Previous month:
January 2018

Winter 2017-2018 remains one of our driest ever, but at least it's gotten cold again.

Last winter's gloriously wet January and February feels like a lifetime ago. The 4.32" of rain that we've received so far this winter is less than 14% of last winter's (near-record) 31.92" as of February 12th. Yes, last winter was extraordinary, but we're also at just 27% of the 16.16" we'd expect to have received to date in a normal winter.  National newspapers are speculating that despite relatively healthy reservoir levels in the wake of last year's snowmelt, we might be reentering drought conditions.  While things are nowhere near as bad as they were in 2015 or 2016, the California Drought Monitor recently upgraded much of coastal southern California to "Severe Drought" status. And as of now, we're looking at our first totally dry February since 1952. The winter so far:

Winter rainfall 2017-2018 mid Feb v2
Although we're all worried about the lack of rain, there is a more pressing concern. While December 2017 was very cold, with 20 frost nights, 2018 has been much warmer. January saw only five nights drop below freezing, and until two nights ago, February had seen zero, and 10 days in a row topped out at 75°F or higher.  A February 8th Wines & Vines article on very early budbreak in Ojai sent many of the Central Coast winery folks I know scurrying, asking neighbors if they'd seen any signs of the same in their necks of the woods.

So, Sunday night's chilly weather, and the forecast for a week of frosty nights, was a relief to us all.

Why would we worry more about the unusual warmth than the unusual dryness?  Well, too much more warmth and we would be looking at budbreak in February, which would be the earliest we'd ever seen. And early budbreak puts us at increased risk of damage from spring frosts, which can come as late as early May.  A bad frost typically costs us something like 40% of our production.  It's been a while since our last bad frost -- 2011 was our most recent, with other similarly bad ones in 2009 and 2001 -- but I'm not anxious to repeat the experience.  While a dry winter does have some implications on yields, typically it's not nearly as dramatic, at least not the first year of a drought.  It would be a different calculus if this winter had followed a string of dry years, but for now, our wells are in good shape and the vines strong from last year's ample winter rain.

Of course, it's not like we get to choose. And since the main determinant of budbreak is warming soil temperatures, the lack of rainfall and the warm weather both have roles to play in the timing of when the vines sprout.  Wet soils hold the nighttime cold much better than dry soils do, so a good soaking in the next few weeks would have the ancillary benefit of maintaining cool soil temperatures well into March. 

In any case, while we're all hoping for rain, we'll be looking forward each morning this week to seeing a frosty carpet. We'll take what we can get.


Tasting the wines in the Spring 2018 VINsider Wine Club shipments

Each spring and fall, we send out a selection of six wines to the members of our VINsider Wine Club.  In many cases, these are wines that only go out to our club.  In others, the club gets a first look at a wine that may see a later national release.  About 6 weeks before the club shipments will be sent out, we open them all to write the tasting and production notes that will be included in the club shipments.  In many cases, this tasting is our first post-bottling introduction to wines that we'll come to know intimately in coming weeks and months. In some cases (like this time) where the shipments contain wines that aren't yet even bottled (they will be the last week of February) it's a chance to get to know wines that are newly finished.  I always think it's fun to give followers of the blog a first look at these notes.

These shipments include wines from the 2015, 2016, and 2017 vintages.  It was fascinating to taste these three vintages, all of which we think were very strong, together, and to get a sense of how they compare.  My quick thoughts, after the tasting, are that 2015 is a classically styled vintage, more old world than the luscious 2014's, but with tremendous depth and complexity. We have been impressed with the 2016 whites, but as we come to know the reds I think it's if anything an even better red vintage, striking a mid-point between 2014's juicy intensity and 2015's depth and texture.  Finally, 2017 (we only tasted two wines) seems to show lush textures and vibrant acids, a great combination. 

I'll start with the classic mixed shipment, and then move on to the red-only and white-only shipments, noting which wines will be included in each.  I was joined for the tasting by our cellar team: Winemaker Neil Collins, Senior Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi, Assistant Winemaker Craig Hamm, and Cellar Master Brad Ely.  The wines:

Spring 2018 shipment wines 2
2017 VERMENTINO

  • Production Notes: Our sixteenth bottling of this traditional Mediterranean varietal, known principally in Sardinia, Corsica, and Northern Italy. It is also grown in the Mediterranean parts of France (particularly Côtes de Provence) where it is known as Rolle. The Vermentino grape produces wines that are bright, clean, and crisp, with distinctive citrus character and refreshing acidity. To emphasize this freshness, we ferment and age Vermentino in stainless steel, and bottle it in screwcap.
  • Tasting Notes: A clean, spicy Vermentino nose of grapefruit pith, citrus leaf, white flowers and sea spray. Briny. The palate shows Vermentino's characteristic vibrant acids, with flavors of key lime, nectarine, and an ocean spray note that lingers on the long, clean, bright finish.  Drink now and over the next few years.
  • Production: 1430 cases.

2016 ROUSSANNE

  • Production Notes: Roussanne yields recovered slightly in 2016, but were still low, and produced wines with both lushness and density. We fermented the Roussanne lots that were selected for our varietal bottling roughly 55% in foudre, 35% in neutral oak puncheons, and 10% in small new barriques. The selected lots were blended in April 2017 then aged through the subsequent harvest before bottling this past December.
  • Tasting Notes: Rich and immediately Rhoney on the nose, with aromas of graham cracker, crystallized pineapple, ginger, and honeycomb. The mouth is rich and inviting, with flavors of honeydew and smoky marzipan, tons of texture, and a little pithy bite that helps all the rich flavors resolve into a clean, dry finish. A hint of sweet oak lingers. The wine has only been in bottle for a few months and we expect it to continue to flesh out over the next year. Hold for a few months at least, then drink over the next decade or more.
  • Production: 900 cases

2017 DIANTHUS

  • Production Notes: Our Dianthus rosé, whose name was chosen for a family of plants with deep-pink flowers, is back up to pre-drought levels after significant reductions in production in 2016 and especially 2015. As usual, we aim for a style between that of Tavel (deeper pink, based on Grenache) and Bandol (less skin contact, based on Mourvedre). This year's blend is 49% Mourvèdre, 39% Grenache and 12% Counoise, bled off or pressed off after 24-36 hours on the skins. The wine was fermented in stainless steel and will be bottled later in February. This is a deeply colored, flavorful rosé, perhaps a touch more concentrated than the 2016, that shows the combination of rich fruit and bright acid characteristic of the 2017 vintage.
  • Tasting Notes: An electric pink. The nose shows watermelon and strawberry fruit, mint, and sweet spice. The mouth is like biting into a ripe plum, complete with the burst of acid from the skin, the sweet fruit that follows, and a little welcome herbiness on the finish like lemon thyme. A little salty minerality comes out on the finish, with flavors of cranberry and spice. A rosé to convert people who think that pink wines can't be serious.  Drink before the end of 2019.
  • Production: 1500 cases

2016 COTES DE TABLAS

  • Production Notes: The Cotes de Tablas is our chance to let Grenache shine, as it does in most Chateauneuf du Pape blends. Grenache had good structure in 2016, so we used a higher percentage (55%) than we have the past few years. Syrah (25%) adds dark fruit and minerality, and keeps Grenache's fruitiness grounded.  Additions of Mourvedre (13%) and Counoise (7%) add a savory earthiness to the wine, which was blended in June 2017 and aged in foudre until its upcoming bottling later in February.
  • Tasting Notes: Explosively rich and spicy on the nose, with aromas of black licorice, cherry compote, new leather, plum skin and star anise. We found the mouth fresh and refreshing, with flavors of wild strawberry darkened by clove, leather, and milk chocolate. Nice chewy tannins come out on the finish, suggesting that as good as it is to drink now, it will go out in an interesting way a decade or more.
  • Production: 2050 cases

2015 TANNAT

  • Production Notes: Our fourteenth bottling of this traditional varietal from South-West France, known principally in the Pyrenees foothills appellation of Madiran, but originally native to the Basque region. Tannat typically has intense fruit, spice, and tannins that produce wines capable of long aging.  As we do many years, we blended in our small harvest of Cabernet, making the wine is 97% Tannat and 3% Cabernet Sauvignon.  Even so, we made less Tannat than we have since our frost-reduced 2011 vintage. We aged it in one foudre and a mix of new and older smaller barrels for nearly 2 years before bottling it in April 2017, and then aged it another 10 months in bottle before release. 
  • Tasting Notes: On the nose, expressive: boysenberry and salted caramel and blueberry and blackcurrant, with a pine forest/menthol herbiness and Tannat's characteristic (and welcome) floral undertone that always reminds me of violets. The mouth is more approachable than we normally expect of a young Tannat: blueberry jam, a little cedary oak, and a burst of flavor like chocolates with cherry liqueur inside. The combination of Tannat's tannins and healthy acids restore order on the finish, but it's not structure-bound or impenetrable now. A wine to drink any time over the next two decades.
  • Production: 700 cases

2015 PANOPLIE

  • Production Notes: As always, Panoplie is selected from lots chosen in the cellar for their richness, concentration and balance, always giving pride of place to Mourvedre's rich meatiness and firm structure. Each lot was fermented individually before being selected, blended and moved to foudre to age in July 2016.  Befitting the tremendous depth and intensity of Mourvedre in 2015, our blend is weighted more toward Mourvedre (71%) than it has been most years. 24% Grenache adds lushness and sweet spice, while 5% Syrah adds darker tones and mineral. The wine was bottled in June 2017 and has been aged in bottle in our cellars since then.
  • Tasting Notes: A nose balanced beautifully between sweeter and more savory elements, with dark red currant fruit, soy marinade, dark chocolate, orange peel, and meat drippings.  The mouth is dense with raspberry, plum skin, and bittersweet chocolate, but a lifted rose petal floral note comes out with some air, and sweet nutmeg spice notes play with red fruit on the long, focused finish. A delicious wine with a long life ahead; we predict two decades of life, easily.
  • Production: 800 cases

There were two additional wines (joining the Roussanne and Vermentino) in the white-only shipment:

2016 PATELIN DE TABLAS BLANC

  • Production Notes: Patelin is French slang for "neighborhood" and the Patelin de Tablas Blanc is our white Rhone-style blend sourced from nine great neighboring Rhone vineyards. We base the wine on the richness and acidity of Grenache Blanc (52%), with Viognier (24%) providing lush stone fruit and floral notes, Roussanne (12%) and Marsanne (9%) adding minerality and texture, and for the first time, a little Clairette Blanche (3%) for its briny freshness. The wine was fermented entirely in stainless steel and then bottled in screwcap in June 2017 to preserve its freshness.
  • Tasting Notes: An explosive nose of fresh lime juice, wet rocks, lychee, honeysuckle, oyster shell, and grapefruit. The mouth is clean, fresh, and vibrant: fresh pineapple, anise, blood orange, citrus, and sweet spice. The finish is clean and long, with lingering notes of citrus blossom and sea spray. Drink now and over the next few years.
  • Production: 3000 cases

2013 ESPRIT DE TABLAS BLANC

  • Production Notes: As our drought stretched into its second vintage, we pre-emptively cut back our crop levels, giving all our 2013's an extra level of concentration.  For the Esprit Blanc, this showed most dramatically in a powerful, structured Roussanne component.  To that, we added Grenache Blanc for sweet spice and openness, and Picpoul Blanc for floral aromatics and saline freshness. The final blend was 71% Roussanne (fermented primarily in foudre), 21% Grenache Blanc (from foudre and stainless steel) and 8% Picpoul (from neutral barrels). We let the blend age in foudre through the subsequent harvest before bottling it in February 2015. Knowing how well this wine ages, we held back a good chunk of our production, and are releasing it to club members now, after three years of bottle age have brought out the deeper, nuttier tones white Rhones gain with age.
  • Tasting Notes: The three years in bottle have brought remarkable depth to the aromas of candied orange peel, citrus blossom, and honeycomb that is just starting to deepen into butterscotch. In the mouth, broad and richly Roussanne in character, with beeswax and green pear and honeydew melon, plus a hint of pithy Grenache Blanc tannins. The finish is long, rich, and deep, yet never heavy. Drink now or continue aging for another decade.
  • Production: 2170 cases

One additional red joined the Cotes de TablasPanoplie, and Tannat in the red-only shipment:

2016 PATELIN DE TABLAS

  • Production Notes: Patelin is French slang for "neighborhood" and the Patelin de Tablas is our red Rhone-style blend sourced from eleven great neighboring Rhone vineyards. We base the wine on the spicy savoriness of Syrah (52%), with Grenache (31%) providing juiciness and freshness, and Mourvedre (11%) and Counoise (6%) earth and structure. Fermented in a mix of upright oak fermenters and stainless steel tanks and aged in wooden uprights, it was bottled in July 2017 and has been aging in bottle to round into its structure.
  • Tasting Notes: Spicy dark fruit on the nose, very Syrah, like a mixed berry crisp complete with flavors of cinnamon, nutmeg, and buttery pastry. The mouth is savory, with smoky blackberry, licorice root, garrigue, crushed rock, and saddle leather, with chalky tannins and flavors of cranberry and freshly turned earth that come out on the finish. Delicious now, but still fleshing out, and with the substance and balance to age for up to a decade.
  • Production: 3090 cases

If you're a wine club member, you should make your reservation for our shipment tasting party, where we open all the wines in the most recent club shipment for VINsiders to try. This spring's party will be on Sunday, April 22nd.  If you're not a wine club member, and you've read all this way, then why not join up, while there's still a chance to get this spring shipment? Details and how to join are at tablascreek.com/wine_club/vinsider_club


So, what makes people join a wine club, anyway?

I had a first for me a couple of weeks ago: I closed the deal on a wine club signup via Twitter:

Twitter thread club signup

This wasn't a Herculean feat; it sounds like Amber LeBeau, who writes the SpitBucket.Net blog, was interested already.  I just connected the last few dots.  But I was fascinated to read the blog that she posted the next day, about why she signed up.  After all, there are thousands of American wineries, most of whom have wine clubs, and thousands more clubs available from retailers, magazines, newspapers, and even NPR.

Now we spend a lot of our time thinking about how to make our wine club (or, more accurately, wine clubs, since we offer three different flavors) as appealing as possible.  We research how other wineries who we respect craft their club offerings.  And we try to listen (and to ask) our own customers about what they want out of a club.  Still, each customer's reason for joining a club is ultimately personal, and what may be appealing to one customer may matter only a little to another. In Amber's piece, she outlines three main factors she uses in deciding whether to sign up for a club or not:

  • How easy can I get your wines at home?
  • How many bottles am I committing myself to?
  • How likely is the style of wine going to change?

Happily, we fared well on all three factors. While some of our core wines are available in Amber's hometown of Seattle, we make more than a dozen wines each year that don't make it into distribution, many of which are exclusively available to wine club members.  We think of our wine club as an introduction to our wines, not a means to move large quantities, and so typically send out twelve different bottles per year, six in the spring and six in the fall.  And we are family-owned, with so much continuity in our philosophy and winemaking team that we've had the same winemaker for more than two decades. So, we passed. (Thank you, Amber!)

Still, because of this conversation and the blog that resulted, I've spent more time than usual recently thinking about what makes for a great wine club.  I thought I'd put my thoughts down here, and encourage you to chime in in the comments if you think there are things I've under- or over-emphasized, or that I've missed entirely.

  • Wines that you love, consistently. This is, I think, the core of it all. If a winery makes wines that you love across the board the chances of you loving what they choose to send you is a lot greater than if you like a few wines a lot and others less.
  • Wines you otherwise can't get. I think it's important that there be wines that are made especially for club members (or, at least, set aside exclusively for club members). When we started, and our wine club was small, this was easy. Now, we have to plan for it, and make wines that we know are going to be dedicated to our members.  This can be lots of fun. [Read, if you haven't, our blog from last spring about making a new wine around Terret Noir for our club members.]
  • Savings. Now, maybe if your wine is otherwise unavailable (i.e. all sold on allocation) this isn't a key.  Getting the wine at all is the important thing.  But for most wineries, you don't have to be a member to get their wine.  Making sure that club members get good prices on what they buy is really important.  There's not much that will make a member into an ex-member faster than seeing your wine sold cheaper than they can get it at a nearby store.
  • Special treatment. I think "club" is the key word here.  You want to know that when you visit a place where you're a member, you'll be treated like an insider.  There's not one specific way in which this has to be done.  But knowing that you'll get more than the basic experience everyone else gets is important.
  • Flexibility & convenience. I've lumped these two things together, because while they're probably not positive decision factors, they can definitely be deal-breakers. A shipment every two months? Probably not a convenience if you have to be home to sign for the packages. A single set configuration which can't be adjusted depending on your likes? Probably ditto (though less so if you really love all the wines). And any particular wine in quantity? Probably less appealing than a variety.
  • Fun other opportunities to connect. Whether this includes member-only days at the winery, excursions (hey, how about a Rhone River cruise?), or just making the point of sending out information and invitations to club members when you're doing an event in their neck of the woods, opportunities to connect outside the tasting room can be lots of fun for everyone.

We are always honored when someone joins one of our wine clubs. It's a meaningful gesture of faith in what we do that a customer will give us their credit card and say, in essence, we trust you to pick some wines we'll love. We want always to make sure that we're worthy of that trust, and are proud that our wine club members stay members for more than three times the industry average. If you have things that you particularly value in a club membership that I haven't mentioned, or another way you look at value, please share it in the comments.

And, once more, to any members out there, thank you.