Should a Vermentino ever get 98 points?

Yesterday, we posted to our Twitter feed a great review that our 2016 Vermentino received from the trade publication BevX:

I then had a brief exchange on Twitter with Sean Ludford, who runs BevX:

This got me thinking.  What is it about certain grapes or styles that allows them to be great?  I wondered how many Vermentinos had received 90+ scores from larger publications, so I looked in the Wine Spectator's database. They've scored 430 Vermentinos over the years. Of those, 17 have received 90+ scores, including just two 91s and one 92.  That's less than 4% of the Vermentinos reviewed (which, presumably, are the better ones) that received an "outstanding" or "classic" score.

Thinking about other grapes that fit a similar profile (bright, crisp, generally best drunk young) I looked up Picpoul. Of the 60 that they tasted, only one (from our neighbors here in Paso Robles, Adelaida Cellars) got a 90.  That's 1.7%.

Going more into the mainstream, Chardonnay returns 25,485 results in the Wine Spectator database.  Of these, 5,206 have received 90+ ratings (20.4%).   Sauvignon Blanc returns 10,706 results, with 935 (8.7%) receiving 90+ scores. Pinot Grigio returns 2,204 results, but only 82 90+ scores (3.7%).

Rhone whites as a whole score well.  Take Roussanne, for example.  Of the 456 Roussannes reviewed by the Wine Spectator over the years, 70 (15.4%) received 90+ ratings, with our 2014 Roussanne being one of three that topped the list at 93 points. Viognier has 362 90+ wines out of 2,404 (15.1%).  Marsanne has 33 90+ scores out of 269 wines (12.3%). And Grenache Blanc, which only returns 212 results, has 24 90+ scores, four of them ours (11.3%). Only Picpoul is an outlier here.

So, what does it mean that 20+% of Chardonnays can be "outstanding" or "classic", 11-15% of most of the Rhone whites, but only 4% of Vermentinos?  I think there are a few factors at play.

  • Ageworthiness. I do think that reviewers put a premium on wines that can be aged into something greater than they were in their youth. This makes some sense to me. A truly great wine should be interesting over time, and assume different personalities. Just as a great book is something that you want to return to at different stages of your life, and from which you can gather different insights depending on your own life experiences. Vermentino, as beautiful as it can be, is not a wine that we think improves with time in bottle.
  • Richness. There also seems to be a correlation between a wine's body and high scores.  Most Rhone whites (with the possible exception of Grenache Blanc) show a lot of body. And even Grenache Blanc can have plenty of body; it's just balanced by high acids.  But grapes that are lighter in body, like Picpoul or Pinot Grigio (or Vermentino) tend not to be treated the same way.  Sauvignon Blanc, which can be made richer but is typically bright and lean, falls somewhere in between.  If we were able to taste the styles of the highest-rated wines in the category, I would guess that they'd tend toward the richer side of the grape's spectrum. Here is a case where I think there's room to debate. Is there a place for rich wines? Of course. But I know that I value refreshment in wine as much as I do power. And yes, great wines should offer at least some of both.
  • Oak. What else distinguishes white wines with more body from those with less? The more substantial wines are more likely to have been fermented in oak, and to have a higher percentage of that oak be new. Does this mean that a category that typically isn't made with oak has to be oaked to get high scores? I hope not. You're starting to see this with some luxury rosé cuvées, most visibly Chateau d'Esclans, whose top-of-the-line Garrus rosé, aged in new and one-year-old French oak, has on its Web page a litany of reviews calling it the "best rosé in the world". But is the wine better, or is it the oak that tells people they should value it more? I think it's at least partly the latter. I tasted Garrus along the other three tiers from Chateau d'Esclans, and I preferred the freshness of the less expensive wines to the creamy oakiness of the elite levels, not least because the oak to me worked against the freshness and charm that I look for in rosés. That said, the richer style clearly has its adherents. A grape like Vermentino is not likely to be put into new barrels, and thank heavens for that. But the sweet spice and weight that new oak brings to a wine is at least a part of what cues reviewers to identify wines as elite.
  • Provenance. Looking at the scores, the percentage of high scores is correlated with the percentage of each wine that is made in California. Now, before I dive into this potential land mine, let me make it clear that I do not believe that California wines are held to a different (lower) standard, that the Wine Spectator is biased in favor of California, or that all California wines are better than wines from the Old World.  That said, I do believe that California winemakers have taken a new look at many grapes which in the Old World were made in a certain way by tradition.  Take Picpoul:
    • In France, the Picpouls (mostly from the Pinet region, in Languedoc) are generally produced plentifully, harvested early with modest sugars, fermented fast and bottled young to showcase the wines' bright acids.  And they are all so cheap (generally under $10 retail) that there is little opportunity or incentive to innovate.
    • At Tablas Creek, we farm the same grape at lower yields, in a climate with colder nights, and those combine to produce wines with just as much acidity, but more concentration and texture than the French versions.
    • It's noteworthy that just 9 of the 70 Picpouls are from California, and yet most of the ones that received the high scores were. Same with Vermentino: just 9 of the 430 reviews are for California wines (6 of these are ours).
    • Are the wines principally different because of climate? Sure, in part. But I think it's at least as much in the freedom that we have from tradition, and the higher price point of most California wines, that has encouraged and rewarded a new approach to these formerly unfashionable grapes.
    • The wines with longer histories in California have more reviews but tell the same story; thirty of Roussanne's seventy 90+ scores come from California.

Ultimately, the ceiling score for wines is determined by the accumulated reputation of a category over the years.  And I don't think this is a bad thing, or that all grapes are created equal. Cabernet, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir command the world's highest prices and the lion's share of many magazines' top scores because the market has decided that their best examples are worth the high prices they command. Is there an extent to which this is tradition? Sure. But these are great grapes, which have proved their value and reputation over generations. There is a reason why I reach for a Chardonnay a lot more often than I do for a Pinot Grigio, and I don't want to suggest that the same percentage of every grapes should receive 90+ scores.

That said, remember that loving unfashionable grapes is a tremendous opportunity to enjoy a category's great examples on the cheap.  What the best Chardonnays from Montrachet or Cabernets from Napa Valley will set you back can be measured in hundreds or thousands of dollars.  This 98-point Vermentino?  $27, and less since June is the month it is our featured wine.

In the end, I find it refreshing to think that a grape can be celebrated for being outstanding in its own right and not bump up against some glass ceiling of worthiness. Is there really no such thing as a "classic" Vermentino"? Maybe not, if the definition of a classic is one that will stand the test of time; I know I'm going to try to drink all my 2016 Vermentino before the 2017 is even picked. But I hope there is the opportunity to identify a wine that is outstanding at a moment in time, even if (especially if) it's now the best it will ever be.  And as Sean Ludford said in his last tweet, "excellence is excellence".  Amen to that.


Grapes of the Rhone Valley: Terret Noir

I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one here at Tablas Creek who thinks that one of the most fun things I get to do is to work with new grapes. In some cases, these grapes are ones that are pretty well known in France, but new to California. There, we have a frame of reference, and what's fascinating is where our versions do (and don't) line up. Vermentino and Picpoul Blanc would fit that category. In other cases, we start working with new grapes that have been little used in France in recent decades, and we get to make discoveries without really knowing whether what we're making is true to what the grape "should" be like. That's a different sort of fun. Terret Noir, which we planted in 2010 and have been harvesting since 2013, fits into that category.

Terret noir lithoHistory
Terret Noir is an ancient grape from the Languedoc, one that like Grenache or Picpoul has three color variants (Terret Blanc and Terret Gris are the others). It is first noted in the historical record in 1736, when it was noted for generous production ("Terret noir: produit beaucoup")1.  Never very widely planted (unlike Terret Gris, which a half century ago showed more than 20,000 acres in Languedoc, much of it used to distill into vermouth) Terret Noir's acreage has declined in recent years, down to some 460 acres in 2008, nearly all in Hérault, the French département that surrounds the university town of Montpellier. Even in Hérault, Terret Noir produces less than 2% of the 900,000 hectoliters of wine the region produces annually2, and is typically blended into the more-planted Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan, Grenache, and Mourvedre.  Although it is one of the permitted varieties in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, it is barely planted there, with just over two acres planted as of 20093.

The grape was valued for its productivity, its freshness, and its moderate alcohols. In his authoritative ampelography from 1910, P. Viala writes of Terret (translation by my dad), "it produced an abundant harvest that could reach 80 hectoliters per hectare [6 tons per acre]. It was prized on the hillsides because, aside from its fertility, it brought qualities of lightness and freshness of bouquet to the strong and acid varietals (Grenache, Espar, etc.), and to which it married perfectly".

In 2003, we decided that we wanted the complete collection of Chateauneuf-du-Pape varieties, and took field cuttings from Beaucastel of the seven grapes we had not yet imported. Terret was one of these.  It spent seven years in quarantine at U.C. Davis before being released to us in 2009, propagated, and in 2010 planted in a half-acre block at the extreme western edge of our property.  Our first production off of these vines came in 2013.

Terret Noir in the Vineyard and Cellar
Terret Noir is valuable in part because it is late-budding, and therefore less vulnerable to the spring frosts that are the chief weather hazard we deal with each year.  It grows vigorously, and produces large, oval, pinkish red grapes that look more like table grapes than they do like a darkly pigmented grape such as Syrah or Mourvedre. Its upright growth pattern means that it can be head-trained (and typically is in France) but we planted our small block double-cordon on trellis.  It ripens relatively late in the growing season, about a week before the very end of harvest each of the last three years. This puts it in timing in synch with grapes like Mourvedre and Counoise.  

At harvest, it is relatively modest in sugars (we've picked it between 21.0° and 21.6° Brix each year) and mid-range high in acids (pH between 3.6 and 3.9). The skins are light in pigment and the berries large, so it is not a grape that picks up much color during fermentation.  In fact, the first year we fermented it, after two weeks it still looked like a rosé, so we kept it on the skins for another week, at which point it hadn't picked up much more color but had accumulated quite a bit of tannin.  We have since gone back to a more normal 2-week maceration, accepting the lighter color but keeping the tannins modest.

Ultimately, we expect this to be a blending grape, and in fact beginning in 2016 will be using it in a blend with Syrah and Grenache (for that full story, see here). In a blend, its spiciness, herby savoriness, and low alcohols provide a moderating effect on the more powerful, deeply fruity Syrah and Grenache, while those darker grapes give to Terret substance.  On its own, as we've bottled it in 2013, 2014, and 2015 vintages, it is reminiscent of pale color, fairly tannic grapes like the Jura's poulsard.

Flavors and Aromas
Terret Noir is pale garnet red, with spicy, lifted aromatics of dried herbs and wild strawberries. On the palate it shows a persistence surprising for such a pale red wine, with crunchy red fruit like pomegranates and red currants, complex notes of black tea and dried roses, good acids, and some grippy tannins on the finish. We have no idea how it will age, and the literature doesn't provide much insight here. If you are interested in trying it, we just released our 2015 Terret Noir, and we hope you'll let us know what you think.

Terret Noir 15

Footnotes

  1. Jancis Robinson, Wine Grapes, HarperCollins 2012
  2. Sud de France WineHub, http://www.suddefrancewinehub.com/en/terroirs/igp-pays-dherault-2/
  3. Harry Karis, The Chateauneuf-du-Pape Wine Book, Kavino, 2009

If you build it they will come: Owl boxes, owls, and gopher management

By Jordan Lonborg

For those of you who garden, have fruit trees, a few grapevines, or even a vineyard, pocket gophers can be your nemesis. They will burrow in your garden, sometimes taking entire plants underground with them. The will feast on feeder roots of young trees and/or vines, killing the plant. A garden, orchard, or vineyard is paradise to the pocket gopher. They have water (from irrigation) and an actively growing root system as a food source. We may have lost close to 500 one-year-old vines last year due to gophers. The most effective way of dealing with pocket gophers is to physically trap and kill them. This process takes practice, skill, and time. Even then, at the end of the day you may find yourself looking like Carl Spackler (Bill Murray from Caddyshack) with holes all over your yard, no gophers trapped, and feeling very frustrated (no C4 please!).

Enter Tyto Alba, commonly known as the barn owl. This raptor has your back. Here at Tablas Creek, as part of our pest management program, we have built and erected owl boxes throughout vineyard in the last two growing seasons. To be exact, on the 120 or so planted acres (10 of which are just rootstock) there are 38 owl boxes! From just about any point in the vineyard you’ll notice the rectangular shaped houses that are painted barn door red with the Tablas leaf painted on all sides. It was my goal to have one box every 100-150 yards throughout the entire vineyard, and we've been putting up boxes steadily over the last two years. Being certified organic, outside of trapping, biological control -- read predators who will eat them -- is our only other option. Note the heavy traffic this one's door has seen:

IMG_4147

Every January, barn owl males go in search for suitable nesting locations. To attract females, they begin bringing back rodents to their nest to prove that they can provide enough food for a clutch, or a family of owls. The females will lay between 6-8 eggs in a season, an eggs every 2-5 days. When the last egg has hatched, she begins hunting with the male until late May or early June when the owlets fledge or leave the nest. With a full clutch and a strong food source, a nesting pair can conservatively take around 500 small vertebrates back to the nest to feed their young. Barn owls are extremely efficient hunters and can be voracious when it comes to consuming pocket gophers and other vertebrate pests. Other than gopher remains, I have found the skulls of ground squirrels, song birds, snakes, and even crows in these. Check out the gopher skull I picked up under the above box:

Image1

If you have gopher issues and are interested in building owl boxes for your property, check out this link for step-by-step directions on how to build your own… I have personally built over 150 of them and they are very successful. The link provides all steps needed. I will happily answer any and all questions; leave them in the comments or give us a call at the winery.

Owls are amazing hunters. But I'm not suggesting you rely solely on owl boxes to solve your pocket gopher issues. Look at barn owls as free labor that work while you sleep.  If you do decide to build a few of your own, I leave you with a quote…. “In the immortal words of Jean-Paul Sartre, 'Au revoir, gopher'” –Carl Spackler aka Bill Murray in Caddy shack


Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost: Q&A with Cellar Master Brad Ely

By Suphada Rom

Brad Ely, a native of the Central Coast, has found his way back to the area after several years of travel and cellar experience, taking him from the far reaches of Australia and New Zealand all the way to Washington state and the Rhone Valley. I sat down with him recently to talk all things travel, winemaking, and what makes Tablas Creek special to him.

Brad truck

I know you're local to Central Coast- where did you grow up?
I grew up in Arroyo Grande, California, so about 45 minutes south of Paso. It was a good town to grow up in- close to the beach, which was great since I surfed a lot. Small town but a really good place to raise a family, and it's on the central coast so that's definitely a plus. After high school, I went to Cal Poly.

Did you study wine and viticulture at Cal Poly?
So I was torn between wine and viticulture, construction management, and business. At the time, I thought business would be the most versatile option, but really all my work experience after college has been in the wine industry. My first job was at Saucelito Canyon in Edna Valley. I went into it thinking I'd just do a quick harvest, then do a ski season somewhere else, but I stayed on for two harvests. After that, I took off around the world for 3 years, to travel and continue my passion for making wine.

Brad Barrels

Where have you traveled and worked?
The first place I went to was Australia, to work harvest for Two Hands in the Barossa Valley. I stayed beyond harvest, took some time to travel to Asia, then moved up to Washington to work for Owen Roe, making everything from Pinot Noir to Bordeaux varieties and Syrah. I worked there until winter and went straight back to Two Hands in Australia to work another few months, leading into harvest. After that harvest was done, I hopped on a plane to go to New Zealand for another. Literally, our harvest ended on a Friday and that following Monday morning I was scheduled to start in New Zealand for a custom crush facility called Vin Pro in Central Otago. After that, I traveled through Indonesia and the Philippines, before going to France. While in France, I worked for a producer called Domaine La Barroche under Julien Barrot. The vineyards there have been in the family for centuries, records going back to about the 14th century. Originally sold to negociants, Julien decided to keep the wines and start a label. The year that I was there was the first year they were producing out of their new cellar, which was just a beautiful cellar. All concrete fermenters, large foudres, and gravity flow. I came back and it wasn't long until I heard about an opening at Tablas Creek. I've been here about a year now, which has been a huge blessing!

What makes Tablas Creek special to you?
It's just an amazing property, with a completely different feel than a lot of wineries in the area. I think that has a lot to do with being co-owned by a French family. Just walking through, it feels very French, especially coming from Chateauneuf-du-Pape and basically going straight to Tablas. Not only are the winemaking philosophies pretty similar, but it has that French feel; and that's part of why I like our winery so much. Tablas is a special place and an awesome piece of land to grow grapes on. Everything we do here really reflects tradition, as well, which I am a huge proponent of. 

As Cellar Master, what are your tasks?
It's everything in the cellar and everything winemaking oriented. We have an awesome team and between Craig, Chelsea, Neil, and I, we pretty much have all the bases covered and organizationally speaking, things run really smoothly here. Working in the cellar, it's fruit to glass. During harvest time, it's everything from processing fruit to pump overs to digging the tanks. No job is too small or too big, we're doing it all. When harvest is over, it's a lot of moving wine around, lots of tasting, and making sure everything is going in the direction we want it to. Working in the cellar is very mechanical and you have to wear all sorts of hats. You may be a plumber and then an electrician and a repairman. And cleaning... a lot of cleaning!

Brad Tractor

What would be something people would be surprised to hear about working in the cellar?
Well a lot of people think we drink wine all day, which isn't true! You've got to drink in moderation, which doesn't include drinking at work, so we're constantly spitting. I believe you can taste a lot better when you're spitting, as well. And depending on who you talk to, not everyone knows how much work goes into making a bottle of wine. I've had people shrug it off and say, "Oh yeah, you know... you pick grapes and then make the wine." That's when I have to tell them it's a bit more complicated than that!

What is your personal winemaking philosophy?
Wines that are pretty close to Tablas. I like to be pretty hands off and I don't really like oak. I like natural fermentations, and getting away from additions if you can, even in terms of acid adjustments. I like lower sulfur wines, as well. Basically, trying to make wine as naturally as possible, while still making clean drinkable wines that reflect terroir and sense of place. In terms of what I want to make, I want to make Rhone wines- that's where my passion lies. If I could, I would make Grenache and Roussanne all day, those are the two I care most about. 

When you're not cleaning tanks or moving wine, what are you doing?
I like to travel. I just got back from Cuba, which was really cool. I like to ride motorcycles and work on them. Growing up, I surfed a lot, which I still do a fair amount of. I'll also golf with my Dad and although I'm horrible at it, it's something we can do together. And then of course wine stuff!

Brad Lamb

Do you have a favorite food and wine pairing?
I always love pork and Grenache, like a pork loin or something with a little bit of gaminess. I had a pairing recently with rabbit and Pinot, which was pretty tasty too.

Finally, how do you define success?
I think you’re successful if you’re happy. If you’re happy and you feel like you’re in a good spot then I think that’s success. I wouldn’t tie it anything monetary. I’ve never been into status symbols and nice things, don’t get me wrong, I would love to have nice things, but it’s not a make or break for me. If you’re happy and healthy and the relationships you have are meaningful, that’s success.


Move Along... Nothing To See Here... Just our First New Wine in Seven Years

Last week, Francois Perrin joined me, my dad, Neil, Chelsea, Craig, Brad and Jordan around the blending table as we took our first comprehensive look at the reds from 2016. Coming into the blending, we'd only looked in detail at the whites, which were super. But reds often tell a different story.  I'm happy to report that this year, they look as strong as the whites.  And, for the first time in 7 years, we got to make a new wine. See if you can spot it:

2016 red blends

As usual, we started our blending week Monday morning by tasting, component by component, through what we had in the cellar. Thanks to the better crop levels that we saw in 2016, there were enough lots that we began with Counoise and Mourvedre on Monday, and continued with Grenache, Syrah, and the handful of oddballs on Tuesday.  Our goal at this first stage is to identify the quality of the different lots, and get a sense of both the character and diversity present in the vintage to help give us direction in blending.

We grade on a 1-3 scale, with 1's being our top grade (for a deep dive into how we do our blending, check out this blog by Chelsea from a few years back). For context, in a normal year, for every 10 lots we might see 3-4 "1" grades, 5-6 "2" grades and 1 "3" grade.  As you'll see, lots of good grades this year.  My quick thoughts on each variety:

  • Grenache (13 lots): A strong showing for Grenache, with 6 of the lots receiving 1's from me and only one 3.  Quite luscious, some lots still a little sweet (not unusual for Grenache at this time of year).
  • Mourvedre (18 lots): Also strong, though (for me) quite a large number of very good lots but not that many great lots.  I gave seven lots a 1 grade, with another three hovering between 1 and 2.  Lots of texture here, beautiful red fruit, good cola flavors. Not blockbuster wines overall, but classy and balanced.
  • Syrah (13 lots): The best showing we've ever seen for Syrah. I gave eight of the thirteen lots 1 grades, and felt guilty on a few other cases that I was being too tough a grader. Deep, spicy, meaty, with powerful black fruit. Juicier than Syrah often is at this stage, but with plenty of tannin and concentration to back it up.
  • Counoise (7 lots): Plenty of pretty Counoise that will be great for varietal bottlings and the Cotes de Tablas. Not much (in fact, only one lot) that felt like it had the concentration for Esprit for me. Usually there's a mix of the lighter-toned Counoise that reminds me of the Gamay grape and the darker, blueberry and spice Counoise that feels more Rhone-like. This year, almost entirely on the lighter side.
  • Tannat (3 lots): All three lots got 1 grades from me; it's going to be a great Tannat year. Lots of black fruit, good tannic structure, good acids.
  • Cabernet (1 lot): Only one small (60 gallon) lot of Cabernet this year; not really enough to bottle on its own, and anyway it was a nice dark wine but without as much Cabernet distinctiveness as we look for in a varietal bottling. It will find a happy home in the 2016 Tannat.
  • Pinot Noir (1 lot): Just right, for my taste, in its balance between pretty cherry Pinot fruit, herbal elements from the roughly 25% whole clusters we used in the fermentation, and a little kiss of oak. Should make for a delicious 2016 Full Circle Pinot. 
  • Terret Noir (1 lot): Just the 4th vintage of this new grape for us, the Terret was zesty and bright, with watermelon fruit, good acids, and a little less grip than I remember from recent vintages. We've bottled it on its own in recent years, as we try to wrap our heads around it, but it's ultimately going to be a blending grape, and we think we found a great use for it.  Keep reading.

We finished Tuesday with a round-table discussion about what we wanted to try in the blending the next few days, and decided that given the strength of the Syrah (and Grencahe) lots, we wanted to see some blends with higher percentages of Syrah than we've had in most recent years, and some others where we increased both Grenache and Syrah at the expense of Mourvedre.  

Wednesday morning, we reconvened to work out each blend, starting with the Panoplie and continuing on through the lineup.  Panoplie is always overwhelmingly Mourvedre (typically 60% at least) and typically not much Syrah, because Syrah's dominance often proves to be too much for the character of the Mourvedre.  Not this year. We tried three blends and ended up picking as our favorite the one with the most Syrah and least Grenache. I was not surprised to find that we'd preferred the wine with 25% Syrah; the Syrah was outstanding. But I was surprised that we liked the blend with 66% Mourvedre and just 9% Grenache better than one with 60% Mourvedre and 15% Grenache. But it was pretty universal around the table: that by having a high percentage of Syrah and increasing the Grenache as well, we lost something essentially Mourvedre -- and essentially Panoplie -- about the wine.

Panoplie decided, we moved on to the Esprit.  Moreso than the Panoplie, the fundamental question we face each year with the Esprit is whether the character of the Mourvedre benefits more from a greater addition of Syrah or of Grenache, as these two variables are typically how we adjust to warmer and cooler vintages.  In warmer years, where the Mourvedre shows juicier and more open (and tends to be higher alcohol) the darkness, spice, minerality, and structure of Syrah are particularly valuable.  In cooler years, the flesh, sweet fruit, and more open tones of Grenache tend to be indispensable. So perhaps it shouldn't have been surprising that in the warm 2016 vintage, we preferred a blend with a lot of Syrah  -- 31%, our highest-ever -- to options with higher percentages of Grenache.  I was surprised that an option where we increased both Syrah and Grenache, and reduced the Mourvedre to around 38%, didn't show as well. But in this relatively ripe year, we found that as we increased the Grenache, the wines tended to come across as a touch alcoholic, while high-Syrah blends felt deep, pure, and balanced. So, the 2016 Esprit de Tablas will be 46% Mourvedre, 31% Syrah, 18% Grenache, and 5% Counoise.

Next on tap were two small-production blends -- one new, one we've been making for a decade -- that will go to the wine club. For our En Gobelet, in early years, we used nearly all the head-trained, dry-farmed lots for this one wine, and typically didn't have a lot of choices.  But as the acreage that we've planted head trained has increased, we've had the ability to use these lots in Panoplie and Esprit as well as En Gobelet.  But having already chosen the blends of these two wines, there wasn't a lot of choice left.  So it was with some relief that we all loved the wine that resulted: a blend of 39% Mourvedre, 30% Grenache, 20% Syrah, 8% Counoise, and 3% Tannat.  It was deeply red fruited, rich and savory, structured, like we'd distilled down cherries into their essence. It was a testament to the quality that those head-trained vines produce, and made a nice contrast to more Syrah-driven dark fruit we ended up preferring in the Panoplie and Esprit.  Club members are in for a treat, in a couple of years.

For our second small-production blend, we wanted to find a way to celebrate the kinship that we felt Syrah has with Terret Noir.  Now these two grapes may seem like opposites in many ways, with Syrah dark and Terret quite pale.  But Terret shares a peppery spiciness with Syrah, particularly the Syrah lots that we fermented with whole clusters.  So, we experimented with a series of blends combining the two, trying to figure out the relative proportion to make a wine with depth and seriousness, yet an openness that Syrah only rarely achieves.  We ended up needing to add a little Grenache to the blend for flesh, and think we have a solution at about 60% Syrah and 20% each of Terret and Grenache.  The result is like Syrah with an overlay of translucency: elements of both light and dark, savory, zesty, and clean.  We may still tweak this a little, but the bones are there for something that should be exciting.

On Thursday morning, we reconvened to tackle the Cotes de Tablas and the varietals.  As often happens, the Cotes fell into place pretty quickly.  We'd used so much Syrah in our other blends that all the rest of what we had in the cellar was only going to make up 25% of the 2100 cases we were trying to target for this wine.  And that amount is about the minimum we feel like a Grenache-dominated blend needs to stay savory and in balance.  We never use much Mourvedre in this blend, as we feel like it gets buried by the Grenache and Syrah, and we would prefer to save this Mourvedre for our varietal bottling.  So, we were really experimenting with only two components: Counoise and Grenache.  We ended up choosing a blend relatively high in Grenache for us (57%), with 25% Syrah, 12% Counoise, and 9% Mourvedre.  The wine was cheerful: strawberry and cherry fruit, nice spice, and enough structure and depth to hold it all together.  It should be a real crowd-pleaser when it's released, and should also get deeper and more serious with time in barrel.

Given what we'd made of the blends, the math dictated what we could make as varietals: Mourvedre, Grenache, and Counoise, but no Syrah.  Quantities of Mourvedre should be solid, the other two somewhat less. No Syrah, as often happens in warmer vintages, since it's so important in the blends.  That makes two years in a row; if you think you'll miss it, consider this your warning to stock up on the (delicious) 2014.

A few concluding thoughts.

First, the 2016 vintage seems to have an appealing balance between lusher, juicier notes and deeper, more savory notes.  Like a somewhat more generous 2014, or a 2015 with a little more power, or 2007 with a little less alcohol.  That these are some of our best recent vintages makes me very excited for 2016's prospects.  See all the 1's and 2's on my tasting sheet:

Tasting Notes 2016

Second, after three years where our quantities were dramatically reduced by our drought (and in 2015, by cold weather during flowering) it was such a relief being able to make the quantities that we wanted of most wines.  This stands in stark contrast to 2015, where even after some pretty drastic action in nearly eliminating the Dianthus and reducing my target quantities of many wines to rock bottom, we still came up short.  There are a few vintages where high quality and solid quantity go hand in hand (I'm thinking 2005, or 2010, here) and I'm always grateful.  Not that 2016 was particularly plentiful; it's still quite a bit below what we saw in 2010 or 2012.  But compared to 2015, it felt like a windfall.

Third, what a pleasure to taste with Francois Perrin.  It's been a few years since we had him here for the blending; we rarely know which Perrin we'll receive when we ask, and he was laid up for a time with some back problems.  And each of the Perrins brings amazing depth of experience and terrific insights.  But Francois, who has been the chief craftsman in the cellars at Beaucastel for four decades, has a unique perspective.  Hearing what he gets excited about is a treat, and knowing that he was enthusiastic about what he found out of the 2016's is a great sign of the vintage's quality.


Fresh Herbs in the Glass and on the Plate: Vietnamese Spring Rolls & Vermentino

By Suphada Rom

At Tablas Creek we make wines primarily from varieties known from France's Rhône Valley. I love pairing traditional French fare with our wines- that to me is elementary, in the sense that, well, it just makes sense to pair the two. However, the food scene is diverse and ever growing, and as much as I love French food, it's not something I eat everyday. Right now, I can't get enough Vietnamese food. There is just something so vibrant and fresh about all the ingredients used, whether it's freshly chopped basil atop a tart salad or leaves of mint tucked inside a rice paper wrapper. The fresh ingredients of this style of cuisine inspired me to produce a spring pairing - Spring rolls and Vermentino.

Verm shrimp roll

I've been mildly obsessed with the craft of rolling the perfect spring roll. Luckily it's not that hard to make, I just tend to sweat the details, like is there just the right amount of noodles or is it equally balanced on either end with both shrimp and pork? That said, don't be intimidated by the wrapping portion and do have friends over to help you roll- it's not a spring roll party without them! For my spring roll recipe, I love my mom's recipe, but I swear, every time I ask for the recipe, it's slightly different (I think she's keeping some cooking secrets to herself!). I've outsourced a recipe from one of my favorite restaurants- The Slanted Door in San Francisco, California. Chef Charles Phan has an incredible cookbook (entitled The Slanted Door) from which I pull many recipes to share. I love his recipe for spring rolls, as it is simple and all about getting the freshest ingredients. Delicious and satisfying, I decided to have a couple friends over for a spring time spring roll party. 

Spring cuisine is all about fresh vibrant herbs, lighter fare, and mouthwatering white wine. And nothing we make is more mouthwatering than Vermentino. The 2016 vintage marks the fifteenth bottling of this mouthwatering Sardinian variety on the Tablas Creek property. We have about 3.25 acres dedicated to Vermentino plantings, and bottle (in generous vintages) a little over 1000 cases. It's one of my favorite varieties, simply because it's so clean and bright: citrus, bright acidity, and salty minerality. On the nose, the 2016 Vermentino is herby and chalky, with notes of key lime. On the palate it's delightful, with notes of nectarine and lemon. My mouth is left watering because the of the wine's acidity. The herbs in the wine's aromas tie in beautifully with the mint in the spring rolls. The surprising factor was the peanut sauce, which worked really well texturally with the wine. I love having something really bright and acidic paired with something rich and creamy.

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If you recreate this dish (or create a TCV wine and food pairing of your own!), be sure to let us know on any of our social media handles - Facebook or Twitter or Instagram - or just leave us a comment here! When you do, tag @tablascreek and use #EatDrinkTablas

A few other resources:


In the winter, west Paso Robles is a rain forest. In the summer, it's a desert.

I was struck recently by a headline posted recently by a Seattle-dwelling friend of mine: Seattle just broke a 122-year-old record for rain. The total rainfall for this famously rainy city between October 2016 and April 2017? 44.67".

Here at Tablas Creek, over the same period, we've received 41.57" of rain.  No, you aren't reading that wrong. The rainfall we've received this past winter would be one of the wettest winters ever recorded in Seattle.  So perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that the below landscape (taken down near our creek a few months ago) could be straight out of the Pacific Northwest:

Lichen draped oaks

And while 2016-17 was quite a wet winter here, winters like it aren't all that rare.  Looking just over the last 20 years, this is the fifth winter that our weather station recorded 37" or more of rainfall here: 

Rainfall by winter as of 2017

Although the winter of 2016-17 was an outlier, our average rainfall here at the vineyard (25") is still pretty wet.  Other areas that average 25" of rain include lots of places in the upper Midwest, Texas, and northern California.  Also Chateauneuf du Pape, Alsace, and Burgundy.  What makes our rainfall here extraordinary is that almost all of our rain comes in a six-month period between November and April.  Take a look at our average rainfall by month at the vineyard:

Rainfall by month at Tablas Creek

During the six wet months, we get 92% of our annual rainfall and average 3.82" of rain per month.  If we were to extrapolate this to an annual basis, that's nearly 46" of rain, which you see in climates like New York City, Boston, Columbia MO, and Wilmington NC.  Seattle, by contrast, receives 38" per year.

If you look on the flip side at our six dry months, we average 0.35" of rain per month May-October.  On an annual basis, that's 4.14", slightly less than the city of Las Vegas (5") and slightly more than Lake Havasu, AZ (3.8").

How unusual is this rainfall distribution for a wine region?  Extremely.  Take a look at three regions in Europe.  First, Dijon, in the heart of Burgundy, which receives nearly the same amount of rainfall on an annual basis as we do, but with an almost-equal distribution each month (note that these graphs are all from the fascinating site climate-data.org, on which you can find similar information for thousands of locations around the globe):

Climate-graph-dijon

Maybe a more Mediterranean region like Tuscany?  The city of Florence sees about the same amount of rain we receive on an annual basis, and a distribution with slightly drier summers than winters, but nothing close to the degree we see here:

Climate-graph-florence

Chateauneuf du Pape is a better match still, though their two rainiest months are September-October:

Climate-graph-chateauneuf

In order to find an Old World rainfall distribution similar to ours, you have to go all the way into the Eastern Mediterranean. The Bekaa Valley in Lebanon would be a great match, if they only received 175% as much rain as they do:

Climate-grap-bekaah

OK, that was a lot of graphs.  But it's important, I think, if you're trying to wrap your head around the climate here in west Paso Robles, to pay just as much attention to the winters (wet) and nights (cold) as one does to the dry, hot summer days.  For visitors who come during the summer, the heat and dry landscape can make the cool green hillsides of winter seem like a mirage.  But they are two facets of this same climate: a climate in which massive oak trees grow draped with lichen, and in which dry-farmed grapevines can reach down 20 feet into limestone clay to pull out enough moisture to survive through five months of negligible precipitation.  As a bonus, it rarely rains during the harvest season, when the grapes are vulnerable.

Desert in the summer, and rain forest in the winter?  We'll take it. Even if it is hard to believe.


Talent in The Tasting Room; Q&A With Leslie Stuart

By Suphada Rom

Leslie Stuart, Tasting Room Lead and environmental advocate, is passionate about all that is Tablas Creek and what that means. What is it that makes her so special to all of us here at the vineyard? Read on.

Where were you born and raised?
I was born and raised in Mexico City. I'm the youngest of 4, and was born about 10 years after everyone else. I grew up in the north part of the city, which is more like a suburb and it has everything you could possibly need. I love Mexico City, it's a really cool place. It's very vibrant and full of culture. It's funny, during spring break I would actually beg my parents to stay in town instead of going somewhere because during that time, everyone who lives in the city goes to the coast. That's when there's less traffic and you can go anywhere in the city in half the time. 

Leslie mexico
 

So when did you first get into wine?
When I first moved to northwestern Mexico. In the county of Ensenada, there is a little wine region known as Valle de Guadalupe. At the time, I was working for an architect and she had a real estate development with a huge focus on wine. She hired me and from the beginning she said, "Here's the room that will be a wine store and you'll be in charge of it." So I was in charge of this wine shop, like starting it from zero. Everything from contacting winemakers, wineries, bringing new wines in, along with doing the marketing and advertising. I was just sort of thrown into the wine world and I fell in love with it!

How did you learn about Tablas Creek?
So, my husband Nathan (Tablas Creek's Shepherd) is from Paso, born and raised. Three years after we got married, we wanted to try out living up here. We would visit and I just loved how quaint it all was, especially the west side. We actually got engaged on one of the back roads out here in the Adelaida! When we were here and I was applying for my green card, I spent some time researching the local wineries to see where I could continue my career in the wine industry. Nathan suggested I look at Tablas Creek. I checked it out online and I fell in love with it. From everything I searched I thought to myself, "when I get my green card, I definitely going to apply to that place!" Then I came and interviewed, tasted the wines and I was like, "Oh my gosh!". I was hooked. I've been here since 2013 and I feel the same as I did when I first came- like, this is a place I can thrive. 

Maya and leslie

What is your role at here at the winery?
My role is a Tasting Room Lead. I help train and coordinate the great people we have working here sharing our wines and our story with our guests. Recently, I started a series of "Saturday Morning Talks" that take place about once a month for our tasting room staff. When we were smaller, these happened informally, but as we've gotten busier I thought it was important to make sure that we keep the conversation going between the people who make our wine and those of us who sell it. We started these monthly chats on Saturdays, basically so we can have someone from behind the scenes, like from our vineyard or cellar, to come to the tasting room and talk to our staff. Our tasting room staff is so enthusiastic and I was really excited to connect the front lines of our tasting room to the other workings within the winery and all the way out to the vineyard. People like our viticulturist Jordan, our winemaker Neil, and our shepherd Nathan have come and shared their passion for what they do here at Tablas Creek. They share a little bit about what's going on right now, a little bit about what they do, where we are currently as a winery, and a projection to where we're going to be. I think it's so important to link the two departments together- a little bit goes a long way!

What is your tasting room philosophy?
I think just being natural and not pretentious. Those are the two words that come to mind, and that's what I feel most comfortable being when I'm with people. Just being myself, and for the staff to be themselves, as well. When you have someone in front of you, I mean, they're tasting the wines that we are crafting here. When I'm talking, I try to plant a seed of excitement about us and about what we're doing here- and I think the only way we can accomplish that is by being easygoing and authentic. 

Leslie nathan maya

What is one of your favorite memories here?
Oh, there are so many! I think one of my favorite memories was a few years ago, when I was working in the office. There was a guy from the Brazil press that came to interview our founder, Bob. They were talking and tasting, and Bob requested that I come and pour wine for them during interview. I so enjoyed just being there, and watching how natural Bob is. He's so approachable and honest about the wine and the vineyard. Just seeing this amazing businessman sitting there being so humble and approachable was incredible.

When you're not working, what are you doing?
Ha! When, I'm not working, I like to work out and do yoga. I have two dogs, Maya and Jo, who also work with my husband, Nathan, on the Tablas Creek property. I love my family and we like to spend our evenings together. I love to cook, and for me, at the end of the day, even if it was long and stressful, I'll come home and cook something because I love it so much and actually, it gives me energy!

Yoga

Speaking of food and wine, do you have a favorite pairing?
My latest one was garden artichokes and our 2016 Vermentino. We steamed them and I made a creamy citrus-cashew dip to go with it. It was perfect with our Vermentino, and one of my favorite pairings. It was so nice, and we just sat and ate our dinner on the porch and enjoyed the sunset.

Besides Tablas Creek, do you have any other favorite wines/wineries?
Well this last Christmas, I went back to Ensenada to visit my friends and family- with friends, as well! Neil (TCV Winemaker) and his family joined Nathan and me, and we went wine tasting at our favorite places. There's a handful of wineries in Mexico that I love. One that comes to mind is Tres Mujeres- she makes awesome white wines, like Carignan Blanc- it's so good! There is this honesty about her wines that I really love.

How do you define success?
I think life is too short, and, to me, success is doing or pursuing the things that you are passionate about in life. And it might sound cliché but your destiny is not in the future, but your destiny is today. Deciding what you are going to do today to move within the freedom you have been given will lead to success.


One last gasp of winter amid spring's progress

Over the last week, we've seen what feels like the last gasp of winter.  Two storms have come through, the first dropping about an inch and a half of rain (a lot for April; our long-term average for the entire month is just 1.86") and a couple more are expected this and next week. We've had several other days with significant cloud cover, and two nights where we got down around freezing, though we think we escaped any damage to the new growth.  At the same time, the days are lengthening and the sun is warm, the vines have all come out of dormancy, and we're getting the cover crop turned under where the animals weren't able to do it for us. It's a point in time where the view in any given vineyard block changes daily.  A few photos will give you a sense.  First, one taken on Friday 4/7, during our rainy day, with the cover crop and vines a mix of winter green/brown and summer gold/green:

Misty April 2017

In the areas where the animals last grazed in February (or earlier) the grasses are knee-high and starting to turn gold. This view, with high grass and new growth, is going to be short-lived, as we need to bring the cover crop under control for a variety of reasons.  The winter's heavy rain and its associated risk of erosion are largely in the rear-view mirror. With our always-dry summer on its way, we want to eliminate the vines' competition for the soil's available water. Returning the cover crop to the soil renews the earth's fertility and provides nutrients for the vines to draw on the rest of the year. Finally, it's important to knock down the cover crop to allow the cooler air at the surface to drain downhill rather than having it pool around the vines and cause frost damage. From the head-trained, dry-farmed "Scruffy Hill" block yesterday:

Scruffy Hill April 2017 2

Within a few weeks, all this growth will be turned under and decomposing in the topsoil, while the vines begin their trek toward harvest.  Last April 27th, I spent a morning taking photos on Scruffy Hill.  The difference from the photo above is dramatic, but not likely much different from what you'll see in two weeks:

Scruffy long view

The April rainfall pushed us over 40" and made this winter our second-rainiest ever.  We still have a chance to catch 2004-5, which at 42.85" is our wettest since we installed our weather station in 1996:

Rainfall by winter as of 2017

And yes, if you were wondering, the 2017 vintage is underway. The Grenache vines on Scruffy Hill already have tiny flower clusters forming:

Flower clusters April 2017

I'm sure we'll be sharing many photos in coming weeks and months of the new growth and the 2017 growing season. This is where it all begins.


Picture Tells a Thousand Words: Animal Edition

We are just finishing the time of year in which we can safely have our animal herd out in the vineyard. With the continued progression of budbreak, even our latest-sprouting grapes are starting to push buds. Leaves are not far behind. So, we've moved the animals to two vine-free sections of the property: the new parcel on the other side of Tablas Creek, and a smaller area in the middle of the vineyard where we pulled out some struggling Syrah and Roussanne vines, and which we are letting lie fallow this summer.

Still, it's not hard to see the impact of the animals on the blocks in which they spent time, particularly at the fence lines which mark the dividers between grazed and ungrazed areas. I snapped a photo of one of these borders yesterday, halfway up the hill of Mourvedre that's behind the winery:

FullSizeRender-7

Five days ago, the entire hillside looked like the prairie. Now, the bottom dozen rows (beginning at the middle of the frame above) look like they've been neatly mowed. It took the animals just two days to graze their enclosure down to a few inches. They spread manure throughout the block. And we didn't have to use an ounce of fuel or a single tractor pass to accomplish either goal.

This is the second time this winter that this block has been grazed by our flock; we moved them down the hillside in January. So, even the tall grass on the uphill side of the fence line is regrowth after an initial grazing, fueled in part by the fertilizer left behind on the animals' first pass.

It is this efficiency -- that we can use natural processes instead of artificial ones -- that makes Biodynamics so appealing. We're creating a more complete, more resilient ecosystem by building biodiversity, and saving ourself the costs (and side-effects) of having to buy (and spread) fertilizer, and of having to drive through the vineyard (and compact the soil with a tractor) mowing. The other benefits -- better water retention, no erosion, more topsoil, and the occasional lamb chop -- just tilt the cost/benefit calculation further in the right direction.

I drive by a few vineyards each day on my way into work whose soils look dead. Between the herbicides they use to keep weed growth down and the soil compaction created by the tractor work, even this winter's ample rainfall couldn't make grasses grow. The difference between soils like that and what you see above couldn't be plainer. Do you think this difference will impact the grapes that grow there, and the wines that result? You bet it will.