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December 2017

Checking in on our first ever Tablas Creek red: the 1997 Rouge

In the early days of Tablas Creek, we followed a very simple model: one red wine (which we called "Rouge") and one white wine (which we called "Blanc").  In 1999, we got really crazy and added a pink wine, which we called (of course) "Rosé".

Things have changed since then, as we've come to know both our vineyard and the market better, and this year we'll bottle, by my count, 29 different wines: 13 reds, 13 whites, 2 rosés, and one sweet wine.  These include our three tiers of blends, a pretty wide range of varietal wines, particularly on the white side (thank you, rainy 2016-17 winter), some small-production wine club-only blends, and one special project we're doing in conjunction with the team at Bern's Steakhouse.  I'm grateful to have the flexibility and opportunity to make these different wines, which I feel show off the uniqueness of our grapes and the talent of our vineyard and winemaking team.

That said, when we get to the blending, Neil and I always look at each other and remark that it used to all be so easy: as long as we liked the lots, they all went to the same place.

So, it was with a mix of nostalgia and anticipation that I opened a bottle of our 1997 Rouge while I was back in Vermont for the holidays.  This was where it all began, and it was not just the reflection, or the essence, of the vineyard that year, but the entirety of our red production.  Even so, we only made about 2000 cases.  It was the first harvest off the Beaucastel cuttings we had brought into the country, as they were kept in quarantine between 1989 and 1992, and then required two years of propagation before we could plant our first block in 1994. To this, we added small amounts of fruit from our American-sourced one-acre blocks of Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre, most of which we have since grafted over to French clones.  And even these older blocks were only planted in 1992, so the oldest vines in the vineyard were five years old in 1997.

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Given the youth of the vineyard, it was very much to our surprise that the 1997 Rouge ended up in Wine & Spirits Magazine's "100 Best Wines of 2000", receiving 94 points and the following notes:

"The scent of this wine draws you in, then the texture holds you effortlessly. What’s great about this Rhône blend, however, is not just the deep, dark scent of dried cherries and wet stones, not just the succulent red fruit flavor and voluptuous feel. When it’s gone it leaves a memory of earthiness and a clean, refreshing taste. The wine isn’t about complexity. It focuses on perfect ripeness, and the delicious savory flavors and textures that come with such impeccably balanced grapes. A joy to drink. This is the first release from Tablas Creek, a joint venture between Château de Beaucastel’s Perrin family and their longtime importer Robert Haas."

Because it was so long ago, because we no longer make a "Rouge", and because there wasn't much of the wine to begin with, I don't get to open the 1997 Rouge all that often.  So, it was a treat to see that, even as it approaches its 21st birthday, it's still going strong.

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My notes from the dinner:

"A deep, rich nose of hoisin, pine forest, currant, green peppercorn, nutmeg, and a coolness that's surprising from such a warm vintage. The mouth is full of sweet fruit: red raspberry and cocoa powder, and a rich texture with tannins that feel like powdered sugar. A little mushroomy earthiness is the wine's best hint of its age.  Shows nice tanginess on the finish and some still-substantial tannins that linger.  Fully mature, but nowhere close to over the hill."

 What a relief that it's finally old enough to drink.


A cold, dry start to winter 2017-18, but a change is (hopefully) on the way.

It's going to be no surprise to most of you to hear that it's been a dry winter so far. You don't need to look any farther than the fact that much of the Central Coast has been dealing with fires at a time of year when we're more likely to be worrying about erosion. Even when we did get a little rain the week before Christmas, it served mostly to highlight just how unusually bare the ground was for late December:

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While the dry weather has meant pleasant afternoons that felt more like October than December, it was also very cold at night.  How cold?  In December, we saw 20 nights of frost at the vineyard.  Now a winter frost isn't unusual.  We typically get 30-40 nights a year that drop below freezing, and December is typically our coldest month.  Nor is it detrimental.  Grapevines benefit from being forced into dormancy, as it keeps them from expending energy they'll need in the spring on winter growth that won't help ripen grapes.

But it is unusual to see so many frost nights in a single month, and even more unusual for so many of those days to be warm.  The average high temperature in December was 68.9 degrees, and sixteen days made it into the 70s.  One day (December 13th) managed to set both Paso Robles' record high (73) and low (22) for that date.  What was the culprit?  Record low humidities, and a near-total lack of cloud cover.  Eighteen days saw relative humidity levels drop into the teens, with a stretch in early December where four days in a week saw levels in the single digits.  How unusual is that?  December 2016, which wasn't even all that wet, didn't see a single relative humidity reading as low as 30%.  Neither December 2015 nor December 2014 saw any days below 20%.  You have to go back to 2013, which for most of California's was its driest year on record, to find anything comparable, and even they only saw 11 days of relative humidity below 20%. No wonder our December brought us only a paltry 0.07" of rain.

The impact on the vineyard is likely to depend on what we see in coming weeks and months.  Typically at this point we'd expect to have accumulated 8.15" of rain. This year, we've only gotten 1.42", or 17% of normal.  Our cover crop has barely sprouted, and the soil is dry down through most of the root zone.  But there's still time.  Typically, more than two-thirds of our annual rainfall comes after the new year, and our two wettest months are, on average, January and February.  That said, there's no question that we're behind. Even with normal rainfall the rest of the winter, we'd only be at 73% of normal precipitation:

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There's no guarantee that we'll see normal rainfall the rest of the winter, either. The Pacific has settled into a mild La Nina pattern, which typically produces drier than normal winters in California.  That said, for the first time in over a month the near-term forecast is calling for some wet weather. The ridge of high pressure that has been responsible for our dry December is breaking down, and two small storm systems are forecast to impact the Central Coast this week. Even better, the following week is likely to see the storm track shift south enough for some potentially more significant rainfall.  Meteorologist John Lindsey shared the following graphic on social media, showing the two major model predictions of ten-day precipitation:

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While neither projection suggests we'll get drenched, both show an inch or two of rain as we enter January. That's not enough to get down deep into the zone where our dry-farmed vines' roots mostly are, but every bit helps.  At the least, it should get the cover crop germinated, and ensure that our flock of sheep, alpacas, donkeys, and llama has enough to eat this winter without our having to supplement.

Given how dry it's been so far this winter, we'll take whatever we can get. Fingers crossed, everyone, please.