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February 2017

A Rebuttal: Drink what you like. And celebrate wine's diversity.

It's rare enough that the mass media writes about wine that I was pleased to see an opinion piece on wine in this Sunday's New York Times, called "Ignore the Snobs, Drink the Cheap, Delicious Wine".  In the piece, author Bianca Bosker begins with a visit to Treasury Wine Estates. One of the world's largest wine companies, Treasury is best known for owning flagship brands like Penfold's, Stag's Leap, Lindeman's, Beringer, and Chateau St. Jean, but those are just a few of the wines they make. Between all their brands, according to their Web site, they sold over 30 million cases of wine in 2015. Ms. Bosker is impressed enough by their wine creation process (which she describes as "created from the consumer backwards") that it encourages her to rethink the place of wines that are, like those she saw, more engineered in a lab than grown in a vineyard.  If you haven't read it, go do it now. OK, welcome back.  

Stock photo - wines in lab
Copyright: freeprod / 123RF Stock Photo

I don't at all disagree with the idea that people should drink what tastes good to them. I think it's great that the wines that are being made for the masses are better than they were a generation ago. I do hear, again and again, that the chance of finding a truly flawed wine is the lowest it has ever been. That's all good. It's a noble goal to make people feel better about drinking the wines they like, and to dispel the intimidation factor from wine. But while this is just an excerpt from what will surely be a more nuanced book, I fear that her central conclusion is wrong, and wrong in a way that will discourage, rather than encourage, the creation of a new generation of wine lovers. 

Let's address the cringe-inducing op-ed title first. I hate that wine knowledge is -- so often -- conflated with snobbery by the general media. The sommeliers I know are eager to share that knowledge, genuinely enthusiastic about wine, accepting that people have different tastes, and explicit that their goal should be to unite their customers with wines they'll love. That said, from my experience with publishers, I'm guessing it was the Times's editors who chose that title and not the author, so I'll leave that there. The second half of the title ("Drink the Cheap, Delicious Wine") seems like something that no one should object to.

And yet... the challenge is, of course, who gets to define delicious, and what that means for the wines that result. I love finding great wines that are steals for their quality, often from overlooked grapes or lesser known regions.1 The process of experimentation and discovery with these sorts of wines tends to lead people to understanding: these less heralded wines are often quite different from one another, and people may well learn that they love the freshness of Gamay but hate the herbal character of Cabernet Franc. Or vice versa. So, as consumers experiment, the diversity of what they taste also helps them better define what they like.

But rather than use modern techniques to create homages to the best simple village wines that a novice drinker might have enjoyed a generation ago, it seems from the author's descriptions that what she found were caricatures of expensive wines. Perhaps this is unsurprising. The production techniques that many elite wineries use for their highest-end wines are expensive: think very low production, to produce intensity; late harvests, to produce luscious flavors; aggressive sorting, to ensure that only the highest quality grapes begin fermentation; and new oak barrels, to provide sweet spices. These together result in wines that tend toward being rich and dense, with sweet fruit, low acid, and soft tannins. That's clearly a flavor profile with its adherents, even if it's not particularly mine.

It doesn't seem like it particularly is the author's taste, either. She describes the wines as "rich, syrupy and heavy", which sounds like a nice thing to pour over your pancakes, but maybe not to accompany your rib eye. Or maybe it does, to you. But even if so, all this reliability comes at a cost.

The rub is that, in a crowded marketplace, these focus-group-engineered wines necessarily displace wines of more interest and more diversity. The process by which focus-group wines are made means that they taste much the same, whatever their varietal makeup or their appellation of origin. Maybe this is OK, if these sorts of wines act as a gateway, getting people on a path that leads (eventually) to wines of more character and diversity. The author (and the Treasury spokesperson she interviews) asserts that. But I'm not sure. While any one of these wines may have a greater chance of appealing to any individual consumer, it seems to me that their sameness -- and the fact that these wines are the (often overwhelming) majority of what's on the shelves in supermarkets -- limits their ability, as a group, to connect with a range of potential wine lovers with different tastes.2

Wine can be a challenging thing. Many consumers who love wine are still intimidated by the arcane (and often foreign) names of places and grapes, the mysteries of fermentation and aging, and the often high prices that come alongside some famous names. But what is the solution to this? Is it to celebrate the elimination of wine's complexities, where wine all follows a specific taste formula designed to please the maximum number of novice drinkers? That seems a shame. Think of food. Is there a place for a Big Mac in American dining? Sure. But does it matter that food can be more than that, or that there are social implications of settling for what's mass-produced for focus groups? Also yes.

And should people aspire to drink better than "root beer with a splash of Hershey’s syrup and vodka," as the author described the wines she tasted in the lab? I don't think that's too much to ask, and I reject the idea that a sommelier (or winemaker) who is trying to lead people along a path to something more meaningful (even if it's more challenging) is somehow doing their customers a disservice.

Footnotes:

  1. So does every wine writer I read, from Robert Parker to Eric Asimov, who like very different sorts of wines. We try to make wines that fit into this basic criteria with our Patelin de Tablas line.
  2. It also seems to me a shame that you also lose what makes wine unique among beverages: that it is a window into the grape(s) that it came from, the place in which it's grown, and the people who made it. But maybe that's just me being romantic.

The woman behind the clipboard: Q&A with Wine Club and Hospitality Director Nicole Getty

By Suphada Rom

Many of you know Nicole as the welcoming face at Tablas Creek's events, or as the signature at the bottom of your wine club member emails. She has been at Tablas Creek since 2004: long enough to see the company evolve in so many ways. Her responsibilities include organizing and conducting our events, managing our wine clubs, and overseeing the hospitality for guests visiting the winery. I caught up with her recently to ask about her journey.

Ocean

Where were you born and raised?
I was born and raised in Northern California in Los Gatos. Los Gatos looked a lot different then. It was a sleepy little town, not too different from what Paso Robles used to be say 30 years ago. It's gotten to be a little busier and Bay area-esque, but still beautiful. 

What's your educational background?
I went to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo right after high school. When I went into school, I wasn't really sure what I wanted to do. I knew I loved plants, so I decided to try out horticulture. It was just the one thing that I I felt drawn to and had an interest in. I could see myself growing and caring for plants, and also landscaping. 

You're one of Tablas Creek's longest tenured employees. How have things changed since you were hired?
So I started here in 2004 and at the time, I was really the only wine club employee. Now, I can't imagine doing it alone, I'm really fortunate that I have my team. We're also a lot bigger now that we were, which is a good thing. We went from having around a dozen employees in 2004 to more than 30 now. Half of these are focused in the tasting room! I've never been to another winery where they have so many people working, but it means that on busy Saturdays and festival weekends we can still take care of people how we want, and still do so much more for both our wine club members and fellow industry professionals. 

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Our great wine club, hospitality and events team: from left, Monica O'Connor, Nicole Getty, Suphada Rom, Janelle Bartholomew, and Dani Archambeault

As Wine Club and Hospitality Director, what are your responsibilities?
The main thing is to make sure we're keeping our members happy with the customer service, the wine, etc. We have around 9,000 members! My team and I try to be creative and keep coming up with ideas on how to keep people excited about Tablas Creek and share all the amazing things we do here everyday. We also do a lot of events here; there's probably about one event per month that happens at the winery. And of course we want to keep the wine club growing, so we're both working on how we can gain new members and how we make sure that our current members want to stick around.

What is your favorite event of the year?
I was leaning towards the horizontal tasting because everyone is super excited to taste all the older vintage wines we have. And it's one of the only times where we get to do something like that. We don't taste the older vintages often, so it's pretty special when we do. I also love our annual pig roast. It's the most casual event that we do here and the food is really good. We'll open a lot of nice wines to pair, as well. I think the thing I enjoy most about all the events is seeing all the familiar faces. I know so many people from the beginning, and it's so nice to be able to reconnect with all of them.

What is one of your fondest memories at Tablas Creek?
I have this great memory from about 9 years ago. After a long day of work, we all decided to go take in the view at the top of the hill in the vineyard. That was back when Neil [Winemaker Neil Collins] had the Winnebago. He brought it up to the top of the hill and cooked dinner for all of us. We sat back, drank some rose, and watched the sun set over the entire vineyard. I remember just sitting up there and really enjoying all of what we had. I felt so fortunate to work at a place where you want to spend time with people you work with outside of work.

Trailer

What makes Tablas Creek special to you?
Tablas Creek's history and story are really incredible. There is so much integrity and progressive thinking here. Being passionate about plants and nature, I think it's important to be as sustainable as possible, which is something we do here, too. And then of course there's Bob [Founder Robert Haas] - I have so much respect for him and his vision for the winery, the environment, and just taking care of the people that work for him. The people that work here are special too, it's just this place- it attracts really great people. 

For food and wine, do you have a favorite pairing?
Ah, I have so many! I like seafood with either Vermentino or Picpoul Blanc. The Patelin de Tablas Blanc has been so good, too. If I'm eating something meat based, I love our Mourvedre.

Besides Tablas Creek, what are some of your favorite wineries?
Locally, I like Lone Madrore and TH. Outside of Paso, I like Chamisal, Ridge, and Kosta Browne. When I'm not drinking Tablas Creek Rhone wines, I love Pinot Noir. The Pinot Noir from Kosta Browne was probably the first I ever had and it was definitely a gateway wine for me. 

What is your hospitality philosophy?
I learned this pretty early on, but it's kind the whole philosophy here at Tablas Creek. We want to make sure that everybody that walks in, calls, or e-mails has a good and positive experience. It's my goal every day to make sure that happens.  I mean, we are a luxury industry. People don't need what we're selling. And there are so many wineries to choose from. So it's really important to keep people happy. 

Besides being here at work, how do you like to spend your free time?
My husband Nathan, our son Noah, and I go to the coast quite a bit. We go to Cambria pretty much every other weekend, and we'll go camping in San Simeon. We've also been trying to go on more hikes as a family. Most recently, Noah, he's four now, is riding his bike, so that's fun to watch! I was so afraid to take the training wheels off and I couldn't believe that when I did, he didn't fall once! I think our next thing is we'll get a cruiser for Nathan. I've got a basket on mine and who knows, maybe we'll even put our dog, Penny, in there. With a little bow or something!

Xmas

Finally, how do you define success?
I think success is not all about money, but it's a little about living comfortably and in a way where you can do the things you want to do. Also, it's so much about where you work. If you're coming to work and spending at least 8 hours a day with people, you want to be surrounded by people that you genuinely care about. That further translates to caring about what you do, as well. If I were selling something like, say, fertilizer with pesticides, I don't think I could stand behind it. Feeling good about what you're doing and with people you care about- that's success. 

 


A Taste of Spring: Pairing Rosé With Carnitas Tacos

By Suphada Rom    

What a week it's been! We've been busy out here at the winery, pruning our vines and getting them ready for bud break, all while navigating our first bottling of the year. We typically order lunches for the crew working bottling. However, I took it upon myself to make lunch for everyone, all in service to researching a food and wine piece for the blog. Two birds, one stone or in this case, two rosés and one lunch. 

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Our two rosés, ready for drinking!

Life is so much sweeter with rosé. I love that rosé represents spring, warmth, and the kickoff of the post winter thaw. It's a milestone and the beginning of the endless days of spring and summer sunshine here in California. In the tasting room, it's the most situational wine we have. It evokes memories of sitting by the pool, toes swaying back and forth in the cooling waters, and thoughts of summer parties where you are greeted with a warm hug and a cool glass. Rosé is exciting and with the release of ours, it felt fitting to have a bit of a celebratory lunch in the warm glow of what is still technically winter sun. And I know that groundhog said there would be six more weeks of winter but I don't mind one bit, especially if it's filled with days like this. 

Tacos are delicious, easy, and an across the board favorite among our staff. I love a good braise and slow simmering of meats (I'm sure you've gathered from past posts!), especially pork. Carnitas here in Central Coast are like lobster to the east coast- a staple and something I choose not to live without. A great and straightforward recipe for Tacos de Carnitas can be found on the New York Times website. The meat simmers for hours in a broth warmed by sweet spices like cinnamon and clove, and given citrusy freshness by orange zest. Incredibly fragrant and full of flavor, it was a recipe I'll definitely keep around. Nothing I would have done differently with this recipe except for making more: enough for leftovers!

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Carnitas- so simple and so delicious!

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Any and every topping known to the realm of tacos

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Burying my nose in my glass- it smelled amazing!

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Family lunch on the patio, Tablas Creek style!

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Our shepherd, Nathan Stuart and National Sales Manager, Darren Delmore, having a moment over some wine. This photo was too good not to share! Today was an absolutely incredible day filled with amazing people, great wine, and a satisfying meal.

I absolutely love pairing food with rosé (coming in close second is food and Champagne pairings, which are just delicious!). They're so versatile. We were able to enjoy both our Dianthus and Patelin de Tablas Rosé. Both rosés show the 2016 vintage's vibrant acidity and teem with notes of bright fruit. The 2016 Dianthus is a blend of 49% Mourvedre, 37% Grenache, and 14% Syrah, combining rosé styles of both Tavel and Bandol. The color is a stunning bright pink with neon hues. The nose is fragrant and generous. I dive in and I can trace just about any red fruit under the sun. If it exists, it's in this glass. On the palate, it thoroughly coats each and every inch of your mouth. Close your eyes, you may even think you're drinking red wine, it's just got this amazing density and richness. Delicious notes of mint and lemongrass shine through. There's a little prickle of spice and some acidity makes your mouth water for the next sip. Drink this wine now and drink it with carnitas tacos! We loved the spiciness of the wine with the tacos, however be warned, with extra salsa roja, it can pack a punch and isn't for the faint of heart. Essentially, unless you're in the business of eating spicy food and you like a good pepper challenge, have a bite then take a sip- just don't say we didn't warn you! 

The Patelin de Tablas Rosé (73% Grenache, 17% Mourvedre, 6% Counoise, 4% Syrah) is modeled differently, and has more of the look and feel of a Provence rosé. The fruit is sourced from some of the top growers in Paso Robles. In the glass, it's inviting and in my mind, summer in liquid form, with its light peach and pink coloring. The smell is soft and delicate, with notes of fresh nectarines and a tinge of grapefruit. On the palate, it's balanced and generous. So bright and so fresh. Fresh peaches, raspberries, and tart strawberries. Incredibly mouthwatering, I found myself meeting the bottom of my glass quicker than I anticipated! Each sip after bite revealed some amazing nuances I didn't notice the first go around. Great bottling of this wine and already one of my favorite rosés of the year. 

So there you have it- it's officially spring, not just because of the weather but because the rosé is here, it's bottled, and ready for your enjoyment through the rest of the year (or until we run out!). If you recreate this dish (or create a TCV wine and food pairing of your own!), be sure to let us know on any of our social media handles - Facebook or Twitter or Instagram - or just leave us a comment here! When you do, tag @tablascreek and use #EatDrinkTablas

A few resources:

  • The recipe for Tacos de Carnitas can be found here.
  • Our 2016 Patelin Rosé is ready for your enjoyment! It is available for purchase in the tasting room, through our online shop.
  • Not local? No worries, our Patelins can be found throughout the country! Check out the distributors we work with here.
  • Good News! The 2016 Dianthus, allocated to our wine club, is part of the Spring Shipment, set to go out later this month. Members may purchase up to six extra bottles. Contact our wine club office at orders@tablascreek.com or call (805)-237-1231 x236.
  • Not a member yet? It's not too late- Find out more information here.

January set the table for a wet winter. February brought us home.

At the end of January, I wrote a blog announcing that January 2017 had become our wettest month ever.  But at that time, we were only at 23.88" for the rain year (July-June), which while better than in recent years was still below our 20-year average, albeit with nearly half the rainy season still to come. I concluded that while we were very happy with what we'd received so far, "we've got a long way to go to climb out of the hole the last five years of drought has put us in".

February continued the winter's remarkable attack on our long-term drought, adding another 12.56" of rain to the tally, roughly 250% of what we'd get in an average February. By month:

Winter Rainfall 2016-17 March

How rare are back-to-back 10+ inch rain months?  Since our weather station went in during the summer of 1996, this is the first time.  In fact, we've only once before had two 10+ inch months in a single rain season: December of 2010 and March of 2011.  Otherwise, the closest we've come to these back-to-back wet months was a 13.5" month in December of 2004 followed by a 7.5" month in January of 2005, en route to our wettest-ever year at 42.85".  At 38.41" winter-to-date, we're not far from that now:

Winter Rainfall 1996-2017

You can see the impact of the 30" inches we've received (!) in 2017 in ways both more and less obvious. The vineyard is wet, with springs welling out of many of our hillsides. Las Tablas Creek is running cheerfully through its valley, for the first time since spring of 2012:

Tablas Creek Valley

The lake, which the previous owners made by damming up the creek, which we have visions of tapping to help with our frost protection in the spring, is full for the first time since 2011, complete with ducks:

Lake Ramage

The drought is significantly ameliorated, according to the United States Drought Monitor. In fact, San Luis Obispo County is almost entirely free of drought, upgraded to the lowest "abnormally dry" classification, when at the beginning of the fall it was split between "severe drought", "extreme drought", and "exceptional drought":

Drought monitor changes - v2

So, are we truly out of the woods? I wouldn't go that far. There are still enormous pressures on groundwater. While out here aquifers recharge quickly, compared to most other California regions, it's still early to declare us free from worry. I know that we're going be as careful as ever in how we develop our vineyard. The water in the ground will certainly give the head-trained, dry-farmed vines we're planting this winter on our new property an easier go of it. And we're unlikely to need to irrigate even the close-spaced established blocks this growing season. That's all good. But this year's wet winter doesn't change the likelihood that our climate is going to be gradually getting warmer and drier with climate change.

While we're grateful for all this water, we've also been happy to have the sun in recent days. The ground is so saturated, and so soft, that until the last 10 days or so it's been impossible to get into the vineyard to prune. We're still behind, but making good progress, and feel confident that we'll get everything done before budbreak.  I like this panoramic shot, taken between two Mourvedre rows where our crew left off at lunchtime: pruned, uphill on the left, and as-yet-unpruned, downhill on the right. Click on it to expand:

Pruned Unpruned Panorama

About that budbreak. At this time last year, we'd already seen budbreak in several of our early-sprouting grape varieties. This year, we've been having frosty mornings for most of the last two weeks, which combined with the water in the soil, seem to be convincing the vines to stay dormant a bit longer.  It seems likely that we're going to be back to a more normal start time to the growing season -- late March or early April -- rather than the exceptionally early beginning that we've seen the past few years. That is comforting. But as to whether it insulates us from a damaging frost, we'll have to see.  We've been lucky to avoid frosts these last few years, despite the early onset to the growing season. But the last two years which produced bad frost events (2009 and 2011) both saw late budbreak, in April rather than March.

Is it possible that a cold spring, which leads to a late budbreak, may also put you more at risk for a post-budbreak frost? It doesn't seem far fetched. But we'll still take every dormant night that we can, and shorten the frost season as much as possible. Fingers crossed, please, everyone.


A Lesson in Thai Cooking and Pairing with a Flight of Tablas Creek Wines

By Suphada Rom

The Tablas Creek team, as you might suspect, includes a large number of foodies, each with a different background. Around the lunch hour, people congregate in the kitchen to cook or just reheat lunch and socialize.  John Morris, our Tasting Room Manager, always creates a buzz with his authentic Thai dishes brought from home. And these aren't leftovers from a local restaurant, either. His wife Christina is a very accomplished and well versed Thai cook. For years, we've all felt pangs of jealousy when he opens one of his Tupperware containers, revealing yellow-gold curries with floating shrimp and bamboo.

So, when Christina invited a group of us over for a lesson in Thai cooking, we brought willing and able hands to help, and a passel of Tablas Creek wines to enjoy with our feast.

Couple with food
The happy (and hospitable) couple!

Walking into John and Christina's kitchen, the smell of the different spices was heady in the best possible way. I was hungry for food, but we were all eager to learn. Christina was incredibly warm and lovely and her years of restaurant experience show with her calm demeanor, warm hospitality, and a happy willingness to answer any and all of our questions. I'm sure she would have been able to balance a stack of books on her head the whole time, while maneuvering about the kitchen. I adore her and can't thank her enough for hosting all of us because, as I'm sure most of us know and have experienced, entertaining ravenous folks with a line-up of several bottles of wine is most assuredly always a handful!

Christina Curry
Christina starting the curry with some paste and coconut milk in the pan

We -- OK, I use "we" lightly when it comes to us cooking -- made a rich chicken and vegetable curry, fish cakes, tapioca dumplings, and papaya salad, all accompanied by a warm bowl of Jasmine rice. The chicken curry glimmered, a beautiful golden yellow color with vegetables poking through the surface. Fish cakes, seasoned with pungent curry paste and fried to perfection, quite literally rose to the occasion as they inflated in the pan while cooking. Tapioca coated dumplings were stuffed with a combination of fermented radish and ground pork, with dry roasted peanuts for texture. The papaya salad was done classically, with slivers of green papaya, mixed in with fresh cherry tomatoes and lime, tossed in crab paste and fish sauce. Christina taught us how to make it all, and like many good chefs, without a recipe. Tasting all these dishes was both familiar, yet intriguing. I tasted a lot of familiar flavors, but they appeared in different form. It's sort of like when you really start to smell all the different nuances in wine. It's surprising and intoxicating- I just couldn't stop smelling and tasting everything, and neither could anybody else. And in the spirit of togetherness, I really wanted to know what everyone else thought about our meal and what they thought the best pairing was:

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The line-up of wines we tried (not pictured was a jug of Bristol's Cider, made of course by our Neil Collins!)

Lauren Phelps, Marketing Coordinator:
My favorite pairing was the Patelin rosé with the papaya salad!  The crisp refreshing qualities of the rosé balanced the spicy tangy flavors of the papaya salad.  With the lingering spice of the salad, taking a sip of the rosé was like enjoying a refreshing sip of cool water, but better.  I also enjoyed how the savory berry flavors of the rosé sustained through the bite of salad leaving me with a tart raspberry flavor lingering before the next bite (which wasn’t very long).

John Morris, Tasting Room Manager: 
Vermentino worked with everything for me, especially the 2015.  It’s counterintuitive to the old saw of sweet wines with spicy food, but I think the aromatic sweetness works here.  Also, the acidity helps mitigate the heat.  The cider (Bristol's Cider, locally made by Tablas Creek's winemaker, Neil Collins) was great too!  I didn’t taste the Grenache Blanc, but I’m sure it would have worked as well.  I wanted the Petit Manseng to work, but for me it was just too sweet to balance everything. 

Amanda Weaver, Tasting Room Lead:
In my humble opinion, the Vermentino was the perfect pairing with all the beautiful dishes. The only close rival was the Patelin rosé. Both had refreshing acidity which complimented and challenged the notes of kaffir lime and Thai chilies that made their presence in most of the dishes. For a novice in spicy foods, the cool crisp Vermentino kept me from running for the fire extinguisher and kept me at the table enjoying our delicious meal! I'll be honest, when I heard that the first course was going to be fish cakes, I was ready to just stick to a nice full glass of Vermentino. However, once I caught a whiff of the tangy yet earthy Kaffir lime I knew I had to give it a try with the cool liquid in my glass! From there I was hooked. From fish cakes, to the translucent tapioca balls, to papaya salad and curry, I could not have asked for a more complete meal to pair with our 2015 Vermentino!

Leslie Castillo, Tasting Room Lead:
Out of all the TCV wines there were I only tasted 2014, and 2015 Vermentino and the 2014 Patelin Rosé; from those 3 wines, to me 2015 Vermentino had the most vibrant acidity and citrus notes which paired great with the fish patties, it contrasted the fatty content in them and complemented the fragrant lime leaves; that was my favorite pairing with the curry too!

Me:
This was a tricky one for me, as I truly enjoyed most of the wines at different parts of the meal. I loved the Patelin Rosé's liveliness with the curry, and how it sort of brought out more the curry's aromatics. Vermentino was incredibly versatile, bringing out the heady fresh herbs in the papaya salad, making my mouth water for more. Petit Manseng served as a rich and textured conclusion to our meal.  

Curry
Curry with chicken and vegetables

Leslie Cakes
Leslie, assembling fish cakes

Papaya
Papaya salad

Life gets so busy sometimes, with kids, schedules, appointments, and outings, that it's often difficult to coordinate get-togethers. However, I've come to realize we need to continue to make the time and the efforts to do the the things we love with the people we care about. In my experience, time spent often has either food or wine weaved in. While both food and wine are great, without the right company, the experience isn't quite as sweet. How lucky are we that we get to call each other both coworkers and friends. 

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Cheers from the Tablas Creek team!