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December 2012

A Flash in the Pan

By Darren Delmore

The mood on Election Night was as tense as a cold vintage Condrieu inside the dank, red velvet-lined interiors of Bern's Steakhouse in Tampa, Florida. Home of the largest private wine collection of the world and any cow’s worst nightmare, the windowless, carnivorous version of a Disneyland for adults had plenty of men and women in “I Voted” stickered-suits clinging onto wine stems and Republican dreams. “Don’t you worry,” said a permed older woman with shoulder pads in line with a Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ uniform, “it’s still early, and we’re gonna get our country back tonight.”

I quietly sipped on a 2007 Jean Luc Colombo Terre Brulees Cornas while I waited for Irishman Freddy Matson of Vineyard Brands and the chief wine buyer for Whole Foods and his wife to turn up for what was set to be an encyclopedic evening of older wines. I was alone in my bearded, short sleeved, California persuasion and had just stepped off the plane. The bartender allowed me to linger over the by-the-glass list which had mostly current release wines and yet a double take-inducing Chateauneuf-du Pape from 1975 for $14.75 and a 1986 Gigondas for 5 bucks. On the last gamey, sedimentary sip I caught the white, glimmering rock-and-roller curls of Freddy in the back with two others, and he was waving in my direction.

After introductions we were seated at a back booth in the bar and greeted by the sommelier Eric Renaud who is the envy of many master sommeliers by having the luxury of working with one of the oldest, most famous and random wine inventories on the planet. The wines and beef variations flowed for the next four hours, all at Eric’s recommendation.

Wine # 1: 1971 “Les Beaux Monts” Vosne-Romanee

Bern's cork
A cigar of a cork from the 1971 Les Beaux Monts 

Wine #2: Mid-1960’s left bank Bordeaux (with pristine color but the Chateau's name escapes me)

Wine # 3: 1981 Jaboulet Hermitage La Chappelle

Wine # 4 1989 Domaine Henri Gouges Les Pruliers Nuits St. Georges (my favorite)

Wine # 5 1976 Beerenauslese in the dessert room.

After the euphoric experience and a tour of the dank cellars, we parted company. I noticed that the bar was like a ghost town by ten pm. Had the election gone a different direction I imagine the place would’ve smelled of cigars and vintage Napa Valley Cabernet and been raging at full capacity.

 *    *    * 

The last time I was in Florida I was 13 years old and Disney World was the focus. This time around I was working the Gulf Coast territory, visiting restaurants and wine retailers and pouring the current releases of Tablas Creek to wine buyers. With Freddy as my guide and six different Tablas Creek wines open for tasting, we crossed various bodies of alligator-infested waters from Sarasota to St. Petersburg, and Tampa to Naples to show our stuff. The wind was coming from the north all week so humidity was low and the temps were crisp and warm. The businesses we visited varied from Whole Foods Markets to independent wine shops/bars, and modern-hipster restaurants to Nixon-era relics. I was blown away by a few funky old school restaurants, like Bern’s, that were packing surprisingly deep and consumer-friendly bottle lists. One such restaurant was Bob Heilman’s Beachcomber in Clearwater Beach. This place was out of the 1970’s for sure, had a massive dining room and surf and turf concept going on, with merely a two page wine list full of 1980’s and 1990’s Champagne, Burgundy and Rhone at prices that never changed since release. All in a place where most customers probably drank gimlets, Napa Cabernet or White Zinfandel more than anything else! 

On my second night in Florida, Tablas Creek was the featured winery at the cool new restaurant in downtown Sarasota called State Street Eating House and Cocktails.

State Street kitchen
Tablas Creek night at State Street Eating House

Not only did the lead singer of AC/DC turn up to taste through our white wines (he loved the 2009 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc), but a packed house thoroughly enjoyed chef Christian’s pairings, which included Alligator Ribs matched with Patelin de Tablas Rouge. Freddy ordered a gator platter afterwards and lumped a fat one onto my salad. I ventured a bite and a local guy named Kyle leaned over and asked me “Do you actually like that, man?”

“I’m guessing you don’t eat this stuff,” I said.

He widened his eyes like we were insane.

Farm Raised Gator and Patelin de Tablas Rouge!

Freddy had me booked to do a couple in store tastings at various Whole Foods Markets over the next two days. The first one was in Sarasota right by the bus depot which is a fairly new store. The buyer David introduced himself and helped me set up the table full of both Patelin Blanc and Rouge. Turns out he is from San Francisco. I’d never worked one of these tastings before, but it entails engaging wine browsers and cheese department-bound customers to stop by for a couple free tastes in hopes that they tuck a bottle into their cart or basket to go. A hobbling, fragrant, trenchcoat-adorned man on a wooden cane and with about as many teeth as my 3 month old son was our first guest of the day, and it took me ‘til his second taste to realize he had no cart or basket at all. He waxed poetically about the wine being better than “any French wine anywhere” and took my card and told me he wanted to come visit the estate sometime before moving on. A similarly fashioned woman with a mustache turned up next and David swiftly intervened and told me not to give her any more alcohol and that they kick her out of the store daily. Some Tablas Creek fans materialized next and took four bottles of Patelin red with them. Another young mother packed away two bottles of the white. A group of grommets rocked up – one in a Viking helmet and another in face paint – and I carded them before pouring them the wines. When all was said and done we sold about a case and a half, and even better, the buyer David was able to try the wines and loved them. 

Pat blanc whole foods
2011 Patelin de Tablas Blanc @ Whole Foods Sarasota

The Whole Foods in-store tasting in Tampa was a whole other demographic and story. Whereas the Sarasota tasting was on a Friday evening, Tampa’s newest Whole Foods (opened November 1st) had me pour on Saturday from 11-1:30 and it was packed. Patelin de Tablas Rouge swiftly sold out. I hope to do more of these tastings at various Whole Foods Markets in the future.

*    *    *

The culmination of my Floridian five day run was the Stone Crab Food and Wine Festival at the Longboat Key Club in Longboat, FL. The event organizers set us up in probably the most amazing setting at the best time of the day for a wine and food event.

Sunset   Photo[1]

I poured along with 20 other wineries at sunset as guests ate the first delivery of stone crab while a classical quintet performed on the center stage. We were positioned next to Robert Kacher Selections which wasn’t a bad place to be, since Bobby brought along nothing but White Burgundy to a crab festival. Patz and Hall and King Estate had some great wines out as well.

Stone crab
The season's first delivery of Stone Crab in Longboat, Florida

With a flight leaving Tampa at 6 am the next morning, I wisely left Freddy Matson at a hotel room after party and called it a night. I’ll be back in Florida at the end of January for the Forks and Corks festival in Sarasota and few other Tablas Creek related events, so check back on our events section for the emerging details.    

What a difference two weeks makes

Two weeks ago, I posted a series of autumn foliage pics, one of which is below:

Foliage - Early November

I walked back past that spot yesterday, on an ultimately fruitless quest to take some good sunset pictures. I was stunned by how much more fall-like the vineyard felt after two weeks that included a few days of rain and several nights below freezing.  The new view:

Foliage - Late November

November is a month of dramatic transitions in the vineyard, as the grapevines go dormant for winter and the cover crop starts to sprout after our first significant rainfall.  In two more weeks, I expect to see a faint carpet of green between the rows.

It's obvious that the rainfall is necessary for the next year's vigor of the grapevines.  It's perhaps less obvious that the frosty weather is also important.  Grapevines are deciduous plants, that evolved in a part of the world where warm to hot summers were broken by winters that regularly saw below-freezing temperatures.  The frosts kill off any active growth, forcing the vines to conserve energy in their roots for the next year.  In climates where winter freezes are rare, vines can expend valuable energy on pointless growth in fall and winter, and have less vigor for the following spring.  So while we may lament the loss of the colors of autumn, the transition to the subtler browns and greens of winter is a natural and necessary part of the annual cycle.

Harvest 2012: The End of the Beginning

By Chelsea Franchi

And so it appears, just like that, harvest is over and it is time for a season-end wrap up.  While I wish I could tell you there was a wonderful celebration as the last cluster was ceremoniously placed in the last tank, I can't.  Because that would be a lie.  Instead, harvest finished the same way it always does, taking a quiet bow and exiting the cellar while we were all too busy to notice.  To be perfectly honest, I'm shocked anyone here would trust me to put anything in print, insofar as my brain, along with everything it controls, is very, very tired.


We have processed countless clusters of fruit, pumped-over, punched-down and pulse-aired every fermenting tank of red twice a day, every day until it was ready to be shoveled out, pressed off and barreled down.  We have spent far more time at work with each other than we have spent with our significant others.  We have overplayed and worn out all of our favorite albums, playlists, and Pandora stations.  I can speak only for myself when I say that my house is a mess and I have a horrible feeling that getting back in to the gym is going to be ugly when it comes to cardio (however, I have been doing a bit of strength training in the form of shoveling fruit out of tanks).  I have gulped tepid coffee, fought off colds and ignored the fact that I REALLY need to find my way into a salon to get my roots touched up and my ends trimmed (we're being honest here, yes?)

But here's the thing: it was all worth it.  We have thousands of gallons of wine both fermenting and resting in cellar now.  Whites are beginning to get topped up, we only have two lots of reds that still need pressing off and almost every single barrel in the cellar is full.  While the color we have been seeing this year is a touch lighter than it has been the last few years, the flavors and aromatics we're dealing with are on a whole new plane.  The reds in particular (perhaps just because we are more familiar with them at this point) have been showing themselves as dynamic, full and more floral than in vintages past.  And there is a lot of it.  Blending this year should be wonderfully challenging as we have so many strong and diverse lots at our fingertips.  I'm already excited for the next step when we haven't even finished this one, and that's a pretty good feeling.

Some of the scenes that stuck in my head from this harvest:

Draining a tank of Counoise to prepare for pressing

VintageBarrelWinemaker Ryan Hebert filling barrels

Grenache going off to bed, so to speak

Pink towels (our favorite) covering fermenting tanks of wine

A bird's eye view of the cellar, mid harvest

Lastly, what the vineyard looks like now, shut down for the coming winter

While the pre-harvest blog was quite a bit more buoyant than this one, it is a true reflection on how we operate here in the cellar.  We eagerly anticipate the next step in the process, always thrilled with what is to come.  And then, after we have worked our tails off, we're exhausted.  The singular driving force that keeps us going is always that "next thing".  And, really, what you might think of as the "end" of harvest is just the end of the beginning.  It's still early in those grapes' path to the wine you'll taste in bottle in, oh, two or three years.  So here's to the next stage in the process.  If it goes as well as the last two months, we'll all be happy.

A custom pair of lees-spattered jeans

When wine tasting, step away from the carafe

I spent most of the last week on the road, making stops in New York, Portland, and Seattle.  At each stop, I found myself confronted with tasters whose first action upon reaching my table was to pour water into their tasting glasses so as to rinse out whatever was in the their glass and start "fresh".  I've always hated this practice, since at best, you dilute the wine, and at worst you change its flavors, often dramatically, with chlorine or other minerals that were in the water.  So when I got back to the vineyard this week I asked Winemaker Ryan Hebert if he could figure out how much the residual water left in a glass after a rinse actually dilutes the wine you pour in.  It's more than you'd think.


To answer the question, Ryan mimicked what we typically see at tastings: where a taster pours water into a glass, swirls it around a bit, and then dumps it, holding it upside down for about a second.  That's pretty much normal; some people are more rigorous and shake their glass to the extent that I worry the stem will snap, while others don't even empty the water fully.  Then, he measured the difference in the wine's alcohol levels with and without the water.  What he found was that in a one-ounce pour, the alcohol level is reduced by 6.9% thanks to the water in the glass.  That means that to your ounce (29.6 ml) of wine you've added 2.1 ml of water, diluting a wine that is 13.5% alcohol nearly a full percent to 12.6% and weakening all the other flavors similarly.  Calculated another way, we would get the same effect by pouring roughly eleven gallons of water into each ton of grapes.

Do you think that this impacts the taste?  You bet.  And it impacts the texture more, thinning out a wine and shortening its finish.  This all happens even with distilled water, which is free of mineral content.  Using mineral water, filtered water, or tap water can have even more unpredictable effects.  We tried the same experiment with filtered water and found that the high mineral content dropped the amount of malic acid in our sample (the 2011 Picpoul Blanc) from 0.21 grams per liter to 0.08 grams per liter, presumably because the acids in the wine bonded with the basic particles in the mineral-rich water.  And I've seen people rinse with water that was so chlorinated that I can't imagine the wine tasting remotely like it was intended.

So, what should you do at a wine tasting?  First, don't feel that you need to rinse at all, unless you're trying to get an unusually strong flavor out of your glass, or you're moving back from red to white.  Remember that most wine tastes -- and is structured, from a chemical standpoint -- a lot more like most other wines than it does like water, so the little bit of Chardonnay you have in your glass is going to impact your next taste of Syrah much less than an equivalent amount of water would.  And if necessary, try to rinse your glass out with a little of the wine that you'll be putting into it next.  It doesn't take much, and the winery representative who's pouring the wine will likely be pleased that you care enough to taste the wine properly.  You'll make your pourer even happier if you make it clear in advance that you'd like a rinse... it's always sad when you present a full pour of a scarce wine just to see the taster swirl it around, dump it out, and hold their empty glass back out at you.

Harvest 2012 concludes, and we couldn't be happier

We finished the 2012 harvest yesterday, with the last "clean-up" pick, where we go back through the late-ripening blocks where we left the clusters that weren't quite ready on our previous time through.  Typically, these pickings are a little ugly, with fruit not in the best condition, and there are times when they don't make it into our estate wines.  But this year, even this final pick came in looking great and with nice numbers.  This is a fitting summation of the 2012 harvest: consistently high quality from beginning to end, and across all the varieties we grow.  With the last of the year's roughly 750 red bins on the sorting table, Jake Miller, Tyler Elwell, Levi Glenn and Charlie Chester smile up over the last bin of Grenache:

Last bin of grenache 2012

The final yields look very much like those from 2010, a little higher on the whites and a little lower on the reds, much more than they resemble the frost-diminished 2011 or 2009 vintages. By varietal:

Grape 2010 Yields (tons) 2012 Yields (tons) % Change
Viognier 22.5 21.2 -5.8%
Marsanne 13.2
Grenache Blanc* 34.8
Picpoul Blanc 9.4
Vermentino* 19.1
Total Whites 132.9
Grenache 71.1
Syrah 47.7
Mourvedre* 69.3
Tannat 14.5
Counoise 16.8
Total Reds 219.4
Total 352.3
* denotes varieties with increased acreage since 2010

The yields per acre are actually a touch lower than 2010 (about 3.4 tons/acre instead of 3.5) as we brought about 6 additional acres into full production in the last two years, divided more or less evenly between Vermentino, Grenache Blanc and Mourvedre.  Looking variety by variety, two changes seem to demand some explanation.  The increase in Roussanne comes because some (maybe as much as a quarter) of our Roussanne didn't make it in the cool, damp, late 2010 vintage and was lost to rot.  That was the only variety to be so affected in 2010.  And the decline in the Mourvedre harvest this year seems to me attributable to the sunburn that afflicted Mourvedre disproportionately in the two weeks of heat in early August.  Mourvedre tends to be relatively light in canopy, and can therefore be damaged by sunburn more easily than leafier varieties.  Based on how similar other grapes were to their 2010 numbers, that suggests we lost something like 20% of our Mourvedre harvest, or roughly 12 tons, to that heat.

We target yields between 3 and 3.5 tons per acre as the sweet spot for expression of place.  Too much more than that and you compromise your intensity.  Too much less and the wines can be so dense that they express the fruit and structure more than the soil.  Of course, we take what we get; our yields in 2011 were about 2.3 tons per acre.

Sugar levels at harvest did climb a bit from the lows we saw in 2011, but are still on the lower side of what we've seen historically.  This is consistent with our belief that older vines produce full flavors at lower sugar levels than young vines do.  Our average Brix at harvest since 2007:

2007: 24.42 avg. Brix
2008: 23.87 avg. Brix
2009: 23.42 avg. Brix
2010: 22.68 avg. Brix
2011: 22.39 avg. Brix
2012: 22.83 avg. Brix

Delving deeper into the sugar levels, the average sugars at harvest of our principal varieties this year were:

Counoise: 22.8
Grenache Noir: 24.3
Grenache Blanc: 21.7
Marsanne: 18.7
Mourvèdre: 23.3
Picpoul Blanc: 22.6
Roussanne: 22.3
Syrah: 24.2
Tannat: 23.7
Vermentino: 20.9
Viognier: 21.3

The pH at harvest was healthy, averaging 3.65pH.  For some context, our average pH at harvest since 2007 has been:

2007: 3.67 pH
2008: 3.64 pH
2009: 3.69 pH
2010: 3.51 pH
2011: 3.50 pH
2012: 3.65 pH

In duration, the harvest was somewhat short compared to usual, taking 55 days between the beginning (September 5th) and the end (October 31st).  By contrast, 2011's harvest took 51 days, 2010 took 59 days, 2009 took 64 days, 2008 took 58 days and 2007 took 66 days.

The quality of the fruit looks tremendous, and the lots we harvested in early Sepetmber already tasting good: luscious yet with balance.  We'll learn a lot more over coming weeks as the later-ripening lots finish fermentation and start becoming tasteable, but we're happy with what we're seeing. 

For the next couple of weeks we'll enjoy the aromas of the last of our lots fermenting in the cellar, and our winemaking team of Neil Collins, Ryan Hebert and Chelsea Magnusson will be start the long process of evaluating what we've got and starting to piece together the first blends.  But that's all in the future, and for now, we'll join the cellar and vineyard team (from left, below: Tyler Elwell, Gustavo Prieto, the back of Jake Miller's head, Ryan Hebert, David Maduena, and Charlie Chester) and celebrate:

End of 2012 harvest - vineyard

Autumn Foliage, Paso Robles Style

I grew up with Vermont's riot of foliage and foliage-watchers each October.  California's trees may not burst into flame colors each autumn, but there is about a two-week window, at the end of harvest and before frost, when the grapevines do.  Different varieties show different signatures, some tending more toward yellows or browns, and others, most notably Syrah, Tannat and Mourvedre, showing orange and red.  While out getting some shots of the last day of harvest (more on that in the next post) I couldn't help but take some foliage shots.  The best of them are below.  First, a view looking over our head-trained Tannat block that shows the characteristic yellow-green rows of Grenache Blanc (left) and the more colorful oranges and reds of Syrah (right):


Closer up, the rows of Syrah in the afternoon sun really do look like they're aflame:


Even closer, you can see the different colors even within a single Syrah leaf:


Tannat leaves are different, on the browner side of red, but no less striking:


Finally, one more shot of that Grenache Blanc/Syrah hillside, this time over the characteristic pale yellow of Roussanne:


These colors are everywhere in Paso Robles wine country right now.  But with the first frost, or the first big rain, they'll be gone, so enjoy them while you can.