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September 2012
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November 2012

Harvest continues under ideal conditions, with high quality and above-average yields

The first half of October is typically our busiest stretch of harvest, and 2012 was no exception.  Between October 1st and 15th, we brought in 107 tons off of our estate and another 60 tons of purchased fruit for the Patelin de Tablas line.  That's something like 30% of our expected 550-ton total, in just two weeks.  It was routine for us to be pressing both whites (mostly Roussanne, at this stage) and reds (mostly Syrah and Grenache) then turning around the very same tanks and destemming other reds into them.  You get a sense of the complicated dance involved with the below photo, where we have Grenache in the press and Roussane bins arriving.

Pressing syrah and processing whites

At the end of September, we'd finished picking Viognier, Marsanne and Syrah off our estate, largely finished Grenache Blanc, and gotten a good start on Roussanne. By mid-October we'd finished off the Grenache Blanc, started and finished Picpoul, nearly finished Roussanne, made a lot of progress on Tannat and Grenache, and begun Counoise and Mourvedre.  We paused briefly for the rain on October 12th, which amounted to about a quarter-inch and didn't do much beyond wash some dust off the grapes, and used the couple of days of not harvesting to press off tanks and free up fermentation space in the cellar.

That challenge -- finding space to put the new fruit when most things are full of actively fermenting grapes -- has been the major issue with this harvest.  Most every lot has come in about 20% heavier than our estimates, and the relatively compressed harvest compounds the challenge.  Most red lots need ten days or so on their skins during fermentation, and so if all your fermenters are full of lots that are less than ten days from when they were picked, what do you do?  Whites are less of a challenge, just because they can go straight into barrels if need be, but reds need to go into some sort of tank.  Happily, the weather has not been hot, with the average high temperature between October 1st and 15th just 79 degrees.  Nights dropped into the 40's twelve out of the fifteen days, further keeping progress gradual, and in these benign conditions we've chosen to leave things out in the vineyard an extra day or two rather than pressing lots off a day or two early.

We've also filled our greenhouses with Roussanne and Grenache Blanc to make Vin de Paille [more on the process here].  This traditional method for making sweet wines concentrates the juice and gives the sweetness of late-harvest without the baked flavors. The newly-harvested Roussanne grapes sit on the straw below:


We keep pushing up our yield estimates, and are now thinking that we'll see yields around 3.5 tons per acre across our vineyard, just slightly below what we saw in 2010.  The main difference between the two vintages is that 2010 was an exceptionally cool year, while 2012 has been warmer than average.  This suggests that the character we'll see out of the fruit will be show the lusher yet structured flavors of a warm, higher-production year like 2000 or 2005 more than the minerally, more spice-driven 2006's or 2010's.

With the turn toward cooler weather in early October, it's definitely feeling like fall in the vineyard. The Syrah and Mourvedre vines are starting to turn color, and the lower angle of the sun and the warmer tones of the light are noticeably different than even a month ago. You get a sense from the below photo:

Feels like fall 2012

We're ready for things to wind down, too, and expect to be done with harvest by the end of next week. A September start date and an October end date is what is supposed to happen, but something we've only seen once since 2003.  We couldn't be happier with where we are.

We celebrate the release from quarantine of four new Rhone grapes

By Robert Haas

This week we are filing a petition to recognize Terret Noir, Vaccarese, Picardan, and Bourboulenc for use as grape varietal names on labels in the United States. The petition, ready to go out yesterday afternoon:

TTB petition

In 1990, when Tablas Creek Vineyard was founded, it was our intention to establish a Châteauneuf-du-Pape-like, Rhône-style vineyard and winery in the Paso Robles AVA.  Châteauneuf-du-Pape is famous for planting thirteen grape varieties, although over 70% of the acreage in the appellation is Grenache Noir, and many estates use only the “big three” of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre for their red wines and Clairette and Grenache Blanc for their whites.  Beaucastel is noteworthy for planting and using all thirteen (actually fourteen if you count Grenache Noir and Grenache Blanc as two) approved grape varieties.  We wanted to do all thirteen here, too.  Because some of the thirteen didn’t exist in California, and we had doubts about the quality of those that did exist here, we decided to import cuttings from France and put them through USDA quarantine.

The first imports of cuttings of the major varieties were in 1990, and because the California USDA station was closed, they were brought through the USDA station in Geneva, NY.  Indexing was finished in 1993.  Nursery Manager Dick Hoenisch and I went out to Geneva in wintertime, washed the bare roots of the dormant plants and prepared the FedEx shipment to California. I remember that Geneva winter trip.  There were several feet of snow on the ground and it was freezing cold.  It seemed a long way from grape planting territory.

Those cuttings included Mourvèdre, Grenache Noir, Syrah, Counoise, Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Marsanne, and Picpoul Blanc. All except Counoise, Grenache Blanc and Picpoul had already been recognized varietals in the U.S.  Tablas Creek subsequently successfully petitioned for acceptance of the last three, each of which has proven to have value both in our blends and on its own.

We have always wanted to plant, experiment, and work with all thirteen varieties authorized in the Châteauneuf-du Pape appellation of origin, but at the time we began, the other varieties weren’t available in the French nursery service for us to import, and we felt that taking field cuttings (which would likely be virused) would add a long, unpredictable delay to our launch.  But once we saw how successful the trace varieties in the first wave had been, we decided to move forward.  In 2004, we took cuttings of the remaining unrepresented varieties in a selection massale [field selection] from the Château de Beaucastel vineyard and sent them to (the now operating) Davis station for indexing and for eventual release to us. 

We were right that the vines were likely to have a tortuous process ahead of them.  All tested positive for virus, and had to be cleaned up by the scientists at UC Davis.  We received the first two of these (Terret Noir and Clairette) in 2010 and we just received news that Cinsault, Picardan, Vaccarèse, and Bourboulenc are being released. When we get Muscardin (hopefully in 2014) it will complete the virus-free collection of all the authorized Châteauneuf-du-Pape varietals in the United States.

13 Cepages Poster

What these grapes will do in Paso Robles is a good question.  For a few, there is so little planted in France that there is not much to go on.  But the success we and others in California have had with our other formerly unknown varieties such as Counoise, Grenache Blanc, and Picpoul Blanc makes us hopeful.  Here’s what the literature says:

  • Bourboulenc is a vigorous and late budding white grape, which should be good news in our frequent spring frosts. It ripens late and maintains moderate sugars and good acidity.
  • Picardan is also a late budding white variety that gives a pale colored wine with good acidity.  This grape is one on which there is the least information available; we’ll likely be planting the first new block anywhere in the world in several decades.
  • Terret Noir is one of the Languedoc’s oldest red varieties.  It too buds late, and in southern France brings lightness and freshness to its blends with varietals such as Grenache.  We hope that it will do the same thing in our vineyard.
  • Vaccarèse is a fourth late budding variety that, according to the ampelographer Pierre Galet is said to have an “uncontestable original floral aroma, a fresh and elegant taste, particularly interesting for modifying the alcoholic ardor of the Grenache in the rosé wines of Chusclan and the red wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.”

Before we or anyone else can use the grapes on a wine label, they need to be accepted by the TTB into the lexicon of recognized American grapes.  Cinsault and Clairette are already recognized.  The petition we are sending off this week has assembled the available research for Picardan, Bourboulenc, Terret Noir, and Vaccarèse. 

It will require patience to test our theories.  First, the bud material will have to be multiplied and then grafted.  Then, once the vines are propagated in sufficient quantities, we’ll plant a small block (perhaps a half-acre) of each. We’ll wait three years to get our first crop and vinify each separately.  Only then will we start to see what they’re good for.

We should have the vines’ names recognized in plenty of time.

We finally open the iconic wine that began the Haas-Perrin collaboration

Regular readers of the blog will remember my post from May which detailed the discovery on the incomparable wine list of Bern's Steak House of the first Haas-Perrin collaboration: a 1966 Chateauneuf du Pape under the Pierre Perrin label (pictured below).  If you missed that post, go read it now and we'll wait for you.


OK, welcome back.

I brought that bottle back to California with me, but wanted to wait to open it with my dad, and he spends summers in Vermont and didn't get back until last month.  Then, in the busy harvest season, it took us another month.  But last weekend, we opened it:


Here are our notes: a very pale, orange-amber in color, but clear.  The nose is clearly that of an elderly wine, but in no way flawed: aromas of coffee grounds, orange liqueur, creme de menthe and nutmeg.  The mouth is still very nicely balanced with candied orange peel, forest floor, and a minty heathery note that I often find in old wines. There's something meaty and savory there too... the closest I could come was mincemeat pie, which also suggests the wine's brandyish character. It's not particularly a fruity wine at this stage, but amazingly, with air, some prune and pomegranate comes out.  The finish is clean but short, and leaves only a hint of unsweetened cocoa powder.

My dad's comment was that "it's still honorable... there's still something there." He added that he picked lots -- mostly or perhaps all Syrah -- for their appeal at the time, and fully expected them to be drunk up within the first few years.  He was as amazed as anyone that there's still some of this wine out there to be found.

If you should find yourself at Bern's, it's definitely worth a taste (particularly at Bern's incredibly modest price).  How often, after all, do you have the chance to drink a 46-year-old Chateauneuf du Pape of which there were only 300 cases originally?  But whatever its current state, it's most amazing as a landmark in the history of the American Rhone movement.  Without it, we quite literally wouldn't be here.

When a little harvest rain is no big deal

This week saw the first truly fall-like weather of the year.  And what a relief.  We'd been picking at what felt like full speed for nearly three weeks, under terrific conditions but without a break.  In the first 10 days of October, we brought in an incredible 98 tons of fruit, and with most of our Mourvedre and Counoise and some Grenache still out on the vines have already matched last year's frost-diminished total in two-thirds the days.

More on the overall progress with the 2012 harvest is coming in a blog post early next week.  First, a recap of this week's rain, which was only about a quarter of an inch out at the vineyard, but a full inch in some areas east of town.  It was amazing how fast the storm blew in (and out).  It was sunny in the morning, then around 11am this was the view out our front door:

Rain October 2012

The rain lasted about 20 minutes, hard, and then it blew through.

Rain during harvest can be a problem. If you've had a damp summer and already have mildew or rot starting to manifest themselves in the vineyard, even a small harvest cloudburst can cause an explosion of fungal problems. Or if the rain is followed by days of humidity (especially warm, humid weather) the ever-present spores that cause rot can bloom out of control. But one advantage that we have in California (and Paso Robles in particular) is that wet weather rarely sticks around. An hour later, the same view looked like this:

Rain Cleared October 2012

The positive impacts of a little harvest rain are rarely talked about, but no less real. If you've had a warm fall and are seeing relatively high sugar levels but also higher acidity than you'd like at harvest, a bit of moisture can rehydrate the grapes and bring both sugar and acid levels into better balance. And the vines, typically highly stressed by this point, can react to a bit of water by putting a last burst of energy into ripening their crop. Nearly every year we see the same thing with the last few vineyard blocks that are lagging at the end of harvest. We get a small dose of rain and, if we follow that with a few warm, sunny days, see more ripening in those few days than we may have seen in the two previous weeks of dry weather.

And from a human perspective, having two cool, rainy days where we didn't pick, and a couple of days to follow where the grapes will be reconcentrating, gives our cellar team time to say hello to their families, get a little much-deserved sleep, and assess the progress in the field and in the cellar. That's plenty valuable in its own right.

Seeing red -- and green -- in Santa Fe

By Darren Delmore

Before spending a week in New Mexico for the 22nd annual Santa Fe Wine and Chile Fiesta, I called my gastroenterologist to inquire about getting my esophagus lined with stainless steel. It seemed like the smart thing to do. The residents of New Mexico’s high desert utopia - perched at 7,000 feet – love wine as much as their art and hot peppers, and this four day festival is one of the finest, spiciest celebrations of food and drink in the country. I was going to need some kind of intestinal support network to wage this battle.

After surviving close to a week in that 402-year-old city, I can safely report that Santa Fe is alive and kicking with art, food and music. I learned some fun facts as well: the state dinosaur for starters, that it's the third-largest art mecca in America behind NYC and Los Angeles, the and that when a server asks you “green or red” after you order anything from oatmeal to a Ribeye you should respond with “Christmas”. Although being so far removed from an ocean can be tortuous for me, I hardly even noticed during my week there; I was too busy eating, drinking and taking in the culture.

The opening event of Wine and Chile Fiesta was the invitation only Trade Tasting at the Hotel El Dorado on Wednesday afternoon. I arrived early enough to set up our table and ready the nine Tablas Creek wines I’d be pouring. [A little business -- any accounts in New Mexico interested in Tablas Creek can find us through National Distributing Company.] It was nice to be pouring alongside fellow central coaster Jessica from Zaca Mesa who informed me after a half glass of Ruinart Champagne to mind my altitude. She was right. Something had felt off. Walking up from the parking garage alone had me huffing as if the lungs of Keith Richards were inside me. “Just drink a lot of water,” she added. I had researched restaurants around the city, and as the event filled up I was able to meet a lot of the buyers, managers and staff of wine loving establishments from Santa Fe down to Albuquerque and on up to Taos. A lot of good wineries were in the house. It was going to be a good week.

The fine wine specialist for National, Andrew Jay, recommended that I go have a bite to eat at Café Pasqual’s that night, since they were pouring our Patelin de Tablas by the glass and loved Tablas Creek. I walked into town from my hotel on the north edge of the city and entered the clamoring, legendary eatery. The manager saw my green Tablas Creek bag and introduced herself enthusiastically. The only spot available was in the center of a silent, ten person communal table in the middle of the dining room. I wedged myself in next to four couples and a guy on his iPad. After ordering a glass of Fontsainte Corbieres Rosé and doing that 21st century solitary shuffle of staring into my phone, a huge plate of complimentary roasted red peppers with a wedge of lime materialized before me, and the whole table suddenly had entertainment akin to a gastronomical version of Survivor to bring us all together.

Pascqual's peppers

“You must work here or be really special,” said the Texan next to me.

“You gonna eat all them?” asked the woman on my right. The couple I’d later learn was from South Korea just started at me through their black-rimmed hipster glasses, fully prepared to witness me burst into flames.

“Those aren’t bad,” the Texan consoled me. “Those are sweet ones. You’re all right.”

Thankfully they were. And delicious at that. I had a caramelized onion and poppy seed tart and “Albondigas de Pigolo con Adobolo” afterward, which are meatballs of bison and pork. A spicy mole dish tore up the woman to my right and she sent it away swiftly. “I’m beyond done,” she said, and didn’t utter another word all night. This was hot culinary terrain here. Tourists were going down by the minute!

Thursday was mostly a day to explore and absorb some Santa Fe culture. After some internet research I headed to Garcia Street Books just south of the river, which had a well-chosen selection of the authors I was looking for. Next door was a newsstand/café called Downtown Subscription, which is highly recommended for not only its brew but also the relaxed patio space in back to while away a lazy morning or afternoon. I checked out some of the galleries a block down from there, and a woman at Manitou Galleries that had a really stunning show going for painter B.C. Nowlin steered me toward the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, which was a great decision.

There was a forty-five minute wait for lunch at The Shed, which I spent browsing through the wine shop at La Casa Sena. I salivated over a 3-liter of 2009 Hommage a Jacques Perrin and their expansive selection of Ridge.


My restaurant pager went off as I checked out with a half bottle of 2005 Turkey Flat Barossa Valley Shiraz. The patio at The Shed was still crowded so I was led by the host to a deep secret room built in adherence to the local overhead clearance of five foot four. In fact an older gentleman was pacing by his table in there and grabbed the host, demanding to be relocated due to claustrophobia. He was freaking out and I couldn’t blame him. I failed the “green or red” test by asking my server for the mildest salsa on my enchiladas. The food was only on the verge of devil spice, which was just what I needed.

From 4:30 to 6:30 there was a soirée’ at the Governor’s Mansion for all the participating wineries at Santa Fe Wine and Chile. This was a chance to relax a bit and taste through everyone else’s chosen wine selection. I met France’s “Whispering Angel” who was there in a blue sport coat cinched at the neck with a little pink sweater representing his magnums of rosé de Provence wines. The Tablas Creek selection being poured by an array of sommeliers and restaurant wine directors was the 2011 Rosé, which was the perfect choice for the heat of the day. The hot desert sun was scorching the bottles of red wine. Nothing like having a glass of 90-degree Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon.

TerrasunsetI cut up through a quintessential orange-pink New Mexican landscape to the Four Seasons Rancho Encantado. Word traveled my way about a prix fixe dinner their restaurant Terra was doing all week, with four courses paired with Tablas Creek wines. After a commanding sunset (right) I sampled two of the courses and their chef blew me away with his Green Chile Cioppino and 2011 Patelin de Tablas Blanc pairing: an innovative and thoughtful food and wine combination that really brought out the spice of the wine's Grenache Blanc component. Rhone whites are often a surprisingly good pairing with spicy food, which tends to fight with oak and can make high-acid wines taste shrill. The cioppino:


Out of all the days at this festival, Friday was my busiest. Tablas Creek and chef Fernando Olea were being paired up on the outskirts of town at world famous artist Allan Houser’s sculpture garden and residence. I could’ve driven myself later in the morning but opted to get on the bus with everyone else and get the full experience. I’m glad I did. His work, carved out of limestone, granite, bronze and other organic materials was full of grace and soul. As was the luncheon that the amiable Fernando Olea put together to pair with the 2011 Rosé and our two new Esprit de Beaucastel wines. There’s a first time for everything in life, and grasshoppers paired with a Mourvedre-based rosé was certainly new to everybody in attendance.


With a bus full of snoring passengers, we returned just in time for me to down an espresso and set up for the Reserve tasting at the El Dorado. This event was far more crowded than the trade tasting, as the attendees were an equal mix of industry and general public. Tablas Creek donated a ten vintage vertical of Esprit de Beaucastel Rouge for the auction. Wines were flowing fast. A small, exhausted group of us met up for dinner at La Casa Sena afterward, where the wine list is as thick as a Tom Wolfe novel. We drank a 2009 Domaine Weinbach Grand Cru Gewürztraminer. I had the Wagyu steak with it, which might show just how mentally debilitated I was from the succession of the day’s events.

Saturday was the grand tasting at the Santa Fe Opera with over 5,000 in attendance. I parked and walked down to the Flea Market beforehand, expecting to find locally-crafted art and jewelry made from indigenous gems and stones but instead found rugs and clothing from South Korea. I hoofed it up through the opera grounds to the series of event tents and found the Tablas Creek table. It was already packed an hour before starting time. Manny Guerra from Vineyard Brands came over for a glass of Rosé and the heads up that he had the 2009 Chateau de Beaucastel open two tents down and that I’d better come over now if I wanted a glass of it. I was getting the vibe that the crowd waiting behind the roped-off entrance was there to party. Thankfully over 75 restaurants were sprinkled about with plenty of food to keep things agreeable. 1 to 4 pm was the busiest blur of my lifetime. I poured both Patelin de Tablas wines, Rosé and Esprit de Beaucastel to the merry masses, at times with a bottle in each hand. I couldn’t believe how well organized and managed such a big tasting event could be. No wonder this was the 22nd annual.  

At nightfall with a full harvest moon over New Mexico, I was in a quiet, off-Broadway part of the city, sitting in the Second Street Brewery watching one of New Mexico’s best singer-songwriters playing a set with his trio, drinking a stout and giving the spicy food one more try. The nachos, complete with Christmas, were crushing me with its spice and acids, and again the native chile won the dusty battle against this Californian wineslinger

Harvest photo of the day: Ripening Mourvedre

By the onset of October, the vines are starting to show signs of stress. This is not typically a bad thing; this stress triggers an internal mechanism that pushes a plant to ripen its fruit so it can reproduce. And the outward signs can be beautiful, including fall-like colors on the leaves.  Mourvedre is typically one of the varieties that shows stress most overtly at the end of the ripening cycle (as opposed to, say, Grenache, which stays green and growing until frost). I snapped this photo of ripening Mourvedre clusters in the head-trained vineyard block out in front of the winery this week. It's a good reminder that for all the summer-like weather we've had the past few days, the vines do know fall is coming. Meanwhile, we'll enjoy the show.

Head-pruned Mourvedre Oct 2012

Harvest update: perfect ripening conditions dominate late September, but we see signs of fall

The second half of September continued to point our way toward a productive, top-notch harvest.  Asking for cool (but not cold) nights and warm (but not hot) days, and ample sunshine, is almost a cliche in wine country, but that's exactly what we got, providing excellent ripening conditions and little additional stress on the vineyard.  For grapes like the Grenache vines below, sheltering under their canopy of leaves, it is just what the doctor orders.

Grenache on scruffy hill 1

Late September is a critical period where heat spikes or unusually cold weather can have a disproportionate impact on the quality of the finished wines as so many of the varieties are ready or nearly ready to harvest.  Fortunately, we saw some of our most regular weather of the year: two straight weeks of days topping out in the 80s or low 90s and dropping down into the 40s or 50s at night.  While every day made it into the 80s, we hit 95 just once.  And while every night dropped at least to 55, we dropped below 45 only once.  A graph tells the tale:

September 2012 Temp Chart

It's becoming clearer that yields are going to be fairly good, at least for the grapes outside of Mourvedre and Roussanne.  Of the four grapes that we've finished, only Vermentino, of which we have more acres in production, has surpassed the totals that we harvested in 2010, while Viognier, Syrah and Marsanne are below 2010's totals but above what we harvested in both 2009 and 2011.  That impression is borne out by the measurements; for those three grapes, we've picked 2.77 tons per acre we have planted.

In those two weeks, in addition to completing our estate harvest of Syrah, Viognier, and Vermentino, we've begun and finished our Marsanne, brought in a good chunk of our Grenache Blanc, some more Roussanne, and our first Grenache Noir.  You can see how clean and pretty the fruit looks in the below photo, of one of the first Grenache Blanc bins to arrive in the cellar:

Grenache Blanc in bins Sept 2012

For Patelin, we have brought in the rest of the Syrah, a good chunk of Roussanne and our small plot of Marsanne, and even gotten a start on Grenache Noir -- some for the Patelin red, but mostly for the new Patelin Rosé.  Overall, including the Patelin lots, we've brought in just over 260 tons, which puts us squarely at the midpoint of what we expect.  On October 1st, that's just where we want to be.

Looking forward, we're in the middle of what's forecast to be a brief warm-up (3 days around or just over 100) before the current high pressure breaks down and we see some significant cooling and, maybe, by next weekend, even some clouds and our first chance at some light rain.  We're not worried about it, but it's a reminder that however summer-like it seems now, with the equinox behind us we're not that far away from fall.