Maine's Greatest Oysters

by Robert Haas

I began my love affair with oysters on the half shell when I first went to France in 1954.  Sure, I had eaten the ubiquitous Blue Points in New York restaurants (with cocktail sauce of course) but I discovered then the flavors really fresh cold water oysters, served with just lemon and fresh ground pepper and accompanied by a Chablis or a Sancerre, could bring to the table.

Barbara Scully I was unaware of the availability of terrific oysters at retail for home delivery here until Glidden Point Oyster Sea Farm, owned by Barbara Scully (right), was brought to my attention a few years ago at a wine and oyster tasting in Peacham, VT by Ed Behr, the Vermont-based food and wine devotee best known as publisher of The Art of Eating.  Home for the Glidden Points is the Damariscotta River, which flows with some of the cleanest water on the East Coast.  It is an excellent place to farm because it produces oysters with a rich buttery-yet-briny taste.  Ever since that tasting, my family, friends, and winery neighbors have often profited from that discovery.   A few days after our tasting I called Barbara for the first time to order some oysters to enjoy at home.  I was intrigued by the idea of “estate grown” oysters with “terroir.”  Not only estate grown but hand planted and harvested by diving rather than dragging.  Barbara’s terrific web site is a must visit for any who love these hard-shell bivalves and would like to learn more about them, their culture and their history.

Whereas oysters on the half shell were rare in restaurants and even rarer at retail in their shells in the U.S., they were offered frequently in France from simple bistros to the Michelin three-star elites back in the fifties.  I really do not know why that was.  Perhaps we had lost the art of eating during prohibition, when of course, the emphasis was on high proof drinking; or perhaps a lack of refrigeration or commercial airfreight for shipping.  It was not always so.  Colonists gobbled up the then-abundant oysters in the river estuaries on the East Coast, and oysters are often mentioned in literature describing fine meals back in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Judging from the piles of oyster shells from Native American feasts -- for example, the Glidden Midden on the Damariscotta shore -- oysters were a favorite American fare as long as two thousand years ago.

Last week my wife and I were renting a small house in Rockland, about half an hour away from Edgecomb, where Barbara Scully and her two teenage children tend the retail shop and the wet storage landing dock on the Damariscotta River where the oysters await shipping.  We went to visit, bought two dozen oysters (of course) and persuaded Barbara to take us on a tour later that week of one of her farm sites up river.  Seedling oysters (below, left) mature in plastic cages (below, right) for their first year before they are planted on the bottom to grow four more years. 

Baby Oysters  Oyster incubators

Only then does Barbara dive to harvest them using nets like the one below. 

Harvest Net

We asked her kids if they ever dived to harvest.  The quick answer was "No, only mom dives".  The farm is a tough, exacting and sometimes dangerous business that "mom" has been working at for 24 years.  She not only plants, grows and harvests herself; she answers the phone and tends the retail stand.  Wow!

So order your Glidden Points (here).  When they arrive grab your shucking knife, some lemon and a pepper mill.  Open a bottle of 2010 Vermentino that you have stashed in your fridge or the 2010 Marsanne that is in your fall VINsider shipment and have a feast.

Tablas Creek 101: Why We Are Where We Are

By Robert Haas

In the early 1970’s Jean-Pierre Perrin accompanied me when I was visiting my then Napa Valley suppliers of Vineyard Brands: Freemark Abbey, Chappellet, Clos du Val and Phelps.  We took a little tour of the valley and he remarked that it was extraordinary that, in a climate that seemed extremely apt, there were none of the grape varieties traditional to the Rhône.  It was this experience that was the beginning of the idea of doing it ourselves.  However, we were pretty busy developing our own businesses at the time and the idea, never forgotten, got shelved for a while.

In 1985, we decided to give it a try and began seeking a proper location.  We were looking for three things: a Mediterranean climate similar to that of the southern Rhône, enough annual rainfall to grow grapes without having to irrigate regularly, and maybe most importantly – certainly most restrictively – calcareous (chalky) clay soils similar to those of Beaucastel.

As we had noted in the 1970’s, much of coastal California has a classic Mediterranean climate.  But more specifically, we wanted an area with both a long growing season to ripen late-ripening grapes like Mourvèdre and Roussanne and moderating influence (like elevation, nighttime cooling or fog) that could keep the earlier ripening Rhone varieties like Syrah and Viognier from becoming heavy and flabby.  Paso Robles has the largest day-night swing in temperature of any wine growing region in North America, typically 45 degrees and often more.  (This week, we’ve had several days with 55 degree swings: daytime highs over 100 and nighttime lows in the 40’s!)  The proximity of the cold Pacific Ocean, which never gets much above 60 degrees even in mid-summer, and the dry summer climate that allows the day’s heat to radiate off at night provide cooling, while the relatively unbroken 3000-foot high Santa Lucia mountains protect the region during the daytime and allow it to warm up.

Even better, the further south you go in California, the later the onset of the winter rainy season.  We typically get our first serious winter rainstorm in the middle of November, two weeks later than our colleagues in Napa and a month later than those in Sonoma.  The extra weeks matter in cool years, and we have harvested into November five of the last seven vintages. 

The lower limit for dry-farming grapevines is about 25 inches of rain annually.  We get that much here thanks to our 1500-foot elevation and our location in the Santa Lucia foothills just 11 miles from the Pacific.  Pacific storms are pushed up into cooler air as they cross over the mountains.  This cooler air can carry less moisture, so the clouds drop it as rainfall.  Our average rainfall of about 28 inches is double what the town of Paso Robles receives just ten miles further east and 800 feet lower.  We figure we’re just about the most southerly location in California (and one of the warmest) to receive this much rainfall.

Finally, and we thought most importantly, we felt that chalky soils would give us, as they do in the southern Rhône Valley,  healthier vines with better water retention, better nutrient availability, healthier root system development and more disease resistance (for a full discussion of the qualities of chalky soils, see the 2010 blog post Why Limestone Matters for Grape Growing). We found our spot after four years of searching: 120 acres of rugged hilly terrain in the foothills of the Santa Lucia mountains.  We bought it and that was the birth of Tablas Creek Vineyard.

But why are there chalky soils here?  The story begins sixty-five million years ago, toward the end of the Cretaceous period, when the fearsome Tyrannosaurus Rex ranged the land.  At that time, the continental United States was largely covered by shallow seas, with only the Appalachian and Rocky Mountain ranges on dry land.  What are now the central plains and the southeast, and both the east and west coasts (including what is now Paso Robles) were under the ocean.  A map from the USGS shows it well:


The Pacific plate was then, as now, moving east and colliding with the North American plate, pushing up the land that now forms the western shore of the North American continent.  (A fascinating series of maps on the Paleogeography and Geologic Evolution of North America can be found at

The Cretaceous period, starting about one hundred forty million years ago and ending sixty-five million years ago, was the earth’s most active period of chalk formation.  Chalk is principally calcium carbonate.  The circulation of seawater through mid-ocean sea ridges during the Cretaceous – a time when mid-ocean ridges were unusually active – made Cretaceous oceans particularly rich in calcium.  This richness stimulated the growth of calcareous nanoplankton, the tiny sea creatures whose calcium-rich skeletons settle to the sea floor and eventually accumulate to form chalk and its metamorphic relations limestone and marble. It was during the Cretaceous that the chalk cliffs of Dover and the chalky hillsides of Champagne and the Loire were formed; as were the chalky clay soils around Tablas Creek in west Paso Robles.

The seas began to recede toward the end of the Cretaceous and continued through the Tertiary, driven initially by the slower growth of mid-sea ridges and a cooler climate that would eventually trap large quantities of water in glaciers.  The sedimentary chalk-rich rocks that had been laid down in the Cretaceous were exposed throughout the middle portions of the United States.  In California, seismic activity pushed up calcareous soils in only a few places, principally along the Santa Lucia Mountain range, where these soils were folded and intermixed with older continental and volcanic soils.  Much of these soils are west of the coastal range, in climates too cool to ripen Rhone varieties.  It was our good fortune that one large exposed chalky layer was east of the coastal range, in west Paso Robles and Templeton. 

So, all three components come together here in Paso Robles.  Chalky soils sit at the surface.  We typically get enough rain to farm without having to irrigate.  And it warms up enough to grow the grapes we love, while staying moderated enough to keep them in balance.

Tablas Creek 101: Why (and How) We Use So Many Grapes

By Robert Haas

Last night a long-time friend and wine lover asked why we planted and utilized so many different varieties of Rhône grapes in our Tablas Creek wines and what their individual contributions are to our six different blends, or assemblages as they are known in France.

Well, there are multiple reasons that there are multiple grapes. 

First, and probably foremost, since we were confident of California’s ability to produce fine Rhône style wines, and we were partnering with the Perrins, we selected the varieties they favored: the traditional grapes of Châteuneuf-du-Pape and the Rhône Valley.  The appellation of Châteauneuf–du-Pape permits thirteen different varieties: Grenache, Mourvèdre, Syrah, Cinsault, Counoise, Roussanne, Picpoul Blanc, Clairette, Bourboulenc, Picardin, Vaccarèse, Terret Noir, and Muscardin. The Beaucastel poster below shows all thirteen, all of which they use though the last four only in trace quantities.  If you count Grenache noir and blanc – both very much planted – the number actually comes to fourteen.

13 Cepages Poster

We decided to import the bud wood from France of nine varieties we thought would best perform in our chalky clay soils and our hot-in-the-day, cold-in-the-night climate: Mourvèdre, Grenache (Noir), Syrah, Counoise, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Picpoul Blanc, and two traditional Côtes du Rhone white varieties that are not allowed in the Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation: Viognier and Marsanne.

There is tradition but there is also practicality.  A second reason for the different varieties is the viticultural usefulness of varieties that bud and mature in different calendar periods.  This spring, for example, we suffered extreme frosts on two consecutive early April mornings.  The early budders Viognier, Grenache Noir and Blanc, Marsanne sustained near 100% damage while the later-budding Roussanne, Mourvèdre, Counoise, Picpoul and Syrah were not yet out and were relatively undamaged. 

Another viticultural plus is that with different ripening cycles we enjoy a longer harvest.  Our harvest is typically spread across 10 weeks, from early September to early November, which allows us to make more efficient use of our cellar and our winemaking team.  Of course, we won’t enjoy this benefit this year: the frosted vines that re-sprouted will be delayed in ripening and everything will be coming in late and together.  We will be heap plenty scrambling this October.

Probably most important in our choices, however, is the different roles that the different varieties play in the makeup of our Rhône style blends.  Just as different ingredients in a dish can complement or highlight specific flavors, so can the diverse flavors of different varieties create a blended wine that is more than the sum of its parts.  The Rhone blending tradition developed over thousands of years because blending these varieties consistently produces more complex, more elegant and more intriguing wines than any of the varieties vinified alone.

Red Grapes

Red wines are the most associated with Rhône varieties so let’s start with our red assemblages.  First, a review of the characteristics that each of the four principal red Rhone grapes brings to a blend:

  • Mourvedre Mourvèdre is our most planted grape, dark purple-black in color, providing structure, backbone, and aging potential. It tastes of ripe plum and strawberry fruit, with animal flavors of red meat and mushrooms when young, and leather and truffles as it ages.

  • Grenache Grenache provides lush fruit and bright acidity. It tastes of currant, cherry, and raisin, with aromatic spice of black pepper, menthol, and licorice, and is a brilliant ruby red color.

  • Syrah Syrah gives a deep blue-black color and provides aromatics, firm structure and ageability to blends, with characteristic aromas of smoke, bacon fat, and mineral, flavors of blackberry and black raspberry fruit, firm back-palate tannins.

  • Counoise Counoise is a medium purple-red color, with brambly flavors of blueberry and raspberry fruit, spice notes of cinnamon and nutmeg, and bright acidity that enlivens a blend.

These four grapes combine in each of our three red Rhone blends to make very different wines. 

The Esprit de Beaucastel is our flagship blend of the best lots in our cellar, and based on the structure, firm, ripe tannins, red fruit, full body and the ageability of Mourvèdre.  Syrah firms up the back palate and brings savory spice, dark color and minerality, while Grenache contributes ripe dark chocolate and cherry flavors and lush fruit. A touch of Counoise unifies and brightens the blend with its brambly spice.

Our Côtes de Tablas celebrates the lush fruitiness, dark chocolate, chalky tannins and licorice of Grenache.  Syrah balances Grenache’s lushness with minerality and pepper spice, while Mourvèdre’s structure and plum flavor should come out with age.  Counoise, at its highest percentage in any of our wines, gives raspberry brightness and opens the wine for near- to mid-term consumption.

Our Patelin de Tablas is a blend focused on Syrah’s dark color, peppery spice and minerality. We add a significant percentage of Grenache for its generous red fruit and roundness of flavor, some Mourvèdre for backbone and ageability, and just a touch of Counoise for brightness and spiciness.


White Grapes

Although the Rhone Valley, like Paso Robles, is better known for reds than whites, there are nearly a dozen white grapes traditional there, and we’ve imported five of them.  These have thrived in Paso Robles – so much so that from our original plan to plant 20% whites we’ve increased our white plantings to roughly 35% of our production.  Let’s again review the characteristics of each of the five:

  • Roussanne Roussanne is our most planted white grape variety.  It has rose petal, white tea and honeysuckle aromatics, a deep golden color, and flavors of honey and ripe pear. It provides excellent aging potential with a rich glycerin mouth feel and moderate acidity.

  • GrenacheBlanc Grenache Blanc has firm acidity, green apple and citrus flavors, and white flower aromatics.  It is the 4th most widely planted white grape in France, and its crisp acids complement many of the lower-acid white Rhône varietals.

  • Marsanne Marsanne tastes of melon and minerals, and has a golden straw color.  It is a flexible and adaptable grape found throughout the Rhone valley.  Its quiet elegance provides a valuable counterpoint to more exuberant varieties like Viognier and Roussanne.

  • Viognier Viognier is highly aromatic, with aromas of peach, apricot, and violets. It typically is quite lush with flavors of stone fruits and low to moderate acidity and is usually best consumed young.

  • Picpoul Picpoul produces wines noteworthy for their bright acidity, minerality, and clean lemony flavor.  In California it adds a tropical lushness reminiscent of Piña Colada that is delicious on its own but also makes for an excellent blending component.

As with the reds, these grapes combine to make three very different white wines.

Our Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc is the flagship of our white wine fleet, modeled consciously after Beaucastel’s renowned white.  Roussanne provides the core richness, minerality, and flavors of honey and spice, while Grenache Blanc adds green apple and anise flavors, lush mouth feel and bright acids.  Picpoul Blanc completes the blend, bringing out a saline minerality present in Roussanne but latent without Picpoul’s characteristic acidity.

The Côtes de Tablas Blanc showcases the lushness of Viognier, but with Viognier’s tendency toward softness and heaviness mitigated by its blending partners.  Grenache Blanc provides crisp acids while Roussanne adds structure and Marsanne minerality.  As the wine ages, a transformation occurs as what was once an overtly floral, fruity wine – clearly marked by Viognier – becomes more mineral as Marsanne takes the lead.

Our Patelin de Tablas Blanc focuses on the crisp acids and minerality of Grenache Blanc.  We add Viognier for lush, tropical fruit, and Roussanne and Marsanne for structure and complexity, but the balance is intentionally different from the Côtes Blanc.  We’ve chosen brighter Grenache Blanc lots for the Patelin Blanc, so that it is the lemon and mineral side of the grape that shows at the fore, with its richness and Viognier’s lush fruit playing secondary roles.


So, the utilization of these multiple Rhône varieties in different proportions and from different cellar lots allows us to create a broad palette of six wines that fit different occasions and different foods, ranging in the whites from the crisp bright acidity of the Patelin Blanc through the power of the Côtes Blanc to the full-bodied elegance and ageability of the Esprit Blanc.  The reds go from the firm, spicy character of the Patelin through the powerful and luscious Côtes to the structured, full-bodied richness and elegance (and ageability) of the Esprit.

A family stay in Vinsobres

By Robert Haas

Where?  Well, Vinsobres is in the Drôme, the next département north of the Vaucluse: kind of the northern limit of the southern Vallée du Rhône.  We were in the outskirts of Les Cornuds, a village -- patelin, if you will -- of about four houses just east of Vinsobres.  Vinsobres is the newest Crû in the southern Rhone, recently elevated from a Côtes du Rhône Villages appellation.  Besides wine, the Drôme is also known for its olives, where Nyons is France’s only olive AOC, and black truffles, which are harvested in the fall.  Look for Vinsobres on a map between the towns of Nyons (Drôme) and Vaison-la-Romaine (Vaucluse), just north of D94.


We were staying on a vineyard property that the Perrins, our friends and Tablas Creek partners, bought about ten years ago. The house was a ruin at the time of purchase, and the Perrins have lovingly restored it over the last 8 years.  What a treat!  The kids, 21 months, 3, and 6, learned to play boules and enjoyed (along with the adults) the swimming pool.  We visited nearby village farmers’ markets, ate in a few restaurants, enjoyed the visit of our Paso Robles friends, the Careys, and generally relaxed.  Well, relaxed as much as being around three young and active kids will allow.  Another view:


Vinsobres is so named for the dark color of its wines, due in large part to a higher percentage of syrah than surrounding appellations (The most northerly of the southern Rhone’s top appellations, Vinsobres is friendlier to syrah than further south).  The better vineyards are planted almost 50/50 syrah and grenache noir, and the wines show the darker spicy character of syrah along with the chocolate cherry of grenache.  The Perrins are big believers in the potential of Vinsobres, and have purchased several parcels totaling nearly 150 acres over the last decade.


The house site was terrific.  It was on the top of a hill, had a wrap around patio with great vineyard views and good breezes.  We often breakfasted, lunched, and dined al fresco.   It struck me how similar the spacing and pruning of the vineyards around the house in Vinsobres are to ours at Tablas Creek.  The elevations of 300 to 500 meters and the many different exposures of the hillsides reminded us of Las Tablas/Adelaida in Paso Robles.  Even the soils and their geologic origins are similar to ours, with limestone boulders lining many of the roads.


During our stay Marc Perrin invited Jason and me to lunch at another recent Perrin acquisition, the restaurant l’Oustalet in Gigondas, where we lunched outdoors right in Gigondas center: an active place.  After lunch we explored the Perrins’ many Gigondas parcels, in locations from the top of the town, just under the rocky outcrops of the Dentelles de Montmirail (pictured above), to the town’s only Clos (the Clos des Tourelles just below the old town), to lower down vineyards in sandy soils, where they farm what they believe is the region’s only pre-phylloxera vineyard.  These grenache vines, planted on their own roots, are more than 130 years old.  Gigondas has a noble history and is the southern Rhone’s best known Crû after Châteauneuf du Pape.  The Perrins believe that its ability to show the feminine, floral side of grenache is unmatched.  The soils of Gigondas range across four different geological eras, and plantings are dominated by grenache noir.  A view down across the appellation, from the vineyard pictured above:


Since Jason had not yet seen them, we also went to visit the new cellar installations at Beaucastel and the greatly enlarged cave producing the Perrin and Nicolas Perrin wines.  Impressive! 


The Perrin holdings and family are beehives of activity.  Besides Jean-Pierre and François, Jacques’ sons, there are seven grandchildren: Marc, Pierre, Thomas, Cécile, Charles, Matthieu, and César (who is working this summer and fall at Tablas Creek) involved in the family wine business.  The creative energy of the Perrin family is remarkable, and the efforts they are putting into elaborating the distinct characters of the diverse appellations of the southern Rhone perhaps their most ambitious and important work yet.

RZH and FP

We’re proud to be their partners at Tablas Creek.

An accidental 1996-1998 Tablas Creek vertical in Chester, Vermont

In consecutive coincidences this week, a few days after chose to open at home in Chester, Vermont a 1996 Tablas Hills Cuveé Rouge, we were served by our long time friend and neighbor Tory Spater a 1997 Tablas Creek Vineyard Tablas Rouge and a 1998 Tablas Creek Vineyard Rouge at a dinner at her house.  Wow!  I had no idea that she was cellaring those first Tablas Creek releases.

Tablas Creek Vertical

We have been making wines from our vineyard in our Las Tablas/Adelaida district of Paso Robles since 1994 -- three years before we built our own winery in 1997.  It was Jean-Pierre Perrin and I who made the 1996 in space rented at Adelaida Cellars with the help of Neil Collins, then Assistant Winemaker there.  We called the wines made at Adelaida Tablas Hills (and before that Adelaida Hills) because we wanted to save the name Tablas Creek Vineyard for wines that were produced in our own winery.  In retrospect, the name changes muddied the waters to the point that there are still people out in the market who think that these first few vintages were from purchased grapes.  But no, they were from our vineyard.

In 1997 Neil was spending the year at Beaucastel, so Ryan Hebert and I made the ’97 by the seats of our pants in our brand new Tablas Creek winery, finished just a few weeks before our earliest-ever beginning of harvest on August 16th.  We were not even sure that the wines would ferment with only native yeasts in the new space, but they did, and nicely.  A problem we had was that the quantities were so small that we had lots of air on top of the juice in all of the stainless fermenters, increasing the chance of oxidation.  But the sturdy grapes resisted. 

In 1998 Neil was back to take charge of the cellar and greeted by the coldest year in our history, when we didn’t begin our harvest until October 6th.  Pierre Perrin was there and had the unusual experience -- unthinkable in Chateauneuf du Pape -- of seeing the last grapes brought in the week before Thanksgiving.  Quel climat!

All three wines are blends of Mourvèdre, Grenache, Syrah, and Counoise.  In 1996 we didn’t yet put the varieties on the label, but had roughly equal portions Mourvedre, Grenache and Syrah (Counoise was just getting into production and produced only a few barrels).  In 1997, the blend was 34% Mourvedre, 30% Grenache, 30% Syrah and 6% Counoise (remarkably similar to our 2008 Esprit de Beaucastel).  In 1998 we began our move toward the more Mourvedre-heavy blend we used for our flagship wines for most of the last decade, with 44% Mourvedre, 24% Grenache, 21% Syrah and 11% Counoise.  Yet for their differences in composition the Mourvèdre leads the character and style of all three wines, as it does today in our Esprit.  All of the wines were still tasting young and healthy, without a hint of old age, and I thought could be cellared happily for another five to ten years.

Clients often ask us how long our wines will live.  If this week’s experience is an example then the answer is, “A long time.”

Bob Haas

Foudres, Demi Muids, Puncheons, and Wood Fermenters: The Appeal of Large Oak

Foudre- (Food’r)- French term for a large cask of indefinite size1 

At Tablas Creek we follow the Châteauneuf-du-Pape tradition of maturing our red wines in 1200 gallon (4500 liter) French oak foudres rather than in the more familiar 60 gallon (225 liter) oak barrels.  These smaller barrels – known in French as fûts, pieces, or barriques – are those commonly found in Burgundy and Bordeaux, as well as California.  Each of our foudres holds enough wine to fill 500 twelve-bottle cases, twenty times the volume of a typical barrel.  The larger size of the foudres has three principal advantages for us:

  • Larger volume to surface area ratio.  Compared to aging the equivalent volume of wine in small barrels, using a foudre gives a greater ratio of volume to surface area so that any impact of oak on the wine is gentler even when barrels are new.  This gentler oak, we feel, is appropriate to our southern Rhône style wines based on Mourvèdre and Grenache, wines whose flavors are not compatible with the vanillin character of new oak.
  • Gentle, low-level oxygen exchange. The thick staves of the foudres (more than two inches thick) allow the wine to breathe, soften and integrate in a way that they don’t in an impermeable stainless steel tank, but still protect the wine against oxidation.  Small barrels, with staves just ¾ inch thick, can provide too much oxygenation to oxidation-prone varieties like Grenache and Counoise.
  • Lifespan. The barrels are so well made that we would expect them to last for decades.  Beaucastel has foudres that have been in continuous use for half a century, and we expect ours to last a similar length of time.  The barrels provide a gentle oak flavor their first few years, but are fully neutral by year five.  If we assume an average barrel lifespan of 50 years, then for 90% of its lifespan it will be totally neutral, which suits our style of wine.

Although some lots are moved to foudre after pressing while they complete their sugar and malolactic fermentation, their principal use is post-blending, when all our red wines spend the better part of a year in foudre to allow their components to integrate.  So, whenever you have our Esprit de Beaucastel, Panoplie, Côtes de Tablas or one of our varietal reds, you’re having a wine that spent a large piece of its life in foudre


Foudres are not much used for white wines in the Rhone.  But for the last five years we fermented Roussanne and Grenache Blanc in foudre, and have found that we like these lots enough each year to choose them for our Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc.  One advantage of using the foudres over stainless steel tanks is that the shape of the barrels and the slight oxygen exposure facilitate aging on the lees, and we typically keep the whites on their lees until they’re blended six months after harvest.  Three foudres are reserved for fermenting and ageing white wines (eighteen are reserved for ageing of our red wines). 


The horizontal foudre is not the only large wooden tank we use. Since 2007 we have incorporated two upright 60-hectoliter (1600 gallon) wooden casks for fermenting and aging reds.  These casks (pictured above, right) have the advantage of a flat bottom and a door flush with the bottom of the tank as well as a large metal door on top.  The door on top means that the tank can be used either as an open-top fermenter and punched down, or sealed shut like a closed fermenter.  The flat bottom and flush door mean that solids like skins and seeds can be removed from the tank, a sufficiently difficult challenge in foudres that we don’t even attempt skin-contact fermentation in them.  These wooden uprights have produced such consistently excellent lots that we just purchased two more, and have two additional ones ordered to arrive before this year’s harvest.

Of course, not all lots come in 1200-gallon size, and we still use smaller barrels for certain wines (like Syrah) for which we value both the additional oxygen exposure and the greater oak flavor that the small barrels provide.  But even with smaller barrels we choose larger volumes when possible, principally 120 gallon (450 liter) puncheons and 160 gallon (600 liter) demi-muids.  These barrels, roughly double and triple the size of “normal” barrels, still provide a greater ratio of volume to surface area and therefore a gentler oak signature.  They’re also better-made and last longer, which is important since we want to use them for as long as possible after they’re fully neutral.

While these large oak barrels are traditional in the southern Rhone, they’re also widely found in other regions where oak aging is desirable but oak flavors are not, including Alsace and Tuscany.  But they’re rare in California, and typically make such an impression on our visitors that we designed our new tasting room to showcase them:


But these amazing barrels are not just for show.  We use them because we believe that they’re better for the wines we want to make.  And we’re convinced that our extensive use of these large barrels, and the focus they put on the fruit and terroir, is a key factor that sets our wines apart from those of our neighbors.

1Frank Schoonmaker’s Encyclopedia of Wine, Hastings House, 1970

Côtes (de Tablas), Côte (d’Or) and the pleasures of aged wine

By Robert Haas

The age of a wine is a relative thing. Some wines are old young and others are young old. Many great red wines are rushed to the table too young these days. Most restaurants and retailers do not have the financing or space to lay down wines and we, as consumers, have the same problems or simply lack the patience to wait. And many wines, maybe more now than ever, are made to consume young. Sometimes, however, we are presented with opportunities.

I recently tasted our 2001 Côtes de Tablas at the delightful Bistro Henry in Manchester, VT. Chris Kleeman, Henry’s good friend, takes charge of the wines and decides in some cases to cellar some of his choices for later release to the list – certainly a rare luxury these days. The 2001 Côtes is an interesting historical landmark. Since we did not make any Esprit de Beaucastel in 2001, only a little Founders’ Reserve, the Côtes was a blend of virtually the entire vineyard. The 2001 Côtes was still showing quite youthfully, with good color and absolutely no hint of bricky edges. It showed good blackberry, gooseberry and strawberry fruit on the nose and palate, was poised and bright with some dusty tannins at the back end.

What would happen today if we blended our entire vineyard into one wine? We try this each year, for fun, in part because our original intention for Tablas Creek was to make just one red and one white wine each year. Probably the result would be deeper and richer than it was in 2001; the 2001 vintage was marked by April frosts and uneven ripening, with the Grenache component probably the weakest of our three red varieties, and the vines were still young. Yet my feeling was that the 2001 Côtes de Tablas still has a long life ahead of it. At any rate, it was fun and interesting.

Maltroie Recently I had another wonderful and very different tasting experience: drinking a great mature wine from a little known and often much underrated premier crû vineyard in Burgundy. I was preparing wines for a tasting of old Burgundies when I ran across a 1985 Chassagne-Montrachet La Maltroie from Georges Deleger that had no following vintages in my cellar because Georges retired shortly thereafter. Barbara and I had it for dinner with some rare cold beef filet. The wine was brilliant. Still deeply colored and chock full of cherry and raspberry fruit, rich on the palate with beautiful ripe and rounded tannins, and handsomely structured. The sensation brought me back 25 years to the actual tasting in Deleger’s cellar in the spring of 1986. I was blown away. It was the first 1985 red Burgundy that I had tasted in the barrel. Even though I expected 1985 to be a great vintage I was not prepared for that terrific a red wine to come from a Chassagne vineyard (Chassagne-Montrachet is better known for its brilliant whites). That spring trip brought me to many other terrific wines from that lovely and long-lived vintage.

We are still enjoying a number of 1985 Burgundies today, wines that I tasted and bought back then, but this particular experience last week brought me back to a clear sensory remembrance of the scene in Georges Deleger’s cellar in Chassagne that spring day in 1986.

One of the traditional attributes of a great wine is its ability to improve with age. Great wine changes over time and has a life of its own: youth, adolescence, maturity, senility and finally death. In general, the greater the wine, the longer that each period lasts. Tablas Creek is still too young a vineyard for us to predict long-term aging. Give us another fifty years of experience. But tastings like my recent one of our 2001 Côtes de Tablas – a wine from young vines that was never meant for long aging – make me think we show promise. And wines like the 1985 La Maltroie remind me why it matters.

Business as Usual

by Robert Haas

Or, maybe I should write business as unusual: then and now.


As you can see from the photo view, we are starting new construction on the third and last phase of building Tablas Creek Vineyard’s winery: adding 8,000 sq. ft. to give us one-third more working space in the winery and in the offices, and a new tasting room integrated into the cellar on the east side of the winery, facing Adelaida Road. A rendering of the new tasting room and entrance shows what it should look like at completion.


We've come a long way since the winery’s original construction in 1997:


Thanks to a little serendipity we are able to operate our tasting room without inconvenience to our visitors throughout construction. We are able to do so not because of thoughtful planning on our part but because our original business plan did not include a tasting room! Our original thinking about how to market Tablas Creek followed the French model, where wineries are largely absent from the marketing of their product. Château de Beaucastel, like most top French estate wineries, is open to tasters by appointment only and direct sales represent only a tiny part of their business.

By 2002, we had come to the conclusion that our lack of a tasting room was a mistake. Guests who made appointments and came to visit left like disciples, and we would hear stories months later of people with whom a visitor had spoken who had themselves become excited about Tablas Creek. It became clear that making it easier for people to experience our wines and learn our story would only help us distinguish ourselves within the world of wine. What’s more, we calculated that the direct to consumer sales allowed by a tasting room were essential for our bottom line. So we converted our original entrance foyer on the west side (facing away from Adelaida Road) into a tasting room, and three years later expanded into what had been our conference room and my office. We chose this space as the only reasonable area for a tasting room within the current building. Not at all in our thinking at the time was that our second and third phases of construction were planned for the opposite side of the winery.

And oh, do we need the extra space. We’re outgrowing our cellar space, our offices and our tasting room simultaneously. The cellar has been saved the past few years by drought-reduced harvests, but we have nowhere to put the new upright fermenters or additional foudres we’d like to add to the cellar, and have had to store barrels in a refrigerated barn down near our greenhouses. All our staff are double- or triple-bunked in offices. And those of you who have come to see us on weekends have at times been asked to wait while we clear up space at a tasting bar, or have been served at the folding tables we set up in our barrel room every Friday. Even better, the new tasting room will be integrated into the new cellar construction, with walls of windows into both fermentation and barrel storage and – we hope – ongoing educational opportunities for everyone who comes to taste.

So, once again, serendipity plays its role. Visitors will see the new construction as they drive past the winery, but it will be far away from the tasting room itself and should be unnoticeable to guests.

Harvard Business School teaches (or at least it used to teach), “Build your business plan and then stick to it.” But my own 60 years of business experience has taught me, “If the plan has flaws change it.” So we did. And here we are in 2010 expecting to comfortably receive about 24,000 visitors, all the while preparing our premises for future decades.

Antoine's 1940 Wine List, 70 Years and 40,000% Inflation Later

Antoines By Robert Haas

While researching another subject on the web recently I came across this article by Jean-Luc Le Dû in the May 8th 2008 New York Times in which he writes about discovering Antoine’s (New Orleans) Restaurant’s remarkable hundredth anniversary 1940 wine list.  You can also access the list (in PDF format) directly.
I was in New Orleans at the beginning of the April.  I had the opportunity to host a delicious Tablas Creek wine dinner at Le Meritage in the Maison Dupuy Hotel and enjoyed two other excellent restaurant meals: lunch at Commander’s Palace and dinner at August.  The city has always had a fine reputation for good dining.  Since Katrina it has been rebuilding and rekindling that reputation.  Both the traditional Creole cuisine of Commander’s Palace and the contemporary French dishes at August – as well as the good, attentive service – testify to its successful comeback.   Good wine lists go with good food and it was no surprise that all three restaurants that I had the chance to visit had excellent ones.

But, of course, wine lists like this Antoine’s anniversary list are a treasure in any era.  In it can be found fanciful maps, a vintage chart and educational commentary on each wine region.  The list comprises 23 pages.  A list like this one is a great historical reference that documents the changes in wine popularity and tastes (and availability) in the United States since the Second World War, and above all, the prices.

Bordeaux vintages go back to an 1893 Château La Mission Haut-Brion and Burgundy to an 1884 Musigny.  The Rhônes include a 1929 Hermitage La Chapelle and a 1937 Château Fortia Châteauneuf-du-Pape.  The Loire and Alsace are nominally covered.  There are three pages of German wines going back to a 1920 Bernkasteler Doctor.  It appears that the war in Europe had not yet affected availability.  The list’s preponderance of estate-bottled offerings – rare in the day – is due largely to Frank Schoonmaker and his French and German brokers, Raymond Baudouin (France), Otto Dunweg (Mosel) and Hans-Joseph Becker (Rhine).   

In the first half of the twentieth century, wines from France and Germany dominated the fine wine market.  As evidence, the list has only token representation of wines from Spain (two Riojas), Italy (three Chiantis and one Barolo), and America (three red and four white listings, all supplied by Schoonmaker).  I was only thirteen at the time of this list, but as I was reading it last week and seeing its makeup it felt strangely connected and contemporary.  I knew most of the proprietors and dealt with many of them.  Baudouin, whom I met ten years later, was also buying for Lehmann when I arrived.  He died in 1953 and I became the French buyer.  I met both Dunweg and Becker in subsequent trips to Germany with Schoonmaker in 1955.

The most expensive wine on the list is the 1929 Domaine de la Romanée Conti at $20.00.  The 1929 Château Margaux, a first growth Bordeaux from a great vintage, was $4.75.  The top German wines were relatively expensive, comparable to the most expensive French wines.  And Rhône grands crûs like the 1937 Château Fortia  Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Hermitage la Chapelle were $3.25 and $3.00 respectively, much closer in price to their Bordeaux and Burgundy equivalents than today.  The California cabernet, Inglenook, sold for $1.50.

S. Morgan Friedman’s inflation calculator reports that there has been a fifteen fold general inflation increase in the United States since 1940.  Multiplying the listed prices by fifteen reveals by how much the increase in wine prices – at least for collectible wines – has outpaced inflation.  Fifteen times the $4.75 price of 1929 Château Margaux equals $71.25.  A current vintage of Margaux from a good year like 2000 on Restaurant Daniel’s New York wine list (PDF) is $2000, or 42,105% increase.  If you want a 1961, perhaps the equivalent quality vintage, it would be $4350, a 90,526% increase.  1929 Romanée Conti was $20.00.  Daniel has the 1999 vintage at $8000, an increase of only 40,000% – a bargain!

When I arrived at the scene at M. Lehmann, Inc. in New York in1950 prices were still very depressed.  A page from the Lehmann March sale in 1950 shows first growth Bordeaux available around $4.00 per bottle.  And the next two decades saw only moderate inflation at the upper end of the wine market.  But since the mid-1970’s, prices have risen dramatically.   Will collectible wine price increases moderate to be closer to inflation or will demand for fine wines continue to drive prices up?  Recent evidence of the relative quality of wine investments even in the recent period of recession suggests so.  Keep tuned.

A skeptic's move toward biodynamics

by Robert Haas

Tablas Creek Vineyard, following the practices of our partners at Château de Beaucastel, had always intended to farm our Paso Robles property organically. That is to say, farming our vineyard without the use of systemic chemicals and relying on compost, cover crops and mineral amendments to improve the health of our chalky clay soils and grow healthy vines. We have farmed organically since our founding, and got our national organic certification in 2003.

For a number of years we have been stalking going one step further by starting to practice Biodynamic agriculture, defined by Wikipedia as

a method of organic farming with homeopathic composts that treats farms as unified and individual organisms, emphasizing balancing the holistic development and interrelationship of the soil, plants, animals as a self-nourishing system without external inputs insofar as this is possible.

Biodynamic agriculture is regarded by many as the most sustainable modern ecological farming system. It has much in common with other organic approaches, such as emphasizing the use of manures and composts and excluding of the use of artificial chemicals, but differs from most organic techniques – which typically seek to replace chemical herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers with non-chemical alternatives – in focusing more on biodiversity and the holistic health of the farmed ecosystem.

Last week Neil Collins and Ryan Hebert – our winemakers/vineyard managers – joined me for a drive up to view the Napa Valley vineyards of Grgich Hills winery. Grgich’s vineyards have been farmed biodynamically for the last seven years. While there we toured with Ivo Jeramez, Mike Grgich’s nephew, who is in charge of their vineyard operations. Ivo and his vineyard manager graciously spent the whole day with us, took us around to their vineyards in American Canyon and Rutherford, new and old, and described exactly the processes that they employed and what they found to be the benefits. They are totally convinced that reasoned biodynamic farming has improved their soils and the health of the vines as compared to the traditionally farmed, chemically-treated vineyards of their neighbors.

When I first studied Biodynamic farming six or seven years ago I admired it as a sort of existential philosophy but found it hard to believe that the homeopathic preparations and the use of the astrologic calendar prescribed could create a great deal better vineyard environment than our organic farming was already producing. My problem with the concept has been that many of the methods unique to the biodynamic approach are so esoteric. It is hard to believe that miniscule amounts of herbal and mineral preparations introduced into vineyard sprays and compost additives can affect anything.

Now, I am not so sure of my earlier conclusions. The list of wine properties who follow biodynamic practices is highly distinguished, including Domaines de la Romanée-Conti, Leflaive, Dujac, Gouges, Huet, Domaine Weinbach, Zindt-Humbrecht, Leclerc Briant, Araujo, Frog’s Leap, Joseph Phelps, Beckmen, Bonny Doon and over 500 others. And Ivo, for one, is convinced that his conversion from “chemical” farming to biodynamic farming has greatly improved the health of his vineyard.

There are two main homeopathic field preparations on which biodynamics is based. The first is horn manure: a humus mixture prepared by filling the horn of a cow with cow manure, burying it in the ground in the autumn to decompose and recovering it in the spring to use in a ground spray to increase microbiologic activity. The second is crushed powdered quartz, buried in a cow horn in the spring and recovered in the autumn, used in a mixture of water and sprayed on the vines as a fungicide.

In addition, biodynamics prescribes treatments to compost using various natural herbs and extractions, including yarrow blossoms, chamomile blossoms, stinging nettle, oak bark, dandelion flowers, valerian flowers, and horsetail. These natural herbs each have their own properties, but all have been used in traditional medicine (as well as farming) for millennia. The chemicals that the plants produce naturally mimic, in many cases, those contained in chemical herbicides, fungicides, pesticides and fertilizers. And there is good reason to suspect that they work; plants have had to battle with insects, fungus and other encroaching plant species for millions and millions of years, and have developed ingenious ways of protecting themselves and their environment.

Lunar guides to planting and harvesting are another aspect of Biodynamic farming, and one which often comes in for skepticism. The phase, or synodic lunar cycle, is said to favor above-ground processes while the moon is waxing and below-ground processes as the moon is waning. The synodic cycle also controls tidal effects, which are well documented. These involve not only large bodies of water, but also the surface tension of liquids, which would explain why a vine pruned in a waxing cycle “bleeds” more than one pruned in a waning cycle. It is worth noting, however, that these are guides to be followed as much as is practical, not iron clad directives, and biodynamics respects this.

Since Tablas Creek is farmed organically and estate bottled from our one contiguous vineyard we are already most of the way to farming biodynamically. All that we have to do is prepare and use the prescribed homeopathic manures and composts in the vineyard and farm in harmony, as much as possible, with the astronomical calendar. So, this year we are going to start biodynamic farming on 20 acres and begin to weigh its affect on the health of the vineyard. If it is as successful as we hope we can expect to see stronger more disease and insect resistant long-lived vines.

How will all this affect the taste of our wines? We will see. Healthier and older vines are the aim. The environment in Paso Robles, with its enormous swings in temperature between day and night, its dry summers and cycles of drought, and its thin, rocky soils, is a high-stress one for grapevines. We are suspicious that these annual stresses will compromise the lifespan of our vineyards, and hope that by farming biodynamically, we will keep the vineyards healthy as they age. If we can do so, the impacts on wine quality should be dramatic; older vines produce grapes with more intensity and more character of place. And, young or old, we expect that healthy vines will produce physiologically ripe grapes with the good balance of sugars and acids that make great and long lived wines.