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October 2013

Celebrating 11 New AVA's in Paso Robles

At long last, nearly seven years after it was submitted to the TTB (the Tax and Trade Bureau -- the office of the federal government that oversees wine regulation) we received news this week that the petition from the Paso Robles wine community to establish eleven American Viticultural Areas (AVA's) within the current Paso Robles AVA has been published for comments.  This is the critical step called a "notice of proposed rulemaking" at which the TTB (tasked, among its many other responsibilities, with protecting the public from misleading or confusing information about wine) has reviewed all the geological, climatological and historical information presented in the petitions and determined that they pass muster.  It doesn't mean that the region can start using them on wine labels this week, but it's an important validation of the proposed AVA's and boundaries, and the last step before final approval.  The map, as published for review, is below.  Click on the image for a larger version or here for the official PDF: 

Paso Proposed AVA Map

Over the next 120 days, interested parties (which, in this case, means pretty much anyone) can submit a comment at the TTB Web site in support of or in opposition to the plan.  I'm hopeful that with all the hard science that went into the petitions, and the broad cross-section of the Paso Robles wine community that was involved in their submission, approval will be relatively straightforward.  The Paso Robles AVA Committee included 59 different grower and winery members -- including Tablas Creek -- from every one of the proposed AVA's. 

For the Paso Robles region, the publication for review of our AVA petition is an important and necessary milestone. Paso Robles is currently the largest un-subdivided AVA within California at approximately 614,000 acres. By contrast, the Napa Valley appellation (which includes sixteen AVA's delineated within its bounds) is roughly one-third the area at 225,000 acres. When the Paso Robles AVA was first proposed and approved back in 1983 it contained only five bonded wineries and less than 5000 planted acres of vineyard.  Big swaths of the AVA, including the area out near us, were largely untouched by grapevines.  In the last thirty years, Paso Robles has grown to encompass some 280 wineries and 32,000 vineyard acres.  This vineyard acreage is spread over a sprawling district roughly 42 miles east to west and 32 miles north to south.  Average rainfall varies from more than 30 inches a year in extreme western sections (like where Tablas Creek is) to less than 10 inches in areas farther east.  Elevations range from 700 feet to more than 2400 feet.  Soils differ dramatically in different parts of the AVA, from the highly calcareous hills out near us to sand, loam and alluvial soils in the Estrella River basin.  The warmest parts of the AVA accumulate roughly 20% more heat (measured by growing degree degree days) than the coolest; the average year-to-date degree days in the Templeton Gap since 1997 is 2498, while in Shandon far out east it's 2956.  This difference in temperatures is enough to make the cooler parts of the AVA a Winkler Region II in the commonly used scale of heat summation developed at UC Davis, while the warmest sections are a Winkler Region IV.  This is the equivalent difference between regions like Bordeaux or Alsace (both Winkler II areas) and Jumilla or Priorat (both Winkler IV areas). 

[A quick aside. The southern Rhone is classified as a Winkler III region... and the fact that our proposed Adelaida District is a transitional Winkler II/III jibes with our experience that the same grapes ripen here slightly later than they do at Beaucastel.]

Our region's diversity was well noted in the TTB's ruling.  In addition to the longhand descriptions of each region's soils, climate and topography, the TTB included side-by-side comparative charts -- unique, in my experience of AVA approvals -- that detailed why each new AVA was worthy of being distinguished from its neighbors.  I can't imagine anyone reading these petitions and concluding that there wasn't grounds for subdivision.

All this is not to say that Paso Robles doesn't share some important factors, and one important hurdle that the petitions had to clear was demonstrating that the region enjoyed sufficient macro-level similarity to remain an AVA.  The TTB's ruling recognized several characteristics that the entire region shares, including the 40-50 degree diurnal temperature variation, the relatively warm climate with limited incursion of marine air, and the moderate rainfall, less than the slopes of the coastal mountains but more than the arid Central Valley to our east. 

The AVA system is so powerful exactly because it has the flexibility to recognize macro-level similarities as well as important micro-level distinctiveness.  Think of France: that Burgundy shares overarching characteristics doesn't mean it's of no value to distinguish Chambertin from Meursault, or Chassagne-Montrachet from Volnay.  The appellation system, at its best, gives consumers both a broad-level understanding of what grapes will grow best and what character they should expect from the region's soils and climate. 

One risk in the creation of new AVA's within an existing one is that the existing AVA -- into the marketing of which the local wineries have invested enormous amounts of time and money -- will lose much of its significance as many wineries abandon that appellation name to make a name for their new, smaller one.  Happily, Paso Robles won't lose its identity -- or the accumulated marketing capital we've all built over the last three decades -- thanks to a conjunctive labeling law passed by the California assembly with the encouragement of the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance in 2007. Conjunctive labeling means that wineries who choose to use one of the new AVA's will also be required to use "Paso Robles" as significantly.  This law was modeled on one passed for the Napa Valley in 1990 that has been widely credited with helping maintain Napa as the most powerful brand in American wine. 

The continued presence of Paso Robles on wine labels does not diminish the impact of having the different AVA's approved. These new AVA's will be a powerful tool for wineries to explain why certain grapes are particularly well suited to certain parts of the appellation, and why some wines show the characteristics they do while other wines, from the same or similar grapes, show differently. Ultimately, the new AVA's will allow these newly created sub-regions to develop identities for themselves with a clarity impossible in a single large AVA.

It's worth pointing out that no one needs to use the new AVA's.  Wineries who wish to continue to use only the Paso Robles AVA are welcome to.  And many will likely choose to do so as the new AVA's build their reputation in the market.  Not all the AVA's have a critical mass of established wineries, and it seems likely that a handful of the new AVA's will receive market recognition first, while the reputation of others will take time to build.  But I believe that it will be several of the currently less-developed areas that will benefit most in the long term, through the ability to identify successful winemaking models and build an identity of their own.  We shall see; having a newly recognized AVA is not a guarantee of market success, just a chance to make a name for yourself.  The cream will rise to the top, and consumers will benefit.


Celebrating summer's end, locally (and a delicious pasta with lobster and fresh corn recipe)

By Robert Haas

Our California kids, Jason and Meghan, and our grandchildren Eli and Sebastian, and our Vermont kids, Rebecca and Tom, and our grandson Emmett, who live here, convened together here in Chester for the two weeks in advance of Labor Day.  We were graced by some of the best weather of the summer, and Vermont is rarely so accommodating, or beautiful, as it is in late August:

RZH - House from Becca's

RZH - duty listWith a minimum of nine and often with friends we were regularly numerous at the table. Cooking for a bunch for lunch and dinner (breakfasts are on one’s own) can become a chore, so it has been our family’s practice to schedule culinary tasks to all the family in rotation, as you can see from the chart that Jason did (right).  It includes headings and teams assigned to set, cook, clear/wash, and play with Emmett.  And Riley, as in "life of", which grants whoever has this assignment leave to relax before, during and after the meal without feeling guilty.

Diversity of cuisine and beverages is always a consideration.  Fortunately, good suppliers are nearby and an abundance of produce from the garden is available.  This time we did rack of Colorado lamb from the Village Butcher in Woodstock, roast local chicken, New York strip steaks from the Londonderry Butcher Block, and great Maine lobsters from Bill Austin's Lobster Pound, which we served with fresh local corn over pasta (recipe below).  The stay was also studded with cookouts and wiener roasts, complete with campfires and s’mores.

Besides Arnold Palmers and Lemonades (and good Vermont well water), there were, of course many bottles of fermented beverages consumed, both as aperitifs and with meals.   Samples of some of those are pictured:

RZH - bottles on porch

What fun tasting and sampling such diversity of type, style and origin: artisanal Vermont ale from Otter Creek in Middlebury, cider from Harpoon in Windsor, Backacre in Weston and Whetstone Ciderworks in Marlboro.  And, of course, we loved the beautifully mature Petrus 1970 and Blagny Rouge 1989 with our lamb and steaks.  Tablas Creek’s Esprits, Côtes, and Patelins, red and white, brought a little California into the mix.

The bounty we were able to enjoy, most of it local and much of it sourced from people we know, is available thanks to the burgeoning local food movement.  It would never have been possible even a few decades ago.  It felt right enjoying the end-of-summer cornucopia with the large, extended family that isn't together all that often.  May your summers end so deliciously, and with such good companionship. Should you want to feed them something special that isn't too much work, a recipe is below.

PASTA WITH LOBSTER AND FRESH CORN
Serves 4.

INGREDIENTS

12 oz. pasta
1 ½ cups lobster meat in bite size pieces
1 cup tender fresh corn kernels
2 tbsp. chopped fresh basil or tarragon
6 oz. soft unsalted butter
3 tbsp. finely chopped shallots
3 tbsp. dry white wine
3 tbsp. white wine vinegar

DIRECTIONS

  • Boil water for pasta, preferably short pasta like penne
  • Gently warm corn and lobster pieces in 1 tbsp. unsalted butter.  Once the ingredients are warm, cover them and turn off the heat. Then make the beurre blanc:
  • Cook the shallots, wine and vinegar very slowly in a small pan until the liquid is almost used up and shallots are soft. 
  • Remove from the heat for a few minutes, then whisk in the butter, 1 oz. at a time, just until incorporated, but never totally melted.  The final sauce should have the texture of thick heavy cream.
  • Cook pasta according to pkg. directions and drain into a deep bowl.  Toss the beurre blanc, warm lobster and corn with the pasta and sprinkle on the chopped herbs. 
  • Serve immediately in warmed bowls. 

Mid-September Harvest Report: Vibrant Whites and Dark, Electric Reds

What a difference two years makes.  As of September 15th in 2011 (and 2010, for that matter) we were looking at each other and re-sampling the vineyard, trying to figure out what to do with ourselves as we waited for the delayed harvest to begin.  Even last year, as of September 15th we'd only brought in 52 tons (14%) of the eventual 370 tons we'd harvest off of the estate.

Fast forward one year, and we've picked 119 tons off of our estate (43% of the roughly 275 tons we're expecting).  The numbers are even more dramatic when you include the Patelin harvests; because the Patelin Blanc is based on the early-ripening Grenache Blanc and Viognier, and the Patelin red on Syrah -- and because the majority of the vineyards are in warmer parts of the appellation than we are -- the Patelin harvest skews earlier than our estate fruit.  We brought in the last Patelin Blanc lot on Saturday and have already picked 75 tons for Patelin red, roughly three-quarters of what we're expecting to get in all harvest.

The cellar is a beehive of activity, with white grapes being pressed, red grapes being destemmed and moved to tanks, and other red tanks being pressed off.  It smells amazing: the unique, yeasty, juicy, tangy aroma of fermenting grapes. 

A few photos will give you a sense of what's going on.  First, a photo of bins of Grenache Noir assembled at the cellar door, waiting to be de-stemmed for fermentation:

Bins of Grenache

We make tank space for these new arrivals by pressing off the tanks that have reached the level of extraction we want.  Leave grapes in too long and they start breaking down the seeds, which adds bitterness.  I love this next photo of red juice (a Syrah/Grenache co-ferment that will go into Patelin) splashing into the pan below the press, from where it's being pumped into tanks to complete its fermentation:

Red Dripping into Pan

At the same time, we have white grapes arriving, which need to be pressed right away and then moved to tanks or barrels to ferment.  Our last Picpoul Blanc arrived yesterday:

2013 Harvest-Picpoul

The harvest chalkboard is growing, to the point that we're running out of space:

Harvest Chalkboard - Sept 17

Quality looks strong, and yields appear to be down by some 20% - 25% compared to last year, confirming that we're in the range of 2.5 tons/acre or a touch more.  The dark, electric colors and rich flavors we're seeing in our early lots suggest we're looking at something special.  If you don't think a color can be dark and electric at the same time, check out the Syrah -- Still fermenting! -- that Cellarmaster Tyler Elwell is holding:

Tyler with electric Syrah

The weather forecast for this week (cooling off to highs in the lower 80's, and cool, perhaps foggy nights) should give us a bit of a respite.  But with most everything ready or nearly so, we're not planning on much of a break.  We've still got most of our Roussannne and Grenache Noir, and all of our Mourvedre and Counoise, out on the vines.  Grenache is first up.


Alpacas (not Llamas) - The Rock Stars of Biodynamic Farming

By Lauren Cross

One of our alpacas, Freddie Mercury (named after the lead singer of Queen), stood center stage on the front cover of our printed newsletter this summer. Since Freddie's debut on our newsletter, the tasting room has been abuzz with discussion about what really are the differences between llamas and alpacas. Let this article be your guide to understanding what makes Tina (Napoleon Dynamite’s pet llama) different from Freddie Mercury (our alpaca). While both animals share genetic links with their camel ancestors (Camelids from South America), they are truly unique in many ways.

Tina and Freddie

Tina 475

Freddie Mercury and our other four alpacas play an important role in our new biodynamic farming program.  Along with our two donkeys, the alpacas serve as protection for our herd of over forty sheep including fifteen young lambs who are the “lead singers” in maintaining the cover crop while naturally fertilizing and tilling the soil in the vineyard. 

Shorn 475

Freddie Mercury and his family confuse native animals like coyotes who are surprised to encounter relatively large, loud, camel-like animals in the wilderness of western California. According to Levi Glenn, Tablas Creek's Viticulturist, our alpacas love water, they play in the spray of a hose or will jump right into a trough on a hot day.  Usually Freddie Mercury and his family are out in the vineyard working. However, if you’re lucky, you may be able to sneak a quick paparazzi-style photo with our superstar alpacas, like the one below taken this week, after they were moved from exile outside our planted vineyard back into a recently-harvested Viognier block:

Alpaca munching

For additional information on our Biodynamic Farming program please read Levi's blog post: Animal Farm: The Benefits of Biodiversity in the Vineyard.

Now it’s your turn to take the stage and show your creativity by designing our new TCV t-shirt.  We are seeking submissions of original artwork highlighting our biodynamic program: sheep, goats, chickens, donkeys and/or alpacas.  Be creative and have fun!  Entries will be accepted through October 31st.  To enter a T-shirt design please email me at lauren@tablascreek.com with a pdf file and check our Facebook page for additional information.  The winning designer will receive an insider's tour of the vineyard, winery and (of course) animal operation for themselves and up to 9 of their friends. 

White-t-shirt475

 


Harvest 2013 begins, fast and slightly less furious than 2012

In my last pre-harvest assessment, written the first of August, I predicted that based on our veraison dates we'd start between August 25th and September 4th.  And I was right, but only barely.  It was August 26th when we brought in our first estate lots: two different Viognier blocks.  That was followed by our first Syrah the next day, Vermentino the day after that and suddenly (bam!) we were in the thick of harvest. 

August was consistently warm, which produced the relatively short time between veraison and harvest. Average daily high temperatures were 90°.  Only one day (August 6th) failed to make it at least into the 80's, and it topped out at 79.9°. At the same time, it hasn't been hot enough to force the vines to shut down; we've only topped 100° once, on August 14th, and only barely, at 101.1°.  The result has been perfect ripening conditions, and the vines responded.

We've reconstituted our cellar team over the last few months and think it's the strongest we've ever had.  From left, below, veterans Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi, Cellarmaster Tyler Elwell and Winemaker Neil Collins are joined by our two newest additions: Craig Hamm and Madeline Vanlierop-Anderson.

Winemaker Gothic - 2013 Harvest Team

This week, the second week of our harvest, we've brought in the rest of the Viognier and Vermentino, more Syrah, our first Grenache Blanc and Picpoul, and the first-ever picking off our tiny Clairette Blanche block.  We're trying to be more organized, and have been keeping an old-school chalkboard busy with our daily updates.  Note the Clairette Blanche at the bottom; it's California's first:

Harvest Chalkboard with Clairette

We've also been working to harvest more at night and early in the morning, when the grapes are cooler and the oxidation pressures are minimal.  This has turned out to be better in unexpected ways as well; our crew is happier because it's cool out and the many vineyard insects are dormant, it makes for better flow in the cellar because the first press load is in the press and running before the bulk of the winemaking team even arrives, and the staggered shifts we've been working mean everyone isn't here the same long hours driving each other crazy.  Long hours, sure... but varied ones.  A few photos (taken by Marketing Coordinator Lauren Cross) will give you a sense of the feel of a nighttime harvest. We pick using LED head lamps and the lights of the tractors.  No tower lights for us:

Night Harvest harvesting

The hand-harvested grapes are dumped into bins which our vineyard tractor then delivers to the crushpad.

Night Harvest tractor moving

To work in the cool and dark rather than the baking sun, and to do so knowing that the result will be wines that are fresher and more vibrant, is great.

Night Harvest headlights

Our sense all along has been that our yields will be down some from last year, and with two grapes finished, we have some confirmation: Viognier is down 21% and Vermentino down 33% compared to last year.  Of course, last year wasn't normal; we harvested the most total tons off our property ever, although because we've brought a few additional blocks into production, our tons per acre were slightly behind the record levels of 2005 and 2006.  Vermentino was even more unusually productive than our other grapes last year, but the Viognier seems representative, and we're estimating a decline from last year's 370 tons to something around or just over 300 tons this year.  Over our 109 acres in production, that will give us something right in our target zone of just under 3 tons per acre.  Recent years where we've ended up right around that yield per acre have been very strong, and include 2000, 2003, 2004, 2007 and 2008.

With 57 tons in off the property, we're something approaching 20% of the way done with harvest.  That's a full two weeks ahead of last year, and it seems like we might be mostly done by early October.  If so, it will be our earliest finish since 2001, when we finished a frost-reduced harvest on October 3rd.  Since then, our earliest harvest end date was October 28th, and we've stretched into November as often as not.

The quality looks tremendous.  The grapes are coming in with ideal sugars and pH levels, and looking and tasting juicy and intense.  It's early days, to be sure, but we're excited to be where we are.