Happy Holidays, from Our Flock to Yours!

It is with gratitude that we celebrate this holiday season. Gratitude for the communities (Paso Robles and Rhone Rangers) we're a part of. Gratitude for the restaurateur, retail and distributor partners whose work makes it possible for you to find our wines around the country. Gratitude for the terrific team we have at Tablas Creek, many of whom have been with us since the beginning. But mostly, gratitude for our fans near and far, whose loyalty and enthusiasm humbles and inspires us each day.

Happy holidays, from our flock to yours.

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A Vertical Tasting of Esprit de Beaucastel & Esprit de Tablas, 2000-2013

Going back through a library of wines is a tremendously useful thing for a winery to do.  It not only gives you a better sense of how the wines from the past have been developing, but also gives you context for judging changes in style and idiosyncrasies of different vintages. It has somehow been four years since our last vertical tasting of our flagship Esprit red wines, in December of 2010.  So, on this rainy afternoon (our third in a row!) and with an eye toward our en primeur tasting this weekend, at which we'll offer futures on our 2013 Esprit and 2013 Panoplie, I suggested we sit down and try to find the 2013 Esprit's place in our history.  Joining me for the tasting were my dad, Winemaker Neil Collins, Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi, Cellarmaster Tyler Elwell, National Sales Manager Darren Delmore, and Tasting Room Manager John Morris.  The lineup:

Esprit vertical dec 2014

My notes:

  • 2000 Esprit de Beaucastel: A rich, meaty nose, with leather, pine sap, smoke, nutmeg and cardamom providing a great back-and-forth between savory and sweeter aromas.  Neil's first comment was "wow".  The mouth was rich, with still some big tannins, and flavors of gingerbread, black licorice, black tea and dark cherry.  This was the best showing for this wine that I've ever seen, and while fully mature I agree with Darren's closing comment that "it still has lots of life left".
  • [Note that we didn't make an Esprit in the frost-impacted 2001 vintage]
  • 2002 Esprit de Beaucastel: Very dark in both aromatics and color.  Neil called it "broody".  My dad called it "bloody".  Chelsea summed it up, calling it "rather sinister".  The aromas of dusty earth and black licorice were followed by flavors of blackberry and wood smoke, with big tannins that came out on the long finish.  I think this is still a young wine, and wanted it with a stew.  The wine is almost entirely Mourvedre and Syrah (84% combined, easily our highest ever) and it felt like it.
  • 2003 Esprit de Beaucastel: Aromatically, it split the difference between the two previous wines: spicy and dark like 2002 with a meaty red fruit component like 2000.  Like a dark chocolate covered cherry. The mouth is rich, with sweet fruit, chocolaty tannins, menthol and anise flavors.  It's beautiful, and charming too: my dad called it "a runway wine".
  • 2004 Esprit de Beaucastel: A cooler, more self-contained wine than 2003, with aromatics lifted by a pretty violet note, above tangy marinade and meat drippings.  The mouth is integrated and silky, still showing that coolness in a mint chocolate tone.  Tyler called it "silky".  Beautifully precise, deep and harmonious.  My favorite of the older wines. 
  • 2005 Esprit de Beaucastel: The nose is wild: meaty and leathery, very robust, with a slightly volatile note at first that blew off.  The mouth was more primary than the nose, with bright red fruit, some front-palate Grenache tannin, and a nice lingering red licorice note.  Still young.   Neil thought that "in 5 years this is going to be fantastic".  Chelsea thought it a "nice wine for the weather".  I thought that if you're drinking this now, it's a good idea to decant it in advance.
  • 2006 Esprit de Beaucastel: John commented that compared to the 2005, this wine "just seems so innocent" which to me caught its spirit perfectly.  It's a composed, pretty wine, more savory than flashy, with aromas of cocoa hulls, marinade and mint, a refined palate with licorice and dark red fruit in perfect balance with its ripe tannins, and a long, cool finish.  My dad thought it "has years ahead of it".
  • 2007 Esprit de Beaucastel: Very like the 2005 on the nose, with explosive wild aromatics, lots of leather, dark plum, and a sweet/savory balance that Chelsea called "waffles and graphite".  In the mouth, it was still quite primary, with terrific texture, big tannins, and lots of fruit behind.  My sense was that it's still coming out of a closed phase, and will be better-integrated in 6 months than it is now, but that patience will be rewarded handsomely.
  • 2008 Esprit de Beaucastel: This wine was a surprise to me, as the last time I'd tasted it, it was shut down, and I've been suggesting people stay away for a while.  Not any longer.  It had a gorgeous nose of gingerbread, purple fruit and mint, with a little sweet oak behind it.  The mouth is pure, clean, and refined, with milk chocolate.  Of all the wines, it was the most marked by Grenache to me, and showed Grenache's signature purple fruits and refreshing acids on the finish.  As it's 30% Grenache (tied for our highest percentage ever in an Esprit) this probably shouldn't be surprising.
  • 2009 Esprit de Beaucastel: The nose was closed at this tasting, with a little savoriness coming out with time: smoke, mint and bay leaf.  The mouth is big, powerful and dark, still quite tannic, plum skin and dark chocolate.  Still quite primary and impenetrable.  Chelsea called it "burly and polished" which led us to a fun round of imagining what that would look like.  An NFL linebacker in a tux?  I'd wait on this wine, probably for another few years at least.
  • 2010 Esprit de Beaucastel: The nose to me felt familiar and appealing, as this has been one of my favorite Esprits since we first made it.  The aromatics of juniper and Christmas spices were tangy and foresty, savory but inviting.  The flavors of orange peel and clove, red plum and loam were mouth-watering.  The wine's flavors were crystal clear and its finish cool and minty.  Delicious, though it's likely to start shutting down sometime soon.  For now, enjoy.
  • 2011 Esprit de Tablas: The nose is coolly spicy; I thought of a pine forest in winter. Juniper and menthol, bay and clove, with some fig providing relief to the savoriness.  The mouth is still quite young, with chewy tannins, lots of grip, dark red fruit, and finish of cherry liqueur.  My dad described it as "still very primary", which it was.  Give it some air if you're drinking it now, or wait and reap the rewards in a decade.
  • 2012 Esprit de Tablas: Chelsea said the nose "smells like autumn" with dried leaf and spicy strawberry.  The mouth is richer than the nose suggests, with vibrant red fruit on the mid-palate, and some pretty sweet spices.  The finish shortens and shows the wine's youth; Tyler commented that it was "like I'm tasting it out of a barrel".  Give it a few more months to fully emerge into its first drinking window.
  • 2013 Esprit de Tablas (out of foudre): The nose was rich and dark, with Syrah and its black licorice and chalky minerals at the fore.  The flavors were vibrating between dark (black raspberry and tree bark) and bright (wild strawberry and red cherry) with an appealing salty/sweetness that reminded me of sea salt caramel.  A knockout that John called "confident without being boastful".  Seemed like it was on a track that should take it on a similar trajectory as the 2004.  Should be a treat for everyone on Saturday!

If you aren't familiar with our en primeur program, it's one of the benefits of our VINsider Wine Club.  Members have the opportunity to taste the upcoming releases of our Esprit de Tablas and Panoplie wines out of barrel, the winter before they're bottled, and reserve wine at a futures-only 30% discount.  More information on our en primeur program can be found on our VINsider News page.


Weekly Roundup for November 23rd, 2014: Natural Wine, Ancient Rocks, Knobbly Fruit & Thanksgiving

This week's Weekly Roundup is highlighted by a great thought piece on what makes wine "modern" or "traditional", and whether either of these have a relationship with the idea of "natural wine".  We've included a couple of our favorites of the many Thanksgiving wine recommendations omnipresent at this time of year.  And, of course, we check in with some members of our community who are doing cool stuff.  As always, please share in the comments what you like, and what you'd like to see different.

The bounty of (our) harvest

Artisan photo of quinces

  • We kick off this week's column with a gorgeous photo from Artisan Restaurant.  We've partnered with them on several dinners over the years, including one early this year which featured lamb from our property.  Their photo on Instagram (above) of some knobbly bright yellow quinces from one of our trees caught our eye.  We dropped some off there because we had many more than we had any idea how to use, and wanted to get them into capable hands.  This photo isn't an isolated event; there's beautiful stuff worth following on all of Artisan's social media feeds.  If you're wondering why we grow quinces (along with apples, pears, cherries, plums, peaches and apricots) they're a part of the increased biodiversity we've been working to integrate over recent years.

Something in the (ancient) water

  • Halter fossilOur neighbor Halter Ranch posted a great photo (right, or on the Halter Ranch Facebook page for a high-resolution version) of one of the fish fossils that they found in their rocks and integrated into their winery building.  It's a great reminder that the soils that sit under our vineyards (and much of west Paso Robles) were deposited as seabed in the Miocene period (10-20 million years ago). These were lifted above the surface in the creation of the Santa Lucia Mountains quite recently, by geologic standards.  My dad wrote a great blog piece about our soils' history in 2011, if you're interested in learning more.

The 2014 Harvest

Is there a holiday coming up?

  • Thanksgiving is the American holiday most dedicated to eating and drinking.  Yet, many traditional Thanksgiving foods aren't naturally friendly to many of the most popular American wines, given their questionable affinity to oak and high alcohol.  Happily, Rhones, both red and white, make classic pairings, and it's always a pleasure waiting for the pre-Thanksgiving wine columns suggesting Rhones as an accompaniment.  I thought Laurie Daniel's Rhones for Thanksgiving column for the San Jose Mercury News was particularly good this year, and was pleased to see that our 2012 Cotes de Tablas ("bright fruit with savory notes of wild herbs") was one of her suggestions.
  • We weren't mentioned, but I still really liked Eric Asimov's Thanksgiving recommendation that the wine you choose should "Refresh the Palate". He highlights versatility and energy as two characteristics to look for in your Thanksgiving wine, and recommends an eclectic mix. I'm not sure I could find many of the wines he and his panel recommend (there are rewards for living in New York City, after all) but I do know that I agree completely with his basic advice. Read more »

An event to look forward to

  • This week, the Paso Robles Rhone Rangers announced the details of their 2015 Paso Robles Rhone Rangers Experience. In the last seven years, this event has become a showpiece for the Rhone movement here, and it's a remarkable value: just $85 for the full slate of events, including a nine-wine seminar (this year led by the Wine Enthusiast's Matt Kettmann), a vintners lunch catered by Chef Maegen Loring, a grand tasting featuring some 50 Paso Robles Rhone wineries, and a silent auction that benefits the Rhone Rangers Scholarship Fund.  There's a $35 ticket for just the Grand Tasting, too. Details & tickets »

Food for Thought (Beverage for Thought?)

  • Finally for this week I wanted to point you to a blog that is writing some of the most consistently interesting and erudite pieces in the world of wine today.  Elaine Brown of Hawk Wakawaka Wine Reviews this week tackles the questions raised by the ambiguity inherent in the definition of "natural wine".  We fall in her category 3 ("Wine growers and/or makers that use organic and/or biodynamic viticultural practices and/or less interventionist cellar techniques with few additives but do not define themselves with the movement of Natural wine") and are often dismayed by the reductive arguments on either extreme of the debate. Her conclusion -- that what matters is "if we’re trying to listen, and have a conversation" seems right on to me. Read more »

In Anticipation of Cruising the Rhone River

By Robert Haas

"Cruising" a river seems like an odd term.  One usually cruises on an ocean.  But two old northern Rhône wines with our roast pork loin last night reminded me of the pleasures of the Rhône River.

OldRhoneDinner3

I have visited the Rhône River Valley over a hundred times since 1954 and have viewed the river from both banks but have never seen the banks from the river.  Nor have I stopped at the little ports along the way.  This will change next summer, when Barbara and I will join Neil and Marci Collins to lead the Tablas Creek Rhone River Cruise.  It will be a new experience, and one I am really looking forward to.  I have always loved the old town of Avignon and its crenellated walls, where the cruise will begin.  And, of course, the ruins of the famous old pont d'Avignon, where on y danse tout en rond.  It will be fun to see these things from comfortable quarters on a boat.

Along the southern Rhone, our itinerary will then take us to Arles -- one-time home of Van Gogh and the location of some of the best-preserved Roman buildings outside of Italy – and Tarascon, with its imposing medieval castle.

We will also, of course, be making a pilgrimage to Château de Beaucastel, our partners in Tablas Creek, and friends and colleagues for 45 years.  This visit will include a special tour of the property and a classic  southern Rhône lunch in their gardens prepared by Beaucastel's Michelin-starred chef Laurent Deconick.

Next we’ll head north, to Tain L’Hermitage, a landmark destination for lovers of the northern Rhone’s signature Syrah, Roussanne and Marsanne grapes. I have spent many days over the years visiting the historic cellars of famed northern Rhône appellations such as Hermitage, St. Joseph, Cornas, Condrieu, Château Grillet, and Côte Rotie.  No less a wine lover than Thomas Jefferson said in 1791 “Hermitage is the first wine in the world, without a single exception”.

Further north we'll continue to Lyon, a center of French gastronomy with the architecturally famous Place Bellecour, for a few days.  While there we’ll make an excursion to Chalon-sur-Saone on the Côte Chalonaise, the southernmost Burgundy appellation, and on to Beaune, a center of the Burgundy wine trade.  I have visited the Beaune area regularly since 1954 and see the old streets very little changed.  A major attraction, as well as the surrounding vineyards of Beaune, is the old Hospices de Beaune, originally a charity hospital founded by of the Dukes of Burgundy in the 15th century.  A tour there includes the remarkable architecture and a view of the famous Beaune Alterpiece, a triptychpainted in the 17th century by Rogier van der Weyden.

The culinary pleasures of the Rhône Valley are legendary, with Mediterranean influences from Provence in the south and the classic French cuisine of Lyon in the north: olives, fruits, nougats de Montélimar, quenelles, andouillettes, saucissons de Lyon, and the Lyon original, onion soup.  I can never get enough of those.

And the wines of the Rhone, from Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Cotes du Rhone, and Tavel in the south to Condrieu, Côte Roti, Hermitage, Cornas, and St. Joseph in the north, can be exceptional.  On the cruise ship, we will be dining together as a group most nights, with wines selected from the Rhone, and a few from Tablas Creek, of course.

Back to last night’s roast, which was flavored with rosemary and juniper, hallmarks of Rhône Valley seasonings.  The wines, both red and white, had aged well and complemented the food.  The Hermitage white, a blend of mostly Marsanne and some Roussanne, was nutty and deeply flavored, minerally and honeyed, and attested to the rewards for aging Rhone whites.  The St. Joseph red, all Syrah, was savory and deep, with flavors of coffee, roasted meat and syrah’s signature white pepper.  Both were wonderful.

Barbara and I are very much looking forward to joining Neil and Marcy and sharing our experience with our fellow cruise guests next August.  We hope that many of our friends will gather with us for the fun.


Spring 2014 VINsider shipment food pairing dinner

By Lauren Cross

What better way to celebrate the recent release of our Spring 2014 VINsider shipment than to taste and enjoy each new wine with expertly paired dishes prepared by two of the best caterers on the Central Coast? Yes, there are benefits to working at Tablas Creek.

A little background, first. We asked two chefs (Chef Jacob Lovejoy and Chef Jeffry Wiesinger), with whom we often work for dinners and events here at Tablas, to put together six dishes, one for each new wine, so that our tasting room and wine club staff to get first hand experience with the different affinities of each wine and thereby more easily discuss food pairings with our guests.  I thought that a recap might inspire our fans to create new food and wine pairings in your own homes.

Personally, I was excited to taste the new shipment wines with dishes expressly created to pair with them and use this experience to draw conclusions about other potential pairings.  I didn’t grow up with wine being served at the dinner table and, as parent of two young children, my memorable food pairings are often unexpected: think Esprit Blanc and corndogs (which pair beautifully, by the way).  I’ve also been fortunate enough to stumble upon exquisite Tablas Creek wine pairings by accident.  I once paired our 2010 Counoise with barbeque chicken and almost fell off my chair it was so good. 

The tasting drove home to me that pairings can work because dish and wine share similar traits, and together they show harmony. But perhaps less intuitive was that certain pairings worked because of their differences, where contrasting flavors or textures highlighted each member's distinctiveness.

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Pairing 1: Shrimp ‘n’ Grits with 2012 Côtes de Tablas Blanc

The foundation of this dish was mini polenta cakes which provided a rich and savory texture that paired splendidly with the viognier-rich Côtes de Tablas Blanc. The fresh shrimp was topped with a creamy white butter sauce brightened by lemon and blood orange. The bright acid that lifts the 2012 Côtes de Tablas Blanc through a long finish loved the citric notes in the cream sauce.

This pairing was one of similarities: a delicate balance of richness and brightness in the dish mirrored the related complexities of the Côtes de Tablas Blanc.

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Pairing 2: Dungeness Crab Avocado Salad with 2012 Grenache Blanc

A beautifully quartered avocado, piled high with dungeness crab salad and topped with a ginger-infused asian pear brulee and a drizzle of yuzu vinaigrette, made for a sublime pairing for the 2012 Grenache Blanc.  The sweet and earthy crab brought out the mineral notes of the wine, and the avocado coated the palate while the acid of the wine cleaned it: a pairing of contrasts, each of which made the other taste more vibrant, capped off by the luscious ginger-infused pear garnish that accentuated the green apple crispness of the Grenache Blanc.

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Pairing 3: Duck Confit Bread Pudding with 2012 Roussanne                      

This pairing would make a convert of anyone who doubts that Roussanne is substantial enough to pair with traditional red wine partners. The fluffy and buttery bread pudding, served by Chef Jeffry, reminded me of Thanksgiving stuffing packed with egg, herbs and dried apricots.  The slightly gamy duck flavors deepened the whole and brought out the apricot notes in the 2012 Roussanne, while the rich texture of the wine proved a match for the weighty dish.

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Pairing 4: Smoked Pork Mac ‘n’ Cheese with 2012 Patelin de Tablas

We often recommend the 2012 Patelin de Tablas, with its smoky and peppery nose, with barbeque because of its moderate alcohol and its fresh acidity.  So I was not surprised by the elegance it brought to the gooey smoked pork mac ‘n’ cheese.  Another example of contrasts making each partner taste more clearly of itself: the elegance and freshness of this syrah-based blend paired was accentuated by the smoky richness of the pork, refreshing the palate where a more assertive wine could have made a fatiguing partner.

A side note: this truly was the people's wine paired with the people's food.

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Pairing 5: Kalbi Style Beef Short Ribs with the 2012 Côtes de Tablas

The Grenache-based 2012 Côtes de Tablas leads with bright chewy fruit accentuated by a good amount of spice and pepper. The combination of sweet and spicy flavors in the Kalbi style beef short ribs made for a spot on pairing, with the fruitiness of the wine standing up to the ribs' slightly sweet glaze and the combination's tingling spice echoing after each bite.  This pairing showed me why the Perrins talk about southern Rhone wines (most of which are based on Grenache) as natural partners for asian-inspired dishes.

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Pairing 6: Wet-Aged Prime Rib Roast with 2011 Panoplie

It probably won't surprise any of you that an aged prime rib paired well with our new 2011 Panoplie. As prepared by Chef Jacob, the prime rib was deliciously rich and tender, made even more luscious by a pat of blue cheese butter layered on top and the mouthwatering truffle mashed potatoes below.  The Panoplie is built on a base of our most powerful Mourvedre lots, whose combination of mid-palate richness, chewy tannins, loamy earth notes and silky-smooth texture matched the dish sip for taste, and whose higher tones of rose petals and raspberry fruit lingered perhaps because they were not directly mirrored in the dish.  All in all a fitting, and completely satisfying, way to end a wonderful night.

As always, we are thankful to and impressed by our chefs Jacob and Jeffry for working together so seamlessly and with so much intention and passion, and for creating dishes with such distinct personalities that still partnered beautifully with the wines. I hope that this inspires you in your pairings; if you have particularly memorable ones -- good or bad --  please share them in the comments.


Robert Haas receives the Rhone Rangers 2014 Lifetime Achievement Award

This past weekend, a big Tablas Creek contingent made the trip up to San Francisco to cheer on my dad as he received the Rhone Rangers 2014 Lifetime Achievement Award. I wrote about the significance of the honor when we first received notice of the award, so I won't delve too deeply into the background of his career, but I did want to share the remarkable tribute video that the Rhone Rangers put together and debuted at the awards dinner where he received the honor.  It features interviews with some icons of the California wine industry, including Paul Draper of Ridge Vineyards, Josh Jensen of Calera, Gary Eberle of Eberle Winery, and Bob Lindquist of Qupe, as well as a wonderful message toward the end from Jean-Pierre Perrin. The warmth of the comments from these titans is palpable, probably my single most memorable impression from seeing the video for the first time.  Take a few minutes to watch it, and then we'll pick back up after:

OK, welcome back.  The ceremony itself was wonderful, highlighted by a touching acceptance speech from my dad and an unexpected appearance by last year's award winner, Bonny Doon Vineyard's inimitable Randall Grahm. I got a photo of the two of them together: the first two Rhone Rangers lifetime achievement award winners:

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This award dinner kicked off a full Rhone Rangers weekend, which included that night's dinner (wonderfully catered by the Girl and the Fig) and live auction, and two seminars and grand trade and consumer tastings the following day.  While the Winemaker Dinner remained on the grounds of the Fort Mason Center (at the nicely restored General's Residence) policy changes at Fort Mason, forced the seminars and tastings to move to the Craneway Pavilion, a gorgeous, newly renovated space in the East Bay:

Rhone Rangers 2014_15

On the one hand, it's too bad to leave Fort Mason, which has been home to not just Rhone Rangers for the last fifteen years, but had become the go-to venue for most Bay Area wine events.  But on the other hand, the Craneway's setting is even more beautiful than Fort Mason's, the venue is newly renovated and contains wonderful touches like sound panels on the walls so the hubbub of voices doesn't reach deafening levels, and the practicalities of getting there (freeway access, parking, and public transit) are all in its favor.

And, it wasn't like the organization had any choice.  The changes that the Fort Mason Center has made, all designed to discourage alcohol-related events because of worries and complaints from their local community, left the Rhone Rangers no choice.  Some changes were minor but inconvenient (like their new process for requiring food vendors to individually obtain permits to show their wares, which was so long and time-consuming that the first year it was implemented it cut the number of vendors in half). Others were financial, as they reclassified wine events as "for profit" rather than "nonprofit" (even though organizations like Rhone Rangers are all nonprofit) and raised the costs by some 50%.  But the final requirement, which eliminated a wine event from the long-standing option of holding their same weekend for the next year -- instead allowing them only to reserve a six months out, if they had in the interim been unable to sell the weekend to another event -- meant that organizations like Rhone Rangers couldn't plan or set their schedules, and had no assurance of continuity from year to year.  And there isn't really another viable venue in San Francisco for a tasting like this one of around 100 wineries.  Hence the move to the East Bay.

The good news is that I think that the event landed in a great home.  The venue really is gorgeous, inside and out, and the staff there was great to work with.  Rhone Rangers even ran dedicated ferries across the bay from Embarcadero, which on a day like last Sunday (mid-70's and sunny) would have been a highlight in itself.

I leave you with a few other photos of the wonderful weekend.  First, a photo of my dad, getting the award from Ridge's David Gates, current President of the Rhone Rangers Board of Directors:

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Next, a photo of the lot we donated to raise money for the Rhone Rangers Scholarship Fund: a six-vintage magnum vertical of our signature Esprit wines, and a private tour, tasting and lunch or dinner with my dad and wines out of his cellar:

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A photo of the seminar space at the Craneway Pavilion, flooded with light:

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And a photo of the Craneway's interior during the Grand Tasting:

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And finally, a photo of me and my dad, taken the night of his award.  It was really an honor to be a part of the festivities, and see my dad get his moment in the limelight.

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Photo of the day: No ice bucket required

I got back yesterday evening from a wonderful weekend in Lake Tahoe: a benefit for the 49ers Foundation, which distributes millions of dollars each year to help keep kids in the Bay Area on track.  The event (called the 49ers Foundation Winter Fest) included wine tasting, silent and live auctions, a program of events with 49ers players, coaches and alumni for kids and adults and free run of the facilities at the beautiful Resort at Squaw Creek.

We poured wine at our reception and donated to the dinner and auction, which were great.  But more than that, we'll remember the interactions with the players and coaches, all of whom were notably kind to and patient with the kids.  And the snow.  After a clear day Friday and a rainy morning Saturday, snow levels dropped to us around 4pm on Saturday, and over the next twelve hours we got over a foot of snow.  I grew up in Vermont, where a foot of snow wasn't particularly memorable, but for our kids, who are growing up in California, it was something else entirely.  I'm still not sure their clothes have dried, they were so packed with snow.

Since snow here is so rare, and we'd brought a bottle of our new 2013 Dianthus (it is spring, after all) I played a bit with the juxtaposition of winter and spring, warm and cold, blue-white snow and bright pink wine.  I got several photos I liked, but this was my favorite.  No ice bucket required:

Dianthus in the snow

Happy spring, wherever you are, and whatever the weather looks like in your neck of the woods.


Congratulations to Robert Haas, Rhone Rangers "Lifetime Achievement Award" winner for 2014

This week, The Rhone Rangers announced that Tablas Creek founder (and my dad) Robert Haas will receive the 2014 Rhone Rangers Lifetime Achievement Award, for services to the American Rhone movement.  It's a wonderful honor, just the second-ever lifetime achievement award that the organization has given out. The first went last year, appropriately, to Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard, the original Rhone Ranger.

Robert Haas Seated on Patio

Though my dad's wine career began focused on Burgundy and Bordeaux, his history with the Rhone is a long one.  He made his first buying visit to Chateauneuf-du-Pape in 1967, looking either to find an estate whose wines he could import, or barring that (few estates were even estate bottling at the time, and those few that were had established relationships) to find some bulk Chateauneuf-du-Pape that he could buy and have bottled for the American market.  He visited Beaucastel on that trip, convinced Jacques Perrin to let him taste through the cellar, and selected some barrels he would bottle and market under the "Pierre Perrin" label. [That story, if you haven't heard it, is detailed in the blog post a great dinner, an amazing restaurant, and the wine that marks the beginning of Tablas Creek, from 2012.]

His connection with the Rhone developed along with his friendship with Jacques Perrin and his two sons, Jean-Pierre and Francois, working together as importer and producer through the 1970's and 1980's.  For an American market still largely unaware of the Rhone Valley, my dad devised a marketing strategy of personalizing Beaucastel, and made dozens of trips around the United States with Jean-Pierre and Francois, promoting both the flagship Chateau de Beaucastel estate and their growing collection of wines under the La Vieille Ferme and Famille Perrin labels.  The brands are still a cornerstone of Vineyard Brands, the importing company he founded.

If the relationship had ended here, his contribution to the Rhone movement in America would still have been significant.  But his friendship with the Perrin brothers and their joint conviction that the Rhone grapes they worked with in France would thrive in California led them in 1985 to begin the search that would culminate in Paso Robles and Tablas Creek.

Several of the places that they looked at seriously (notably Sonoma, El Dorado and Santa Ynez) have become major contributors in the Rhone Ranger movement, but they settled on Paso Robles, which has become its epicenter.  From 1990, when there was negligible acreage of Rhones in the county, there are now more acres of Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Syrah and Counoise in San Luis Obispo county than any other, and more acreage of Viognier, Grenache and Mourvedre than any other coastal or mountain county.  The focus that the partners' decision to buy land in Paso Robles brought to the region -- as an area for high quality wine grapes, but more specifically as a great home for Rhone varieties -- was enormous.

Perhaps the most lasting contribution that he (along with the Perrins) had in the American Rhone movement came with their decision to import new grapevine cuttings from France, and then to make them available to other vineyards and wineries, rather than trying to keep this potential competitive advantage proprietary.  More than 600 vineyards and wineries have purchased Tablas Creek stock since we began selling it in 1996.  This new high quality vine material both gave the Rhone movement a direct and dramatic boost and had an indirect effect, spurring the nurseries already in California to build new partnerships to themselves import quality new French clonal material.

Finally, I believe that Tablas Creek's focus on blends has provided an important counterpoint to the varietal paradigm that dominated California for decades.  We're far from the only winery who has tried to make our name on blended wines -- and the paradigm is far from broken -- but the winery's insistence in the early years, when the market was telling us again and again that what it wanted was varietally labeled wines, on sticking with what we felt was the best expression of our grapes, land and place, was one piece in creating space within that paradigm for alternatives.  I sat recently on an industry panel discussing the future of the proprietary blend, and I can't imagine that panel even existing without the work over the last two decades by wineries like Tablas Creek, and stubborn proprietors like my dad.

So, on Saturday, April 5th my dad will be recognized at the Rhone Rangers annual gala in San Francisco.  I'll introduce him.  And I'll know that not only will I be standing where I am because of him, but many of the Rhone producers and enthusiasts around the room will also be there because of what he made possible.


The future of the proprietary blend

This week, I joined much of the rest of the California wine community in Sacramento for the Unified Grape and Wine Symposium.  Unified, as it's called, is part trade show, part educational conference, and part social hall, with nightly reunions of all the significant viticultural universities and lots of the informal socializing that helps keep a community together.

I was up there to speak on a panel titled The Proprietary Wine: Rethinking the Constructs of Blended Wine, a topic near and dear to my heart.  I and the other panelists shared how we thought about, and went about creating, the blends that we each focus on.  I showed the 2012 Patelin de Tablas Blanc and the 2011 Esprit de Tablas, to have an opportunity to discuss how our approach differs for an estate wine and for the Patelin line, which is primarily from a collection of other local vineyards.

Blending components

It became clear that each of us, to one degree or another, agreed that the freedom to blend different grapes, and the liberty to adjust to what each vintage gives you, allows us to make wines that we find more consistent and more interesting.  But more than why we blend and what we hope to gain from it, I thought that the most interesting part of the seminar came in the question-and-answer period at its conclusion, specifically a question as to whether we thought that blends would, in the short or long term, take the mantle of desirability from the varietal wines that now dominate the marketplace.

On one side of the debate stands the success of the other panelists (whose quantities had grown in a shorter time than we've been active well into the tens and hundreds of thousands of cases) as well as brands like Menage a Trois, which came up in discussion several times as one of the top selling wines in the country despite its unconventional composition.  Also on that side is the 15+% growth in both the red and white blend categories reported in Nielsen data from 2012.  Arguing on the other side of the debate was the proprietor of a small winery, who asked me privately after the session whether I had any answer to the questions she gets from wine buyers just where they're supposed to put her blend on their shelves or on their lists.  I hear that less than I did, but it would still certainly be easier to be in a more widely recognized category.

My general feeling is that blends will continue to grow in acceptance, but not because of a paradigm shift.  In fact, I feel that the growth of acceptance of blends is part and parcel of the growing acceptance of unusual grapes and new growing regions.  The American market even a decade ago was dominated by six grapes (Cabernet, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc) and maybe eight foreign regions (Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Rhone, Germany (mostly German Riesling), Spain (mostly Rioja), Italy (writ large), Australia, South America (mostly Chile with a little Argentina).  Perhaps you could add in South Africa and New Zealand.  It was these regions that warranted their own sections in even the best stores and wine lists.  If you didn't fit into one of these categories, you tended to get stuck in "other red" or "other white".  I know, because that's where we spent a lot of our history.

Fast forward a decade, and while retail has by and large been slower to change -- some notable exceptions notwithstanding -- wine lists are a great deal more inclusive than they were.  Most large lists are still organized by grape or region, but there are many more grapes and many more regions listed.  And small lists, which are more and more common even in many top restaurants, have more flexibility in their category-less simplicity to include whatever wines their buyer thinks interesting and complementary to their food.  If it's based on Vermentino, or Negrette, it's likely listed that way, without fanfare or apology.

These developments are part of the maturation of the vibrant American wine market.  I don't mean to say that there is a more mature wine consumer, though many Americans are still relatively new to wine, and I think that as wine lovers spend more time with their passion their tastes do tend to become more diverse, but that there are more and more different types of wine consumers in this wonderfully heterogeneous market.  That means you don't need to convert a Chardonnay lover to Picpoul in order to be successful.

And that is a future to be excited about.


An appealing new idea for charity wine auctions

At 6pm tonight, this year's Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance Auction will begin.  It's not a swanky black-tie gala with big-name chefs under the stars.  It's not preceded by a tasting where 300 of local society's leading lights are wined and dined (mostly wined) in the hopes of loosening their wallets.  It's not prequalified with a $150 ticket to get in the door.  Instead, it's online, on eBay:

PRWCA_auction

You may hesitate at first, but... isn't that a good thing, and refreshing?  Don't we want more than 300 people to see (and bid on) the packages we as a region are donating?  Doesn't it sound appealing to market to EBay's 100 million active users?  Don't we want the proceeds to go to our charitable partners rather than the overhead of flying in chefs, renting tables, linens, etc.?  And don't we want mostly to bring support to our community from outside, rather than (or at least in addition to) going back to the same local charitable stalwarts?

I asked the PRWCA's Executive Director Jennifer Porter why she made the change and found her responses fascinating: "We changed to online because we weren't drawing an out-of-market bidder to the live auction," instead "relying on members and our community to donate lots, buy tickets and buy lots back. That, plus the high cost of running the event, just didn't seem to make sense".  Other local regional wine groups, most notably Monterey, have canceled their auctions for this reason, but Jen didn't want to do that.

She found the idea from her former career in entertainment.  While she was working with Comedy Central, the Colbert Report auctioned off pieces of their set using the same company (Auction Cause) that the PRWCA will be using.  Although she is not aware of any other regional wine associations to make the move to eBay, the James Beard Association is doing so currently, so it's not unknown in the world of food and wine.

Key to Jen's decision was a reflection on the mission of the PRWCA itself: promotion of the area.  Chiefly because the audience was mostly drawn from long-time fans of Paso Robles, Jen thought that "the live auction format was not achieving the goal of promotion".

The Paso Robles wine community has always been ready in its support of our local auction, but whether because of the new format or because of the outreach that the Alliance has done, this year's auction packages seem particularly exciting, including things like "Live Like William Randolph Hearst" (including a stay on the coast, a private tour of Hearst Castle and a case of wine), "Wine Country by Air" (including a private helicopter tour of Paso Robles wine country and a barrel tasting, blending session and private dinner at a great local winery), and "Music and Memorable Experiences" (including a private guitar lesson, CD and wine vertical from a local winemaker/musician, a wine country picnic and dinner and a deluxe room at one of our local hotels).

What are we donating? The complete Tablas Creek experience: a private vineyard tour, tasting and dinner with me and my dad, with wines out of his cellar, transportation provided by The Wine Wrangler,  and a one year membership in our Collector’s Edition Wine Club, which includes 18 bottles of reserve and library wines.  

To bid on this year's efforts, visit http://is.gd/pasoroblesauction between now and November 17th.

Since 2006, the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance has contributed more than $350,000 to a range of local community organizations.  This move online seems to me to be well positioned to allow us to continue to be a powerful supporter of our local charities while also bringing more people into the process.  What do you think?  Will you be a part of it?  Please share, in the comments.