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.

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.


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


  • 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


  • 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


  • 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


  • 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


  • 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:  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.

Whither inexpensive, artisanal California wine?

In early March I was interviewed by Jordan Mackay for an article in the New York Times called "Local Versions of Europe's Everyday Wines".  In it, Jordan explored why so few California winemakers were attempting to make inexpensive but artisanal wines that can compete with the basic regional wines of France. This seems to be a topic of broader interest among wine writers; Jon Bonné wrote a similar article (“California’s Côtes du Rhone”) in the San Francisco Chronicle last year.  I caught up with Jon at this past weekend’s Rhone Rangers tasting, and our conversation wandered to this topic.  He suggested that smaller California wineries are only now focusing their attention on making wines in this $10 to $20 category, but that with the market hungry for these sorts of wines, the category will grow.  I think he's right, and that as long as winemakers can find older vineyards of less-fashionable varietals, we'll see growth. Still, there are structural issues with the economics of grape growing in California that will inhibit the production of these wines – even if the market rewards those that are produced.

We recently considered whether our own cost structure could support adding a vineyard that would either allow greater production of our Cotes de Tablas wines (our least expensive wines, around $25 retail) or produce grapes to sell at the going rate for top vineyards in our area.  This prospective vineyard was beautiful – 20 acres on a mountaintop near the summit of Peachy Canyon Road, five miles south-east of Tablas Creek – and it was clear to us that it will make a great vineyard.  But, as we did the math, we couldn't make it come out to break-even either in selling the grapes or in making more Cotes de Tablas. 

Here's how the math works, using Tablas Creek's costs and production from 2008 (a fairly average year for us).  Our 2008 vineyard expenses (between labor and benefits, depreciation, taxes, materials, fuel & maintenance, utilities, licenses and fees) were $612,313, and we harvested 262 tons of grapes off our 95 producing acres.  So, our cost of producing each ton was $2,337 and our yield 2.75 tons per acre.  Our cost of grape production, not counting interest on our land or improvements, was $6,427 per acre.

The owner of the 20-acre property was asking around $1 million for those 20 plantable acres.  A 30-year mortgage on $1 million at 5.75% would require about $70,000 in payments per year.  Planting costs in an irrigated, trellised vineyard are typically about $30,000 per acre.  Head-pruned, dry-farmed vineyards are notably less expensive (around $4,500 per acre) but yields are typically lower and the vineyard may take an extra year or two to come into production.  Assuming that we financed the planting costs, we'd add another $42,000 in finance payments each year ($6,300 if we chose to head-prune and dry farm).  Total financing costs of $112,000 per year, divided by 20 acres, comes to $5,600 per acre, though planting head-pruned, dry-farmed could reduce that to about $3,800 per acre.

So, our total costs (in financing and expenses) per acre per year would be something like $12,000 ($10,200 if we chose to dry farm). Could we expect to recoup our farming costs?  If we sold grapes, probably not. The top vineyards in our area charge between $3,000 and $4,500 per ton for grapes.  At our yields (2.75 tons per acre in 2008) we could expect between and $8,250 and $12,375 in grape revenue per year.  If instead we chose to dry-farm, we felt it was unreasonable to expect more than 2 tons per acre, so even at $4,500 per ton, we wouldn't cover our $10,200 annual farming cost.

Would the financial picture look better if we used the extra production to make more of our Cotes de Tablas?  Not really.  We'd typically sell the wine for $150/case into the wholesale market, allowing for the distributor's and the retailer's markup.  Our vineyard costs come to about $73/case ($4,363 cost per ton calculated at 60 cases per ton).  The crush and winemaking costs (based on our 2008 Cotes de Tablas) add another $44/case, and the bottling costs (bottles, labels, capsules and labor) $20/case.  That totals $137/case in cost of production, not counting costs of overhead or to sell the wine.

It's worth noting that the assumptions above are for a vineyard that is financed 100%. But any money that is paid up front rather than financed incurs opportunity costs roughly equivalent to financing costs. These opportunity costs represent the lost profits from not having invested this money elsewhere.

Our net decision was an easy one.  We didn't buy the additional property.

So, for what sort of proprietor would such a property make sense?  It would work for a producer who built a winery and tasting room and sold much or all of the production direct.  They would have to be willing to put $3 million or more into the project (between land, planting, vineyard improvement and winery), but the higher margins in direct sales make it a viable proposition after that.  Or a savvy investor in land might take a chance, given that the price of prime vineyard land here is almost certain to appreciate.  Someone who bought it and covered most of their annual costs through selling grapes could come out ahead given that in a dozen years it might sell for double what it's worth now.

In the calculations above, you can see how large a portion of the annual expenses the initial investments in land and planting represent.  And I think that these costs are the real reason why most wine reviewers think that Europe enjoys a competitive advantage in the $10-$20 price category.  There is so much old vineyard planted in all the traditional wine-producing countries that a winemaker can find inexpensive grapes from older vines on vineyards long since bought and paid for.

Will that ever be possible in California, where most vineyards have to be planted from scratch, on land that is often in demand for development and therefore more expensive?  We'll see some growth, I'm sure, as long a it's still possible to find overlooked older vineyards.  But the numbers above shed some light on why small California producers, working with similar economies of scale and similar restrictions on mechanization, tend not to aim their wines at the under-$20 portion of the market.

Tasting the wines in the spring 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 little update from our wine club director, an order form, and, of course, production and tasting notes for the six 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 see, in effect, what's next.  I thought it would be fun to share what I found.


In the order in which we'll be pouring them at our March 6th club shipment tasting event:


  • Production notes: Grenache Blanc continues shine in California’s Central Coast. Most of our production goes into our Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc each year, but in 2008 we reserved a small (565 case) lot for our wine club. It had a very long fermentation (in a mix of stainless steel and foudre) that didn’t finish until nearly a year after harvest. It was bottled in September 2009.
  • Tasting notes: A clean nose of mineral, green apple, grapefruit and pear, with flavors that begin bright with lemon and lime, then broaden in the mid-palate before re-tightening on the finish with a lingering character of green apple skin and wet rocks. Drink in the next two to three years.
  • Press: Tanzer's I.W.C. 89 points (11/09)
  • Quantity Produced: 565 cases
  • List Price: $27 VINsider Price: $21.60
  • More at
  • Production notes: 2008’s relatively cool growing season produced wines of medium body, tremendous elegance, and expressive varietal character. The 2008 Roussanne was fermented 40% in oak (mostly old, neutral barrels), 20% in foudre, and 40% in stainless steel. The wine was blended in July and bottled in September 2009.
  • Tasting notes: An expressive nose of beeswax, lacquered wood, and white flowers, with a powerful spiciness emerging with air. The mouth is juicy yet still restrained, with flavors of peaches and cream. The finish is more mineral, very clean, with almond, pear, honey and chamomile notes. Enjoy now or over the next 4-6 years.
  • Press: Parker 90-92 (8/09); Tanzer's IWC 90 (11/09)
  • Quantity Produced: 720 cases
  • List Price: $27 VINsider Price: $21.60
  • More at
ROSÉ 2009
  • Production notes: The 2009 Rosé reflects the generally tiny crop in 2009, and the particular shortage of Mourvèdre.  We were worried that given the extreme concentration of the Mourvèdre, using as much as we typically do (60% in most vintages) would produce a wine too dark and structured.  So, we reduced the Mourvèdre to 46% and increased Grenache (39%) and Counoise (15%). We left the grapes on their skins for just under two days before drawing off the juice and completing the fermentation in stainless steel. The wine was bottled in January 2010.
  • Tasting notes: Cranberry in color, with an explosive nose of sour cherry, cranberry, Christmas spices and orange zest.  The mouth is incredibly juicy with flavors of maraschino cherry, sour strawberry and apple. Mouth-watering acidity on the long, dry finish cleans up the wine's richness. Drink now through the end of 2011.
  • Quantity Produced: 640 cases
  • List Price: $27.00 VINsider Price: $21.60
  • More at
  • Production notes: The 2007 Grenache, like the 2007 vintage, is big yet balanced, with powerful aromas and flavors, and should benefit from short-term cellaring. The wine was blended in June 2008, aged in foudre, and bottled in March 2009. 10% Syrah gives the wine firmness and a touch of mineral on the finish.
  • Tasting notes: A powerful nose of mint, boysenberry, and licorice. Vibrantly fruity on the palate with unusually dark tones for Grenache: black cherry, blueberry and black raspberry, followed by a long finish with some chalky tannins that cut the wine’s richness. We suggest you hold this wine for 1-2 years and drink for the next decade.
  • Press: Parker 92 (8/09), Wine Spectator 92 (12/09)
  • Quantity Produced: 750 cases
  • List Price: $35 VINsider Price: $28
  • More at
SYRAH 2007
  • Production notes: The powerful 2007 vintage produced our most intense Syrah ever. Aged in a combination of 1200-gallon foudres and small new Dargaud & Jaegle 60-gallon pieces, we blend our Syrah for a balance of fruit, mineral, and spice, and add 10% Grenache for its signature acidity and openness. The wine was blended in August 2008, aged in a single foudre and bottled in March 2009.
  • Tasting notes: A deep, dark nose of ink, soy and iodine, with a little oak and black fruit sneaking through. The mouth shows mineral, blackberry, iron and spice, with beautiful tannins and length. This is a wine for the long term; hold for 3-5 years, and then drink for another fifteen.
  • Press: Parker 92 (8/09); Tanzer’s IWC 91 (11/09)
  • Quantity Produced: 685 cases
  • List Price: $35 VINsider Price: $28
  • More at
  • Production notes: The 2007 Panoplie is a wine of incredible lushness and power. As always, Panoplie is selected from lots in the cellar chosen for their balance, richness, and concentration. The components (60% Mourvèdre, 30% Grenache, and 10% Syrah) were blended in July 2008 and aged in foudre before bottling in July of 2009.
  • Tasting notes: Dense purple-red in color. A dark, meaty nose with aromas of sweet earth, plums and nutmeg. Explosive in the mouth, with flavors of currant, plum, cocoa powder and red licorice, finishing drier and powerfully tannic. Hold, if possible, until 2015, and drink for two decades after that.
  • Press: Parker 96-98 (8/09); Tanzer's IWC 95 (11/09)
  • Quantity Produced: 540 cases
  • List Price: $95 VINsider Price: $76
  • More at

More details on the shipment are available online for anyone interested:  A few final thoughts are below. 

First, these 2007's are built for the long haul.  I wouldn't touch the Syrah for several years, and the Grenache seems to me to be likely to benefit from a year or two of aging.  Surprisingly, it was the Panoplie, of the three, that was the most giving right now.  That's one of the things that we love about Mourvedre: it has loads of chewy tannin and can be aged beautifully, but doesn't have the hardness when young that most similarly-structured varietals have.

Second, I'm really coming to love the elegance of the 2008's.  The 2008 whites show medium body, sparkling acidities, very pretty fruit flavors and spot-on varietal character.  I think that the wines are already showing beautifully, even with varieties like Roussanne that are typically structure-bound at this age.  I'm not sure I'd recommend laying these whites down (though their exquisite balance suggests they could be) but for drinking right now I'm not sure we've ever made a more appealing vintage.

A first look at the surprisingly lush 2008 whites

This afternoon, we got together to taste our first preliminary blends of the 2008 whites.  Up until this point, we've been tasting through different lots, but nothing systematic.  My impression going into the tasting was that 2008, after all its challenges, would be a vintage more like the elegant 2006's than the blockbuster 2007's.  After our first day of tasting, I think I have to reevaluate that preconception.

We always begin our blending by making the Esprits.  This year, more than most years, we had to know what our upper limit was of Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc.  Some (weaker) years we can skip this step and make as much as we can based on the Esprit-quality lots we have.  But in recent years there have been many more high-quality lots than we've needed to make a reasonable amount of Esprit Blanc.  And sales of the Esprit Blanc in the wholesale market have been impacted by the poor economy more than any other wine we make, and we wanted to be sure we weren't making more of the wine than the market could absorb.  In the end, we set our upper limit of production at 1850 cases, only 800 of which will go out in wholesale (the rest we'll use in a wine club shipment, to sell in our tasting room, to hold back for a later release as a library wine, and for export).  By comparison, we made 2150 cases of the 2007 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc.

The next step, even before we begin tasting, is to subtract out the gallonage that a reasonable blend of the Esprit Blanc would take and see what we have left.  We knew, from the components that we had left, we would have to produce at least three single-varietal wines (to populate upcoming wine club shipments) as well as the Cotes de Tablas Blanc.  Looking at the gallonages made it clear that we weren't going to be able to make a varietal Viognier and still have enough Viognier left over to form the core varietal of the Cotes de Tablas Blanc.  We've never been thrilled with Marsanne as a single varietal.  These two factors more or less dictated the wines that we had to try to make: a varietal Roussanne, a Grenache Blanc, and a Bergeron-style Roussanne from early-harvested lots.  Luckily, we'd anticipated wanting to make a Bergeron last fall, and had picked accordingly.

Finally, subtracting out the gallons that would be needed to make our three single-varietal wines, we could see roughly what the Cotes de Tablas Blanc would look like: something along the lines of 42% Viognier, 25% Roussanne, 22% Marsanne and 11% Grenache Blanc.  A surprise was that with any reasonable amount of Picpoul in the Esprit Blanc (we've used between 5% and 10% since 2004) we'd have some Picpoul left over for a single varietal.  We were excited about this; we hadn't been able to make one since 2005.  Unfortunately, unless we removed it entirely from the Esprit Blanc, which isn't likely, there wouldn't be enough to send out to the wine club.

So, this is what went on behind the scenes before we even began tasting.  Neil and Ryan (Neil Collins and Ryan Hebert, our winemakers, for the uninitiated) put together proportional blends of all the wines we'd need to make given the lots that we have in the cellar.  Some quick notes from the preliminary blends we tasted today:

  • 2008 Cotes de Tablas Blanc: Surprisingly lush for what I'd classified in my head to be a middle-weight vintage.  Peach pit from the Viognier component stands out.  Not terribly floral yet; still a little muddy from recently concluded fermentation.  Very broad and long.  A little soft right now.  Looking forward to this settling after it's blended into tank, but should be up there with the 2007 (our best vintage of this wine to date) in style and quality.
  • 2008 Bergeron: Again, surprisingly lush.  I might have thought this was our varietal Roussanne if I hadn't had them side by side.  A nice mineral character.  Honey, rocks, and breadth.  I thought that this could benefit from a little more brightness, but expect that it will come with a little more time in tank.
  • 2008 Roussanne: Wow.  Rich and gorgeous.  Tons of honeycomb and sweet baking spices, some of them from nicely-integrated oak.  Structured, without any of the cedary tannins we sometimes see with very young Roussannes.  Low in alcohol (around 13%) which I never would have guessed given its weight and rich mouthfeel.  Potentially our best Roussanne ever.
  • 2008 Grenache Blanc: Still a little sweet, which is always a challenge with Grenache Blancs in the spring (they're always the last varietal in the cellar to finish fermenting).  Still, even accounting for that, this should be gorgeous.  The brightest acids of any wine that I tasted today, with a nice citrus bite.  Actually carries the 6 grams of sugar, but will be better when that's fermented away.
  • 2008 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc: Similarly rich to the Roussanne, but subtly different in flavor.  A little more floral on the nose, and a little more citrus in the mouth.  Still lots of honey.  Poached pears?  Not quite as knock-your-socks-off as the Roussanne, but very seductive.  Perhaps a touch lower in acidity than we'd want (which means less perception of mineral) and we'll experiment with a couple of different blends that include more Grenache Blanc and Picpoul over the next few days.

We didn't taste a Picpoul today, as it will vary so much depending on what we decide to do with the Esprit Blanc.  As we have never put Picpoul into the Cotes de Tablas Blanc, and don't have enough to really impact a wine that we'll make somewhere around 3000 cases of, we'll just allow the Picpoul single varietal to float in quantity depending on how much we use for the Esprit Blanc.

All the wines shared a richness in the mouth that was noteworthy.  They also shared surprisingly low alcohols, with most hovering right around 13% and only the Grenache Blanc over 14%.  We tasted the Marsanne component that will go into the Cotes Blanc which had excellent concentration at 12.5% alcohol.

We'll reconvene on Monday to taste some different assemblages of Esprit Blanc, and hopefully have most of the wines blended into tank and settling by the end of next week.  Those of you coming for our blending seminar on April 11th are in for a treat!

Challenges in assessing a vintage like 2008

I had a meeting with the Paso Robles Rhone Rangers yesterday, and while we were waiting for everyone to arrive we spent some time kicking around impressions of the recently concluded harvest.  The general consensus was that all we were missing from our list of calamities was a plague of locusts.  We'd had late spring frosts, major issues with shatter due to wind during flowering, weeks of smoky weather from Monterey County forest fires, a heat spike in August, a very unusual early October freeze, and rain at the end of the October.  Still, most of the producers there were encouraged about how the wines in their cellar were looking and tasting, and felt surprisingly positive about the vintage's prospects.

And, everyone was happy that we hadn't had to deal with some of the additional issues that producers in Napa and Sonoma had faced, most notably a big rainstorm in early October that just sent some clouds as far south as Paso Robles.

Some things were clear.  Yields were low (although not as much on Rhone varieties as on Bordeaux varieties or Zinfandel).  Reds were impacted by these low yields more than whites -- in fact, most of the producers there, like us, saw increased yields on whites.  Grapes came in very soft, but with relatively moderate sugars.  Wineries who were not estate and had to meet a substantial number of cases struggled to find adequate sources of fruit. 

It struck me that this is the sort of vintage where there will be a great temptation for writers looking to tell a simple story to dismiss the vintage as a bad one.  Cabernet, Merlot and Zinfandel all struggled throughout California with erratic yields, shatter, and uneven, early ripening.  Later-ripening varietals in the North Coast saw significant rain.  Any producer who had to source fruit to match or grow their annual production was forced to get fruit from places that they would normally have rejected out of hand.  These challenges were particularly severe for producers based in the North Coast.

Yet, for we Rhone producers in the Central Coast, the vintage has the potential to be a great one.  Yields on most Rhone varietals were lower (concentrating character) but largely avoided the problems with shatter that affected Bordeaux varietals and Zinfandel.  We dodged the early October rain that afflicted regions to our north.  The late, cold spring probably saved us from the August heat wave, as the grapes were still sufficiently unripe that there was time to moderate the sugar accumulation and acids stayed high.  The warm, sunny (perfect) weather for the last half of October allowed the vines time to recover from the cold snap earlier in the month and ripen without going flabby.  Finally, the relatively light yields meant that we were all done before it rained last weekend.  Some years, we have a significant amount of Mourvedre still out at the end of October.

I feel like one of those movie characters who after a gun fight looks around to see everything around him riddled with holes, but somehow emerges unscathed. 

And I hope that writers, when it comes time to assess the 2008 vintage, will take the time to look at the unscathed combatant rather than at the carnage all around.

End of Harvest 2008: two weeks of Mourvedre, Roussanne, and Counoise, and a better picture on yields than we'd been expecting

We're concluding the 2008 harvest today.  Yesterday, we brought in 6 tons of Mourvedre, and today added another 2.5 from from a last pass through late-ripening areas where we left odd bits here and there.  Yesterday's bins of Mourvedre are below:


We were pleased (and surprised) to see how the fruit continued ripening after our freeze nights earlier in October.  The handful of rows in the swales that were frozen stopped ripening (and provided the fruit for our whole-cluster fermentation experiment) but the rest of the vineyard, which we expected to also be impacted, recovered quickly.  The weather over the last three weeks has been gorgeous... warm days in the upper 80s and nights in the lower 40s.  You couldn't ask for better weather.  This has allowed fruit to continue to gain intensity and sugars but not lose acids too fast.  The fruit looks gorgeous: soft and ripe, with nice color and great flavors.  A Mourvedre cluster below is a good example of how the grapes start to deflate when they're fully ripe:


Over the past two weeks, we've harvested about 69 tons of fruit, including Mourvedre (38 tons), Roussanne (19 tons), Counoise (10 tons), and our last ton of Grenache.  This puts our final yields at 251 tons, or 10 tons more than last year.  Broken up by varietal:

Grape 2008 Yields (tons) 2007 Yields (tons) % Change
Viognier 19.4 9.2 +110.9%
Marsanne 9.8 6.2 +58.1%
Grenache Blanc 23.5 19.6 +19.9%
Picpoul Blanc 6.6 4.9 +34.7%
Vermentino 2.8 3.9 -28.2%
53.4 39.9 +33.8%
Total Whites 115.5 83.7
Grenache 46.9 54.8 -14.4%
Syrah30.141.6 -27.6%
Mourvedre 44.7 45.8 -2.4%
Tannat 5.4 5.5 -1.9%
Counoise 14.2 13.8 +2.9%
Total Reds 135.9 157.4
Total 251.4 241.1

This is a prettier picture than what we were projecting two weeks ago.  It will hurt to be down in reds, though not for a couple of years.  It will be great to have more whites than we did in the 2007 vintage.  Of course, we're still below our high water mark for yields (121 tons of whites and 177 tons of reds) we saw in 2006.

The weather is turning, with a forecast over the weekend for three separate storms and perhaps an inch of rain or more.  That would be great.  We really really really (really really really) need the rain to come this winter.  But whether it comes this weekend or not, it's a lot better to know that what we have in the cellar is really good, and fairly substantial in quantity.

Harvest, weeks of October 6th and 13th: Lignification, Whole Cluster Fermentation and a Yield Assessment

We've had two busy weeks of harvest surrounding last weekend's cold snap.  Before the freeze, we pushed to bring in the last of our Marsanne, Syrah and Grenache Blanc, our Picpoul, the bulk of our Grenache, and a significant chunk of our Roussanne.  We figured that anything that we could bring in that was ready we should, to avoid a rush after the frost. 

After the frosts, it warmed up again nicely and last week we brought in the rest of our Grenache, some more Roussanne from the frost-impacted section of Nipple Flat, and our first Mourvedre.  It only looks like the frost really hit the coolest sections near Tablas Creek and the bottoms of some larger hills.  But, in those sections, the vine leaves are dried and brown, the grapes are starting to fall away from the clusters, and there's no point leaving them out.  Most were ready anyway.

We're now done with our Viognier, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc, Picpoul Blanc, Vermentino, Syrah, Grenache and Tannat.  It gives us an opportunity to compare yields with last year.  The picture is not particularly pretty:

Grape 2008 Yields (tons) 2007 Yields (tons) % Change
Viognier 19.4 9.2 +110.9%
Marsanne 9.8 6.2 +58.1%
Grenache Blanc 23.5 19.6 +19.9%
Picpoul Blanc 6.6 4.9 +34.7%
Vermentino 2.8 3.9 -28.2%
Grenache 45.6 54.8 -16.8%
Tannat 5.4 5.5 -1.9%
Syrah 30.1 41.6 -27.6%
Total 143.2 145.7

At this stage of harvest, any assessment is necessarily a snapshot.  We are still waiting for most of our Mourvedre, much of our Roussanne and some of our Counoise.  Still, it appears that the later-ripening varieties are if anything going to be below last year's quantities.  So, our hopes that yields would recover from 2007's historically low levels do not appear likely to be fulfilled.

In the cellar, we have taken advantage of the unusual year which has produced completely lignified stems in our Mourvedre.  Lignification occurs when stems turn from green to brown, and is one sign of physiological ripeness.  Two photos below show clusters of Mourvedre, with the cluster on the left fully lignified and the one on the right still mostly green:

Harvest_08_oct_0001 Harvest_08_oct_0002

In Paso Robles, grapes generally achieve ripeness (by most measures, including sugar and acid levels, berries softening, and seeds turning brown) while the stems are still green.  So, we de-stem our reds because we feel that fermenting in whole clusters is likely to transfer some green-tasting tannins from the stems into the wine. De-stemming is standard practice at Beaucastel, and we have de-stemmed every year.  Until now.

One of the several novelties of 2008 has been that the stems of our Mourvedre are more lignified than we've ever seen before.  This has allowed us to try some whole cluster fermentation as they do in traditional Bandol. So, we dumped the grapes into an open-top fermenter and have been crushing them by foot.  Cellar Assistant Chelsea Magnusson demonstrates:


We split this Mourvedre lot in half, and did the other half in the traditional de-stemmed method.  We'll keep the lots separate and hopefully be able to isolate the contributions of the whole clusters.

It's interesting to note that in recent years, producers in Bandol have had to abandon their traditional whole-cluster fermentations in favor of destemming.  They suspect that this is because the grapes are achieving sugar ripeness faster than ever before due to a warmer and warmer climate, and the sugar accumulation is outpacing the signs of physiological ripeness.  That we have seen such complete lignification is one of the best pieces of evidence that 2008 is properly termed a cool-climate vintage.  Given that, it's probably not a bad thing that yields have been low.  If we'd had higher yields, we might still be in the early stages of harvest.

Cold, Cold, Cold: A Harvest Freeze in Paso Robles

Until now, harvest 2008 has been proceeding under nearly ideal conditions.  Daytime highs have been in the 80s, lows in the 40s, and the grapes are ripening beautifully.  Enter this weekend.  A cold, dry arctic low dropped down into California about six weeks earlier than normal, and we have seen three consecutive nights below freezing in most of the Paso Robles AVA.  The weather report from the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance shows the results for last night:


As you can see, temperatures dropped well into the 20s both of the past two nights through most of the AVA.  Perhaps because of our proximity to the Pacific, or due to our elevation, or due to the mountains to our north that might have helped block the cold north wind, at Tablas Creek we didn't get hit quite as hard, but we still saw some damage.  The weather station is in the center of the vineyard, in a spot of more or less average temperatures, and there are always spots two or three degrees cooler.

Frosts during harvest are rarer than those during flowering, and damaging in different ways.  In the spring, you are more likely to have a frost which will impact most or all of your year's results, causing uneven ripening and low, erratic yields.  But, you can also mitigate spring frosts with overhead sprinkling, and most large commercial vineyards do this as a matter of course on cold spring nights.  In the fall, you don't want to sprinkle overhead because of the risk of mildew and of causing the nearly-ripe grapes to swell and split (think of the problems of harvest rain).  Harvest frosts don't typically render the grapes on the vine unusable.  Still, if the leaves of a vine are frozen, the vine stops photosynthesizing for the year and the grapes will only accumulate additional sugar through dehydration.

At Tablas Creek, we have completed a little more than half of harvest, and already-harvested sections are unaffected by the weekend's frosts.  Still, many of the areas that are still unharvested are those that were affected by this spring's frosts, and are in lower, more frost-prone areas.  We have one more night where it's forecast to approach freezing, after which we'll be able to assess the damage.  I'm sure it will be painful, though it doesn't so far look devastating.

Although I hope not, I would imagine that the damage in much of the rest of the AVA will be severe, adding to the pressure on many growers from a vintage already impacted by spring frosts, low rainfall, and wind during flowering that caused extensive shatter in Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel vineyards.

Harvest, Weeks of September 22nd and 29th

After what seemed like weeks of waiting, all of a sudden most of the vineyard is ready to pick.  Last week, we focused on whites and picked the rest of the Viognier, most of the rest of the Grenache Blanc, and the Picpoul Blanc (we also picked the first of the Grenache Noir, from our "American vine" block that we planted in 1994).  The total harvested for the week was just over 20 tons.

This week, we've switched our focus to reds and accelerated the pace of harvest with some rain threatening for this weekend.  When all is said and done, we will have harvested over 35 tons this week, including most of the rest of our Syrah, a good chunk more Grenache, our first Mourvedre and Counoise, and even some later-ripening whites: our first Marsanne and Roussanne for our Roussanne "Bergeron" program.  A few photos give you a great sense of what ripe Grenache looks like.  Note the relatively light color, even when ripe, and the fairly large, loose berries of Grenache clusters in a picking bin:


Below, from another angle, you can see the half-ton picking bins we use stacked on the right in the background.  You can also see the somewhat overcast day today. We're forecast for some rain showers tomorrow, which is very early for Paso Robles.  It's not supposed to be damaging (maybe a half-inch at the most) but we always worry that a first rain might usher in a weather pattern where a succession of storms roll in off the Pacific.  It doesn't look like that will be the case this time; the weather is forecast to be warm and dry next week.  Still, it has added some urgency to bring in what's ripe this week.


Finally, one more shot, this one in the cellar of Grenache clusters on the sorting table being fed into the destemmer machine.  We destem most of our reds (with the occasional exception of an occasional Mourvedre lot a la Bandol, some Tannat which is unwilling to be destemmed, and our Vin de Paille red) to keep them from accumulating tannins from the stems.  You can see the clusters falling into the destemmer, and the violence of the destemming process.


So far, we've harvested just over 100 tons.  Colors and flavors look great, sugars appear to be somewhat lower than normal, and yields range from about average to well below average depending on varietal.