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June 2017

If you build it they will come: Owl boxes, owls, and gopher management

By Jordan Lonborg

For those of you who garden, have fruit trees, a few grapevines, or even a vineyard, pocket gophers can be your nemesis. They will burrow in your garden, sometimes taking entire plants underground with them. The will feast on feeder roots of young trees and/or vines, killing the plant. A garden, orchard, or vineyard is paradise to the pocket gopher. They have water (from irrigation) and an actively growing root system as a food source. We may have lost close to 500 one-year-old vines last year due to gophers. The most effective way of dealing with pocket gophers is to physically trap and kill them. This process takes practice, skill, and time. Even then, at the end of the day you may find yourself looking like Carl Spackler (Bill Murray from Caddyshack) with holes all over your yard, no gophers trapped, and feeling very frustrated (no C4 please!).

Enter Tyto Alba, commonly known as the barn owl. This raptor has your back. Here at Tablas Creek, as part of our pest management program, we have built and erected owl boxes throughout vineyard in the last two growing seasons. To be exact, on the 120 or so planted acres (10 of which are just rootstock) there are 38 owl boxes! From just about any point in the vineyard you’ll notice the rectangular shaped houses that are painted barn door red with the Tablas leaf painted on all sides. It was my goal to have one box every 100-150 yards throughout the entire vineyard, and we've been putting up boxes steadily over the last two years. Being certified organic, outside of trapping, biological control -- read predators who will eat them -- is our only other option. Note the heavy traffic this one's door has seen:

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Every January, barn owl males go in search for suitable nesting locations. To attract females, they begin bringing back rodents to their nest to prove that they can provide enough food for a clutch, or a family of owls. The females will lay between 6-8 eggs in a season, an eggs every 2-5 days. When the last egg has hatched, she begins hunting with the male until late May or early June when the owlets fledge or leave the nest. With a full clutch and a strong food source, a nesting pair can conservatively take around 500 small vertebrates back to the nest to feed their young. Barn owls are extremely efficient hunters and can be voracious when it comes to consuming pocket gophers and other vertebrate pests. Other than gopher remains, I have found the skulls of ground squirrels, song birds, snakes, and even crows in these. Check out the gopher skull I picked up under the above box:

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If you have gopher issues and are interested in building owl boxes for your property, check out this link for step-by-step directions on how to build your own… I have personally built over 150 of them and they are very successful. The link provides all steps needed. I will happily answer any and all questions; leave them in the comments or give us a call at the winery.

Owls are amazing hunters. But I'm not suggesting you rely solely on owl boxes to solve your pocket gopher issues. Look at barn owls as free labor that work while you sleep.  If you do decide to build a few of your own, I leave you with a quote…. “In the immortal words of Jean-Paul Sartre, 'Au revoir, gopher'” –Carl Spackler aka Bill Murray in Caddy shack


Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost: Q&A with Cellar Master Brad Ely

By Suphada Rom

Brad Ely, a native of the Central Coast, has found his way back to the area after several years of travel and cellar experience, taking him from the far reaches of Australia and New Zealand all the way to Washington state and the Rhone Valley. I sat down with him recently to talk all things travel, winemaking, and what makes Tablas Creek special to him.

Brad truck

I know you're local to Central Coast- where did you grow up?
I grew up in Arroyo Grande, California, so about 45 minutes south of Paso. It was a good town to grow up in- close to the beach, which was great since I surfed a lot. Small town but a really good place to raise a family, and it's on the central coast so that's definitely a plus. After high school, I went to Cal Poly.

Did you study wine and viticulture at Cal Poly?
So I was torn between wine and viticulture, construction management, and business. At the time, I thought business would be the most versatile option, but really all my work experience after college has been in the wine industry. My first job was at Saucelito Canyon in Edna Valley. I went into it thinking I'd just do a quick harvest, then do a ski season somewhere else, but I stayed on for two harvests. After that, I took off around the world for 3 years, to travel and continue my passion for making wine.

Brad Barrels

Where have you traveled and worked?
The first place I went to was Australia, to work harvest for Two Hands in the Barossa Valley. I stayed beyond harvest, took some time to travel to Asia, then moved up to Washington to work for Owen Roe, making everything from Pinot Noir to Bordeaux varieties and Syrah. I worked there until winter and went straight back to Two Hands in Australia to work another few months, leading into harvest. After that harvest was done, I hopped on a plane to go to New Zealand for another. Literally, our harvest ended on a Friday and that following Monday morning I was scheduled to start in New Zealand for a custom crush facility called Vin Pro in Central Otago. After that, I traveled through Indonesia and the Philippines, before going to France. While in France, I worked for a producer called Domaine La Barroche under Julien Barrot. The vineyards there have been in the family for centuries, records going back to about the 14th century. Originally sold to negociants, Julien decided to keep the wines and start a label. The year that I was there was the first year they were producing out of their new cellar, which was just a beautiful cellar. All concrete fermenters, large foudres, and gravity flow. I came back and it wasn't long until I heard about an opening at Tablas Creek. I've been here about a year now, which has been a huge blessing!

What makes Tablas Creek special to you?
It's just an amazing property, with a completely different feel than a lot of wineries in the area. I think that has a lot to do with being co-owned by a French family. Just walking through, it feels very French, especially coming from Chateauneuf-du-Pape and basically going straight to Tablas. Not only are the winemaking philosophies pretty similar, but it has that French feel; and that's part of why I like our winery so much. Tablas is a special place and an awesome piece of land to grow grapes on. Everything we do here really reflects tradition, as well, which I am a huge proponent of. 

As Cellar Master, what are your tasks?
It's everything in the cellar and everything winemaking oriented. We have an awesome team and between Craig, Chelsea, Neil, and I, we pretty much have all the bases covered and organizationally speaking, things run really smoothly here. Working in the cellar, it's fruit to glass. During harvest time, it's everything from processing fruit to pump overs to digging the tanks. No job is too small or too big, we're doing it all. When harvest is over, it's a lot of moving wine around, lots of tasting, and making sure everything is going in the direction we want it to. Working in the cellar is very mechanical and you have to wear all sorts of hats. You may be a plumber and then an electrician and a repairman. And cleaning... a lot of cleaning!

Brad Tractor

What would be something people would be surprised to hear about working in the cellar?
Well a lot of people think we drink wine all day, which isn't true! You've got to drink in moderation, which doesn't include drinking at work, so we're constantly spitting. I believe you can taste a lot better when you're spitting, as well. And depending on who you talk to, not everyone knows how much work goes into making a bottle of wine. I've had people shrug it off and say, "Oh yeah, you know... you pick grapes and then make the wine." That's when I have to tell them it's a bit more complicated than that!

What is your personal winemaking philosophy?
Wines that are pretty close to Tablas. I like to be pretty hands off and I don't really like oak. I like natural fermentations, and getting away from additions if you can, even in terms of acid adjustments. I like lower sulfur wines, as well. Basically, trying to make wine as naturally as possible, while still making clean drinkable wines that reflect terroir and sense of place. In terms of what I want to make, I want to make Rhone wines- that's where my passion lies. If I could, I would make Grenache and Roussanne all day, those are the two I care most about. 

When you're not cleaning tanks or moving wine, what are you doing?
I like to travel. I just got back from Cuba, which was really cool. I like to ride motorcycles and work on them. Growing up, I surfed a lot, which I still do a fair amount of. I'll also golf with my Dad and although I'm horrible at it, it's something we can do together. And then of course wine stuff!

Brad Lamb

Do you have a favorite food and wine pairing?
I always love pork and Grenache, like a pork loin or something with a little bit of gaminess. I had a pairing recently with rabbit and Pinot, which was pretty tasty too.

Finally, how do you define success?
I think you’re successful if you’re happy. If you’re happy and you feel like you’re in a good spot then I think that’s success. I wouldn’t tie it anything monetary. I’ve never been into status symbols and nice things, don’t get me wrong, I would love to have nice things, but it’s not a make or break for me. If you’re happy and healthy and the relationships you have are meaningful, that’s success.


Move Along... Nothing To See Here... Just our First New Wine in Seven Years

Last week, Francois Perrin joined me, my dad, Neil, Chelsea, Craig, Brad and Jordan around the blending table as we took our first comprehensive look at the reds from 2016. Coming into the blending, we'd only looked in detail at the whites, which were super. But reds often tell a different story.  I'm happy to report that this year, they look as strong as the whites.  And, for the first time in 7 years, we got to make a new wine. See if you can spot it:

2016 red blends

As usual, we started our blending week Monday morning by tasting, component by component, through what we had in the cellar. Thanks to the better crop levels that we saw in 2016, there were enough lots that we began with Counoise and Mourvedre on Monday, and continued with Grenache, Syrah, and the handful of oddballs on Tuesday.  Our goal at this first stage is to identify the quality of the different lots, and get a sense of both the character and diversity present in the vintage to help give us direction in blending.

We grade on a 1-3 scale, with 1's being our top grade (for a deep dive into how we do our blending, check out this blog by Chelsea from a few years back). For context, in a normal year, for every 10 lots we might see 3-4 "1" grades, 5-6 "2" grades and 1 "3" grade.  As you'll see, lots of good grades this year.  My quick thoughts on each variety:

  • Grenache (13 lots): A strong showing for Grenache, with 6 of the lots receiving 1's from me and only one 3.  Quite luscious, some lots still a little sweet (not unusual for Grenache at this time of year).
  • Mourvedre (18 lots): Also strong, though (for me) quite a large number of very good lots but not that many great lots.  I gave seven lots a 1 grade, with another three hovering between 1 and 2.  Lots of texture here, beautiful red fruit, good cola flavors. Not blockbuster wines overall, but classy and balanced.
  • Syrah (13 lots): The best showing we've ever seen for Syrah. I gave eight of the thirteen lots 1 grades, and felt guilty on a few other cases that I was being too tough a grader. Deep, spicy, meaty, with powerful black fruit. Juicier than Syrah often is at this stage, but with plenty of tannin and concentration to back it up.
  • Counoise (7 lots): Plenty of pretty Counoise that will be great for varietal bottlings and the Cotes de Tablas. Not much (in fact, only one lot) that felt like it had the concentration for Esprit for me. Usually there's a mix of the lighter-toned Counoise that reminds me of the Gamay grape and the darker, blueberry and spice Counoise that feels more Rhone-like. This year, almost entirely on the lighter side.
  • Tannat (3 lots): All three lots got 1 grades from me; it's going to be a great Tannat year. Lots of black fruit, good tannic structure, good acids.
  • Cabernet (1 lot): Only one small (60 gallon) lot of Cabernet this year; not really enough to bottle on its own, and anyway it was a nice dark wine but without as much Cabernet distinctiveness as we look for in a varietal bottling. It will find a happy home in the 2016 Tannat.
  • Pinot Noir (1 lot): Just right, for my taste, in its balance between pretty cherry Pinot fruit, herbal elements from the roughly 25% whole clusters we used in the fermentation, and a little kiss of oak. Should make for a delicious 2016 Full Circle Pinot. 
  • Terret Noir (1 lot): Just the 4th vintage of this new grape for us, the Terret was zesty and bright, with watermelon fruit, good acids, and a little less grip than I remember from recent vintages. We've bottled it on its own in recent years, as we try to wrap our heads around it, but it's ultimately going to be a blending grape, and we think we found a great use for it.  Keep reading.

We finished Tuesday with a round-table discussion about what we wanted to try in the blending the next few days, and decided that given the strength of the Syrah (and Grencahe) lots, we wanted to see some blends with higher percentages of Syrah than we've had in most recent years, and some others where we increased both Grenache and Syrah at the expense of Mourvedre.  

Wednesday morning, we reconvened to work out each blend, starting with the Panoplie and continuing on through the lineup.  Panoplie is always overwhelmingly Mourvedre (typically 60% at least) and typically not much Syrah, because Syrah's dominance often proves to be too much for the character of the Mourvedre.  Not this year. We tried three blends and ended up picking as our favorite the one with the most Syrah and least Grenache. I was not surprised to find that we'd preferred the wine with 25% Syrah; the Syrah was outstanding. But I was surprised that we liked the blend with 66% Mourvedre and just 9% Grenache better than one with 60% Mourvedre and 15% Grenache. But it was pretty universal around the table: that by having a high percentage of Syrah and increasing the Grenache as well, we lost something essentially Mourvedre -- and essentially Panoplie -- about the wine.

Panoplie decided, we moved on to the Esprit.  Moreso than the Panoplie, the fundamental question we face each year with the Esprit is whether the character of the Mourvedre benefits more from a greater addition of Syrah or of Grenache, as these two variables are typically how we adjust to warmer and cooler vintages.  In warmer years, where the Mourvedre shows juicier and more open (and tends to be higher alcohol) the darkness, spice, minerality, and structure of Syrah are particularly valuable.  In cooler years, the flesh, sweet fruit, and more open tones of Grenache tend to be indispensable. So perhaps it shouldn't have been surprising that in the warm 2016 vintage, we preferred a blend with a lot of Syrah  -- 31%, our highest-ever -- to options with higher percentages of Grenache.  I was surprised that an option where we increased both Syrah and Grenache, and reduced the Mourvedre to around 38%, didn't show as well. But in this relatively ripe year, we found that as we increased the Grenache, the wines tended to come across as a touch alcoholic, while high-Syrah blends felt deep, pure, and balanced. So, the 2016 Esprit de Tablas will be 46% Mourvedre, 31% Syrah, 18% Grenache, and 5% Counoise.

Next on tap were two small-production blends -- one new, one we've been making for a decade -- that will go to the wine club. For our En Gobelet, in early years, we used nearly all the head-trained, dry-farmed lots for this one wine, and typically didn't have a lot of choices.  But as the acreage that we've planted head trained has increased, we've had the ability to use these lots in Panoplie and Esprit as well as En Gobelet.  But having already chosen the blends of these two wines, there wasn't a lot of choice left.  So it was with some relief that we all loved the wine that resulted: a blend of 39% Mourvedre, 30% Grenache, 20% Syrah, 8% Counoise, and 3% Tannat.  It was deeply red fruited, rich and savory, structured, like we'd distilled down cherries into their essence. It was a testament to the quality that those head-trained vines produce, and made a nice contrast to more Syrah-driven dark fruit we ended up preferring in the Panoplie and Esprit.  Club members are in for a treat, in a couple of years.

For our second small-production blend, we wanted to find a way to celebrate the kinship that we felt Syrah has with Terret Noir.  Now these two grapes may seem like opposites in many ways, with Syrah dark and Terret quite pale.  But Terret shares a peppery spiciness with Syrah, particularly the Syrah lots that we fermented with whole clusters.  So, we experimented with a series of blends combining the two, trying to figure out the relative proportion to make a wine with depth and seriousness, yet an openness that Syrah only rarely achieves.  We ended up needing to add a little Grenache to the blend for flesh, and think we have a solution at about 60% Syrah and 20% each of Terret and Grenache.  The result is like Syrah with an overlay of translucency: elements of both light and dark, savory, zesty, and clean.  We may still tweak this a little, but the bones are there for something that should be exciting.

On Thursday morning, we reconvened to tackle the Cotes de Tablas and the varietals.  As often happens, the Cotes fell into place pretty quickly.  We'd used so much Syrah in our other blends that all the rest of what we had in the cellar was only going to make up 25% of the 2100 cases we were trying to target for this wine.  And that amount is about the minimum we feel like a Grenache-dominated blend needs to stay savory and in balance.  We never use much Mourvedre in this blend, as we feel like it gets buried by the Grenache and Syrah, and we would prefer to save this Mourvedre for our varietal bottling.  So, we were really experimenting with only two components: Counoise and Grenache.  We ended up choosing a blend relatively high in Grenache for us (57%), with 25% Syrah, 12% Counoise, and 9% Mourvedre.  The wine was cheerful: strawberry and cherry fruit, nice spice, and enough structure and depth to hold it all together.  It should be a real crowd-pleaser when it's released, and should also get deeper and more serious with time in barrel.

Given what we'd made of the blends, the math dictated what we could make as varietals: Mourvedre, Grenache, and Counoise, but no Syrah.  Quantities of Mourvedre should be solid, the other two somewhat less. No Syrah, as often happens in warmer vintages, since it's so important in the blends.  That makes two years in a row; if you think you'll miss it, consider this your warning to stock up on the (delicious) 2014.

A few concluding thoughts.

First, the 2016 vintage seems to have an appealing balance between lusher, juicier notes and deeper, more savory notes.  Like a somewhat more generous 2014, or a 2015 with a little more power, or 2007 with a little less alcohol.  That these are some of our best recent vintages makes me very excited for 2016's prospects.  See all the 1's and 2's on my tasting sheet:

Tasting Notes 2016

Second, after three years where our quantities were dramatically reduced by our drought (and in 2015, by cold weather during flowering) it was such a relief being able to make the quantities that we wanted of most wines.  This stands in stark contrast to 2015, where even after some pretty drastic action in nearly eliminating the Dianthus and reducing my target quantities of many wines to rock bottom, we still came up short.  There are a few vintages where high quality and solid quantity go hand in hand (I'm thinking 2005, or 2010, here) and I'm always grateful.  Not that 2016 was particularly plentiful; it's still quite a bit below what we saw in 2010 or 2012.  But compared to 2015, it felt like a windfall.

Third, what a pleasure to taste with Francois Perrin.  It's been a few years since we had him here for the blending; we rarely know which Perrin we'll receive when we ask, and he was laid up for a time with some back problems.  And each of the Perrins brings amazing depth of experience and terrific insights.  But Francois, who has been the chief craftsman in the cellars at Beaucastel for four decades, has a unique perspective.  Hearing what he gets excited about is a treat, and knowing that he was enthusiastic about what he found out of the 2016's is a great sign of the vintage's quality.


Fresh Herbs in the Glass and on the Plate: Vietnamese Spring Rolls & Vermentino

By Suphada Rom

At Tablas Creek we make wines primarily from varieties known from France's Rhône Valley. I love pairing traditional French fare with our wines- that to me is elementary, in the sense that, well, it just makes sense to pair the two. However, the food scene is diverse and ever growing, and as much as I love French food, it's not something I eat everyday. Right now, I can't get enough Vietnamese food. There is just something so vibrant and fresh about all the ingredients used, whether it's freshly chopped basil atop a tart salad or leaves of mint tucked inside a rice paper wrapper. The fresh ingredients of this style of cuisine inspired me to produce a spring pairing - Spring rolls and Vermentino.

Verm shrimp roll

I've been mildly obsessed with the craft of rolling the perfect spring roll. Luckily it's not that hard to make, I just tend to sweat the details, like is there just the right amount of noodles or is it equally balanced on either end with both shrimp and pork? That said, don't be intimidated by the wrapping portion and do have friends over to help you roll- it's not a spring roll party without them! For my spring roll recipe, I love my mom's recipe, but I swear, every time I ask for the recipe, it's slightly different (I think she's keeping some cooking secrets to herself!). I've outsourced a recipe from one of my favorite restaurants- The Slanted Door in San Francisco, California. Chef Charles Phan has an incredible cookbook (entitled The Slanted Door) from which I pull many recipes to share. I love his recipe for spring rolls, as it is simple and all about getting the freshest ingredients. Delicious and satisfying, I decided to have a couple friends over for a spring time spring roll party. 

Spring cuisine is all about fresh vibrant herbs, lighter fare, and mouthwatering white wine. And nothing we make is more mouthwatering than Vermentino. The 2016 vintage marks the fifteenth bottling of this mouthwatering Sardinian variety on the Tablas Creek property. We have about 3.25 acres dedicated to Vermentino plantings, and bottle (in generous vintages) a little over 1000 cases. It's one of my favorite varieties, simply because it's so clean and bright: citrus, bright acidity, and salty minerality. On the nose, the 2016 Vermentino is herby and chalky, with notes of key lime. On the palate it's delightful, with notes of nectarine and lemon. My mouth is left watering because the of the wine's acidity. The herbs in the wine's aromas tie in beautifully with the mint in the spring rolls. The surprising factor was the peanut sauce, which worked really well texturally with the wine. I love having something really bright and acidic paired with something rich and creamy.

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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

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