Vintage Hollywood

I have recently been finding myself contrasting two recent vintages primarily in terms of their personalities, rather than (or at least, in addition to) their flavors.  Our 2011 vintage produced wines that are tense, wound-up, powerful and brooding, that make you make an effort to get to know them.  The wines from our 2012 vintage are sunny, open, friendly, and easy to like without being simplistic.  Yes, these are notably anthropomorphic descriptions, and I have described each without mentioning anything about sweetness, acidity, flavors or texture.  And yet, don't you have a sense of what the two vintages' wines are likely to taste like?

That got me thinking of which movie stars might correspond to those two vintages, and once I got myself started, I couldn't stop.  So, I present to you the last ten vintages, with a female and male movie star who will help you get to know them, and a little explanation as to why. Images courtesy Wikipedia.

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  • 2004: "We didn't know they had it in them".  The 2004 vintage struck us at the time as likely to produce friendly, appealing wines without perhaps the structure and depth to age into elegance.  We were wrong, and the vintage has had remarkable staying power and has become something we didn't think it would be.
    • Female star: Mila Kunis, because when you saw her in That 70's Show, did you think she would be an A-list talent, as well as one of the most genuinely funny interview subjects in Hollywood?  Me neither.
    • Male star: Matthew McConaughey. Wooderson didn't seem likely to graduate to Dallas Buyers Club.
  • 2005: "Came through a few rough patches".  2005 wines were big and brawny when they were young, obviously with potential, but they shut down hard in middle-age and got downright difficult, to the point that we actually had to delay including the 2005 Esprit de Beaucastel in our Collector's Edition Wine Club because it wasn't ready.  But now?  They're the wines I pick when I want to impress.
    • Female star: Drew Barrymore, who as a teenager didn't seem likely to mature into the funny, self-possessed star she is now.
    • Male star: Robert Downey Jr., whose transformation from talented tabloid regular to master of multiple genres has been remarkable to see.  Did you realize he's the most valuable movie star in Hollywood, and has been for two years running?
  • 2006: "The overachiever".  A little like 2004, except that the wines seemed more solid and less friendly at the start, likely to be respected and admired but unlikely to be loved.  Then they steadily put on substance while rounding off rough edges, until they were stars in their own rights.  It happened so gradually we were actually surprised when our 2006 Esprit de Beaucastel became our first wine to make the Wine Spectator's annual "Top 100" list.
    • Female star: Amy Adams, who seemed destined for typecast roles as the funny sidekick but who has pushed her boundaries until she's one of the most marketable women in Hollywood.
    • Male star: John C. Reilly, the consummate character actor who parlayed strong work in a steady stream of sidekick roles in great indie films into juicy lead roles in blockbusters like Chicago and Gangs of New York.
  • 2007: "The star".  Big, glossy, powerful, clearly A-list material, our most impressive vintage suggests the classic Hollywood star, at the height of his or her powers, who can play any role successfully.  Yet, you never forget you're watching a star conscious of his or her own power.  No one would describe the 2007 vintage as "cozy".
    • Female star: Catherine Zeta-Jones.  A-list lead.  Talented singer.  One of the most beautiful women of her generation.  Would I be terrified to meet her?  Absolutely.
    • Male star: George Clooney.  Ridiculously talented, funny, self-deprecating and successful in a number of different roles, but you never forget you're watching a movie star.  That's what 2007 is like.
  • 2008: "The quiet pro".  This vintage, sandwiched between the showier 2007 and 2009 vintages, was excellent in its own right, but didn't demand a lot of attention.  It's like the star you're always happy to see in a movie, but whose name probably isn't on the marquee.  Yet at the end, you're glad to have spent the time with them.
    • Female star: Julianne Moore: classy, elegant, always appealing, and often in roles that show off her acting rather than her beauty.  Always an asset to a cast.
    • Male star: Jake Gyllenhaal: ditto.  Can lead a major production, but it doesn't seem to happen as often as it could.
  • 2009: "The dark side".  Powerful, tightly wound, the 2009 vintage is like 2007 with some added menace: an a-list star willing to go without makeup in pursuit of a meaty role.  We're expecting the 2009's, which are a bit forbidding and tannic now, to unwind only gradually, but to reward patience handsomely.
    • Female star: Angelina Jolie, the classic female action hero, whose depth is promised and only gradually revealed. A powerful presence, alluring and intimidating in equal measure.
    • Male star: Daniel Craig, whose take on James Bond is darker than previous iterations, played straight rather than with a wink, still plenty suave while adding more muscle and an introspective streak. A Bond who doesn't let you inside.
  • 2010: "Classic elegance". The comparatively stress-free 2010 vintage, a wet year coming after three years of drought, produced wines that have to me always come across as effortlessly appealing, not notable for their power but beautifully delineated and in perfect balance, like a movie star who ages gracefully.
    • Female star: Gwyneth Paltrow, charming in whatever role she takes on, from the big screen to the kitchen, but seemingly most at home playing a version of herself.
    • Male star: Denzel Washington, whose quiet confidence and air of class allows him to imbue humanity into characters who in other hands would be straightforward villains or saccharine heroes. Watch Training Day and Remember the Titans and marvel that he starred in these back-to-back.
  • 2011: "A little intimidating". 2011 turned up the volume on 2010, gaining intensity from a spring frost and retaining bright acids from our second consecutive cold year.  All the wines have a brooding darkness and the promise of great depth. At the same time, they require a certain investment on your part as their consumer to meet them on their terms. They're not interested in pleasing the crowds.
    • Female star: Halle Berry, who could have settled into a comfortable role as model and actress playing beautiful people, but seemed to search out troubled characters that were impossible to pigeonhole.
    • Male star: Hugh Jackman, who inhabits Wolverine's character comfortably: funny and sociable in short, bitter bursts, but ultimately inward-focused and intense.
  • 2012: "Pleased to meet you". In dramatic contrast to 2011, 2012 comes to greet you with a smile. This isn't to say that there's not depth behind this happy facade, but the first impression I have with all the wines from 2012 is that they're charming, with generous fruit, engaging and enticing.
    • Female star: Reese Witherspoon, recent arrest notwithstanding, plays characters with an easy smile who you want to root for and for whom joy seems a regular emotion.
    • Male star: Tom Hanks, whose wide range never seems to include dour or unappealing characters.  Of course, if you were casting for an unappealing character, would you cast Tom Hanks?  Exactly.
  • 2013: "The prodigy". In our as-yet-limited experience of the 2013 vintage, it seems to combine the appeal of 2012 with the depth and intrigue of 2011.  We're not sure where it's going yet, but we know it's going to be fun to follow and get to know.
    • Female star: Jennifer Lawrence, whose range at age 23 is already staggering, and whose career arc is likely to be meteoric.
    • Male star: Leonardo DiCaprio, circa 1997.  There isn't really a current equivalent to the promise that a 22-year-old Leonardo DiCaprio showed, already nominated for an Oscar (at age 19) for his role in What's Eating Gilbert Grape and within a few months of becoming the biggest star in the highest-grossing movie ever.

I'm sure any list like this is going to create controversy, and would love to know your nominations for the characteristics of our different vintages.  Or maybe I'm totally off base and you've only made it this far because you're wondering if I've lost my mind.  In any case, let me know what you think in the comments.


A first in-depth look at the 2009 Tablas Creek red wines

2009 was a challenging vintage, with very low yields from three years of drought and some significant April frosts.  It was further complicated by a record-breaking October rainstorm that dropped a foot of rain on the vineyard and stopped harvest for three weeks while everything dried out.  The net result was a vintage with the lowest yields per producing acre we've ever seen: 1.85 tons per acre of reds.

As the grapes were fermenting, we noted the lushness of the fruit and the power of the wines, both unsurprising in such a low-yielding vintage.  We also noted relatively high pH levels, which gave the wines a softness at early stages that worried us a little.  It's only as the wines have had some time in barrel to settle down that we've come to recognize the beautiful tannins that firm up the wines and give them balance.  The emergence of these tannins in barrel has changed our opinion of the harvest from one that was impressive but perhaps overly lush to one that we're exceptionally hopeful will be a great one.

We will be showing the 2009 Esprit de Beaucastel and 2009 Panoplie for the first time in December at our annual futures tasting and en primeur offering.  Offering wine en primeur is a time-honored French tradition most often associated with first-growth Bordeaux estates. In outstanding vintages, valued customers are offered the opportunity to secure a limited quantity of sought-after wines at a special price in advance of bottling and subsequent general release.  We've done an en primeur offering to VINsider Wine Club members on our two top red wines each year since 2003, and it's become an event we all look forward to as it's our first opportunity to show, in effect, what's next to our biggest fans.

We are in the process of putting together an invitation that will go out in November to our club members, and so needed tasting notes on the two wines that will go into the offer.  I thought it would be an appropriate opportunity to take a look at all of the 2009 reds together, and wanted to share what we found.  It's worth noting that the tiny yields meant that in order to protect our flagship wines we had to sacrifice some wines (including the Mourvedre, which we've made each year since 2003, and the Syrah, which we've made each year since 2002) that have been a regular part of our portfolio.  Still, we did make the decision to make our second-ever En Gobelet, as well as the Cotes, Esprit, Grenache and Panoplie.  The wines are all sitting in foudre, and will remain there for the next 9 months or so until they're bottled. 

09 Esprit in Foudre

The tasting notes:

  • 2009 Cotes de Tablas (43% Grenache, 24% Syrah, 16% Counoise, 15% Mourvedre): A Grenachey, spicy nose that resonates between black and red fruit, showing red licorice, sweet spices, and dried strawberry.  In the mouth, it's notably rich for a Cotes de Tablas, showing candied red fruit, sweet spices like cinnamon and nutmeg, and a long finish that turns darker and is firmed by fine tannins and an almost iron-like minerality.  Very impressive, I thought.  
  • 2009 Grenache: A nose brighter than the Cotes red, very fruity, showing watermelon, red cherry, raspberry and blueberry.  The mouth continues the flavors suggested by the nose, with cherry cola and an appealing creaminess to the texture.  The finish is the most interesting part to the wine for me, with nice acids framing the fruit and then showing a chalky minerality before ending with a sweet spice that might be sarsparilla.
  • 2009 En Gobelet (56% Mourvedre, 23% Tannat, 21% Grenache): A darker nose, showing the menthol, black cherry and mineral notes that are characteristic of Tannat.  The mouth is still relatively tannic, with bittersweet chocolate, leather, mesquite, cherry liqueur and a bloody, beefy character that is often characteristic of young Mourvedre.  The tannins actually soften on the finish, leaving mineral and a garrigue-like herbiness (thyme? sage?) as the last impressions.
  • 2009 Esprit de Beaucastel (40% Mourvedre, 28% Syrah, 27% Grenache, 5% Counoise): Showing more red than black fruit at the moment, with a nose of red plum and currant, and a little Mourvedre-driven meatiness and gaminess lurking behind the fruit.  In the mouth, cassis, cherry, and mineral shows the Syrah component, as does a chalky/mineral/meaty/bone marrow character that my wife once described as "butter in a butcher shop".  The finish shows the wine's youth, with a primary grapiness that should evolve into something more complex.
  • 2009 Panoplie (65% Mourvedre, 26% Grenache, 9% Syrah): Oh, boy.  An explosive nose of pepper, grilled meat, boysenberry, currant and blackberry.  It's the most polished and resolved on the nose of any of the wines.  In the mouth, it's hugely mouth-filling, with sweet fruit but big tannins that give definition.  On the finish, it shows a saline minerality that highlights the roasted meat flavors and the dark red and black fruits.  Absolutely gorgeous.

Notes from the Cellar: Assembling the 2009 reds, and getting ready for harvest 2010...

By Chelsea Magnusson

The cellar has been an absolute mess this week.  And for good reason - veraison has begun in the vineyard, and we are slowly wrapping our heads around the fact that another harvest season is right around the corner. 

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It looks like a disaster, but I promise, it's actually progress!

In preparation, we sat down to take a look at the 2009 reds we had in the cellar.  At this point, they were all in barrel, still separated by varietal and lot (where they came from in the vineyard, when they were harvested, etc.).  Ryan and I pulled samples from each of the individual lots and put them in bottle so we could taste through the entire vintage blind and take tasting notes (while we’re being straight here, I might mention that I’m still blown away by the fact that I actually got paid to taste through 28 spectacular wines!  What an unbelievably cool job.) 

The cellar crew, consisting of Ryan Hebert, Neil Collins and myself, was joined by General Manager Jason Haas and National Sales Manager Tommy Oldre.  After tasting through the vintage and sharing our thoughts, we were able to make decisions on where we thought each wine fit in best.  The lots that carried themselves with power and grace were positioned into the Panoplie program, wines with elegance and depth were paired with like-style lots for the Esprit de Beaucastel, and wines with a unique juiciness and affability were placed with the Cotes de Tablas family.  Obviously, that is an extremely simple generalization, but when tasting though each lot, everyone had a pretty clear idea of where they thought the wine should be used.  We also set aside lots for a varietal Grenache (sadly, there will be no Syrah or Mourvedre from the tiny 2009 harvest).  After finalizing the decisions, Ryan marked each barrel with an “E” for Esprit, “P” for Panoplie, “C” for Cotes, or “G” for Grenache.  Our last 2009 red, the En Gobelet, had already been assembled as a blend and put into foudre for aging.  

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A barrel destined for Esprit, with two Panoplie barrels in line behind it.

One thing I would like to mention (especially for those of you who attended the Harvest Seminar last year, or are planning to attend this year) is that the three barrels of Grenache that you harvested and processed went into the Panoplie – kudos! 

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From there, the wines were racked off their lees and put into stainless steel tanks as finished blends. They'll settle here for a week or two and then we'll move them to foudre for a year of aging.

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The barrels have been cleaned (they are steamed, rinsed with ozone, and hit with a dose of sulfur dioxide) and are now stacked and lined up, ready for harvest.

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Ryan cleans the lees out of barrels before they are washed.

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Clean, happy barrels ready to be filled with the 2010 vintage.

So far, we're anticipating that our harvest season will start around mid-September.  It is important to remember, however, that agriculture is unpredictable.  We're steadily getting the cellar in harvest shape so we're ready when it begins - because when harvest hits, it hits hard.


A tasting of the wines in the fall 2010 wine club shipment

Each spring and fall, we send out six wines to the members of our VINsider Wine Club.  With each shipment we include a letter from our wine club director, an order form, and production and tasting notes for the wines in the club shipment.  As these wines are typically unreleased, most of them do not yet have a Web page, and for me it's often one of my first opportunities to taste these wines after bottling.  It's always exciting, and the rest of the staff typically joins me as we take a look at the future.  This tasting was particularly fun for me because it was my first serious look at the 2008 reds and my first comprehensive look at any of the 2009 whites since bottling.  It will be fun to showcase wines from two such different -- but strong -- vintages. 

Incidentally, if you're wondering why there are only five wines pictured (and described) in what is always a six-bottle shipment, it's because the shipment will include two bottles of the 2008 Esprit de Beaucastel.

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In the order in which we'll be pouring them at our September 18th club shipment tasting event:

VERMENTINO 2009

  • Production notes: Vermentino is best known in Corsica, Sardinia, and northern Italy, but also found in the Rhône Valley, Côtes de Provence and Languedoc under the name Rolle. Our 2009 edition shows the noteworthy intensity of this low-yield vintage. Our two blocks were picked on September 22nd and October 8th and averaged 22.4º Brix and a 3.45 pH. The wine was vinified in stainless steel, and we stopped malolactic fermentation to emphasize the varietal’s brightness and freshness. It was bottled in screwcap in March 2010.
  • Tasting notes: Inviting meyer lemon, mineral and kiwi aromas are followed by a creamy lushness surprising for Vermentino, and a rich, long, spicy finish. Drink now or for the next few years.
  • Quantity Produced: 420 cases
  • List Price: $30 VINsider Price: $24.00

BERGERON 2009

  • Production notes: This is our fifth bottling of our Bergeron-style Roussanne (in the cool Savoie region of Alps, Roussanne is known as Bergeron). To make our Bergeron, we chose some Roussanne from one of the coolest spots of the vineyard, and fermented it in stainless steel to preserve its freshness and acidity.
  • Tasting notes: A nose of green apple, mineral, herbs and preserved lemon. In the mouth, very mineral and notably saline, quite rich for a Bergeron, almost buttery. The finish shows notes of caramel apple and the wine cries out for shellfish. Drink for the next five years.
  • Quantity Produced: 480 cases
  • List Price: $30 VINsider Price: $24.00

ESPRIT DE BEAUCASTEL BLANC 2009

  • Production notes: Roussanne, with its wonderful balance of richness, minerality, and acidity, as usual forms the core of our 2009 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc. 2009 was our third consecutive drought year, and yields were further reduced by serious April frosts. The blend for 2009 includes 62% Roussanne, 26% Grenache Blanc (for roundness and distinctive green apple and anise flavors), and 12% Picpoul Blanc, our highest-ever percentage, for acids and minerality in this lush vintage. The wine was blended in May and bottled in July 2010.
  • Tasting notes: Similar in many ways to the blockbuster 2007, though with the appealing softness and breadth to the texture that distinguish the 2009 whites. The wine shows a rich, lifted nose, very spicy, with aromas of ginger, tangerine, asian pear, beeswax and herbs. The mouth shows rich Roussanne flavors of honey and spice and a long, dry finish with toffee and pear notes. A slight tannic bite suggest that this wine will benefit from short-term cellaring, and drink well from mid-2011 through the end of the decade.
  • Quantity Produced: 1800 cases
  • List Price: $40 VINsider Price: $32

MOURVÈDRE 2008

  • Production notes: Mourvèdre has an (undeserved, in our opinion) reputation for toughness and rusticity. In fact, if it gets ripe and is handled cleanly in the cellar, we find it the Rhone varietal most reminiscent of Pinot Noir: with good intensity of flavor, medium body, good acidity and an ageability that is belied by its initial approachability. This 2008 Mourvèdre was picked late (between October 10th and November 3rd), fermented in open-top fermenters, and then moved to foudre for aging. It was blended in August 2009, aged one additional year in foudre, and bottled in June 2010.
  • Tasting notes: A garnet color. Spicy nose of red cherry, plum and pepper. The mouth is consistent with the nose, with a little meatiness lurking under the bright fruit. The tannins firm up on the long, coffee-laced finish and suggest a good life ahead. Drink now and for the next decade.
  • Quantity Produced: 675 cases
  • List Price: $40 VINsider Price: $32

ESPRIT DE BEAUCASTEL 2008

  • Production notes: Our signature red wine showcases the spiciness and impeccable balance of the remarkable 2008 vintage. It is as usual based on the red fruit, earth and mocha of Mourvèdre (38%), while Grenache (30%) brings rich mouthfeel, glycerin and a refreshing acidity. Syrah (26%) plays its largest role since 2002, providing black fruit and mineral and 6% Counoise adds vibrancy and brambly fruit. The wine was blended in August 2009, aged in foudre and bottled in July 2010.
  • Tasting notes: A deep, spicy nose with waves of fruit alternating between red and black raspberry and cherry, grilled meat, balsamic, and licorice. The palate is highlighted by beautiful acidity, an appealing mintiness, and substantial but fine-grained tannins. The wine is tasting just great now, and we think it will only get better. Enjoy over the next two decades.
  • Quantity Produced: 3400 cases
  • List Price: $50 VINsider Price: $40

More details on the shipment are available online for anyone interested: http://www.tablascreek.com/wineclub_news.html.  A few final thoughts are below. 

First, these 2008's show just an amazing degree of complexity and intensity of flavor with absolutely no sense of weight.  This is in dramatic contrast to the impressively structured 2007 vintage, whose primary impression is one of power and density.  The 2008 reds have well-delineated varietal character, a distinctive spiciness, wonderful acidity, and should both drink well young and age gracefully.  Do I think that they'll age as long as the 2007's?  Probably not.  But they'll give enormous pleasure while they're young, and their balance suggests that medium-term aging will only increase their complexity.

The 2009 vintage seems to me to be a softer version of 2007: equally lush, but perhaps a touch less structured.  The viscosity of the wines combines with their overt minerality and relatively low acidity to make wines whose richness is balanced by a saline mineral character more than by acidity.  In this sense, it's a vintage whose wines would be absolutely at home in the Rhone Valley, where the white wines are typically rich and softer than those from Paso Robles.  These wines often surprise with their ageability, and I'm particularly excited to see where the 2009 Esprit Blanc goes over time.


The Gathering Storm: A Preview of a Potentially Historic Week of Weather

As those of you who have been following the blog regularly know, 2009 was our third consecutive year of drought.  Among the drought's other impacts, we have seen yields decline each of the three yields, and in 2009 will make nearly 40% less wine than we did at our high-water mark in 2006.

All that looks like it is about to change.

We got off to a good start this winter with the massive October rainstorm that threatened harvest and dumped nearly 10 inches of rain on Tablas Creek.  In the three months since, we've seen only moderate rainfall, and sit this morning at just under 17 inches of rain for the winter.  That total is slightly above normal for this time of year, but without significant additional rainfall, we won't be able to make up three years of shortfall.

Enter this week's weather.  The infrared image below is from the NOAA's terrific library of satellite imagery from around the world.  Note the powerful plumes of moisture off both the Northern California and Southern California coasts.  Apparently, these are being drawn together by a jet stream that has moved unusually far south, and is pulling subtropical moisture from the south Pacific into a string of arctic storms that stretch nearly to the Aleutian Islands.

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The net impact of this weather pattern (which is apparently not uncommon in el nino years) is that over the next week California's Central Coast is forecast to receive five separate storms, each of which is supposed to drop between half and inch and two inches in the valleys, with double or triple that in the mountains nearer the coast.  Do the math on that, and most locals are suggesting it would not be surprising for us to receive 20 inches of rainfall by next weekend.

This is the ideal time of year for us to receive this rain; the vineyard's cover crop is well established and we shouldn't see much erosion.  And it's still early enough in the winter for it to penetrate deeply and then dry out enough for us to get back in the vineyard for pruning.

In any case, it should be an exciting week.  I'll post every couple of days with updates.


Note from the Cellar: "We're finished!" (...bringing in the 2009 fruit...)

Considering what a huge deal it is to complete a harvest, the end is shockingly anticlimactic.  It's not as though we all watch as the last bin of fruit is unloaded from the truck, smiling proudly as it is poured onto the sorting table.  Rather, we meant to take some photos of the end of harvest this year, and only after everything was clean and put away did we realize that we had forgotten to bring out the camera.  On the plus side, the last of the fruit came in at a steady pace (we didn't get bombarded by bins) and we were able to play around with some of the smaller lots we produce here.

One of those small lots is our Pinot Noir, of which we have produced one barrel of each year since 2007.  Because it is such a minute amount, it's more of a "passion project" than anything.  This year, like the previous two years, we brought a small amount into the cellar (0.31 tons, to be exact).  With such a tiny amount of fruit, it was difficult to decide what to do with it - even a macro-bin was too large for a proper fermentation to take place.  Many of the small artisanal wineries in the area pull the heads out of their barrels to ferment small lots, so we decided to give it a try.  We prowled through the cellar until we found a puncheon (a large format barrel that hold 132 gallons) that had a leaky head, steamed it, rinsed it, and set to work making a fermentation vessel.  None of us have ever attempted this, but Ryan set to work like he'd done it a hundred times before.  The photo here is the least blurry photo I was able to capture - apparently, the auto focus doesn't work quite as fast as Ryan does.

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The fermentation went smoothly after the wine was transferred to the barrel, and before we knew it, it was time to press.  With lots as small as this one, it's both senseless and a little dangerous to press the wine using our bladder press.  Considering how long it takes to clean out the red press, it just doesn't make a lot of sense to press such a small amount of wine.  It's also a bit risky - the bladder would have to inflate far more than it would with a normal press load and we would run the risk af tearing a hole in the bladder due to over-inflation.  So instead, we borrowed a mini basket press from Steve Goldman, a fellow winemaker and friend of Neil's. 

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After pressing the Pinot, we ended up with about 45-50 gallons of wine that was transferred to barrel and topped up with some leftover Tannat we had on hand.  Given the fact that we only have enough fruit to produce one barrel of this wine, most of the wine is distributed to the partners of Tablas Creek, but it's a fun project in any case.

Now that harvest is officially over (all the fruit is in and all the reds have been pressed off), it's time to get the cellar cleaned up and organized to continue topping and begin pulling samples to monitor the progress of our secondary (malolactic) fermentations.  There is still much work to be done before we can put this vintage to rest, but it is a truly exciting thing to watch as each and every barrel begins to show its own unique personality.

The following are a few shots that were taken both during harvest and after harvest had been completed:

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Above: A refractometer reading of Roussanne

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National Sales Manager (and cellar veteran) Tommy Oldre rolls up his sleeves to help process Mourvedre

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I may have missed the photo-op for the final bin of fruit, but third to last isn't so bad!  Mourvedre waiting to be processed

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A parting shot of the destemmer after it had been cleaned for the last time of the vintage


Enjoying fall foliage while putting the vineyard to bed

This is a deceptively quiet time of year.  We aren't harvesting any more, but we're still pressing off some red lots in the cellar and only a few select lots have actually finished fermentation.  In the vineyard, we're doing anything we can to help the vines gather resources for 2010 before they go dormant.  In a typical vintage, that would include some post-harvest irrigation as well as fertilization and seeding of the cover crop.  This year, we have an enormous advantage: the 10-inch rainstorm from October that threatened the harvest.  Winemaker Ryan Hebert calculated that we'd have to irrigate 24 hours a day, every day, for seven months in order to match the 10 inches of rain that fell. 

So, the vineyard is greener and the cover crop off to an earlier start than I can ever remember.  The big storm also had the impact of allowing the compost and other organic fertilizers that we've spread on the vineyard over the last year to penetrate the soil.  You can apply anything you want to the vineyard... but unless you have the rain to allow it to get into the soil (and deep enough into the soil to reach where the vines' roots are) you're not going to see much effect.

This is also the time of year when the fall colors are at their peak.  Syrah, particularly, colors up almost like a maple tree, with reds and oranges as well as yellows and greens.  I took the opportunity to get out in the vineyard a bit to get some of the photos of what's going on.  First, a shot I loved from outside the winery, as we steam clean barrels.  Steam cleaning is much more efficient in its water use than pressure cleaning, and more effective to boot.  On a cool morning, the steam billowing around the barrels was fun to try to photograph.  Check out the rainbow.

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Getting out into the vineyard (the Roussanne block in this case) you can see both the new cover crop and the effects of the disking that we've done to break up the soil and allow both rain and nutrients to penetrate the soil:

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There was a dramatic contrast between a section of Grenache Blanc, still a spring-like yellow-green, and a Syrah block in full fall colors.  An owl box (unoccupied, this year) is in the foreground.

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A look up between two Syrah rows shows how advanced the cover crop is for early November.  Most years, we haven't had our first rain yet by now, and November looks very dry and brown.

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In the Syrah, I found a second-crop cluster that had not been harvested, nicely framed next to a particularly colorful leaf:

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I took several shots of the Syrah foliage.  My favorite is the one below.

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And finally, one last photo of the same border between the Grenache Blanc and Syrah, set against the clear November sky:

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Harvest 2009 Evaluation and Recap

The 2009 harvest is done.  In the barn.  Finally.  At 64 days (beginning September 1st and ending November 3rd) it was our second-longest harvest this decade.  The only longer harvest, 2004, also saw the end of the harvest delayed by rain.

The weather during harvest was challenging, to say the least.  After a relatively cool early summer and a hot July, we entered into a pattern of roughly two weeks of unusually hot weather followed by two weeks of unusually cool weather.  One of these heat spikes came in late September, which added to the stress of the vineyard and led to us bringing in 50 tons (a quarter of our harvest) in the last week of September.  Cooler weather returned in early October to allow a more leisurely pace of harvest, but was followed by a fluke fall storm that dropped 10 inches of rain on the vineyard on October 13th.  The storm was well forecast, and we were able to bring in 70 tons of ripe fruit the week before the rain.  The clouds cleared and late October saw our best weather of the harvest season: consistent days in the 80s and nights in the low 40s.  This perfect weather allowed the fruit that was out in the rain to reconcentrate, and we resumed harvesting on October 27th and completed the harvest on November 3rd.

Overall, the harvest will be remembered as difficult and light, but it looks like the quality should be very good.  The yields are our lowest since 2001.  We brought in 198 tons, down 24% compared to 2008 and 38% from our high-water mark of 319 tons in 2005.  This lower tonnage is despite our getting our first production from the Scruffy Hill section of the vineyard: a head-pruned, dry-farmed 10-acre block on the south side of Tablas Creek. Final tonnages for 2009 for our principal varietals were:

Grape 2009 Yields (tons) 2008 Yields (tons) % Change
Viognier 12.2 19.4 -37.1%
Marsanne 5.3
9.6
-44.8%
Grenache Blanc 19.9
23.5
-15.3%
Picpoul Blanc 5.2
6.6
-21.2%
Vermentino 5.5
2.8
+96.4%
Roussanne
41.5
53.4
-22.3%
Total Whites 89.6
115.3
-22.3%
Grenache 35.8
46.9
-23.7%
Syrah21.3
30.1
-29.2%
Mourvedre 35.8
44.7
-19.9%
Tannat 5.8
5.4
+7.4%
Counoise 8.3
14.2
-41.5%
Total Reds 107
141.3
-24.3%
Total 196.6
256.6
-23.4%

Three factors, at least, led to the low yields.  First was drought.  We had our third consecutive drought year in Paso Robles, with rainfall totals last winter only about 60% of normal.  Second was frost.  We had our most damaging frost since 2001, impacting an estimated 35% of the vineyard.  Third was dehydration.  We had a heat spike in September, which caused rapid dehydration of the grape clusters and led to low cluster weights.  We avoided a fourth contributing factor; 24 tons of fruit were still on the vines when the big storm hit on October 13th and could easily have been lost to rot, but the terrific weather in late October saved us.

Thanks to the ingenuity of our winemaking team we also were able to use our greenhouses to concentrate an additional 7 tons of fruit that we didn't believe would survive the rain on the vines.  We picked three lots -- two of Roussanne and one of Counoise -- that were nearly but not quite ripe and brought them into the greenhouse to get a little additional concentration.  These nine tons entered the cellar a week or two later (for photos of and more information on the greenhouse project, check out Chelsea Magnusson's Note from the Cellar from last week).

So, yields could easily have been worse.  This was certainly a vintage where the quality of the vineyard and winemaking team mattered a lot: between the heat, the cold, the rain, the uneven ripening and the low yields there were more potential pitfalls than any vintage of which I've been a part.  It's a real testament to Neil, Ryan, Chelsea, and David (our cellar and vineyard team) that what we have in the cellar looks as good as it does.  And quality looks remarkable.  The wines are intensely colored and have very deep flavors.  Alcohols are lower than in past years; the average degree Brix this year was 23.4, down from 23.9 last year and 24.3 in 2007.  The wines have wonderful lushness, probably a consequence of the exceptionally low yields.  Overall, we averaged just under 2 tons per acre, with Syrah and Mourvedre (normally both relatively vigorous) among the lowest yielding, at 1.6 and 1.7 tons per acre, respectively.

It's too early to know how the different lots will play out over the course of the winter.  But it seems likely that given the low yields and the high quality, there will be very little Cotes de Tablas this year.  Esprit (both red and white) seems safe.  Stay tuned as we fit the pieces together...


Note from the Cellar: Week of October 19th

[Note: We are pleased to welcome Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Magnusson who will be contributing a regular column "Notes from the Cellar" to the Tablas Creek blog.  You can follow her posts by selecting the Notes from the Cellar category from left-hand navigation bar.]

Since the day the Central Coast was slammed with the monster rain storm, it had been quite difficult to venture out into the vineyard.  The vineyard experienced far less erosion than anticipated, primarily because the soil was so incredibly parched it just soaked up all the water we received.   However, that absorption made trips into the vineyard a bit challenging to say the least.

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What a difference a rain makes!  New growth in the vineyard.

For the most part, we have had pretty nice weather following the storm, so the grapes (along with the soil)  have had a chance to dry out and continue the ripening process.  Neil, Ryan and David (our Vineyard Manager) have been cruising out into the vineyard regularly to pull samples on our fruit that’s still hanging out there.  Approximately 90% of our fruit has been processed already, but everything on-vine seems to be taking its sweet time.  As illustrated by the photo of Syrah below, you can see that there is indeed fruit worth waiting for.

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While we remain optimistic about most areas of the vineyard, there are other areas that were a bit concerning.  Numbers weren't moving, and there was fear that the fruit would either rot on the vine or we would be forced to bring in fruit coming in at a paltry 18°Brix.  So, rather than shrugging their shoulders and admitting defeat by bringing in fruit that was less than stellar, Winemakers Ryan and Neil made the decision to lay the fruit on beds of straw in one of our greenhouses, a la our Vin de Paille program.  The fruit that was selected for this process was a block of Roussanne that was far behind its counterparts and an area of Counoise that was especially stubborn in its ripening (or lack thereof).

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A view from the door of the greenhouse

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Counoise and Roussanne, side by side

For those of you who aren't familiar with the Vin de Paille process, we lay the fruit on beds of straw to allow it to dry, thus concentrating the sugars.  The straw underneath absorbs moisture and allows air flow under the fruit in an effort to avoid any mildew or rot.  This method is preferred because we are able to concentrate the sugars without affecting the pH and acid as much as would be the case if we allowed the fruit to dry on-vine.  It's also safer: the fruit is kept in a controlled environment with fans keeping it dry and happy.

After the fruit had reached a number that we were happy with, our vineyard crew pulled in 4.5 bins of Roussanne, weighing in at 2.45 tons.  At this point in the year (especially considering what the vineyard has been through), it’s absolutely thrilling to see sugar numbers coming in at 25.3°Brix, no matter the method used to get it there.  And I, for one was elated to hear “Bring it in!” once again.  It had been a few weeks since we last brought in a crop of whites, so it felt pretty good to fire up the white press today.  White press days are among my favorites - the juice in the pan smells very similar to fresh pressed apple cider (and tastes like it, too!) and cleaning the white press is quite fun (if you're into that sort of thing).  It’s one of the more quiet places in the cellar as far as external noise is concerned, and the acoustics are great.  For those of you who can belt it out in the shower, I would say the white press is the next step for vocal styling.

On the days we’re not bringing fruit in from the vineyard, we throw ourselves into activities involving the fruit that has already been brought in.  We’re continuing to pump over and punch down the reds that are just beginning to ferment or in the process of fermenting, and pressing off the reds that have slowed in their fermentations.  After they’ve been pressed, the wines have been barreled down and tucked away for storage and aging in cellar conditions conducive to primary fermentation completion.  In a short while, we’ll start checking on the secondary fermentation (malolactic fermentation).  As far as the whites are concerned, we have topped up our Marsanne, Viognier and Vermentino that we have in the cellar.  The whites get topped after fermentation has slowed to protect them from oxidation (when the fermentation is rolling, the carbon dioxide blankets the wine and protects it).

As long as the weather reports bring good news of sunshine and warmth, we’ll continue to check the numbers on the fruit in the vineyard, allowing it the time that it needs to ripen properly.  Until then, we’ve got plenty to keep us occupied here in the cellar!


October 13-14 Pacific Storm Recap and Assessment

So, we're picking up the pieces at Tablas Creek after a storm that dropped an amazing 9.6 inches of rain on us in a little more than 24 hours.  To try to contextualize how unusual this storm was for us:

  • This is more than half the rainfall we received all of last winter.
  • We've never received more than 6 inches in a day since our weather station was installed a decade ago, and we're pretty sure that this is the most rainfall in a day since we bought the property in 1989.
  • On our 120-acre property, we received roughly 4,181,760 cubic feet of rainwater.  That's more than 31 million gallons of water... enough to fill more than 52 olympic swimming pools.
  • For a stretch of about 12 hours on Tuesday afternoon and evening, we were receiving about 3/4 inch of rainfall each hour.
  • Winds were strong, consistently in the 25-35mph range, with the top gust topping out at 39mph.

Fortunately, the storm was very well forecast.  Working through the previous weekend, we were able to bring in about 80% of what was still out, including most of our Mourvedre, Roussanne, Grenache and Counoise.  We were comparatively fortunate that the hot spell in September got most of the vineyard near ripeness.  If we'd had the leisure to do so, we might have left some things out for another week or ten days to get a little added concentration, but most of the vineyard was essentially ripe.

Of course, not everything came in.  The blocks of Mourvedre, Grenache and Roussanne that just weren't ripe enough for us to want to use we left out.  There isn't any point in bringing grapes in that you wouldn't want to make wine out of; better to take the chance of leaving the grapes out and hoping that they come through the rain OK, we get some warm sunny weather, and they reconcentrate.  As I mentioned in my post last weekend, this happened for us in 2004.   There are between 10 and 15 tons of grapes (the equivalent of roughly 1000 cases of wine) still out on the vines.

It's still a little early to tell whether we'll be able to use these grapes that we left out.  Neil and Ryan's assessment of the storm damage is that we came through remarkably unscathed; there is some erosion damage, but not as much as we'd feared.  The ground was apparently so porous and so thirsty that most of the water, amazingly, was absorbed.  The morning after the storm, Tablas Creek wasn't particularly full -- an indicator that the ground absorbed most of the rainfall.  With the weather forecast showing warmer, sunny, breezy conditions, it seems likely that we'll be able to wait for at least the Mourvedre and Grenache to reconcentrate.

Our yields are going to be low this year.  We've brought in about 195 tons of grapes, down 22% from the already-low yields of 2008.  Even if we do get another 10 tons out of the vineyard, we're still looking at making nearly 3000 fewer cases than the 15,000 that we made in 2008.  That will leave us some difficult choices.

One positive that we're looking forward to: the main culprit of these last three low-yielding years is the ongoing drought.  We don't have enough water to do much irrigation, and we'd prefer not to anyway.  But it's clear that the vineyard can subsist on a water deficit for only so long.  If this storm is the harbinger of a wet winter (as October storms have tended to be in the past) it will be a major boon for us.  We'd feel better about sacrificing 1000 cases of production this year if we can look forward to regaining the 6000 cases of production we're down below our peaks from 2005 and 2006.