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.


  • 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.

Is 2010 our best vintage ever? Perhaps...

This is bottling week.  We're mostly done with putting eight different wines into bottle: the 2011 Cotes de Tablas Blanc and seven of our red varietal wines from 2010: Counoise, Grenache, Mourvedre, Syrah, our two Pinot Noirs and our first-ever Cabernet.  Most of these are small production wines, with only Grenache, Mourvedre and Syrah over 300 cases in production.  But it's still the most extensive lineup of varietal reds we've ever done, thanks to the high quality, plentiful 2010 vintage.

When the last of these rolled off the bottling line this afternoon, I took the opportunity to pull a bottle of each and open one up (plus the 2010 Tannat, bottled two weeks ago).  They'll surely be better in another few months, but even fresh off the bottling line, when many wines don't show their best, all were expressive and varietally true.  All show depth of flavor without any sense of extra weight. Taken together, they provide more evidence that 2010 is going to be a classic vintage for Tablas Creek.  The lineup:

2010 red varietal wines

2010 Counoise: A rich, tangy, spicy nose of low country barbeque, smoke, pomegranate and figs.  The mouth is silky at first -- surprising for a Counoise -- with a milk chocolate note and a polish that I've never seen in one of our Counoise bottlings.  Then the flavors explode into sour cherry, spice, tree bark, blood orange and cola, an amazing collection of powerful, vibrant flavors hard to imagine in one wine.  The finish (like many of the 2010s) reverberates between tangy fruit and sweet spice. 13.5% alcohol; 277 cases produced.

2010 Grenache: A composed, restrained nose of mineral, plum compote, and cola.  More expressive in the mouth, showing sweet fruit, crushed rock, and wild strawberry, quickly reined in by Grenache's classic front-palate tannins.  The finish opens back up with mouth-watering acidity that reminded me of watermelon rind and cherry pit. 14.8% alcohol; 733 cases produced.

2010 Mourvedre: A nose of herb-rubbed roast, figs, balsamic and mint: totally classic aromas for Mourvedre.  The mouth is cool and minty, very fresh, with nice dark red currant fruit, fresh herbs, mineral and a hint of sweeter fruit coming out toward the end that made me think of watermelon, all surrounded by chewy tannins.  A beauty that will likely provide pleasure early and with age. 14.1% alcohol; 720 cases produced.

2010 Syrah: A rich, round, creamy nose that reminded me of my wife Meghan's first description of Syrah, tasted out of foudre: "butter in a butcher shop".  Additional aromas of licorice, white pepper, crushed rock and a little cedary oak.  The initial impression in the mouth is one of freshness, but it packs a punch of flavor with blackberry, creamy minerality, mint and beautiful tannins.  I think it's the best Syrah we've ever made. 14.5% alcohol; 708 cases produced.

2010 Pinot Noir: Ripe, round, spicy Pinot fruit on the nose, showing potpourri, roses, juniper and cherry.  The mouth is rich but somehow gentle, strawberry candy and root beer, but not sweet.  Good tannins provide a welcome touch of firmness and a nice clean finish. 14.5% alcohol; 72 cases produced.

2010 Full Circle (100% Pinot Noir, Haas Vineyard): This is a new wine for us, from the 3-acre vineyard surrounding my dad's house in one of the coolest pockets of Templeton.  It's called "Full Circle" because it reflects his career: from a start introducing America to the greatness of Burgundy, through decades focusing on grapes from the Rhone, he's now growing Pinot at home.  Shows broader and deeper, if less exuberant, than the Tablas Pinot: an absolutely classic old world Pinot Noir nose of sweet spices, black tea, plum and earth.  The mouth is similar, but leading with the loamy minerality and following with purple fruit, good acids and granular tannins.  A wine to get to know and watch evolve, and a testament to the potential of Pinot Noir in the right parts of the Paso Robles AVA. 13.6% alcohol; 53 cases produced.

2010 Cabernet Sauvignon: Another new wine for us; in previous years our tiny block of Cabernet has been blended into our Tannat.  But this year it was too compelling to blend away, so we made four barrels.  After the Rhones and Pinots, it's a totally different world: a classic Cabernet nose of eucalyptus, sour cherry, sawdust, wood spice and green peppercorns.  The mouth is richer than the nose suggests, with plum, Christmas spices (I found juniper, clove and allspice) and a very long finish that vibrates between sweet fruit, firm tannins and spice. 13.5% alcohol; 88 cases produced. 13.5% alcohol; 88 cases produced.

2010 Tannat: A rich, deep nose of balsamic reduction, grilled meat, black pepper, smoke and mineral.  The mouth is surprisingly supple, with flavors of strawberry-rhubarb pie, figs, dark chocolate, and wood smoke.  Drinking this felt like sitting around a campfire, smelling meat that's grilling, or sitting in front of a fireplace in wintertime.  Wild. 14.5% alcohol; 760 cases produced.

A few concluding thoughts.  To my taste, this is the best collection of varietal wines we've ever made.  Each is absolutely characteristic of the varietal that it comes from, with remarkable depth and complexity of flavors.  But none feel heavy, and none feel to me like I need to bury them in the back of my wine cellar for several years (as I have with some of the bigger vintages, like 2005, 2007 and 2009).  And while they won't need lots of time at the front end to be approachable, I am convinced that these wines will age very well, with the vibrant acidities keeping things together as they develop secondary flavors and their tannins soften.  And the alcohols are all pretty low, with several under 14%.  The end result should be wines with remarkable elegance and silky texture, for those with the patience to wait.

It won't be easy.

Getting to know the newly-finalized 2010 red varietals and blends

This week, Francois Perrin made one of his semi-annual visits to Tablas Creek.  We always like to see Francois after harvest; it gives us our first outside perspective on the most recent vintage, and gives us a chance to bounce the ideas we had during crush off of someone whose experience with these grapes is unmatched.  We also typically taste through the blends of the previous vintage of red wine, to decide if all is well or if any of them need some final adjustments.

Blending the 2010 reds was unusual because they are still in their component pieces in November, more than a year after harvest.  Typically, we've made our blending decisions on the previous vintage's red wines by early summer, and they're blended and sitting quietly in foudre for the subsequent harvest.  But this year, thanks to the late 2010 harvest and the cold 2010-2011 winter, the wines weren't ready to be evaluated in the late spring.  When my dad returned to Vermont in late May we'd only been able to taste through and identify the lots that we were going to declassify into the 2010 Patelin de Tablas.  But as for the decisions beyond that first cut -- i.e. should this Mourvedre lot go into Panoplie, Esprit, Cotes or varietal Mourvedre -- we just didn't feel confident making them while the wines were still finishing up their fermentations. [You can read the blog post I wrote in May with my initial impressions of the 2010 reds] So, we put the wines to bed as components and awaited my dad's October return from Vermont, knowing that we were unlikely to be able to turn our attention to blending the 2010's until the 2011 harvest was complete.

So the last two weeks have been blending weeks.  It was a relatively easy blending (much easier than was the blending of the 2010 whites) thanks to how finished the wines were and to the fact that the first cut of friendly but less impressive lots had already been made.  I took notes on the wines during our final run-through with Francois yesterday, and have noted some comments by the others who were in the room.  For the tasting, my dad, Francois and I were joined by our winemaking team of Neil, Ryan and Chelsea, as well as National Sales Manager Tommy Oldre and Francois' son Cesar, who is in the middle of a year here at Tablas Creek.  We began with a flight of the varietal wines, and moved on to the blends. The lineup:


2010 Grenache: Spicy, peppery nose with strawberry fruit lurking behind and coming out -- along with a floral note -- more and more with air.  On the palate at first fruity, then nice acids, then an appealing loamy character.  Juiciness and tannins both come out on the finish.  Neil called it "very fresh, very clean" and Chelsea thought it had a "nice, friendly affability".  I was impressed with how evocative of Grenache it was: not a blockbuster, but classic.

2010 Mourvedre: Rich on the nose, with pepper steak, bitter chocolate, and dark red fruit.  The mouth is plummy with a nice earthy richness, chewy tannins and a moderate-length, slightly cedary finish right now.  Francois called it "closed but deep".  I thought it was the least giving of the varietals now, but also right in keeping with where Mourvedres usually are at this stage.  It will benefit from 6 more months in foudre.

2010 Syrah: Dense & inky nose, minty and chocolatey, with a touch of iodine-like minerality.  The mouth was rich with black, tangy fruit and chalky tannins.  This has nice vibrancy for Syrah, reflective of the cool 2010 vintage.  There's a long finish with a touch of oak that will surely integrate more in time.  Cesar called it "classic syrah".  My dad thought it tasted like Cornas.

2010 Cotes de Tablas (46% Grenache, 39% Syrah, 10% Mourvedre, 5% Counoise): A fruity, spicy, brambly purple fruit nose, with sweet spices like nutmeg and cinnamon coming out with air.  The mouth is nicely vibrant, with plum and loam and a nice generosity, framed by good acids.  An impression of sweetness on the finish, though it's a dry wine.  Chelsea said "I'm ready to take this home and drink this with dinner today" and Cesar thought "everybody can like this".  A great showing for the Cotes... maybe our best yet.

2010 En Gobelet (35% Mourvedre, 31% Grenache, 13% Syrah, 11% Counoise, 10% Tannat): Very dark in color.  A slightly tarry nose, with black and purple fruits lurking behind.  The mouth is first sweet fruit, then savory and somehow feral, then tannic with some oak, rounding out with a surprisingly gentle finish.  Clearly big but needs to develop.  Neil called it "Rustic but in a good way" and Cesar thought it "closed but with beautiful potential". I was least sure where this was going, but I know it will be impressive.

2010 Esprit de Beaucastel (45% Mourvedre, 30% Grenache, 21% Syrah, 4% Counoise): Dark and backward on the nose, not yet giving much away other than a little oak and a sense of inky richness.  The mouth is broader and richer than the nose suggests, with a really nice mouthfeel and a very long finish where in turn dark red fruit, chalk, tannins and a tangy soy/teriyaki character take the fore.  Francois called it "great but definitely needs some time".  I thought it was terrific in its sense of power held in reserve, and can't wait to see it develop.

2010 Panoplie (60% Mourvedre, 30% Grenache, 10% Syrah): Very different and much more exuberant on the nose than the Esprit.  Big, spicy nose with lots of purple fruit and an appealing mintiness.  The mouth is velvety and rich, with an initial impression of sweet fruit gradually drawn back into big tannins.  Francois thought it "not polite yet but powerful potential".  My dad thought it showed nice Mourvedre character.  I thought it both bigger and less finished than the Esprit, and definitely a wine that will benefit from its time in foudre.

We'll make a few other wines from the 2010 vintage, including our first Counoise since 2006, our first-ever Cabernet, our Tannat and a couple different small-production Pinot Noirs, but those components mostly weren't candidates for these blends, so we didn't taste them again with Francois.  I'll post notes when we're getting closer to bottling them.

A few final thoughts.  This was an impressive tasting, and all the wines showed a coolness and a vibrancy that seems to be a hallmark of the 2010 vintage.  This plays into our hands, as we tend to gravitate toward wines that are more about their balance and their restraint than about their sheer power.  I thought that all these wines are going to age beautifully, particularly those based on Mourvedre.

We're offering the 2010 Esprit and the 2010 Panoplie now as part of our en primeur futures program, and we'll be tasting the wines with 125 or so of our club members this Saturday.  I'm very much looking forward to sharing them in public for the first time and seeing what people think.

A first look at the 2010 reds: Wow.

Neil, Ryan, Chelsea, my dad and I spent the last two days tasting through our 2010 reds.  55 lots later, we have a much clearer sense of what the vintage is like.  I'll get into details below, but overall, it was a very impressive tasting.  The Grenaches were excellent.  The Syrahs were very good.  And the Mouvedre lots were the most impressive I can remember tasting at this stage in the decade I've been out here.  All this bodes very well for the 2010 vintage.  The 25 lots we tasted today, lined up post-tasting on the bar:


We have several goals for this initial comprehensive tasting.  The first is to get an overall sense of the vintage.  Is it ready to blend?  Is it overall a powerful vintage or a friendly vintage?  Are there enough good lots to count on making Esprit and Panoplie in normal quantities?  The second goal is to decide which of the varieties are comparatively strongest, and which we might want to start with higher percentages of in our initial Esprit blend.  The third goal is to identify the strongest lots, if possible, and the weakest lots, if any.  The strongest lots will likely point the way toward the Esprit and Panoplie, and any weak lots will be declassified now into the Patelin de Tablas.  Finally, the cellar crew is looking to see if there are specific lots that need attention: wines that are oxidized or reduced, not finished with primary or malolactic fermentation, or otherwise funky.

It became clear relatively early in the process that we weren't going to be able to use this tasting to do our blending.  There were too many lots that weren't quite ready, mostly because they were just finishing up fermentation after the late harvest and cold winter.  It's not really possible to know whether a Grenache lot that is still slightly sweet, full of CO2 and not done with malo is going to be best suited for Esprit, Cotes, or a varietal Grenache.  And if there are more than a few lots like this we can't confidently know where even the finished lots will go.  Even after the first couple of Grenache flights we knew we wouldn't be able to blend off of this tasting, and would have to reconvene after my dad comes back out in October.  Still, it was a valuable tasting.

Each of the people around the table plays a different role.  Neil is usually most critical of wines with flaws, focused on actions that the cellar needs to take in coming days and weeks.  Ryan is typically the most optimistic, judging wines based on how well they've reached their potential (whatever that may have been).  Chelsea holds the wines to a high absolute standard, so a top grade from her means that the lot is both clean and proper for its stage and that it shows outstanding potential.  My dad focuses most on mouthfeel and length of finish, often judging wines more on texture than flavors and looking past stage-related issues like reduction and oxidation.  And I find myself looking for purity and intensity.  I trust that the cellar crew will take care of surface issues and try to look at what the wines are capable of becoming.  I also find that I tend to grade down more than any of the other tasters lots that have overt oak overshadowing the varietal character.  Luckily, there are never many of those.  A brief summary of each of the varieties we tasted, with my scores, is below.  The blog post about blending our 2010 whites has a refresher on how we grade, if you need one.

  • Grenache (sixteen lots; nine 1's, six 2's, one 3):
    Overall, the Grenache was the hardest to be sure about.  Four lots were still notably fermenting.  But the quality of the finished lots was very high; only one lot (and a small one at that) was relatively weak.  A couple of my (very brief) notes will give you a sense of the better lots: "rich & bright" ... "nice, rich, chocolatey" ... "rich, lush and creamy" ... "rich & tannic (in a good way)".  Clearly, there are good lots to work from here.
  • Syrah (thirteen lots: six 1's, six 2's, one 3):
    The Syrahs were all powerful, but perhaps a bit less nuanced than I was expecting.  Given that 2010 was such a cool vintage, I was expecting that Syrah would shine.  And it was good, but not better than Grenache, and not as good as Mourvedre.  Several lots were somewhat reduced, which is common at this stage and is probably the easiest issue to address in the cellar.  But in a vintage where everything had dark color and deep flavors, Syrah stood out less.
  • Counoise (five lots: two 1's, two 2's, one 3):
    The Counoise lots, like the Grenache lots, were fairly unfinished.  Two were still fermenting actively.  But two of the three lots that were done got a "1" grade from me, and one of them was unusually dark and rich.  Still, I'm not sure we'll use that much Counoise in the 2010 Esprit; the acids in 2010 were excellent, and acidity is Counoise's biggest contribution to blends.  Depending on how much we use in our blends, we may make a small amount of a varietal Counoise this vintage.  It seems like it would work.
  • Mourvedre (fourteen lots: eight 1's, five 2's, one 3):
    These were the most impressive lots we had.  Several of the lots I gave "2" grades to will almost certainly become "1" lots with just a little attention in the cellar.  The lots had varied characters, some more rich and lush, others meatier, and others showing more of the chalky tannins that we're coming to attribute to our limestone soils, but all were balanced and compelling.  I am looking forward to all the things we'll be able to do with these lots... and with nearly 9000 gallons to work with we should be able to do a lot.  I would guess that we'll be increasing the Mourvedre composition of our Esprit up from the 38%-40% range where we've been the past few years back closer to the 45%-50% range we were in in the mid-2000's.
  • Blend (one lot, which I gave a 2):
    We have one lot of Grenache, Mourvedre and Syrah that was blended at harvest time from strong components.  It has been aging in one of our 1600-gallon wooden upright fermenters, and I expected to love it.  I didn't; it was a little funky and had less richness than I would have liked.  It will get some additional time in foudre, and likely end up being one of the star components of our Cotes de Tablas.  A good reminder for me that early blending, even with raw materials that we think are top notch, removes options later.
  • Tannat (three lots: two 1's, one 2):
    What happens when you add Tannat, which is always dark and structured, to a year that produced deeply colored, highly structured wines from normally-lighter varieties like Grenache and Mourvedre?  Surprisingly, you don't get an impenetrable monster of a wine.  The Tannat lots had plenty of depth, but nice acids and tannins that were present but not dominant.  Very good.
  • Pinot Noir (two lots, two 2's):
    I didn't love either of the small Pinot Noir lots today.  One felt slightly bound by its oak (though the barrels are three years old) and the other a little muddy and unfocused.  They'll be blended together, and we'll give them some more time in barrel.  One lot came from our nursery block, and the other from the small vineyard planted outside my parents' house in Templeton.
  • Cabernet (one lot, which I gave a 1):
    Finally, the surprise of the tasting for several of us.  We typically get less than a ton of Cabernet off of the row and a half of Cabernet vines we have in our nursery block.  More often than not, this gets co-fermented with the Tannat, as Cabernet is a traditional blending partner for Tannat in its native home in the Pyrenees.  But this year we had enough to make four barrels, so we did.  And it was stunning.  Rich and powerfully expressive of Cabernet, with dark fruit, a little minty lift and wonderful tannins that wrapped up the whole package.  We'd been planning to blend it into the Tannat again, but it was so good that we'll bottle it on its own.  Anyone care to volunteer a name for it?

Overall, the take-home message was a highly positive one.  After such an unusually cold summer and a challenging harvest season, we were hopeful that the long hangtimes the grapes had would overcome the relative lack of heat they received.  And it appears that they did, reaching ripeness while maintaining excellent precision and somewhere picking up these deep colors and powerful minerality.  I'm very much looking forward to getting to know these 2010's as they have a little more time in our cellar.

I leave you with a snapshot I took at the end of the morning with my notes stuffed into my notebook.  Who says this isn't work?


Blending, blending, blending... and an eventual look at the 2010 whites!

Over the last month, we've been narrowing down our options for what we'll make for estate white wines in the 2010 vintage.  This isn't really practical before March, as too many lots are still finishing up their fermentations, but beginning in mid-March most everything (except for a few recalcitrant Grenache Blanc lots) is done and settled enough to taste and evaluate.


As usual, we start by tasting through all the lots of each varietal and giving them grades.  This year, there were 7 lots of Grenache Blanc, 3 lots of Viognier, 2 lots of Marsanne, 7 lots of Roussanne and 2 lots of Picpoul.  Each lot is created by a different picking or different vineyard block, or occasionally different fermentation in the cellar, should half of a lot be fermented in stainless steel and the other half in barrels.  At this initial tasting, we're trying to both identify which lots should be considered for our flagship Esprit wines, and also get a sense of how much really top wine there is of each grape variety.  Knowing, for example, that there is a lot of excellent Grenache Blanc helps us create a starting point for our blends that reflects what is unique about the vintage rather than what has been traditional for us.  We have three grades in our system (1, 2, and 3) with 1 being the highest grade.  Typically, the starting point for our Esprit each year is a proportional blend of the 1-rated lots of the appropriate varietals.

The next day, we came back to blind taste possible blends of the Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc.  Our initial tasting suggested that both Picpoul and Grenache Blanc were stronger, overall, than Roussanne, so our starting points included between 50% and 58% Roussanne, between 29% and 38% Grenache Blanc, and between 10% and 16% Picpoul.  These percentages were a departure from our normal blend for the Esprit Blanc, which has been between 62% and 70% Roussanne every year since 2002. Grenache Blanc has been between 22% and 30% over the same period, and Picpoul between 5% and 12%.

Here's where things got tricky.  We all thought that the blends that resulted were while rich a little too high in acid for our taste.  We played a bit with swapping in some of the Roussanne lots with a touch of new oak, but then the wine tasted rich and oaky but still acidic.  We tried changing the relative proportions of Roussanne and Grenache Blanc without making much of a difference.  And since each time we decided on a new blend it took the winemaking team about 45 minutes to sample all the included lots and re-blend, we'd used up most of the day without coming to any consensus.  So, at the end of the day we decided to reconvene the next day with blends that more resembled our previous years' wines, and crucially included less Picpoul, whose lemony acidity had so impressed us in our initial tastings but which, we felt, was overshadowing the subtleties of both Roussanne and Grenache Blanc.

When we reconvened the next morning, the Esprit Blanc fell into place pretty quickly.  Reducing the Picpoul to 5% allowed the other varieties to express themselves, and all of a sudden we got the spiced honey and saline minerality that we associate with the Esprit Blanc.  We tweaked the relative proportions of Roussanne and Grenache Blanc a few times before ending up with a blend of 60% Roussanne, 35% Grenache Blanc and 5% Picpoul Blanc.  It's ironic that the nice round numbers make it seem like this was a straightforward process.

We had an equally difficult time blending the Cotes de Tablas Blanc.  We'd loved the melon, white flower aromatics and elegant minerality of the Marsanne in our initial tasting, so included a lot of it in the Cotes de Tablas Blanc.  But gradually it became clear that while we loved the Marsanne on its own, we preferred the Cotes de Tablas Blanc with less Marsanne and more Viognier and Grenache Blanc.  This conclusion too took us several days to come to, but the elegance of Marsanne ended up simplifying the Cotes Blanc and shortening its finish.  In the end, we preferred a more structured, powerful Cotes Blanc with 54% Viognier, 30% Grenache Blanc, 8% Marsanne and 8% Roussanne.  The process we went through validated itself in an important way, I thought, as in neither blend did we end up picking what we thought we wanted.  We'll bottle both wines confident that what we've chosen is the best reflection of this vintage we could have made.

Complicating the process this year has been the addition of the Patelin de Tablas Blanc to our lineup.  We based the Patelin Blanc on Grenache Blanc's freshness and minerality and Viognier's tropicality, and have known that we wanted to raise the level of the Cotes de Tablas Blanc while maintaining separate characters for the two wines.  In the end, the Cotes Blanc blend that we chose placed it more in the realm of the Esprit Blanc (mineral, rich, serious) than many previous vintages of Cotes Blanc.  It's an important evolution for us, and it will be interesting to see how this more serious wine is received when we release in nationally this summer.  

Today we re-tasted the blends as well as the varietal wines that we'll be making out of the lots that we felt were better on their own than blended.  To our regular roster of Roussanne and Grenache Blanc, we're adding our fourth-ever Picpoul Blanc and our first-ever Marsanne.  We didn't taste the Grenache Blanc because a couple of the lots that will go into the varietal wine are still sweet, and tasting the resulting assemblage would have been irrelevant.  My tasting notes from this morning:

  • 2010 Cotes de Tablas Blanc: A serious nose, minty with stone fruits and honeydew lurking underneath.  Not yet particularly floral.  The mouth is broad and rich, peaches and cream, but dry.  A very long finish with a hint of tannin reminiscent of red apple skins, cream, and rocks, nicely saline at the end.
  • 2010 Marsanne: An appealing nose of cantaloupe and white flowers, a touch nutty.  The mouth is gentle and elegant, nicely mineral, with a very clean finish with a slight minty lift.
  • 2010 Picpoul Blanc: The most finished of the wines on the nose, with intense lemon and mint.  The mouth is initially very lemony, then turns richer, broad and quite creamy on the mid-palate, and back to preserved lemon and mineral on the finish.
  • 2010 Roussanne: A sweet-smelling nose of caramel and oak, with a touch of some red fruit lurking (strawberry?) as well as anise, honey and baking spices.  The mouth confounds the nose and is broad but structured, with acids that come out on the lingering finish.
  • 2010 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc: Beautiful.  Rocks and cream and honey and herbs and mint on the nose, a mouth that is serious and not at all sweet, with a tarragon-like anise note that provides minty lift on the finish and a lingering saline minerality.

Overall, my impression of the 2010 vintage is one of seriousness.  This is not a fruity, flowery vintage, but rather one that is rich across the board despite higher than normal acids, with breadth moderated by minerality across every wine we made.  It also strikes me as one that will be exceptionally ageable.

In any case, this is just the beginning.  But it is the beginning of something that will be a pleasure to watch unfold over the coming months and years.

Creating a new wine: Patelin de Tablas

A difficult economy brings problems, but it also brings opportunities.  Over the last few years, we have been fortunate to see our sales continue to grow, thanks to the wonderful loyalty of our customers, an unprecedented run of great press, and lots of hard work by the wholesalers, restaurants, and retailers who represent our wines.  At the same time, we saw three consecutive years of drought from 2007-2009 reduce the yields from our vineyard from nearly 19,000 cases in 2006 to just 12,000 cases in 2009.  The continued growth of our direct sales, both wine club and tasting room, has exacerbated the impact of the fluctuations of supply on our wholesalers.  Practically speaking, you can't not have wine to pour to people who come to your tasting room, and the demand for your wine club is fixed: your members have signed up for a specific configuration of bottles and shipments.  Between the two centers, we sold nearly 10,000 cases of wine direct last year.

Some math will show the impact on our wholesale and export customers.  Subtract 10,000 cases from our production, and you can easily have 9,000 cases of wine to sell one year, and 2,000 the next.  It's terrible to have to tell a wholesaler who has done a great job for you that you're going to have to cut their allocation dramatically.  And there are lasting consequences on your business: the next time that wholesaler has the chance to place a wine in a choice location, do you think that they'll choose you, or another winery whose supply is more regular?  Making it worse, if you have a productive vintage the next year, you might need to ask your wholesalers to take five times the quantity they received the previous year.  Even if they wanted to help you, you're asking the impossible.

At the same time that we're struggling with how we handle our supply crisis, other vineyards in Paso Robles are struggling with the results of the weak economy.  Many larger wineries have cut back their production or severed contracts with their growers, choosing to focus on their estate vineyards.  This has meant that we've seen some of the best growers in the area -- growers who three years ago would have had a long waiting list to get their grapes -- searching for buyers.

Eventually, a light bulb went on.  We decided to see if we could find a handful of growers whose work we respected with whom we could create a new wine.  This wine, in a year when our estate production was high, could be predominantly from Tablas Creek fruit.  In a year when production was low, it could be mostly purchased.  This would allow the wine to provide an escape valve for our own swings in production, and give us the opportunity to celebrate some of the top growers in our area.

We decided to name these two new wines Patelin de Tablas and Patelin de Tablas Blanc.  Patelin is French slang roughly translated as "country neighborhood".  We chose the growers for the care they take in their vineyards, and for the track records of the wines that these vineyards have produced.  All are in our neighborhood.  Many have planted Tablas Creek cuttings.  All farm sustainably, and many are organic or biodynamic.  We're celebrating the growers explicitly on the labels; each wine will list the vineyards that contributed fruit, with the percentage of the wine that each accounted for.  We'll be profiling the growers here on the blog over the coming weeks, but a few of the principal ones bear mentioning:

  • Chequera Vineyard: 30-year-old, biodynamically farmed Syrah and Viognier vines, which in recent years provided Bonny Doon with many of their high-end Rhone wines.
  • Glenrose Vineyard: One of the first customers for the Tablas Creek nursery, a rugged vineyard over 2000 feet in eleveation carved into a limestone mountainside.  The source for our 2002 Las Tablas Estates wine.
  • Edward Sellers Vineyard: The source for the excellent Edward Sellers wines, planted largely with Tablas Creek cuttings in the cool Templeton Gap.
  • La Vista Vineyard: Just a few miles east of Tablas Creek, planted with Tablas cuttings and on a gorgeous south-facing slope.

The Patelin de Tablas will be based on the dark spice and meatiness of Syrah, brightened with Grenache and Counoise, and given some earthy structure by Mourvedre.  The Patelin de Tablas Blanc will be based on the citrus, green apple and mineral of Grenache Blanc, given lushness and lift by Viognier and mineral and spice by Roussanne and Marsanne.

Adding the Patelin de Tablas wines will also allow us to be more rigorous in the selection program for our Cotes de Tablas wines.  Right now, the Cotes wines are our home for the lots that are bright and open, ready to drink younger, and celebrate Grenache (for the red) and Viognier (for the white).  But the reality is that there are lots that go into the Cotes wines because they are perfect for our Cotes de Tablas model, and lots that go in because they don't have another obvious home.  We think that adding the Patelin line will allow us to make the Cotes and Cotes Blanc that much better.  We're hopeful that we can establish them as the best Grenache-based red blend and the best Viognier-based white blend in California.

We'll sell the Patelin and Patelin Blanc for $20.  The white will be released in March, and the red in September.  They'll be Tablas Creek wines (we're not creating a new label, or a new brand) but we'll distinguish the line from our existing ones by color scheme.  As the Esprit de Beaucastels have gold leaf on their labels, and the Cotes de Tablas wines silver, the Patelin de Tablas wines will have bronze leaf.  The impact is, I think, pretty cool.

And did I mention that we'll sell both wines for $20?  They are tasting great in the cellar, though we haven't finished their final assembly quite yet, and given the pedigree of the vineyards they come from we're convinced they're going to blow people away at that price.

Below are mockups of the labels.  That brownish color will be metallic bronze.  And don't pay too much attention to the percentages on the labels; we needed placeholders for submission to the TTB but the blends aren't quite finalized.  But they should give you a sense.

10Patelin_label  10PatelinBlanc_label

If you haven't guessed, we're excited about this project.  We'll be sharing more over the coming weeks and months.

Ed note: the blends of the wines have been finalized and the wines bottled and released (Patelin Blanc in April 2011 and Patelin red in September 2011).  We have technical information online for both the 2010 Patelin de Tablas and the 2010 Patelin de Tablas Blanc.

A post-harvest round table discussion with Tablas Creek's winemakers

Late last week, with harvest concluded and the winemaking team rested up after a long, grueling harvest, national sales manager Tommy Oldre caught up with them to talk about their 2010 harvest experience.  In the video, you'll see winemakers Neil Collins, Ryan Hebert, and Chelsea Franchi each give their thoughts on what happened, what they're thinking about where we are, and what we learned.  I love the way that their personalities each come through in the ten-minute video. 

Don't miss the special appearance by vineyard dog Millie, who arrives complete with live vole captured in the vineyard around the 2:45 mark!

Harvest 2010 Recap and Assessment: Low Sugars, Good Yields and Great Flavors

Harvest 2010 is in the barn.  Done.  Finally.  It was a late harvest all-around, about 3 weeks late at the beginning and 2 weeks at the end.  We began harvest with a little Vermentino on September 16th, but didn't really get into significant picking until October.  The 47 tons we harvested in September, 253 tons in October, and 67 tons in November were by percentage the least in September and the most in November in the last decade.  Below, Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi presents the last cluster of harvest.  As usual, Mourvedre brings us home.


Yields in 2010 were excellent.  Over the entire 105 producing acres, we harvested 368 tons, which is almost exactly the 3.5 tons per acre that we feel allows our vineyard to produce its best expression of place.  Too much less than that can make wines so powerfully structured that they mask some of the expression of the soil, and too much more starts to compromise concentration.  Excellent.  Overall, the harvest is our largest ever, but in yield per acre trails slightly the harvests of 2005 and 2006 (which both ended up around 315 tons off of 90 producing acres).  The quantities that we have in the cellar are particularly welcome after the three low-yielding years of 2007, 2008 and (particularly) 2009, when we harvested just under 200 tons, or 1.8 tons per acre.

Every varietal saw increased yields except Roussanne.  Some of the Roussanne that was out in the vineyard never got ripe enough to pick in this cool year, and because it sprouts late and is resistant to frost, it was less impacted by the conditions in 2009 than many other varieties.  Still, we're going to be focusing even more attention on the health of our Roussanne blocks over the next year.  By varietal, our yields were:

Grape 2010 Yields (tons) 2009 Yields (tons) % Change
Viognier 22.5 12.2 +84.4%
Marsanne 13.2
Grenache Blanc 34.8
Picpoul Blanc 9.4
Vermentino 19.1
Total Whites 132.9
Grenache 71.1
Syrah 47.7
Mourvedre 69.3
Tannat 14.5
Counoise 16.8
Total Reds 219.4
Total 352.3

With the cool summer and the long hang time, we were able to harvest the grapes at optimal ripeness at slightly lower sugar levels than last year. This is in fact the third consecutive year that our average sugar levels at harvest have declined:

2007: 24.42 avg. Brix
2008: 23.87 avg. Brix
2009: 23.42 avg. Brix
2010: 22.68 avg. Brix

Delving deeper into the sugar levels, the average sugars at harvest of our principal varieties this year were:

Counoise: 21.9
Grenache Rouge: 24.6
Grenache Blanc: 21.3
Marsanne: 19.7
Mourvèdre: 22.7
Picpoul Blanc: 20.4
Roussanne: 21.5
Syrah: 23.9
Tannat: 24.4
Vermentino: 20.5
Viognier: 22.3

Summing across color, our average sugar level of our whites was 21.2 Brix and our reds was 23.6 Brix.  These levels suggest that we'll make some whites in the 12.5% alcohol range this year, with none likely to approach 14%.  Our reds should sit between 14% and 14.5%, and it's even possible a wine or two might be around 13.5% alcohol.  If sugar levels have to be somewhat higher to get the flavors and concentrations that we like, we're fine with that as long as the grapes are in balance.  But if we can get the flavors that we like with such moderate alcohol levels, then halleleujah.

The more I hear about what happened elsewhere in California this year, the more convinced I become that Paso Robles has a chance to make the state's best wines.  I said as much in a recent interview with Mary Ann Worobiec of the Wine Spectator.  We had a cool summer, but it was only rarely foggy, and the clement weather we had in early November meant that our latest-ripening grapes still had conditions in which they could ripen.  We had a little rain during harvest, but much less than the North Coast and it was always followed by sun and wind.  We had some heat stress in late September, but less severe than in Napa or Sonoma, and we hadn't overreacted to the cool summer by pulling lots of canopy and exposing the clusters to sunburn.

And the quality of the vintage does look very strong. Winemaker Ryan Hebert commented that he doesn't "think there's a dog in the cellar".  We're seeing very deep colors off the reds and tremendous aromatics off of everything.  Mid-November is usually a lousy time to ask winemakers what they think of their recently-completed harvest; the reds assume richness with time, and nearly every lot is somewhere in the middle of fermentation and at something of an awkward stage.  Plus, winemakers nearly always focus on the lots that they're worried about, and so to find a winemaker who's feeling positive about what's in the cellar is a very good sign.  We're all looking forward to getting to know 2010 a little better over the coming weeks and months.

Winemaker Ryan Hebert discusses the end of the 2010 Harvest

With the arrival this past weekend of our last significant Mourvedre block, harvest 2010 is more or less in the books.  We have been going through the vineyard this week and cleaning up odd bits here and there in a leisurely fashion, but we can at last be confident we've made it.  We are under no illusions that we got lucky.  Starting harvest three weeks late always puts you at risk.  But we've been saved by the overall wonderful weather that we've seen in early November, and the nearly 60 tons that we've harvested this month has looked terrific.

You can look forward to two more pieces on the 2010 harvest next week: one a detailed recap of the results and a varietal-by-varietal analysis of what we've seen, and then a round-table video discussion with our winemaking team about their impressions.  But first, with the pace slowing down in the cellar, Tommy Oldre caught up with Winemaker Ryan Hebert to talk to him about how the harvest wrapped up and to get his thoughts on what we can tell so far about the vintage's character based on the wines in the cellar.

Vin de Paille: A Dessert Wine Making Technique for the Obsessed

We're making Vin de Paille this year for the first time since 2007.  For those of you who don't know (we don't make much of the Vin de Paille, and it generally doesn't make it into distribution) Vin de Paille is a process of making dessert wines.  Grape bunches are laid on straw to dehydrate in the sun, and fermented only when they get to the desired concentration.  The name in french means "wine of straw".

We started making Vin de Paille out of Roussanne with the 2003 vintage, and continued to make whites in 2004, 2005 and 2006.  We made a red out of Mourvedre also in 2003, and then again in 2005, 2006 and 2007.  We haven't made either wine the last two years due to wanting to protect our dry wines given the short crops we've faced.  But with the resumption of healthy yields this year, we're thrilled to be able to begin again.

Vin de Paille is not the easiest method of making dessert wines.  In fact, it's so labor intensive that hardly anyone does it.  But the other dessert wine options weren't practical here.  Roughly in the order of easiest to hardest, the common methods of making dessert wine are:

  • Late harvest: This is probably the easiest method; you just leave the grapes on the vine an extra few weeks so that they accumulate more sugar.  The downside is that as you accumulate sugar, you also lose acidity, and in an area where the sun is intense at the end of harvest (like Paso Robles) you can end up with grapes that taste cooked.  We generally haven't liked the late harvest wines we've had from Paso Robles, or those we've had from Rhone varieties.
  • Fortified: Alcohol above about a 17% concentration is fatal to yeasts.  So, one way of keeping sweetness in wine is to add brandy or neutral spirits to wine in mid-fermentation to get the alcohol concentration up to around 20% or so.  This is what is done in Port and Banyuls.  But the result is that you end up with a much more alcoholic drink, which typically has a fiery aftertaste, and the sweetness often has an artificial quality to it because it was stopped mid-fermentation.  We have not much liked the California port-style wines we've tried.
  • Botrytis: Botrytis is a fungus that dehydrates the grapes without donating spoilage flavors (for this, it's sometimes called "noble rot").  It's the typical means by which Sauternes grapes are concentrated, as well as many German and Alsacian dessert wines and Tokaji in Hungary.  Unfortunately, Paso Robles is generally too dry to allow botrytis to flourish, and while some vineyard owners will seed their land with botrytis spores, this can have negative consequences in future years.  Overall, it seemed too risky and difficult for us to attempt artificially here.
  • Ice Wine: Ice wines are made in colder regions like Germany and the Great Lakes regions of New York and Ontario.  Berries are harvested, typically in December, still frozen after a cold night and pressed immediately.  Because the ice crystals stay solid in the press, the juice that comes out is sweeter and more concentrated than it otherwise would have been.  Unfortunately, while Paso Robles does get cold at night, our first hard freezes are typically a month too late, after any grapes still hanging out in the vineyard would have been cooked by the sun.

So, we returned to the models of the Rhone Valley, where vin de paille has been made for centuries in the northern Rhone appellation of Hermitage.  Both Roussanne and Marsanne take well to this technique, and get an intense honeyed stone fruit character that makes for wonderful drinking.  Unfortunately, the process is very labor intensive.  Grapes have to be carefully harvested by hand and then carried in their picking baskets down to where they'll be laid onto straw.  Straw is a desirable bedding because it allows air to circulate and naturally resists mold.  The clusters have to be brought to the straw by hand; they can't be dumped into picking bins and driven down because the weight of the clusters on top will bruise the bottom clusters sufficiently that they'll rot rather than drying.  The clusters have to be carefully chosen to not have any imperfections or rot because rot can spread quickly to other clusters, and broken or bruised berries start attracting bees and insects.

After about three weeks on the straw, the clusters are now home to semi-raisins: grapes that have concentrated their sugars to somewhere in the 350-400 grams per liter range.  They're now picked back up and driven up to the winery, where they are pressed and moved to barrel (if they're whites) or crushed by foot in a small bin (if they're reds) and allowed to macerate for 10 days or so before being pressed into barrel.  The wines then ferment slowly over the next 6 months or so and stopped by the addition of sulfur dioxide when they get to the balance of sweetness, acidity and minerality that we want.  They're typically quite sweet, 150 grams per liter residual sugar or so, but with vibrant acids that give the wines balance.  They tend to have low alcohols, in the 8% - 12% range, which makes them wonderfully refreshing compared to ports or other fortified wines.  And they age, essentially, forever.

Some photos of the grapes in the greenhouse should give you a feel for at least the beginning stages of the process.  As usual, the complete photo album can be found on the Tablas Creek Facebook page.

Grapes are laid down on our greenhouse benches, Roussanne on the left and Mourvedre on the right:

Vindepaille_0001 Vindepaille_0010

Closeups of the clusters after a week in the greenhouse show them starting to dehydrate:

Vindepaille_0005  Vindepaille_0008

The greenhouse benches and the straw allow air to circulate under the clusters as well as on top, which promotes even drying and discourages rot.  I love this photo:


One more shot, taken through the greenhouse door, shows a little better how everything is laid out:


These grapes won't likely see bottle for another couple of years.  But it's great to have the process started again.