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February 2015

Toasting the 49ers "Appellation 49"

By Robert Haas

Just after Christmas, Jason and I had the fun and honor to be invited to pour Tablas Creek for guests at the last 49ers game of the season.  The sparkling new Levi's Stadium has built-in wine bars incorporated into their club boxes, and the team invites eight wineries each week to show their wines to the fans sitting in that section. We poured before the game and during the half, and were able to watch the 49ers win from one of the boxes, whose owners we'd met during the pouring.  Yes, it was a down year for the Niners, but still, what a treat!

49ers2014_game

49ers2014 wall

It is wonderful to see how the 49ers have built their connection to California's wine country, and how they celebrate it at the games.  The program started, in a small way, with an invitation to the owner's box at Candlestick Park on the occasion of their first home game in the fall of 2002.  We were thrilled that, way back then, Tablas Creek was the winery chosen to inaugurate the tradition.  Over the next decade, a different winery was chosen to present its wines at each subsequent game.

49ersOn that first occasion, my wife Barbara and I (right, with team owner Dr. John York) joined Jason and his wife Meghan on the trip.  We watched the game from the York family box and got to join a tour of the field where we watched for a few minutes from the sidelines.  I strongly remember Terrell Owens catching a pass and heading my way with terrifying speed and power.  I stepped way back.  And oh yes, by the way, we met other invitees Senator Diane Feinstein, chef Thomas Keller, Mayor Willie Brown, running back Roger Craig, and baseball Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda who also dropped by.  Quite a day, and a pleasure to get to spend some time with the 49ers owner, John York.

Family at 49ers Game 2013Last year, the 49ers commemorated Candlestick Park's final season with a "greatest hits" recap of the wineries who'd been invited over the previous decade.  We were again honored to receive an invitation from Dr. York, and I made the trip up with Jason and Meghan, and their son Eli (right) to watch the team defeat the Arizona Cardinals.

Since the team's move to Levi's Stadium this year, the program has been expanded and acquired a name: Appellation 49. With eight wineries showing wines in the atrium at the club level, wineries get to meet several hundred fans at each game, and over the course of the season, owners of the boxes get to taste the wares of 80 different wineries.  If they like something, they can order it from their box. A portion of the proceeds go to the 49ers Foundation, which does great work in the Bay Area community year-round.  Different than before but still great fun, and probably more valuable promotion for us as a winery.

It's clear that this connection with the local wine community is something that the York family values and is looking to build. Any time they ask us to help with this particular bit of bridge-building, we're happy to oblige.

JCH and RZH with John York


State of the Union, Wine Shipping Edition

The preamble to the United States Constitution is short and sweet:

"We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

As we look forward to tonight's 226th State of the Union address, I am struck by the "more perfect union" reference in the preamble, as well as the wisdom of the founding fathers and generations of Supreme Court justices in prioritizing the Commerce Clause, which protects the federal government's exclusive role in regulating interstate commerce.  The 21st Amendment, which repealed Prohibition in 1933 and as a side-effect sheltered states from the Commerce Clause's requirement to maintain an open, fair market for all players, provides a glimpse into what a world absent the Commerce Clause might look like. We should all be thankful that most products we might want to buy don't have to face a similar regulatory nightmare.

So, in honor of the State of the Union, here is a summary of what the world of wine shipping looks like, from a winery's perspective, as we enter 2015, with states broken down into tiers based on the cost and ease of doing business there:

Where We Ship
Shipping map courtesy of the great free tools at ShipCompliant

Tier I: The no-brainers (AK, DC, MN, MO)

  • Right now, there are three states (and one district) that have neither permit fees nor significant  reporting requirements.  Thank goodness for them!  But, 4 of 51 isn't a great percentage.  All of the others make it more difficult or expensive to ship wine to customers who want it.
  • Total percentage of US population: 4.05%
  • Total number of reports required annually: 1
  • Total permit fees: $0

Tier II: Inexpensive and/or fairly easy (CA, CO, FL, IA, IL, MI, ND, NH, NV, VT)

  • There are an additional ten states with permit fees of $330/year or less and modest reporting requirements (6-16 times per year).  These states include some big ones like our home state of California, Florida, Illinois, Michigan and Colorado, but even for the smaller ones, the number of orders that a winery would need to fill in order to pay for the annual investment is very reasonable.
  • Total percentage of US population: 29.95%
  • Total number of reports required annually: 110 (11/state avg.)
  • Total permit fees: $1275 ($127.5/state avg)

Tier III: Moderate expense or requirements (GA, KS, MD, ME, MT, NC, NM, NY, OH, OR, TN, WA, WI, WY)

  • Once you get to the next tier of fourteen, a small winery would be excused for starting to run cost-benefit analyses before springing for the permits.  Some permits start to get expensive in this tier, like Tennessee's $450/year, Wisconsin's $400/year, or Maryland's $380/year.  Others are less expensive, or even free, but have difficult reporting requirements, like North Carolina (28 reports/year) or Georgia, New Mexico, Oregon, Wyoming and Washington (24 reports/year each).  Still, there are some pretty large-population states in this tier, and most wineries choose to ship to all or nearly all of them.
  • Total percentage of US population: 27.79%
  • Total number of reports required annually: 267 (19.1/state avg.)
  • Total permit fees: $3126 ($223/state avg.)

Tier IV: Difficult/expensive but worth the cost (TX, VA)

  • This is a tier with just two states.  Both are expensive (Texas's permit costs $526/year and requires 20 reports annually, while Virginia's permit is only $160/year but requires the submission of 36 reports) but both are also big enough to justify the cost.
  • Total percentage of US population: 11.06%
  • Total number of reports required annually: 56 (28/state avg.)
  • Total permit fees: $686 ($343/state avg.)

Tier V: Difficult/expensive and maybe not worth the cost (HI, ID, NE, SC, WV)

  • The main difference between this tier and the one above it is in the potential reward, rather than the expense.  Its five states are all small, and all expensive: as much as $600/year for the permit (South Carolina) and as many as 36 reports per year (West Virginia).  While nearly every winery ships to Texas and Virginia, there are many who don't ship to these five smaller states with often disproportionate costs and reporting requirements.
  • Total percentage of the US population: 3.65%
  • Total number of reports required annually: 112 (22.4/state avg.)
  • Total permit fees: $1766 ($353/state avg.)

Every winery has a different breaking point.  For us, it comes here.  We've decided that the 35 states above all warrant the expense of the annual permits and the reporting, though it's a close call on some in that last tier.  The 16 states below we either can't ship to, or have found that the requirements to do are unreasonable.  But before I look at those, it's worth doing the math on what shipping to the 35 "shipping" states costs in total: $6853 in permits plus the time and expense of preparing and filing 546 reports each year.  Figure an hour for each report, at $25/hour ($13,650) for a total expense of $20,503.  But for that cost, we can ship to 76.5% of the US population.  Available tools (like ShipCompliant, which we use and recommend highly) provide a savings over the labor of preparing the many individual reports, but still come with a cost.

Why don't states make the cut?  The reasons vary, and you'll notice that some of the "no-ship" states fall into more than one category.  But in most cases, you'll see some effort toward protecting distributors from competition, at the expense of both consumers and wineries.

On-site purchase requirements (AZ, IN, RI, SD, DE)

  • There are states that will allow a winery to ship (typically with few or no hurdles) if someone purchases wine at the winery, but won't allow the same customer to order wine by phone or email from home.  The logic written into the laws is typically couched in the guise of ensuring that only of-age buyers can purchase, but given that common carriers routinely check ID's in the 30+ states that allow direct shipping, it doesn't pass critical muster.

Distributor exclusivity (IN, LA)

  • There are two states that explicitly say that wineries can ship only if they don't have a relationship with a distributor in that state.  While this does protect distributors from competition from the suppliers they represent, I wonder if it discourages many smaller wineries from signing up with a distributor from those states.  The two states (Indiana and Louisiana) are both just large enough markets (2% and 1.5% of the US population, respectively) and just far enough away from California that we've decided that it's not worth foregoing the wholesale business we do for an uncertain amount of direct business.

Capacity caps (AZ, NJ)

  • The capacity cap is the distributor lobby's wedge issue of choice at the moment.  It writes into law that wineries below a certain size may ship direct to consumers, while wineries at or above that size must use the 3-tier system and sell their wine through traditional channels.  Typically, this capacity cap is set just above the size of the state's largest winery, protecting all the local wineries' business models while shielding distributors from as much competition as possible. In the recent case of Massachusetts, the link was made so explicit (it was promoted on the floor of the legislature) that a federal appeals court declared it in violation of the Granholm v. Heald decision that established the primacy of the Commerce Clause in the interstate shipment of wine.  But in other cases it has withstood legal challenge, and with New Jersey's recent capacity cap bill and a push last year to add one in Florida, it seems likely we'll see more in the future.  The capacity caps have been set as low as 25,000 gallons (roughly 10,000 cases) in places like Arizona (which we don't fall under), and as high as 250,000 gallons in New Jersey and Ohio (which we do).

Label registration (CT)

  • Connecticut is a shipping state for many wineries, but it's not without its expenses and challenges.  First, it's the third-most-expensive permit, at $595/year, and requires 28 reports to be filed annually.  Second, you must register each label you propose to sell in the state at a cost of $200/label, renewable every 3 years.  At Tablas Creek, we sold 28 different wines direct last year (different wines, not different vintages).  That would require a $5600 investment, adding $1866 to the already-considerable annual $1295 cost of permit and reporting.

Death by 1000 Cuts (NJ)

  • New Jersey grudgingly entered the ranks of direct shipping wineries with the passage of a bill in 2012. So far, only a tiny fraction of the nearly 10,000 American wineries have done so. Why would only 237 wineries have received a permit, in the country's fifth-largest wine market? Let us count the ways:
    • The permit (a sliding scale, but for us $938) is the country's most expensive and the are 24 reports to submit annually
    • There is a significant bond wineries have to post
    • There are registration fees of $150 per partner per year, an issue for a winery like ours owned by two families, each with several owners
    • Receiving a permit means that we have established a nexus with the state of NJ and are liable for paying an annual corporate income tax of at least $500
    • There's a capacity cap to ship that we fall under, but many wineries don't
    • And the coup de grace is that anyone who owns at least 10% of the winery must satisfy the same laws that govern the ownership of a liquor store or liquor wholesaler in the state, which precludes foreign residency.

About to join tier II (MA)

Absolute prohibition (AL, AR, KY, MS, OK, PA, UT)

  • The good: most of the states that don't allow the shipping of wine in any situation are among the smallest wine markets in the country.  Other than Pennsylvania, the six prohibition states combine to make up just 3.3% of the American wine market.
  • The bad: Pennsylvania is the country's 6th-largest state and 10th-largest wine market
  • The good: it seems like there is momentum building to finally get Pennsylvania's direct shipping laws changed. Given the challenges now (you can technically ship, but only to a state store, and only if no other vintage of that wine is in the state store system, and the recipient has to come to the state store to pick up and pay all the taxes) welcoming Pennsylvania to the post-Granholm world would be a huge boon for all wineries in 2015.

New Lambs, 2015 Vintage

It's a quiet interlude here at Tablas Creek.  We're starting to slowly prune the vineyard, but with budbreak two months or (hopefully) more away, there's not great urgency.  The 2014 vintage wines are nearly done fermenting, but not quite done enough to start blending.  We have our first bottling in mid-February (hooray for new rosés!) but we're not quite close enough to start our serious prep on these wines.

So, mid-January is a time to enjoy a slower pace, assess where we are and what we'd like to do for the year, and enjoy the lush, green landscape.

We're not the only ones enjoying this new landscape; we have the first of our 2015 vintage of lambs, born to the ewes who make up our grazing herd:

2015 Lambs 2

As you would expect, the natural cycles of grazing animals in whatever climate look to produce their offspring when the grass is the lushest.  So, this is just the beginning of a wave of new lambs that starts now and should continue through March.

A few more photos of the new arrivals:

2015 Lambs 3

2015 Lambs 1

May your 2015 have started as hopefully as ours!


A Retrospective Tasting of Every Wine from the 2005 Vintage

Last year, we began what I hope will become an annual tradition: looking back as each year begins on the vintage from ten years previous.  Doing so encourages us to open wines that we wouldn't otherwise open with a decade of age, and gives a wide-ranging perspective on the vintage as a whole and how it has developed over time.  It also allows us to choose a representative and compelling subset of the lineup for the public retrospective tasting we're holding on February 28th.

A few years ago, as part of a look back at each of our vintages for the launch of our redesigned Web site, I wrote this about the 2005 vintage:

The 2005 vintage was one of nature's lucky breaks, with excellent quality and higher-than-normal yields. The wet winter of '04-'05 gave the grapevines ample groundwater, and a warm period in March got the vines off to an early May flowering. The summer was uniformly sunny but relatively cool, and harvest began (relatively late for us) in the 3rd week of September, giving the grapes nearly a month longer than normal on the vine. The resulting wines, both red and white were intensely mineral, with good structure and powerful aromatics.  Red wines have big but ripe tannins that reward cellaring.

I was interested in the extent to which we'd still see what we'd noted when the vintage was younger.  Would the red wines have softened, or would they still show the brawniness that characterized them in their youth?  Would the whites have retained their freshness in what was a fairly ripe vintage, overall? And would the sweet wines, which I found disappointing in last year's retrospective, show better?

In 2005, we made 20 different wines: 9 whites, 1 rosé, 7 reds, and 3 sweet wines.  But on Friday, we tasted 21 different wines, because as part of our ongoing experimentation between corks and screwcaps, we bottled our 2005 Cotes de Tablas under both closures, to track how each closure impacted the wine's development over time. The lineup:

2005 retrospective

My notes on the wines, with notes on their closures, are below (SC=screwcap; C=cork). Each wine is also linked to its technical information on our Web site, if you'd like to see a breakdown of the winemaking or the tasting notes at bottling. For some reason, we never made Web pages for 2005 Viognier or 2005 Bergeron. I'm sorry about that; if you have a technical question; leave it in the comments and I'll do my best to answer.

  • 2005 Vermentino (SC): An immediately appealing nose, both fresh and minerally, with lemon oil, rocks, and just a hint of nuttiness from age. It opened up increasingly with time in the glass, showing richer flavors of graham cracker, fennel, and preserved lemon. Its long finish was clean, with vibrant acids. Didn't nearly taste a decade old, or show any hint of its 14.5% alcohol.
  • 2005 Picpoul Blanc (SC): Golden in color, notably moreso than the Vermentino. The nose was richly tropical, with pineapple and wet stone. The palate was both rich and fresh, with peppered citrus, full body and zingy acids. Fun.
  • 2005 Grenache Blanc (SC): A more muted nose than the first two wines, some passion fruit and mineral, a little confected and a touch of scotch tape character I sometimes find in whites aged under screwcap. The palate was excellent, significantly better, I thought, than the nose: rich and viscous, with flavors of pear and marzipan, and great lingering acids at the finish to clean things up. Remarkably little sign of its 15.3% alcohol.
  • 2005 Viognier (SC): An immediately recognizable Viognier nose of apricots, jasmine and orange oil. On the palate, peach syrup and orange creamsicle, marmalade and a touch of saline. Notably less acid than the three previous wines (not surprising for Viognier) with an appealing touch of tannin on the finish. Still very youthful.
  • 2005 Cotes de Tablas Blanc (SC): The nose shows Roussanne and Marsanne more than the Viognier: honey, mineral and spicy fruit salad. On the palate, beautifully mid-weight, with a briny, minerally note and building to a mead-like, unctuous finish. 42% Viognier, 33% Roussanne, 19% Marsanne, 6% Grenache Blanc. 13.9% alcohol. I preferred this to the 2004 version, which (at 14.5%) I found a little heavy.
  • 2005 Antithesis (C): Rich and blowsy on the nose: toasted marshmallow, coconut and pineapple, with just a hint of wintergreen providing relief. The mouth is rich, but with good acids too. The oak shows a fingerprint in the texture, without overt flavors. Toasted coconut on the long finish. A nice example of aged Chardonnay from a warm year.
  • 2005 Bergeron (C): Made from 100% Roussanne, harvested a little earlier from cooler blocks around the vineyard. A high-toned yeasty, briochy nose, like aged Champagne that's been allowed to decarbonate, with some ripe apple. The palate is tarter than the nose suggests, more green apple than red, with rich texture but a briny, bright finish. A really interesting interplay between rich and bright, but a more intellectual than hedonistic experience.
  • 2005 Roussanne (C): The nose smelled older to me, perhaps unsurprising given acid's role in preserving wines as they age. Otherwise, not as much showing aromatically as the Bergeron. The mouth is notably rich, with an initial perception of sweet honey, then firming up on the finish, which shows a hint of tannin. Perhaps in an in-between phase; I'd hold this rather than drinking it now.
  • 2005 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (C): The nose is exuberantly and vibrantly fresh, with mint, fennel, apricot and white flower notes. The mouth is spectacular: rich and long, clean, with sweet elements of honeycomb and candied orange peel, but totally dry, finishing with ripe, crisp apple and mineral notes lingering on the long finish. Perhaps the wine of the tasting, for me. 70% Roussanne, 25% Grenache Blanc, 5% Picpoul Blanc.
  • 2005 Rosé (SC): A deep salmon-pink color. The nose shows wild strawberries. The mouth is fruity and rich, some signs of age in the deepening of flavors, but still very much alive. A touch of pithy tannin on the finish. More a food wine than a quaffer now; we were fantasizing about pairing it with squab or charcuterie.
  • 2005 Counoise (SC): A fascinatingly wild, fruity nose, with fresh raspberry and freeze-dried strawberry notes and a meaty, gamy character too, like roasted duck. Pretty on the palate, relatively light-bodied but with excellent complexity. The finish showed raspberry, baking spices and earth, with vibrant acids, some good tannins still, and tons of life left. Confirms my thoughts that on its own, Counoise is more akin to a cru Beaujolais than anything else from the Rhone.
  • 2005 Cotes de Tablas (SC): Under screwcap, a bright, clean nose of peppered plum, youthful and fresh. The flavors were medium-bodied, a touch smoky, with baking spices and good acids. Tasted like a 3-year-old wine. 43% Grenache, 24% Mourvedre, 18% Syrah, 15% Counoise.
  • 2005 Cotes de Tablas (C): Under cork, the same wine tasted totally different. A deeper, less fruity nose, more coffee, mocha and fig. On the palate, deeper, chewier, more tannic and older: tasted fully mature, with less life left but more depth. Like a 10-year-old wine.
  • 2005 Mourvedre (C): Tangy and winey on the nose, with iron and plum, and chalky minerals. Like rare steak that's been marinating. On the palate, rich and still quite tannic, with a cooling bay leaf and minty note for relief. On the finish, a licoricey limestone note added to the complexity.  Still lots of life left, and a beautiful showing for this wine.
  • 2005 Syrah (C): The nose is meaty, leathery, rich and dense, with dark chocolate and black cherry. Still big tannins and quite chewy. We all thought it still too young, with the alcohol (only 14.5%) not quite integrated and showing more power than finesse. That said, with a grilled rib-eye, it would make quite a showy partner.
  • 2005 Tannat (C): A bright-dark contrast on the nose, with minty blackberry and incense notes. The mouth is quite lovely, readier to drink than the Syrah, with mint chocolate and patchouli notes. A beautiful long finish with ripe tannins that suggest the wine will go another decade effortlessly.
  • 2005 Esprit de Beaucastel (C): Shows aspects of both Mourvedre and Syrah, with a deep, meaty, leathery nose, with a hint of bay providing aromatic lift. The mouth is generous, with a clarity that neither of the two varietal wines showed, and brighter acids than either that highlight the fruit in an appealing way. I have to think that this luminous character comes from the Grenache component, and found it fascinating. Still some substantial tannins, and the wine should go out another decade happily. Another of my wines of the tasting. 44% Mourvedre, 26% Grenache, 25% Syrah, 5% Counoise.
  • 2005 Panoplie (C): A chocolate-cherry nose, rich and ripe. The palate was thicker than the Esprit red, with milk chocolate and super-ripe dark red fruit. Very rich texture that someone described as caramelly, and a finish of liqueur and chocolate. Still young.
  • 2005 Vin de Paille (C): An amazing luminous amber color and an explosive nose of orange marmalade and white flowers. The mouth showed still quite young, with a rich texture, egg custard flavors and ripe apricot. For all its weight, it showed great acids on the finish. 34% Roussanne, 29% Grenache Blanc, 24% Viognier, 13% Marsanne.
  • 2005 Vin de Paille Quintessence (C): Even more amber in color than the first Vin de Paille, with a deeper nose of almond brittle and apricots in syrup. The mouth is sweeter: vanilla creme caramel with its signature burnt sugar character. Rich, decadent and absolutely luscious. 100% Roussanne.
  • 2005 Vin de Paille Sacrérouge (C): Compared to the two white vin de paille wines, the nose is savory, a tangy plum and cocoa powder. The mouth is sweet but less so than the whites, raspberry coulis, cocoa and tangy marinade. Long finish. 100% Mourvedre.

A few concluding thoughts

I was happier, overall, with how the wines showed than I was with the 2004's last year. That's probably indicative of the strength of the vintage, which was overall a great one (2004, by contrast, was probably more good than great). Of all the wines that we tasted, there wasn't a single one that tasted over the hill to me, and only a couple (Grenache Blanc, Roussanne) that I found only so-so.

I was thrilled that my favorite white and red were in both cases the Esprits. This showed clearly to me the value of blending, with the flavors of each varietal highlighted and focused by the additions of the other grapes. It wasn't that these wines were the biggest or the most powerful; instead, they were the most complete and the most complex, with the best clarity and persistence. Exactly what we'd want our signature wines to be.

The cork/screwcap contrast on the Cotes de Tablas was really fascinating, and provoked the most discussion around the table. We split nearly evenly as to which we preferred, with some people opting for the depth and weight of the cork finish and other choosing the clarity and vibrancy of the screwcap finish. In earlier tastings, we'd seen more consensus around the cork finish, which spurred me to go back and re-read my blog post Bottle Variation, Very Old Wines and the Cork/Screwcap Dilemma from 2008. In it, I examine a presentation from Bonny Doon's Randall Grahm in which he posits that most wines, in the long run, probably do benefit from screwcap's protection from oxidation.  The more I learn, the more I think he's right, with one important caveat: that most red wines aren't aged long enough in bottle to get to the point at which the freshness preserved outweighs the depth lost. This tasting provided another data point: perhaps, out 10 years, is where the two meet, at least on this wine.

Finally, we chose what I think will be a pretty fun list of wines for the February 28th Horizontal Tasting: Vermentino, Viognier, Esprit Blanc, Counoise, Cotes de Tablas (screwcap), Cotes de Tablas (cork), Mourvedre, Esprit, Panoplie, and Vin de Paille. I hope many of you will join us!