elevation, or due to the mountains to our north that might have helped block the cold north wind, at Tablas Creek we didn't get hit quite as hard, but we still saw some damage.  The weather station is in the center of the vineyard, in a spot of more or less average temperatures, and there are always spots two or three degrees cooler.

Frosts during harvest are rarer than those during flowering, and damaging in different ways.  In the spring, you are more likely to have a frost which will impact most or all of your year's results, causing uneven ripening and low, erratic yields.  But, you can also mitigate spring frosts with overhead sprinkling, and most large commercial vineyards do this as a matter of course on cold spring nights.  In the fall, you don't want to sprinkle overhead because of the risk of mildew and of causing the nearly-ripe grapes to swell and split (think of the problems of harvest rain).  Harvest frosts don't typically render the grapes on the vine unusable.  Still, if the leaves of a vine are frozen, the vine stops photosynthesizing for the year and the grapes will only accumulate additional sugar through dehydration.

At Tablas Creek, we have completed a little more than half of harvest, and already-harvested sections are unaffected by the weekend's frosts.  Still, many of the areas that are still unharvested are those that were affected by this spring's frosts, and are in lower, more frost-prone areas.  We have one more night where it's forecast to approach freezing, after which we'll be able to assess the damage.  I'm sure it will be painful, though it doesn't so far look devastating.

Although I hope not, I would imagine that the damage in much of the rest of the AVA will be severe, adding to the pressure on many growers from a vintage already impacted by spring frosts, low rainfall, and wind during flowering that caused extensive shatter in Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel vineyards.

Terroir, Then and Now

Recently, along with Randall Grahm, Neal Rosenthal and Alice Feiring, I participated in a seminar at the Santa Fe Wine and Chile Festival on the subject of wine quality entitled, “The Winemaker, the Owner, the Merchant and the Author”.  Greg O’Byrne, maestro of the festival, chose the participants to include three different aspects of the professional wine fraternity and a critic.  The goal was to explore whether we would have different views of the relative importance of wine-making and specificity of terroir in the quality of the wines we were making and/or marketing.  It turned out that we really did not.  Where we differed was in our definition of terroir. Alice, the author, felt that "power vinification" was eliminating terroir. Randall declared himself an agnostic on whether or not there was such a thing as terroir in New World vineyards and Neal and I agreed that the essentials of terroir, both in the New and Old World -- from single vineyard properties on appropriate terrain and not over vinified -- did exist.  Our audience also seemed to have very differing views. So, for me the question became, “how do we define terroir these days, what is it, and how did we arrive here?”

In the beginning, Egyptian, Greek and Roman wines were always identified by place of origin.  In Egypt, in the annex of Tutankhamen's tomb, 36 wine jars were found and each bore a docket in hieratic giving the date, place, and vintage of the wine1.  The Greek trade in wine was extensive. An early system of appellation designation was implemented to assure the origins of esteemed products. The most reputable wines of ancient Greece were Chian, Coan, Corcyraean, Cretan, Euboean, Lesbian, Leucadian, Mendaean, Peparethan, Rhodian and Thasian.  The Roman historian Pliny the Elder wrote extensively about the "first growths" of Rome -- most notably Falernian, Alban and Caecuban. Other first growth vineyards include Rhaeticum and Hadrianum located along the Po river, in what are now the modern day regions of Lombardy and Venice, respectively.  In ancient times, wines came from somewhere with specific geology, soils and climate: the basic elements of terroir (and therefore taste). The grape varieties grown in those origins were steadfastly traditional and the consumer was not concerned about and most probably did not know the varieties of grapes in the wine.

The boundaries of fine wine growing regions in France have existed for at least a millennium and over time have codified connections with specific grape varieties.  Cistercian monks focused on Pinot Noir in their Burgundian homeland, and by doing so were instrumental in creating a distinction between their fine wine and the more common wine (probably field blends) of Mediterranean France.  It was their expertise that induced them to establish abbeys and vineyards in Vosne, Vougeot and Gevrey.  They identified the crûs but it was the Burgundian state in a 1395 decree by Duc Philippe le Hardi that banished the grape Gamay.  This made red Burgundy a Pinot Noir monovarietal appellation (although some white varieties were still allowed).  Thus the essentials of Burgundy crû terroir were established by cooperation between church and state 600 years ago.  Wines from crûs took on value because of their geographical identity.  Other regions within France emulated the Burgundian system and began identifying regions of particular quality.  Over time, fraudulent identification and/or blending became profitable, and began to threaten the integrity of the highest quality areas. 

Pressure by proprietors in fine wine producing areas to establish controls started growing but it was not until 1935, in the heart of the crisis of the Great Depression, that Châteauneuf-du-Pape, under the leadership of the Baron le Roi, established and posted its regulations, leading to strict appellation controllée laws and the creation of the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine (INAO) in 1935/19362. High quality small plots in fine French vineyards became recognized as distinct from neighboring plots, and lovers of Burgundy will argue over fine distinctions in terroir.  So what is terroir in vineyards where no long tradition exists?

Terroir, the French term that is used in descriptions of the taste (and origin) of a wine, is unfortunately a word that is untranslatable into English. An interesting parallel is that “winemaker,” an English term frequently used in describing the origin of a wine, is untranslatable into French.  This linguistic disconnect reflects cultural cultural differences the New World's focus on the winemaker as primary creator of distinctiveness and Old World's focus on place as the traditional determinant of character.

The American wine journalist Matt Kramer’s modern take is that that people consider geographical identity to be the terroir and that it then becomes the “somewhereness” in the taste of a wine.

Terroir imparts its special characteristics to the taste of wines that are produced in its limits.  It is generally considered to be defined by the rocks and the soils in which the grapes are cultivated.  But, according to the renowned wine journalist and author, Hugh Johnson, in his foreword to James Wilson’s excellent book called Terroir, published in 1998 by The University of California Press, says

Terroir, of course, means much more than what goes on beneath the surface.  Properly understood, it means the whole ecology of a vineyard: every aspect of its surroundings from bedrock to late frosts and autumn mists, not excluding the way a vineyard is tended, nor even the soul of the vigneron.”

But terroir has not always been seen as part of the “vigneron’s soul.”  Before the nineteen seventies, prior to the great expansion of wine drinking in the United States, a “goût de terroir” in a wine was considered a fault.  Frank Schoonmaker, the American wine pioneer, marketer, importer, and author described it in his Encyclopedia of Wine, published by Hastings House in 1964, as:

“Soil or earth, used in a very special sense in French in connection with wine, as gout de terroir. Certain wines produced on heavy soils have a characteristic, unmistakable, almost indescribable, earthy flavor, somewhat unpleasant, common, persistent.  This is a gout de terroir, and the German equivalent is Bodenton or Bodengeschmack. Superior wines rarely if ever have much of this, which if once recognized, will not easily be forgotten.”

Ironically, earlier, in 1939, Schoonmaker and a few struggling California wineries including Martin Ray, Concannon, Wente, Almaden and Louis Martini, not at all worried about terroir or geographical origin, introduced varietal wine labeling, as already practiced since 1933 by Beaulieu Vineyard in St. Helena to identify a fine wine (and lift it and set it apart from the then abundant cheap field blends called Burgundy, Chablis, Claret, etc.).  At that point the “somethingness,” of a wine's composition began to replace the “somewhereness” of a wine's origin.  This shift deemphasized geographic identity in favor of a more interchangeable grape varietal (although the wine's appellation could still be noted on the label).

So now terroir in its current use has taken on a new importance.  The expanding employment of vineyard designations on New World wine labels is a sign of our current efforts to give specific “somewhereness” to both varietally labeled wines and blends.  We are using terroir in a positive sense as a tool to emphasize a wine's taste characteristics determined by soils and climate as opposed to those specific to a given grape varietal or those which come from cellar manipulations. Cellar manipulations, and the sameness that these can produce in wines from different areas (and even different grapes), are coming more and more under fire from a growing number of consumers and press as a misstep in the search for more "natural" wines.

Robert Haas, October 2008

1Wine Making in Egypt by Menna El-Dorry

2I might add that our AVA (American Viticultural Area) regulations are a very pale and often meaningless imitation of the system, made even more meaningless by the TTB’s (the section of the Treasury Department, which oversees wine label approvals and AVA regulation) continued recognition of brands, even those misleadingly or falsely labeled, over geographical origin.  See our blog post The TTB's new AVA rules: a well-meaning step in the wrong direction from December 2007.

Harvest, Weeks of September 22nd and 29th

After what seemed like weeks of waiting, all of a sudden most of the vineyard is ready to pick.  Last week, we focused on whites and picked the rest of the Viognier, most of the rest of the Grenache Blanc, and the Picpoul Blanc (we also picked the first of the Grenache Noir, from our "American vine" block that we planted in 1994).  The total harvested for the week was just over 20 tons.

This week, we've switched our focus to reds and accelerated the pace of harvest with some rain threatening for this weekend.  When all is said and done, we will have harvested over 35 tons this week, including most of the rest of our Syrah, a good chunk more Grenache, our first Mourvedre and Counoise, and even some later-ripening whites: our first Marsanne and Roussanne for our Roussanne "Bergeron" program.  A few photos give you a great sense of what ripe Grenache looks like.  Note the relatively light color, even when ripe, and the fairly large, loose berries of Grenache clusters in a picking bin:


Below, from another angle, you can see the half-ton picking bins we use stacked on the right in the background.  You can also see the somewhat overcast day today. We're forecast for some rain showers tomorrow, which is very early for Paso Robles.  It's not supposed to be damaging (maybe a half-inch at the most) but we always worry that a first rain might usher in a weather pattern where a succession of storms roll in off the Pacific.  It doesn't look like that will be the case this time; the weather is forecast to be warm and dry next week.  Still, it has added some urgency to bring in what's ripe this week.


Finally, one more shot, this one in the cellar of Grenache clusters on the sorting table being fed into the destemmer machine.  We destem most of our reds (with the occasional exception of an occasional Mourvedre lot a la Bandol, some Tannat which is unwilling to be destemmed, and our Vin de Paille red) to keep them from accumulating tannins from the stems.  You can see the clusters falling into the destemmer, and the violence of the destemming process.


So far, we've harvested just over 100 tons.  Colors and flavors look great, sugars appear to be somewhat lower than normal, and yields range from about average to well below average depending on varietal.