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April 2013
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June 2013

We check in on the vineyard's progress at the end of May

The end of May marks the end of our danger of frost and the end of any chance of spring rain.  As such, it is a good time to assess where we are.  Short version: things look good, and we're on track for a solid harvest at a reasonably normal time.  For the long version, read on.


We're toward the end of flowering, with even the latest-flowering grapes (like Mourvedre, pictured above) squarely in the middle of the flowering process.  Flowering has taken place under largely ideal conditions; rain, excessive heat, and strong wind can all impact flower fertilization and lead to shatter, the condition where large number of unpollenated berries leave clusters with an uneven, gap-toothed look.  We've had warm but never hot weather, with May's highs reaching the 50's twice, the 60's twice, the 70's and 80's ten times each, and the 90's six times, but only once topping 95, on May 12th.  It doesn't get much more ideal than that.  Our flowering time is about average, and suggests a harvest beginning the first or second week of September.

Looking back into April, we had only one frost night, on April 16th, the morning that Chelsea Franchi took the photos that illustrated her blog The Beauty of Frost Protection. Most of the vineyard had come out of dormancy by mid-April, but our frost protection was largely effective in staving off serious damage.  We estimate that some 10%-15% of the vineyard was affected, and expect to see some impact on yields in those areas.  Happily, that was the only night where we had frost damage this year, and the four nights in which we had to run our frost prevention systems was one of our lowest totals in recent memory.  The grapes most affected were Grenache and Grenache Blanc (typically among the most frost-prone because of their precocious budbreak) which is a blessing in a way, since these grapes are typically among the highest-yielding and typically need aggressive crop thinning anyway.

We finished the winter's rainy season at just under 15 inches, which is just over half of the 28 inches we'd normally expect.  Coming on the heels of a 17-inch rainfall in the winter of 2011-2012 (roughly 60% of normal) we're now firmly into a drought cycle here in Paso Robles.  The vineyard does not appear to be suffering, at least not yet, but we're keeping an eye on the vines' stress levels and may need to turn our our irrigation lines in a systematic way for the first time since 2009.  If we do, we'll be following the pattern we've used in previous droughts: deep watering once or twice early in the growing season, so as not to encourage root growth at the surface but instead to promote growth deeper, where natural reserves of water are more likely to be found in future years. 

As an indication of the level of drought in the area, Las Tablas Creek never ran steadily this winter (the few hours around our December rainstorms notwithstanding) and Lake Nacimiento, into which this area drains, is at just 44% of capacity.  It's disappointing that after such a promising start (we received nearly 12 inches of rain in November and December) the season ended up so far below average. But we're not worried about the drought affecting quality; looking back we've had two multiple-year drought cycles in the last decade, and the second year of the droughts (2003 and 2008) were both excellent vintages, with yields about average. 

Throughout the winter, we have been moving our animal herd from block to block, leaving them in place roughly a week while they chew down the cover crop and fertilize with their manure.  They covered about 40 acres in between December and mid-April, when we had to move them to unplanted areas to protect the new vine growth.  We've been pleased with the health of the vineyard blocks in which the animals have been kept, though we believe that the most powerful impacts will be felt only in the long term.

Sheep in the vineyard April 2013

Over recent weeks we've been concentrating on getting the cover crop that the animals didn't eat -- and the manure, when they did -- disked and spaded into the soil, both to eliminate competition for the available water and to make sure that the nutrient-rich organic matter is mixed in. And the vineyard looks great, vibrantly healthy, with new growth a spring-like yellow green and solid but not enormous crop levels.  We still expect to do some significant crop thinning through the vineyard, but it doesn't look anything like as heavy as 2012's banner year.  A vineyard view, taken yesterday:

Vineyard in the Setting Sun May 2013

In the cellar we've been finishing up the bottling of the 2011 reds and working on the blending of the 2012's, both red and white. One of the last cases of 2011 Esprit rolled off the line yesterday:

Case of 2011 Esprit rolling off bottling line

The 2012 blends look strong, and it's clear that it was a great year for Roussanne, Syrah and Mourvedre.  The 2012 Esprit Blanc includes our highest percentage of Roussanne ever (75%) and is rich and lush, but structured.  The 2012 Esprit, whose percentages aren't quite finalized yet, is going to include lots of Mourvedre and Syrah, both of which were luscious yet with excellent tannic structure, and relatively little Grenache, which was very pretty but less complex.  It will make a wonderful base for a terrific Cotes de Tablas, and we are also planning on about 800 cases of varietal Grenache, which we're excited about, as well as lesser amounts of varietal Syrah (which will be a knockout) and Mourvedre.  For whites, we were so impressed with our Viognier in 2012 that we have decided to bottle it on its own for the first time since 2006.  We're also continuing with varietal Roussanne and Grenache Blanc bottlings, though with the high percentage of Roussanne in the Esprit Blanc, quantities of varietal Roussanne will be low.

Next up for us in the cellar is getting the 2012 blends made and put into foudre or tank. In the vineyard, we'll be completing the shoot thinning process to make sure that the vines are carrying an appropriate quantity of fruit and that we ensure good air flow through and around the ripening clusters. Then we have a bit of a respite before the crush of harvest.  It will be nice to take a deep breath.

Off with Their Heads: We Graft our Chardonnay to Counoise and Mourvedre

By Levi Glenn

We have been accused of being part of the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) contingent, but that wasn’t true... until now.

Grafting Over - Contrast with Roussanne

Since 2000, we've harvested our two-acre Chardonnay block -- originally used to produce vine material for our grapevine nursery -- and used it to make our Antithesis Chardonnay.  We've always intended to graft that block over to the Rhone varietals that are our focus, and in our management review last year we decided the time had come to increase our acreage in the varieties that butter our bread, so to speak. Chardonnay is a challenge here, and while we're proud of the results we've achieved with this grape, its difficulties are significant. It sprouts so early that it's always subject to spring frosts; we've received a full crop off the block just three times in the fourteen years since it came into production. During the summer, Paso Robles is on the warmest edge of where Chardonnay can grow successfully. The cooler vintages (like the 2011 Antithesis that we just released) show excellent varietal character, the warmer years, we feel, less so. And we will have several new grapes to work with in the next few years from our importation of the full collection of Chateauneuf du Pape grapes. We felt that it was better to focus our attention on these new grapes such as Clairette, Bourboulenc, Picardin, Muscardin, Cinsaut and Terret Noir.

I'm sure some people will be sad at the prospect of Tablas not making our Chardonnay, and we understand that. We've come to love the wine too. But it's a good time to make sure that we're focused on our core mission, and we’re excited to have more Counoise and Mourvedre; each will get an acre of the former Chardonnay block.

The decision to re-graft a vineyard provides us with a couple of advantages over just pulling the whole block out and replanting. The infrastructure that is already in place like wires, posts, stakes, and drip-hose can stay in place, saving us potentially tens of thousands of dollars per acre. A newly planted vineyard would take 3-4 years to start bearing fruit, while a re-grafted vineyard only loses out on one year of production. But most importantly, the new vines take advantage of the old vineyard's root system, giving the vines the benefit of deep root penetration, greater resistance to drought and heat spikes, and the ability to concentrate all the character of the soils into the new grapes.

The process is remarkable to watch, with just a sliver of the new grape variety slipped into wedges sliced into the vine's trunk.  These new buds are then wrapped with tape to hold them in place, and we wait two to three weeks for the two plants' tissues to grow together.  The video below shows the whole, amazing process:

But grafting does have its own risks, especially with older and less healthy vineyards. Cutting off the top of the vine is a traumatic event in a grapevine's life, but grapevines are quite resilient, their inherent vigor showing in the suckers they push from their trunk while the new buds are connecting. The photo below shows a photo taken this afternoon, with the new buds starting to swell (under the white tape) while the trunk of the vine also pushes Chardonnay suckers. We'll rub these off once the new buds start growing.

Grafting Over - Buds Pushing

Having a specialized and experienced grafting crew is crucial to being successful. The best crews guarantee at least a 95% success rate, and from my experience they are often more effective than that. As you saw in the video, they make this look easy, but there is a real art to grafting. Already, a few of these little buds have started to push out their first little shoots, and by this time next year we will see little clusters of Mourvedre and Counoise starting to form.

So what’s the antithesis of Antithesis?

Tablas Creek is a finalist for 2013 Best Winery Blog!

WBA_Finalist_2013We are proud to have been named a finalist for "Best Winery Blog" at the 2013 Wine Blog Awards.  This is the sixth consecutive year we've been honored as a finalist, and we've taken home the trophy twice, in 2008 and 2011.  We'd love to make the 2013 awards a three-peat.

This year's finalists include several past nominees and two former winners, and is I think the strongest field to date. If you aren't reading them, you should: they're all compelling glimpses inside the world of a winery, from vineyard to cellar to market:

It seems an appropriate time to look back at some of my last year's most memorable blog posts. If you missed them, or you're a new visitor to the blog thanks to the recent nomination, it's an admittedly idiosyncratic selection of the posts that resonated most with me, with a brief explanations of why for color.  If you're a regular reader, hopefully you'll find some old friends here.  I am particularly proud that this is our most collaborative effort to date, with great posts by several members of our team supplementing my own work. In chronological order:

  • Seeing red -- and green -- in Santa Fe In which National Sales Manager Darren Delmore stakes his claim as the Hunter S. Thompson of the Tablas Creek blog. If you don't feel like you're in Santa Fe with him, check your pulse.
  • When wine tasting, step away from the carafe The post that got the most echoes this year, with excerpts or links posted on scores of other social media sites and the complete article reprinted in several wine associations' newsletters. Why the buzz? We made some simple experiments that showed that when you rinse your glass with water, the next wine is diluted 7%, with some effects you'd predict and some you might not.
  • Harvest 2012: The End of the Beginning I could have chosen any of Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi's posts; they're all beautifully written and illustrated with her terrific photographs, and give an amazing glimpse into the psyche of the cellar. But this one stood out for how raw it was, reflecting the exhaustion and elation of the end of harvest.  Maybe my favorite post of the year.
  • In which we dig ourselves a hole, on purpose Viticulturist Levi Glenn digs into the results of a soil survey on our new parcel conducted by a Cal Poly class.  If you're a soil junky, or just want to understand some of the complexity of what's there when you get below the topsoil, Levi makes this detailed, complex picture compelling and comprehensible.
  • Is the bloom off the user review site rose? I take a look at the number of reviews we and some other comparable wineries around us have been receiving from Yelp! and TripAdvisor, and come to the conclusion that we're in the middle of an industry-wide slump in review authorship. It was fun to see other wineries chime in on what they were seeing, confirming our suspicions.
  • Surviving consolidation in the wholesale market A preview of a talk I gave to the Unified Grape and Wine Symposium in Sacramento, in which I represented smaller wineries and shared some of the essentials of keeping yourself viable in a crowded, noisy market with an ever-shrinking number of wholesalers and an ever-growing number of wineries.
  • The costs of state alcohol franchise laws  I only put up one post this year focusing on the labrynth of legislation a winery has to navigate to get its wares to market, but it was an important one and will preview, I think, the next frontier of court challenges to state-sponsored restraint of the wine trade.
  • Can I get an ice bucket for my red?  A post I'd been thinking about for a while that also seemed to resonate with audiences, deconstructing the myth that red wines show best at room temperature and whites should be served cold.
  • When Terroir Was a Dirty Word A recent post by my dad that dives into the surprising history of the meaning of terroir.  You may not have realized that as recently as the 1960's, it was a bad thing for a wine to taste of terroir.  I certainly didn't.

As always, the winner will be determined 50% by the votes of the expert panel of judges who culled the nominations to the five finalists, and 50% by the votes of the public.  I encourage you to browse the finalists, and if, at the end, you believe us worthy, we'd be honored to receive your vote (Vote here).  Voting ends this Friday, May 24th.

When Terroir Was a Dirty Word

By Robert Haas

Take a look at this picture of the half-bottle of 2010 Meursault from Thierry and Pascale Matrot that my wife, Barbara and I opened for lunch on our little back patio yesterday.  We enjoyed lunch outdoors because the temperature at noon was 68 degrees, 20 degrees cooler than Monday!

RZH Meursault 2010

Who, only 49 years ago, in Burgundy, would ever have imagined that fine Burgundy wines would be finished in other than cork?  Not me, for sure.  Nor would have Thierry Matrot’s father Pierre or grandfather Joseph.  Matrot’s importer Vineyard Brands tells me that sales in the U.S. have soared since the wine was introduced in screw cap closure. 

The screw cap reads,“Noblesse du Terroir”. Terroir, the difficult-to-translate RZH Jancis 2French noun, has come to mean the cumulative impact on a finished wine of the soil and climate (and some say human) specifics of where the wine's grapes were grown. Wines with terroir are much sought-after and admired by today's growers, wineries and wine writers and critics, and consumers.  The Oxford Companion to Wine, published in 1994 and edited by Jancis Robinson (excerpted right) introduces the subject in four full columns, starting with the displayed paragraphs.  In Robinson's definition, terroir is noble, the underpinning of appellation controlée system and central to the philosophy of wine in the Old World.

Now take a look at the seven-line entry of Frank Schoonmaker, America’s foremost wine expert and author in 1964, about terroir.  His association, rather than the "somewhereness" the wine exhibits, is more of a taste of dirt, neither elegant nor elevated. Look at his description of gout de terroir: "somewhat unpleasant, common, persistent”:

RZH Schoon 2

Why this sea change?  I believe that it has been driven by the influence of new grape plantings in the New World, and particularly in California.  In the old world and particularly France, with thousands of years’ experience, the legislated Appellations Controllées designated the great “terroirs”. But even in the Old World, greatness was traditionally associated with particular vineyards and came only gradually in the second half of the twentieth century to be associated with the environmental conditions that gave those vineyards their specific character.

In California, modern planting and marketing history only dates back to 1933, the end of prohibition.  Early-on, California wines were field blends named after French appellations such as Claret, Burgundy, Chablis, etc., though the wines in the bottle had little or nothing to do with the wines (or even the grapes) traditional in these regions.  As the industry became more sophisticated, higher quality vintners -- led most influentially by Robert Mondavi -- adopted varietal names such as Cabernet-Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Merlot to differentiate themselves from the mostly ordinary field blends. But while varietal labeling offered clarity, more was needed to identify quality wines.  Did they come from growing areas well suited to the grapes in the wine?  Thus began the American Viticultural Area (AVA) designations, and central to the AVA's raison d'etre is the concept that each appellation shares similarities in their soils and climate that gives the wines that are grown there a shared character. 

Of course, the AVA system is based on the models used in France, Italy, Spain, Germany and elsewhere in the traditional wine-growing regions of Europe.  But unlike Old World appellations, American AVA's are not restricted to specific grapes.  It may not be traditional to grow Tempranillo in Napa or Cabernet in Santa Maria, but you're welcome to do so.  The AVA just specifies where the grapes are grown, and it's up to you to make your case for the quality of the end product.  And central to the growing significance of terroir has been wineries' efforts to support their claims to quality by geographic designation.  After all, while Cabernet-Sauvignon could be grown anywhere, there are places where it's better suited than others.  Good “Terroir” implied not just a good place to grow grapes, but a good place to grow specific grapes, resulting in an appealing character of place in the wines produced there. 

Screwcaps share some of this history.  They were first developed in the late 1960's by a French company, popularized by wineries in the New World (Australia and New Zealand deserve most of the credit here) and now have reached sufficient acceptance that they're even being used for noble French terroirs like Meursault. 

Cheers to good ideas, wherever they originate.

Lyricism and the Power of a Great Wine Review

The wine review is a bit of a hoary tradition, much ridiculed among the new generation of wine writers. And I get some of that. Describing which red fruit (Is it raspberry? Currant? Huckleberry?) or what herb (Thyme? Savory? Chervil?) is most evident in a wine can get esoteric, arbitrary, even twee.  And, sure, it's easy to see how someone tasked with writing dozens of reviews each day can fall into patterns which make one wine seem much like another.  As an antidote, Eric Asimov from the New York Times challenged the 2011 Wine Blogger's Conference in his keynote speech to spend the next year not writing a single wine review, instead focusing on why their readers should care about the wine in the first place.

And yet, a great review can bring a wine to life in amazing ways, turning a description of a wine's colors, flavors, aromas and textures into a character sketch that is indelibly individual.  Last week we received such a series of reviews from Nashville, Tennessee-based wine writer Fredric Koeppel on his blog Bigger than Your Head.


I've followed Bigger Than Your Head for several years, since I became aware of Fredric's work thanks to the 2008 Wine Blog Awards, for which he was a finalist in the "Best Wine Review Blog" category (this blog won the much less competitive "Best Winery Blog" category that same year).  Fredric didn't win that year, but did in both 2009 and 2010, deservedly so, and was a finalist in both "Best Wine Review" and "Best Writing on a Wine Blog" the last two years.  What sets his reviews apart from the herd?  There are several aspects, none of which make him unique, but which in total set him among the very top cohort of wine reviewers, for my taste:

  • He values context, and pulls out threads that tie together all the wines, describing as accurately as any article I've seen the style and influence of Tablas Creek's people and place.
  • His writing is precise.  He doesn't recycle the same few descriptors, but brings in evocative flavors one doesn't normally associate with wine (our article included the descriptors "graham cracker", "marsh grass","iodine", "briars", and "spruce").
  • He breaks a wine down into color, aromas, flavors, texture, and finish, and describes each piece sufficiently that you feel you come to know a wine. Of course, this takes a certain freedom from word limits and column inches.
  • He gives a quality judgment, independent from the flavors he describes.  This isn't the omnipresent 100-point scale, nor is it some similar but simplified 20, 10, or 5-point scale.  His quality descriptors are intuitive; the ones used in our wines that he reviewed were "very good+", "excellent" and "exceptional". He's also not afraid to note wines that he does not recommend, which gives him credibility with the ones that he does.
  • He notes value, highlighting wines that punch above their price category.

If you need further convincing to click over to his post, here's one review I particularly loved, that I felt captured our 2010 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc -- a wine I think is the best white we've yet produced -- perfectly. If you don't agree, well, don't go read the rest. But I think you will.

Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc 2010, Paso Robles. 13.5% alc. 2,100 cases. 60% roussanne, 35% grenache blanc, 5% picpoul blanc. Pale straw-gold color; lovely balance and poise, light on its feet with a wonderful well-knit texture with finely-honed acidity and plangent steely, limestone qualities; again, a white wine of shades and degrees of nuance, lightly spiced, delicately fitted with lemon and pear flavors and a hint of apricot; all bound with that spruce-tinged minerality. Excellent. About $40