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Whither inexpensive, artisanal California wine?

In early March I was interviewed by Jordan Mackay for an article in the New York Times called "Local Versions of Europe's Everyday Wines".  In it, Jordan explored why so few California winemakers were attempting to make inexpensive but artisanal wines that can compete with the basic regional wines of France. This seems to be a topic of broader interest among wine writers; Jon Bonné wrote a similar article (“California’s Côtes du Rhone”) in the San Francisco Chronicle last year.  I caught up with Jon at this past weekend’s Rhone Rangers tasting, and our conversation wandered to this topic.  He suggested that smaller California wineries are only now focusing their attention on making wines in this $10 to $20 category, but that with the market hungry for these sorts of wines, the category will grow.  I think he's right, and that as long as winemakers can find older vineyards of less-fashionable varietals, we'll see growth. Still, there are structural issues with the economics of grape growing in California that will inhibit the production of these wines – even if the market rewards those that are produced.

We recently considered whether our own cost structure could support adding a vineyard that would either allow greater production of our Cotes de Tablas wines (our least expensive wines, around $25 retail) or produce grapes to sell at the going rate for top vineyards in our area.  This prospective vineyard was beautiful – 20 acres on a mountaintop near the summit of Peachy Canyon Road, five miles south-east of Tablas Creek – and it was clear to us that it will make a great vineyard.  But, as we did the math, we couldn't make it come out to break-even either in selling the grapes or in making more Cotes de Tablas. 

Here's how the math works, using Tablas Creek's costs and production from 2008 (a fairly average year for us).  Our 2008 vineyard expenses (between labor and benefits, depreciation, taxes, materials, fuel & maintenance, utilities, licenses and fees) were $612,313, and we harvested 262 tons of grapes off our 95 producing acres.  So, our cost of producing each ton was $2,337 and our yield 2.75 tons per acre.  Our cost of grape production, not counting interest on our land or improvements, was $6,427 per acre.

The owner of the 20-acre property was asking around $1 million for those 20 plantable acres.  A 30-year mortgage on $1 million at 5.75% would require about $70,000 in payments per year.  Planting costs in an irrigated, trellised vineyard are typically about $30,000 per acre.  Head-pruned, dry-farmed vineyards are notably less expensive (around $4,500 per acre) but yields are typically lower and the vineyard may take an extra year or two to come into production.  Assuming that we financed the planting costs, we'd add another $42,000 in finance payments each year ($6,300 if we chose to head-prune and dry farm).  Total financing costs of $112,000 per year, divided by 20 acres, comes to $5,600 per acre, though planting head-pruned, dry-farmed could reduce that to about $3,800 per acre.

So, our total costs (in financing and expenses) per acre per year would be something like $12,000 ($10,200 if we chose to dry farm). Could we expect to recoup our farming costs?  If we sold grapes, probably not. The top vineyards in our area charge between $3,000 and $4,500 per ton for grapes.  At our yields (2.75 tons per acre in 2008) we could expect between and $8,250 and $12,375 in grape revenue per year.  If instead we chose to dry-farm, we felt it was unreasonable to expect more than 2 tons per acre, so even at $4,500 per ton, we wouldn't cover our $10,200 annual farming cost.

Would the financial picture look better if we used the extra production to make more of our Cotes de Tablas?  Not really.  We'd typically sell the wine for $150/case into the wholesale market, allowing for the distributor's and the retailer's markup.  Our vineyard costs come to about $73/case ($4,363 cost per ton calculated at 60 cases per ton).  The crush and winemaking costs (based on our 2008 Cotes de Tablas) add another $44/case, and the bottling costs (bottles, labels, capsules and labor) $20/case.  That totals $137/case in cost of production, not counting costs of overhead or to sell the wine.

It's worth noting that the assumptions above are for a vineyard that is financed 100%. But any money that is paid up front rather than financed incurs opportunity costs roughly equivalent to financing costs. These opportunity costs represent the lost profits from not having invested this money elsewhere.

Our net decision was an easy one.  We didn't buy the additional property.

So, for what sort of proprietor would such a property make sense?  It would work for a producer who built a winery and tasting room and sold much or all of the production direct.  They would have to be willing to put $3 million or more into the project (between land, planting, vineyard improvement and winery), but the higher margins in direct sales make it a viable proposition after that.  Or a savvy investor in land might take a chance, given that the price of prime vineyard land here is almost certain to appreciate.  Someone who bought it and covered most of their annual costs through selling grapes could come out ahead given that in a dozen years it might sell for double what it's worth now.

In the calculations above, you can see how large a portion of the annual expenses the initial investments in land and planting represent.  And I think that these costs are the real reason why most wine reviewers think that Europe enjoys a competitive advantage in the $10-$20 price category.  There is so much old vineyard planted in all the traditional wine-producing countries that a winemaker can find inexpensive grapes from older vines on vineyards long since bought and paid for.

Will that ever be possible in California, where most vineyards have to be planted from scratch, on land that is often in demand for development and therefore more expensive?  We'll see some growth, I'm sure, as long a it's still possible to find overlooked older vineyards.  But the numbers above shed some light on why small California producers, working with similar economies of scale and similar restrictions on mechanization, tend not to aim their wines at the under-$20 portion of the market.

Grapes of the Rhone Valley: Mourvèdre

Mourvedre Mourvèdre (more-vehd-ruh), with its meaty richness and wonderful longevity, forms the backbone of our Esprit de Beaucastel. Twenty-one acres of our vineyard are devoted to Mourvèdre, representing the largest acreage of any of our grapes and over a third of our red Châteauneuf-du-Pape varieties.

Early History
Mourvèdre is native to Spain, where it is known as Monastrell and is second only to Grenache (Garnacha) in importance. From the Spanish town of Murviedro, near Valencia, Mourvèdre was brought to Provence in the late Middle Ages where, prior to the phylloxera invasion at the end of the 19th century, it was the dominant varietal.

The phylloxera invasion was particularly devastating to Mourvèdre. Whereas most of the other Rhône varietals were easily matched with compatible rootstocks, Mourvèdre proved difficult to graft with the existing phylloxera- resistant rootstock. Thus, when the vineyards were replanted, most producers in Châteauneuf-du-Pape chose to replant with varieties that were easier to graft, such as Grenache. For decades, Mourvèdre was found in France almost exclusively in the sandy (and phylloxera-free) soil of Bandol, on the French Mediterranean coast, where it is bottled both as a red wine (blended with Grenache and Cinsault) and as perhaps the world's most coveted dry rosé.

Compatible rootstocks for Mourvèdre were developed only after World War II. Shortly thereafter, Jacques Perrin of Château de Beaucastel led regeneration efforts in Châteauneuf-du-Pape and made Mourvèdre a primary grape in the red Beaucastel wines. Since the late 1960s, total plantings in Southern France have increased dramatically, but Beaucastel is still distinctive among Châteauneuf-du-Pape producers for using an unusually high percentage of Mourvèdre: up to 35% in some vintages.

Mourvèdre in the New World
Mourvèdre came to California as Mataro (a name taken from a town near Barcelona where the varietal was grown) in the mid to late 1800s. In California it was probably first established in Santa Clara County, although the oldest surviving vineyards are in Contra Costa County.  It also found a home In Australia in the Barossa Valley. Until recently, the grape was rarely bottled by itself, and was instead generally used as a component of field blends. The increasing popularity and prestige of Rhône varietals, the importation of higher-quality clones (in which Tablas Creek played a role) and a return to the French Mourvèdre name has given the varietal a new life. Currently about 400 acres are planted in California.

Mourvèdre was one of the initial eight grape varieties that we imported into the United States.  While we were waiting for the vines to be released from USDA quarantine, we planted about two acres of the California-sourced Mataro clone near the top of our vineyard.  We vinified the French and American clones separately, and found that Mourvedre showed the greatest disparity in quality.  We grafted over the American-sourced vines to our French clones in 2003.

Mourvèdre in the Vineyard
Mourvèdre is a late-ripening varietal that flourishes with hot summer temperatures. As such, it is beautifully suited to our southern Rhône-like climate at Tablas Creek, where its lateness in sprouting makes it less vulnerable to late spring frosts. In the vineyard, Mourvèdre is a moderately vigorous varietal that does not require a great deal of extra care. The vines tend to grow vertically, making Mourvèdre an ideal candidate for head-pruning (the method traditional to Châteauneuf-du-Pape), although vines can also be successfully trellised. When head-pruned, the weight of the ripening grapes pulls the vines down like the spokes of an umbrella, providing the ripening bunches with ideal sun exposure.  It is typically our last varietal to be harvested, often not coming into the cellar until early November.

Mourvèdre berries are moderate in size, medium-dark in color, with very thick skins.  These thick skins are important because with its extremely late ripening, Mourvèdre is often still on the vines at the time of the first rains of the fall.  Its thick skins protect it from the swelling and splitting that thinner-skinned grapes (such as Grenache) are susceptible to.

Mourvèdre in the Cellar
Mourvèdre is relatively easy-going in the cellar, and can be successfully fermented both in open-top fermenters with punch-downs, and in closed-top fermenters with pump-overs.  In Bandol, it is typically fermented in whole clusters.  In California, the stems of Mourvèdre often remain green into November, and we have felt that fermenting whole-cluster with green stems will make the resulting wine too tannic.  However, in 2008, when a fluke October freeze lignified the stems of a Mourvèdre block, we took advantage by making a whole-cluster lot.

We typically press off our Mourvèdre after about 10 days of fermentation, and move it to large, neutral barrels.  It is very well suited to aging in foudre, as it does not take particularly well to new oak, and does not move the same tendency toward reduction that Syrah does.  We try to blend our Mourvèdre lots in the spring or summer after harvest, and then return the blends to foudre for an additional year of aging.

Mourvèdre is a wonderful blending component; its structure and mid-palate richness complement the openness, warmth and brighter acids of Grenache and the mineral, spice and tannin of Syrah.  It blends successfully both in a leading role (as in Bandol, or our Esprit de Beaucastel and Panoplie) as well as in a supporting role in Grenache-based wines (as in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, or our Cotes de Tablas).  In years when it gets fully ripe, it can also make a delicious single-varietal wine.  We have bottled a varietal Mourvèdre each year since the 2003 vintage. 

Flavors and Aromas
Wines made from Mourvèdre are intensely colored, rich and velvety with aromas of red fruit, chocolate/mocha, mint, leather, earth and game. They tend to be high in mid-palate tannin, and are well-suited to aging, although they are also often more approachable when young than the more overtly-tannic Grenache or Syrah.

In middle-age (anywhere from two to five years after bottling) Mourvèdre-heavy wines often close down and become tight and unyielding.  This closed period can last for as little as a year, or in extraordinary vintages as long as a decade.  When the wines reopen, the meaty flavors present in youth resolve into aromas of forest floor, leather and truffles.  The more intense a Mourvèdre-based wine is, the longer it stays open at the beginning, the longer it stays closed, and the longer it will drink well after it reopens. 

Food Pairing Suggestions
Mourvèdre-based wines pair well with grilled and roasted meats, root vegetables, mushrooms and dark fowl such as duck: flavors that harmonize with the earthiness of the wine.

Photo of the Day: Wildflowers at Tablas Creek

When I got to work today, the fog was just lifting, and I spent an hour or so looking for some good shots of it retreating to the east (to find out why that's so remarkable, check out this old post from 2006).  But it was on my way back, after the fog had mostly dissipated, that I stumbled upon the photo below, where the explosive cover crop and the native wildflowers have grown so high that they nearly obscure the winery's facade from Adelaida Road.  Welcome to spring 2010!


An Update on Spring: Green, Green, Green

We're thrilled with the winter that we've received so far.  We're near 35 inches of rain since October, which is the most we've received in four years.  We've had periods of extended cold, which got the vineyard fully dormant.  For now, everything is still quiet in the vineyard, but we're turning our attention to frost mitigation, which will (quite literally) be keeping winemaker Neil Collins up at night for the next two months.

We got out into the vineyard a little last week, both to document the amazingly lush cover crop and to get some photos of Las Tablas Creek, which didn't run at all last winter.  None of us has ever seen a cover crop so thick and green, a testament both to the great rain and to the work that we've been doing with compost and fertilization over the past few winters. 


In places, the grasses are so high that you have to look closely to even see the vines.  We'll be getting into the vineyard in the next few weeks to start with mowing and disking; it's been too wet until the last week or two to get tractors in.  Can you find the vines below?


We're looking forward to what locals are predicting will be one of the best wildflower seasons in memory.  So far, lupines line the roads and mustard is starting to sprout between the rows:


It's a little early for them, but we are seeing some of the first California poppies of the year:


The creek has been running merrily since January, and although its level has gone down a little we still see water seeping out of low-lying areas in the vineyard, so the ground remains saturated in lots of places. 


You can hear the creek running from the winery, which makes for a fun contrast to the beautiful, warm weather we've been having for the last week and which we're scheduled to have next week as well. Another view:


Lake Nacimiento, into which Las Tablas Creek drains, is still rising, and is up to 62% of capacity.  The surface level of the lake has risen more than 70 feet since October.

In the vineyard, we're just finishing pruning our last few blocks.  In the below photo you can see vineyard canes piled in the middle of the rows ready for collection.


For those of you who have been doing rain dances, thank you.  If you could now switch to "no frost" dances, that would be appreciated as well.

One from the Vaults: a September 1988 Wine Spectator article on Robert Haas

WS88_cover I was back in Vermont last week visiting my sister and my new nephew, and spent the night in my old room in the house I grew up in.  I was browsing through old papers late one night when I uncovered a 1988 issue of the Wine Spectator in which there was a wonderful six-page article by Mort Hochstein on my dad's career as an importer.  I hadn't read this article in years, and the Spectator's online archives don't go back that far.  The article was titled "Have Palate, Will Travel" and traces my dad's career in wine from its beginnings at his father's shop (M. Lehmann, in Manhattan) through his early travels to France in the 1950s, his eventual decision to found an importing business, and his move to Vermont in the early 1970s.


I've written about his career before, on the occasion of his 80th birthday, so I'm not going to enumerate his many impacts on how Americans drink, buy, and think about wine, but there were a few things that struck me about the article.

First was the affection with which his fellow importers and suppliers talk about him in the article.  One story I particularly liked was told by his friend, writer Alexis Bespaloff.  He recalled the end of a long day of prospecting in the Rhone:

"It was November 1963 and we'd been tasting in the Rhône.  We came back to our hotel after 10 one night.  The restaurant was closed and we were lucky to find a café where we could get a bowl of soup.  We returned to the hotel and went upstairs and Haas sat on his bed in a bare, cold, unheated room with just a single exposed light bulb overhead, dropped one shoe and said, 'You know, Alex, my friends in New York think I have a glamorous life.'"

Second was the degree to which he was already an institution in the 1980's.  The writer of the article, Mort Hochstein, pointed out

"Though widely known and respected in the trade in Europe and the United States, few American wine lovers have had any contact with him other than the perception that the phrase "Robert Haas Selection" on a bottle represents quality."

Now, 22 years later, my dad has added to his achievements as an importer and a distributor the foundation of Tablas Creek and the importation and distribution of high quality Rhone grapevine clones around the United States. He has also played an important role in the advancement of organic viticulture and the elevation of the Paso Robles region to the forefront of California wine. It is not a surprise that he was the first American elected president of the largely French Académie Internationale du Vin in 2000.

The last thing that struck me from reading the magazine was how young and unformed the California wine industry was at that time.  There is an article by Norm Roby promoting Kistler as the next "heavy hitter" in Chardonnay.  It's bizarre for me to think of Kistler as the new kid on the block.  Other wineries meriting mention whose building permits had newly been approved included Screaming Eagle and Sinskey. Terry Robards penned an opinion piece called "The Case for Red Zinfandel".  That the Wine Spectator needed to sound the alarm that "the majority of Zinfandel consumers do not even know there is such a thing as red Zinfandel" strikes me as being from another age.  And perhaps the greatest indication of the youth of the industry was the faces featured in the announcement for the 1988 California Wine Experience, which included a collection of American wine writing talent unlikely to be found in the same building today: Dan Berger, Anthony Dias Blue, Michael Broadbent, James Laube, Harvey Steiman, and, yes, Robert Parker.


For those interested, I scanned a PDF of the article which can be accessed here.

Grapes of the Rhone Valley: Picpoul Blanc

Picpoul Picpoul Blanc (also spelled Piquepoul Blanc) is one of the lesser-known Rhône varietals, but one that we think has a tremendous future in California. It is one of the thirteen permitted varietals in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, where it is used primarily as a blending component to take advantage of its acidity. Like the better known Grenache and Pinot, Picpoul has red, white and pink variants, though Picpoul Noir and Picpoul Gris are very rare. Literally translating to “lip stinger”, Picpoul Blanc produces wines known in France for their bright acidity, minerality, and clean lemony flavor.

Picpoul in France
Most scholars believe Picpoul is native to the Languedoc region of Southern France, where it is still found today. Records from the early 17th century indicate that it was blended with Clairette (another white Rhône varietal) to form the popular Picardan wine, which was then exported throughout Northern Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. After the phylloxera invasion at the end of the 19th century, Picpoul was not widely replanted. Today it is best known from Picpoul de Pinet, the crisp light green wine of the Pinet Region in the Côteaux de Languedoc.

Picpoul at Tablas Creek
We did not import Picpoul with our initial eight varieties in 1989. After the original eight were established in the vineyard, we decided that the consistent sun and long growing season at Tablas Creek might prove to be well-suited to varietals that in France are lean and high in acidity. Picpoul, with its reputation for sharp acidity, was the first of these high-acid whites that we brought into quarantine, and was in fact the first supplemental varietal we brought in of any sort. It was released from quarantine in 1998, and we spent the next two years propagating and grafting it. We planted approximately one acre of Picpoul in 2000, and received our first significant harvest in 2003. It has been such a success that we grafted over two acres of Roussanne to Picpoul in the winter of 2005, and got our first harvest from that new acreage in the fall of 2008. We plan to plant two additional acres of Picpoul in the next few years.

In the vineyard, Picpoul is not a difficult varietal to grow. It pushes early, making it somewhat susceptible to frost, but ripens relatively late. Along with Roussanne, Picpoul is usually the last white varietal to be brought in, just before Mourvèdre (the last red of the season) at the end of October. In the winery, we ferment it in neutral barrels to complement the grape’s brightness with a bit of roundness.

When we first bottled Picpoul, it was necessary to petition the Tax and Trade Bureau to recognize the varietal, a process we had undergone with several other varietals, including Grenache Blanc, Counoise and Tannat. In February of 2004, our petition was formally approved.

Although we have sold Picpoul vines to a handful of other vineyards around California, virtually none of it is in production yet.  But based on the recent interest that we have seen for our nursery vines, it has a bright future here.

Aromas and Flavors
We have found that, in California, Picpoul maintains its bright acidity, but also develops an appealing tropical lushness. It is quite rich in the mouth, with an exceptionally long finish. We have bottled three vintages of Picpoul Blanc as a single varietal: in 2003, 2005 and 2008.  As a varietal wine, Picpoul shows a rich, somewhat tropical nose of pear, pineapple and spice. In the mouth, flavors of pineapple and citrus are buoyed by crisp acids, and the wine finishes long and minerally, with a distinctive piña colada note.

Although French Picpouls are not typically thought to age, the richer California versions seem to be better able to handle some time in bottle.  We recently opened a 2005 Picpoul to complement a delicious recipe from Thomas Keller's new Ad Hoc at Home cookbook.  The recipe (Crispy braised chicken thighs with olives, lemon and fennel; page 30 for those of you with the book) had classic Provencal flavors that made a wonderful pairing, and the wine was was lush and bright, youthful and pretty.  Highly recommended.

More important than its occasional starring role in a varietal wine, Picpoul has proven to be a wonderful complement for Roussanne and Grenache Blanc in our Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc.  Prior to 2004, we had used Viognier in small quantities in our Esprit Blanc to give it a slight aromatic lift.  When we blended the 2004 vintage, we experimented with replacing the Viognier with Picpoul, and found that its addition lifted the aromatics of the wine similarly to the way Viognier did, but that its bright acids better highlighted the richness of the Roussanne and Grenache Blanc and brought out a savory saline note that is present in Roussanne but not always evident.  Including Picpoul in the Esprit Blanc also meant that the wine includes only grapes approved for Châteauneuf-du- Pape (Viognier, while a Rhône varietal, is not permitted in Châteauneuf-du-Pape).  This appealed to our sense of order.

Happily, with our additional producing acreage of Picpoul, we hope to more often be able to both include it in the Esprit Blanc and make a single varietal bottling, as we did in 2008.

A skeptic's move toward biodynamics

by Robert Haas

Tablas Creek Vineyard, following the practices of our partners at Château de Beaucastel, had always intended to farm our Paso Robles property organically. That is to say, farming our vineyard without the use of systemic chemicals and relying on compost, cover crops and mineral amendments to improve the health of our chalky clay soils and grow healthy vines. We have farmed organically since our founding, and got our national organic certification in 2003.

For a number of years we have been stalking going one step further by starting to practice Biodynamic agriculture, defined by Wikipedia as

a method of organic farming with homeopathic composts that treats farms as unified and individual organisms, emphasizing balancing the holistic development and interrelationship of the soil, plants, animals as a self-nourishing system without external inputs insofar as this is possible.

Biodynamic agriculture is regarded by many as the most sustainable modern ecological farming system. It has much in common with other organic approaches, such as emphasizing the use of manures and composts and excluding of the use of artificial chemicals, but differs from most organic techniques – which typically seek to replace chemical herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers with non-chemical alternatives – in focusing more on biodiversity and the holistic health of the farmed ecosystem.

Last week Neil Collins and Ryan Hebert – our winemakers/vineyard managers – joined me for a drive up to view the Napa Valley vineyards of Grgich Hills winery. Grgich’s vineyards have been farmed biodynamically for the last seven years. While there we toured with Ivo Jeramez, Mike Grgich’s nephew, who is in charge of their vineyard operations. Ivo and his vineyard manager graciously spent the whole day with us, took us around to their vineyards in American Canyon and Rutherford, new and old, and described exactly the processes that they employed and what they found to be the benefits. They are totally convinced that reasoned biodynamic farming has improved their soils and the health of the vines as compared to the traditionally farmed, chemically-treated vineyards of their neighbors.

When I first studied Biodynamic farming six or seven years ago I admired it as a sort of existential philosophy but found it hard to believe that the homeopathic preparations and the use of the astrologic calendar prescribed could create a great deal better vineyard environment than our organic farming was already producing. My problem with the concept has been that many of the methods unique to the biodynamic approach are so esoteric. It is hard to believe that miniscule amounts of herbal and mineral preparations introduced into vineyard sprays and compost additives can affect anything.

Now, I am not so sure of my earlier conclusions. The list of wine properties who follow biodynamic practices is highly distinguished, including Domaines de la Romanée-Conti, Leflaive, Dujac, Gouges, Huet, Domaine Weinbach, Zindt-Humbrecht, Leclerc Briant, Araujo, Frog’s Leap, Joseph Phelps, Beckmen, Bonny Doon and over 500 others. And Ivo, for one, is convinced that his conversion from “chemical” farming to biodynamic farming has greatly improved the health of his vineyard.

There are two main homeopathic field preparations on which biodynamics is based. The first is horn manure: a humus mixture prepared by filling the horn of a cow with cow manure, burying it in the ground in the autumn to decompose and recovering it in the spring to use in a ground spray to increase microbiologic activity. The second is crushed powdered quartz, buried in a cow horn in the spring and recovered in the autumn, used in a mixture of water and sprayed on the vines as a fungicide.

In addition, biodynamics prescribes treatments to compost using various natural herbs and extractions, including yarrow blossoms, chamomile blossoms, stinging nettle, oak bark, dandelion flowers, valerian flowers, and horsetail. These natural herbs each have their own properties, but all have been used in traditional medicine (as well as farming) for millennia. The chemicals that the plants produce naturally mimic, in many cases, those contained in chemical herbicides, fungicides, pesticides and fertilizers. And there is good reason to suspect that they work; plants have had to battle with insects, fungus and other encroaching plant species for millions and millions of years, and have developed ingenious ways of protecting themselves and their environment.

Lunar guides to planting and harvesting are another aspect of Biodynamic farming, and one which often comes in for skepticism. The phase, or synodic lunar cycle, is said to favor above-ground processes while the moon is waxing and below-ground processes as the moon is waning. The synodic cycle also controls tidal effects, which are well documented. These involve not only large bodies of water, but also the surface tension of liquids, which would explain why a vine pruned in a waxing cycle “bleeds” more than one pruned in a waning cycle. It is worth noting, however, that these are guides to be followed as much as is practical, not iron clad directives, and biodynamics respects this.

Since Tablas Creek is farmed organically and estate bottled from our one contiguous vineyard we are already most of the way to farming biodynamically. All that we have to do is prepare and use the prescribed homeopathic manures and composts in the vineyard and farm in harmony, as much as possible, with the astronomical calendar. So, this year we are going to start biodynamic farming on 20 acres and begin to weigh its affect on the health of the vineyard. If it is as successful as we hope we can expect to see stronger more disease and insect resistant long-lived vines.

How will all this affect the taste of our wines? We will see. Healthier and older vines are the aim. The environment in Paso Robles, with its enormous swings in temperature between day and night, its dry summers and cycles of drought, and its thin, rocky soils, is a high-stress one for grapevines. We are suspicious that these annual stresses will compromise the lifespan of our vineyards, and hope that by farming biodynamically, we will keep the vineyards healthy as they age. If we can do so, the impacts on wine quality should be dramatic; older vines produce grapes with more intensity and more character of place. And, young or old, we expect that healthy vines will produce physiologically ripe grapes with the good balance of sugars and acids that make great and long lived wines.

Tablas Creek on "A Long Pour: Fifty-Two Weeks with California Wine"

I have noticed a backlash recently among writers passionate about wine against what might be termed the tyranny of the tasting note.  In the view of these writers, the stilted language and the inherent subjectivity of the wine review is a distraction from the real business of telling a story about the people and the places which make up the world of wine.  [One great example, quoted in a recent piece on Steve Heimoff's blog, was of writer Rod Smith, who in response to a question about what he thought about the wines in a group wine tasting, replied "I don’t review wines. I write about them".]  And I understand this clearly: there is only so much writing you can do about flavors of berries, oak and minerals.  And this is without getting into the whole debate about scoring wine.

Whether in response to the fustiness of the traditional wine review, or just a greater interest in the how and the why of wine rather than the what, I've had the pleasure to speak to several writers recently who weren't particularly interested in writing about the wines of Tablas Creek, but about the soul.  One such writer is Wayne Kelterer, who a few months back started the blog "A Long Pour: Fifty-Two Weeks with California Wine".  On this blog, he profiles one winery each week.  The profiles are done on-site, incorporate his excellent photography, and include an in-depth interview with a principal or winemaker at each winery.  I think that the care that he takes on these pieces is evident in the results.


Tablas Creek is fortunate to be the profiled winery this week, and in the profile Wayne includes a transcript of what might be the longest, most in-depth interview I've ever had published.  If you're interested in not just where we are now, but how we got here and where we think we're going, then it's a must-read.

So, go read it: Tablas Creek: The Long Road to Success

Grapes of the Rhone Valley: Counoise

Oct07_0013Perhaps the grape question we hear most frequently at wine events and in our tasting room is “Counoise? What’s Counoise?” Even the Wall Street Journal joked a few years ago about Counoise’s obscurity in an article about blends. Yet the grape is a component of many Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines, and comprises about 10% of the Beaucastel rouge. Its moderate alcohol and tannins, combined with good fruit and aromatics, balance the characteristic intense spice, strong tannins, and high alcohol of Syrah.

Early History
The precise origin of Counoise (pronounced “Coon-wahz”) is unknown. According to the great Provençal poet Frederic Mistral, it was introduced into Châteauneuf-du-Pape from Spain by a papal officer, who offered it to Pope Urban V when the papacy was based in Avignon in the mid-14th century. Counoise was planted in the vineyards of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and was given a prominent place in the wines of the celebrated Château la Nerthe estate of Commandant Ducos in the late 19th century. Ducos was a student of the characteristics of various grape varietals, and played a key role in the development of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape region. When the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée laws regulating (among other things) the permitted grape varietals were passed in the 1930s, the varietals planted by Ducos (including Counoise) comprised 11 of the 13 allowed Châteauneuf-du-Pape varieties. The varietal saw a similar rebirth at Château de Beaucastel when Jacques Perrin increased the planting of Counoise as a complement for Syrah. In Provence, it is renowned for its use in rosés.

At Beaucastel, the Perrins have been increasing their plantings of Counoise over the last two decades, at the same time as they have been reducing their acreage of Syrah.  They believe that Counoise's later ripening produces wines with intense spice and bright acidity -- a welcome complement to the lushness of Grenache and the structure of Mourvedre.

Counoise at Tablas Creek
We brought Counoise cuttings from Château de Beaucastel in 1990 and they spent three years in USDA inspection. Once the vines cleared quarantine, we began the process of multiplying and grafting, and we currently have 5 acres planted. The grape is particularly suited to the geography of Tablas Creek, as it produces most reliably in stony hillside soils and intense sun. It is easy to graft, is moderately vigorous, with large berries and relatively thin skins, and ripens fairly late in the cycle, after Grenache and before Mourvedre. At Tablas Creek, we typically harvest Counoise in the middle of October.  This late harvest date is one factor that has discouraged greater adoption of the grape; many producers in the south of France prefer Cinsault and Carignan, both of which ripen earlier in the ripening cycle.

In the cellar, Counoise is prone to oxidation, and we are careful to ferment it in closed fermenters, and to age it only in foudre.  This oxidative character makes a useful complement to Mourvedre and -- particularly -- Syrah, which are prone to reduction.  It also has the highest acidity of our Rhone reds, and adding it in small amounts to a blend is akin to squeezing lemon onto a dish of food: you may not taste the Counoise, but the heightened acidity will bring out the flavors of the other components of the wine.

Counoise at the T.T.B.
We always list the individual varietals, and the percentage they account for in each wine, on the front label of our bottles. Before we could do that with Counoise, we had to get the grape registered at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms -- the federal agency which, until the reorganization mandated by the Homeland Security Act, oversaw label approval for wine. Since no one else in the States had used Counoise on their label, it fell to us to demonstrate it was a legitimate grape. The process, which included submitting a full dossier of materials (in French and English), took two years.

Flavors and Aromas
Counoise makes a light purple-red wine, and has a briary, spicy character with flavors of anise, strawberries, and blueberries. In our Esprit de Beaucastel, Counoise comprises 5-10% of the blend, and helps open up the more closed varieties of Mourvèdre and Syrah. Its soft tannins and forward fruit rounds out the blend and provides an element of finesse to the final product, particularly when the wine is young. At slightly higher percentages (10-25%) in our Côtes de Tablas, Counoise's fruitiness, acidity and spice combine with the fruit and spice of Grenache and the structure of Syrah to make a wine that can be enjoyed young. We also include 10-15% Counoise in our Rosé, where it contributes its signature bright acids and intense raspberry flavors.

In years of noteworthy intensity, Counoise also makes a delicious single-varietal wine with the character of a Cru Beaujolais: earth, spice, intense floral fruit, light body, vibrant acidity and soft tannins, ideal for drinking in the first 2-4 years. We’ve bottled it as a single varietal wine three times: in 2002, 2005 and 2006.