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October 2010

Harvest, weeks of September 20 & 27: A warm start to fall and a slow start to the harvest

After our cool summer, the warm weather that began about a week ago has been most welcome.  And although it's been extreme in parts of Southern California (113 in Los Angeles, anyone?) it's just a normal September heat wave here.  We did get up to 104 yesterday, but only 101 the day before and 90s for the previous week.  One more very hot day today, and then it's supposed to moderate into a more normal warm fall weather pattern with highs in the low 90s and lows in the upper 40s.

We've withstood the heat without any significant stress on the vineyard.  This is one reason why having a dry-farmed vineyard, particularly coming off a wet year, is so valuable.  The vines' roots have penetrated so deep in search of water that hot temperatures at the surface have much less impact.  Just driving around local vineyards shows vineyard after irrigated vineyard that looks much worse than it did a week ago: exhausted vines, leaves turning brown, clusters starting to raisin.

The first two weeks of harvest have seen exclusively whites come in.  We've brought in about 6 tons of Vermentino, 8 tons of Viognier, and 5 tons of Grenache Blanc.  So, only 20 tons or so (about 6% of our expected total tonnage) in the first two weeks (about 20% of our expected harvest duration).  It is normal for us to see this sort of leisurely start to harvest, where we pick a few blocks, wait a few days, pick a few more, and wait some more.  Typically, about two weeks after the first grapes come in, we're in the thick of it. 

This year looks similar.  With the recent heat, we've seen a nice increase in the sugar levels of the vineyard, but still maintained the good acids that have characterized this moderate vintage.  It looks like several vineyard blocks are getting close, including Syrah, Marsanne, and much more of all the varieties that we've started picking. With so much nearly ready, Neil, Ryan and Chelsea are keeping a master list of what's getting close and working through it block by block.

In addition to a few more tons of Viognier, we did get our first red into the cellar today: Pinot Noir from the 2.5 acre vineyard around my parents' house in Templeton.  It's cooler there than it is at Tablas (often 10 degrees or more) and so when they were deciding what to plant they decided on the cool-loving Pinot Noir.  We've been watching the vines mature over the past three years, and got our first small (1.04 ton) harvest off the block this morning.  The clusters looked great, tiny and flavorful, and they're fermenting in a macro-bin in the winery.


It's almost a tease to start with so little red.  The cellar smells different when you have reds in, both deeper and fruitier, and of course we have a different suite of equipment out, including sorting table and destemmer, ladders and punch-down tools.  We're all ready for the reds to come in in earnest.  It shouldn't be long now.

One last photo, of the bin of Pinot Noir stems and the fork we use to move them around.  The smell of the Pinot juice was pretty amazing.  Can't wait for Syrah.

Stems and fork

Five great events for food & wine lovers

I'm currently looking out at the adobes of Santa Fe, on a beautiful fall day.  I'm in town for the Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta, an annual celebration of the culinary traditions of one of the best food towns in America.  This is one event that we come to every year, even this year when we're cutting back on our event participation to conserve wine and save money while we weather our three low production vintages of 2007, 2008 and 2009.  I was thinking a little about what made this event different from the dozens (hundreds?) of wine festivals in cities and towns across the country, and decided that it was the way that this event integrates the restaurants in the area with the big wine tastings.  It's not just a wine festival.  It's not a food show.  It's a great place to come to learn, to share, and to celebrate great wine, great food, and the synergy that they create when they come together.

With that in mind, here are my choices for five great annual events for food and wine lovers.  These are the ones that we do every year, that I look forward to personally, and that I'd recommend unconditionally to anyone considering going.  I've put them in the order in which they occur on the calendar.

Texashillcountry Texas Hill Country Food & Wine Festival
When: early April
Where: Austin, TX
Why it's great: You're in Texas's hill country in April, which is almost always a beautiful time of year.  Austin has an amazing culinary scene, less well known than its amazing music scene but just as cool, offbeat and appreciated.  There are seminars, tastings, lunches and dinners, and the grand tasting attracts several thousand enthusiasts to a field a half-hour outside town.
One cool, unique thing: Come a week early and enjoy South by Southwest, one of the country's top independent music festivals that takes place in Austin in late March.
Learn more: or 512.249.6300

HdR_Lunch Hospice du Rhone
When: early May
Where: Paso Robles, CA
Why it's great: It manages to be both intensely academic and lighthearted, serious about wine without being serious about itself.  Producers of Rhone varieties from around the world (think France, Australia, Spain, South Africa, California and Washington, at a start) convene in Paso Robles in early May.  The seminar topics are always interesting and explored in depth, and the fact that nearly everyone has to travel to get there means that the attendees become a community by the end of the event.  My favorite portion of the event are the lunches, where because of the open seating you can find yourself at a table with the wine editor from Wine & Spirits, two distributor managers from New York, a restaurateur from Scottsdale, two winemakers from Priorat and three fanatical consumers from Chicago.
One cool, unique thing: It has to be the Rhone and Bowl, where you get to see teams of winemakers and enthusiasts from around the world compete at the uniquely American pastime of bowling, lubricated by too many bottles of unreal Rhones.
Learn more: or 805.784.9543

Sfwc_logo Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta
When: late September
Where: Santa Fe, NM
Why it's great: More than any festival I do, it gets full buy-in from nearly all the great restaurants in its back yard.  The many great restaurants of Santa Fe all participate in wine dinners and lunches during the four-day event, and each of them has a booth at the grand tasting where they vie with each other to make truly memorable dishes.  Anyone who leaves the grand tasting unimpressed by the culinary vitality of the town of Santa Fe needs to be checked for a pulse.
One cool, unique thing: Each Wine & Chile, the presenting wineries, chefs and sponsors are invited to the governor's mansion, where we get to mingle with Bill Richardson and look down over the town.
Learn more: or 505.438.8060

CtC_image Celebrate the Craft
When: Late October/Early November (this year: October 30, 2010)
Where: Lodge at Torrey Pines, Del Mar, CA
Why it's great: The creation of the Lodge at Torrey Pines' executive chef Jeff Jackson, it's a thank you from him to the many farmers and winemakers he works with each year.  We have been fortunate to be one of only a dozen wineries invited each of the last five years, and the afternoon that we spend on the grass outside the Lodge, surrounded by some of the best artisan organic farmers in California and watching golfers make their way around one of the country's most revered golf courses, is always memorable.  The event is open to the public but rarely crowded, and the people who come get an amazing opportunity to speak with the people who make some of the best foods and wines in California.
One cool, unique thing: The Lodge puts on a suppliers-only dinner, family-style, that evening, where winemakers and farmers are interspersed at long tables on their patio and enjoying food and wines that other participants have provided.
Learn more: or 858.777.6635

Vintners_holidays Yosemite Vintners Holidays
When: November-early December (our session this year: November 16-18, 2010)
Where: Ahwahnee Hotel, Yosemite, CA
Why it's great: The Vintners Holidays, hosted at Yosemite Park's historic Ahwahnee Hotel, are now in their 29th year.  The program consists of eight different three-days sessions throughout November and early December.  Four wineries are invited to each session, and each winery presents a seminar and participates in a meet-the-winemakers reception and a four-course grand dinner in the Ahwahnee's amazing dining room where each winery pairs a wine with one course.  The sessions attract upwards of 200 participants to each, and attendees get a chance to spend some concentrated time with the producers and (likely) their families in a way no other event allows. 
One cool, unique thing: Who wouldn't want to be in Yosemite in November, when no one else is there and you have the trails to yourself? The food and wine (which is always terrific) is just an added bonus.
Learn more: or 801.559.4884

A great idea by the Rhone Rangers: Pneumonia's Last Syrah

Most of you are probably aware that Syrah faces a challenging marketplace. Even articles complimentary about Syrahs (as nearly all of them are) feel compelled to begin with a story about how hard they are to sell. A recent article by Eric Asimov in the New York Times began "There’s a joke going around West Coast wine circles: What’s the difference between a case of syrah and a case of pneumonia? You can get rid of the pneumonia."

How did we get here?  The theories are many, but my own opinion is that there was such a rapid increase in planting that it was inevitable that demand would lag compared to supply.  In the 1990's, California Syrah acreage saw an enormous leap, based on guesses that Syrah was going to be the next big thing.  In 1992, there were 867 acres of Syrah planted in California, 0.7% of the total red grape acreage.  By 2000, that had increased to 12,699 acres, of which nearly half we non-bearing because they'd been planted in the last three years.  In 2000, Syrah accounted for 4.6% of red grape acreage, an absolute increase of over 1400% and a percentage increase of 657%.  Much of this planting was speculative, and much of it in areas such as the hot San Joaquin valley that in retrospect seem like long shots ever to have produced great wine from cool-loving Syrah.  With all that Syrah coming onto the market, more or less at the same time in the early 2000's, how can anyone be surprised that the public (who, after all, hadn't been clamoring for Syrah in the first place) wasn't ready?  Syrah, in its native home in the Rhone, makes comparatively little wine.  Cote-Rotie and Hermitage, where Syrah reaches its peak, are both small appellations, and the entire northern Rhone is much smaller, and produces much less wine, than Burgundy or Bordeaux.  The public's embrace of this great grape was certainly complicated by confusion surrounding competing styles (Hot climate and jammy?  Cool climate and spicy?) and name confusion (Syrah?  Shiraz?) but I think that given the incredible speculative planting it would have been an almost impossible marketing challenge even without these confounding factors.

So, what to do?  I used to think that as a Rhone producer like Tablas Creek, or as a marketing organization like the Rhone Rangers (on whose board I've served for the past six years) the best thing to do was to ignore the sales issues and focus on the grape's positive characteristics in the hopes that demand would naturally grow to meet supply.  But I think that time has passed.  When mainstream articles about Syrah (which is, after all, as widely planted in California as all other Rhone varietals combined) lead with anecdotes about how hard they are to sell, it's time for more deliberate action.  And Asimov's article started a chain of events that we Rhone Rangers hope may help turn around Syrah's fortunes.

Asimov’s article spurred a blog on Huffington Post by Dr. Orin Levine, Executive Director of the International Vaccine Access Center at Johns Hopkins Hospital.  Dr Levine, who is one of the world's leading experts on pneumonia and also a wine lover, posted a challenge to Syrah producers and retailers to both promote their Syrah and help eradicate pneumonia by donating $10 of each case of Syrah sold to consumers in November 2010 to pneumonia vaccine dissemination. Why $10? That’s the cost to produce and administer one dose of vaccine. Why pneumonia? It’s the leading cause of death in children worldwide, and is totally preventable.  Why November?  November 12th is World Pneumonia Day.

About a month ago, the Rhone Rangers marketing committee (on which I do not serve, although I have been an enthusiastic supporter) worked out Pneumonia's Last Syrah: a joint program between Rhone Rangers, IVAC and the GAVI Alliance, a unique public/private partnership that since its launch in 2000 has funded the immunization of more than 250 million children.  As a part of Pneumonia's Last Syrah, participating wineries will contribute to GAVI $10.00 for each case of Syrah sold to consumers in November.  GAVI will be using its immense public relations muscle to publicize this agreement and promote the wineries who participate, and the Rhone Rangers will be promoting the agreement actively within the wine world.

PLS Tablas Creek will be participating in the Pneumonia’s Last Syrah kickoff: a Syrah reception and photography exhibit -- on the faces of pneumonia around the world -- that will be held Monday evening at the New York Times building.  The kickoff will feature brief talks by experts on Syrah and on pneumonia, including Eric Asimov, Dr. Orin Levine, Dr. Thomas R. Frieden (the executive director of the CDC) and, representing Rhone Rangers, my dad.  Twelve Rhone Rangers wineries, including such icons in the American Syrah movement as Bonny Doon, Qupe, Terre Rouge and Zaca Mesa, will be pouring Syrahs.  We're expecting around 300 people at the event, and have received RSVP's from journalists representing the Wine Spectator, Bloomberg News, Food & Wine, among others.  Anyone in New York who is interested in going (it's free) can find more information here or by clicking on the image to the right.

For all its challenges, Syrah has amazing fans within the wine trade and wine lovers, and it's been interesting to see what the enthusiasm of the response since I started publicizing Tablas Creek's participation.  The original intent of the promotion was to spur direct sales, but I found that when I announced Tablas Creek's participation in Monday's event to our New York mailing list, I received three quick messages back from restaurants asking if we'd extend the donation to wholesale sales if they poured our Syrah by the glass for the month.  I also heard from writers, customers, and our distributor all sharing their support, and wanting to be a part of the program.  So, I think we're on to something.

The Rhone Rangers has created a Web page for the Pneumonia's Last Syrah campaign.  They also have a page with a complete list of participating wineries.  And, for the first time in a while, I'm hopeful about Syrah's prospects in the market.  It seems to me at least possible that this can reframe the debate on Syrah more productively, should spur direct sales, and seems to have the sort of hook that could even get mainstream media coverage.  It couldn't happen to a more deserving grape.

Notes from the Cellar: Harvest 2010 Begins! (AKA Fruit and Football; It Must be Fall)

By Chelsea Magnusson

Experts claim that the (official) first day of autumn is September 22nd.  Typically, I hate to disagree with expert opinion, but my first day of fall was yesterday.  Supporting evidence includes the fact that Sundays and Mondays are now spent watching football, but the primary reason for my autumnal confusion is that we brought in our first pick of fruit yesterday.  For me, that’s fall. 

Vermentino was given the red-carpet treatment yesterday as bin after bin was harvested, unloaded from the vineyard truck, weighed, and pressed.  The feeling of excitement was palpable as everyone settled into their harvest roles. 

IMG_7815 IMG_7802
The fruit is harvested by hand and unloaded onto a trailer that will deliver the fruit to the winery

A full bin of fruit ready to go to the winery.

We’ve been waiting at the ready for the last two weeks, drumming our fingers in anticipation for the 2010 harvest to begin.  Everything had been scrubbed, rinsed, pressure washed, polished, organized… and then, it sat.  Finally, Ryan decided he had spent enough time waiting and set out with a mission to find something that was ready to pick.  Sure enough, he found a block of Vermentino that showed a brix (or sugar) reading of 21.0°.  While that may seem awfully low, it’s just right for Vermentino.  We typically harvest this varietal around 21-22°Brix to maintain its characteristic vibrancy, brightness, and playful acidity.  For a point of reference, we tend to harvest whites between 21-24°B and reds anywhere from 22-26°B.  It’s important to keep in mind that a decision to pick is based not just on the brix level of the grapes, but on three main things: the sugar reading, the pH level, and the total acidity.  Together, these three elements determine the ripeness of the berry.

Today, we’re harvesting Viognier.  It may be a slow start, but it’s nice to have some practice getting back into the swing of things.  Since our fall has begun, we’ll be seeing bins of fruit in our sleep.  And on Sunday night, I’ll be watching the Giants play the Colts.  Holy smokes, do I love fall…

The vineyard truck takes its first load of fruit to the winery to be processed.

An updated weather assessment for the 2010 vintage

In late July, I wrote the blog post Refreshingly... brisk? An assessment of the unusual weather of summer 2010 in which I looked at the accumulated weather data for the vintage up to that point, and found that it fell most similar to the 1999 and 2005 vintages, both cool years but neither exceptionally so.  It was, at that point, quite a bit warmer than 1998, our coolest year on record.  My evaluation was that the vintage was a couple of weeks behind, and my (perhaps optimistic) post on veraison a week or so later adjusted that to maybe as little as a week behind normal.

So, why haven't we started harvest yet?  And why have we still not completed veraison in mid-September?  The answer can be found in comparing the weather since late July with that of past cool years.  In 1998, 1999, and 2005, the weather in August and September heated up considerably.  Take a look at the degree day chart from July 25th, followed by today's:

Weather through july 2010

Weather through september 2010

You'll note that at Tablas Creek, the average year accumulated about 1000 degree days between July 24th and September 15th.  The cooler years were similar, with 1998 accumulating 1148 degree days, 1999 accumulating 840 degree days, and 2005 accumulating 990 degree days.  As for 2010, we've added 839 degree days in that period, the least of any year on the chart.

What has kept the temperatures low?  Persistent onshore flow, which draws the cool air over the Pacific Ocean inland and moderates the warmth of the sun and the inland valleys.  We're in a weather pattern now that feels more like late October than it does like mid-September.  It's beautiful during the day (mid-80's, typically) and downright cold at night.  Night before last bottomed out at 39 degrees, and last night was only a few degrees warmer. 

Are we worried?  A bit.  The last year that saw a similarly cool August (1999) was a drought year, with very low crop levels.  We were never worried about getting our fruit ripe before the rain.  The last two wet years (2005 and 2006) saw very warm August/September periods.  So, we're in somewhat uncharted territory.  But the vineyard looks vibrantly healthy, and the numbers are continuing to move.  There is no el nino forecast for this winter, so we're hopeful we won't see unusually early rain.  And all the work that we've done in getting the vineyard in good shape this year means that the vines are going to continue to photosynthesize and ripen their grapes later in the season than otherwise.  But we're also taking steps to protect ourselves.  We've spent the last week or so going through the vineyard thinning out any clusters in Grenache, Counoise and Mourvedre that weren't through veraison.  This will lighten the load on the vines and should accelerate the ripening of the remaining clusters. 

We have one additional element in our favor.  Our location is relatively shielded from ocean influence, despite our position at the far west of the Paso Robles AVA, because of the unbroken height of the Santa Lucia range to our west.  The photo below, taken last week looking west from the middle of the vineyard, shows the Santa Lucia Mountains holding back the coastal fog.  They keep us sunny even as other parts of coastal California sit in the gloom.

Clouds over santa lucias

Our best guess at this point is that we'll start to see a little trickling of some whites (Viognier, Vermentino, and Chardonnay) at the end of this week and next week.  We're not expecting much in the way of reds before October, and are thinking that we're likely to see only Syrah in the first half of October.  The second half of October will be challenging, to say the least.  Still, after another week or so of weather more or less what we are seeing now, it's forecast to warm up. Hopefully, the heat will stick around for a while.  Fingers crossed, please.

An update on construction: photos of a space taking shape

It's been wild watching a new building take shape outside our windows over the past two months.  As regular readers know (my dad posted in June about our pending construction) we're adding 8,000 square feet onto our winery building, incorporating more office space, a new fermentation room, a new room for our foudres, and a new tasting room nestled between the two new cellar spaces with big waist-to-ceiling windows looking into both.

What's been unusual is that the building will eventually be contiguous with our current office and cellar spaces, and so we've had an up close view of the work.  The photo below gives you a sense of the sometimes alarming proximity:

Heavy equipment

The sequence of events began with several weeks of earth work, excavating and flattening the area that would sit underneath the new construction.  About two months ago, we could see the first signs of the building itself: lines painted on the ground that indicated footing walls and drainage pipes:


The next stages involved digging trenches and pouring concrete for footings:

Footer_0001   Concrete_block_0001

Then there was another pause while less-visible work took place: the layout, trenching and covering of conduits for drains, water, electricity and telecommunications.  Once all that was in place, they poured the floors for the tasting room and office spaces:


The concrete for the fermentation and foudre rooms was more complex because of the drains in the floors and the exact slopes that the floors had to follow.  The drains were installed at the time of the first concrete pouring about a week ago, but the cellar floors weren't poured until yesterday.  Two photos taken from the same location show the change:

Concrete_tr_0003   Foudre_construction_0002

A close-up view of the drains that will be in the foudre room shows the slope.  The foudres will sit back-to-back, with the front row facing left toward what will be the tasting room and the back row facing right toward the back wall of the room. 


We've also been excavating what will be the parking area.  We love that our visitors will be parking so close to the vineyard, encircled by a block of head-pruned Mourvedre vines and our solar panels:


To give you a better idea of the layout of the space, I will leave you with the site plan.  You can see the existing building, the new space, the parking area inside the vines (the solar panels are off-screen to the top) and, perhaps most excitingly, the cascade of patios running down the hill from the tasting room toward the south, which should give great spaces to sit, relax and enjoy a glass of Tablas Creek with friends.


Tasting the Fall 2010 "Collector's Edition" Wines

Last fall, we debuted the VINsider Wine Club Collector's Edition.  Members of this wine club get three bottles of older vintages of Esprit de Beaucastel and Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc each fall (as well as a few more bottles of the newest Esprit and Esprit Blanc) in addition to their club shipment.  They also have the opportunity to buy a little more.  The club has been a great success from the beginning, and we've maxed our our capacity each of the last two years.  Our membership is now up to about 450 people.

Collector's Edition members will receive the 2004 Esprit de Beaucastel and the 2006 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc this fall.  These wines were ones that showed beautifully in recent vertical tastings, both at stages where some of the primary flavors of youth had matured into deeper, more complex tones, but which should still provide another decade or more of good drinking.  I thought it would be fun to share the tasting notes from our recent tastings.

06 Esprit Blanc Bottle Shot ESPRIT DE BEAUCASTEL BLANC 2006

  • Production Notes: Above-average winter rains and a cool spring got 2006 off to a wet and late start. A moderate summer followed, and the resulting harvest was delayed but unhurried, with beautiful weather persisting into November. Wines showed notable elegance, pure flavors, medium body and comparatively lower alcohol levels. The 2006 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc featured 65% Roussanne, primarily from neutral barrels, at its core. 30% Grenache Blanc provides roundness and distinctive anise aromatics, and 5% Picpoul Blanc adds bright acids that emphasize the wine's mineral and saline characteristics. The wine was blended in April 2007 and bottled in June 2007.
  • 2010 Tasting Notes: The color at age four is youthful: a clear pale gold with a hint of green. The nose shows more savory than fruity, with notes of mineral, saline, honey and menthol. The mouth is rich and warm, with flavors of lanolin, rose petal, new boards and sweet spices. It feels both seamless and – despite its intensity – weightless. On the lingering finish, the wine has both brighter lemon and darker butterscotch flavors. It would love rich food like crab, lobster, or ginger pork, and should drink well for at least the next three years and likely much longer.
  • Quantity Produced: 1800 cases
  • Library Price: $45 VINsider Price: $36

Esprit04_lores ESPRIT DE BEAUCASTEL 2004

  • Production Notes: 2004 was our third consecutive drought year, marked by low yields, a warm spring and very early flowering. A fairly mild summer morphed into a late-August heat wave, with much of the harvest completed by mid-September. The fall weather cooled down, and we waited a long time for Mourvèdre, suspending harvest for two weeks after a mid-October rainstorm. For the 2004 Esprit de Beaucastel, we balanced the relatively high proportion (50%) of Mourvèdre with 27% Syrah for color, black fruit, and mineral, 17% Grenache for freshness, warmth, and sweet spice, and 6% Counoise for openness. The wine was blended in August 2005, aged in foudre and bottled in July 2006.
  • 2010 Tasting Notes: The first impression is decidedly Old World, with a deep, dark nose of laquered wood, rosemary, spiced plum and cloves. As it sits in the glass, more fruit emerges with cherry, black raspberry and gingerbread spice. The palate shows beautiful balance, with flavors of roasted meat, mineral, fig, pomegranate, black cherry and crushed rock. It’s a very pure and self-assured wine; Francoise Perrin called it a “vin carré”: literally a “square wine”. It has a long finish of plum, herbs and mineral. The wine is at the beginning of what should be a wonderful decade-long maturity. Try it with a rack of lamb.
  • Quantity Produced: 3250 cases
  • Library Price: $60 VINsider Price: $48

The Collector's Edition is full for 2010, but anyone who is interested can read more on our Web site, and can get onto the waiting list for 2011.  We expect to be able to add another 150 or so members next year, and we'll take them off the waiting list in the order in which we receive their requests.

Finally, anyone who missed the notes on the other wines in the fall 2010 wine club shipment can find them here.