Addressing Syrah Decline (or, If You Change Your Mind...)

OK, maybe I should have picked a different title, just so that I wouldn't have ABBA running through my head for the rest of the day. But it seemed appropriate. 

Step 4 new growth 2

We have been concerned with low yields on our Syrah. Typically a pretty vigorous producer, our Syrah yields have declined more than the rest of the vineyard, from an average of 3.4 tons/acre between 2003 and 2008 to just 2.2 tons/acre since 2009. Some of this can be attributed to the frost years of 2009 and 2011, and the drought we've seen since, but even in the otherwise vigorous year of 2012 yields were just 2.6 tons/acre, and they declined all the way to 1.5 tons/acre last year. Low yields in Syrah are a particular concern because typically we prefer it with somewhat higher yields, which can soften its often-powerful tannins and increase its complexity by lengthening its hang time.

Our largest and oldest block of Syrah, on the western edge of our original property, seems most to blame. We attribute its decline to at least two issues. Much of the block is low enough, and on flat enough ground, that it gets frozen even when most of the rest of the vineyard escapes. While a grapevine generally recovers after a single frost, repeated frosts, year after year, can lead to significant vine mortality. And so it was in this block. Compounding its problems, that Syrah block has also shown significant symptoms of trunk diseases, where fungal infections get inside the bark and gradually choke off the vine's ability to nourish the new growth further down the cordon. This has led to additional vine mortality, as well as decreased yields in the remaining vines.

Although we think we've mitigated the trunk disease issue by switching that Syrah block to a new trellis system that produces new growth each year rather than relying on the same cordons, there are so many missing and weak vines that we have decided that the only real solution is to pull the block out and start over. But even with its declining yields, that block still accounts for roughly half our Syrah production each year. So we've been struggling with when to pull the plug over there and wait out the 4 years it will take to get the vineyard replanted and in production, and what to do to keep our Syrah crop reasonable in the interim.

Our solution: graft over a two-acre Roussanne block to Syrah, and get that in production before we pull out the old block. We've got plenty of Roussanne -- about 16 acres overall -- and often find in our white blending that we have surplus to what we really need. We looked in April at the different Roussanne blocks to see if we could find one that we wouldn't miss too badly if it went away. And there is such a block, which over the last several years has usually finished toward the bottom of our rankings in the blind varietal tastings that we do to start each blending session.

Step one in the changeover was to go through and cut off the tops of the existing Roussanne vines, which we did in early May. We then let the vines bleed for a few weeks to reduce the sap pressure that can interfere with the connection between the new buds and the existing trunk:

Step 1 saw off cordons

Next, we came through (the photo below is from mid-May) and cleaned up the vine tops, peeling back the bark to allow a clean graft:

Step 2 clean off bark

Then, two weeks ago, we brought in a specialist grafting crew to come through, cut little wedges out of each Roussanne trunk and shape Syrah buds to fit into the wedges, slot the buds in place and tape the graft unions together:

Step 3 graft and wrap

Now, 2 weeks later, the buds are starting to sprout:

Step 4 new growth

This year, we'll let the new bud grow into a cane, and over the winter we'll start to train it into the shape we'll want for the finished vine. We won't get any crop this year, but we will get a small crop next year and a full crop, supercharged by the 20-year-old vine roots, the year after. We did the same thing with our old Chardonnay block in 2013 -- grafting half of it to Mourvedre and half to Counoise -- and got a good crop off of that block last harvest. One of the Counoise vines today:

Final - Counoise ex-Chard 2

If you're interested in seeing this in action, check out the video we made in 2013 of that Chardonnay/Counoise changeover. The voice you hear is our former Viticulturist Levi Glenn, explaining: 

What will we do with the old Syrah block? We're not sure yet. Given its tendency to be frost prone, at least in the lower parts of the block, It's probably not ideal for the early-sprouting Syrah. But for something like Mourvedre? That seems like a slam dunk. Stay tuned.


Pennsylvania is on the verge of allowing direct wine shipping!

Don't faint.

This afternoon, I saw an alert from Free the Grapes that the Pennsylvania Legislature passed House Bill 1690 by a tally of 157-31. The bill is on its way to Governor Tom Wolf's desk, and while he has not indicated that he will sign it1, the statement he posted on his Web site, the fact that he's on the record as supporting direct wine shipping, and the fact that the file name of the page calls the bill "historic" all seem encouraging:

Tom Wolf Statement

Although it does not do away with the state-run liquor stores, the bill does modernize the sales of alcohol in several ways. It allows wine to be sold in grocery stores (where beer is sold already) as well as in other establishments that sell prepared food. It allows state-run stores to be open more consumer-friendly hours, including on Sundays and holidays.  And it allows those same stores to implement discount and loyalty programs, which should be good for consumer prices.

Almost hidden in the announcements about the bill's passage were the sections that allow out-of-state wineries to apply for a $250 permit to ship wine to Pennsylvania consumers. As is typical in direct shipping bills, we will collect the sales taxes that are due the state, and remit them to the state.2 Of course, the permit details will have to be worked out; I couldn't find in the text of the bill anything about how often and to whom the tax reports would have to be filed.  But it looks fairly straightforward, which would place Pennsylvania into either Tier 2 or Tier 3 of my State of the Union, Wine Shipping Edition that I published early last year. The bill would go into effect 60 days after being signed by Governor Wolf.

As Pennsylvania is easily the largest state to prohibit direct wine shipping outright, it was at the top of the target list for wineries. But given the arcane and unique nature of Pennsylvania's liquor distribution system, and the breakdown of last year's negotiations over a Republican requirement to tie modernization with the privatization of the state stores, it really wasn't on my radar screen as a possibility this year. I'm evidently not the only one caught by surprise; the Free the Grapes home page today offered "hot topic" templates for contacting legislators in Rhode Island, Delaware, Arizona, and Oklahoma (but not Pennsylvania). Why was it revived?  Apparently, as a relatively uncontroversial way to help close a projected $1.6 billion budget shortfall. The additional liquor licenses, and the increases in liquor tax revenue, are projected to add an additional $150 million/year to the state's coffers.

FreethegrapesMore money for a state in need of it? More choice and potentially better prices for consumers? And access to consumers in the 6th-largest state in the country for wineries? Sounds like a win/win/win. Thank you, Free the Grapes, for staying on this.

Footnotes:
1. At 6am Wednesday, June 8th (PDT), Governor Wolf tweeted that he would sign the bill, calling it "historic" and "the most significant step to reform the liquor system in 80 years". 
2. An earlier version of this article indicated that purchasers would still be responsible for paying the 18% PA "Johnstown Flood Tax". It appears that this is not the case (!) and only the 6% statewide sales tax, plus any applicable county and city taxes, will be collected on direct wine shipments.


Tablas Creek is a 2016 Wine Blog Awards Finalist

WBA_logoI was excited to learn today that we are a finalist for the 2016 Wine Blog Awards. These awards, created in 2007 by the tireless Tom Wark to honor the growing number and quality of wine bloggers, have been awarded each year since.

This is the tenth year of the awards, and the eighth year where we've been a finalist. Our consistency is the accomplishment I'm proudest of. Blogging can be a slog at times. There is a start-up period where no one much is reading what you're saying. And then, after a few years in a seasonal, cyclical endeavor, it becomes a struggle to feel like you aren't just repeating yourself. In order to keep the blog feeling fresh and relevant, I've tried to bring new voices into the mix, and this past year, we've added two new series, both of which I think add fresh perspectives: the Eat Drink Tablas series featuring food & wine pairings by Suphada Rom, and the Q & A with Tablas series, where Lauren Phelps interviews some of the key members of our team.

Like last year, our category is "Best Winery/Industry Blog". There is one other returning blog from last year's finalists (last year's winning Berry Bros. & Rudd blog, from the venerable UK retailer). The other finalists are all new to the awards, though I was excited to see a personal local favorite (the Wine Lohr blog, from J. Lohr, which should win for its name alone). The other three entries are new to me, and I look forward to getting to know them over the next few days.  And, of course, ours is just one category; there are seven categories in all.  Getting to know the other finalists' work [click here] is always my favorite part of the whole process.  I hope that you will as well.  If, after doing so, you'd care to vote for us, we'd be honored.  The winner will be determined half by the voting of the judges, and half by the votes of the public.  Voting ends June 13th.

I like to celebrate these nominations by looking back at some memorable posts from the last year.  Here are ten of my favorites of the 62 entries we've posted in the last year, with a little about why each has stuck with me:

  • The Early Years of Tablas Creek. Last summer, I received a treasure trove of photographs from Dick Hoenisch, our original nursery and vineyard manager who has since moved on to a career in academia.  These photographs, from when we bought the property in 1989 through the original construction of our winery building in 1997, were like a time capsule that I think anyone who only knows us as a mature winery will find fascinating.
  • On the Rhone: a Post-Cruise Appreciation. My dad helped lead the Tablas Creek Rhone River cruise last August.  When he came back, he wrote up the experience vividly enough that you'll feel like you were there. The amazing photographs provided by Jeffery Clark, a wine club member on the cruise, are the icing on the cake.
  • Coming (Soon) to Fruition. I always love Chelsea Franchi's blogs because of their combination of intimacy and humor. Read this, and you'll know what it's like to anticipate (and dread) the onset of the harvest season. 
  • What's Next for the New Paso Robles AVAs. I was invited late last year to present at a continuing education law seminar, focused on the AVA approval process and prospects for the 11 Paso Robles sub-AVAs. It gave me a chance to look forward at what the future might look like. What these new AVAs mean (and should mean) in the marketplace is a fascinating question, and I enjoyed delving into it in some depth.
  • Customer Service Lessons from an Overcrowded Restaurant. I think this is one anyone can relate to: a favorite place that's just not on its game one night. But in the age of Yelp, the consequences to that place can be lasting. Hopefully, I helped someone, somewhere, avoid this.
  • A 60 Year Career in a Bottle of Delaporte Sancerre. A second piece by my dad, reflecting on opening a bottle of wine he'd first encountered (many vintages earlier) on his first buying trip to France. Even more fun: that same day, the original proprietor's great-grandson had presented the estate's newest wines to Vineyard Brands, the company he founded.
  • Braised Short Ribs: A Cold-Weather Pairing Fit for Rain or Snow. I could have picked any of Suphada's Eat Drink Tablas entries, but this was maybe my favorite: seasonal and delicious, with her super photographs illustrating every stage of the recipe.
  • Why the Future May Look a Lot Like the Crazy 2015 Vintage. This came out of my being invited to give the keynote address to a viticulture conference held here in Paso Robles. The opportunity to go back and look at what made 2015 so unusual was, I think, both instructive and unsettling.
  • The Swarm, the Hive, and Tablas Creek Honey. Viticulturist Jordan Lonborg's first blog was a knockout, taking you inside the quest to catch a wild swarm of bees. The photographs that accompanied the piece were equally amazing.
  • Grenache Blanc's Moment in the Sun. Some blogs take work to write. This was one that sprang onto the keyboard almost fully formed, thanks to conversations I'd had in recent weeks with both the Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast. Love seeing the attention for this grape that we introduced into California more than two decades ago.

Thank you for coming on this journey with me and with us: 660 posts in all since we began the blog in November of 2005. As we pass our ten year mark, it's gratifying to know that we're still going strong. And if you're still reading, but haven't checked out the other finalists, go do that now. Wine blogs, at their best, plunge you into the inner workings of a world that is still too often shrouded in mystique. Dive in.


Rethinking Group Tastings

You all know the group. Maybe you've even been a part of the group. Fourteen friends -- or maybe family -- out for a day in wine country. The van has been reserved for the day, so everyone can partake in the tastings. Your friend -- or cousin -- Phil is the master of ceremonies, and the life of the party. Most of the group likes wine, but only a few are really into the details. For everyone else, it's a fun day out, a chance to socialize and catch up. A few wineries make a great backdrop for the day's socializing.  Look familiar?

Wine Group Tasting Stock Photo

For a winery tasting room, or for our more serious visitors, these groups are a challenge.  They can come unexpectedly and monopolize the attention of one of our tasting room servers.  They tend to be loud and mostly interested in interacting with each other.  And while we can always find a way to fit another 2 or 4 people into one of our tasting bars, fitting in a new group of 10 or 14 isn't always possible.  Our focus has been on making sure that the core visitors who are our bread and butter are well taken care of, and over the last year or so we've been letting groups know that while we'd love to host them at a time when the tasting room is relatively quiet, we often can't accommodate large groups during our busy times.

Why? If we're looking at what the relative benefit is to us of a large group vs. a more traditional couple or party of 4, it's not close.  On average, large groups buy about 20% as much wine per person as smaller parties. We comp our tasting fee on the purchase of even one bottle, which has meant that less than 10% of our traditional tasters even pay it.  Historically, looking at our large groups, around 85% end up paying the tasting fee. While the tasting fee (barely) covers our costs, it's hardly possible to base a business on charging customers $15 for an hour of entertainment plus 6-8 tastes (between 1/4 and 1/3 of a bottle) of wine that averages $40/bottle.

At the same time, I hated the thought that we were turning away potential new customers.  Sure, they might not buy anything on this visit, but who's more likely to buy later -- either on a return trip to Paso Robles, or when they see Tablas Creek on a restaurant list or retail shelf -- someone who's spent a fun hour out here, or someone who's been told that we couldn't accommodate them and then went and had a fun hour at some other local winery?

So, while I knew that we were making the right decision about where to prioritize our efforts, I was never happy with the outcome.  Until now.

Those of you who visited before March of 2011 will remember our old tasting room, on the west side of our winery building. The below photo is from 2006 or thereabouts, with a second room (off-camera to the right) that had in very early days (pre-2005) been our conference room holding three additional tasting bars:

Tablas Creek Tasting Room Interior

We decommissioned this tasting room when we moved into our current space in 2011.  At that point, we turned the conference room back into a conference room and the original tasting room went back to being the office entrance it was between 1997 and 2002 while we waited for inspiration on what to use it for.

That inspiration is here.  Please welcome our two new group tasting spaces:

Old New TR Set

Seated Room Set

These spaces give us two options, one seated and one standing, for hosting groups. It gives each group a dedicated pourer and its own space. It allows them to be as focused (or as unfocused) as they like without impacting anyone else's experience.  It keeps their mini-buses and limousines from displacing our customers' cars from our parking lot.  And it allows us to keep our main tasting room focused on the experience of the couples and smaller groups who are our most important customers.

These new rooms are available to groups of 10 or more on weekends.  We ask that groups make a reservation (you would, wouldn't you?) but if we get a walk-in group and have the space available, we'll bring them back to the group space.  All the details for our group tastings, including tasting fees and available times, can be found on our Visiting Page.

I hope that this will make everyone's experience better, allow us to continue to take great, personal care of our visitors, and mean that the times when we have to say we just can't accommodate someone who wants to come visit are truly few and far between.  Meanwhile, if you've been a part of a particularly good group tasting somewhere, or you have any suggestions for our new program, I'd love you to leave a comment.


A Briny Pairing, No Ocean Required: Roasted Branzino and Picpoul Blanc

By Suphada Rom

The repertoire of wines that I work with at Tablas Creek are French-centric: Rhone, with a California inflection. This means that I'm surrounded by complex blends.  Still, we've tried to bring to light some of our lesser known varieties, to help people understand what makes them appealing. In fact, one of my favorite things about our tasting room experience is sharing some of the solo bottlings of things normally found in blends. Like Counoise. Or, when I have someone really interested in our white wines, Picpoul Blanc. 

If you've never had Picpoul Blanc before, you're definitely in for a treat. To me, it has acidity and citrus notes like a well balanced Sancerre, with structure similar to that of Muscadet. I am a huge fan of this grape variety, whether it's blended in small portions into our Esprit de Tablas Blanc or on it's own. By itself, it has this beautiful savory quality, and because of its structure and a minerality that is almost briny in character, I chose to pair this with roasted Branzino. Branzino is a Mediterranean white fish that is known under a few different monikers, including the French loup de mer. Known for its firm texture and light/delicate flavor, it's versatile in the kitchen. Roasting whole fish is one of my go-to's in the summer time, and although it's not technically summer yet, the longer days with the stretches of mid-eighty degree weather have got me feeling like it's time to break out some of my favorite summer recipes. Also, I often forget I live in beautiful Paso Robles, California, where there are certainly more days of warm weather and sun than I used to see in Vermont! A favorite recipe of mine is Roasted Branzino with Caper Butter (contributed by Steve Corry to Food & Wine Magazine). I couldn't resist roasting some fennel, onion, and potato additionally to this dish (so that's what I did!) Here are the results from what I consider to be a very successful pairing:

IMG_3294
The fish mise en place- the fish was incredibly fresh, purchased from the local fish monger

IMG_3296
"Food Styling"- Note to self, fennel is not very stylish, just very awkward!

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Stuffed with herbs and lemon, ready for roasting!

IMG_3316 rotate
Getting that skin nice and crispy in a well seasoned cast iron pan

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The caper and herb compound butter- the best part was it melting not only all over the crisp fish, but the roasted veggies, as well!

IMG_3325
Just about ready for that compound butter finishing touch!

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The finished product with our 2014 Picpoul Blanc

Picpoul Blanc is a grape variety that is known well in the southern realm of France, specifically in in the Pinet Region in the Languedoc where it is seen bottled in its pure form. Elsewhere in the Rhone Valley, it's typically used as a blending grape. It is one of the 13 grapes permitted in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, and one of the nine original varieties Tablas Creek brought over from our sister winery, Chateau de Beaucastel. It had never before been used here in California, and there are still fewer than 50 acres planted in the state.

Wine notes: our 2014 Picpoul Blanc was taken from a vintage where we saw early budbreak (in fact, our earliest to date!) followed by a consistently warm summer, until an unusually cool August slowed things back down. When the fruit did come in in September, we found that the extra hang time gave the fruit focused concentration and lushness along with the grape's typical bright acids. On the nose, the wine shows savory aromas of dried pineapple and light white flower aromatics, along with the slightest underlying smokiness. On the palate, things like pineapple juice and sweeter baking spices come to mind upon taking a sip. There is also this distinct minerality that reflects the limestone soils the vineyard is planted on. Most outstandingly, there is acidity! I love Picpoul's ability to bring such a savory nose to the table, while balancing that with a refreshing and tangy palate.

This wine and the Branzino brought a Mediterranean pairing full circle. Branzino's texture is rich, but subtle in it's flavors. You know that moment where there are so many tasty elements on a dish and you're trying your darndest to get a bit of everything in one bite? It is quite a struggle (and may require using the complete surface area of your fork!) but it's so worth it. The fish is light in texture and delicate in flavor. The skin, which is coated in caper butter, is crisp and crunchy (think about that sound when you squeeze a fresh baguette!). The fennel, potatoes, and onion, roasted simply with olive oil, salt, and pepper, were a great compliment to the dish. Just grab a forkful and don't forget to dredge it around. The caper herb butter was a great finishing piece of this dish, with it's creamy texture and briny taste. I am really looking forward to trying this recipe again in the heat of summer -- maybe I'll even (gasp) vary from the recipe and grill it!

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 2014 Picpoul Blanc is our featured wine of the month of May 2016! VINsiders get 30% off this wine, VINdependents get 20%, and retail consumers get 10% off. What are you waiting for? We only made 350 cases. Order it here.
  • The recipe for the Roasted Branzino with Caper Butter can be found here.
  • Looking for another wine to pair this with? Try our Vermentino!

The 2014 vintage was our third consecutive drought year and saw our earliest-ever beginning to the growing season.  The summer was warm but without serious heat spikes, and our coolest August in a decade slowed ripening at a critical period. When it warmed back up in September, the fruit tumbled in, and we finished in mid-October, about two weeks earlier than normal.  The result was a vintage with excellent concentration balanced by good freshness, which should be vibrant and powerful young, but with the balance to age. Our picpoul was harvested between September 17th and October 6th.

The Picpoul grapes were whole cluster pressed, and fermented using native yeasts in a mix of stainless steel and small, mostly neutral, barrels to achieve a balance of freshness and richness. It completed malolactic fermentation in barrel, and was blended in April 2015 and bottled in June 2015.

- See more at: http://www.tablascreek.com/wine/267/2014_Picpoul_Blanc#sthash.X28faPOC.dpuf

The 2014 vintage was our third consecutive drought year and saw our earliest-ever beginning to the growing season.  The summer was warm but without serious heat spikes, and our coolest August in a decade slowed ripening at a critical period. When it warmed back up in September, the fruit tumbled in, and we finished in mid-October, about two weeks earlier than normal.  The result was a vintage with excellent concentration balanced by good freshness, which should be vibrant and powerful young, but with the balance to age. Our picpoul was harvested between September 17th and October 6th.

The Picpoul grapes were whole cluster pressed, and fermented using native yeasts in a mix of stainless steel and small, mostly neutral, barrels to achieve a balance of freshness and richness. It completed malolactic fermentation in barrel, and was blended in April 2015 and bottled in June 2015.

 

- See more at: http://www.tablascreek.com/wine/267/2014_Picpoul_Blanc#sthash.X28faPOC.dpuf

The 2014 vintage was our third consecutive drought year and saw our earliest-ever beginning to the growing season.  The summer was warm but without serious heat spikes, and our coolest August in a decade slowed ripening at a critical period. When it warmed back up in September, the fruit tumbled in, and we finished in mid-October, about two weeks earlier than normal.  The result was a vintage with excellent concentration balanced by good freshness, which should be vibrant and powerful young, but with the balance to age. Our picpoul was harvested between September 17th and October 6th.

The Picpoul grapes were whole cluster pressed, and fermented using native yeasts in a mix of stainless steel and small, mostly neutral, barrels to achieve a balance of freshness and richness. It completed malolactic fermentation in barrel, and was blended in April 2015 and bottled in June 2015.

 

- See more at: http://www.tablascreek.com/wine/267/2014_Picpoul_Blanc#sthash.X28faPOC.dpuf

ROASTED BRANZINO WITH CAPER BUTTER CONTRIBUTED BY STEVE CORRY, PHOTO © JOHN KERNICK, PUBLISHED MARCH 2008, FOOD & WINE MAGAZINE.


Grenache Blanc's Moment in the Sun

A decade ago, there was a flurry of interest around Syrah.  A few years ago, it was Grenache.  This spring, it seems to be Grenache Blanc's moment in the spotlight.  In February, within a week of each other, I got phone calls from the Wine Spectator's MaryAnn Worobiec and the Wine Enthusiast's Matt Kettmann, each looking for insight into this grape that had impressed them in recent blind tastings.  The results of these conversations were published recently. [The Wine Spectator article is available behind their paywall, and the Wine Enthusiast article is free access.]

Grenache blanc rows in May

Why Grenache Blanc, and why now?  I've got a few theories.  

Grenache Blanc has an unusual and appealing combination of bright acids and full body.  
There are a few other grapes that can hit this, in the right climates (Riesling in a cold environment, or Chardonnay in a cool one, are two) but most white grapes exist somewhere on the continuum between bright and lean on one end, and rich and soft on the other.  Grenache Blanc, like its red-skinned cousin1, is a grape that typically comes in at high sugars (providing glycerine and richness) and high acids (providing freshness).  Take a look at its numbers from 2014 (our last relatively normal vintage) compared to our other white grapes:

Grape Avg. pH Avg. ° Brix
Viognier 3.51 20.8°
Marsanne 3.82 19.2°
Grenache Blanc 3.33 22.9°
Picpoul Blanc 3.17 22.0°
Roussanne 3.83 21.0°

The pH differences between Grenache Blanc and the Roussanne / Marsanne / Viognier trio is even more significant than the above chart likely suggests.  The pH scale is a logarithmic scale (so, a solution with a pH of 3 has ten times the acid concentration as one with a pH of 4, and one hundred times the acid concentration of one with a pH of 5, etc).  This means that Grenache Blanc, with a pH of 3.33, has 50.7% more acid ions than Viognier (pH 3.51), 214.4% more acid ions than Marsanne (pH 3.82), and 217.3% more acid ions than Roussanne (pH 3.83).  It's no wonder that even a small addition of a higher acid grape like this can have a major impact on the taste of a finished blend.2

And yet, with many high-acid grapes, you run the risk of thinning out the mouthfeel of a wine.  Not Grenache Blanc.  You can see from the above chart that even though its acids are high, it also has the highest average sugar content at harvest.

Grenache Blanc's ideal climate matches California's well.
For many of the world's most popular white grapes -- I'm thinking Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc here -- California is a challenging climate because of its sun and its warmth.  These grapes reach their peaks in relatively cool parts of France, and so in California, growers are searching for sites that have significant marine influence, or fog, or extreme altitude, because otherwise they end up picking in August and making wines without much complexity.  There just aren't that many spots like this in California, particularly not after you realize that most of these climates are also highly desirable as places to live.  Grenache Blanc is originally from Spain, whose warm, sunny climate far better approximates most of California's than does that of Burgundy, or of the Loire.  There are far more places where Grenache Blanc is likely to do well. So, whether you're looking in Paso Robles, in Santa Ynez, in Dry Creek, or in El Dorado, you're going to find people doing a good job with Grenache Blanc.  

Grenache Blanc is productive and relatively easy to grow.  
There are grapes that we feel like we fight with each year, either in yields or in keeping it balanced.  Viognier is famously low-yielding.  Roussanne and Marsanne (and Viognier, for that matter) pose challenges in keeping acidity levels while you wait for ripeness.  Viognier and Roussanne are both susceptible to drought-induced stress symptoms.  But Grenache Blanc is pretty easygoing.  Its yields are naturally higher than our other white grapes; over the last 10 years, it has averaged a healthy 4.2 tons/acre here, better than Marsanne (3.7 tons/acre), Picpoul (3.4 tons/acre), Roussanne (2.8 tons/acre), or Viognier (2.4 tons/acre).  This means that people can produce Grenache Blanc at a reasonable price, which translates into more affordable wines and more opportunities to get it in front of potential new customers.

Grenache Blanc blends well, but it's also good on its own.  
We originally planned to use our Grenache Blanc as a complement to our Roussanne and our Viognier, as is typically done in the Rhone.  And we still use Grenache Blanc as a supporting player in our Esprit de Tablas Blanc (behind Roussanne) and Cotes de Tablas Blanc (behind Viognier), as well as in a starring role in our Patelin de Tablas Blanc (along with Viognier, Roussanne, and Marsanne).  In a blend, it adds brightness, rich mouthfeel, sweet anise spice, and green apple fruit, all flavors that are easy to like and easy to incorporate.  But it has exceeded our expectations as a varietal wine.  We first bottled our Grenache Blanc in 2002, and we haven't missed a vintage since.  Part of the reason why is that, at least at first, it was new to many people, and having it on its own was a great educational tool.  But the more time we spent with it, the more we came to appreciate that it's a worthy and appealing grape on its own, textural and rich, bright and lively, with sweet spices on the attack and a dry finish.

Grenache Blanc ready for harvest

So, it's little surprise to me that in the last decade, Grenache Blanc plantings in California have grown from 101 acres to 333 acres, an increase of 229%.3  And based on all the reasons it's done well in recent years, as well as the new attention the wine press has been giving it, I fully expect this growth to continue.  It couldn't happen to a more deserving grape.

Footnotes

1 There is also a pink-skinned variant (Grenache Gris). For a longer dive into Grenache Blanc's history, characteristics, and family relations, check out this blog from 2010.

2 You might note that Picpoul shares most of the characteristics of Grenache Blanc.  It's one reason that if I had to lay bets on which Rhone white would be the next to be "discovered", Picpoul would be my answer.

3 Over that same 10-year period, Roussanne acreage has increased 96% to 347 acres, Marsanne acreage 90% to 131 acres, and Viognier acreage 34% to 2969 acres. Picpoul isn't sufficiently planted to be included in the California Grape Acreage Reports, which require 50+ acres to escape the category of "other".


From Music to Management- Q&A with Tasting Room Manager John Morris

By Lauren Phelps

I spent a lovely, spring afternoon on the wisteria-adorned patio discussing with John Morris the journey that has brought him to the role of Tasting Room Manager at Tablas Creek Vineyard.  John has been with Tablas Creek since 2006, was instrumental in the design of our new tasting room, and continues to lead a growing and diverse team of tasting room personnel as we try to keep providing memorable experiences to the over 30,000 people who come to visit us each year.

Where were you born and raised?
I was born and raised in Flint, Michigan, a town that’s been in the news a lot lately. Later I actually lived on the Flint River; the river in question was in our backyard. We canoed in it, we skated on it, we fished in it (but we didn’t eat the fish), we hunted snakes and frogs down there but we didn’t swim in it, it was too polluted.

John Little


When and how did you get into wine?
I first got into wine when I was living in Seattle, where I lived most of my adult life. I started getting into wine because I lived in a neighborhood with a nice little wine shop. I was most interested in European wines because they were inexpensive. Washington wines were available but they were expensive so I drank a ton of Rhones. Buying Cotes du Rhones were my go-tos; I could spend between $10 and $15 for wines that were quite good.


What has been your career path to where you are?
Because I didn’t plan at all and didn’t go to college, I wanted to be a musician and ended up in retail. Which led me into the coffee business, because I lived in Seattle and eventually into management in that field and did that for quite a while. The little coffee chain I worked for got bought by Starbucks and I worked for them for a short time but it quickly became untenable. So I went to work at DeLaurenti, an Italian import store that friends of mine had bought, which had a wine department that I talked myself into working at. I did that for about a year before I moved here to Paso. I knew I wanted to move to a warmer place, I knew I wanted to stay on the west coast, I knew I wanted to live somewhere rural but kind of cool, so wine country made sense. And it was just a matter of which location, so I moved to Paso and jumped right into the wine industry here.


In your view, what makes the Tablas Creek tasting room special?
The history of who we are and where we came from, working with Bob Haas, the people who work here, the wines. I guess that’s what makes it special to me. What makes it special to visitors may be more of your question. I think the way we’re set up, not just one long bar, makes a lot of sense. I think the customer service ethos that has trickled down from management to me to my staff makes it special.


What’s your biggest challenge as a Tasting Room Manager?
Making a schedule juggling up to twenty people, with many people who are part time or work in other departments, they’re seasonal, and they’re needed at different times in the wine club or the cellar. We all have different needs at different times. You know, managing people is both rewarding and can have its challenges so that’s a big challenge- having a big crew and keeping them together on the same path. Saturdays (our busiest day of the week) trying to let people come in to enjoy themselves without it getting too loud and disruptive for the serious wine buyers is key.


Which are your other favorite wineries and tasting rooms locally or around the state?
I don’t get out as much as I used to now that I’m a parent. There are a lot of great wineries, I think Denner is making really great wines, Terry Hoage is making great wine. The new tasting room at Halter Ranch is pretty spectacular. When I’m out looking for wines I’m looking for things you can’t find here, European wines that I miss. I love Arcadian down in Santa Barbara county, I still love what Bonny Doon does. Those are just a couple that stand out.


What’s your favorite wine region in the world – other than your own?
I would choose one region only is would be Piemonte in Northern Italy, home of the Nebbiolo grape, Barolo, Barbaresco, Dolcettos, Barbera, Arneis. I love how they tend to be light in weight but heavy in flavor if that make any sense… I love the acidity of Italian wines: the fact that they don’t coat your palate but they have great depth of flavor and they go well with a lot of the foods that I like.

How do you spend your days off?
Working around the house and in the garden. We’ve had a hobby farm, a little market garden for the last several years. I like working outside more than anything.


What would people be surprised to know about you?
I used to play really kind of obscure free-jazz/Prog-rock music and it used to be the main part of my life. I played electric bass in Seattle starting when I was about 25 until I was about 45. I’m attracted to pretty obscure music which is probably why I never made any money at it.


If you weren’t managing a tasting room for a living, what would you be doing?
What would I like to be doing? If I had started earlier and owned more property, maybe an organic farmer. Maybe if I had been a starving farmer like I had been a starving musician, I could have made that happen.


How do you define success?
Success is happiness. That’s all there is to it… finding what makes you happy. The thing that’s really interesting is when you get older, you find that that changes. I’ve found that a couple of times in my life, what was working beautifully, I couldn’t understand that it wasn’t working anymore… so you have to shift. I think staying on that path where you’re satisfying what makes you happy which I think is having enough good friends, making enough money to live comfortably and enjoying what you’re doing every day to make a living.

  John


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.