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All Things Consumed: I can almost taste it (Beaucastel, that is).

By Tommy Oldre

I'm trying to contain my enthusiasm right now, so as not to anger coworkers here in the office, but my thoughts are currently dominated by the trip I embark on tomorrow.  It has been over eight years since I spent time overseas and I leave tomorrow for a few days in Bristol, England before heading to the Southern Rhone early next week, and of course Chateau de Beaucastel.   In short, I'm psyched and very thankful.


Photo © Chateau de Beaucastel

This is my seventh year at Tablas Creek and I have been referencing Chateau de Beaucastel, nearly daily, the entire time.  I spoke of Beaucastel often when I first started in the tasting room, I learned a lot about their cellar practices from Neil and Ryan in my time here in the cellar of Tablas Creek, and I still reference the Beaucastel estate frequently when I am out in the market.  I commonly talk about, and field questions about the galets, the mistral (please let if be windy just one day), the various, obscure varietals that are grown on the estate, and the nearly petrified foudres used in their cellars.  However, I have never seen, touched, nor experienced first-hand any of the aforementioned.

I have seen many pictures of the estate and its vines in different seasons and I have seen pictures taken in the cellars of Beaucastel from different eras.  I know the history of the friendship between the Haas and Perrin families, I have a very good idea of the topography of the Beaucastel vineyard, I can tell you exactly where it is located in the Chateauneuf du Pape A.O.C., and I know about the interstate that borders its property.  Honestly, I can tell you more things about Chateau de Beaucastel than any other place or property I have never been to, and I can't wait to change that next week.  It will be a dream, and frequently recurring daydream, come true.  

As the plan stands, Neil and I will be spending next week in the southern Rhone with the Perrin family.  We will not only be visiting Beaucastel, but will also visit their other properties in Gigondas, Vinsobres, Vacqueyras, and perhaps a couple others.  We also plan to head a bit further south one day to Bandol, where I understand vineyards of Mourvedre look out over the sea.   That sounds just fine to me.  More than anything, I can't wait to take it all in; to put faces and places to the words I have read and the wines I have enjoyed and continue to inspire me. 

I will be doing my best to send Twitter (@tommytablas) updates along the way and I will also be compiling data for future blog posts on my return, including another post in the All Things Consumed series.  Did I mention I plan on eating in a dignified, though omnivorous, fashion yet?  Well, I do. 

Thanks for reading et au revoir.


Refreshingly... brisk? An assessment of the unusual weather of summer 2010

This morning, looking at the fog outside, I changed my plans to take my kids swimming at my parents' house and went to the zoo instead.  Even now, at 1:13pm, although the fog has burned off and it's sunny, the temperature at my house in downtown Paso Robles is 73 degrees, and it's breezy.  Not exactly pool weather.  I'm not sure how frequent highs in the low-70's are in July in Paso Robles, but it's rare.  I'm not sure I remember it ever happening, and this is my ninth summer out here.  As a point of reference, the average high temperature in Paso Robles for July 25th is 94 degrees.

This has certainly been an unusual summer.  We got our last rain and last frost remarkably late this year (both in May).  June was sunny but cool, with most days topping out in the 70's or low 80's and nights routinely in the 40's.  We didn't have our first 100 degree reading at the vineyard until about ten days ago, and the four days of 100-plus weather moderated again into the weather pattern we're in now.

Some of the consequences of these cool temperatures are felt now, and others we'll only know come harvest-time.  For now, the relative lack of heat and the relative availability of moisture (by Paso Robles standards, at least) have meant that we've had to struggle against mildew this year more than in any year in our history.  We're used not to having to worry about it; mildew doesn't like hot weather (it won't grow above about 100 degrees) and the lack of rainfall in the summer months means that once the topsoil dries out in May and June, there isn't enough moisture to support its growth anyway.  But with the more frequent fog cover this year (about once a week, compared to perhaps once a month in a normal year) and the abundance of moisture in the ground from the 140% of normal rainfall we received last winter the conditions are better for it than usual.  David Maduena, who manages our vineyard crew, noticed it in a section of Grenache a month ago, and he, Neil and Ryan have been going after it since with sulfur, copper, and the other organic products we have available to us.  It's under control, but not gone, and will bear watching over the next month.

The longer-term consequences will be felt at harvest.  We started the year a couple of weeks behind because of the late, cool spring, and this weather isn't allowing us to catch up.  As a marker point, I wrote about veraison this week each of the last three years (posts dated July 24th, 2009, July 30th, 2008, and July 27th, 2007).  Not only do we not see any veraison in the vineyard yet, I'd think we're at least a couple more weeks out.  Plus, we were already expecting a later harvest because of the comparatively robust crop levels.  Between those and the cool weather, locals are joking about harvesting at Thanksgiving.  We don't expect that, but I also wouldn't schedule a visit in mid-September and expect to see everything in full swing.

On the positive side, the vines, for which extreme heat is as much as a stressor as drought, look great.  The canopies are lush and green, and the work on vineyard nutrition we've done this year has been even more effective than we'd hoped because of the mild weather.  And while the 100-plus days are a dramatic marker of the warmth of the climate, they actually don't help the vines ripen much.  Above about 95 degrees, most wine grapes shut down their photosynthesis to conserve moisture.  So, what we really want are more days in the upper 80's and lower 90's... just what is forecast for the next two weeks.

Overall, the vintage's weather is tracking most similarly to 2005 and 1999.  The chart below (taken from the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance's agricultural forecast) shows the growing degree days to date over the last 14 vintages.  The column on the left is from the Tablas Creek weather station (the others, from left to right, are Summerwood in the Templeton Gap, J. Lohr in the Estrella River Basin, Red Hills Vineyard in Creston, and Shandon Hills Vineyard in Shandon):


It's also worth noting that the vintage, for all its coolness, is still a lot warmer than 1998, the coldest vintage on record.  And even in 1998, we still got our grapes ripe, although we didn't start harvesting until October.  In both 1999 and 2005, we had late harvests and long hang-times, and the wines we made have aged wonderfully.  If the weather holds into November, we have a shot at another similar success.

Photos from the early days at Tablas Creek

My dad was cleaning out his desk in Vermont and came across a photo collage that predates the construction of the Tablas Creek winery in 1997.  In the three previous years, we'd rented space at Adelaida Cellars in which we made the wines from the test vineyard we planted with American-sourced clones in 1992.  This was done by us (the partnering families) and mostly by hand, which was a learning experience for me and I'm sure nearly equally for the Perrins who at this point were used to a much larger operation. 

The photos are from, I think, 1996, and feature both of my parents (Robert and Barbara Haas) as well as Jean Pierre Perrin.  It's a great look at the nitty gritty of the work in the cellar, done by the partners themselves before we had hired a winemaker. 

It's amazing to me to think about how far we've come in less than 15 years; yesterday we hosted a vertical tasting of our Esprit de Beaucastel wines from 2000-2008 to an enthusiastic audience of fans.  It really drives home how young the California wine industry is, and gives me great enthusiasm for what we'll be able to accomplish in the upcoming decades.

Decuvage (literally de-tanking) is second only to cleaning the presses in the unpleasantness of the work.  Fun to see my mom hands-on!


Pump-overs are daily (usually twice-daily) rituals with fermenting tanks of red grapes.  We now have catwalks with stairs welded to the tops of our tanks, but I remember well the ladders and the climbing up that we did for years before we got those catwalks.  My dad is on top of the tank below.


Cleaning the press is wet, messy, and loud.  Measuring densities of fermenting juice is a lot more pleasant.


The forklift attachment that lifts and dumps bins into the press was a new invention at the time.  I remember having to arrange for the purchase and export of an early one into France during a stint at Beaucastel in the summer of 1995.  It's still really cool.


Grapes of the Rhone Valley: Viognier

Viognier Viognier (pronounced VEE-ohn-yay) is the most-planted white Rhone varietal in the United States, and produces wines with intense aromatics of peaches, apricots, and violets, as well as viscosity and lushness on the palate. At Tablas Creek, it takes the lead in our Cotes de Tablas Blanc, and has also played a role as a varietal wine, as a contributor to our Roussanne-based Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc, and even as a co-fermentation partner with Syrah.

Early History
Viognier is historically grown in the northern Rhône valley, and reaches its peak in the tiny appellations of Condrieu and Château Grillet. The precise historical origin of the varietal is unknown, but many believe it dates back to the Roman Empire. According to one story, Emperor Probus imported Viognier into Condrieu from Dalmatia (in present-day Croatia) in 281 AD as a means of replacing the vineyards destroyed by Emperor Vespasian. Legend has it that Vespasian tore up the Condrieu vineyards after the locals revolted, a revolt which he attributed to drinking too much of the native wine.

Regardless of how the varietal originally arrived in Condrieu, historical records confirm that Viognier was grown in the area during the Roman Empire. When the Romans were forced out of Gaul in the 5th Century, the vines remained uncultivated for centuries but were revived by locals in the 9th Century. The varietal spread to neighboring Château Grillet, and from there to the papal palace at Avignon in the 14th Century.

Viognier's Decline and Recovery
By the 1960's, Viognier plantings had diminished dramatically, down to an estimated 15 acres in Condrieu and little more elsewhere in the Rhone Valley. But with the growth of interest in varietal wines in the late 1980's, the grape was brought to California, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. There are now nearly 3000 acres of Viognier in California alone, making it by far the most planted white Rhone varietal.

Viognier in California
American growers, led by pioneers such as Calera and Joseph Phelps, brought Viognier into the United States in small quantities in the late 1980s. Almost simultaneously, other American growers brought over what they thought were Roussanne cuttings from the Rhône Valley, which were then propagated and planted in vineyards all over California. Years later, in 1998, those vines were identified as Viognier, not Roussanne – a discovery which added a new Viognier clone for California producers to work with. We contributed two new clones, imported from Château de Beaucastel.

Viognier in the Vineyard and Cellar
Viognier is a reasonably difficult grape to grow, as it is somewhat more prone to disease than other varietals and can be unpredictable in its yield. It is, however, reasonably drought resistant, enabling it to thrive in the dry, hot Paso Robles climate. The varietal flowers and ripens early, and is usually the first varietal harvested in very early September. Because Viognier flowers so early in the season, it is susceptible to spring frosts; the frost-protection fans installed in the Viognier growing block at the vinyeard have been important. The vines have medium-sized leaves, with small clusters of small, deep yellow berries that produce straw-gold colored wines. On the nine acres we had in production in 2008, we harvested approximately 19 tons of Viognier, which is about 15% of our white Rhône production.

We typically ferment Viognier to emphasize its freshness rather than its richness. It naturally ripens with relatively high sugars and low acidity, so we ferment it in stainless steel, and look to blend it with lots that have good minerality, bright acidity and low alcohol. Our most frequent partner for our Viognier is Marsanne, but we also add brighter, leaner lots of Roussanne and Grenache Blanc to make our Cotes de Tablas Blanc each year.

Flavors and Aromas
Viognier's powerful aromas of peaches, apricots, and violets make it one of the world's most recognizable grape varieties. In the mouth, it shows great richness, flavors of stone fruit and honey, and a long finish. It is typically best drunk young.

A photo of the impact of the Santa Lucia Mountains on the Paso Robles climate

In the current weather pattern, it's been foggy on the coast and moderate, sunny and breezy at the vineyard.  Although it's been cool for the last week or so, today's high is supposed to climb back into the upper 80's and get into the 90's this weekend.  At the coast, it's forecast to stay in the lower 60's.  This contrast is one of the most distinctive features of the Paso Robles climate.  The cold Pacific Ocean and the hot California interior vie for influence here, and in a typical weather pattern like this one we have very cool nights, typically in the 50s, and warm, sunny days.

On the way in, I caught a good photo of the impact of the Santa Lucia range on our weather: the coastal fog bank is being held back by the mountains, allowing Paso Robles to warm up and the grapes to ripen!

Fog over santa lucias

Cream of Grilled Asparagus Soup Recipe

Every summer in the Central Coast brings wonderful asparagus to the local farmers' markets.  Unfortunately, asparagus is notoriously difficult on wine, to which it imparts a bitter aftertaste.  Fortunately, grilling the asparagus solves the issue, and pairing it with a wine with a little natural bite to it like our 2008 Vermentino can be wonderful.  

This recipe, provided by Chef Jeff Massey of Stone Brewing World Bistro and Gardens in Escondido, California, was part of a delicious Tablas Creek wine dinner last April and one of my recent summer wine pairing revelations.

Vermentino_2008_bottle Cream of Grilled Asparagus with Prosciutto “Tartare” and Truffle Oil
(serves 6-8)

3 to 3 1/2 pounds fresh asparagus
2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil
6 cups chicken or vegetable stock
2 cloves garlic, whole
½ medium onion, chopped
1 cup heavy whipping cream (more may be needed for a
creamier style soup)
8 ounces prosciutto, thinly sliced
Salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste
Truffle oil


  • Trim the woody ends from the bottom of the asparagus.
  • Place spears in a large mixing bowl with the olive oil and toss to coat. Lightly season with salt and fresh ground pepper.
  • Place the spears evenly on a hot grill; be careful not to burn the spears, but some charring is good. Watch for flare up from the dripping oil. [Note: If you do not have a grill, place the spears on a cookie sheet and roast in a 350 degree oven for 5-10 minutes.]
  • In a large saucepan, combine the stock, garlic and chopped onion with the grilled asparagus. Bring to a boil and simmer until the asparagus is tender.
  • Pour the mixture into a food processor and set the saucepan aside.
  • Blend until it reaches the consistency of puree, then (for the smoothest soup) pass the mixture through a strainer back into the saucepan.
  • Cut the prosciutto slices in half and place in a food processor.
  • Pulse in 3 to 4 second bursts until the meat is finely chopped, then form into one ounce “tartare” meatballs and set aside.
  • Return the stock mixture to a boil and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes to thicken.
  • Stir in the heavy whipping cream, bring the soup back to a boil then remove it from heat.
  • Season with salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste.
  • Place one “tartare” meatball in each bowl and ladle soup into bowls.
  • Drizzle a little truffle oil in each, and serve.

Incidentally, no one should dismiss Stone Brewing World Bistro and Gardens as a typical brew-pub.  Their food is thoughtful and very good, sustainably sourced (the week after I was there they did a dinner where every item was harvested or caught locally and within 24 hours of preparation) and their wine program is nearly as good as their amazing beer list.  Oh, and the beer's pretty terrific too.  The can be found at 1999 Citracado Parkway, Escondido, CA, phoned at 760-471-4999 or visited online at

Beats and Bottling

Now, a media arts major I am not.  However, armed with a Flip camera, iMovie, and an assignment to chronicle the vineyard and winemaking cycle at Tablas, I will be trying my hand at video production over the next year.  These videos will be posted on our blog and our Facebook page and will hopefully give you a feel of what's going on here that isn't possible with still photos and text.  What follows is my first effort. 

The process of bottling, for all of its clanging and repetition, is actually quite cool to see in action.  When the line is running smoothly, it is easy to forget about all the different human and mechanical components that are operating just so in order to produce that result.  Additionally, there is a lot of stress that surrounds a well executed bottling; it would be both depressing and disastrous to have things go awry at this stage in the game.  

Thankfully, everything has run smoothly this week.  The crew is wrapping up six days worth of bottling today and once finished, all of our 2009 whites and 2008 reds will be in bottle.  The video below was shot mid-week and it is footage of our 2009 Esprit Blanc being bottled in half-bottles.  I had some fun putting it together and setting it to music.  I hope it helps illustrate how intricate the process is and some of the rhythm of the work.  

As always, please feel free to leave questions in the comments section, and I hope you enjoy the video.


The appeal of wine in keg... and an appeal to the restaurants who want it

Kegs A few years ago, we received a request from Chef Todd Rushing of the Concentrics Restaurant Group in Atlanta asking if we'd consider bottling... er kegging... one of our wines for him.  It didn't make sense at the time since we were ten months away from bottling, but it got us thinking.  And now, a year and a half later, we've taken the plunge, and put together six kegs of the 2009 Cotes de Tablas Blanc for Concentrics to pour by the glass.  The kegs are sitting in our winery, waiting for transport (right). 

The prospect of fine wine in kegs has been starting to get some press, with recent articles touting the development in the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle and the New York Post, among others.  There are several reasons why serving wine from kegs is appealing from the perspective of both producer and restaurant.  

Since the liquid in the kegs is replaced by a neutral gas (typically carbon dioxide or nitrogen) as it is pumped out, the wine is never exposed to oxygen and the last glass from a keg should be just as fresh as the first was.  Freshness is always an issue with wines by the glass; assuming a restaurant gets five glasses from a typical bottle, how often is that restaurant going to finish the night having emptied their bottle completely?  About one-fifth of the time, by my quick calculation.  The rest of the time, that bottle will sit overnight, oxidizing, and anyone who orders it the next day has a decent chance of being disappointed.

It's easy to complain about the prices that restaurants charge for their by-the-glass wines.  I've done it myself on this blog.  The typical model, by which restaurants charge their cost for each glass of wine, means that if they sell every glass, they can expect a roughly 400% profit.  But it's rare that restaurants actually realize this sort of profit.  Restaurants expect to dump out the remains of most bottles that are less than half full at the end of the night, or any bottle that's been open more than two days.  For restaurants with the largest by-the-glass lists, these costs can be substantial.  For the same reason that kegs preserve freshness, they eliminate waste. 

Wine, moreso than most restaurant purchases, comes with a lot of packaging.  Unlike what you or I might purchase in a grocery store, most restaurants receive their meat, fish and vegetables unpackaged, in bulk.  Same with their drinks: beer comes in kegs, soft drinks in concentrated canisters that will be mixed with carbonated water before service.  Only hard liquor and wine typically comes individually packaged.  And that packaging -- with a bottle, a label, a cork and a capsule for every 750ml of liquid, and a cardboard or wooden box for every dozen bottles -- adds up.  These bottles and cases are thrown out or recycled at the end of each night.  A lot of mess, and a lot of mass, is created in the effort to get this liquid in good shape from the winery to the restaurant's table.  What's more, for wines by the glass, the consumer never even sees the packaging.  Glasses are typically poured behind the bar and arrive at the table package-less.  Kegs solve the waste problem elegantly.  They are emptied and returned to the winery for refilling.

All this packaging does not come free.  The bottles, capsules, labels and corks account for about $19 per case on our least-expensive package (our screw-cap-finished Cotes de Tablas).  Since each 15.5 gallon keg contains the same volume of wine as 6.46 cases, each keg eliminates about $122 in packaging costs.  This savings, as well as the savings from not having wasted wine, can be passed on to customers.  Sure, kegs aren't free.  But since they remain the property of the winery and can be reused almost infinitely, they're an up-front investment rather than a recurring cost.

So, why don't more wineries -- and more restaurants -- use kegs?  Because the technology is so new that it hasn't yet standardized.  Each restaurant group who has installed keg wine has had to design and install their own system, typically some modification of a beer delivery system.  Some rest on their sides, which means that we have to install tubes on the inside that flex down to get the wine at the bottom.  Others are upright.  Some pressurize their kegs to get the product out, others use gravity.  And these differences have meant that wineries can't just put their wine in kegs and wait for orders.  They need to know which restaurant is interesting in which wine, and how much, and then put that in kegs when the rest of the wine is put into bottle.  We bottle each of our wines once a year.  We can't safely store small amounts of wine waiting to see if they will be ordered by keg, and we obviously don't want to un-bottle wine just to put it into keg.  Neither can we easily bottle kegged wine that might for some reason not be used; bottling trucks are expensive to rent and take a long time to set up, and are never going to be practical for lots of 10-50 cases.

But if we knew that all (or most) restaurants used the same sorts of kegs, and could plan to go out and market our wine that way?  We'd probably dedicate a portion of our production of the wines we currently target for by-the-glass business to keg, and then go out and market them.  Wouldn't that be nice?

Of course, kegs won't replace bottles for wines meant to be aged.  Or for high-end wines that will only ever be sold by the bottle.  But for wines by the glass, I can't think of a more appealing development during my time in the wine business.  I hope that in the next few years we'll see a standardization of the kegs and the tapping systems, and can dive seriously into the business of delivering reliable, high-quality wines to the glasses of thirsty restaurant customers everywhere.