Two months ago, I was worried. January, normally our coldest month of the year, had seen only four nights drop below freezing. After one decent storm on January 8th and 9th, the rest of the month was dry, leaving us at just 20% of normal rainfall by month-end. We ended the month with a week of sunny days, each topping out in the mid-70s. The beginning of February was more of the same: ten days of sun in a row, each topping out between 75 and 81, with lows dropping down only into the 40s. I was worried we'd see our vines start to sprout in February, setting the growing season off to an unprecedentedly early start and leaving us an unconscionably long period of frost risk.
Thankfully, mid-February brought a change in the weather pattern. Although the second half of the month remained dry (the 0.28" of rain is just 6% of what we'd expect from our second-wettest month) it got cold. We finished February with ten straight frosty nights, all but one dropping into the 20s. Only one of those days made it out of the 50s. And then, in March, it began to rain. We've seen fifteen days this month with measurable precipitation, totaling 11.94" for the month and bringing us to 16.54" for the winter, roughly 75% of what we would expect on this date. The vineyard has transformed, green cover crop springing from the ground as though it was making up for lost time. Now that we've passed the spring equinox and are in the middle of a week of sunny, increasingly warm weather, it's not surprising that I saw the first signs of bud break when I got out into the vineyard yesterday. Our viticulturist Jordan Lonborg provided photographic evidence with a photo of a sprouting Viognier vine this morning:
Budbreak, as you probably guessed from the name, is the period when the grapevine buds swell and burst into leaf. It is the first marker in the growing cycle, a point when we can compare the current season to past years. Upcoming markers will include flowering, veraison, first harvest, and last harvest. And like harvest, budbreak doesn't happen for every grape simultaneously. Early grapes like Viognier, Grenache Blanc, and Vermentino tend to go first, followed by Grenache and Syrah, then later Marsanne and Picpoul, and finally, often a month after the earliest grapes sprouted, Roussanne, Counoise, and Mourvedre. And it really is just starting. Even Grenache, typically on the early side, was fully dormant everywhere except the very tops of the hills:
2017: Mid-March 2016: Very end of February 2015: Second week of March 2014: Mid-March 2013: First week of April 2012: Mid-April 2011: First week of April 2010: Last week of March 2009: Second week of April 2008: Last week of March 2007: First week of April
The timing of our cold and our rain was pretty much ideal. Grapevines (and all deciduous plants) pay the most attention to soil temperatures in deciding when to come out of dormancy. And wet soils retain cold better than warm soils. The double dose we received of cold and wet meant that despite the lengthening days, the vines' most important sensors were telling them that winter was still in effect, and sprouting would be a risk. And, in fact, budbreak does begin our white-knuckle season, since while dormant vines can freeze without danger, new growth is susceptible to frost damage. April frosts cost us roughly 40% of our production in both 2009 and 2011, and we don't feel truly safe until mid-May. So, we've still got more than a month to go before we can relax, and it will be a few weeks before our later-sprouting varieties and our lower-lying (read: more frost-prone) areas are out enough to be at risk.
But in general, if you could design a favorable winter weather pattern, it would look a lot like what we've seen recently. We'd ask for regular frosts and rain through the end of March, and then a switch to a warm, dry pattern thereafter. While we're always grateful for rain, since frosts tend to follow in the wake of frontal passages, the precipitation you get in spring storms isn't worth the risk of frost damage. And the current long-term forecast calls for the high pressure system that has dominated our area this week, bringing sun and increasingly warm days, to persist for a while.
That's just fine with us. Now that the first vines have begun to sprout, we'll see the scene in the vineyard change rapidly. Please join me in welcoming the 2018 vintage.
It is with sadness that I write to report that my dad, Tablas Creek's co-founder Robert Haas, passed away last weekend, one month before his 91st birthday. Followers of Tablas Creek likely know him from his time here at the winery, either at events like our blending seminars, or from his articles on this blog. He was a regular presence at Tablas Creek well into his tenth decade.
What many of you may not know is the impact he had on the American wine market before Tablas Creek ever got off the ground, or what he was like as a person. I hope to share some of each of these in this piece, as well as some of my favorite photos of him. And we may as well start here, from his 89th birthday party two Aprils ago:
My dad was born in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn on April 18th, 1927. His father Sidney ran a gourmet butcher shop named M. Lehmann that he had inherited from his uncle Morris Lehmann. My dad would talk about going to visit his grandparents and walking over to Ebbets Field, and would remain a Dodgers fan for life. One of my favorite gifts I ever got for him was a ball signed by Sandy Koufax. Small but strong and quick, he also played baseball and was a good enough shortstop to get an invitation to an open Dodgers tryout from a scout while he was in high school, and a good enough athlete to win summer camp tennis tournaments despite never really playing the sport.
After the repeal of prohibition Sidney was on the ball enough to get New York's first retail liquor license, and turned M. Lehmann into a liquor store and eventually New York's top fine wine shop. Meanwhile my grandparents had moved to Scarsdale, NY, in the suburbs, and my dad had gained a sister, my aunt Adrienne. After high school, he followed in his grandfather's footsteps and went to Yale, but interrupted his studies and enlisted in the Navy in December of 1944. After two years in the Navy, he returned to Yale, graduated class of 1950, and joined his father's business.
While there, he convinced his father -- who thought no one would ever pay for wine before they could take possession of it -- to put out the first-ever futures offer on Bordeaux, commissioning hand-colored lithographs describing the qualities of the 1952 vintage and selling out the 1500 cases he had reserved in just a few weeks. When the store was looking for a new buyer for their French wine after the death of Raymond Baudouin in 1953, my dad and his two years of college French jumped at the opportunity. His goal on this first French trip in 1954 was ostensibly to find a new wine buyer. But I've always gotten the sense from him that he decided quickly that there was no way anyone but him was going to do that job. I asked him just a few weeks ago if that was true, and he responded "Yes, I pretty much knew at the end of my first day that this was what I wanted to do". So, at age 27, he became M. Lehmann's wine buyer, and soon after started cultivating relationships with distributors in other states, so he could be a better customer for the suppliers whose wines he was buying. Meanwhile, he had married, and had his first two children, my sister Janet and brother Danny.
It was in this period that he cemented his relationships with many of the Burgundy suppliers who are still crown jewels of the Vineyard Brands import book: iconic estates like Domaine Gouges, Mongeard-Mugneret, Domaine Ponsot, and Dauvissat. He also agreed to buy the lion's share of the production of Chateau Lafite and Chateau Petrus after their British agents balked at a price increase for the iconic 1961 vintage, and represented them exclusively over the next decade.
His relationship with my grandfather was not always smooth. I know there was tension where my grandfather wanted him to spend more time minding the store, and less time traveling around France buying wine and around America selling it. Sidney was at heart a merchant, not a wine lover. I believe he thought my dad would settle down at some point, and was surprised that when he announced that he was ready to retire, my dad suggested he sell M. Lehmann and my dad would take the contacts he'd made and turn them into an importing business. But neither backed down, and that's what happened. After an initial ill-fated sale to one of its employees, the rival Sherry Wine & Spirits bought M. Lehmann and merged the two to become Sherry-Lehmann Wine & Spirits, which remains one of New York's iconic wine shops to this day.
The late 1960s was a difficult period for my dad in a few ways. He was a one-man show, often advocating for wine in a market that didn't yet value it. He worked for a few years to build a wine division within Barton Brands, who had bought the inventory from my grandfather's import company, before he realized that they were so much more interested in liquor that getting them to focus on wine was hopeless. And his first marriage had ended, although he did meet my mom not long after, on a flight back to New York from Florida. When my mom Barbara first visited his apartment, she remembers the entire contents of his fridge being a few condiments and a bottle of vodka. A photo from their wedding, in January 1968:
It was in this period that he first met Jacques Perrin and convinced him to sell him some wine from the Beaucastel cellar. [The remarkable story where I found one of these bottles on the legendary wine list at Bern's Steak House is told in full in one of my favorite-ever blog posts, from 2012]. He built upon this relationship with Jacques' son Jean-Pierre, with whom he developed the La Vieille Ferme brand. From a beginning of a few hundred cases, sold as an exclusive to Sherry-Lehmann in 1970, it is now the largest French wine brand in the world. In the end he decided to set up shop on his own, first in New York and then, when they got tired of city living, from the converted barn of the 1806 Vermont farmhouse to which they moved in 1970. He incorporated Vineyard Brands in 1973, the same year that I was born. This photo of Jacques (left) and my dad is from that very same year, which I know because there's also a photo of me, age 5 months, sitting on Jacques' lap from the same visit.
Through the 1970s and 1980s, he balanced additions to the estate side of Vineyard Brands with new brands, championing Rioja (Marques de Caceres), Chile (Santa Rita), and New Zealand (Villa Maria). He also had his second daughter and fourth child, my sister Rebecca, and was active in the Chester, Vermont community, serving on the school board and as a little league coach. Long-time employees of Vineyard Brands still remember us coming back to the house in uniform as they were getting ready for dinner.
He was not infallible in his business judgments; he had an ongoing tendency to be ahead of the market, championing regions that are now critical darlings like Beaujolais, Languedoc, and Oregon a decade or longer before the market was ready to accept them. But he had a terrific nose for regions or wines that were punching above their cost, and was willing to put in the work to establish regions and producers at the same time.
This instinct was on full view in California, where he represented some of the greats of the first generation in Napa and Sonoma, like Kistler, Joseph Phelps, Chappellet, Spring Mountain, and Clos du Val in the 1970s, and he helped launch Sonoma-Cutrer in the 1980s as the California Chardonnay wave was gathering. When he was in California with Jean-Pierre Perrin or his brother Francois, he would bring them to visit California wineries to see what they thought, and they together came away both convinced that California was capable of making world-class wines and confused as to why no one was trying Rhone varieties in the clearly Mediterranean climate. Abstract discussions in the mid-1970s gradually became more serious, and they decided to start looking for property together in 1985, even as each was fully engaged in growing their own businesses. This photo of my dad with Jean-Pierre and Francois at Beaucastel is from around that time:
I first became aware that my dad was a big deal in certain circles when I read an article ("Have Palate, Will Travel") in a 1988 edition of the Wine Spectator. The photo below, which is one of my favorites of him, must have been from the same photo session, since he's wearing the same outfit. He's leaning against the gate of one of the gardens at our Vermont house. He hadn't yet started to step back from the day-to-day operations at Vineyard Brands, but he would soon, to focus on Tablas Creek:
By the early 1990's, my dad had turned over the running of Vineyard Brands to his second-in-command there, and the relationships with the French suppliers to my brother Danny. How he did so says a lot about him. He saw an ad in the Boston Globe about a seminar promoting a new federal program called an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) which could be used to turn a business over to its employees. And that's what he did: in essence, Vineyard Brands bought itself from him, and is now owned by its employees. This has allowed the company to remain independent, to continue to grow and thrive after my dad's retirement, and to enjoy a continuity and longevity from its team that is almost unheard of in this age. There are still significant portions of the senior leadership of Vineyard Brands that were hired by my dad, more than 25 years ago. And my dad was able to take the money and invest it in Tablas Creek.
The search to find Tablas Creek and the development of the property here is likely better known to readers of this blog, but I think the same willingness to be ahead of the curve was in evidence in the decision to settle on Paso Robles at a time when few people were talking about it, and the focus on blends when the marketplace was firmly oriented toward varietals. But in both cases, he was convinced that what mattered was the right raw materials (soils, climate, rainfall) and the right winemaking decisions. The rest was simply a question of perseverance. The photo of the ceremonial planting of the first vines released from quarantine in 1992 shows (from left) Jean-Pierre Perrin, my cousin Jim O'Sullivan, my mom and dad, Charlie Falk (who worked for my dad at Vineyard Brands and then helped with the search for Tablas Creek), Charlie's wife Gretchen Buntschuh, and Jean-Pierre's wife Bernadette Perrin.
As Tablas Creek grew from an idea into a business, it encountered many of the challenges faced by any startup. We overestimated the readiness of the market for the blends we were making, and underestimated the importance of taking an active role in our own marketing. But the fundamental idea that my dad and the Perrins had was a good one, and this spot has turned out to be an extraordinary one in which to grow Rhone grape varieties. And because of my dad's business philosophy -- that you make your best guess at what you need to do, put the resources behind it, and then be willing to adjust your strategy based on what you learn -- we were able to make the changes that eventually allowed Tablas Creek to thrive.
Perhaps most important to Tablas Creek's legacy will end up being the partners' decision to bring in grapevine cuttings rather than live with what was already in California, and to make the clones we'd imported available to the community. More than 600 vineyards and wineries around the United States use Tablas Creek cuttings, and my dad was always convinced that our decision to bring in vines spurred the reversal of a long-standing policy by ENTAV (the French national nursery service) against partnering with out-of-country nurseries. This policy change has led to the import of hundreds of new varieties and clones, and a new flowering of diversity in American grapegrowing, Rhone and otherwise.
My dad maintained an active role at Tablas Creek up until the very end. I often heard from his friends that they thought that his passion for this project kept him young, and I believe that. In the period in the mid-2000's when we were pushing to establish Tablas Creek in the market, he was out there (in his 70's and 80's, mind you), riding around with our distributors, making presentations to restaurants and retailers, up and down subway steps during the day and hosting dinners and tastings in the evening. A quiet retirement this was not. But he was always willing to put his own effort behind the things he believed in, and if this was what needed to be done, he was going to do it. And the example of the Perrins, who are now on their fifth generation running their estate, is an inspiring one for all of us. The photo below, from 2009, shows my dad at lower left, and then (continuing counter-clockwise) me, Francois Perrin, Francois' son Cesar, and our winemaker Neil Collins, who has been here so long he might as well be family. It's not only in Vineyard Brands that the longevity of the employees my dad hired is in evidence; it's a hallmark of every business he's been a part of.
By the early 2010s, my dad had cut back a little but was still coming into the vineyard 3-4 days per week, and had stopped going out and working the market but was still hosting 4-6 wine dinners a year around the country. He led the 2015 Tablas Creek Rhone River Cruise with my mom. And he was starting to be recognized as the living icon that he was. One of the nicest windows I got into how others saw him was in the production and ceremony for the lifetime achievement award he received from the Rhone Rangers in 2014. The video incorporated his story with interviews with many of the wine industry titans whose lives and careers he impacted. I've been re-watching it a lot this week.
In the last few years, my dad's health issues escalated; he endured a stroke 18 months ago, and wasn't able to be at the vineyard as much. But he and my mom still maintained an active role in the community, and he continued his work with the Foundation for the Performing Arts Center, in San Luis Obispo. In 2009, he he created a new "winery partners" program for the Foundation that has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to support arts in our local community. He continued to lead this program until last year, and asked at the end that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the foundation.
As he did with the rest of his life, he knew what he did and didn't want for his death. He wanted to be at home, he wanted to have family around, and he didn't want a fuss made. So last week, as it became clear that the end was near, my siblings flew out and joined my mom and me here in Paso Robles. He was lucid until Friday evening, and peaceful at the end. And I will forever be grateful for the time I got to spend with him, not just at the end, not just growing up, but in working with him for the last fifteen years. It's not every son who gets to know his dad as an adult, and gets to see him through the eyes of others who know him professionally. Hearing, over the last few days, from all the people whose lives he impacted over his long life and career, has been an unexpected treat in this difficult time. Thank you to everyone who has reached out. We will all miss him.
As many of you know, most small to medium sized wineries' businesses are only as successful as their wine clubs. They form the backbone of the direct to consumer sales that allow vineyards to thrive, and their members, if a club is done well, become advocates for the winery out in the world. A huge -- but often unseen -- component of a wine club's success is the team of people who oversee their club. They are the point people in customer service and often sales, and familiar faces or voices when members visit, phone, or open their inbox.
With that in mind, I'd like to introduce you to Dani Archambeault, one of our Wine Club Assistants here at Tablas for the last seven years. As a part of the power group of awe-inspiring ladies who make our wine club the great experience it is for its members, Dani is one of the more dynamic people you will ever meet. She knows Tablas Creek wine like nobody's business and whether you meet her at the winery, at an event, or on the parquet lanes of our local bowling alley, she's someone you'll never forget. If you come out for a visit, you will find her fielding calls in the office or dashing back and forth getting your wine orders together.
Where were you born and raised?
Porterville, CA… my father owned a Pest Management Company for Orchards & Vineyards.
When and how did you get into wine?
Not until my late twenties… I started on some Aussie Yellow Tail wines!
How did you come across Tablas Creek?
In 2010 my husband & I took a leap of faith & left the LA area hustle & bustle & headed for Paso Robles wine country. We lived in our Airstream trailer in a vineyard while working harvest & tasting room jobs. I had heard so many great things about Tablas Creek and as soon as an opportunity to work here became available I went for it! Everything about Tablas is truly exceptional… from the vineyard, the wines, the staff, and the Haas family’s passion for quality and sustainability.
What is your role here at the winery?
For the last seven years I have worked with our Wine Club Team. Our club continues to grow & we work hard to ensure everyone receives outstanding customer service.
Which are your other favorite wines or wineries locally or around the world?
My husband pulls a brisket off the smoker, I open a Tablas Creek Tannat or En Gobelet, our kids are running around the backyard screaming…. Perfect pairing =)
You and your husband Kevin have dabbled in winemaking before, any advice to aspiring winemakers?
We only make a small amount of wine every few years that we use to help raise funds for some charity projects that our close to our hearts. We love to drink wine, so being a part of the entire process is so much fun and you appreciate what’s in that bottle on a whole new level!
How do you like to spend your days off?
We live very close to downtown Paso, so we love walking downtown and enjoying where we live. Paso Robles is a great small town community where ‘everybody knows your name’ (insert cheesy Cheers song- ha!)
What would people be surprised to know about you?
There are five siblings in my family. I am the only one without a tattoo! Occasionally I get tempted by the cute butterfly or fairy… but at this point I’ve got to stay unique & in the lead as mom’s favorite!
What is one of your favorite memories here?
My favorite times at Tablas are when we share a meal together outside. Wine is such an experience, when you have amazing wine & people, & a beautiful vineyard surrounding you.. can’t beat that, right!?
How do you define success?
Live your life with faith & purpose. Count your blessings daily, don’t totally freak out in the hard times, & love the people around you dearly…. That’s success!
He strolls into my office, bright and bushy-eyed with his dilapidated Yeti in hand, no doubt on his fourth or fifth cup considering he’s been up with the sun. His stained brown Carhartts do little to hide the evidence of our lambing season that is currently going on here at Tablas Creek Vineyard. As intrigued as I am, I dare not ask about the exact origins of the stains because after all, I myself am barely through my first cup. Maya, one of his Border Collies, slinks in and flops down upon my feet. Already this is an interview I can get behind.
Nathan Stuart is our shepherd here at Tablas Creek, and one of the central figures in our recent co-branding with outdoor retail giant Patagonia Inc. We all know them for their unparalleled wizardry with all things fleece and Goretex, but they also represent something far beyond climbing gear and backcountry men with a penchant for beards.
Not only is Patagonia a leading example on sustainable, green business practices with their Footprint and Worn Wear programs, but they are also one of the leading corporate voices in the fight for preserving our lands for generations to come.
They are known for radical moves such as donating 100% of their Black Friday sales to grassroots nonprofits ($10 million in 2016 alone). And their recent fight with the federal government on behalf of our national parks. The fact that they are a B Corp -- a for-profit company that is using the power of business to solve social or environmental problems -- says a lot. Their mission statement is "Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis."
You could say we’re fans.
Late last year, we became one of the companies in the United States that Patagonia has been willing to co-brand with. Co-branding happens when two brands agree to join forces to share a product indicative of both their identities. Upon learning this, I was eager to unpack what the process was that led to this move by both our companies, as well as why we were chosen to be one of the companies to share brands on their gear and be able to resell it in our tasting room. I can also safely say, the Tablas crew has never looked more dashing battling the frosty morning winters here in Paso.
Basically it all boils down to two words: carbon sequestration.
If that phrase makes you scratch your head as much as it did me, have no fear because that is where our indomitable shepherd Nathan comes in, along with our Viticulturist and resident vine whisperer Jordan Lonborg to explain the science behind it. But first, some context.
Since our inception, Tablas Creek has made it a priority to farm with as positive an environmental impact as possible. We have been organic since the day our first rootstock touched the soil and certified Demeter biodynamic as of last year. As Nathan says in his characteristically blunt way, “at Tablas we were organic before it was popular. We’re certified biodynamic which is just taking that to the next level. We’re holding ourselves to a higher accountability and pushing to create something that goes beyond us.”
Our flock of some two-hundred sheep and alpacas, plus a llama and donkey or two, is the core of our vineyard's holistic management program. According to Nathan, "holistic management encompasses organic, biodynamic, mob grazing, rotational and regenerative grazing, and asks how we can best benefit the land. We use varied processes depending on the acres, so we are responding directly to the land and listen to what it needs from us to build the relationship." The sheep are moved every couple days to a new section of the vineyard, where they fertilize and till the soil, providing nutrients for our vines and controlling weeds. "The way we manage the sheep on our land is attempting to mimic the buffalo of the plains in centuries past" Nathan continues. The American plains were amongst the most fertile soils in the world, massive repositories of organic carbon, and the rotational grazing provided naturally by the vast, moving herds of American buffalo were a large part of why.1
While our grazing plan falls into Nathan’s sheepish hands, the care of the vines themselves is the responsibility of Jordan Lonborg, our Viticulturist. Upon joining the Tablas family in 2016, one of Jordy's first goals was to move forward with biodynamic certification. He broke down the soil and vine management in a way that didn’t leave my right-oriented brain spinning:
"We are creating a self-sustaining ecosystem right on the property. In order to do this we need to maintain the balance of the land. All of our grape skins, stems, and vine prunings are incorporated into our massive compost program and are returned to the soil on a yearly basis. We capture native bee swarms on the property and raise them to assist in pollination of our cover crops. There are large swaths of beneficial insect gardens planted throughout the vineyard to attract predatory insects, as well as providing a source of nectar and pollen for the honey bees in this arid climate. We also have an ever increasing raptor program on our acres as well. To enhance biodiversity we plant at least one fruit tree for every acre of grapevines on the ranch. Most importantly, we employ a group of 8-10 people throughout the entire year for vineyard work rather than hire random crews for labor as we need them. Our footprint is already smaller than most in this industry and we only plan on continuing to make moves to decrease it.”
So how do regenerative grazing and bee swarms and all these holistic processes tie into carbon sequestration? Carbon sequestration is the process of capturing atmospheric carbon dioxide and storing it in another form to help slow or reverse the accumulation of greenhouse gases, the vast majority of which are released by the burning of fossil fuels. Soil that is treated with anthropogenic fertilizers or pesticides is not able to accumulate or break down the organic matter that holistic soils can. Organic matter equals carbon in the soil, rather than the atmosphere. And there are other benefits. In Nathan's words: "Soil holds carbon. Carbon holds water. So if we hold more carbon in the soil instead of the atmosphere, we’re pulling more water out of the air. And water vapor is another greenhouse gas. Think of it like a holistic raindance if you will, which is attempting to slow the heating of our climate. The carbon is in the wrong place at the wrong time and we’re working on doing what we can to set us on the right path once again." Carbon sequestration is the key, ultimately, to reversing the most critical environmental impacts of the industrial revolution, and is the ultimate goal of the new wave of sustainable agriculture.
A short video that Nathan referred me to called The Soil Story by Kiss the Ground proved to be immensely insightful. Kiss the Ground is a nonprofit working on creating greater public engagement with the pervasive issue of global soil restoration. And not to mention their graphics guy has some serious skills.
Between our holistic approach to vineyard management and Patagonia's stalwart belief in the fundamental importance of sustainable green business practices, the co-branding is something we can all be proud of. When I asked Jordy why he thought the Patagonia co-branding made sense he replied,
"When it comes down to it, it’s about trying to be the best stewards of the land we could possibly be. I think that’s the bottom line of both companies, obviously there’s a profitability side to it and everyone’s got to be able to run a business and make money, but that’s not the reason we come to work everyday. We use our position in the wine industry to shed light on important sustainability processes. And in the end we do spend more money than most wineries to achieve that stewardship and I think Patagonia’s probably right along the same path."
Leslie Castillo, our Tasting Room Team Lead as well as the wife of our shepherd Nathan, and avid reader of everything Yvon Chouinard, was our point woman in reaching out and building our relationship with Patagonia. “I 100% believe in what we do here at the vineyard with our wines, and so I also wanted to start working with people and companies that are like-minded, people that care about the planet in an intentional way and not just for marketing. I see that in Patagonia.”
She, along with all of us here at Tablas who strive to uphold the ideals we think a business should embody, are fortified all the more by the decision to co-brand with a company such as Patagonia.
We are merely two companies amongst thousands in our respective fields. But we each try to do our part individually. If we can work together to accomplish more, we should.
Here at Tablas Creek it’s been a busy start to 2018. With winter pruning almost over and bottling season well under way, the vineyard and cellar have been a constant hive of motion. Not to mention preparing our spring wine club shipments for release in mid-March as well (pro-tip: the Vermentino this year is insane). But maybe most exciting development is a new way to experience our wines in our tasting room; with a seated flight tasting.
For a long time, the tasting room experience didn't change much. You belly up to the bar, your server gives you a little history of the winery and pours you the first wine, and you move on down the tasting list. Some wineries offer you the ability to customize the list, or ask you to pick a few from a larger selection. But the basic experience stayed more or less the same. Sometimes, that's exactly what you want: a chance to taste through a range of wines, to chat with a knowledgeable pourer, and to learn a little about the history and background of the winery you're visiting.
But for a while now we've felt that we wanted to also offer a more in-depth, more focused experience. I asked Jason Haas what his thinking was and here's how he explained it:
"Wine is enriched by context. What I mean by that is that wines, at their best, provide a window into the place and year in which they were grown, and into the people who made them. One of the best ways to learn about wines is to be able to go back and forth between two or three wines that share something in common -- maybe a grape, maybe a vintage, maybe a winemaking treatment -- and use what's similar about the wines to highlight what is different. That's rarely possible in a standard tasting room setting, because you're tasting the wines in sequence. We're excited to start offering flight tastings, which include multiple vintages of our Esprit de Tablas wines, to give our guests the opportunity to experience Tablas Creek's wines in a more curated environment."
Flights are nothing new to the wine world, but it was important for us to not lose our personal touch that is part of our tasting room’s pouring style. We spent last six weeks remodeling the smaller tasting room (to the left, as you walk in) into the chamber that it is now, with three small tables for two or four people, and one larger communal table for groups of up to eight. Not only are you seated at your leisure but you also have a full hour to contemplate, compare, and contrast the six wines we will place in front of you. For the warmer months to come we also have the option for you to enjoy your flight outside on a private patio, to better appreciate that California sun from the safety of our veranda.
To start, we've designed three separate flights for you: a Classic, a Reds-only, and a Whites-only. Each was created in order to highlight not only our Rhone blends but also some of the smaller production and wine club wines that we produce.
The three-vintage vertical of our flagship Esprit that you can see in the reds-only flight had me particularly purring.
Although we will be pouring you your flight at the outset of your tasting, and we have prepared detailed folios with everything from the history of the winery to how the wines were made, this doesn't mean you'll be left on your own. The dedicated hosts in our new flight room will act as your guide through the experience, adding context and background, answering questions, and customizing your wines based on what you're most interested in seeing. Don’t be surprised if he or she pulls up a chair at one point or another!
Reservations are strongly recommended, although if we have free space available we will do our best to accommodate walk-ins. Flight tastings are $25 per person ($10 for wine club members), fee waived with a $75 purchase. Because of our seating constraints, this experience is limited to groups of 8 or fewer. For more information or to reserve a time, go to tablascreek.com/visiting and if you have questions, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you've had similar experiences you've loved at other wineries, please let us know in the comments. We're actively soliciting ideas and feedback.
About a month ago, Mark Zuckerberg announced (in a Facebook post, of course) that Facebook would be revising the algorithm that decides what its users see in their news feeds. In an effort to make users' experience on the platform more positive, they decided that they would show more posts from friends -- particularly those that generated comments -- and fewer posts from brands and organizations, particularly posts that generated link clicks rather than comments. The exact wording:
I'm changing the goal I give our product teams from focusing on helping you find relevant content to helping you have more meaningful social interactions.
We started making changes in this direction last year, but it will take months for this new focus to make its way through all our products. The first changes you'll see will be in News Feed, where you can expect to see more from your friends, family and groups.
As we roll this out, you'll see less public content like posts from businesses, brands, and media. And the public content you see more will be held to the same standard -- it should encourage meaningful interactions between people.
So, what have we noticed? There seems to be a small decline in reach of our posts, at whatever level of engagement we achieve, since an inflection point in early February where we noticed a few posts that we expected to be shown to a large audience achieve smaller reach. So, I broke down what we've seen so far in February compared to what we saw in January. For modest-engagement posts (those that between 6.6% and 8.5% of our fans interact with) the percentage of our fans who see these posts has declined 13.4%, from an average of 1287 of our roughly 9100 fans to 1114. For high-engagement posts (those with between 8.6% and 10.5% engagement) we've seen a decline of 11.1%, from an average audience of 1734 fans to 1450. And for very high-engagement posts (those with 10.6% engagement or better) we've seen a 20.4% decline, from an average audience of 2239 to 1770. That's significant but hardly catastrophic. It's perhaps easier to see in graphical form:
What's more, brands and organizations are is still in better position than in 2015, when I wrote a blog Is Facebook Even Worth It Any More? after our reach had dropped nearly in half since late 2013. Combining the data that I pulled then with what we see now, you see a graph that is more encouraging, and suggests that Facebook's algorithm writers realized that their actions in 2015 were too dramatic:
So, where does this leave wineries, organizations, and other businesses that rely on Facebook? Not that different than where we were before. Our options remain:
Work to produce especially engaging content. If there is one thing that was true with "old" Facebook and remains true in this new era, it's that it will reward good content. It's worth keeping an eye on what sort of content the platform's coders decide is good, as this has changed over time. But from Zuckerberg's own post, it seems likely that producing content that people comment on and which engages them in a discussion, rather than content that people click on to take them outside the platform, will be rewarded.
Share links from sites Facebook respects as credible. If you are sharing links, pay attention to the source. Facebook has clearly been sensitized to the criticism that they served to disseminate dubious (and polarizing) posts during the 2016 election, and they are making an effort to weed out unreliable or misleading content. It has seemed to us (though our sample size is small enough that I would treat this cautiously) that Facebook is showing links to blogs less than links to mainstream newspapers and magazines. It would be logical for this split to continue.
Continue to invest in video. We've only posted a couple of video posts this year, but they continue to be shown to a larger audience than an image or link post that receives the same engagement. If you are able to post Facebook Live videos they receive even more of a bump. It's important to note that videos have to be uploaded directly onto the Facebook platform (rather than sharing a link to YouTube or Vimeo) to receive this bump. In fact, given that Facebook perceives these other companies as competitors, it's unsurprising that links to these other video platforms are some of Fecebook's least-shown posts, in our experience.
Build and use your email lists. Facebook (and social media in general) has never been a particularly effective platform for spurring immediate action. Announcing a sale or a special offer typically gets very low engagement. It's a famously ineffective way of promoting events. Instead, its impact is more subtle: you build mind-share, and keep your customers more engaged to your business or service. That shows up in the long run in loyalty, but it's exactly that: a long game. Email outreach, on the other hand, is still the most effective way of turning contacts into customers. And those contacts are yours, whatever the ebbs, flows, and algorithm changes of the various platforms. If your focus is in adding people to your Facebook or Twitter fan base rather than to your email lists, I would suggest you reconsider.
Be prepared to pay periodically. Even at relatively modest levels, doing so gives you much greater access to your fans and to those who you target, whether they be friends of your fans or others that fit specific demographics or interests. We've paid to promote three posts so far this year, and have had these posts served something like 2800 extra times for each $20 we've spent. Given that our average post is reaching something like 1400 of our fans organically, if we were to choose to promote one post a week, at $20/post, we might be able increase the total number of views of our content by 33% at an annual cost of around $1000. That's hardly exorbitant.
Don't put all your eggs in Facebook's basket. In the conclusion to my 2013 piece on the changes Facebook announced then, I observed that it was really Facebook's sandbox at that point. After dispensing with Myspace and blowing past Twitter in user base and revenue, their position looked secure. It looks less so now. Instagram (which is, of course, owned by Facebook) now has over 800 million active users. Youtube has 1.5 billion. And they are far from the only options out there. Though both remain smaller than Facebook, which has 2.2 billion users worldwide, the demographics of both skew younger and both are growing fast. Should you abandon Facebook and focus on other social media platforms? I definitely don't think so. But neither would I invest in it exclusively.
It's worth noting that Facebook is always a moving target, and these changes only make it more important to keep up on your own analytics data. I fully expect there to be additional changes implemented throughout 2018 and beyond. If February's one month decline in reach of roughly 15% is compounded the next several months, I'll be singing a different tune. But for now, it's not time to panic. It's time to make great content.
Although we're all worried about the lack of rain, there is a more pressing concern. While December 2017 was very cold, with 20 frost nights, 2018 has been much warmer. January saw only five nights drop below freezing, and until two nights ago, February had seen zero, and 10 days in a row topped out at 75°F or higher. A February 8th Wines & Vines article on very early budbreak in Ojai sent many of the Central Coast winery folks I know scurrying, asking neighbors if they'd seen any signs of the same in their necks of the woods.
So, Sunday night's chilly weather, and the forecast for a week of frosty nights, was a relief to us all.
What a relief to have a nice frosty morning here in Paso Robles after three weeks of unusually warm winter weather. pic.twitter.com/3Y5uquznVx
Why would we worry more about the unusual warmth than the unusual dryness? Well, too much more warmth and we would be looking at budbreak in February, which would be the earliest we'd ever seen. And early budbreak puts us at increased risk of damage from spring frosts, which can come as late as early May. A bad frost typically costs us something like 40% of our production. It's been a while since our last bad frost -- 2011 was our most recent, with other similarly bad ones in 2009 and 2001 -- but I'm not anxious to repeat the experience. While a dry winter does have some implications on yields, typically it's not nearly as dramatic, at least not the first year of a drought. It would be a different calculus if this winter had followed a string of dry years, but for now, our wells are in good shape and the vines strong from last year's ample winter rain.
Of course, it's not like we get to choose. And since the main determinant of budbreak is warming soil temperatures, the lack of rainfall and the warm weather both have roles to play in the timing of when the vines sprout. Wet soils hold the nighttime cold much better than dry soils do, so a good soaking in the next few weeks would have the ancillary benefit of maintaining cool soil temperatures well into March.
In any case, while we're all hoping for rain, we'll be looking forward each morning this week to seeing a frosty carpet. We'll take what we can get.
Each spring and fall, we send out a selection of six wines to the members of our VINsider Wine Club. In many cases, these are wines that only go out to our club. In others, the club gets a first look at a wine that may see a later national release. About 6 weeks before the club shipments will be sent out, we open them all to write the tasting and production notes that will be included in the club shipments. In many cases, this tasting is our first post-bottling introduction to wines that we'll come to know intimately in coming weeks and months. In some cases (like this time) where the shipments contain wines that aren't yet even bottled (they will be the last week of February) it's a chance to get to know wines that are newly finished. I always think it's fun to give followers of the blog a first look at these notes.
These shipments include wines from the 2015, 2016, and 2017 vintages. It was fascinating to taste these three vintages, all of which we think were very strong, together, and to get a sense of how they compare. My quick thoughts, after the tasting, are that 2015 is a classically styled vintage, more old world than the luscious 2014's, but with tremendous depth and complexity. We have been impressed with the 2016 whites, but as we come to know the reds I think it's if anything an even better red vintage, striking a mid-point between 2014's juicy intensity and 2015's depth and texture. Finally, 2017 (we only tasted two wines) seems to show lush textures and vibrant acids, a great combination.
I'll start with the classic mixed shipment, and then move on to the red-only and white-only shipments, noting which wines will be included in each. I was joined for the tasting by our cellar team: Winemaker Neil Collins, Senior Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi, Assistant Winemaker Craig Hamm, and Cellar Master Brad Ely. The wines:
Production Notes: Our sixteenth bottling of this traditional Mediterranean varietal, known principally in Sardinia, Corsica, and Northern Italy. It is also grown in the Mediterranean parts of France (particularly Côtes de Provence) where it is known as Rolle. The Vermentino grape produces wines that are bright, clean, and crisp, with distinctive citrus character and refreshing acidity. To emphasize this freshness, we ferment and age Vermentino in stainless steel, and bottle it in screwcap.
Tasting Notes: A clean, spicy Vermentino nose of grapefruit pith, citrus leaf, white flowers and sea spray. Briny. The palate shows Vermentino's characteristic vibrant acids, with flavors of key lime, nectarine, and an ocean spray note that lingers on the long, clean, bright finish. Drink now and over the next few years.
Production: 1430 cases.
Production Notes: Roussanne yields recovered slightly in 2016, but were still low, and produced wines with both lushness and density. We fermented the Roussanne lots that were selected for our varietal bottling roughly 55% in foudre, 35% in neutral oak puncheons, and 10% in small new barriques. The selected lots were blended in April 2017 then aged through the subsequent harvest before bottling this past December.
Tasting Notes: Rich and immediately Rhoney on the nose, with aromas of graham cracker, crystallized pineapple, ginger, and honeycomb. The mouth is rich and inviting, with flavors of honeydew and smoky marzipan, tons of texture, and a little pithy bite that helps all the rich flavors resolve into a clean, dry finish. A hint of sweet oak lingers. The wine has only been in bottle for a few months and we expect it to continue to flesh out over the next year. Hold for a few months at least, then drink over the next decade or more.
Production: 900 cases
Production Notes: Our Dianthus rosé, whose name was chosen for a family of plants with deep-pink flowers, is back up to pre-drought levels after significant reductions in production in 2016 and especially 2015. As usual, we aim for a style between that of Tavel (deeper pink, based on Grenache) and Bandol (less skin contact, based on Mourvedre). This year's blend is 49% Mourvèdre, 39% Grenache and 12% Counoise, bled off or pressed off after 24-36 hours on the skins. The wine was fermented in stainless steel and will be bottled later in February. This is a deeply colored, flavorful rosé, perhaps a touch more concentrated than the 2016, that shows the combination of rich fruit and bright acid characteristic of the 2017 vintage.
Tasting Notes: An electric pink. The nose shows watermelon and strawberry fruit, mint, and sweet spice. The mouth is like biting into a ripe plum, complete with the burst of acid from the skin, the sweet fruit that follows, and a little welcome herbiness on the finish like lemon thyme. A little salty minerality comes out on the finish, with flavors of cranberry and spice. A rosé to convert people who think that pink wines can't be serious. Drink before the end of 2019.
Production: 1500 cases
2016 COTES DE TABLAS
Production Notes: The Cotes de Tablas is our chance to let Grenache shine, as it does in most Chateauneuf du Pape blends. Grenache had good structure in 2016, so we used a higher percentage (55%) than we have the past few years. Syrah (25%) adds dark fruit and minerality, and keeps Grenache's fruitiness grounded. Additions of Mourvedre (13%) and Counoise (7%) add a savory earthiness to the wine, which was blended in June 2017 and aged in foudre until its upcoming bottling later in February.
Tasting Notes: Explosively rich and spicy on the nose, with aromas of black licorice, cherry compote, new leather, plum skin and star anise. We found the mouth fresh and refreshing, with flavors of wild strawberry darkened by clove, leather, and milk chocolate. Nice chewy tannins come out on the finish, suggesting that as good as it is to drink now, it will go out in an interesting way a decade or more.
Production: 2050 cases
Production Notes: Our fourteenth bottling of this traditional varietal from South-West France, known principally in the Pyrenees foothills appellation of Madiran, but originally native to the Basque region. Tannat typically has intense fruit, spice, and tannins that produce wines capable of long aging. As we do many years, we blended in our small harvest of Cabernet, making the wine is 97% Tannat and 3% Cabernet Sauvignon. Even so, we made less Tannat than we have since our frost-reduced 2011 vintage. We aged it in one foudre and a mix of new and older smaller barrels for nearly 2 years before bottling it in April 2017, and then aged it another 10 months in bottle before release.
Tasting Notes: On the nose, expressive: boysenberry and salted caramel and blueberry and blackcurrant, with a pine forest/menthol herbiness and Tannat's characteristic (and welcome) floral undertone that always reminds me of violets. The mouth is more approachable than we normally expect of a young Tannat: blueberry jam, a little cedary oak, and a burst of flavor like chocolates with cherry liqueur inside. The combination of Tannat's tannins and healthy acids restore order on the finish, but it's not structure-bound or impenetrable now. A wine to drink any time over the next two decades.
Production: 700 cases
Production Notes: As always, Panoplie is selected from lots chosen in the cellar for their richness, concentration and balance, always giving pride of place to Mourvedre's rich meatiness and firm structure. Each lot was fermented individually before being selected, blended and moved to foudre to age in July 2016. Befitting the tremendous depth and intensity of Mourvedre in 2015, our blend is weighted more toward Mourvedre (71%) than it has been most years. 24% Grenache adds lushness and sweet spice, while 5% Syrah adds darker tones and mineral. The wine was bottled in June 2017 and has been aged in bottle in our cellars since then.
Tasting Notes: A nose balanced beautifully between sweeter and more savory elements, with dark red currant fruit, soy marinade, dark chocolate, orange peel, and meat drippings. The mouth is dense with raspberry, plum skin, and bittersweet chocolate, but a lifted rose petal floral note comes out with some air, and sweet nutmeg spice notes play with red fruit on the long, focused finish. A delicious wine with a long life ahead; we predict two decades of life, easily.
Production: 800 cases
There were two additional wines (joining the Roussanne and Vermentino) in the white-only shipment:
2016 PATELIN DE TABLAS BLANC
Production Notes: Patelin is French slang for "neighborhood" and the Patelin de Tablas Blanc is our white Rhone-style blend sourced from nine great neighboring Rhone vineyards. We base the wine on the richness and acidity of Grenache Blanc (52%), with Viognier (24%) providing lush stone fruit and floral notes, Roussanne (12%) and Marsanne (9%) adding minerality and texture, and for the first time, a little Clairette Blanche (3%) for its briny freshness. The wine was fermented entirely in stainless steel and then bottled in screwcap in June 2017 to preserve its freshness.
Tasting Notes: An explosive nose of fresh lime juice, wet rocks, lychee, honeysuckle, oyster shell, and grapefruit. The mouth is clean, fresh, and vibrant: fresh pineapple, anise, blood orange, citrus, and sweet spice. The finish is clean and long, with lingering notes of citrus blossom and sea spray. Drink now and over the next few years.
Production: 3000 cases
2013 ESPRIT DE TABLAS BLANC
Production Notes: As our drought stretched into its second vintage, we pre-emptively cut back our crop levels, giving all our 2013's an extra level of concentration. For the Esprit Blanc, this showed most dramatically in a powerful, structured Roussanne component. To that, we added Grenache Blanc for sweet spice and openness, and Picpoul Blanc for floral aromatics and saline freshness. The final blend was 71% Roussanne (fermented primarily in foudre), 21% Grenache Blanc (from foudre and stainless steel) and 8% Picpoul (from neutral barrels). We let the blend age in foudre through the subsequent harvest before bottling it in February 2015. Knowing how well this wine ages, we held back a good chunk of our production, and are releasing it to club members now, after three years of bottle age have brought out the deeper, nuttier tones white Rhones gain with age.
Tasting Notes: The three years in bottle have brought remarkable depth to the aromas of candied orange peel, citrus blossom, and honeycomb that is just starting to deepen into butterscotch. In the mouth, broad and richly Roussanne in character, with beeswax and green pear and honeydew melon, plus a hint of pithy Grenache Blanc tannins. The finish is long, rich, and deep, yet never heavy. Drink now or continue aging for another decade.
Production: 2170 cases
One additional red joined the Cotes de Tablas, Panoplie, and Tannat in the red-only shipment:
2016 PATELIN DE TABLAS
Production Notes: Patelin is French slang for "neighborhood" and the Patelin de Tablas is our red Rhone-style blend sourced from eleven great neighboring Rhone vineyards. We base the wine on the spicy savoriness of Syrah (52%), with Grenache (31%) providing juiciness and freshness, and Mourvedre (11%) and Counoise (6%) earth and structure. Fermented in a mix of upright oak fermenters and stainless steel tanks and aged in wooden uprights, it was bottled in July 2017 and has been aging in bottle to round into its structure.
Tasting Notes: Spicy dark fruit on the nose, very Syrah, like a mixed berry crisp complete with flavors of cinnamon, nutmeg, and buttery pastry. The mouth is savory, with smoky blackberry, licorice root, garrigue, crushed rock, and saddle leather, with chalky tannins and flavors of cranberry and freshly turned earth that come out on the finish. Delicious now, but still fleshing out, and with the substance and balance to age for up to a decade.
Production: 3090 cases
If you're a wine club member, you should make your reservation for our shipment tasting party, where we open all the wines in the most recent club shipment for VINsiders to try. This spring's party will be on Sunday, April 22nd. If you're not a wine club member, and you've read all this way, then why not join up, while there's still a chance to get this spring shipment? Details and how to join are at tablascreek.com/wine_club/vinsider_club
I had a first for me a couple of weeks ago: I closed the deal on a wine club signup via Twitter:
This wasn't a Herculean feat; it sounds like Amber LeBeau, who writes the SpitBucket.Net blog, was interested already. I just connected the last few dots. But I was fascinated to read the blog that she posted the next day, about why she signed up. After all, there are thousands of American wineries, most of whom have wine clubs, and thousands more clubs available from retailers, magazines, newspapers, and even NPR.
Now we spend a lot of our time thinking about how to make our wine club (or, more accurately, wine clubs, since we offer three different flavors) as appealing as possible. We research how other wineries who we respect craft their club offerings. And we try to listen (and to ask) our own customers about what they want out of a club. Still, each customer's reason for joining a club is ultimately personal, and what may be appealing to one customer may matter only a little to another. In Amber's piece, she outlines three main factors she uses in deciding whether to sign up for a club or not:
How easy can I get your wines at home?
How many bottles am I committing myself to?
How likely is the style of wine going to change?
Happily, we fared well on all three factors. While some of our core wines are available in Amber's hometown of Seattle, we make more than a dozen wines each year that don't make it into distribution, many of which are exclusively available to wine club members. We think of our wine club as an introduction to our wines, not a means to move large quantities, and so typically send out twelve different bottles per year, six in the spring and six in the fall. And we are family-owned, with so much continuity in our philosophy and winemaking team that we've had the same winemaker for more than two decades. So, we passed. (Thank you, Amber!)
Still, because of this conversation and the blog that resulted, I've spent more time than usual recently thinking about what makes for a great wine club. I thought I'd put my thoughts down here, and encourage you to chime in in the comments if you think there are things I've under- or over-emphasized, or that I've missed entirely.
Wines that you love, consistently. This is, I think, the core of it all. If a winery makes wines that you love across the board the chances of you loving what they choose to send you is a lot greater than if you like a few wines a lot and others less.
Wines you otherwise can't get. I think it's important that there be wines that are made especially for club members (or, at least, set aside exclusively for club members). When we started, and our wine club was small, this was easy. Now, we have to plan for it, and make wines that we know are going to be dedicated to our members. This can be lots of fun. [Read, if you haven't, our blog from last spring about making a new wine around Terret Noir for our club members.]
Savings. Now, maybe if your wine is otherwise unavailable (i.e. all sold on allocation) this isn't a key. Getting the wine at all is the important thing. But for most wineries, you don't have to be a member to get their wine. Making sure that club members get good prices on what they buy is really important. There's not much that will make a member into an ex-member faster than seeing your wine sold cheaper than they can get it at a nearby store.
Special treatment. I think "club" is the key word here. You want to know that when you visit a place where you're a member, you'll be treated like an insider. There's not one specific way in which this has to be done. But knowing that you'll get more than the basic experience everyone else gets is important.
Flexibility & convenience. I've lumped these two things together, because while they're probably not positive decision factors, they can definitely be deal-breakers. A shipment every two months? Probably not a convenience if you have to be home to sign for the packages. A single set configuration which can't be adjusted depending on your likes? Probably ditto (though less so if you really love all the wines). And any particular wine in quantity? Probably less appealing than a variety.
Fun other opportunities to connect. Whether this includes member-only days at the winery, excursions (hey, how about a Rhone River cruise?), or just making the point of sending out information and invitations to club members when you're doing an event in their neck of the woods, opportunities to connect outside the tasting room can be lots of fun for everyone.
We are always honored when someone joins one of our wine clubs. It's a meaningful gesture of faith in what we do that a customer will give us their credit card and say, in essence, we trust you to pick some wines we'll love. We want always to make sure that we're worthy of that trust, and are proud that our wine club members stay members for more than three times the industry average. If you have things that you particularly value in a club membership that I haven't mentioned, or another way you look at value, please share it in the comments.
And, once more, to any members out there, thank you.
In 2014 we began the tradition of looking back each year at the vintage from ten years before. Part of this is simple interest in seeing how a wide range of our wines -- many of which we don't taste regularly -- have evolved, but we also have a specific purpose: choosing ten or so of the most compelling and interesting wines from this vintage to show at the public retrospective tasting we're holding on February 11th. Ten years is enough time that the wines have become something different and started to pick up some secondary and tertiary flavors, but not so long that whites are generally over the hill. In fact, each year that we've done this we've been surprised by at least one wine that we expected to be in decline showing up as a highlight. The lineup:
The 2008 vintage was our second consecutive drought year, with yields further reduced by spring frosts. Berries and clusters were small, leading to excellent concentration. Ripening over the summer was gradual and harvest about a week later than normal. Crop sizes were similar to 2007 and about 20% lower than usual. The low yields and gradual ripening resulted in white wines with good intensity, lower than normal alcohols and an appealing gentle minerality and red wines that were unusually fresh and approachable despite appealing lushness.
I was interested in the extent to which we'd still see what we'd noted when the vintage was younger. Would the wines (red and white) show the elegance that we thought we might find? Would this vintage marked by elegance (sandwiched between two of our most powerful vintages) have retained the stuffing to make them compelling a decade later? And were there any lessons we might take for the wines we're making now?
In 2008, we made 17 different wines: 8 whites, 1 rosé, and 8 reds. My notes on the wines, with notes on their closures, are below (SC=screwcap; C=cork). Each wine is also linked to its technical information on our Web site, if you'd like to see a breakdown of the winemaking or the tasting notes at bottling (well, except for the Pinot Noir, which we only made one barrel of and never made a Web page; if you have questions about that, leave them in the comments and I'll do my best to answer). I was joined for the tasting by our cellar team (Neil Collins, Chelsea Franchi, Craig Hamm, and Brad Ely) as well as by our National Sales Manager Darren Delmore.
2008 Vermentino (SC): A combination of bright and more aged notes on the nose: petrol, peppermint, grilled grapefruit, lime leaf, lemongrass, and wet rocks. The mouth shows nice acids, clean and younger than the nose, with citrus pith and a nice briny finish. It's in a nice place: like a dry riesling with a little age on it.
2008 Antithesis Chardonnay (C): A deeper golden color. The nose is like that of a sweet wine: caramel and butter pecan and a little minty lift. The mouth is round, and, by contrast, dry. Tons of texture. Flavors of candied orange peel and nectarine, with a pithy bitterness like peach pit coming out on the finish. A touch low in acid, particularly compared to the wines before and after in the lineup. A perfectly admirable showing for this wine, but drink up if you've got any.
2008 Picpoul Blanc (SC): A lifted nose: monty, watermelon rind, barely ripe honeydew, and wet rocks. This filled out with time in the glass and turned into lemon meringue. Pretty fascinating. The mouth is fun: quite rich, with pineapple flavors and a creamy texture that remind me why I always think Picpoul evokes pina colada. A nice limestoney character comes out on the long, clear finish. Still vibrantly alive, and one of my favorites of the tasting.
2008 Grenache Blanc (SC, and in fact our first experiment with the Stelvin "Lux" that we now use for all our screwcaps): A quieter nose than the first 3 wines: preserved lemon, white pepper, and a little crushed chalky rock. The mouth is initially all about sweet fruit (lychee and candied grapefruit, for me), then the acids take over, and then a little tannic bite that's absolutely characteristic of Grenache Blanc plays back and forth with ripe pear and a spicy juniper character on the long finish.
2008 Cotes de Tablas Blanc (SC; 42% Viognier, 26% Roussanne, 21% Marsanne, 11% Grenache Blanc): A sweetly spicy nose, more floral than the first four wines, with honey, wild herbs, anise, and jasmine. The mouth is very nicely balanced between sweet attack (I thought peach syrup), good acids, and a little Grenache Blanc pithy bite on the back end. The long finish showed candied orange peel, honeysuckle, and marzipan. It's in a good spot, long after we would have thought.
2008 Bergeron (C): Made from 100% Roussanne, harvested a little earlier from cooler blocks around the vineyard. A cool nose of green pear, honeysuckle, and cantaloupe. The mouth is all about texture: smooth flavors of watermelon and lemon custard, with a soft minerality pervading everything. Still quite Roussanne, in its way, though it's medium-bodied and lively. A little hazelnut and lemon drop comes out on the long finish, but the persistent impression is of its cool, smooth texture. 12.8% alcohol. We're offering this now as an extra taste in our tasting room, if you're curious.
2008 Roussanne (C): A deeper gold color. An explosive nose: butterscotch, grilled pear, and a yeasty pastry note: pear tart, anyone? The mouth is gorgeous: luscious, rich, caramel and vanilla, and nuts, but dry. A long powerful finish with apricot and baking spices and a little sweet oak. Really impressive, if you like white wines with power and density. 14.2% alcohol.
2008 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (C; 65% Roussanne, 30% Grenache Blanc, 5% Picpoul Blanc): An appealing nose, less powerful than the Roussanne but more complex: key lime pie, honey roasted peanuts, baked apple and a cool green bay leaf herbiness. The mouth shows sweet Roussanne fruit on the attack, pear, honey, and brioche. Then Grenache Blanc's anise lift and pithy bite keep order. Then a long, soft finish with flavors of kiwi and sweet spice, and a little salty minerality which I credited to Picpoul. A few signs of age, but the wine is in a very nice place.
2008 Rosé (SC; 58% Mourvedre, 32% Grenache, 10% Counoise): A pretty deep amber-pink color. A beguiling nose of candied fruit and baking spices that I thought was like fruitcake and Chelsea compared to "walking through a candy shop". The first of several descriptors that were more like a craft cocktail than a wine: singed orange. The mouth is nice: tart cranberry, cherry soda, grenadine, and campari. A nice texture, with a little tannic bite. Still an interesting wine, but we all remembered this as being insanely good on release, and while this was interesting, it would be a shame to have missed that.
2008 Pinot Noir (C): Our second-ever Pinot, from a few rows of vines in our nursery we were using to produce budwood to plant at my dad's property for our Full Circle Pinot. Quite dark for a Pinot. A deep, ripe nose of root beer and figs and black cherry, with a little pine needle savoriness. The mouth is quite rich: chocolate-covered cherry, cola, dates, and sweet baking spices. Not particularly expressive of Pinot -- and to me less interesting than the Full Circle, which comes from a cooler spot -- but a nice rich red wine.
2008 Cotes de Tablas (SC; 42% Grenache, 21% Syrah, 20% Counoise, 7% Mourvedre): After several years of bottling under both cork and screwcap, we only bottled under screwcap in 2008. This was terrific: a nose of roasted meat, plum, raspberry, black pepper, and graham cracker. The mouth was vibrant, with beautiful lifted red fruit: cherry and red plum. There are nice dusty tannins. Still young, lively, and without any real signatures of age, and anyone who has some of this is in for a treat.
2008 Grenache (C): A nice medium-intensity Grenache nose: cherry cola, cocoa powder, and pepper. Like a flourless chocolate cake with raspberry syrup. A powerful mouth, with supple but significant tannins, great cherry fruit, and nice balance. A long finish with sweet spices and ripe fruit. In an excellent place, and carrying its 15.5% alcohol well. Neil commented "that's a wow for me". One of our favorites of the tasting.
2008 Mourvedre (C): A fun contrast to the Grenache, with a nose more structured and savory: meaty, eucalyptus and garrigue around currant and chocolate. The mouth is medium weight, with more currant fruit and still some pretty big, dusty tannins. It was a nice example of why Mourvedre and Grenache make such good partners: Mourvedre's austerity is opened up by Grenache's exuberance, while at the same time taming Grenache's tendency toward booziness.
2008 Syrah (C): A different color palette than the Grenache and Mourvedre: all black on the nose, like blackberry, black olive, iodine, black pepper, and baker's chocolate. The mouth shows cool-climate syrah's austerity, with a minty, minerally, meaty darkness, tannins that are still just starting to resolve, and a mouth-filling character that suggests some additional time in bottle will be rewarded. Our best guess: wait another 5 years for peak.
2008 Tannat (C): Also very dark: pine forest, soy, and dark chocolate. The mouth is comparatively friendly, with a sweet attack of milk chocolate, nice grapey purple fruit, a little violet floral lift, and tangy acidity that keeps everything lively. Then lots (lots!) of tannins come out on the finish, with a raspberry preserves note. Fun to taste, at this stage more appealing, I thought, than the Syrah, but clearly capable of going another decade or more.
2008 Esprit de Beaucastel (C; 38% Mourvedre, 30% Grenache, 26% Syrah, 6% Counoise): Lovely on the nose, tending more toward red than black, but with aspects of each: red currant, new leather, baking spices, balsamic glaze, and a minty garrigue-like savoriness. The mouth is luscious: strawberry preserves, milk chocolate, rare steak, tangy acidity, and really nice, persistent tannins. Elegant and in a good place, with plenty more development to come.
2008 Panoplie (C; 54% Mourvedre, 29% Grenache, 17% Syrah): A nose of density and power: balsamic cherry glaze, meat drippings, and wild herbs, with more of Mourvedre's characteristic restraint than Grenache's exuberance. The palate was more luscious: dark red fruit, chocolate, raspberry preserves, dried cranberry, and big but ripe tannins. Very long. A little dustiness that comes out on the finish and the still-thick texture suggests that there are more layers to emerge with additional time in bottle. Still, a very nice showing for the Panoplie, and an impressive wine.
A few concluding thoughts
I was very happy, overall, with how the wines showed. I didn't have as clear an impression of 2008 in my mind as I did for the vintages surrounding it, perhaps because the character of the wines wasn't as dominated by the vintage signature as it was in, say, 2007, but also perhaps because the year was overshadowed by the massively powerful vintages on either side. That said, the wines were nearly all in good shape at age 10, and the year's elegance meant that there were more wines that I would want to drink at this stage than I found in 2007. The whites, in particular, were as a group the most impressive we've found in our five-year history of horizontal retrospectives, and presaged, I think, a shift toward the more elegant style that we prefer today.
Nearly all of the wines improved in the glass, and I thought that most of them would have benefited from a quick decant. A lot of people don't think of decanting older whites, but I think it's often a good idea, and particularly so with wines that have been under screwcap. There's a clipped character that all our older screwcapped whites have that dissipates with a few minutes of air. It happens anyway in the glass, but a decant would have been welcome.
This tasting was yet another data point for me suggesting that Syrah really needs time, and yet its value in a blend. This 2008 Syrah was still, I thought, too young, but the structure and austerity of the Syrah component gave the Esprit red and Panoplie a feeling of balance and restraint that were really valuable. We choose to harvest our estate Syrah at ripeness levels where it has good structural elements, because that's where it's most valuable when blended with Grenache and Syrah. That's likely a few weeks earlier than we would if we were focusing on the wine as a varietal bottling, and I'm OK with the tradeoff of having to wait a few extra years for our varietal Syrahs to come around.
Finally, we chose ten pretty exciting wines for what should be a great February 11th Horizontal Tasting: Picpoul Blanc, Roussanne, Esprit Blanc, Cotes de Tablas Grenache, Mourvedre, Syrah, Esprit, Panoplie, and Tannat. There are still some seats available; I hope many of you will join us!