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Early Summer in the Vineyard

I got back this week from two weeks on the east coast, and the vineyard had grown so much in my time away that it was barely recognizable.  The weather so far in June has been ideal: lots of days in the 80s, a few in the low 90s but nothing hotter, cool but not cold nights, and lots and lots of sun.  Just what the doctor ordered after a cold spring that delayed sprouting two to three weeks depending on varietal.  A photo of a head-pruned Tannat block, with Roussanne behind (neither typically exuberant varietals) will give you a sense of how explosive the growth has been:


The main work in the vineyard now is shoot and cluster thinning, to make sure that the vines don't get so bushy that their interiors become havens for mildew or pests, and that they don't set such a heavy crop that quality suffers.  We've had to thin varieties like Mourvedre and Roussanne this year for the first time since 2006.  Two photos will show the results of the manicuring: neat rows with out too much overhanging foliage, with clusters exposed to light and air (Grenache, on left, and Grenache Blanc, on right):

Early_summer_2010_0003   Early_summer_2010_0011

With flowering done a few weeks back, the berries are growing, but still small, hard and green.  They'll grow larger, but stay hard and sour, for the next two months, before they sweeten rapidly after their August veraison.  A Roussanne vine with clusters is below:


The fruit set looks good, even in difficult varieties like the Roussanne.  Even the vines that we relocated from the construction area are doing well.  We figure 80% of them or more will survive their move.  You can see a few of the relocated vines along with with fruit trees and squash plants from our staff garden, in their new home behind our straw-bale tractor barn.


The section we planted at the western edge of the property in the winter of 2007-2008 is flourishing, and we expect to get our first (small) crop off this block this year.  We're hoping for 1 ton per acre from these third-leaf vines.  Looking east from the western edge of the planting over the bulk of Tablas Creek Vineyard:


In addition to the work we're doing in our existing vineyard we are also getting a new vineyard section staked out, which we'll use for some of the new clones (like Terret Noir and Bourboulenc) that we're getting for the first time this year. 


Finally, I leave you with one shot showing the deep green vines (Grenache, in this case) against the beautiful blue summer sky:


Anyone who would like to see some additional photos can do so on the Tablas Creek Facebook page.

Business as Usual

by Robert Haas

Or, maybe I should write business as unusual: then and now.


As you can see from the photo view, we are starting new construction on the third and last phase of building Tablas Creek Vineyard’s winery: adding 8,000 sq. ft. to give us one-third more working space in the winery and in the offices, and a new tasting room integrated into the cellar on the east side of the winery, facing Adelaida Road. A rendering of the new tasting room and entrance shows what it should look like at completion.


We've come a long way since the winery’s original construction in 1997:


Thanks to a little serendipity we are able to operate our tasting room without inconvenience to our visitors throughout construction. We are able to do so not because of thoughtful planning on our part but because our original business plan did not include a tasting room! Our original thinking about how to market Tablas Creek followed the French model, where wineries are largely absent from the marketing of their product. Château de Beaucastel, like most top French estate wineries, is open to tasters by appointment only and direct sales represent only a tiny part of their business.

By 2002, we had come to the conclusion that our lack of a tasting room was a mistake. Guests who made appointments and came to visit left like disciples, and we would hear stories months later of people with whom a visitor had spoken who had themselves become excited about Tablas Creek. It became clear that making it easier for people to experience our wines and learn our story would only help us distinguish ourselves within the world of wine. What’s more, we calculated that the direct to consumer sales allowed by a tasting room were essential for our bottom line. So we converted our original entrance foyer on the west side (facing away from Adelaida Road) into a tasting room, and three years later expanded into what had been our conference room and my office. We chose this space as the only reasonable area for a tasting room within the current building. Not at all in our thinking at the time was that our second and third phases of construction were planned for the opposite side of the winery.

And oh, do we need the extra space. We’re outgrowing our cellar space, our offices and our tasting room simultaneously. The cellar has been saved the past few years by drought-reduced harvests, but we have nowhere to put the new upright fermenters or additional foudres we’d like to add to the cellar, and have had to store barrels in a refrigerated barn down near our greenhouses. All our staff are double- or triple-bunked in offices. And those of you who have come to see us on weekends have at times been asked to wait while we clear up space at a tasting bar, or have been served at the folding tables we set up in our barrel room every Friday. Even better, the new tasting room will be integrated into the new cellar construction, with walls of windows into both fermentation and barrel storage and – we hope – ongoing educational opportunities for everyone who comes to taste.

So, once again, serendipity plays its role. Visitors will see the new construction as they drive past the winery, but it will be far away from the tasting room itself and should be unnoticeable to guests.

Harvard Business School teaches (or at least it used to teach), “Build your business plan and then stick to it.” But my own 60 years of business experience has taught me, “If the plan has flaws change it.” So we did. And here we are in 2010 expecting to comfortably receive about 24,000 visitors, all the while preparing our premises for future decades.

Notes from the Cellar: Pomp and Circumstance

By Chelsea Magnusson

The clanging and hammering coming from the construction crew outside the winery seems to echo the pandemonium going on inside the winery.  Construction officially began last week, which is both exciting and stressful.  Stressful because we have our big bottling session lined up for the the end of this month (we'll be bottling Cotes Blanc, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Esprit Blanc, Antithesis, Tannat, Esprit Rouge and Panoplie... whew!) and there is much to be done before the bottling truck pulls up to the winery.


So far, the only labor the contractors have been able to start on is simple face work.  Once they get the go-ahead, the real work will commence.  The first projects on the docket include rerouting the water and sewer lines and reconfiguring our electrical lines.  We're keeping our fingers crossed that their work doesn't interfere with our prepping the wines for bottling.  Unfortunately, if they begin and discover that they can't get the work done in time, we're toast in the cellar.  With no water or electricity, there's not a whole lot that we can get done on the production end of the winery.

Currently, we're working on the stabilization of our whites, or more specifically, cold stabilization.  If the wine's not cold stable, we run the risk of the wine throwing tartrate crystals when it's chilled.  This, of course, does not affect the taste or quality of the wine, but it's an aesthetic concern.  To cold stabilize, we racked the wines off their lees and transferred them into stainless steel tanks with temperature jackets.  We can control the temperature on these jackets, so the wines are now being chilled down to about 28°F.  Next, we seeded each tank with potassium bitartrate (used in cooking under the name "cream of tartar") to encourage the excess tartrates to drop out.


Despite the fact that we're running from one project to the next, (Ryan refers to busy days like these as a "three ring circus") all of this work will be well worth it when it's finished.  To know that so many of the wines will be completely finished on our end is a feeling that's quite difficult to describe.  After attending graduation celebrations for friends this past weekend, I realized a bottling is like a parent watching their child receive a diploma.  After all the work, time and attention we've put into these wines, we can finally say "I'm so proud of what you've become - good luck out there."

Grapes of the Rhone Valley: Grenache Noir

Grenache Grenache, (also known as Grenache Noir, to distinguish it from its white counterpart Grenache Blanc) is the most widely planted grape in the southern Rhône Valley, and the second most widely planted varietal in the world. It is most often blended (with Syrah and Mourvèdre in France and Australia, and with Tempranillo in Rioja), but reaches its peak in the wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, where it comprises 70% of the appellation’s acreage. Château de Beaucastel uses between 35 and 50% Grenache in its Beaucastel red, and some producers (most notably Château Rayas) produce Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines that are virtually 100% Grenache.

Early History
Grenache appears to have originated in Spain, most likely in the northern province of Aragon, and ampelographers believe that Grenache was the foundation of Aragon’s excellent vin rouge du pays. From Aragon, it spread throughout the vineyards of Spain and the Mediterranean in conjunction with the reach of the kingdom of Aragon, which at times included Roussillon and Sardinia. By the early 18th century, the varietal had expanded into Languedoc and Provence.

The phylloxera epidemic of the late 19th century indirectly increased European plantings of Grenache. In Rioja, for example, vineyards were replanted not with the native varietals but with the hardy, easy to graft Grenache. A similar trend occurred in southern France, as the percentage of Grenache plantings after the phylloxera infestation increased significantly, replacing the previously abundant Mourvèdre.

Grenache was brought to California in the 1860s, where its erect carriage, vigor and resistance to drought made it a popular planting choice. It came to occupy second place in vineyard planting after Carignan and was an element in wine producers’ branded field blends. Unfortunately, this usage encouraged growers to select cuttings from the most productive vines, increasing grape production but reducing the overall quality of the vines. In recent years, Grenache plantings in California have declined, as the varietal is replaced by the more popular Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot; currently there are 9,600 acres planted in California.

However, while overall Grenache acreage has declined (largely low quality plantings in the Central Valley), the varietal has at the same time undergone something of a resurgence in popularity. Newly available high-quality clones, including those from Tablas Creek, have encouraged hundreds of new plantings in California, with the greatest number concentrated in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties.

Grenache at Tablas Creek
When we began Tablas Creek Vineyard in 1990, we were not completely satisfied with the quality of California Grenache vines. As a result, we imported our Grenache Noir cuttings (along with its close cousin, Grenache Blanc) from France, where Jacques Perrin at Château de Beaucastel had worked tirelessly to regenerate high quality Grenache vines.  Still, the Perrins feel that vine age is essential in making top quality Grenache.

So, it should perhaps have been unsurprising to us that it took us longer to become happy with our Grenache than than with any of our other varietals.  Our initial expectations were that we would produce wines that were one-third or more Grenache, and we planted the vineyard accordingly.  However, the early harvests of Grenache showed little of the depth that we wanted, and had aggressive front-palate tannins that were in striking contrast to the smoothness of Mourvedre and Syrah.  It has only been since the 2005 vintage that we have been really happy with the variety's performance, and only since 2006 that we've felt Grenache balanced enough to produce it as a varietal wine.

We have increased the percentage of Grenache in our Esprit de Beaucastel each year since 2002: from just 10% in 2002 to 16%, 17%, 26%, 28% and finally 29% in the 2007.

Grenache in the Vineyard and Cellar
Grenache is a vigorous variety with upright shoots that lends itself to “gobelet” or “head pruning”; it is widely cultivated in this manner in France and in Spain. At Tablas Creek, our new Grenache plantings on Scruffy Hill are head pruned; elsewhere on the vineyard, the varietal is cultivated in double cordon fashion with six fruiting canes, each with two buds. The varietal’s vigor gives it the potential to be a heavy producer. Despite our shoot thinning, we are usually obliged to fruit-prune during the growing seasons to keep the bunch count to ten or twelve clusters per vine. This practice means that we harvest approximately three tons of fruit per acre of vines.

Grenache ripens in the middle of the ripening cycle, after Syrah but before Counoise and Mourvedre.  At harvest, it is notable for its high acidity even at relatively high sugar levels.  In a typical year, we would begin to harvest Grenache at the end of September and finish in mid-October.

In the cellar, we typically ferment Grenache in closed stainless steel fermenters, to counteract Grenache's tendency toward oxidation.  We avoid small 60-gallon barrels for Grenache for the same reason, and prefer to age Grenache-based wines in 1200-gallon oak foudres, whose thicker oak staves permit less oxygen to penetrate the wine.

Flavors and Aromas
Grenache produces wines with high concentrations of fruit, tannin, and acids. Its flavors are most typically currant, cherry, and raisin, and its aromas are of black pepper, menthol, and licorice. Although many California Grenache clones produce simple, fruity wines which tend to be pale in color, our French clones produce brilliant ruby red wines which are heady in alcohol (usually 15% or higher), and intensely fruity and fat.

For our signature Esprit de Beaucastel, Grenache is typically our #2 varietal (behind Mourvèdre and slightly ahead of Syrah) and opens up those more closed, reductive varieties. The varietal can thrives in a lead role in a fruity, forward wine as in our Grenache-based Côtes de Tablas. We have also produced a varietal Grenache each year since 2006.  In this wine, we typically moderate the sweetness of Grenache with 10% Syrah.

An update on HR 5034: a good meeting with Kevin McCarthy and a positive note from Diane Feinstein... but the co-sponsors list grows to 106

About a month ago, prompted by an email exchange I had with Representative Kevin McCarthy, I wrote about HR 5034, a bill introduced into the U.S. House of Representatives by the beer and wine wholesalers associations that would, among other impacts, likely restrict or eliminate out-of-state winery direct shipping. 

In the month since I posted, the political process continues to move.  On the positive side, I joined a group of local wine community delegates for a reassuring meeting with McCarthy, and he provided his clearest statement yet of opposition to the measure.  I also received a positive note from Senator Diane Feinstein, and many of the country's major newspapers have come out against this bill.

But the bill remains a threat.  Proponents of the bill continue to sign up co-sponsors, and are up to 106: almost exactly one-quarter of the 435 members of the House.  And from what we've learned from our elected representatives and from the reporting that the media has done, this is a long-term effort by the wholesalers and we're only seeing the first salvo.

A good meeting with Kevin McCarthy
Perhaps the most positive development over the last month came in the form of a reassuring meeting with Kevin McCarthy.  Within a week of my last post, he had reached out to set up a meeting with a delegation of vintners from his district (which includes the Paso Robles and Edna Valley wine regions).  By the time of the meeting, he had clearly made the effort to learn what was behind the bill and was well-informed as to the potential consequences to wineries should it pass.  He reported that the beer and wine wholesalers associations were making a major push behind the bill, and that he'd been visited by lobbyists for both groups to try to recruit him as a co-sponsor (he declined).

He also made it clear that he felt that wine was a fundamentally different business than beer and liquor, as the experience of visiting a winery, and the necessary requirement that wineries be able to ship their products to these new customers, drove a different business model.  I don't see it that way; I believe that any producer of alcohol -- whether they be a craft brewer, a distiller or a winery -- should be able to sell their product to any interested customer of legal age.  And I believe that the type of alcohol is irrelevant to the logic that the Supreme Court used to overturn discriminatory wine shipping laws.  But it does hint at a way that he can try to split the difference between explaining that he's not against the three-tier system while still protecting an important local constituency.

I found most interesting his analysis that winery shipping is not the principal focus of the wholesalers' efforts.  Sure, most of them don't like wineries shipping direct and cutting out the wholesaler tier.  But they recognize that due to economies of scale, consumer-direct shipping of wine is never going to be sufficiently widespread to make a serious dent in their profits.  What they're more worried about is the threat from larger retailers who can use the Supreme Court's logic to argue that they should be able to buy direct from producers, or from wholesalers in other states.  Consider Costco's 2004 lawsuit in Washington State, where the nation's largest wine retailer attempted to become, in effect, its own distributor (it lost in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals).

McCarthy also gave us his opinion that the bill, despite its relatively large number of co-sponsors, didn't seem to have a lot of momentum in the House.  First, he said that the Democratic leadership, including Nancy Pelosi, was squarely against it, and he didn't think it would make it out of committee.  Second, he thought that the House had so much other business (we all interpreted this, correctly I think, as "other more important business") on the docket that it seemed a long shot to make it to the floor this session.

When we left the meeting, all of us felt better, although we didn't get a declarative statement from McCarthy on his position.  We've been following up with his office for the last months to receive one, and are told it's in the works.  So, it was very nice to read last week that he told the Wine Spectator's Rob Taylor "There are over 200 wineries in the 22nd Congressional district, and I am always concerned about legislation and regulation that would negatively impact such an important part of our local economy.  I met with a diverse group of wineries about H.R. 5034 recently, and smaller wineries, especially, told me this legislation would negatively impact their ability to sell to their customers directly, and I will continue to support their right to do so."

A nice note from Diane Feinstein
When I used the great email generator that Free the Grapes built using CapWiz ( to send an email to Kevin McCarthy, I decided that it couldn't hurt to also send messages to our senators Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein.  I haven't heard from Senator Boxer yet, but received a nice note from Senator Feinstein last week.  After giving a little background on the circumstances in which she feels the federal government should supersede state laws, she continues:
I have long supported the ability of wineries to ship directly to consumers. Direct shipping enhances consumer choice and can be an important market for small, niche wineries - many of which are located in California.

On April 15, 2010, Representative Bill Delahunt (D-MA) introduced H.R. 5034, the "Comprehensive Alcohol Regulatory Effectiveness Act." This legislation would declare that it is the policy of Congress that each State or territory shall have the primary authority to regulate alcoholic beverages and that state alcohol regulations shall be accorded a strong presumption of validity when they are challenged in court. I understand your concern that this bill could allow states to discriminate against or otherwise limit direct-to-consumer shipments from local wineries in California to out-of-state customers.

H.R. 5034 has been referred to the House Committee on the Judiciary, and companion legislation has not been introduced in the Senate. Please be assured that I will keep your concerns in mind should this bill or related legislation be considered by the Senate

It seems clear that she would fight a bill similar to HR 5034 were one to be introduced into the Senate.

Recent developments
Perhaps the most important development in the last month has been the engagement of the wine press. A number of major media outlets (including the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Post and Wine Spectator) have written articles on HR 5034, all of them critical of the bill.  A Web site ( and a Facebook campaign have been created.

Both brewers and distillers have come out strongly against the bill, in large part because it is written so broadly as to permit states to impose different state-based product labeling laws.

For all that, I still don't think that either the general public or the winery community is sufficiently engaged on the issue.  The Facebook campaign has gathered 13,000 adherents in a month, which is only a tiny fraction of the wine drinking population in the country (or, for that matter, a tiny percentage of the wine club membership population in the country).  Most wineries I speak to have not yet sent out alerts to their mailing lists and wine club membership, and don't have anything posted on their Web sites.  Most consumers I speak to are at best only vaguely aware of the bill.  While wineries and consumers remain unengaged, the wholesalers' lobbyists keep working, and the nearly $15 million that the wholesalers' associations have donated to national campaigns in the last decade guarantees they have access.  The number of co-sponsors has doubled in the last month, and more are signing on each day.

I guess it's nice to know that the wholesalers' associations didn't specifically target the small winery community with this bill.  Still, it's clear wholesalers would be fine with a law that would put a significant number of wineries out of business as long as they maintained their cut of the sales to big box stores.  And make no mistake, the risk is real.  We calculated that at Tablas Creek 21% of our revenue last year came from wine we shipped to consumers outside of California.  I am sure that for many small wineries losing 20% of their revenue would mean financial ruin.

I urge wineries to continue to spread the word to their customers, and consumers to suggest to the wineries who they patronize to do so.  And everyone should be speaking to their elected representatives.  As always, Free the Grapes is a great place to start and has the tools to make this all easy.