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.


Tablas Esprit and Beaucastel Châteauneuf: Takes Two to Tango

By Darren Delmore

As the National Sales Manager for Tablas Creek vineyard, my travels keep leading me to circumstances where I’m asked to compare Esprit de Beaucastel to Chateâu de Beaucastel. “So which wine is better?” I’ve heard many times over, as if there’s a clear right or wrong answer to such an open-ended question. I’ve narrowed down the climate-soil-varietal-diurnal-historical pontification to the simplest response of “It’s all in the timing.” What you want out of the wine you want to drink and, most importantly when, are the real questions here.

A few recent examples follow. In Anacortes, Washington at a Tablas Creek tasting at Compass Wines, their best customer arrived on crutches wielding a bottle of 2006 Chateâu de Beaucastel and plopped it right down on the counter before he even introduced himself.

Compass
Compass Wines' legend and his 2006 Beaucastel offering.

At a Tablas Creek dinner at 32 East in Delray Beach, Florida that I hosted with Vineyard Brands’ south Florida manager Taylor Case, the owner paired off Tablas Creek and Chateâu de Beaucastel in a consumable course-by-course tango - blanc to blanc and rouge to rouge.

Tablasvsbeau
The show in Delray Beach at 32 East.

Some attendees of the collector persuasion snuck in some older vintages of the Beaucastel Chateâuneuf and were passing them around beneath the tabletops. Tablas Creek, as it always does in my experience, held its own very well, thank you very much, though we didn’t have any older Tablas Creek to put up against the surprise Beaucastel library wines. The 2010 Cotes de Tablas Blanc was the talk of the tables, accentuated by a great wild mushroom crostini pairing. The contrasts between the estates’ top two red 2010’s, served side-by-side with the braised short rib and polenta main course, was fascinating. Taylor and I were blown away by this flight: the wines smelled nearly identical. Further swirling revealed just a touch more open fruitiness in the Tablas Creek, but not much. Onto the taste and the identities became clear. For me, what differentiated this young vintage of Chateâu de Beaucastel from Esprit de Beaucastel (and to a degree, differentiates Chateâuneuf-du-Pape from American Rhone blends) is a mid-palate gravelly richness that attaches to the sides of your mouth as if a soil-glazed galet was tossed onto your tongue. I could taste why so many collect this wine and normally keep it out of sight for 5 to 10 years before it softens up enough for stellar drinking. It was my first opportunity to taste each, and having read that the vintage brought eerily similar growing conditions to both the southern Rhône and Paso Robles, it was wholly fulfilling. Though both Tablas and Beaucastel benefit from time in the cellar, the brighter fruit and higher acidity of the Esprit gave it an accessibility that led patrons, that night, to attack it like white, touristy ankles by an angry mob of Biscayne bull sharks. And the bottles of the amazing 1994 Beaucastel Rouge that were secretly making the rounds were a convincing testament to the rewards of patience.

Lineupfl
 The lineup in Florida.

One of my favorite comparisons of the two estates occurred last week in Santa Fe, New Mexico at the awesome wine bar and restaurant Arroyo Vino. At the end of a day visiting restaurant accounts in Taos, I brought the remainder of the 2010 Esprit de Beaucastel bottle to Arroyo Vino’s owner Brian Bargsten. I’d first met Brian last fall at the Santa Fe Wine and Chile festival when his business was simply a high-end wine store at the foot of a luxury community just outside of town. Brian has since expanded Arroyo Vino with a beautiful, modern dining room and bar and hired chef Mark Connell, whose resume boasts stints at Salt (in Cambridge, MA) and the French Laundry (in Yountville, CA) to oversee the kitchen. After eyeballing the impressive collection of bottles for sale in the retail area, I found a seat at the bar next to a lone diner mid-way through a bottle of Bethel Heights Pinot Noir. The dining room was packed for a Wednesday night. I spoke with Brian for a bit and pulled out the Esprit. He introduced me to Larry – the man beside me – and told him the story of Tablas Creek and the Perrin family.

“They picked Paso Robles?” Larry protested, surprised that one of his favorite southern Rhône producers had set up shop in what he had always assumed to be a hot area known for “high alcohol, jammy Zinfandel.” This fired Brian up to talk about limestone-rich west-side vineyard sites, say “Larry, want to compare the two?” and disappear to fetch a 2010 Chateâu de Beaucastel off the rack. A couple other servers hovered around the bar as Brian returned, cutting off the foil swiftly and talking about Chateâuneuf-du-Pape when I noticed it was in fact the Côtes du Rhône 2010 Coudoulet de Beaucastel that he was driving the corkscrew into. “That’s the Coudoulet, Brian,” I said, seconds too late.

“What, that’s not the one?” Larry asked.

“No but it’s good,” I added. “The Coudoulet is their vineyard just outside of the AOC of Chateâuneuf-du-Pape.”

“Oh,” Brian paused mid-twist. “Well, guess we’ll do a flight of all three.” Sure enough he went over and grabbed the correct bottle and asked one of the servers to line up three glasses for each of us. Brian poured the wines in order: Coudoulet de Beaucastel, Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel, and Chateâu de Beaucastel.

Perrin Flight
Left to right: 2010 Coudoulet, 2010 Esprit, and 2010 Chateâu Beaucastel.

Larry pointed out that aside from Oregon Pinot Noir, he only drank and collected European wine. He was one of Brian’s biggest customers, a bona fide Burgundy lover and buyer of first-growth Bordeaux allocations, and familiar with only a couple of producers in the Rhône. It was as much a moment for Brian as it was for Larry to see how close California could get to real Chateâuneuf-du-Pape.

The Coudoulet was in amazing shape, with a juicy unison of savory herbs and reddish fruit, and a refreshing, snappy palate and long finish. The Tablas Creek was showing a warmer, more lifted aromatic profile of Mourvédre, with black olives, raspberries, baking spices, and foresty notes and a finish filled with graceful, plush tannins. The Chateâu de Beaucastel was the biggest wine of the flight, with a brooding nose of black licorice, roasted meats and rain soaked city streets, before a powerful sip unfolded into a gravelly, mineral-rich, thick dark wave of density that required a bit of my rabbit agnolotti dish to soak up some of its youth. I was more of a wine fan than a wine salesman at that counter, mesmerized by the diversity of these three related wines from two continents, and it wasn’t until much later when Brian leaned over and asked me, “are you selling this tonight?” that I came back around to reality.

“That Esprit is good, man,” he added. 


Surviving Consolidation in the Wholesale Wine Market

This week, like much of the California wine community, I'll be making the trek up to Sacramento for the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium. "Unified", as this enormous trade show is known within the indistry, is a chance to see the newest in technology, to check in with friends and colleagues from other regions, and to take in a program that includes seminars on viticulture, winemaking, wine marketing, and business/operations. We always have a cohort there, partly to see what the exhibits have to offer but mostly to support NovaVine, the nursery with whom we partner to sell Tablas Creek vine cuttings. For NovaVine, Unified is one of the year's best marketing opportunities.

I have been invited to speak on a panel Thursday afternoon -- a part of the marketing curriculum -- titled "Surviving Consolidation: How to Position Your Brand for Success".  I'll be representing smaller wineries, and will be joined by representatives from the worlds of wine wholesale and retail, as well as Ed Lemay, the Senior Vice President of Marketing at Constellation Wines, who brings the perspective of a larger supplier. I spend a lot of my time thinking of how to prosper in a crowded wholesale market, and thought that while I was putting together my notes for Thursday's session I might share a few of the key points here. For the longer version, please come see us!

It's worth pointing out that I'm not sure that all of this is much more important because of consolidation than it was before.  Sure, there are many states with fewer options for distributors, but the wholesale market has always had more wines than it could possibly focus on, so these strategies for making sure that you, as a small-to-medium size winery, get your share of the attention are likely the same that they've always been. They're just more important now.

  • Know what makes you distinctive. And focus on it. There are thousands of wineries that are competing in the wholesale market, from your neighbors to wineries elsewhere in your state to others from around the world.  If you can't reduce what makes you distinctive down to a few sentences, the game of telephone -- in which you need to educate your wholesaler's management, they need to educate their sales team, those salespeople need to sell to their restaurant and retails customers, and those restaurant and retail buyers need to speak to the end consumer -- breaks down. One place I see many wineries get into trouble is in the assumption that because their model works in their tasting room, it will necessarily translate into the wholesale market. Tasting room customers are faced with many fewer options than any buyer in the wholesale chain. It's good marketing overall to keep yourself focused, but make particularly sure your story for the wholesale market is concise and logical -- as well as memorable.  
  • Demand the information you need to evaluate success. You need to be engaged with your wholesalers. Make sure you're regularly getting inventories, account lists and how many (and which) samples are being pulled. Know what the pricing and the deals are that are offered.  Know (and care) whether your 100 cases are being sold to 30 restaurants or 3 retailers. And then review this information regularly so that if what you're seeing isn't what you want, you can communicate this to your wholesaler. Just showing that you're interested in this information helps tilt the playing field in your favor.
  • Be a good partner. Most wholesalers are filled with talented, passionate salespeople who want to do a good job. You can help them succeed with your brand in many ways: by going regularly to their markets and working alongside them. By being generous with samples, to help make sure that your wines are in their bags often. By taking good care of them when they come out to visit, and when they send out their VIP's to see you. And by giving them the tools they need in point of sale, positive media attention, and marketing support. You are in this together.
  • Work together to set your goals and strategies. Is there a particular wine or two that you need your distributor to focus on this year? Or a particular type or list of accounts you'd like them to target? Or a sub-region that needs work? You should be conducting regular (annual, at least) reviews with your wholesalers to communicate this to them. Make sure you listen to them when they tell you what is working and what isn't, and involve them in the solutions to the problems you identify. The more ownership they have over the initiatives you work out, the more likely they are to see them through.
  • Build and use your own restaurant, retail and consumer relationships. Nothing gets a distributor's attention like accounts asking for your wine. When you are out in the market, collect cards and drop a thank you note after you're back home. Then, stay in touch. Share directly news of new releases, special offers and positive press. And don't forget your consumer mailing list. When you have a cool new placement or a feature at a retailer, share the news with your fans in the area. The fans will appreciate it, the account will be grateful (and maybe even surprised) by the support, and the distributor will know that if they work on your wines they'll be rewarded. Success breeds success, so each time a distributor rep puts your wine into an account and sees it sell through and be reordered, it makes him or her that much more likely to think of your wine the next time there is an opening to fill. Of course, failure breeds failure, too. Don't chance it if you have the power to help.
  • Be careful in franchise states. Nearly half of states have some sort of franchise law that restricts or prohibits suppliers from leaving a distributor that is not performing. In those states, your recourse is less and of course distributors are less responsive. Consider insisting on an opt-out clause in a contract before you sign on. If the distributor refuses, it may be a sign that you're better off not doing business with them anyway. And remember that just because a distributor is a great fit now, they may not be if they are bought by someone else, although your franchise tie will likely remain in force. But even in franchise states, all of the above fundamentals still hold true, and distributors in these states have the same goal as anywhere else: to sell wine. 

It's worth also mentioning that I'm assuming you're already making a good product and pricing it fairly. If not, you're going to find executing a successful wholesale strategy difficult, no matter what else you're doing. The wholesale market is less forgiving than your tasting room, where your customer service, and the time you can spend with your customers, makes a greater difference.

Anyway, this is just a teaser for Thursday's discussion, at which I'm very much looking forward to hearing the other panelists' (and the audience's) perspectives and ideas. I hope you can join us. If you won't be there, please add any ideas or feedback in the comments section.


When wine tasting, step away from the carafe

I spent most of the last week on the road, making stops in New York, Portland, and Seattle.  At each stop, I found myself confronted with tasters whose first action upon reaching my table was to pour water into their tasting glasses so as to rinse out whatever was in the their glass and start "fresh".  I've always hated this practice, since at best, you dilute the wine, and at worst you change its flavors, often dramatically, with chlorine or other minerals that were in the water.  So when I got back to the vineyard this week I asked Winemaker Ryan Hebert if he could figure out how much the residual water left in a glass after a rinse actually dilutes the wine you pour in.  It's more than you'd think.

Carafe-no

To answer the question, Ryan mimicked what we typically see at tastings: where a taster pours water into a glass, swirls it around a bit, and then dumps it, holding it upside down for about a second.  That's pretty much normal; some people are more rigorous and shake their glass to the extent that I worry the stem will snap, while others don't even empty the water fully.  Then, he measured the difference in the wine's alcohol levels with and without the water.  What he found was that in a one-ounce pour, the alcohol level is reduced by 6.9% thanks to the water in the glass.  That means that to your ounce (29.6 ml) of wine you've added 2.1 ml of water, diluting a wine that is 13.5% alcohol nearly a full percent to 12.6% and weakening all the other flavors similarly.  Calculated another way, we would get the same effect by pouring roughly eleven gallons of water into each ton of grapes.

Do you think that this impacts the taste?  You bet.  And it impacts the texture more, thinning out a wine and shortening its finish.  This all happens even with distilled water, which is free of mineral content.  Using mineral water, filtered water, or tap water can have even more unpredictable effects.  We tried the same experiment with filtered water and found that the high mineral content dropped the amount of malic acid in our sample (the 2011 Picpoul Blanc) from 0.21 grams per liter to 0.08 grams per liter, presumably because the acids in the wine bonded with the basic particles in the mineral-rich water.  And I've seen people rinse with water that was so chlorinated that I can't imagine the wine tasting remotely like it was intended.

So, what should you do at a wine tasting?  First, don't feel that you need to rinse at all, unless you're trying to get an unusually strong flavor out of your glass, or you're moving back from red to white.  Remember that most wine tastes -- and is structured, from a chemical standpoint -- a lot more like most other wines than it does like water, so the little bit of Chardonnay you have in your glass is going to impact your next taste of Syrah much less than an equivalent amount of water would.  And if necessary, try to rinse your glass out with a little of the wine that you'll be putting into it next.  It doesn't take much, and the winery representative who's pouring the wine will likely be pleased that you care enough to taste the wine properly.  You'll make your pourer even happier if you make it clear in advance that you'd like a rinse... it's always sad when you present a full pour of a scarce wine just to see the taster swirl it around, dump it out, and hold their empty glass back out at you.


Seeing red -- and green -- in Santa Fe

By Darren Delmore

Before spending a week in New Mexico for the 22nd annual Santa Fe Wine and Chile Fiesta, I called my gastroenterologist to inquire about getting my esophagus lined with stainless steel. It seemed like the smart thing to do. The residents of New Mexico’s high desert utopia - perched at 7,000 feet – love wine as much as their art and hot peppers, and this four day festival is one of the finest, spiciest celebrations of food and drink in the country. I was going to need some kind of intestinal support network to wage this battle.

After surviving close to a week in that 402-year-old city, I can safely report that Santa Fe is alive and kicking with art, food and music. I learned some fun facts as well: the state dinosaur for starters, that it's the third-largest art mecca in America behind NYC and Los Angeles, the and that when a server asks you “green or red” after you order anything from oatmeal to a Ribeye you should respond with “Christmas”. Although being so far removed from an ocean can be tortuous for me, I hardly even noticed during my week there; I was too busy eating, drinking and taking in the culture.

The opening event of Wine and Chile Fiesta was the invitation only Trade Tasting at the Hotel El Dorado on Wednesday afternoon. I arrived early enough to set up our table and ready the nine Tablas Creek wines I’d be pouring. [A little business -- any accounts in New Mexico interested in Tablas Creek can find us through National Distributing Company.] It was nice to be pouring alongside fellow central coaster Jessica from Zaca Mesa who informed me after a half glass of Ruinart Champagne to mind my altitude. She was right. Something had felt off. Walking up from the parking garage alone had me huffing as if the lungs of Keith Richards were inside me. “Just drink a lot of water,” she added. I had researched restaurants around the city, and as the event filled up I was able to meet a lot of the buyers, managers and staff of wine loving establishments from Santa Fe down to Albuquerque and on up to Taos. A lot of good wineries were in the house. It was going to be a good week.

The fine wine specialist for National, Andrew Jay, recommended that I go have a bite to eat at Café Pasqual’s that night, since they were pouring our Patelin de Tablas by the glass and loved Tablas Creek. I walked into town from my hotel on the north edge of the city and entered the clamoring, legendary eatery. The manager saw my green Tablas Creek bag and introduced herself enthusiastically. The only spot available was in the center of a silent, ten person communal table in the middle of the dining room. I wedged myself in next to four couples and a guy on his iPad. After ordering a glass of Fontsainte Corbieres Rosé and doing that 21st century solitary shuffle of staring into my phone, a huge plate of complimentary roasted red peppers with a wedge of lime materialized before me, and the whole table suddenly had entertainment akin to a gastronomical version of Survivor to bring us all together.

Pascqual's peppers

“You must work here or be really special,” said the Texan next to me.

“You gonna eat all them?” asked the woman on my right. The couple I’d later learn was from South Korea just started at me through their black-rimmed hipster glasses, fully prepared to witness me burst into flames.

“Those aren’t bad,” the Texan consoled me. “Those are sweet ones. You’re all right.”

Thankfully they were. And delicious at that. I had a caramelized onion and poppy seed tart and “Albondigas de Pigolo con Adobolo” afterward, which are meatballs of bison and pork. A spicy mole dish tore up the woman to my right and she sent it away swiftly. “I’m beyond done,” she said, and didn’t utter another word all night. This was hot culinary terrain here. Tourists were going down by the minute!

Thursday was mostly a day to explore and absorb some Santa Fe culture. After some internet research I headed to Garcia Street Books just south of the river, which had a well-chosen selection of the authors I was looking for. Next door was a newsstand/café called Downtown Subscription, which is highly recommended for not only its brew but also the relaxed patio space in back to while away a lazy morning or afternoon. I checked out some of the galleries a block down from there, and a woman at Manitou Galleries that had a really stunning show going for painter B.C. Nowlin steered me toward the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, which was a great decision.

There was a forty-five minute wait for lunch at The Shed, which I spent browsing through the wine shop at La Casa Sena. I salivated over a 3-liter of 2009 Hommage a Jacques Perrin and their expansive selection of Ridge.

LaCasa2

My restaurant pager went off as I checked out with a half bottle of 2005 Turkey Flat Barossa Valley Shiraz. The patio at The Shed was still crowded so I was led by the host to a deep secret room built in adherence to the local overhead clearance of five foot four. In fact an older gentleman was pacing by his table in there and grabbed the host, demanding to be relocated due to claustrophobia. He was freaking out and I couldn’t blame him. I failed the “green or red” test by asking my server for the mildest salsa on my enchiladas. The food was only on the verge of devil spice, which was just what I needed.

From 4:30 to 6:30 there was a soirée’ at the Governor’s Mansion for all the participating wineries at Santa Fe Wine and Chile. This was a chance to relax a bit and taste through everyone else’s chosen wine selection. I met France’s “Whispering Angel” who was there in a blue sport coat cinched at the neck with a little pink sweater representing his magnums of rosé de Provence wines. The Tablas Creek selection being poured by an array of sommeliers and restaurant wine directors was the 2011 Rosé, which was the perfect choice for the heat of the day. The hot desert sun was scorching the bottles of red wine. Nothing like having a glass of 90-degree Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon.

TerrasunsetI cut up through a quintessential orange-pink New Mexican landscape to the Four Seasons Rancho Encantado. Word traveled my way about a prix fixe dinner their restaurant Terra was doing all week, with four courses paired with Tablas Creek wines. After a commanding sunset (right) I sampled two of the courses and their chef blew me away with his Green Chile Cioppino and 2011 Patelin de Tablas Blanc pairing: an innovative and thoughtful food and wine combination that really brought out the spice of the wine's Grenache Blanc component. Rhone whites are often a surprisingly good pairing with spicy food, which tends to fight with oak and can make high-acid wines taste shrill. The cioppino:

Greenchilecioppino

Out of all the days at this festival, Friday was my busiest. Tablas Creek and chef Fernando Olea were being paired up on the outskirts of town at world famous artist Allan Houser’s sculpture garden and residence. I could’ve driven myself later in the morning but opted to get on the bus with everyone else and get the full experience. I’m glad I did. His work, carved out of limestone, granite, bronze and other organic materials was full of grace and soul. As was the luncheon that the amiable Fernando Olea put together to pair with the 2011 Rosé and our two new Esprit de Beaucastel wines. There’s a first time for everything in life, and grasshoppers paired with a Mourvedre-based rosé was certainly new to everybody in attendance.

Houserlunch

With a bus full of snoring passengers, we returned just in time for me to down an espresso and set up for the Reserve tasting at the El Dorado. This event was far more crowded than the trade tasting, as the attendees were an equal mix of industry and general public. Tablas Creek donated a ten vintage vertical of Esprit de Beaucastel Rouge for the auction. Wines were flowing fast. A small, exhausted group of us met up for dinner at La Casa Sena afterward, where the wine list is as thick as a Tom Wolfe novel. We drank a 2009 Domaine Weinbach Grand Cru Gewürztraminer. I had the Wagyu steak with it, which might show just how mentally debilitated I was from the succession of the day’s events.

Saturday was the grand tasting at the Santa Fe Opera with over 5,000 in attendance. I parked and walked down to the Flea Market beforehand, expecting to find locally-crafted art and jewelry made from indigenous gems and stones but instead found rugs and clothing from South Korea. I hoofed it up through the opera grounds to the series of event tents and found the Tablas Creek table. It was already packed an hour before starting time. Manny Guerra from Vineyard Brands came over for a glass of Rosé and the heads up that he had the 2009 Chateau de Beaucastel open two tents down and that I’d better come over now if I wanted a glass of it. I was getting the vibe that the crowd waiting behind the roped-off entrance was there to party. Thankfully over 75 restaurants were sprinkled about with plenty of food to keep things agreeable. 1 to 4 pm was the busiest blur of my lifetime. I poured both Patelin de Tablas wines, Rosé and Esprit de Beaucastel to the merry masses, at times with a bottle in each hand. I couldn’t believe how well organized and managed such a big tasting event could be. No wonder this was the 22nd annual.  

At nightfall with a full harvest moon over New Mexico, I was in a quiet, off-Broadway part of the city, sitting in the Second Street Brewery watching one of New Mexico’s best singer-songwriters playing a set with his trio, drinking a stout and giving the spicy food one more try. The nachos, complete with Christmas, were crushing me with its spice and acids, and again the native chile won the dusty battle against this Californian wineslinger


A Family (Winemakers) Trip to the Golden Gate

By Darren Delmore

As we loaded up nine cases of wine into the Subaru on a sunny Sunday morning, I immediately got the drift that two days of representing TCV at Family Winemakers of California’s San Francisco tasting wasn’t going to be a relaxing, casual affair. Pouring 108 bottles in approximately two four-hour tastings equals over a case an hour, and (assuming one ounce pours) over five tastes per minute. There’s no way any winery would go through that much wine at a trade event where 300 other wineries were also pouring, would they?

Family Winemakers SF 2012

We made speedy, all-wheel-drive time into the city, unloading the wines at a bustling Fort Mason Center, parking, and inhaling sandwiches from Greens Restaurant as the whites chilled. It was an absolutely beautiful day to be pouring wine on a pier in San Francisco. We poured a pretty serious lineup, everything that we make that sees any distribution at all for the mostly wine-buying trade and media attendees of this long running event:

The Whites
2011 Patelin de Tablas Blanc
2010 Cotes de Tablas Blanc
2010 Roussanne
2010 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc
2011 Vermentino

The Rosé
2011 Rosé

The Reds
2011 Patelin de Tablas
2010 Cotes de Tablas
2010 Mourvedre
2010 Esprit de Beaucastel

I hadn’t been to a Family Winemakers event since 2008 in Pasadena, so I was wondering how the organization had been faring in recent years. There are so many trade and consumer tastings these days, what niche did Family Winemakers continue to fill? As a wine buyer for a restaurant, I recall the abundance of high end California wines on hand at these tastings, and the opportunity to actually talk to winery owners and winemakers in a more spacious atmosphere. I also dug walking away knowing which wineries in California were family owned and/or independent. This year’s event filled up slowly but surely on the first day, with sommeliers and buyers from a great array of restaurants, bistros and wine shops turning up to taste what’s new. Before we knew it we were pouring full throttle to a mass of both trade and consumers alike. The disadvantage of pouring so many wines is that it takes serious tasters quite a while to get through your lineup. The advantage: you sure look busy.

The action didn’t wind down until three hours in when Jason urged me to go taste around the room. My throat was parched from shouting what Counoise was over the thunder of tasters, so I went straight to Ramey Wine Cellars, who, along with Kistler, is the master of California Chardonnay in my opinion. The trio behind the table looked as exhausted from the day’s pouring as I felt so I didn’t take up much more of their time. I was just happy to know that their 2009 Hyde Vineyard Chardonnay was as good as their 2008.

That night Jason and I cabbed it to Park Tavern in North Beach for what would be a fabulous meal with our distributor's new key accounts specialist for the Bay Area. Until recently a sommelier at a top Napa restaurant, she was happily already a fan of our wines and psyched to meet us and taste what was new. Over a discussion of the glories of Mourvedre-based rose and a bottle of 2011 Chateau Pradeaux, Jason told the tale of how his father and the Perrin family ultimately picked Paso Robles in 1989 to found Tablas Creek. For me, listening to limestone-enlivened wine tales is to me what hearing the latest on a cinematic celebrity’s pregnancy or Justin Bieber’s eating disorder is to the rest of America. We moved on to the bright, honeyed 2010 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc when the main courses hit the table, which collectively paired with their choices of Black Cod and my highly-recommended bone-in pork chop plate with bacon confit that should’ve simply been called "the pacemaker". "You win," the server quietly said to me when he placed my selection before me.

The following morning I chose to take in the sights of the city. Jason (who had a board meeting) had warned me that the Tenderloin, a few steps the wrong way from our excellent hotel, used to be a really terrifying place. But there was a Blue Bottle Coffee location ten minutes away according to my iPhone, so I took a brisk morning stroll down Taylor into an area that I’d later find out was graced by a bustling methadone clinic. I about to abort the mission when I saw the most-welcome sign for Jessie street and power walked down a mere half a block to find a line full of black-rimmed spectacle-adorned hipsters awaiting their morning brew. What a difference a hundred yards makes!

I met up with Jason at 1:30 for the final trade tasting, and before long we were swarming with fans and tasters. The Vermentino was a hit. The Patelin de Tablas Blanc was showing extremely well and if you’re in the Bay Area, you’re surely going to see this killer blend on by the glass lists. A lot of people had never tried Mourvedre on its own, and our 2010 was much-requested. By 5 pm, an hour before the cutoff, my voice felt like Janis Joplin’s after a two-hour whiskey-fueled set. Come closing time, all but one of those nine cases of Tablas Creek were gone, and once outside en route to the getaway ride, the winds whipping off the San Francisco bay were full of mercy.

Golden Gate


An evening fit for a prince (or a Hearst)

I get to pour wine at lots of dinners, and even more tastings.  Doing so is a key piece of how we have chosen to market ourselves: not just waiting for people to come and discover us, but going out to where they are and introducing ourselves.  It's a wonderful consequence that these tastings often allow us to support partners in our community whose work we admire.

Every now and then, the setting transforms one of these events into something extraordinary.  One such event happened this past weekend.  We have long partnered with Festival Mozaic, the summer music festival that brings world-class musicians into the Central Coast each July.  Born as the San Luis Obispo Mozart Festival forty-one years ago, Festival Mozaic stages their orchestral and chamber concerts not just in the area's performing arts centers, but also in its vineyards, its missions, and some of its most sublime private homes.  But for me, the most spectacular venue they've chosen is Hearst Castle, which opens its doors to the festival one night each year for a reception and dinner on the Sea Terrace, followed by a chamber concert in Hearst's own theater.  This was the event at which we poured Tablas Creek on Friday.  The setting:

Hearst Castle 2012

Having such a beautiful and well-known landmark to yourself is breathtaking enough, but the food (catered by Hearst Castle's own chef) and the music pushed the evening over the top.  To our backs was the famous Neptune Pool:

TCV corkscrew at Hearst Castle

I spent the whole evening feeling like royalty, from when Meghan and I were waved on through the gate to drive up to the hilltop to bidding the guests farewell in front of the castle's majestic indoor pool.  Experiencing an event in such a unique venue really is unforgettable, and the fact that by donating wine for it we are not only bringing the arts into our community but also providing for the upkeep and restoration of one of California's most impressive landmarks just makes it all the better.


An outstanding Outstanding in the Field dinner

In the last decade, the farm to table movement has gone from avant-garde to squarely in the mainstream. (Cue the spoof by Portlandia.) And of course, there are excesses that deserve to be pointed out, and pretense that deserves puncturing.  But, at its heart, it's about wanting to know who was responsible for the food you eat and the wine you drink.  Sometimes, this must be limited to knowledge of provenance, or even just an assurance of ethical production.  But push a little farther to find yourself eating with the farmers, ranchers, winemakers and chefs whose products you're enjoying, and you realize it's about reestablishing the connection with your food that has been obliterated by factory farms, agribusiness and chain restaurants.

Last Thursday, Meghan and I made the trek out to Rinconada Dairy for a remarkable dinner set up in the middle of a sheep pasture under a giant oak tree, a few hundred yards from the nearest building and about 10 miles from the nearest thing that might be called a town.  We were joined for the dinner by Bill & Barbara Spencer of Windrose Farm (who grew the produce) and Debbie Paver of Charter Oak Meats. Rinconada's husband and wife team of Christine and Jim Maguire produced the cheese as well as the venue and the soundtrack from the nearby sheep and goats.  The food was prepared from scratch in a pop-up kitchen in that very same field by Chris Kobayashi, the chef/owner of Artisan Restaurant.  Perhaps most remarkably, we were joined by about 100 food and wine lovers from as far away as Minnesota.  Artisan's Shandi Kobayashi, who put together the menu and its wine pairings, arrived kid goat in arms, trailed by its family:

Shandi with goats

The maestro of this evening, and of evenings like it throughout the year and around the country, was Jim Deneven, the founder of Outstanding in the Field.  Created "to honor the people whose good work brings nourishment to the table", OITF has since 1999 been creating dinners in such unlikely places as sea caves, mountaintops, orchards and pastures.  We hosted one under a spectacular blue moon on a ridge at Tablas Creek in 2004.  Each dinner includes a reception (last week, we poured our Rose and Lone Madrone poured their delicious Bristol's Cider).  Then, the guests are taken on a farm tour, which ends where the dinner will be hosted.  So, the guests will not yet have seen the site, and the theatrics of the arrival are not neglected, with mise en scene set by the plates that diners bring with them to each of the Outstanding in the Field dinners they attend:

Plates

We'd wandered over a bit earlier to give the servers the background on the wines that were being paired with the different courses.  These included our 2010 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc, our newly bottled 2010 Counoise, our 2009 Esprit de Beaucastel and the 2010 Vin de Paille Sacrerouge, of which we brought two of the just 150 cases that were produced.  The menu:

Menu

Outstanding in the Field by tradition sets one long table and serves family-style, encouraging mingling and interaction between the guests.  The table, empty and full:

Set table Full table
As the evening drew on and the light faded, candles were lit, chefs and farmers offered toasts, and the table became an island of light.

After dark

Not all farm to table dinners work as culinary exhibitions.  But this one did.  All the courses were excellent, but the one that stood out most to me was the middle course: a cheese-rich gnudi (think gnocchi, but lighter in texture and slightly tangy from the cheese) with a pork ragu, porcinis and braised chicken, that we paired with the 2010 Counoise that I was so impressed by a few weeks ago. Artisan was in typically outstanding form, made all the more impressive by the rustic setting.

A decade ago, a dinner like this would have felt radical, at least outside Alice Waters' sphere of influence in the Bay Area.  And it's probably no surprise that Outstanding in the Field got its start, and is still based in, Santa Cruz.  But that experiences like this are now available in much of the country is a sign of just how far the food movement has come in challenging the industrialization of what we eat.  And while we can point fingers at it for being elitist, or pretentious, the trickle-down effects of chefs and diners who care about how their food was grown and made has impacted everything from three-star restaurants to Chipotle.  And this is ground zero.  I challenge anyone who went to this dinner, or who goes to any of the 90 other events that OITF hosts each year, to leave unmoved.