A Chicken Recipe Worth Writing Home About

[Editor's Note: With this blog, we welcome a new author, Suphada Rom, who will be bringing her restaurant background to bear on recipes and food and wine pairings in a series we're calling Eat Drink Tablas. I can't tell you how excited I am about this.]

Hi everyone, my name is Suphada and I’m excited to be starting Eat Drink Tablas, a food and wine series for the blog! A little background on me, I am a native of Vermont with an outstanding passion for both wine and food. After college, I worked in a restaurant for four years, where I tasted many different dishes and wines, including Tablas Creek. I fell in love with the whole profile of Tablas Creek: the wines, the family, the story... the whole thing got me more jazzed about a career in the wine industry. A year ago (though It seems like just yesterday) I moved from the East coast to work at Tablas Creek, and every day has presented something new and exciting. You can find me in just about every department, from pouring wine in the tasting room to working with our wine club or events, to sorting grapes in the cellar.  It’s all great! I am beyond thrilled to be working for such an incredible winery and wondering how I got so lucky as to be here, doing what I do.

CrushinGrapes

After moving out from New England, I thought I was done with winter.  And yet, the first post of Eat Drink Tablas is a cold weather pairing. In New England, at this point in the year, I was cooking not only to feed myself, but also to keep warm!  Well, it’s winter here in Paso Robles, and believe it or not, it’s cold.  Before we receive any outrage from the colder regions of the country, I need to clarify that it’s cold compared to my previous perception of California winter.  But even non-natives are talking about how cold it's been, with most nights this month dropping below freezing, and recent days topping out only in the 40's.  This morning, as I took my normal commute to Tablas, the sun caught the branches just right, exposing the sparkles of frost that had accumulated overnight. But given the brevity of California winters, all the more important to share now a recipe that will keep you warm and full when it's chilly outside.

Winter for me signals roasting, braising, or baking just about anything. Any excuse to turn on an oven to warm up my (what feels like freezing!) home is all right in my book. I've got an arsenal of tried-and-true recipes, and this Garam Masala Crusted Chicken with Fig Jus (originally from DeWolf Tavern in Bristol, Rhode Island, via Food & Wine Magazine) is one of them. I have a love/hate relationship with chicken, because well, it’s kind of a “meh” protein, especially when you size it up next to pheasant, duck, and other fowl. I promise that this recipe does not disappoint. The chicken is well spiced and is finished nicely with a fig jus. I love using the smaller chickens versus the larger- I find them to be a bit more flavorful and I love the skin to meat ratio (because that crunchy flavorful skin is what dreams are made of!). It is truly a great balance of sweet and spicy flavors, along with being quite succulent.  The result, from this morning:

ChickenWine_crop

Oven roasting the chicken allowed the spices to bake as well, creating an almost smoky nuance. The only change I made to the recipe was to add about a 1/2 teaspoon of apple cider vinegar to the finished sauce, to cut some of the sweetness from the figs.

We chose two wines to pair with this dish, both based on Grenache, the most widely planted variety in the southern Rhone valley and a grape known for its balance of lush fruit and bright acids, flavors of red fruit and plum, and softer tannins. The garam masala (a blend of ground spices typically including coriander, cinnamon, and nutmeg) adds flavors that are richly aromatic without being spicy or hot,  and the bright acids of Grenache offer contrast and refreshment. We chose to open bottles of our 2013 Cotes de Tablas (55% Grenache, 30% Syrah, 10% Counoise and 5% Mourvedre) in addition to our 2013 Grenache with this dish, and found both to pair nicely.  2013 is a vintage that is still young, though quite intense, and we liked the youthful tannins and fresh acids in both wines cut through and provided contrast with the crunchy, spice crusted skin. I felt that this was a case where the dish provided something the wine did not (smoke), but it worked because it wasn’t overwhelming. 

Cotes_crop

So this holiday season, turn down your heater, turn up the oven, and fix yourself this warm and comforting meal. If you do (or create a TCV wine and food pairing of your own!) be sure to let us know on any of our social media handles, be it Facebook or Twitter or Instagram - or just leave us a comment here!  When you do, tag @tablascreek and use #EatDrinkTablas

A few other resources:

  • For the recipe for garam masala crusted chicken with fig jus, click here.
  • Also, check out PRWCA’s How To Master Holiday Meal Wine Pairings.
  • You can order the 2013 Cotes de Tablas online here, or find it in distribution around the country.
  • The 2013 Grenache is a smaller production wine that was a part of our fall 2015 wine club shipment. Learn more about the VINsider Wine Club here.

What's next for the new Paso Robles AVAs

Last month, I had the pleasure of sitting on a panel discussing the process behind and prospects for the 11 new Paso Robles AVAs (short for American Viticultural Areas). This panel was a part of a conference organized by the Continuing Education of the Bar (CEB), for attorneys interested in wine law from around California.  Joining me on the panel were Steve Lohr (of J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines, another founding member of the Paso Robles AVA Committee) and Carol Kingery Ritter (of Dickenson, Peatman & Fogarty, the law firm that shepherded the AVAs through the federal approval process). [Map below, courtesy of Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance. Click to enlarge, or here for a PDF that also includes descriptions of the sub-AVAs.] 

AVA Map w 11 AVAs

Much of the discussion focused on how the AVAs came to be: the genesis of the idea, the research that took place to discover and support how to draw the boundaries, and the convoluted process that took place once the petition had been submitted to the TTB, lengthened by the TTB's decision to reconsider the fundamental nature of AVA labeling after receiving the submission.  I've written about all of these, and particularly the TTB's struggle with the concept of nested AVAs, on the blog in the past (you can find them all by scrolling through the Legislation and Regulation category tag).  I won't repeat those thoughts here, though I encourage anyone interested in the often convoluted regulations that govern the production, marketing and sales of wine to explore the archive at their leisure.

More interesting, to me, were the questions I received about why I thought the approval of the AVAs a good thing for Paso Robles, and how I saw them being used in the marketplace.  I'll dive into both topics in this blog.

Why the 11 AVAs area a good thing for Paso Robles

For me, there are three main reasons why the approval of the AVAs are good for the Paso Robles region as a whole.  

  1. Their approval is a concrete data point that the region is maturing. When the Paso Robles AVA was first proposed and approved back in 1983 it contained only five bonded wineries and fewer than 5000 planted acres of vineyard.  Big swaths of the AVA, including the area out near us, were largely untouched by grapevines.  In the last thirty years, Paso Robles has grown to encompass some 280 wineries and 32,000 vineyard acres.  Until the new AVAs were approved, it was the largest unsubdivided AVA in California, at 614,000 acres. By contrast, the Napa Valley appellation (which includes sixteen AVAs delineated within its bounds) is roughly one-third the area at 225,000 acres. The growth of the region has been a story in itself in recent years, but the approval of the AVAs is something tangible and official that encourages press, trade and consumers to take a new look at what Paso Robles has become. 
  2. The approval was done collectively, as a region.  There were 59 different Paso Robles growers and wineries involved in the Paso Robles AVA Committee, and the work was done hand-in-hand with the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance.  This cooperation allowed the region to push (and eventually pass) a conjunctive labeling law, which guarantees that any winery who uses one of the sub-AVAs on their label will also be required to state Paso Robles equally prominently.  This safeguard ensures that the region will keep the accumulated marketing capital that we've all been working to build in the national and international marketplace.  And the cooperative nature of the AVA Committee reinforced the bonds of our community, which is in my experience a rare and valuable point of distinction for Paso.
  3. It provides a framework for wineries, sommeliers, and wine educators to discuss the incredible diversity of Paso Robles.  Those of us making wine here have been talking for years about how varied the climate, soils, and geography are in Paso Robles, and largely relying on anecdotal descriptions to support our points.  The research that went into the AVAs puts these facts at our fingertips, and facilitates the discussions that show why Paso Robles can make world class wines from grapes as diverse as Cabernet, Syrah, Roussanne, Mourvedre and Zinfandel.  As a quick summary: 
    • The Paso Robles AVA stretches roughly 42 miles east to west and 32 miles north to south. 
    • Average rainfall varies from more than 30 inches a year in extreme western sections (like where Tablas Creek is) to less than 10 inches in areas farther east. 
    • Elevations range from 700 feet to more than 2400 feet. 
    • Soils differ dramatically in different parts of the AVA, from the highly calcareous hills out near us to sand, loam and alluvial soils in the Estrella River basin. 
    • The warmest parts of the AVA accumulate roughly 20% more heat (measured by growing degree degree days) than the coolest.  This difference in temperatures is enough to make the cooler parts of the AVA a Winkler Region II in the commonly used scale of heat summation developed at UC Davis, while the warmest sections are a Winkler Region IV.  This is the equivalent difference between regions like Bordeaux or Alsace (both Winkler II areas) and Jumilla or Priorat (both Winkler IV areas).

How I expect to see the AVAs used in the marketplace

A criticism that I see commonly tossed out by the opponents of new AVAs (and not just Paso Robles') is that an AVA may be approved before it has meaning in the marketplace.  To me, that's putting the cart before the horse.  At the time ours were approved, really only the Templeton Gap AVA had any particular association in the market, and that was mostly as a geographical feature more than as a delineated area (in fact, much of what locals refer to as the Templeton Gap lies west of the Paso Robles AVA entirely).

Given that relative lack of market knowledge about the sub-regions of Paso Robles, should the TTB have denied the petition?  If they had, it's hard to see how these regions could ever be recognized.  Drawing the lines is an essential step in allowing those regions to develop an identity.  At that point, it's up to the wineries within (or at least, who source grapes from) those regions to make their names.  If they're successful at associating the region with quality and distinctiveness, the market will follow.  What is key is that the lines are drawn using good science, and I think that it's here that the Paso Robles petitions were particularly strong.  The climate, soils, and elevation studies that went into the proposals were the most comprehensive that the TTB has ever received, and I believe they will stand the test of time.

To get a sense of how we're using the new AVA designations, take a look at some of the wines that we bottled during the second half of this year.  You can see several (Tannat, Petit Manseng, Mourvedre, Cotes de Tablas Blanc, and Panoplie) with the new Adelaida District AVA noted.  The Patelin de Tablas, which incorporates fruit from four of the sub-AVAs, retains the umbrella Paso Robles AVA.  The Full Circle Pinot Noir, sourced from my dad's property about 8 miles south-east of us, carries the Templeton Gap AVA (click the photo to expand it):

LG Group

The distinctions between these different labels will make it easier for us to tell their stories: whether they are estate or not.  Whether they are single-vineyard or not.  Whether they are from our home vineyard or not.  And the fact that they all say Paso Robles should keep the market from being confused as to the bigger picture.

If I had to look into my crystal ball, I'd guess that of the 11 AVAs, there will be 4 or 5 that will achieve some market recognition within the next few years.  There will be another 2 or 3 that will achieve it, but somewhat later.  And there will be a few that never achieve much recognition in the market, either because there doesn't develop a critical mass of wineries located within that AVA to champion their AVA, or because the wineries that are located there decide that they would prefer to remain associated with Paso Robles rather than their sub-region.  And that's OK.  How many AVAs can anyone but the most bookishly-inclined sommelier name?  Even among wine lovers, most would be hard-pressed to name more than 30 of the 231 approved AVAs (as of November 2015).  If Paso Robles can add a few more to the common lexicon, it's a win for all of us here, and for wine lovers everywhere.


En Primeur: a Tablas Creek tradition since 2003

By Lauren Phelps

Today, we were joined by many of our most enthusiastic wine club members for our annual futures tasting, which provides the first opportunity for anyone outside the cellar to taste (from barrel) our newest vintage of Esprit de Tablas and Panoplie.  

Group
Our Cellar, Newly Decorated for the Holidays

For a little background, 13 years ago we began offering wine en primeur, which is a time-honored French tradition most often associated with first-growth Bordeaux estates. In outstanding vintages, valued customers are offered the opportunity to secure a limited quantity of sought-after wines at a special price in advance of bottling and subsequent general release.

Info
The Tasting List

Our focus today was on the 2014 vintage, which we have felt since blending may turn out to be one of our best.  We showed our two top red wines from the vintage, the Esprit de Tablas and Panoplie, each of which was blended this past spring.  They have been resting in foudre until this morning's tasting, and are only about halfway through their barrel aging; they'll remain in foudre until bottling next summer.

Bottles
The Wines

Jason Haas provided a bit of context for the tasting by summarizing how 2014 compared to other recent vintages, while Viticulturist Levi Glenn and Winemaker Neil Collins dove into the details of the challenges and opportunities that 2014 presented in the vineyard and cellar.  Finally, Robert Haas shared his thoughts on how these wines have come together and express themselves, and where they may go in the future.

The 2014 vintage produced wines that are notably luscious, but with good tannins behind them. Jason compared it to 2007, a similarly intense vintage with plenty of fruit balanced by substantial but ripe tannins.  We think that the wines will be impressive young (they showed very well today) but will also be among the most ageworthy we've made.

Neil
Neil (foreground) and Levi (behind) speak to the group

Bob
Founder Robert Haas

We find that often the most interesting topics are raised by the participants in our events, and very much enjoyed the lively question and answer session that followed the vintage discussion and tasting.

Wreath
A wreath hangs on a Roussanne tank

Because we feel it is important to taste these wines both on their own and with food, we asked Chef Jeffery Scott to make a dish that would pair well with them.  He chose a coq au vin, braised in syrah, and we contributed the 2008 Esprit de Beaucastel out of our library to give guests a chance to see how a (relatively) mature version of the wine might look. [Editor's note: we're working with Chef Jeff to get the recipe, or at least a version that doesn't require a 3-day preparation of the stock, and will post it here on the blog if and when we do.]

Yum
Chef Jeffery Scott's delicious coq au vin

We hold this tasting every year, always in early December, if you're setting your calendars for next year. And if you missed the tasting,  you haven't missed your opportunity to buy the wines at their futures-only discount. Members interested in ordering wine en primeur should contact our Wine Club team no later than Monday either by email at vinsider@tablascreek.com or by phone at 805.237.1231 x36.

Mavis
Mavis


Photos of the Day: Hand-Grinding Quinces

We've picked all our grapes, and our olives.  The stone fruits like peaches, nectarines and plums are long past.  The vineyard is largely dormant after several frosty nights last week, and the cover crop sprouting.  But there is one type of fruit tree that still had fruit hanging: our quinces.  A quince, if you haven't had one, looks like an oversized, lumpy lemon, but tastes like a tart, crunchy apple.  In texture, it's harder and less juicy than an apple.  Quinces are a part of the same family as apples and pears, and have some resemblances to each, but they are honestly not great eating solo, so are typically used in one of two ways.  You can juice them, and either enjoy the taste -- like freshly pressed cider, but zestier -- or ferment it into a sparkling cider.  Or you can cook them down into paste or jelly, at which point it's a great accompaniment to cheeses.

Both of these seem like good ideas to us, so we'll try splitting our production between the two uses.

Of course, we only have two trees, so we're not talking about industrial quantities here.  Cellar Master Craig Hamm brought in the hand-cranked press that his family used to make homemade apple cider, and he and Gustavo Prieto spent a good chunk of the morning grinding up the pieces of quince by hand:

Pressing Quinces

Looking down into the mouth of the grinder produced a cool image, like spun gold.  You can see the pieces of quince at the bottom, being slowly ground up:

Quince grinder

Because of the woody texture of the quinces, all this was a lot of work.  But the results -- once Gustavo has cooked down the quince mash, and once Craig and the cellar team have fermented the roughly 5 gallons of juice -- will hopefully be worth the effort.  

By the way, if you're wondering what we're doing growing two quince trees, they are a part of our biodynamic program. We've spent the last several years building as much diversity as we can into the vineyard.  Viticulturist Levi Glenn, who oversees the program, wrote a super introduction a few years back: Animal Farm: The Benefits of Biodiversity in the Vineyard.

As for the quinces, stay tuned!


We Taste a Vertical of Full Circle Pinot Noir, 2010-2015

For the last six vintages, we have found ourselves in the Pinot Noir business.  This is, of course, because we've been making wine from the 3-acre vineyard outside my dad's house in Templeton, on which he decided to plant Pinot Noir due to the cool microclimate, the north-facing hillside, and the calcareous soils so reminiscent of Burgundy.  [For the full story, see the blog from 2013 Robert Haas comes Full Circle on Pinot Noir.]  Each year that we make it, we've felt we learn something important about the winemaking of this notoriously fickle grape.  So, now that the oldest vintage is five years old, we decided to open all of them to see what larger trends we could discern.  The lineup:

Pinot Vertical

My notes on the wines:

  • 2010 Full Circle: The nose was rich but not particularly signed by Pinot: figgy, a little chocolaty, with some dusty, resinous, non-fruit element too.  The mouth is clean, plummy and savory, with bakers' chocolate and cola flavors and nice balance.  Just a little hint of age.  Quite a nice wine, but without the vibrant high-toned fruit we associate with Pinot.
  • 2011 Full Circle: The nose felt more massive than the first wine, with chocolate-covered cherry, coffee grounds, and a hint of oxidation.  The mouth is richer than the 2010, with bigger tannins and some still-unresolved oak.  The finish was long, though a touch pruney.  More like many California pinots we taste, a touch on the massive side for us.
  • 2012 Full Circle: The nose is deeper, more savory, with a little brooding black cherry and some baking spices.  The mouth shows clean dark fruit, with nice acids... kind of a sweet/tart black cherry skin experience.  Still pretty tannic.  We liked the weight and the acids, and thought that they both boded well for the wine's future.
  • 2013 Full Circle: The first wine, for me, whose nose was immediately recognizable as Pinot, vibrant and spicy, with the signature red cherry skin and sarsaparilla aromas.  The mouth was also classic, clean and refreshing if not particularly concentrated.  Silky, with some oak evident on the finish.  A delicate wine, quite classic, which should be fun to get in front of people in the next year.
  • 2014 Full Circle (from barrel): The nose was rich with watermelon and plum fruit and undertone of cola that marks it as pinot.  The mouth showed more watermelon fruit, still some youthful tannins and a little sweet oak.  This was most of the group's favorite, though I preferred the lighter-bodied 2013.
  • 2015 Full Circle (from barrel, only free run juice): The nose was primary, still grapey, very powerful.  The mouth was still so young (it hasn't even gone through malolactic fermentation yet) that it was hard to evaluate.  I got kiwi and passionfruit (likely from the malic acid), maraschino cherry, with good tannins and acids.  It seemed like it struck a nice balance in style between the elegance of the 2013 and the power of the 2014.

For me, the tasting was particularly interesting because of how many of the characteristics I really like in our Rhone reds (like weight and texture) tended to me to obscure the ethereal character I like best in Pinot Noirs.  So, the classic ways of judging how strong a wine or a vintage was didn't really work for this tasting.  The 2013 was easily the lightest in color of the tasting, and had the least body... but it was my favorite.  Go figure.

In any case, it was clear to everyone around the table that we're learning every year, and that every year we have done a little better at allowing the grape's essential character to show through.  The vines won't hit 10 years old until 2017, so we're going to have to remind ourselves to be patient with them.  I remember this being hard when our main vineyard was this age... we wanted to somehow accelerate a process that just takes time.


In the spirit of a winemaker- Q & A with Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi

Editor's Note: This is the second interview in a series that we hope will help readers get to know the key people at Tablas Creek a little better.  If you have questions for Chelsea, please leave them in the comments.

By: Lauren Phelps

I recently sat down with Chelsea and asked her a few questions about her life, what brought her into the wine industry and how she became an essential member of the Tablas Creek family.

Tablas-161-Edit

Where were you born and raised?

I grew up in El Dorado Hills, the Sierra Foothills of California in an area between Tahoe and Sacramento. Which is now an exceptional wine growing region but when I was living there I didn’t notice much of a focus on winemaking. We went back up last year and the wineries there just blew me away. It is just so cool to see what people are producing up there. We found a lot of Rhone producers and a lot of great Barbera.

When and how did you get into wine?

My parents were always really into wine, not in a professional sense, but we always had wine open for dinner. I grew up with wine and was surrounded by people in the wine industry. Wine was never an industry that seemed overly romantic, it always seemed attainable.

When you went to Cal Poly, was your intention to become a Winemaker?

It was a rather serendipitous turn of events because both of my parents went to Cal Poly, and had met there so I always knew I was going to go there. Originally I applied for business but was only accepted after I reapplied under ag-business with an intention of later switching my major. After taking a few of the ag-business classes I realized that I really liked the people in that major and if they were any indication of the people I was going to be working with professionally for the rest of my career I decided, I can do this. So I stayed in ag-business and thanks to my advisor’s recommendation I tried wine and viticulture which turned out to be a great fit.

Can you tell me a little about how you started working at Tablas Creek?

Initially when I was going to school at Cal Poly I knew I really wanted to work at a winery and I applied to Tablas Creek. I had been wine tasting here and the Esprit Blanc, in particular, changed the way I thought about wine, not just in Paso Robles, but I fell in love with the Esprit Blanc and the other Tablas wines too. At the time, the only available job at Tablas Creek was a greeter at the door of the tasting room. I had just turned 21 and I knew that being a greeter wasn’t what I wanted to do but it was where I wanted to do it. After a while, I was able to worm my way into the tasting room which I really loved. I loved being able to talk to people about wine and about all of the crazy things I was learning about at Cal Poly. Then when I graduated I knew I wanted to go into production and thankfully Tablas Creek created a cellar position for me. That was at the end of 2007 and I’ve been here ever since.

Why did you transition from the business side to wine making?

I think it was mostly growing up with a more tomboy sensibility; I always liked the idea of a challenging physical job and being able to create a tangible physical object at the end of the day: this is what I made with my hands today. I really liked the idea of creating something, especially if it’s something that you’re really proud of.

What is your general winemaking philosophy?

I think it’s to make the best wine you possibly can. I have definitely adopted the Tablas Creek philosophy which is that it starts in the vineyard. The way that we do things in the vineyard is so labor intensive, handpicked… everything is hand-done, in the cellar too, we don’t have the high tech equipment that some of the newer wineries do. Everything is very traditional. We are actually touching every single berry that goes into the tanks and I think that makes a difference. I am surrounded by very passionate people and it’s very infections. You can’t help to love what you do.

Who are your favorite winemakers in history, through personal account, or their wines?

Growing up I always liked the Au Bon Climat wines. The things that Jim Clendenen does with his wines and that winery are incredible. Those wines have always been so consistently good, consistently beautiful and elegant. John Alban, I mean, he’s John Alban! Those two guys are just historically notable. They don’t just make wines to follow trends they both commit to consistency and quality.

What’s your favorite wine region in the world – other than your own?

That definitely changes, but for the last couple of years, I’ve really been into the wines of Portugal mostly because they are lesser known, especially here, and you have to hunt them out. And when you do find them, a lot of them are rustic, and I really like that. The wines are not overly polished, they’re cool and country. I love the earthiness, the smokiness. And going to Portugal a couple of years ago and being able to understand the wine within the context of its culture, its cuisine and understand the terrior more intimately was just so great. It makes so much more sense when you have that complete picture.

What’s the best wine you’ve ever tasted? The most interesting?

The best wine I ever tasted was a 1985 Stags Leap cabernet. My parents had purchased it, as it was my birth year, and on my 21st birthday my parents took me to Napa. We had an over-the-top fantastic tasting experience and for dinner that night we opened that bottle of ‘85, it was such a great experience, being there with my parents and celebrating with them like that. That is one thing about winemaking that I really love is having the ability to create something, like an Esprit or a Panoplie that a parent may buy for their child’s birthday and having a hand in someone else’s experience... their celebration.

How do you spend your days off?

It depends on the season; my husband Trevor and I are going up to Mammoth on opening weekend. In the winter we are skiing a lot. In the summer we do a lot of paddle boarding and hiking both here and in Mammoth. We like to spend time with our Labrador.

How do you define success?

If you go to bed every night and think, “that was a killer day” then that is success. I think being happy with where you are in life and really enjoying the people that you surround yourself with, I can’t really think of any better way to go through your day than that.

Chelsea Pooch


A look back at every vintage of Vin de Paille "Quintessence"

This holiday season, we've made the decision to try to look back systematically at several of the wines that we don't open that often, and try to wrap our heads around how they age and at what stage(s) they are particularly good.  This information will be incorporated into the vintage chart that we maintain.  Last week we took a look at some vintages of Panoplie.  This week, we turned to our Vin de Paille Quintessence.

If you are unfamiliar with the vin de paille process, it is a traditional method for producing sweet wines by concentrating the grapes on straw.  The advantage of this technique (compared to, say, a late harvest) is that you pick the grapes at ripeness, rather than overripeness, and concentrate not just the sugars, but also the acids, varietal character and mineral character.  [For a detailed look at the process, see my blog piece from 2010: Vin de Paille: A Dessert Wine Making Technique for the Obsessed.]

The Quintessence is a wine we've made five times: each vintage between 2003 and 2006, and then again in 2010.  It is 100% Roussanne, made by selecting one or two barrels out of the larger number (typically 4-6) of barrels of vin de paille we made that year.  After choosing the most concentrated barrel or two, we let it age an extra year in barrel before bottling it along with that same year's reds.  The time in barrel gives it extra depth of flavor, and allows it to pick up a little more oak, which we think suits this sweet, powerful Roussanne well.  The wines:

Quintessences

I was joined for the tasting by my dad, along with Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi and National Sales Manager Darren Delmore. The tasting notes (with alcohol and residual sugar listed):

  • 2003 Vin de Paille "Quintessence" (9.1% ABV; 233 g/L residual sugar): A nose of candied orange peel, wheat, dried roses, and the caramel sauce from a crème caramel.  There is also a little volatility to the floral aromatics that I found a little challenging, like an aerosol spray of a floral scent.  The mouth is very sweet -- I found it inescapably reminiscent of golden raisins -- while others around the table called out dates and baked pear.  The texture was quite thick, and my dad's comment was that he felt the wine was "not winey enough; a bit on the syrupy side". Not my favorite of the the lineup, but I'm not sure if it's a stage it will come out of or if it's getting over the hill.
  • 2004 Vin de Paille "Quintessence" (14.5% ABV; 153 g/L residual sugar): On the nose, it showed older and a bit more oxidized than the 2003, with aromas of caramel, hazelnuts, and (the first time I've ever called this in a tasting note) suede leather.  The mouth is fascinating: crystallized ginger, burnt sugar, maraschino cherry, and a little welcome bitterness that reminded me of pear skin.  My dad's comment was that it was "not for everyone, but would be really impressive with a caramel dessert".
  • 2005 Vin de Paille "Quintessence" (8.6% ABV; 310 g/L residual sugar): Dark amber in the glass, even more so than the first two wines.  On the nose, brandy-soaked pears, yeasty, with some nice wood smoke (from the barrel, we thought) and a nutty, caramely pecan pie aspect.  On the palate, very sweet (the highest residual sugar of the five wines) but with more notable acidity than the two earlier wines.  The flavors of candied lemon peel and milk caramels were still young, rich, and massive.  Chelsea called the experience "bananas foster" which I thought nailed it.
  • 2006 Vin de Paille "Quintessence" (8.6% ABV; 280 g/L residual sugar): On the nose, more stone fruit than the earlier wines, with dried apricots, baking spices (someone called out oatmeal cookie), and an almost-honey character that Darren identified as "bee pollen".  The mouth is tangy and seemed younger and fresher than the three older wines, with more pit fruit and dried mango, and great acidity on the finish.  My favorite of the older wines.
  • 2010 Vin de Paille "Quintessence" (11.5% ABV; 199 g/L residual sugar):  On the nose, vibrantly and immediately Roussanne, with peppered citrus, ginger, mango, star anise, and a hoppy, savory bite that provided nice balance to the sweetness.  The mouth was very fresh, with more mango, passion fruit, wildflower honey and something floral that reminded me of once when someone had shared with me home-made candied violets.  There are excellent acids on the finish, which is quite a bit cleaner and more refreshing than the older wines.

A few concluding thoughts:

  • I think we may have been telling people to wait too long on these wines.  In general, the younger they were, the more I liked them, though there was more complexity in, say, the 2006 than in the more primary 2010.  With holiday season coming up, I'm looking forward to breaking into my stash of wines I've been saving!
  • The wines with more sugar (and correspondingly richer texture) seemed like they needed food more badly.  It would have been interesting to have this tasting done with a variety of desserts.  With something like a crème brûlée these richer wines would almost certainly have shown better, whereas they might have overwhelmed a fruit-based dessert like a peach or pear tart (for those types of dessert, the less-sweet 2010 seemed like a natural fit).
  • Boy, is acidity important in sweet wines.  The tasting reinforced my opinion that for wines like these, picking on the early side, and capturing more acidity to then concentrate, is highly recommended.
  • I really like the change in packaging that we made between 2006 and 2010, to put the wine in a clear glass bottle.

I hadn't focused on the fact that we haven't made this wine now in five vintages (though we did make our standard Vin de Paille in 2012).  In large part, this has been because of our low yields during the drought, and our desire to leave enough Roussanne for our dry wines.  But the fact that there's not a huge market domestically for dessert wines has also played a role.  That said, the wines really were impressive, and I've always gotten a great response when I've included them in a winemaker dinner.  if we have decent yields in 2016, I'd like to take another crack at this.


Choosing a Panoplie for a Naples Vintners Dinner

In 2016, we'll be appearing for the first time at the Naples Winter Wine Festival.  Our invitation was a pretty big honor; the event is typically one of the top few grossing charity wine auctions in the country each year, and has raised over $135 million for the Naples Children & Education Foundation since its inception in 2001. They only invite some 45 vintners each year, selected from top wineries around the world.  

The highlight, for us, of our participation will be a vintners dinner my parents will be co-hosting at a private home with Francois and Isabelle Perrin and Chef Dustin Valette of Valette in Healdsburg, CA.  Each course will be paired with a wine, poured from Magnum, from Beaucastel and a comparable wine from Tablas Creek.  We'll show our newest Esprit de Tablas Blanc (paired with a Beaucastel Roussanne Vieilles Vignes) with the first course, and an older Esprit de Beaucastel (paired with a Beaucastel Rouge) with the second. The fourth and final course is dessert, and we'll provide one of our Vin de Paille wines out of our library.

For the third course, Beaucastel is sending their 2001 Hommage a Jacques Perrin.  For those of you unfamiliar with the wine, it is their elite cuvee, made only in great years, and 2001 was one of the greatest of Beaucastel's (relatively) recent vintages.  The wine should be mind-blowingly good, just entering maturity at age 14. It was for this wine that we needed to find a partner.  

We have been making Panoplie, which we model after the Hommage a Jacques Perrin, most vintages since 2000.  Like Hommage, it's a cherry-pick through the cellar, typically two-thirds or more Mourvedre, showing off the combination of lushness and structure that Mourvedre can provide in a great vintage.  We always add some Grenache, and typically a little Syrah.  A few times, we've added Counoise. Looking at our magnum library narrowed our choices some.  We didn't bottle magnums before 2002.  We were nearly out of magnums of 2004 and 2006.  We were providing the 2005 vintage of Esprit de Beaucastel for the previous course, and thought it would be more interesting to show a different vintage.  And we didn't think that anything from 2008 or younger would have the age-given depth to stand up to the 2001 Hommage.  So, we pulled samples of 2002, 2003 and 2007 to choose between:

Panoplie 3 vintage vertical

Short story: we're sending the 2003 Panoplie to Naples.  My notes on each of the three wines are below, with why we preferred the 2003 at the end.  I've linked each wine to the page on our Web site with detailed production notes.

  • 2002 Panoplie (80% Mourvedre, 13% Grenache, 7% Counoise): A deep nose, showing some age, of old leather, black tea and herbs, not at all fruity.  Very classically Mourvedre.  The mouth is broad and almost thick in texture, very chewy, with baker's chocolate, red cherry, and cassis. A nice tanginess highlights the fruit on the palate, which isn't evident in the nose.  To us, this was incredibly evocative of Mourvedre, powerful, but a bit one-dimensional. This may not be surprising given it contains the highest-ever proportion of Mourvedre for a Panoplie.
  • 2003 Panoplie (69% Mourvedre, 21% Grenache, 7% Syrah, 3% Counoise): A higher-toned nose, with crunchy red raspberry fruit, deepened by garrigue and rosemary.  The mouth is deeply fruity but still vibrant, higher toned and fresher than the 2002, with flavors of milk chocolate, red cherry, and ripe plum. It isn't quite as chewy as the 2002, but more than makes up for it with liveliness. The finish shows more raspberry and herbs, ripe tannins, and confectioner's sugar.  Lovely, and interesting too.
  • 2007 Panoplie (60% Mourvedre, 30% Grenache, 10% Syrah): The nose is amazing: intensely fruity (blackcurrant and plum) but with earth and leather and aged meat underneath.  The mouth is big, still a little thick with fruit, then a little hollow on the mid-palate in this stage of its development, with massive tannins coming out and leaving lingering flavors of wild undergrowth, black currant and a steely minerality that is more impressive than friendly on the finish. We all thought that the wine would likely be stunning the next day, but that opening it (in magnum, no less) for a dinner in two months carried some risk.

So, we felt a little like Goldilocks. The 2002 wine was showing a little on the older side, not quite enough fruit or liveliness for what is likely going to be a blockbuster comparison.  (My dad said, "if I were serving this alone at my dinner table, I'd love this, but I worry about it sitting beside the Hommage".)  The 2007 was a little too young, too undeveloped and brawny, and we thought it would seem uncivilized beside its six-year-older partner.  The 2003 was just right: rich but vibrant, fruity but savory, appealing but thought-provoking too.

A few other concluding thoughts:

  • We have consistently underestimated the quality and longevity of the 2003 vintage.  When we made it, the wines seemed so appealing, so juicy and effortless, that we thought they wouldn't have the complexity to age.  Boy, were we wrong.  At each of our vertical tastings, from reds to whites, from Esprit to Cotes, the 2003's have been standouts.  If you have one in your cellar, open it up.
  • We opened and tasted these wines in the fairly compact time frame of roughly half an hour.  We all thought that the 2007 was opening up throughout the tasting, and would likely have been great another 12 hours later.  If you're opening one of these younger Panoplies, definitely decant it in advance.
  • I'm jealous of my parents, who will get to host the dinner.  

At least I got to try these three wines!


Photos from the Gathering Storm

Yesterday, we had our second (small) storm of the winter come through Paso Robles.  Late Sunday night, the main frontal boundary pushed through the area, dropping about 4/10" of rain on us and similar amounts across most of the Paso Robles region.  Yesterday, the storm's low pressure center moved over us, producing another 2/10" of rain in a few discrete cloudbursts.

I went outside around mid-day to get a photo of the approaching storm, hoping for a shot (or even a video) of the first drops of rain.  Instead, when I got into the middle of the vineyard, a small hole opened in the clouds overhead, and I ended up with about twenty minutes of beautifully illuminated sunlit vineyard foreground, and impressive swirling dark grey clouds in the background.  As the skies opened up:

From truck looking west

A few more favorite photos are below, starting with the one I ended up posting to our Facebook page, looking up our main hill across our Grenache and Mourvedre blocks.  As always, click on the images to see them larger, and visit us on Instagram for more visual treats:

November Storm Gathering over Tablas Creek

From the top of that hill, the contrast between the vines and the skies was even more dramatic, and looked to me like a movie set:

Movie set vines

The sky was a show in itself:

The sky

But the light was equally friendly to the autumn colors.  I like the feel of this photo, looking down through our oldest Grenache block down over the center of the vineyard:

Autumn Long View 2015

Back at the winery, autumn was definitely in the air, with puddles on the crushpad, leaves swirling, and a chill that promises frost the next few nights:

Winery and puddles

This is a firmly wintery pattern we're in at the moment.  We're getting modest storms every week or so (each of the first two have produced about a half-inch, with another similar one forecast for a week from now) and cool days and cold nights in-between.  I've had frost on my car most mornings the past week, though the vineyard has until now escaped with temperatures in the mid-30's.  That's likely to end over the next few nights, which is a good thing.

There are the first inklings of a real winter storm, that might -- hopefully! -- produce multiple inches of rain, forecast for the end of next week (around November 19th).  If so, great.  But whether the serious rain starts sooner or later, these mini-storms are perfect ways to begin our winter, because they'll allow our cover crop seeds to germinate and hold the soil in place once the rain really gets going.  We can't wait.


Outtakes from Zester Daily's Focus on Grenache

Yesterday, I had an article published in Zester Daily.  That article (Grenache Returns to Bask in the California Sun) tracks Grenache's remarkable journey from supplier of innocuous juice for California jug wines to one of the hottest grapes in the state, with over 1000 acres of new planting in the last two decades. The article:

JH Zester Grenache

One of my motivations was to give a little plug for the Rhone Rangers Los Angeles Tasting, coming up this Friday and Saturday, November 6-7.  The focus of the seminar this year is Grenache (both red and white, both monovarietal and blended).  I just heard that the seminar has only 4 seats left, and the grand tasting not much more space.  I love hearing that there's enough interest in Rhone varieties in southern California to fill a venue.  If you haven't gotten your ticket left and want to try for one of the last few spots, you can do so here.

There were a few pieces of the research that really jumped out at me, that I wanted to address in a little more detail than was possible in the main piece.

The first was the cost of Grenache relative to other more exalted grapes.  That the $1,797 price per ton in our district (which includes San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, and Ventura Counties) was 23% higher than Cabernet Sauvignon, 28% higher than Zinfandel, 32% higher than Syrah, and 70% higher than Merlot seems noteworthy.  Of course, this may be a moment-in-time phenomenon; there is less Grenache planted than any of these other grapes, so an increase in demand isn't easily satisfied, and the price can be pushed up quite a bit.  One would think that more Grenache will be planted in coming years, and the price will come back down somewhat.  It is, after all, a productive and relatively easy-to-grow grape.  But the fact that demand has ramped up fast enough to outpace planting is a sign of the speed of the growth in interest.

The second was the amazing quantity of fruit that is being harvested per acre in parts of the Central Valley.  I looked at Grape Crush Pricing District 13 (including Fresno, Madera and Tulare Counties) where Grenache averaged 13.74 tons/acre in 2012.  I had wanted to compare that to other grapes, to show just how productive Grenache can be, given enough water and nutrients, but I ended up leaving it out of the piece because most other grapes showed similarly massive yields. Merlot from the same district yielded 11.95 tons/acre. Chardonnay yielded 10.61.  Cabernet was the least, at 8.23 tons/acre, and Zinfandel showed such a large yield (20.85 tons/acre) that I double- and triple-checked the data, but kept getting the same result.  If you'd like to look at the raw information, it's all public domain, and fascinating: 

The third thing that stood out to me were the number of organizations that are out there advocating for Grenache, in part because it is still a relative underdog despite its massive worldwide footprint and the recent critical interest.  Between the Grenache Association (and the International Grenache Day it organizes), the Rhone Rangers, Hospice du Rhone and Inter-Rhone, there is no lack of advocates out there for this grape.  Yes, several of these organizations advocate more broadly for the grapes in the Rhone family, but there is really nothing comparable for Syrah, or Viognier, or Mourvedre.

Finally, I wrote enthusiastically about the potential for Zester Daily back in 2009.  Having the excuse to circle back around, six years later, and see the success that it has become was remarkably gratifying.  I hope that it continues as a successful model for innovative food and wine journalism in this increasingly online world.