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Notes from the Cellar: Blending the 2014 Vintage

By Chelsea Franchi

Here at Tablas Creek, when we sit down to decide on blends for the year, it's a big event.  At this point, a lot of work has been put into these wines and it's critical we bring our best to the blending table to ensure the wines show their best once in bottle.  Each and every wine we produce at Tablas Creek is created through a process we call "palate blending" - in which we taste every individual lot of wine in the cellar and blend it with other lots we believe to be complementary.  This is why the blends change on all of our wines from year to year.  Sometimes dramatically, sometimes not.


To most, being forced to sit down and taste wines sounds like a dream (it is), but it's more than that.  During harvest, after everything is hand-picked by our detail-oriented and outrageously skilled vineyard crew, we ferment and age each pick separately.  This process is a lot more work (and takes up a lot more space in the cellar) but it allows us more creativity when it comes time to blend by giving us more options to choose from.  This year, we had 52 separate lots of reds to taste and 25 lots of white wines.  While I'm aware that tasting through these wines is a much more enjoyable task than, say, a four hour board meeting, there's a decent amount of pressure involved.  It's important to be fully present and aware for every single one of the 77 wines - personally, I have to keep detailed notes to compel (trick?) myself to stay focused.  My notes may include observations or feelings about the aroma, the palate, the structure (front, mid, finish), and anything I find striking or unusual.  The added benefit to this strategy is that I have reference notes when we're discussing the wines later (read: after tasting 77 wines; "it's lunch time, yes?")  Neil, on the other hand, will only write down a word or two about a handful of wines during the entire tasting, but when we deliberate over the wines days later, he can still recall, without fail, notes and nuances of each wine we tasted.  I'm not envious, I'm just... no, scratch that.  I'm envious.

We begin in the cellar.  For each individual lot, we pull an accurate composite of the wine.  So for instance, if we have a Grenache lot housed in a 132 gallon puncheon and a 60 gallon barrel, we need to make sure the sample we pull is 69% from the puncheon and 31% from the barrel.  This process can feel pretty tedious when you've got a single lot that's being aged in 19 barrels ("we couldn't have just put that together in a tank, huh?") but we prefer this method as it gives us a truer glimpse of the lot as a whole.  Later, when we're physically blending, we can barrel-select what we want in each specific wine, but for preliminary evaluation, we're looking at general character.


"Okay, now pull 3 milliliters from each of these barrels"

Once the composites have been pulled, we set up in the conference room.  We'll typically pour a flight of four wines, taste them all, and then give them a numerical rating from 1-3.  A score of one means the wine is exceptional - it carries power and finesse in equal measure and has a ripeness that is tempered by balance.  These lots are the first to be set aside for Panoplie and Esprit when we start the blending process.  A score of two communicates that the wine is nice, but it's not going to be haunting your dreams.  Perhaps it would if it had a little more fullness on the mid-palate.  Maybe there's not quite enough acid on the finish.  Whatever the case, it's just not a one.  A score of three means the wine needs some work.  Usually, a wine is given this score because it's still fermenting and is cloudy, sprizty or sweet (or perhaps all three).  Reduction (the opposite of oxidation - cases where the wine needs oxygen) is another common culprit of wines given this score.  Sometimes we can work on these wines a little bit before starting the blending trials, and other times, it's necessary to simply imagine what the wine will be like after it's "fixed".  That's what makes us professionals, I've been told.

When everyone at the table has had a chance to smell, taste, spit, annotate and score each of the four wines, we go around the table and everyone shares their notes and their scores.  And so forth, through each flight, though typically something like 30 wines is about our limit for one day.  If we have more than that number, this first step stretches over multiple days.  I compile the scores into a very high-tech grid (shown below) that I'll use later when putting together possible blends.


The next morning, we'll sit down with the score sheet and an inventory list to determine how much of each lot we have to move around to specific wines.  We'll begin with three different blends that showcase each of the components in turn.  Below, I've given an example of preliminary blending trials for Esprit de Tablas Blanc:


Blend 1

Blend 2

Blend 3





Grenache Blanc




Picpoul Blanc




Keep in mind that within each of those individual varieties (Roussanne, for example), we're making blends.  We blended seven lots of Roussanne to get the base for the Esprit Blanc this year.  Even the varietal wines we produce are a blend of separate and unique lots within the same grape variety.  By making wines this way, it helps us to achieve not only varietal "correctness", but also to help showcase the vintage and make sure the wine is fleshed out from start to finish.

Once again, we'll taste through the wines, but this time rather than absolute scores, we give them rankings in order of preference (1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc).  Looking at these rankings, we'll begin another round of blending, building around the elements we liked the most.  We'll continue this process until we have a wine everyone ranks in first place and says "YES!  That's it" and performs an an enthusiastic fist pump.  I've never seen it happen, but I'm almost positive it's just because everyone does it in their head.  Sometimes, the process of deciding takes a day or two.  Sometimes, it takes longer - one year, it took us a week and a half to get a consensus for Esprit Blanc.  That's a lot of days tasting slightly different variations of the same wine.  On the plus side, we got really good at pulling composite samples that year.  Each vintage, while presenting exciting elements, also comes with a whole new set of - shall we say - delightful challenges.

Once we've decided on the wine we're working on, we set aside those lots and focus on the next wine down the sequence. And so forth, until we've made all our blends and decided which varietal wines we'll make for the vintage.

This year, we had the good fortune of being given some outstanding lots to work with.  The 2014 harvest has shown itself as a bit of a tomboy vintage; it has a round, rich, powerful front that gives way to a beautiful lean acidity, lending the wines a feminine edge on the finish.  Blending in years like 2014 is only difficult because you can only use each wine once.  After finalizing the blends, we sit down one last time to taste through the whole vintage lineup.  This is my favorite part of the blending process - tasting through everything as you would in the tasting room and making sure each wine can not only stand on its own, but also set itself apart from each of the other wines.  Each year, one of the members of the Perrin family comes over for some part of the blending.  This year, it wasn't until the final tasting, when François Perrin came to town for a few days and we were able to show him the 2014 vintage as we'd envisioned it.  Tasting your wines through someone else's eyes can be a stressful experience (especially if you're trying to see them from a set of Perrin eyes), but this year, it felt like joy.  Each wine fit attractively and confidently into its specific program - the Patelin wines are charming, the Cotes wines are somehow both jubilant and sophisticated, the Esprit wines are... well, the Esprit wines are absolutely stunning, and the best way I can describe Panoplie is "richly elegant".  Though I think the wine I'm most thrilled with this year is the En Gobelet.  It has an enchanting energy and captivating voluptuousness that I'm dying to share at my table. We've just begun the process of getting these components put together in tank and I'm already excited to hear what you have to say about each of them.


Mavis, the vineyard dog, helps with the physical blending

Checking in on the 2007 Esprit de Beaucastel

The 2007 Esprit de Beaucastel is our highest-rated Esprit to date.  It got mid-90s ratings from Robert Parker, Stephen Tanzer, and the Rhone Report, and capped off its year by being named the Wine Spectator's #33 wine of 2010.  And we sold most of what we had, fast.  We typically keep two year's supply of our Esprit red for our tasting room, so we can show two different vintages to people.  Because of its ratings, and because it was so showy, we sold our two years' worth in one year.  And I understand why: it was luscious and powerful, with big tannins cloaked by generous fruit and an underlying meaty wildness that kept the wine from coming across as either simple or sweet.  I'm sure much of it was drunk within a few months of when it was purchased, and enjoyed.

Our Esprit wines have two drinking windows in which we think they are best enjoyed: a window around 3-5 years after the vintage date, when some of the youthful rambunctiousness has had a chance to calm down a touch, but when the wine is still big, juicy, and primary.  Then there is a second window, typically in the 8-12 year range, where the wine's tannins have softened, the texture has opened up, secondary characteristics of meat and earth have developed, and the fruit tone has deepened.

You will have noticed that there is a gap in between these two drinking windows, when the wine's tannins are still strong, but the cloaking fruit has receded a bit, and the wine can come across as closed. I've written about this closed phase on the blog, comparing it to being in its teenage years.  Not all wines, and not even all of our red wines, go through this phase, but the Esprit red nearly always does. How long it spends in this phase depends on several factors, but tends to be longest for the wines that were the most powerful to start with.  This variability is why we recommend that customers bookmark our vintage chart (updated every few months) and why we don't put much stock in predetermining specific drinking windows upon release.

It's been a few years now that we've been waiting for the 2007 Esprit to come out of its closed phase. Yesterday, I opened it, along with some other nearby vintages, as a part of the tasting we do each summer to determine which wines we'll send out to members of the VINsider Wine Club "Collector's Edition".  I had been hoping that this 2007 would be ready to go, but it wasn't to be.  It had smoothed out greatly since the same tasting last year, but still had a shortness and blockiness on the finish that suggested to us that it will greatly benefit from another year of patience.

I thought I'd share my notes, both to give a sense of where it's at now, and to explain why we think that patience is recommended.  The wine:


Tasting Notes (5/28/15): A classic 2007 Esprit nose of hung meat, baking spices, dark red fruit, menthol and leather.  The mouth is still massive and thick with fruit, with big tannins.  Currant and plum (dark red fruits) predominate over a creamy texture that masks some of the complexity it will have. The tannins build in the wine, and clip the finish.  The wine opened significantly with time in the glass (a decant is highly recommended if you're drinking it now) but never lost that clipped character, or the thickness of texture.  Check back in another six months, but expect to enjoy for two more decades.

My notes, I hope, explain what someone who opens it now is likely to get: not a bad wine, but a wine that is less than it will be.

What will the wines be that we chose for the 2015 Collector's Edition shipment? Stay tuned!


Dry Farming in California's Drought, Part 3: How We Got Here (and Where We Go Next)

I was struck by a quote from Tegan Passalaqua, the winemaker at Turley, in a recent article on  In an interview with Alder Yarrow, Tegan said "In a Mediterranean climate like we have, vertical shoot positioning and 3 by 6 vineyard spacing is basically farming hydroponically".

Hydroponic farming, with its overtones of bland supermarket tomatoes, seems an unlikely candidate to provide the intensity and ripeness that a winemaker would expect from California.  But in its essence, that the farmer is providing everything that a plant needs to bear fruit, I don't think he's far off.  It's worth taking a few moments to understand how grapevines came to be so widely irrigated in California.  In the first part of this 3 part series, I looked at how our understanding of California's climate dictated changes versus what had been done in the Mediterranean.  In the second part, I detailed how we have been farming our vineyard since the beginning to wean it off of irrigation, and what changes we've made in recent years to adjust to the likelihood of a drier future.  In this third part, I will explore how viticulture evolved in California to rely so heavily on irrigation.  If you missed the earlier parts, this article will make more sense after you've read them.

According to Jancis Robinson1, wine grapes were likely first domesticated from their wild progenitors somewhere near where modern-day Armenia, eastern Turkey, and north-western Iran meet, sometime before 4000 BC.  That area is a relatively arid climate, averaging around 400mm of rainfall per year (about 16 inches).  There, grapevines, along with similarly rugged crops like olive trees, were planted on dry, rocky hillsides where the more useful grain and vegetable crops couldn't survive.  This took advantage of grapevines' genetic predisposition to search out scarce water sources, delving dozens of feet deep if necessary.

By 2000 BC, wine grapes had been brought to areas around the eastern Mediterranean, including Egypt, Mesopotamia, southern Greece, Crete and the southern Balkans.  Expansion to areas north and west came over the next two millennia, brought by the exploring and colonizing Phoenicians, Greeks, and (later) Romans.  

High quality winemaking requires the concentration of flavors, achieved through stress on the grapevines and the maturity of fruit.  This happens naturally in the hot, dry climates where grapevines evolved.  But as viniculture moved north through Europe, into climates cooler and wetter than where wine grapes originated, the grapevines faced different challenges. Instead of not enough water, grapevines were challenged with too much water, threatening to dilute flavors.  And the cooler climes meant that lack of ripeness was a significant threat.  The solution to both these problems came in a new way of planting: spacing vines much more closely, so they competed against each other for the available water, and reducing the yield per vine so that the clusters ripened more rapidly.  For contrast, look at the differences in the old world.  An old vineyard in a warm Mediterranean climate (in the example below, Priorat, taken as a still from a promotional video on the Priorat DOQ Web site) might see grapevines three meters apart or more from their nearest neighbors (500 vines per acre, or less):


By contrast, a Burgundian vigneron in search of maximum concentration and character might plant grapevines as close together as one meter by one meter (over 4000 vines per acre), and reduce yields per vine from 20-30 clusters per vine to just 3 or 4.  The example below (from Wikimedia Commons) is of a vineyard near Gevrey-Chambertin, in Burgundy, where vines are so close together a tiny tractor can barely fit:


The net result is a can be a greater yield in tons per acre, with increased intensity and a better chance of getting the grapes ripe before the first frost.

It is perhaps useful to think of a grapevine as a small machine, whose roots act as pumps to wick water and nutrients out of the ground.  A vine's leaves absorb solar energy to power this machine. The water that is pulled from the ground is used during photosynthesis as the vine respires through the pores of the leaves, and is also trapped in the plant's tissues and fruit.  Planting more vines into a given plot of land requires more water for photosynthesis to be successful.  If there is enough (or too much) water, this extra density is beneficial and even important.  If there is not enough water, this extra density requires more irrigation to keep photosynthesis going.  And if irrigation becomes a major source of water for the vines, they change their root system to better capture that water source, growing more rootmass under the irrigation drips and less exploring deeper. 

So, is California's climate more like that of the Mediterranean, or more like that of Burgundy?  It depends on what you look at.  In terms of temperatures, you can find both, as evidenced by the success California's winemaking community has had with a a wide range of grapes, from the cool-loving Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir (with origins in the north of France) to the late-ripening Grenache and Mourvedre (with origins in the hot, dry Spanish plateau).  But in terms of rainfall, it should be clear that except for perhaps in extreme north and coastal regions, our total precipitation more resembles the warmer, drier Mediterranean. In fact, many parts of California receive significantly less annual rainfall than the classic Mediterranean climate.  Relatively arid areas like Priorat receive more rainfall than most of the Central Coast, and the rainfall distribution in Paso Robles actually looks more like the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon than it does like Priorat, let alone anywhere in France.  The fact that we receive nearly all our precipitation in the six-month period between November and April only adds to the stress on the vines, and the need for planning if we're going to try to grow grapes without having them dependent upon regular irrigation.

You might wonder why plantings of grapevines in California look more like those in Northern Europe than they do like those of the Mediterranean.  That they do is a relatively recent phenomenon.  A paper on vine spacing presented to the American Society for Enology and Viticulture (ASEV) in 1999 by two winemakers from Robert Mondavi Winery makes for fascinating reading.  Before the late 1980's, most vineyards in California were planted at around 450 vines per acre.  The first large-scale (35 acre) high-density (2170 vines/acre) planting came in Oakville in 1985.  Since then, the paradigm has shifted rapidly, as winemakers found that they could translate the higher density into earlier-ripening, more reliably yielding crops of good intensity.

The downside? It hasn't seemed like there was much of one. More reliable yields, more reliable ripening, and increased intensity all seem like a good thing.  If I find that many of the wines that come from high-density irrigated plantings have a sameness, a fruit-driven thickness and relative lack of soil expression, this doesn't seem to be a complaint shared by many.  And separating out the preference for increasingly ripe flavors that developed over a similar timeframe is difficult (many connoisseurs of Bordeaux, where irrigation is prohibited, have described a similar development over the last two decades). But these higher-density crops can only survive in most parts of California through the regular application of irrigation.  When that irrigation water was cheaply and easily available, the fact that our natural rainfall distribution more resembles the Eastern Mediterranean than Burgundy or Bordeaux didn't seem to matter much. From an environmental standpoint, planting an irrigated vineyard was often a responsible choice for a farmer, as the high efficiency of drip irrigation and the relatively little water that grapevines need compared to a crop like alfalfa offered sustainability in both resource use and economics. But with all of California's agricultural communities engaging in a new level of soul-searching after four years of drought, it's clear to me that the calculus is changing.

Perhaps the solution for a drier future begins with a look at the past.  The old vineyards planted by immigrants in the 19th and early 20th centuries, many of which survived decades of neglect during prohibition and continue to produce a century later, were planted with the densities common to the warm Mediterranean climates (from where, of course, most of the settlers came).  Given our success in recent years replicating these older planting styles, I would hope that one benefit to come out of our current drought will be a renewed interest in low density plantings on deep-rooting rootstocks, requiring at most a fraction of the water of "modern" vineyards. That the wines have turned out to be so good is icing on the cake. 

It doesn't get more sustainable than that.

1 Jancis Robinson's "Wine Grapes" (Penguin Books, 2012) is an incredible resource for anyone interested in the history or characteristics of different grape varieties.

A Vertical Tasting of En Gobelet, 2007-2013

When we first made En Gobelet in 2007, it was driven by our feeling that the dry-farmed lots we tasted in our annual blind tastings shared a distinctive character, different from our trellised lots.  In my blog post from 2009 announcing the first vintage, I talked about these dry-farmed lots:

"they seem to share an elegance and a complexity which is different from what we see in the rest of the vineyard. Perhaps it's the areas where they are planted (generally lower-lying, deeper-soil areas). Perhaps it's the age of the vines and a comparative lack of brute power. But, whatever the reason, we believe that these lots show our terroir in a unique and powerful way."

The wine has always been a blend primarily of Grenache and Mourvedre, with a touch of Tannat to cut the perception of sweetness that both the primary grapes can have.  When, starting with the 2010 vintage, we got some head-trained Syrah and Counoise in production, we added those too.  Our largest head-trained block, from which most of our recent vintages have come, is called Scruffy Hill, and we've been interested in exploring how this might fare as a block-designate, so between 2010 and 2013 the core of the En Gobelet was a co-fermented lot from Scruffy Hill, with selective additions from elsewhere on the property.

While it started as a wine we made because we thought we tasted something interesting in the lots, with our increasing focus on dry farming and our plans to plant all 55 acres on our new property dry-farmed, we've also come to see our En Gobelet as an indication of our future.  In celebration, we decided to look back today at the six vintages of En Gobelet we've bottled so far, and I thought it would be fun to share my notes.  The lineup:

En Gobelets

  • 2007 En Gobelet (48% Mourvedre, 47% Grenache, 5% Tannat): The nose is rich, meaty, and still primary, with lots of ripe red fruit and an appealing touch of mint. A touch of alcohol showed at the (nearly room) temperature at which we tasted it.  A slightly caramelized tone to the sweetness of the fruit is the only sign of age. On the palate, it is rich, lush and chocolaty, brought back to earth with firm tannins like coffee grounds at the end of a Turkish coffee. There's a great texture to the finish, with a powdered sugar character to the tannins and lingering flavors of dark plum.
  • [Note that we didn't make an En Gobelet in 2008 because we didn't taste enough distinction between the dry-farmed, head-trained lots and the rest of the cellar.]
  • 2009 En Gobelet (56% Mourvedre, 23% Tannat, 21% Grenache): A remarkably chalky nose, with some menthol and kirsch. On the palate, an initial impression of balsamic-marinated cherries is quickly overtaken by some massive tannins.  The finish is actually gentler than it was in the back-palate, with a creamy minerality and flavors of milk chocolate.  Still very, very young,
  • 2010 En Gobelet (37% Grenache, 28% Mourvedre, 13% Syrah, 12% Counoise, 10% Tannat): Chelsea's comment, which I agreed with completely, was that this wine "smelled more like Tablas Creek" than the previous two vintages.  There was more fruit in evidence in the nose -- blueberries, we thought -- and a minty, cool, pine forest savoriness characteristic of the 2010 vintage.  The mouth is vibrant with flavors of plum skin, juniper, a creamy, chalky texture and a little saltiness coming out on the finish.  This is really good, and going to get better.  Patience.
  • 2011 En Gobelet (29% Mourvedre, 27% Grenache, 26% Tannat, 18% Syrah): The most appealing nose yet, dark with soy marinade, wild strawberry, and roasted meat.  The least rustic of the noses, surprising since we'd attributed that character to the Tannat, and at 26% it is the most Tannat we've ever had in the wine.  The mouth is defined by its texture more than its flavors: creamy, chalky, savory and salty.  The flavors of loam and new leather linger on the finish.  My favorite wine of the tasting, for right now, and it's clearly got a long, interesting life ahead.
  • 2012 En Gobelet (63% Grenache, 12% Mourvedre, 11% Syrah, 8% Counoise, 6% Tannat): Notably lighter in color, unsurprising given the predominance of Grenache in 2012.  It smells like Grenache, too, with red cherry, watermelon rind, orange peel and baking spices. There's something deeper lurking on the nose, too, with time: like a clove-studded orange and baker's chocolate. The mouth is full of high-toned fruit, lots of fresh strawberry, then firming up and turning darker on the finish, with a salty marinade character and something leafy. Not quite minty.  Maybe shiso? Complex and cohesive, if still young.
  • 2013 En Gobelet (34% Grenache, 31% Mourvedre, 19% Syrah, 11% Counoise, 5% Tannat): Just bottled a few weeks ago, and the nose still shows some shyness from that, but the aromas of mint, cherry, strawberry and soy come out with time. The mouth is richer than the 2012, but similarly cohesive and complex, with red fruit held in check by something herby.  Maybe thyme? Lots of pepper, too, which Chelsea nailed as pink peppercorn.  Nice acids and some youthful tannins.  Obviously young, but going to a good place.  Will go out this fall to wine club members.

A few concluding thoughts:

We preferred the more recent vintages to the first couple of years.  There are several reasons why this might be the case.  The vines were older, with deeper roots.  Starting in 2010 we were sourcing the majority of the wine from the hillside vineyards of Scruffy hill rather than the low-lying areas that had formerly been rootstock fields.  The more recent vintages include Syrah and (in most cases) Counoise, which add a coolness and a vibrancy to the wines.  But in tasting the wines now, I think it might be ripeness as much as any of the other factors.  The first two vintages come across as a little over the top. At 15% and 14.5% alcohol respectively, the 2007 and 2009 were higher in alcohol than the 2011 (13.9%), 2012 (14.2%) and 2013 (14.0%).  The relative restraint of the recent vintages seems to play well with the dark savoriness of the wine.  Of course, the 2010, which was also 14.5%, tastes more like the later vintages than the earlier ones.

Despite the evolution in style and the often-varied compositions, there were recognizable currents that ran through all the wines.  The wines were all more savory than fruity, perhaps because of the Tannat component.  They all had a chalky texture and a salty finish, perhaps because of the necessarily deep root systems of all dry-farmed vines.  And they all felt like they could go out another decade easily, still fresh and vibrant even at the first vintages.

If this is what our future looks like, I'll take it.

Dry-Farming in California's Drought, Part 2: Looking Forward to the Past

In the first part of this 3-part series on farming in California's drought, I looked at how our climate here in California differs in crucial ways from that in the Mediterranean, and what lessons we took from these differences in how we would choose to farm.  In this second part, I pick the story back up with how we planted and trained our vines in the early days to allow us to dry-farm them now, and what changes we've made in recent years as we adjust to what is likely to be a drier future.  The third part is more historical, looking at how grapevines -- which should be one of the easier crops to dry-farm -- came to be so widely irrigated in California.  If you missed Part 1, go read it now.  OK, welcome back.

In the Beginning

When we began planting, we used a hybrid of the planting methods of modern California and the traditional Rhone.  At Beaucastel, vines are planted head-trained but closely spaced on their relatively flat terrain.  They cultivate these vineyards using tall over-the-vines tractors as the spacing (roughly 1.5 meters square) doesn't allow tractors to pass in-between.  On our steep hillsides, these tractors wouldn't work, so we matched the overall vine density, but moved the vines into rows, planting more closely within the rows (3 feet) and spacing the rows either 8 feet or 10 feet apart, depending on our terrain. We achieve a similar vine density at around 1600-1800 vines per acre, but can cultivate mechanically, essential for our organic techniques:

Tournesol Tractor

Our decision to plant at similar density to Beaucastel was grounded in our initial belief that in our broadly similar environment we should use the techniques that they had developed over the years as a starting point, and then learn from our experiences here and adjust gradually over time.  

The first choice we needed to make was what rootstocks to use. Wine grapes need to be grafted onto rootstocks to be resistant to the root parasite phylloxera.  These rootstocks are descended from different species of American wild grapes, and have inherited differences in level of vigor, rooting configuration, tolerance for soil chemistry, and affinity for various varietals from their progenitors. [For a good technical overview of rootstock science, see this piece in Wines&Vines.]  

Modern fashion in relatively water-rich areas (including Napa Valley, which has a fairly stable water table on the valley floor) suggests the use of low-vigor, shallow-rooting rootstocks, to keep the vines from growing too much canopy and from setting high quantities of low-intensity fruit.  But it was clear to us that we should focus instead on higher-vigor, deeper rooting rootstocks because of the high-stress nature of our climate and topography.  We chose deep-rooting, relatively high-vigor rootstocks to graft to (principally 110R and 1103P).

Our next decision was if and how to irrigate the blocks we would be planting. After speaking to local growers, it became clear to us that in order to get our young vines through the dry summer months, we would need to be able to irrigate at least in the early years.  Grapevine roots grow down fairly rapidly, about a foot and a half per year when the vines are young, slowing as they age.  To determine the length of time we'd need to supplement, we did some trench cuts in the vineyard, digging down a dozen feet through the topsoil and the top layers of limestone, to see where the water was by late summer.  These showed that even with the water-holding capabilities of our calcium-rich soils, we needed to dig down 6-8 feet to find layers that still had moisture in September.  So, we figured we would need to irrigate for the first five or so years, if all went well, and if we were able to encourage the deep root growth that would eventually allow us to get the bulk of the root mass down where water could be found.

Our technique was infrequent but deep irrigation.  This should be intuitive.  Grapevine roots grow where water is present.  If you water frequently but shallowly, roots continue to grow near the surface, where water can be found.  If the only water to be found is deep, roots grow deep.  Watering infrequently (twice per summer, and eventually only once) but deeply causes the soil to dry out from the top down in between waterings, and encourages root growth in the deeper areas that have moisture.

It didn't work as smoothly as we had originally hoped.  We lost so many vines to gopher predation that we had to replant in some cases as much as 25% of our blocks with young vines.  These vines needed to be irrigated when they were young, and even longer, as they grew more slowly due to competition from the older vines nearby.  It wasn't until the wet years of 2005 and 2006 that we felt able to wean our established blocks entirely from supplemental irrigation, but when we did, we were rewarded by consecutive great vintages.

Now, we feel that our older blocks are able to go not just through a normal rainfall winter without needing to be supplemented, but can go one year into a drought cycle (as in the 2012 vintage) without needing additional water.  When we get multiple years into a drought, as we have been since 2013, we are able to supplement, again using the infrequent but deep watering that will discourage the vines from the bad habits of excessive shallow root growth.  We supplemented most blocks once in 2013 and twice during the 2014 vintage, and feel that these are going to be two of our greatest vintages ever.

Recent Adjustments

In addition to the continuing work that we've done easing our original plantings toward water self-sufficiency, the last decade has seen us look to even older models to plant vineyard in ways that won't need to be supplemented even in droughts.  As early as 2000, we had planted some of our low-lying blocks in relatively deep soils head-trained, dry-farmed.  These areas most resembled, to our minds, the terrain at Beaucastel.  We also looked at old vineyards in the Paso Robles area, many of which date back to the years before Prohibition.  These vines, mostly Zinfandel, were head-trained and widely spaced, and had made it nearly a century still in high quality production.  Our first block that we planted in this manner was the small block of Mourvedre near our front entrance, just to the east of where our tasting room is currently located.  We spaced the vines 8 feet apart in a square pattern (a density of 680 vines per acre).  A recent view of this block (with the vines and their solar panel backdrop) shows how well established they've become in the last 15 years:

Mourvedre with solar panels behind

The success of these never-irrigated vines encouraged us to plant most of our former rootstock fields in this manner between 2003 and 2005.  Though these worked well too, we weren't sure yet whether we could translate these successes to hillside blocks with less topsoil and less water.  In the end, it was the logistical challenge of getting well water pumped to our one block on the south (opposite) side of Tablas Creek that pushed us to give it a shot.  We planted that thirteen-acre block, which we call Scruffy Hill, head-trained and dry-farmed in 2006 and 2007. Scruffy Hill presented some new challenges.  It was (is) one of our most rugged blocks, on a very steep slope, with at the top just a foot or so of topsoil.  Cultivation was also going to be a problem, with slopes as steep as 35% making it unsafe to cultivate across the hills, so after speaking with locals we decided on a 12 foot by 12 foot diamond pattern, reducing the vine density to about 340 vines per acre and creating two mostly-vertical avenues we could use to cross-cultivate safely.  We weren't comfortable leaving these vines to fend for themselves entirely, so we bought several 5-gallon plastic buckets, drilled a small hole in the bottom of each, and then used our water truck to give each vine a single bucket of water in the late summer in years one and two. Scruffy hill is now thriving:

Scruffy Hill 2

We've also been experimenting with our rootstocks. The rootstocks that we have used, from the beginning, have needed to be relatively high in vigor and tolerant of Calcium.  This has meant that we use predominantly 1103-P and 110-R.  In recent years, we've planted a few blocks of Grenache on the famously deep-rooting St. George rootstock, the standard in California before irrigation, though in more recent decades largely replaced by lower-vigor, more shallow-rooted crosses.  We are hopeful that these experiments will allow us to develop healthier, more vigorous vineyards without needing supplemental irrigation.

The Upshot: Forward to the Past

All told, in the last decade we've planted over 30 acres head-trained, dry-farmed, in the manner vineyards would have been planted (per force) a century ago.  And while it may not be intuitive, in our recent dry years, the vines in these blocks have shown less signs of stress, and the production from these blocks has declined less, than in our trellised blocks.  But perhaps it shouldn't be so surprising that 340 vines in a dry-farmed acre can thrive with the roughly 15 inches of rain we've received each of the last four winters, while the 1800 vines planted in a trellised acre really need something closer to the 28 inches that is our average.  While a 24-hour irrigation session can keep them going through a dry summer, it's still not making up the difference between a normal rainfall winter and what we've averaged during our drought.

Would we make the same commitment to dry-farming if we needed 4 or more tons per acre off of our vineyard?  Perhaps not.  Our dry-farmed blocks tend to produce between 2 and 2.5 tons per acre, even in the most productive years. But given that we're only aiming for between 2.5 and 3 tons per acre even from our trellised blocks, we're not sacrificing much production.  And given how much less expensive it is to plant, prune, cultivate and thin 340 vines per acre than it is to do the same work on 1800, it may not be costing us more per pound of fruit even with the lower yields.

Even more important, the quality of the wine lots from these dry-farmed vines has been among the best in the cellar both of the last two years. Take into account that these are still among our youngest blocks and you can see why we feel it's a win-win situation for us, and why we're planning to plant our entire new parcel -- all 55 acres -- this way over the next decade.

So, if we're so happy with these old-fashioned techniques, how did the paradigm in California become so dependent on irrigation?  I explore the history in part 3.

A Memorable Reserve Tasting

By John Morris

Last week I hosted a Reserve Tasting for a unique group, which included a long time, fervid VINsider and three of her friends, as well as a couple who’d never visited before and didn’t know much about Tablas Creek.  It was a terrific tasting, one I think I enjoyed as much as our guests.  As the tasting room has grown, I’m less apt to find myself pouring for guests, as I have to focus on other things, but this was a reminder of why I came to work here in the first place, and what’s special about Tablas Creek.

[For some background, we began offering a seated Reserve Tasting in our private room just over a year ago.  It seemed a perfect opportunity to show off some of the library wines we’d been saving, and an answer to the queries we'd begun receiving for an elevated experience.  We offer this twice daily, at 11:30 and 3:00 every day except for Saturday, when we offer it at 10:00 only.  We encourage appointments, as we can accommodate a maximum of eight guests per tasting, but are happy to take walk-ins if space is available. We have details, including cost and how to reserve, on the Visiting Us section of our Web site.]

My favorite part of this format, aside from the opportunity to taste older wines, is the leisurely pace.   Watching guests truly get the wines in a way they might not without the vertical nature of the tasting is a huge kick.

Tablas Creek Vineyards 11_500 pixThe private tasting room where we host our reserve tastings 

The first order of business was introducing the two parties as they seated themselves at the bar, out of the bustle of the main tasting room.  We find this makes it easier to speak to the group as a whole, and people often become fast friends by the end of this tasting.   Our proud club member was delighted to take the newcomers under her wing and sing the praises of Tablas Creek, which made my job fun.

The focus is on our flagship wines, with both current and library Esprit whites and reds shown and discussed.  The tasting this day included our 2012 Esprit de Tablas Blanc, 2005 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc, 2012 Esprit de Tablas, 2010 Esprit de Beaucastel, 2006 Esprit de Beaucastel, and a special treat, the 2011 Panoplie.  In addition to these wines, we encourage guests to choose a couple of other wines to round out the tasting.

This day was quite warm, an early indication of the summer ahead, so I suggested we all start with the crisp 2014 Vermentino and follow with 2014 Dianthus Rosé before getting to the main event.  Everybody was on board with this suggestion, so I opened fresh bottles of these two wines to whet the palate for what was to come.  I've always loved the Vermentino for summertime drinking, and this vintage is no exception, crisp and fresh but with a little extra lushness characteristic of the 2014 vintage.  Enjoying the wine sparked a discussion of why we have Vermentino planted here, which led me into the story of Tablas Creek, the search for the proper site, and how we imported clones from Chateau de Beaucastel.  We next tasted the remarkable Dianthus Rosé, perhaps my favorite vintage to date, which we savored as we continued the discussion.

Picture1The mise en scene, with two of the showcase wines

The first wine on our list for the day, the magnificent 2012 Esprit de Tablas Blanc, was showing beautifully, with the early promise of beeswax, honey and a gorgeous salinity.  Sometimes it's difficult to convince guests that this wine will age and evolve for many years, but the silence that came over everyone as we next tasted the 2005 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc left no doubt that the point was well made here.

And so it went as we tasted through three red Esprit vintages, starting with the youthful 2012 and watching secondary characteristics arrive and flavors deepen with the 2010 and 2006, and then finally the Panoplie, appreciating the wines that the Haas' and Perrins came here to make, comparing and contrasting, discussing the merits of the different vintages, and thoroughly enjoying each other’s company. 

We hope you have the opportunity to treat yourself and take advantage of this special experience on one of your visits.   With questions, or to reserve your seat for this tasting, please contact or call 805.237.1231 x45.  We have some corks we’d like to pull with you.

John Morris has been Tablas Creek's Tasting Room Manager since 2007

Dry-Farming in California's Drought, Part 1: Understanding California's Only-Sorta-Mediterranean Climate

Over the last few months, it seems like everyone I meet, whether locally or around the country, is wondering how we're doing in what our governor has termed a "historic drought".  Many are surprised to hear that while we're watching it warily, we think we're in OK shape.  And even more are surprised to learn that a critical reason why we think we're OK is that we've been increasingly investing in dry farming over recent years.  It seems counter-intuitive that farming without irrigation makes you better able to survive periods with less rainfall, but it is, we think, an important part of the answer.  In this three-part series, I'll look at California's drought from our perspective.  This first part will look at the differences between the Mediterranean climate and our climate here in California, and what lessons we took from that.  The second part looks both at how our original approach to farming has set our vineyard up to succeed through the last four dry years and what we're changing to adjust to what will likely be a drier future.  Finally, the third part looks back historically at how grapevines -- which should be one of the easier crops to dry-farm -- came to be so widely irrigated in California. 

We are, of course, inspired by Chateauneuf-du-Pape, the home of our founding partners at Beaucastel.  In Chateauneuf, as in most top winemaking regions in France, irrigation is prohibited.  This prohibition is enforced to prevent dilution and overproduction, and to encourage deeper rooting which should help wines express their region's terroir.  We came into our project believing that dry-farming would give us our best chance to express our terroir, although we were unsure whether we would be able to right away.

Chateauneuf-du-Pape receives, on average, 723mm (28 inches) of rain per year. The distribution is relatively constant, except for somewhat drier summers and somewhat wetter falls. Still, it can rain any time during the year. The chart below (which I found, along with the data above, on the useful site shows the distribution of rainfall by month, with January (01) on the left and December (12) on the right:


Our area west of Paso Robles has received historically a similar amount of precipitation annually (about 28 inches) but it is much more heavily weighted toward winter, with May-October almost entirely dry:

Avg Rainfall by month at Tablas Creek

(Note that if you're looking at statistics for Paso Robles, you'll see that the town averages 14 inches of rain.  However, our weather station, here 12 miles west of town, has recorded over the last decade almost exactly double the rainfall measured in town, with very similar distribution.)

Otherwise, the climate is broadly similar, though somewhat more extreme here.  Average temperatures are a touch cooler here in summer and fall because of our cool nights, and a touch warmer in winter, because of our warm days.  Year-round we have a larger diurnal shift (the difference between the daytime high and the nighttime low) than does Chateauneuf, which produces more frosty winter nights and a greater chance of spring freezes, but also ensures that we maintain good acids during the growing season.  We receive a bit more sun.

Still, the primary difference between the two places, and the one that requires us to adjust most, is the distribution of the rainfall. We knew that we had chosen soils that were primarily calcareous clay, renowned for their water-holding capacity.  But still, it was clear to us that while we had enough rainfall on an annual basis to support dry-farmed grapevines, we would need to figure out how to get them through a five-month dry spell unlike anything they see in the Rhone Valley.  

What did we do?  Check out part 2.