Spring Cleaning in the Vineyard: How Eliminating Surface Grasses Conserves Water

Over the course of about six weeks, the vineyard has gone from looking like:

Lush cover crop

To looking like:

Scruffy long view

This transformation takes place as the rainy season ends, and our focus shifts from encouraging a cover crop to hold the topsoil in place to making sure that the vines (rather than the cover crops) get the bulk of the water that is stored in the absorbent limestone-rich soils.  Think of each plant that's growing in a given plot of land as like a wick, with its roots delving into the soil for available moisture.  If we had overabundant water, we might want to leave some surface weeds to keep levels more reasonable.  Instead, in our California climate, eliminating competition from grasses and other surface plants is an essential part of our ability to dry farm.  Tilling in the cover crop also allows the insects and microorganisms in the soil to start breaking down the surface biomass accumulated during the winter growth into nutrients that the vines will draw from in the coming months.  Finally, the loosening of the soil creates an insulating layer at the surface that helps conserve the water deeper down.

The main tool we use to turn our cover crops under is the spader, shown in action below.  The row to the right has been mowed but not turned under, while the spader is chopping up the topsoil with a collection of tooth-like blades that penetrate deep into the topsoil:

Spader at work

The end result, when a whole block has been spaded, is a manicured surface from which weeds rarely re-sprout, like the head-trained Tannat block below:

Spaded area in Tannat

We're only about 30% done with turning the cover crop under, and the work will continue for another month. The one section that we have finished is Scruffy Hill, and it looks amazing.  Two shots follow, beginning with the fully leafed out Grenache block, looking down over the less-advanced Mourvedre vines below:

Scruffy Grenache vine

And a view that shows you a close-up of the soils. Tilling in the surface weeds allows you to see just how calcareous the soils are:

Scruffy soil view

Pretty soon, the whole vineyard will look like this, just in time for summer.


We Celebrate a Meaningful Honor: 2016 Green Award for Sustainability

This week, I made the long drive up to Sacramento to accept an award that I'm as proud of as any that we've ever received.  This award is a 2016 California Green Medal, a program created by the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance last year to encourage and spread the word about the state's wine-led push to make grape growing and winemaking more environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable.  From the award:

Green Awards_04202016_083

The awards recognize wineries in three categories, for their innovations in bringing greater sustainability to their environment, their community involvement, and their business practices.  There is also an umbrella award for their vision and leadership in promoting sustainability in all three categories.  The application is essentially identical no matter which category you're going for. So, we applied for all of them, as all three are areas in which we've made a real effort. That said if I'd had to guess at a sub-category in which we'd have been recognized, it would have been for the environment.  So, it was something of a surprise, but a happy one at that, that we were chosen for the community category. The event produced a beautiful video in which they announced us as the award winner:

What, specifically, have we been doing to promote sustainability?  Here's a partial list:

Water Use

  • Property developed to wean vineyard off irrigation. We can now go into a second year of drought before needing to supplement
  • 35 acres of wide-spaced vines (12x12 or 10x10) planted totally without irrigation
  • Have been the subject of a case study on dry farming by CAFF and hosted a series of dry-farming seminars since 2012
  • Converted to steam-cleaning barrels saving thousands of gallons of water per year
  • New 50-acre property in process of being planted entirely without need for irrigation

Soil & Nutrition Management

  • Vineyard has been certified organic since 2003 and farmed organically since inception in 1989
  • Cover crop includes legumes and is returned to the soil through mobile flocks of sheep, alpacas and donkeys, reducing need for outside fertilization
  • Cover crops are harvested annually to provide fodder for our animals when they cannot be in the vineyard
  • Nutrition is supplemented through the compost pile maintained on-site from our prunings and the skins, stems and seeds at harvest
  • Compost teas, made in house and used as foliar sprays, reduce the amount of sulfur needed to apply to the vineyard
  • Biodynamic applications provide crucial micronutrients to the vineyard

Pest Management

  • Biodynamic practices including interplanted fruit trees and native plants, encouraging natural insect controls of pests
  • Network of owl boxes and trapping program controls gopher population without poisons
  • Planted cover crop outcompetes weed seeds
  • Weeding is done mechanically using custom “tournesol” tractor attachment
  • Organic soaps and oils used as needed to control pest populations

Biodiversity and Wildlife Conservation

  • We've farmed biodynamically since 2010 with own mixed flock of sheep, alpacas, and donkeys to graze cover crops, reduce organic fertilizer needs (down 30.1% vs. 2010-2011) and eliminate tractor passes
  • Interplanted fruit trees and sections of property left to native vegetation attract and provide habitat for beneficial insects
  • Wetlands area filters wastewater with the roots of cattails, reeds, and rushes while providing wildlife habitat
  • Beehives house three wild-caught swarms of honeybees
  • Vineyard blocks are designed with wildlife pass-throughs in each

Energy Efficiency & Greenhouse Gas Mitigation

  • Installed a 35kW solar bank in 2006
  • Installed an additional 50kW bank in 2015. We're still assembling data, but know that solar provides a majority of our annual power needs
  • Winery and office outfitted with motion-sensitive lights, dramatically reducing wasted electricity
  • Electric car and Tesla charging stations, installed early in 2016, are free for customers to use while visiting
  • Reduced wine club packaging material in 2014 by 50% for most picked-up packages
  • In March, we began the use of a hub system to transport wine shipments to the East Coast and ship from there, reducing shipping air freight and carbon footprint

Human Resources

  • Employees compensated beyond the industry standard with fully funded medical, dental and vision benefits, employer-matching 401k plan, educational support, wine shares and annual profit-sharing bonuses to both part-time and full-time employees
  • Employees encouraged and supported to continue education as it pertains to their positions
  • Our core vineyard team of 10 is employed year-round, allowing them to build a life here and allowing us to benefit from their expertise

Solid Waste Management

  • Replaced plastic water bottles with reusable stainless steel canteens, saving 19,000 bottles/year (760 gallons crude oil & 2700 lbs CO2)
  • Switched to lightweight glass (16.5 oz/bottle) in 2010, reducing case weight by 26% and total glass weight by 45 tons/year.
  • Have been leaders in move to package in reusable stainless steel kegs; in 2016 we will keg 7700 gallons of wine (22% of total production) reducing bottle needs by 38,500 bottles
  • Use 100% post-consumer recycled product and soy inks for brochures

Neighbors and Community

  • We have partnered on events with organizations like must! charities, local animal shelters, and arts organizations
  • Donated more than $100,000 to support local youth and arts programs since 2002
  • Sponsored 16 local youth sports teams since 2010 
  • Within the local wine community, we helped create the Paso Robles Rhone Rangers chapter and led the community effort to approve 11 new AVAs
  • We've organized and hosted industry seminars on organic farming, dry farming, and Roussanne 
  • Jason Haas has served on boards of Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance (current Chairman), Rhone Rangers (former President), and Family Winemakers of California

The four recipients were all well represented at the event, and all seemed eminently worthy. We congratulate them all! The other three were Jackson Family Wines (Leader), McManis Family Vineyards (Business) and Halter Ranch (Environment). The four of us, together with Karen Ross, Secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, the keynote speaker at the event:

Green Awards_04202016_123

It did not escape notice that two of the four honorees were from Paso Robles, or that Halter Ranch and we are neighbors. That two wineries from Paso Robles were winners is a testament to the innovation in this community, as well as the leadership provided by the Vineyard Team (until recently the Central Coast Vineyard Team), based in Atascadero. Their educational seminars and the fun Earth Day Food & Wine Festival (which just happened last weekend) have done a great deal to demystify sustainability to a broader base of vineyards and wineries here than maybe anywhere else.

Looking forward, I feel like the wine community is uniquely positioned to lead California agriculture toward sustainability.  We grow a crop that originated in a part of the world where water was scarce, which does best in arid areas without great fertility. The areas are generally not well suited for grain or row crops. Grapevines are very long lived, so vineyards can invest in long-term solutions. We produce a product from that crop that is value added, where efforts we make in producing better grapes can be rewarded by the market. And we largely have direct relationships with our customers which allow us to leverage any good work we're doing into better loyalty. All of that is true for any American winery. In California, we have the added advantage of living in a climate where rainfall is seasonal, so weed control can be handled mechanically with a minimum of expense, typically just once a year, in the late spring. And our very low humidity means that we face much less pressure from fungal diseases compared to most wine producing regions. In essence, if anyone can do it, we should be able to.

And I feel that if we have the opportunity to put sustainability at the forefront of what we do, we have that obligation. It was great to spend some time celebrating others on that same path.


A Classic Pairing for a Rich, Dry Rosé: Salmon Niçoise

By Suphada Rom

Rosé is one of those wines that takes me down memory lane. I can clearly remember the first time I tried rosé- I had just finished a crazy Saturday night shift where we saw over 100 covers, but it felt more like 500. Part of the restaurant culture, I was learning, came with the after shift beverage of choice, whether it was a pint of beer or a glass of wine. Absolutely exhausted, I found myself being relatively indecisive and asked our chef what I should have. He reached into the fridge under the bar and grabbed a bottle of this gorgeously deep pink wine. I was slightly confused, as I half expected him to have suggested something like Cabernet Sauvignon or Sauvignon Blanc, something I was more familiar with. Without asking if I wanted it, he poured me a glass and slid it across the smooth bar top, and watched me as I took a sip (he was probably making sure I didn't dump it out!). I wasn't quite at the level of "sophistication" that I'm at right now, so I went in for the kill, took a large gulp, and was left surprised beyond measure. The wine was juicy and felt fresh on my palate. I could feel my salivary glands go into overdrive with the kick of acidity. The dehydration I had been feeling was now masked by the cool elixir running down my throat. It may have just been the moment, but that rosé was just what I needed.

20160411_121147
The finished product with our 2015 bottling of Dianthus Rosé

When thinking about food and wine pairings, I try to take as many things as possible into account: the wine’s structure, acidity, the vessel in which its aged, whether it is youthfully bright or deeply mature. For the dish, I try to focus on not only the protein, but consider the sauces, acidity, spiciness, and intensity. If you have a regional tradition to lean on, so much the better.  It's no surprise that classics - think beef bourguignon and a glass of red Burgundy - that have withstood the test of time.

With the release of our beautiful estate Dianthus Rosé, I can't think of a better pairing than with a dish based on salmon. I chose to make Salmon Niçoise (recipe published by Bon Appétit) for a few reasons, the first being that salmon is a bit more sustainable than the traditional tuna for Niçoise. The second reason is because I happen to love Niçoise more than the average person. Each bite is something new, as there are endless combinations of perfect bites balanced between potatoes, olives, haricots verts, boiled egg, and salmon. And the third reason - working a riff on a classic pairing - Niçoise means "in the style of Nice", a historic city which sits on the Mediterranean coast of France, the epicenter of dry rosé.

For this recipe, I had to make a few alterations due to what I could find at my local grocery store. I couldn't find purple potatoes, so I used small golden ones. It was nearly impossible to find frisée or mâche, so I substituted peppery arugula. Here are the results from this afternoon:

  Nicoise Set Up 2
Salmon Niçoise mise en place

 20160411_122841
An up close shot of the Niçoise

The release of our estate Dianthus Rosé is always an exciting time of year, and 2015 was no different. The 2015 Dianthus Rosé (49% Mourvèdre, 37% Grenache, 14% Counoise), is the product of a vintage where yields were dramatically reduced due to the four consecutive years of drought. To give you a little perspective, last year we were able to comfortably produce 1600 cases of Dianthus while this year, we only produced 275 cases. Our red yields were so low that in order to preserve reasonable quantities for our red wines, we had to cut somewhere, and even with the reduction in Dianthus things will be scarce when we get to blending the reds next week.

That being said, we think this year's rosé is just top notch. The year's low yields brought forth great concentration, and balanced acidity. The color of the Dianthus alone is a force to be reckoned with- a dark pink with hues of electric orange, it is reminiscent of the deeply hued rosés found in the southern Rhône valley of France. Think Tavel, and you won't be far off (though the composition, and the wine's freshness, are actually closer to that of Bandol). Upon diving into the glass, aroma-wise you'll find just about any red fruit under the sun, from cherries to watermelon to raspberries. In the mouth, all that fruit that you smell is confirmed, even some darker stone fruits like plum. There is some serious structure to this wine, along with vibrant acidity, making it wonderfully balanced in all respects. Pairing this with the Salmon Niçoise was what I considered to be a classic pairing. The richness of the salmon was complimented with the body and texture of the wine, and while there were a lot of components to the dish, no one flavor was truly overpowering. And if you're considering your own springtime mise en place, the Niçoise is served at room temperature, and the rosé slightly chilled, making a pleasant spring/summer pairing.

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:

  • The recipe for the Salmon Niçoise can be found here.
  • VINsider wine club members may order up to 6 bottles of the 2015 Dianthus by clicking here.
  • Not a member?  Learn more about our VINsider wine club here, or try this dish with our food friendly 2015 Patelin de Tablas Rosé. You may order the 2015 Patelin de Tablas Rosé by clicking here.

The swarm, the hive, and Tablas Creek honey

By Jordan Lonborg

[Editor's Note: With this article, we welcome our new Viticulturist Jordan Lonborg to the Tablas Creek blog. He joined us in February and will be leading our vineyard team and our biodynamic program, including a new beehive program that he describes below.]

Every March, as flowers start to bloom, honeybees that have successfully overwintered begin the foraging process. The bees start to collect tree resin or propolis which is used to strengthen hives structurally; pollen, which is converted to protein;and flower nectar, which is converted to carbohydrate (honey). The honey and pollen are essential food sources and determine the strength and size of the colony. On years that we receive enough rainfall for a strong wildflower bloom, another process takes place. The phenomenon known as swarming.

Honeybees are a fascinating species. It is this process that fascinates me the most. In early spring, when wildflower nectar flow is at its peak, the workers are able to sense that the queen that overwintered with them starts to lay fewer eggs. In response, the workers then start to build queen cells within the hive. These cells are not your typical hexagonal shape we are so used to seeing. A queen cell is a cone-like structure that is built vertically through the hexagonal worker cells. Once the queen deposits eggs into the queen cells, the colony starts making preparations to split the hive. Scout bees begin to search for a suitable location for a new hive site. The scouts have been known to search up to 30 miles away from the hive in search of a new hive site. This is where the bee keeper (read: yours truly) steps in and encourages these bees to make their new home in a place where they can help us.

Swarm catchers come in all shapes and sizes. There are three essential characteristics that successful swarm catchers will share. First, there will be a secure cavity with one entrance. Second, they will have a piece of pre-existing honey comb that you obtain from either one of your previous hives or from another reluctant beekeeper in your area. Lastly, a small vial containing honeybee pheromone to attract the bees to the catcher itself. Here at Tablas, we used 16” compressed flower pots that were mounted to a square piece of plywood. Three of the four drain holes were plugged with foam insulation. We then hung these swarm catchers strategically (near plants that are blooming and close to a water source) anywhere from 6’-16’ off the ground. An example:

Swarm catcher

Then, you wait. It could be anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of hours until you catch a swarm, but when you do, you know, and it’s exhilarating.

Swarms can contain anywhere up to 10,000 to 40,000 bees. When they select the swarm catcher as a suitable hive location, a literal cloud of bees surrounds the catcher until the queen either lands on the catcher or in the catcher, and the rest of the colony follows. As an observer, the bees are fairly docile at this point, fully engorged with honey, and with a one track mind. Those who are daring enough can walk into the middle of this cloud and experience something few have. It is one of the rare times you can work with bees with no real fear of getting stung. Once all bees have entered the catcher, preparations are to be made for the hiving of your newly caught swarm either that evening or the following morning. Another close-up view:

Swarm2

So far, this year at Tablas Creek Vineyard, we have captured 3 swarms, and successfully hived all of them. We started the bee project for a few reasons. For one, it is in line with the bio-dynamic and organic practices we follow here on the property. Also, it is important that we enhance the biodiversity at Tablas Creek any way we can. Whether it is planting fruit trees throughout the vineyard, incorporating animals into our farming practices, or, keeping bees to help pollinate our cover crops, a biodiverse farm is a healthy one. Lastly, without honey bees, the human race would cease to exist. I guess you could say we are just doing our part to ensure the continuation of one of the most important species on the planet.

Part two of the honeybee blog: Hiving the swarm and maintaining the colony… To be continued…

Jordan Lonborg, Viticulturist and resident beekeeper


A Double Pairing for a Wine that Tastes Like Spring: Cotes de Tablas Blanc

By Suphada Rom

Recently, I traveled back to Vermont to spend some time with my family. When I come home, there are a few things that I am absolutely sure about. I will most certainly visit my favorite little coffee shop to sit down with a warm maple latte. I will walk through the front door of my house with quick paced strides of excitement, only to be corralled into the nearest wall by strong paws, wet noses, and wagging tails. I will eat tasty food and drink delicious wine with friends and family. With all of the studying for my upcoming sommelier examination (that will hopefully lead to my certification!), my family has become increasingly interested in what I'm passionate about and I have been trying to share as much wine and food knowledge with them as I can. One night on my recent trip, my mom left me in charge of the menu, so I decided to come at food and wine pairing from a reverse direction: pick out a wine (in this case our 2014 Cotes de Tablas Blanc) and try out a couple of recipes that would show different ways to pair with the wine.

IMG_2114A more gentle rendition of the slobbering- don't let her sweet nature fool you, she will most definitely tackle you for a biscuit or two!

With the onset of warmer weather and the additional hours of daylight, I find myself wanting to spend less time in the kitchen and more time outdoors. This was true even in Vermont, which during my March visit was sunny and 70 degrees without a lick of snow. So, both the appetizer and the main course I chose to pair with our Cotes de Tablas Blanc placed an emphasis on fresh ingredients, simply prepared. For a starter, I chose a great recipe for a Butter Lettuce Salad with Blood Orange, Avocado, and a Citrus Vinaigrette by Rick Bayless. I love this recipe because not only is the prep time minimal, but there is a full utilization of ingredients within the dish. You'll use both the juice and zest of the blood oranges for the vinaigrette, while cutting some into supremes. The small critique I had was my small regret for having too much zest in the vinaigrette (it sticks to the lettuce!). When I make this again, I would possibly infuse the vinaigrette with the zest and strain it through cheesecloth before dressing the salad. Either that or cut the amount of zest in half. For the main course, I decided on a recipe for Seared Scallops with Tropical Salsa by Williams-Sonoma. I substituted halibut for scallops, but you could most certainly use scallops, too! My local fishmonger cut us some fairly thick slices, so I found that searing it on the stove top and finishing it in the oven worked best. Anyways, here are the results from the double food and wine pairing:

Salad Prep
Fresh produce in preparation for the salad- 'tis the season for citrus!

Salad  Cotes Blanc
The finished salad with our Cotes de Tablas Blanc.

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The fruit and vegetable prep for the tropical salsa- there may have been a tropical drink consumed in the making of dish.. hey, I didn't want to waste any of that delicious fruit!

Halibut Cotes Blanc
Pan Seared Halibut over Tropical Salsa with our Cotes de Tablas Blanc

Why the 2014 Cotes de Tablas Blanc (42% Viognier, 30% Grenache Blanc, 23% Marsanne, 5% Roussanne)? The 2014 vintage has been incredibly impressive so far, bringing forth a balance of fresh and lush fruit with a vibrancy that provides a nice counterpoint to their richness. In our Cotes Blanc, there are gorgeous notes of peach pit and almond skin on the nose, with flavors of pear skin, peach juice, and honeydew. (Do make sure to take the wine out of the fridge a half-hour or so before you want to drink it, to get all the wine's complexity.) Despite all these fruit flavors, there is a distinct savory quality about this wine, which I would maybe attribute to the Marsanne. I really love this wine's mouthfeel- it kind of hangs around long enough to let you know it's there, but has a clean acidity to leave you wanting another sip (and another sip I gladly took!). With the salad, the wine was the dominant partner, whereas with the fish, there was more of a conversation between it and the dish. Both were nice in their way, but if I had to choose which pairing I loved more, I'd say that the halibut and tropical salsa took the cake. At one point, I wasn't sure if I was tasting the fruit notes of the salsa or the wine- they were just that interchangeable. And even though my family doesn't know all that much about food and wine pairings, they were left smiling at how well they worked (or even just how good they tasted!).

These recipes are great as a pair, but feel free to have just the salad for a nice light lunch and the halibut for a satisfying dinner (we won't judge you if you have wine with both!). 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:

  • The recipe for the Butter Lettuce Salad with Blood Orange, Avocado, and Citrus Vinaigrette can be found here.
  • The recipe for Seared Scallops with Tropical Salsa can be found here.
  • You can order the 2014 Cotes de Tablas Blanc here, or find it in distribution throughout the country.
  • The 2014 Cotes de Tablas Blanc is part of our current (Spring 2016) VINsider wine club shipment, in both the mixed and white-only shipments. Learn more about our VINsider wine club here.

Come soon for the incredible 2016 wildflower season in Paso Robles

So, I feel like the Chamber of Commerce here, but really, if you like wildflowers, this is the year for you. The combination of good rain early in the season and ample sunshine in February has produced the most impressive display of color in several years. I'm going to share a few of these that we've taken here at the vineyard, which is impressive enough. The vistas on the rolling hills east of town are even more impressive, at least for their scale. I remember a trip that we were making to Utah nearly a decade ago when the wildflowers were in bloom off of Highway 46, and people were pulled haphazardly off the road just staring at the mesmerizing, hypnotic scenes. We have a link to some of these scenes at the end of the blog. But first, what we're seeing here at the winery, starting with this pretty purple flower that carpets any areas we didn't plant a cover crop, and peeks through even the taller growth like an ultraviolet wash behind an oil painting:

Wildflowers

The mustard flowers are familiar to anyone who drives around the Central Coast in the springtime, but this year's growth is particularly lush:

Mustard

The lupines are just beginning. In another few weeks, they will be swaying hypnotically to the spring breezes and covering the area with their thick perfume:

Lupine

Some flowers you'd like to admire from afar, like the thistle, whose spines make it a nuisance in the vineyard.  We've largely eliminated it from problematic spots, but along the fencelines it still shows off its deep purple, spiky blooms:

Thistle

But the crown jewels of the wildflower season, of course, are the California poppies: our state flower.  They are so plentiful, and so photogenic, that I have photos of them from nearly every day this month.  I'll spare you the entire collection, but here are a few of my favorites:

Single poppy

Poppies

Poppies limestone and deep blue sky

If you're interested in knowing where to go, a good article in the San Luis Obispo Tribune yesterday has recommended routes and lots more photos. But come sooner than later. By June, this burst of color will have largely faded to the golds and deep greens of California summer.


Reassessing Winter 2015-2016 After March's Rain

Three weeks ago, we were seeing our earliest-ever budbreak, driven by a warm, sunny February that saw just one winter storm pass through and a total of just 1.55" of rain. Articles from around the state echoed San Francisco Chronicle's headline What if El Nino is a big bust?.  Far from the promise of an El Niño that would put a measurable dent in California's historic drought, Paso Robles and points south had fallen below historical averages for winter rainfall.

Fast forward three weeks, and things look better, if perhaps not as much better as we'd like them to look.  So far in March, we've seen a welcome 6.32" of rain, bringing our yearly total up to 19.33". This is already better than what we received the last four years, if only about 85% of what we'd expect by this point in an average winter.  We do still have another month where we can reasonably expect rainfall, albeit usually not a huge additional amount.  The chart below will give you a sense of how this year has stacked up compared to normal for us (click on it to see it bigger):

Winter Rainfall

We've had three months (July, January, and March) with above-average rainfall, six months below, and three-plus still to go.  With 10 days still to go in March, we're already at 150% of normal March rainfall.  But while I'd like to project that forward and assume we'd get another couple of inches before the end of the month, there's nothing promising in the forecast.  So, assuming we get something like average rainfall in April and May, we're likely looking at somewhere in the 22" range.  That's a lot better than what we received the last four years (13"-15" each year) but still only about 85% of our 25" historical average.

That said, the vineyard looks like it's thriving.  It's clear from the prevalence of water-loving native plants like miner's lettuce (photo below; more information here) even in areas that we don't normally see them that the soils are saturated.

Miner's Lettuce

The rain and cool weather in the first half of March delayed the spread of budbreak -- which started 10 days earlier than 2015, which had been our earliest-ever year -- by a welcome couple of weeks, so we're now more or less on par with the last two years.  But things are going to be moving fast from here forward, and we're likely past the point where we could safely weather a frost even in our low-lying and late-sprouting areas.

The cover crops are still deep, green, and growing enthusiastically. With the vines (like Grenache, below) coming out of dormancy, we'll need to get them tilled under so they don't allow frosty morning air to settle next to the new sprouts:

Budding Grenache Blanc

In fact, the March rain has meant that even blocks where our animal herd spent time in January -- like the Roussanne below, with vineyard dog for scale -- have regrown so much that they'll provide a lot of additional organic matter for the soil when they're tilled under in the next few months:

Sadie in the cover crop

The alternating sun and rain has made for what is shaping up to be a spectacular wildflower season.  The mustard is blooming, adding an electric yellow blanket that contrasts dramatically with the still-dormant Mourvedre vines:

Mourvedre in Mustard

And the California poppies are starting to come out. Anyone who is planning a visit to Paso Robles in the next couple of months is in for some spectacular scenery:

Poppies

So, big picture, we're feeling cautiously optimistic about things.  We've received enough rain to feel confident that our dry-farmed vineyards will do fine through the growing season, though not enough to materially improve the groundwater reserves.  The vineyard is early by historical averages, but no longer alarmingly so.  We've negotiated the first 3 weeks of what will have been an unprecedentedly long frost season successfully, though there are still 6 weeks before we feel safe.  

Given where we were three weeks ago, I'll take it, gladly.


Eat Drink Tablas Hits the Road. First Stop, Vermont for Chicken Sofrito!

Last week, I had the absolute pleasure of having (and making!) lunch with two of my dear friends, Rick and Susan Richter. Whenever I go home to Vermont, I am always sure to check in with them, whether it is over a cup of tea or a glass of wine. Rick and Susan are remarkable in a number of ways- they challenge my intellect with inquisitive questions and conversation, while nourishing my stomach with incredible food and wine. I remember the first time I met them- I was their server and it was only after I described a grilled leg of lamb served with a white bean puree and salsa verde did they look at me and say, "Do you like food? Because from the way you talk about it, you've got to be passionate about it!" And we've never looked back! I went further than just being their server by catering a few events out at their home, after which I was brought as a guest to a Tablas Creek tasting, where I met the Haas family. They introduced me to Bob & Jason... and as they say, the rest is history. I sometimes sit back and smile as to how I am now a full-time and vibrant member of the sales and marketing team. It's just too cool!

IMG_1786
A behind-the-scenes look: Rick taking a photo of me taking a photo of the food and wine! By the way, is this really considered work?!

Rick and Susan's home is wonderful, so as much as we like to go out for extensive four hour dinners, I love to cook at their home. They've got a kitchen that chefs dream of- sinks made for prep and cleaning, a spacious island, and any kind of kitchen tool imaginable. Yes, I'm gushing a little, but only because it is a truly special place to both cook and eat. We decided to make a wonderful favorite of mine that I keep in my arsenal of recipes- chicken sofrito. I've always used the recipe from Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi. I love his cookbooks for the smart delivery of the recipes (you're never not busy!), the pictures, and the extensive family and cultural stories. This particular recipe takes all of an hour and a half and involves just a small handful of ingredients. It is a simple and comforting meal that will check a lot of boxes, even for the pickiest of eaters- it's essentially chicken and potatoes, taken up a notch.  The use of turmeric and sweet paprika give warm spices, without heat. I should also mention its essential to fry the potatoes and garlic before adding them to the pot- it's crucial that they get a nice crispy exterior. This ensures that the potatoes absorb the braising liquid along with holding their shape for the last 30 minutes of cooking. And finally, I threw in a few handfuls of kale at the end for a bit of color. Here are some photos from our cooking endeavor:

Prep Ingredients
 All of the ingredients you'll need for the dish

Seasoned Chicken 1
Sprinkling turmeric on the paprika coated chicken... I'm getting hungry!

Chopping Onions Closer
Phase 1: Chopping potatoes and garlic, getting them ready for their deep fry!

Frying Potato
Phase 2: Crispy potatoes and garlic... Eater's discretion, you and your home will be intoxicated by the pungent aroma of, well, fried garlic and potatoes!

Adding Potato to Pot
Adding those crispy and crunchy bits to the pot- 30 minutes more until the grand debut!

Add Kale
Handful(s) of kale added to the pot during the last five minutes of cooking- it will wilt down perfectly.

Plate from above
Almost ready to eat- just a spritz of lemon and the wine, of course!

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The final product with our Esprit de Tablas Blanc.

Like I mentioned before, this dish is so wonderfully simple and completely satisfying. After having made this dish several times in the past, I decide to pair it with our 2013 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (71% Roussanne, 21% Grenache Blanc, 8% Picpoul Blanc). Roussanne, the leading grape in this blend, is our primary and most important white grape on both the property here and at our sister winery, Chateau de Beaucastel. A truly beautiful blend that confounds even the primarily red wine drinkers- it's rich and viscous in the mouth with a perk of fresh acidity on the finish. We were all in agreement that the pairing was wonderfully balanced in terms of both structure and acidity, and that the warm spices of turmeric and paprika was accented by the warm notes of the wine. On the nose, there are rich notes of peach pit and highly fragrant honeysuckle, and my favorite, nutmeg. This wine tastes of grilled peaches with those subtle warm spices becoming more evident, along with some perfectly ripe nectarine. I absolutely love this wine with this dish- this will be the third time I've enjoyed it with a Tablas Creek white. The last time I made it, I tried it with a 2008 Roussanne and it was honestly one of the best food and wine pairings I've produced. The acidity was present, but toned, and the years in the bottle had concentrated the flavors of honey and nuts. If you have the patience, try this dish with an older vintage Esprit de Tablas/Beaucastel or Roussanne, but if not, do not fret- it is wonderful with young Roussanne, too, and proof that a single dish can satisfy both picky eaters and sophisticated foodies.

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:

  • Our 2013 Esprit de Tablas Blanc is our featured wine of the month- meaning it is offered at 10% off for retail consumers and 30% off for VINsider wine club members! You can order it at the feature price until the end of this month by clicking here. On top of all that, orders that include 6 or more total bottles of Esprit de Tablas Blanc (or Rouge) will enjoy shipping included at no charge! (What are you waiting for?!)
  • Tempted to taste an older vintage Esprit de Tablas/Beaucastel Blanc? Come join us for a Reserve Tasting, where you'll have the opportunity to taste through two vintages of our Esprit de Tablas/Beaucastel Blanc, along with several other vintages of our Esprit de Tablas/Beaucastel. Learn more here or e-mail visit@tablascreek.com

Recipe for Chicken Sofrito reprinted with permission from Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, copyright © 2012. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.


White blending gives us our first detailed look into the scarce, concentrated 2015 vintage

This week, my brother Danny flew out to join me, my dad, Neil, Chelsea, and Tyler around the blending table as we took our first comprehensive look at the whites from 2015. As usual, we started our blending week Monday morning by tasting, component by component, through what we had in the cellar. Because of the many varieties that were very short compared to recent years [for why, see my 2015 harvest recap] there were fewer lots than usual, and many lots were smaller. Of our major components, only Roussanne saw similar quantities to 2014:

Grape Gallons (2015) Gallons (2014) % Change
Viognier 972 1750 -44.5%
Marsanne 948 1560 -39.2%
Grenache Blanc 3621 4827 -25.0%
Picpoul Blanc 804 1176 -31.6%
Roussanne 6853 6781 +1.1%
Clairette Blanche 144 92 +56.5%
Total Whites 13342 16186
-17.6%

As you would guess from the chart above, we knew going in that we were likely to be constrained by our quantities in what we could make.  Still, the first stage was to go through the lots, variety by variety, and get a sense of both the character and diversity present in the vintage:

Blending2016_components

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 last year). My quick thoughts on each variety:

  • Viognier (3 lots): A really good year for Viognier, with 2 of the 3 lots getting 1's from me. Concentrated, tropical and deep, with surprisingly good acids and a little welcome minty lift. Absolutely worthy of bottling solo, but in this short year it will all go into the Cotes de Tablas Blanc.
  • Picpoul Blanc (3 lots): Very strong for Picpoul, too, with luscious depth and electric acids. The one lot that got a 2 from me could have been a 1 as well.
  • Roussanne (13 lots): A very heterogeneous mix, with a relatively large number of lots with very low acids.  Some of these had the richness and charm to carry their weight; others felt heavy. Those with the best acidity were really powerhouses, with a creamy, honeyed charm that should be very crowd pleasing. My grades: six 1's, five 2's, one 3, and one incomplete (for a lot that was still fermenting actively).
  • Grenache Blanc (5 lots): Very classic and polished for Grenache Blanc at this stage, quite uniformly good (three 1's and two 2's from me), with lots of the variety's signature green apple. We just wish there was more of it.
  • Marsanne (3 lots): Pretty clearly Marsanne's best showing ever for us, to the point that my dad (who in past years has suggested we think about pulling Marsanne out entirely) mused out loud that we should look to plant more acreage. Great minerality, nice acids, elegant and complete. If there had been more, we'd love to have bottled it on its own, but like the Viognier, it will all go into Cotes Blanc.
  • Clairette Blanche (1 lot): Just the 3rd vintage of this new grape for us, the Clairette was pretty: like new-cut grass drying in the sun. Not much complexity here, but fun for us all. We'll bottle this on its own, to continue to share it with others.

Tuesday morning, we started on our blending work by tasting possible Esprit de Tablas Blanc blends.  The last few years, our Esprit Blanc has been 70% or more Roussanne, though in very rich years this has not always been true. Case in point: the 2009 vintage, whose combination of drought and frost produced yields that approximated pretty closely those we saw in 2015.  And like 2015, it was a warm year, with Roussannes with a great deal of weight and relatively low acids.  In our blending trials the following spring, we ended up preferring our blends with more Picpoul and Grenache Blanc, and less Roussanne, though we could only use 12% Picpoul because that was all we had.  The 2009 Esprit Blanc ended up containing 62% Roussanne, 26% Grenache Blanc, and 12% Picpoul Blanc. This year, knowing how strong the Picpoul and Grenache Blanc were, we tried out some blends with high percentages of both, and ended up choosing in our blind trials (blind meaning we tasted not knowing the percentages in each wine) a blend that maxed out on Picpoul again. Happily, we now have more Picpoul in production than we did in 2009, and our preferred blend contained 55% Roussanne, 28% Grenache Blanc, and 17% Picpoul Blanc. This wine will be blended in the next month or so, be moved to foudre to age for another year, and be bottled next spring.

Once we'd decided on the Esprit Blanc blend, the other wines fell into place with remarkable speed.  I figure that our minimum quantity of Cotes de Tablas Blanc, for its various demands to our wine club, in our tasting room, and to the national market, is 1500 cases.  This wine is always led by Viognier, and using all our Viognier only made up 26% of a 1500-case lot. All the Marsanne made up 25% of the lot.  Because these two varieties were so strong, we were confident in that the finished wine would be great, and chose some of the brighter, more mineral-driven Grenache Blanc (25%), and some of the least assertive Roussanne (24%) to finish off the blend.  We tasted it, ready to make adjustments if necessary, and decided we couldn't think of anything that would improve it.  Those who get some 2015 Cotes Blanc are in for a treat.

At this point, we'd used all our Viognier, Marsanne, and Picpoul, and had enough Roussanne left for about 1200 cases of a varietal bottling, and enough Grenache Blanc for about 600 cases. And that, as often happens in short vintages, was that. Wednesday morning, we tasted the five wines we'll make from 2015 (including the Patelin de Tablas Blanc, that received one declassified Roussanne lot to add to its purchased fruit), to make sure that each felt complete and fell into its appropriate slot relative to the lineup.  They did: 

Blending2016_whites

We wrapped things up yesterday afternoon with a prowl through the cellar, tasting a selection of barrels to begin the process of wrapping our heads around the reds from 2015.

Blending2016_cellar

We won't blend those until late April, but it was clear that the vintage will be a strong one there too. As for the details, stay tuned.


Wrapping Our Heads Around Petit Manseng

On Friday, my dad, Neil, Tyler, Jordan and I sat down to taste through each vintage of Petit Manseng we've made (2010-2015) with the hopes of coming to a consensus on what we want out of this obscure, compelling grape.

Petit Mangeng vertical

Petit Manseng is a grape from southwest France, most notably the small appellation of Jurancon, where it produces naturally sweet wines with remarkable levels of acidity.  [For a detailed description of the history of the grape, check out this blog post from 2011.]  Unlike most grapes, whose acids fall off sharply as the grapes reach maturity, Petit Manseng maintains very high acids even as it concentrates to high sugar levels.  A chart of our sugar/acid levels at harvest since 2010 gives a sense of how consistently unusual this grape is:

Year Harvest Date °Brix at Harvest pH at Harvest
2010 October 15th 26.2° 3.10
2011 October 27th 25.0° 3.26
2012 October 1st 31.0° 3.28
2013 September 16th 27.0° 2.97
2014 October 1st 26.2° 3.06
2015 September 25th 28.2° 3.28

Because of the grape's high acids, it's not really feasible (or at least advisable) to make a dry wine out of it.  If you were to pick it at a sugar level that you might ferment dry to at 14% alcohol (23° Brix), the pH would likely be in the mid- to high-2's.  That would make for a searingly acidic wine. 

When we made the decision to bring the variety into the country (back in the early 2000's) we hadn't yet tried out the vin de paille process that we now use to make balanced sweet wines from our Rhone grapes.  So, to make a sweet wine was our original intent in acquiring Petit Manseng.  But by the time we got it into production, we'd established the three different Vin de Paille wines we make, and decided to look instead to an off-dry profile for Petit Manseng.  In this style, you don't let the grapes get to dessert wine concentrations (say, 33°-35° Brix and a pH of 3.4-3.6) but instead aim to pick between the acids and sugars you'd choose for a dry wine and those higher dessert wine levels, and plan to stop the fermentation when the balance of residual sugar and high acids are pleasing.  Typically, these wines carry alcohols somewhere around 14% (so, they're not fortified) and residual sugars in the 50 grams/liter range.  They can make remarkable dining companions with foods that are too sweet (think a coconut-based curry) or too unctuous (think foie gras) for a dry wine, but without enough sweetness to stand up to a dessert wine.

My notes on the wines are below, with links to each wine's page for detailed production notes.  I have a few conclusions at the end.

  • 2010 Petit Manseng (66 g/l residual; 13.6% alcohol): A tropical nose of lychee and pineapple, maybe preserved citrus.  Nice freshness in the mouth, with spun sugar and tropical fruit balanced by lemony acidity.  Tyler said it "put Jimmy Buffett in my head".  Very fresh still, and didn't seem to have changed much from when it was released.
  • 2011 Petit Manseng (26 g/l residual; 14.6% alcohol): Less sweet and more savory on the nose, almost riesling-like with petrol and citrus leaf, maybe a hint of lime. There's also a little noticeable oak that adds an interesting spice element. Unlike the 2010, this is definitely not sweet enough to be a dessert wine, and we thought that following what you might pair an auslese riesling would be a good start: spicy curry, or a banh mi with the sweet Vietnamese pickled vegetables.  Or a charcuterie plate.
  • 2012 Petit Manseng (42 g/l residual; 13.7% alcohol): The nose was easily the oldest of the flight, more like a traditional sweet wine and perhaps a touch of oxidation: crushed rock and butterscotch. On the palate, alluring in its way but without the characteristic freshness of the other vintages: candied orange peel and cream sherry, with a touch of burnt sugar. We thought it would be great with a salty cheese like manchego.
  • 2013 Petit Manseng (63 g/l residual; 13.8% alcohol): The nose was beautiful: caramel, candied lemon, rocks and key lime. Quite sweet on the palate, but with almost electric acids (it was harvested at 2.97 pH, after all) and a savory, chalky, citrus leaf tannin mouthfeel. This was a somewhat polarizing wine, without perhaps some of the nuance of the less sweet/tart vintages but with amazing zesty appeal.
  • 2014 Petit Manseng (33 g/l residual; 14.7% alcohol): A nose like the 2010, tropical with lychee and maple syrup, and an appealing briny mineral note. On the palate, more like 2011, though without the hint of new oak: less sweet and less acidic than the 2013, a gentler wine, also appeared a little more mature.  On the mouth, preserved lemon and crushed rock, lightly sweet.  Try pairings like the 2011.
  • 2015 Petit Manseng (barrel sample; 79 g/l residual; 13.7% alcohol): Still cloudy and a little unformed on the nose, with orange peel and fennel coming out.  On the palate, quite sweet and appley, like honeycrisp apple juice concentrate, though with good acids cleaning things up at the end.  We'll try to keep this fermenting a bit longer.

Conclusions
In terms of direction, we decided that we wanted to aim going forward at something toward the middle of our range, where, curiously, we didn't have an example: something like 50 g/l residual at around 14% alcohol, with bright acids, though maybe not quite as intense as the 2013. Split the difference between 2010 and 2011, or between 2013 and 2014, we thought.

All the wines, with the exception of the 2012, were still showing very youthfully.  As both sugar and acid act as preservatives in wine, that's hardly surprising.  But it was nice to see nonetheless.

We all decided that we preferred the clear bottle (and the 500ml package) to the 750ml green bottle.  So, look for it to make its return with the 2015 vintage, to be bottled this summer!