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March 2013

Photo of the Day: Basking Vulture

One of the pleasures of driving out to Tablas Creek on winter mornings is arriving to see the vulture display. On these chilly but sunny days, vultures pick a high point where they can spread out their wings and soak up the sun, often ending up silhouetted against a deep blue sky. One of their favorite spots is at the top of what we call Mount Mourvedre, the hill behind our winery building.

Like many creatures that are essentially without predators, the vultures let you get fairly close before they flap heavily into the air and glide away. I managed to get within twenty yards of a trio of them this morning, and my favorite photo is the one below, with a vulture observing me amid the pattern of wooden end posts and newly pruned Grenache Blanc vines.

Basking vulture

If you want to see the vulture display, just make plans to come out some chilly morning and look up, above the limestone walls that line our parking area, past the solar panels and all the way up the hillside of Mourvedre vines.  You can't miss them.

We conduct a vertical tasting of Syrah in honor of Paso Robles Syrah Month

It’s Syrah month here in Paso Robles.  At the beginning of the year, the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance launched a “varietal of the month” program that cycles through the major grapes grown here, and are supporting it with a grower blog, a winemaker interview and a new installment of the Paso Wine Man video series:

In celebration, we decided to open up every vintage of varietal Syrah we’ve made, going back to our first-ever varietal red wine: the 2002 Syrah that we made three barrels of for our new wine club back when three barrels was plenty to make it around to all our club members.  Since then, we’ve made a Syrah each year other than 2009 and 2011, when spring frosts cut our Syrah crop sufficiently that we sacrificed the varietal Syrah to protect our blends.

One other element of interest was tracking how the three-year stretch (2005-2007) when we added 10% Grenache to our varietal Syrah changed the wines’ expression.  For all our commitment to blending, at this vantage point at least the group generally preferred the wines we made pure. Our tasting notes:

  • 2002 Syrah (100% Syrah): A dusty, spicy, minty/menthol-elevated nose. In the mouth, it’s mid-weight, with an inky soy-like darkness and a little cedary oak. There’s the classic Syrah creamy texture, and still firm tannins on the end.  A nice showing for this wine, which was more youthful than any of us expected.
  • 2003 Syrah (100% Syrah): A higher-toned, balsamic and meat drippings nose with a chalky minerality showing through. More of the tangy meat drippings on the palate with dark red fruit. Less density than the 2002 but more elegance, and in a very nice place now.
  • 2004 Syrah (100% Syrah): The nose just screams Syrah, with meat, pepper, mint and mineral components. The mouth is juicier than the nose suggests, showing blackberry and pepper and dark chocolate, and black cherry coming out on the finish. Opulent compared to the first two wines, with fruit/acid/structure all in synch. A consensus favorite of the earlier vintages.
  • 2005 Syrah (90% Syrah, 10% Grenache): This began a three-year experiment where we put 10% Grenache into our varietal Syrah. A rich, gamy, wild meat and juniper nose. The mouth is less juicy and more savory than the 2004 with flavors of olive tapenade and meat drippings, and still with big tannins that come out on the finish. My dad noted that the addition of Grenache made it taste more like Tablas Creek but less like Syrah. One to wait on, we agreed.
  • 2006 Syrah (90% Syrah, 10% Grenache): A similar nose to the 2005, focusing on the savory, meaty, balsamic and tapenade-laced nose, but somehow more gentle. The flavors reminded me of the drippings from a garlic and rosemary-rubbed leg of lamb, with additional, and welcome, flavors of blueberry and licorice. Medium-weight and in a very pretty place for drinking now.
  • 2007 Syrah (90% Syrah, 10% Grenache): Less giving on the nose than the previous wines, a little kiersch liqueur note but not much more. The mouth is big, rich and creamy with flavors of milk chocolate and good acids but with massive tannins.  We all thought that there was a ton of potential but that the wine was still so tightly wound that its complexity was still masked by a layer of baby fat and those huge tannins. It did open up with time in the glass, so a decant is suggested if you must open one now.
  • 2008 Syrah (100% Syrah): An inviting nose of pine forest, juniper, and tangy blackberry. The mouth is reminiscent of the 2004, but with an added dramatic saline minerality that I loved and lingering flavors of bacon and blackberries and cream, but firmly dry. The finish is energetic and elegant with a brambly soy note. A consensus favorite among the younger vintages.
  • 2010 Syrah (100% Syrah): A nose unlike any of the previous vintages, inky and foresty, smelling dark and saturated. On the palate, powerful flavors of black licorice, chalk, and bacon, with a creamy blueberry note and a long, berry-laced finish. The palate is terrific but the nose still coming around, which suggests a short-term rest in the cellar.

A few final conclusions. One, that Paso Robles really is a spectacular place for Syrah.  We found a combination of the grape’s classic savory, bacony, blackberry notes with a creamy minerality and acidity that everyone around the table attributed to our limestone soils.  That set the wines apart from many Syrahs made elsewhere in California, and from the great Syrahs that come from Hermitage and Cote Rotie, none of which have limestone and all of which show a lower-acid, lusher profile.  The wines were instead reminiscent of Cornas, the Northern Rhone’s sole limestone-rich red appellation, perhaps a bit less polished than its better-known neighbors just to the north, but with an energy and vibrancy that we all were proud of. 

Two, we generally agreed that we preferred the purer expression the Syrah character in the wines that were 100% Syrah to the more Southern Rhone character of the three vintages where we added 10% Grenache, though those wines were appealing in a different way, with more garrigue and mid-palate texture, and had their proponents as well.  The tasting was a good reminder that relatively small percentages make a significantly difference in the finished expression.

Finally, our favorites were 2004 and 2008 in large part because of how each, in its own way, spoke powerfully of the Syrah grape in all its glory: meaty and minerally and fruity and creamy: the classic flavors that my wife Meghan called “butter in a butcher shop” when she first tasted it out of foudre. They also finish with substantial tannins but don’t come across as blocky or heavy.  I’m expecting a similar evolution with our 2010 Syrah that is going to wine club members next month.  We’re all in for a treat.

Tasting the wines in the spring 2013 VINsider Club shipment

Every six months, we send out a six-bottle shipment of wines to the members of our VINsider Wine Club.  While the fall shipment showcases our signature wines, and includes our Esprit and our Esprit Blanc, the spring shipment is more eclectic, highlighted by the Panoplie, our elite wine made in the image of Beaucastel's iconic Hommage à Jacques Perrin.  Beyond that we include wines we're particularly excited about.  This year, we chose the Cotes de Tablas Blanc from the intense, low-yielding 2011 vintage, the 2012 vintage of our Mourvedre-based estate rosé Dianthus [see here for an explanation of the new name], the 2011 Patelin de Tablas that has been winning fans with its freshness and great value, and two varietal reds from the elegant, mineral-laced 2010 vintage: Grenache and Syrah.

Late this week I opened the wines in the upcoming shipment to write the tasting notes that will be included in the package, and thought that readers of the blog might like an advance peek.  The lineup:

Spring 2013 VINsider Shipment


  • Production Notes: The Cotes de Tablas Blanc is our showcase for the floral, lush fruit of Viognier, but in 2011 our Viognier crop was decimated by frost. The result was a tiny crop with intense flavors, which we balanced with the freshness and minerality of Grenache Blanc, the mineral and melon flavors of Marsanne, and the structure of Roussanne.  This is a uniquely powerful Cotes Blanc, in many ways like a mini-Esprit Blanc. The resulting blend is 27% Viognier, 26% Grenache Blanc, 25% Marsanne and 22% Roussanne, all aged in stainless steel.
  • Tasting notes: A serious nose, minty with stone fruits and honey lurking underneath. The mouth is broad and rich, peaches and cream, but dry, with a very long finish with a hint of tannin, cream, and rocks, nicely saline at the end. Drink now and for the next five years.
  • List Price: $27 VINsider Price: $21.60


  • Production Notes: A new name for our estate rosé, but following our traditional Bandol-style blend of 60% Mourvèdre, 25% Grenache and 15% Counoise. The core of the Dianthus comes from a co-fermented lot from our nursery block, planted in 1994, supplemented by saignées (bleedings) from other Mourvèdre and Grenache lots. We've been backing off on the skin contact on our rosé the last few years, but this is still a deeply colored, flavorful rosé that shows the richness of the classic 2012 vintage. After roughly 36 hours on the skins, the fermentation was completed in stainless steel.
  • Tasting notes: Cranberry in color, with an expressive nose of watermelon rind, rose petals, plum and mineral. The mouth is rich but vibrant, with flavors of wild strawberry, pomegranate, plum and lime, and a long, rich finish that is both fresh and spicy. Drink now through the end of 2014.
  • List Price: $27 VINsider Price: $21.60


  • Production Notes: Patelin is French slang for "neighborhood" and the Patelin de Tablas is our wine sourced from our many great neighborhood Rhone vineyards. We base the wine on the spicy savoriness of Syrah, with Grenache providing juiciness and freshness, Mourvedre structure, and just a dash of Counoise. Fermented in a mix of upright oak fermenters and stainless steel tanks and aged in foudre and stainless steel, it was bottled in June 2012 and aged in bottle to round into its structure.
  • Tasting notes: Aromatic and spicy on the nose, with red raspberry and cherry vieing with pepper spice and a gentle floral character. In the mouth, juicy red and black fruit flavors are highlighted by tangy acidity and a pronounced mineral character, with the finish reverting back to red fruit and spice. Drink now and for the next five to seven years.
  • List Price: $20 VINsider Price: $16

2010 SYRAH

  • Production Notes: Syrah is a cool-loving grape, and thrived in 2010, which was our coolest vintage of the last decade. The result was a harvest about three weeks later than normal, with Syrah picked largely in the last week of September and the first two weeks of October. In the cellar we fermented the Syrah in open-top stainless steel fermenters and upright 1500-gallon oak casks on the skins for an average of ten days before moving the wine to barrel to complete its fermentation. We blended the wine in June 2011 and aged it in a 1200-gallon foudre and a few smaller, neutral barrels, before re-blending and bottling it in May 2012.
  • Tasting notes: The nose shows rich, round and creamy: classic cool-climate "butter in a butcher shop" Syrah, with additional aromas of licorice, white pepper, crushed rock and a little cedary oak.  The initial impression in the mouth is one of freshness, but it packs a punch of flavor with blackberry, creamy minerality, mint and substantial but fine-grained tannins. Hold for 6 months or more, and then drink for another fifteen.
  • List Price: $40 VINsider Price: $32


  • Production Notes: 2010's long hangtime and gradual ripening were excellent for Grenache, as its tendency toward candied red fruit was counteracted by the minerality and freshness from this unusually cool vintage.  Harvested thoughout October and into early November, Grenache was fermented in upright wooden and closed stainless steel fermenters, then moved to neutral barrels, blended in June 2011 and aged in foudre until its bottling in May 2012.
  • Tasting notes: A composed, high-toned nose of mineral, plum compote, and cola.  In the mouth it shows expressive sweet fruit, crushed rock, and wild strawberry, reined in by Grenache's classic front-palate tannins.  The finish opens back up with mouth-watering acidity and savory flavors of watermelon rind and cherry pit. Drink now or for the next fifteen years.
  • List Price: $40 VINsider Price: $32


  • Production Notes: As always, Panoplie is selected from lots chosen in the cellar for their richness, concentration and balance, always heaviest on Mourvedre's rich meatiness and firm structure. Each lot was fermented individually before being selected, blended and moved to foudre to age in July 2011.  The wine was bottled in August 2012 and has been aged in bottle in our cellars since then.  The blend is 60% Mourvèdre, 30% Grenache and 10% Syrah.
  • Tasting notes: On the nose, a wealth of both fruity and savory aromas, including blueberries, plum pit and olive tapenade. The mouth shows a lovely melted licorice character, rich yet tangy, with a saline note characteristic of many 2010's, and a spice note in balance with fruit and mineral components. The finish is long, clean and complex, with beautiful balance. We expect it to drink well for another year or two, then tighten up for a few years before reopening around 2018 and drinking well for two to three decades.
  • List Price: $95 VINsider Price: $76

More details on the shipment, including shipping dates, press on the wines, and information about the spring shipment tasting party on Sunday, April 28th, is available on our VINsider News Page.

Introducing the Dianthus Rosé

Back in 1999, we made the bold decision to add a third wine to the Tablas Creek lineup. To the Blanc (white) and Rouge (red) that we were making, we added a pink wine that we called Rosé.  It was really my mom who deserves the credit for encouraging us to make a rosé at all.  She declared that it was crazy that we were growing these grapes that make such wonderful pink wines in the south of France and not at least making a little to enjoy ourselves.  So, in that 1999 vintage we made two barrels of a rosé from a block of vines in our nursery, whose percentages (51% Mourvedre, 35% Grenache, and 14% Counoise) were the proportions of that co-harvested and co-fermented lot.  We did indeed drink much of it ourselves, but also released a few dozen cases into the local market.

12_DianthusThe next year, we were pleased to get questions from local restaurants and retail shops asking when our Rosé would be coming out. And bit by bit it developed a loyal following.  Robert Parker called it "the finest California rosé" and "amazing stuff".  We sold hundreds of cases by presale in the California market.  We built events around its release in our tasting room.  And our production grew to nearly 1500 cases in the 2010 vintage, and only declined in 2011 because we realized that with the frost-reduced crop if we made 1500 cases of Rosé we'd sacrifice too much red production.

And it wasn't just us. From such modest beginnings many other rosé-loving producers also started making and promoting small productions of dry rosés, and in a decade we saw a wonderful burgeoning of the American rosé movement. No longer are we one of America's only producers of dry rosé; at this March's Rhone Rangers Grand Tasting, rosé lovers will have some 40 different rosés to choose from.

The American rosé market is not the only thing that has gotten more complex in the fourteen years since we made our first two barrels of Rosé. Our own marketing model has grown and morphed. The names Blanc and Rouge are long gone as we have tried to make our names richer and more descriptive, and from the 2012 vintage we'll end up bottling some twenty-five different labels. One of the drivers of this increased diversity is the Patelin de Tablas project. The Patelin wines are sourced from other top Rhone vineyards in Paso Robles, many of which are planted with our own cuttings, and all of which are producing exciting fruit.  We debuted the Patelin de Tablas and Patelin de Tablas Blanc in 2010, and the wines' fresh, approachable style and $20 price found them an enthusiastic audience. 

Last spring, my brother Danny suggested that if we were to produce a Patelin de Tablas Rosé at the same price as our other Patelin wines it would find an equally receptive market.  We'd been toying with the idea anyway, because doing so gave us the chance to work in a different idiom, to make a rosé based on Grenache and with minimal skin contact, in the model of the pale salmon, ethereal Provencal rosés that have driven much of the category's newfound popularity.  I described the process we're using to make the 2012 Patelin de Tablas Rosé in a blog post last September.  It is tasting great, and will be released nationally in April.

The challenge: that with two rosés we couldn't really call one of them simply Rosé unless we wanted to immediately, and continuously, be asked "which rosé?".  So, we started to brainstorm a name that would distinguish our deeper pink -- almost fuchsia -- tones and richer flavors of our Mourvedre-based estate rosé.  Enter Dianthus. Dianthus is a genus of flowering plants known for the deep pink color of their blooms. The family includes 300 different species, including the carnation, and is colloquially referred to in the flower world as "pinks".  Voila.  So, it is our pleasure to introduce the 2012 Dianthus as the successor to our much-loved estate Rosé.  The inaugural vintage will go into bottle week-after-next and be released to our VINsider Wine Club in mid-March as part of one of my favorite shipment lineups ever.  Look for it in our tasting room, and in limited release around the country, in April.

A fertile beginning to 2013

The vineyard is still safely dormant, but our flock is growing. It's lambing season, and we've turned our sheep barn into a nursery.  In the manner of new parents everywhere, I'll share a few baby photos because I can't help but think you'll agree that they're irresistibly cute.

First, we welcomed a little girl we named Molly after soliciting receiving an amazing 176 suggestions on our Facebook page:


Next, a boy we named Luis after Shawn Luis Dugan, who left us a week ago to pursue his love of flying after two years in the tasting room, cellar and, most recently, heading up our animal program:

Shawn with luis

And yesterday, we got twin girls, as yet unnamed:

Twin girls

These sheep will join our grazing herd, which is already hard at work chewing down our cover crop, fertilizing the vineyard block they're in, and mixing everything around with their hooves.  We move the flock around to different acre-and-a-half sections every week or so, and keep them together and safe with a movable, lightweight electric fence.

Meanwhile, if you're coming out to the winery, take a look down at the stone lambing barn just below the winery.  You'll likely see, and definitely hear, one of our new kids. 

Er... lambs.

Photo of the Day: Paso Robles Winter Sunset

This has been a winter of weather blocks. We had a very wet December and a very dry (and cold) January. So far, February looks like more of the same, without much precipitation in the long-term forecast. But despite the dry weather, we've had a couple of days with some high clouds, which is unusual for us. Eiher it's cloudy and wet, or we have clear skies except for low fog that settles in some mornings. This weekend's unusual weather pattern led to a spectacular sunset. I got several worthy photos, but this one was the best. Perhaps even more impressive, it's unmanipulated. The colors really were this intense.

Sunset jan 2013

It may not be the rain we need, but we'll take it.