A vertical tasting of Tablas Creek flagship red wines, from 1997 Rouge to 2009 Esprit de Beaucastel

Last week, we had the pleasure of one of Francois Perrin's semi-annual visits to Tabas Creek.  In this immediate post-harvest time, we tasted through the cellar, did our best to evaluate the 2010 components, and took one last look at the 2009 reds before they start to go into bottle.

We also took the opportunity to look back, and pulled a bottle from our library of each vintage of our signature red wines.  Of course, when we were first starting, we only had one red wine, but we pulled that anyway.  We were impressed with the life still left in even the oldest of these wines, and thought it would be fun to share our notes on how they are tasting now.  First, a look at the lineup:

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At this tasting, in addition to Francois, were me, my dad, Neil, and Chelsea.  Note that we didn't taste a wine from 2001, when we declined to make an Esprit de Beaucastel after spring frosts scrambled up the ripening cycle.  We declassified our entire production into the 2001 Cotes de Tablas (which made it one of the greatest bargains we've ever produced; if you have any, drink up; it's at a great stage but probably won't last much longer).

  • 1997 Tablas Rouge: A nose that shows cherry and eucalyptus, with some of the deeper, slightly balsamic character of age.  Still deep in color, though starting to brick a little.  Quite fresh in the mouth for a wine of this age from such young vines, with good acids framing cherry fruit, and a little drying tannin on the finish.  Not the most polished or concentrated wine we've made, but still totally viable.
  • 1998 Rouge: Aromatics are cool and dark, showing more loam and spice than fruit.  The color is a touch light and shows noticeable bricking.  The wine is a little simple, perhaps, but beautifully balanced, and would be a great dining companion.  Neil called it "Nordic".  Some appealing cocoa notes come out on the finish.  Just 13.8% alcohol, from quite a cool year.
  • 1999 Reserve Cuvee: A pretty, dark, youthful color.  Definitely more marked on the nose by Mourvedre's meatiness, Francois immediately said "more animal".  The mouth has a very nice balance between fruit that is round and lush and structure that is cool and mineral.  Must be pretty close to its peak.  The finish shows perhaps a little rustic, but we all thought it would be tremendous right now with osso bucco or cassoulet.  It opened as we were tasting; try decanting if you're drinking one now.
  • 2000 Esprit de Beaucastel: An animal, meaty, almost gamey nose with plums coming out with some air.  It's nicely rich in the mouth, though showing more signs of age than the 1999.  Still not at all tired, with complex notes of olive and tapenade coming out on the long, slightly drying finish.  This too got better with air; we'd recommend a decant.  And with its notable earthiness, it's always been a great ringer for a lineup of old-school Chateauneuf-du-Papes.
  • 2002 Esprit de Beaucastel: A nice mineral, chalky, dark fruit profile on the nose, much more polished than any of the previous wines.  At 57% Mourvedre, our highest ever, it's perhaps unsurprising that it's still so youthful.  In the mouth, rich, full, mature, deep, and ripe.  Notably lush, and much more like our current releases than the ones that preceded it.  Cocoa and chalky tannins at the back end, with lots of length.  Still years ahead of it.
  • 2003 Esprit de Beaucastel: A bright mint chocolate on the nose, very appealing.  The mouth was rich with sweet dark red currant and plum fruit, but enlivened by great acids.  Quite a long, luscious finish.  This wine had been closed for a while, and even this summer showed well but was overshadowed by the 2002 and 2004.  Not right now; this was perhaps the most impressive wine of the tasting.
  • 2004 Esprit de Beaucastel: A nice, restrained nose.  The mouth is in a good place, with beautiful acids, evident minerality and a long finish of chocolate-covered cherries.  Still very fresh, and pretty.  Not as big a wine as 2003 or 2005, but great balance.  It should continue to age gracefully, and we all expected that it would just be better a year from now.
  • 2005 Esprit de Beaucastel: A rustic nose of grilled meat, licorice and a bright note that Chelsea identified as mandarin.  Great sweet fruit in the mouth but big tannins, too.  The finish is a little disjointed right now, with the tannins and the acids reverberating off each other a bit.  It's going to be a very nice wine, but we'd recommend you forget it for a few years to let it integrate.
  • 2006 Esprit de Beaucastel: Very different from the 2005, pretty, clean, bright purple fruit, nicely mineral.  In the mouth, it's seamless.  Boysenberry and blackberry fruit, medium weight, nicely integrated chewy tannins, and a dark, almost soy-like tone that lends depth.  The acids come out on the long, rich finish.  Very pretty now, and looking forward to a bright future.
  • 2007 Esprit de Beaucastel: A dense black-red.  Powerful but somehow closed on the nose, with more mineral and rocks (and a little alcohol) coming through than fruit.  The mouth shows lots of sweet fruit, very lush, and big but ripe tannins.  There is a texture to the tannins that Neil commented reminded him of melted licorice.  It's impressive now but we'd recommend that you wait if you possibly can, and check back in in a couple of years for more complexity and better integration.
  • 2008 Esprit de Beaucastel: An open nose of red fruit, perhaps even strawberry, a lighter red fruit than is typical of Mourvedre.  The nose is given complexity by a balsamic, mineral note.  In the mouth, sweet fruit, medium body, and very open, forward and pure, almost Pinot Noir-like.  Reminiscent of the 2006 at a comparable age; we expect the 2008 to also darken and put on weight with some time in bottle.  Enjoy now for its purity, but wait for depth.
  • 2009 Esprit de Beaucastel (from barrel): All of the 2009 reds showed well, but the 2009 Esprit was the star, outpacing even the Panoplie at this stage.  A dark, mineral, blackberry and cocoa nose, with flavors of crushed rock, licorice, lots of spice, and black raspberry.  The texture is wonderful, with great, granular tannins that reminded Neil of powdered sugar.  Francois thought this was the best Esprit he'd ever tasted at this stage.

It's always valuable having one of the Perrins over at Tablas Creek, and Francois, who has spent the last three decades as the principal architect of Beaucastel's wines, brings a particularly interesting perspective. That he was as impressed as he was with the 2009's bodes very well for their quality.  One more photo, of Francois Perrin and Bob Haas, at the end of the vertical tasting:

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From my own perspective, as much fun as the vertical tasting was, I was most pleased by how well the 2010's showed.  It's typically a difficult time to taste, a few months after harvest while wines are just finishing primary fermentation and just starting malolactic fermentation.  But with the exception of Grenache -- which in my experience is always problematic for at least three months after harvest -- all the red varietals showed richness, balance, and a persistent saline character that seems to be a hallmark of the limestone soils here, and which frame the fruit and structural elements in all the wines.  I have never been as impressed with a vintage at this early stage, and am actively looking forward to getting to know the components we have in the cellar as we start the blending process.


A post-harvest round table discussion with Tablas Creek's winemakers

Late last week, with harvest concluded and the winemaking team rested up after a long, grueling harvest, national sales manager Tommy Oldre caught up with them to talk about their 2010 harvest experience.  In the video, you'll see winemakers Neil Collins, Ryan Hebert, and Chelsea Franchi each give their thoughts on what happened, what they're thinking about where we are, and what we learned.  I love the way that their personalities each come through in the ten-minute video. 

Don't miss the special appearance by vineyard dog Millie, who arrives complete with live vole captured in the vineyard around the 2:45 mark!


Winemaker Ryan Hebert discusses the end of the 2010 Harvest

With the arrival this past weekend of our last significant Mourvedre block, harvest 2010 is more or less in the books.  We have been going through the vineyard this week and cleaning up odd bits here and there in a leisurely fashion, but we can at last be confident we've made it.  We are under no illusions that we got lucky.  Starting harvest three weeks late always puts you at risk.  But we've been saved by the overall wonderful weather that we've seen in early November, and the nearly 60 tons that we've harvested this month has looked terrific.

You can look forward to two more pieces on the 2010 harvest next week: one a detailed recap of the results and a varietal-by-varietal analysis of what we've seen, and then a round-table video discussion with our winemaking team about their impressions.  But first, with the pace slowing down in the cellar, Tommy Oldre caught up with Winemaker Ryan Hebert to talk to him about how the harvest wrapped up and to get his thoughts on what we can tell so far about the vintage's character based on the wines in the cellar.


Winemaker Neil Collins discusses progress on the 2010 vintage

Early this week, after some light rainfall over the weekend, we had a couple of days where we couldn't pick, but used the time to press off fermenting lots in the cellar and make some space.  National Sales Manager Tommy Oldre caught up with Winemaker Neil Collins to ask him some questions about the (interesting, late, unpredictable and challenging, but ultimately rewarding) harvest so far.




All Things Consumed: I can almost taste it (Beaucastel, that is).

By Tommy Oldre

I'm trying to contain my enthusiasm right now, so as not to anger coworkers here in the office, but my thoughts are currently dominated by the trip I embark on tomorrow.  It has been over eight years since I spent time overseas and I leave tomorrow for a few days in Bristol, England before heading to the Southern Rhone early next week, and of course Chateau de Beaucastel.   In short, I'm psyched and very thankful.

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Photo © Chateau de Beaucastel

This is my seventh year at Tablas Creek and I have been referencing Chateau de Beaucastel, nearly daily, the entire time.  I spoke of Beaucastel often when I first started in the tasting room, I learned a lot about their cellar practices from Neil and Ryan in my time here in the cellar of Tablas Creek, and I still reference the Beaucastel estate frequently when I am out in the market.  I commonly talk about, and field questions about the galets, the mistral (please let if be windy just one day), the various, obscure varietals that are grown on the estate, and the nearly petrified foudres used in their cellars.  However, I have never seen, touched, nor experienced first-hand any of the aforementioned.

I have seen many pictures of the estate and its vines in different seasons and I have seen pictures taken in the cellars of Beaucastel from different eras.  I know the history of the friendship between the Haas and Perrin families, I have a very good idea of the topography of the Beaucastel vineyard, I can tell you exactly where it is located in the Chateauneuf du Pape A.O.C., and I know about the interstate that borders its property.  Honestly, I can tell you more things about Chateau de Beaucastel than any other place or property I have never been to, and I can't wait to change that next week.  It will be a dream, and frequently recurring daydream, come true.  

As the plan stands, Neil and I will be spending next week in the southern Rhone with the Perrin family.  We will not only be visiting Beaucastel, but will also visit their other properties in Gigondas, Vinsobres, Vacqueyras, and perhaps a couple others.  We also plan to head a bit further south one day to Bandol, where I understand vineyards of Mourvedre look out over the sea.   That sounds just fine to me.  More than anything, I can't wait to take it all in; to put faces and places to the words I have read and the wines I have enjoyed and continue to inspire me. 

I will be doing my best to send Twitter (@tommytablas) updates along the way and I will also be compiling data for future blog posts on my return, including another post in the All Things Consumed series.  Did I mention I plan on eating in a dignified, though omnivorous, fashion yet?  Well, I do. 

Thanks for reading et au revoir.

Tommy.


Photos from the early days at Tablas Creek

My dad was cleaning out his desk in Vermont and came across a photo collage that predates the construction of the Tablas Creek winery in 1997.  In the three previous years, we'd rented space at Adelaida Cellars in which we made the wines from the test vineyard we planted with American-sourced clones in 1992.  This was done by us (the partnering families) and mostly by hand, which was a learning experience for me and I'm sure nearly equally for the Perrins who at this point were used to a much larger operation. 

The photos are from, I think, 1996, and feature both of my parents (Robert and Barbara Haas) as well as Jean Pierre Perrin.  It's a great look at the nitty gritty of the work in the cellar, done by the partners themselves before we had hired a winemaker. 

It's amazing to me to think about how far we've come in less than 15 years; yesterday we hosted a vertical tasting of our Esprit de Beaucastel wines from 2000-2008 to an enthusiastic audience of fans.  It really drives home how young the California wine industry is, and gives me great enthusiasm for what we'll be able to accomplish in the upcoming decades.

Decuvage (literally de-tanking) is second only to cleaning the presses in the unpleasantness of the work.  Fun to see my mom hands-on!

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Pump-overs are daily (usually twice-daily) rituals with fermenting tanks of red grapes.  We now have catwalks with stairs welded to the tops of our tanks, but I remember well the ladders and the climbing up that we did for years before we got those catwalks.  My dad is on top of the tank below.

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Cleaning the press is wet, messy, and loud.  Measuring densities of fermenting juice is a lot more pleasant.

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The forklift attachment that lifts and dumps bins into the press was a new invention at the time.  I remember having to arrange for the purchase and export of an early one into France during a stint at Beaucastel in the summer of 1995.  It's still really cool.

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Changes at the 2010 Paso Robles Wine Festival

We just finished the Paso Robles Wine Festival for 2010.  As usual, it was a whirlwind of activity, with a delicious dinner Friday night at the Cass House Inn in Cayucos, pourings with the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance on Friday and Saturday evenings downtown in Paso Robles, and our annual salmon brunch and Rosé launch on Sunday morning out at the winery.

The weather was wonderful, cool and crisp, and the park was busy with enthusiastic tasters as attendance rose slightly compared to 2009.  The Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance has made a concerted effort to make the event classier and more comprehensive over the last five years.  Ticket prices have gone up moderately, weeding out some party-goers.  Additional events such as a VIP/trade hour, the Friday evening Reserve tasting, and educational seminars now allow attendees who are interested in closer contact with local winemakers this access.  The salmon brunch was delicious; Chef Jeff Scott continues to do an amazing job.  A couple of photos of the next generation of Haases (Eli, on left, and Sebastian on right) enjoying the event:

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And one of me with Nikki Getty, who runs our wine club, hospitality and events:

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This year, the PRWCA added a joint winemaker dinner and auction that raised over $100,000 for the Alliance's charity efforts.  Also new this year, they moved the Saturday Grand Tasting later in the day from 1pm-5pm to 3pm-7pm.  That was supposed to have two effects: to help get the event out of the heat of the day and to help open the day up for event attendees to visit the winery tasting rooms.  And we did get more traffic on Saturday: we saw 260 tasters this year, up from an average of 175 the past three years.  Even though sales per customer were down nearly 20% it was still a good day, better than recent Wine Festival Saturdays if not measurably better than a normal Saturday in the busy spring season. 

But Sunday was a different story.  Both traffic and sales were down dramatically, with traffic down 42% from an average of 268 people to this year's 156 and sales per customer no better than the averages we saw the past three years.  Perhaps most dramatically, we went from signing up an average of 13 new wine club members on Wine Festival Sunday to signing up just 2 this year.  Summing up the results between the two days, the improvement on Saturday did not make up for the decline on Sunday.  For the weekend our sales were down 15% and our wine club signups down 53% compared to the average of our results of the last three years.

I would typically suspect that a decline in our numbers like this were due to something lacking about the tasting room experience.  But I don't think that is the case here.  The tasting room has been on a great run recently, putting up some of its best numbers ever.  We have a terrific, experienced tasting room crew, and we staffed up so heavily for Wine Festival this year that we had tasting room attendants practically competing with each other to have the privilege of serving each new guest.  My second suspicion was that it was something we'd changed in our events for the weekend.  And we did add a charge to attend the salmon brunch in 2010 that we hadn't had in past years.  We did this because we found that the event, which was free to wine club members and free with a tasting fee to non-members, was attracting people who would leave without even entering the tasting room.  Our average sales to the people who came to the salmon tasting in 2009 was roughly half that of our other visitors that day.  Given that the salmon tasting itself was costing us roughly $20 a head, about the level of the average salmon-tasting-attendee purchase, that didn't make a lot of sense.  Plus, the crowds that entered the tasting room all at once after the event ended overwhelmed the tasting room's capabilities, meaning that neither the event's attendees nor the other customers got the experience we wanted.  This year, though the attendance at the salmon brunch was down significantly (from about 150 to about 50) the 50 attendees bought nearly as much wine as the 150 had done last year.

No, it was the rest of the day that was the culprit.  It was so slow in the afternoon that our tasting room manager sent half his staff home.  And we've heard that other wineries and tasting rooms were similarly disappointed in Sunday's sales and traffic. 

I have some speculations as to why the changes made to Wine Festival might have had the impact that they did.  First, moving the grand tasting later made it easier to taste for a partial day on Saturday (stopping in time to get to the event by 3pm) rather than a full day on Sunday.  Second, the later end to the event and the fact that many people had begun their day with wine tasting may have meant that people were wined out by the time that they had to make the decision of whether or not to go tasting on Sunday.  I can imagine, after wine tasting most of the day and finishing with a four-hour wine festival, that I'd choose to go to the beach or to Hearst Castle rather than heading back out to more wineries.  And finally, I'd think that this burnout would be most applicable to the attendees of the gala dinner and auction, who didn't finish their Saturday until after 10pm and who also shelled out $500 per couple to attend.  Between the cost and the fatigue, I would guess that it was these attendees who made the largest difference in our end results.

Our tasting room, like most retail establishments, lives by the 80/20 rule, where 20% of the customers provide 80% of the business.  The majority of our tasting room customers buy just a bottle or two, or even just pay the tasting fee.  But it's the minority who get really excited about what they find that keep our average sales (and our wine club signup numbers) strong.  So, if even a small percentage of the best buyers are eliminated, it can have a dramatic impact on total sales.  The 400 attendees of the wine dinner and auction represented about 10% of the total attendees of the wine festival.  But I'd think that they represented some of the best buyers, and that the lateness and the expense of the event likely discouraged many of them from heading out to tasting rooms the next day.  If I'm right, this could be the major factor in the decline in Sunday's sales and the dramatic falloff in wine club signups. 

The key, for me, is to remember that Wine Festival is not an end in itself.  It is the creation of the organization that the local wineries task with marketing and promoting the area and its wineries.  If the event is successful at the expense of the wineries' results, it is actually not achieving what it needs to achieve.

I'm curious to know, from any readers who attended Wine Festival this year, what you thought.  Did you enjoy the event?  Did the changes in the event change your behavior the rest of the weekend?  I'll be meeting with the marketing committee of the PRWCA next week, and it will be at the top of our agenda.


One from the Vaults: a September 1988 Wine Spectator article on Robert Haas

WS88_cover I was back in Vermont last week visiting my sister and my new nephew, and spent the night in my old room in the house I grew up in.  I was browsing through old papers late one night when I uncovered a 1988 issue of the Wine Spectator in which there was a wonderful six-page article by Mort Hochstein on my dad's career as an importer.  I hadn't read this article in years, and the Spectator's online archives don't go back that far.  The article was titled "Have Palate, Will Travel" and traces my dad's career in wine from its beginnings at his father's shop (M. Lehmann, in Manhattan) through his early travels to France in the 1950s, his eventual decision to found an importing business, and his move to Vermont in the early 1970s.

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I've written about his career before, on the occasion of his 80th birthday, so I'm not going to enumerate his many impacts on how Americans drink, buy, and think about wine, but there were a few things that struck me about the article.

First was the affection with which his fellow importers and suppliers talk about him in the article.  One story I particularly liked was told by his friend, writer Alexis Bespaloff.  He recalled the end of a long day of prospecting in the Rhone:

"It was November 1963 and we'd been tasting in the Rhône.  We came back to our hotel after 10 one night.  The restaurant was closed and we were lucky to find a café where we could get a bowl of soup.  We returned to the hotel and went upstairs and Haas sat on his bed in a bare, cold, unheated room with just a single exposed light bulb overhead, dropped one shoe and said, 'You know, Alex, my friends in New York think I have a glamorous life.'"

Second was the degree to which he was already an institution in the 1980's.  The writer of the article, Mort Hochstein, pointed out

"Though widely known and respected in the trade in Europe and the United States, few American wine lovers have had any contact with him other than the perception that the phrase "Robert Haas Selection" on a bottle represents quality."

Now, 22 years later, my dad has added to his achievements as an importer and a distributor the foundation of Tablas Creek and the importation and distribution of high quality Rhone grapevine clones around the United States. He has also played an important role in the advancement of organic viticulture and the elevation of the Paso Robles region to the forefront of California wine. It is not a surprise that he was the first American elected president of the largely French Académie Internationale du Vin in 2000.

The last thing that struck me from reading the magazine was how young and unformed the California wine industry was at that time.  There is an article by Norm Roby promoting Kistler as the next "heavy hitter" in Chardonnay.  It's bizarre for me to think of Kistler as the new kid on the block.  Other wineries meriting mention whose building permits had newly been approved included Screaming Eagle and Sinskey. Terry Robards penned an opinion piece called "The Case for Red Zinfandel".  That the Wine Spectator needed to sound the alarm that "the majority of Zinfandel consumers do not even know there is such a thing as red Zinfandel" strikes me as being from another age.  And perhaps the greatest indication of the youth of the industry was the faces featured in the announcement for the 1988 California Wine Experience, which included a collection of American wine writing talent unlikely to be found in the same building today: Dan Berger, Anthony Dias Blue, Michael Broadbent, James Laube, Harvey Steiman, and, yes, Robert Parker.

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For those interested, I scanned a PDF of the article which can be accessed here.


Tablas Creek on "A Long Pour: Fifty-Two Weeks with California Wine"

I have noticed a backlash recently among writers passionate about wine against what might be termed the tyranny of the tasting note.  In the view of these writers, the stilted language and the inherent subjectivity of the wine review is a distraction from the real business of telling a story about the people and the places which make up the world of wine.  [One great example, quoted in a recent piece on Steve Heimoff's blog, was of writer Rod Smith, who in response to a question about what he thought about the wines in a group wine tasting, replied "I don’t review wines. I write about them".]  And I understand this clearly: there is only so much writing you can do about flavors of berries, oak and minerals.  And this is without getting into the whole debate about scoring wine.

Whether in response to the fustiness of the traditional wine review, or just a greater interest in the how and the why of wine rather than the what, I've had the pleasure to speak to several writers recently who weren't particularly interested in writing about the wines of Tablas Creek, but about the soul.  One such writer is Wayne Kelterer, who a few months back started the blog "A Long Pour: Fifty-Two Weeks with California Wine".  On this blog, he profiles one winery each week.  The profiles are done on-site, incorporate his excellent photography, and include an in-depth interview with a principal or winemaker at each winery.  I think that the care that he takes on these pieces is evident in the results.

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Tablas Creek is fortunate to be the profiled winery this week, and in the profile Wayne includes a transcript of what might be the longest, most in-depth interview I've ever had published.  If you're interested in not just where we are now, but how we got here and where we think we're going, then it's a must-read.

So, go read it: Tablas Creek: The Long Road to Success


All Things Consumed: 2009 Epicurean Highlights, From A to Z

[Tommy Oldre is Tablas Creek's national sales manager.  This is the first entry in "All Things Consumed," an occasional chronicle of some of the highlights of eating and drinking around the country.  Follow Tommy's journeys through the world of food and wine on Twitter: @TommyTablas]

I feel fortunate to represent a vineyard and winery that aspires to have its wines carried by the finest restaurants and retailers in the country.  And I appreciate that they fly me all over to support this effort.  I truly love visiting and working with these establishments; it is challenging, exciting, educational, fascinating and quite fulfilling.

For its population size, the greater Paso Robles area has a remarkable number of great restaurants.  However, the range and diversity of our restaurants is tiny compared to what is available in most of the places I visit to sell wine.  We're still waiting for the artisan pizza movement ... the Korean burrito ... and the banh mi to arrive in Paso.

Are these things you search out?  I thought I would highlight, for my first blog post, some of my favorite places, restaurants and people that I encountered in 2009.  Think of it as a gourmand's alphabet.  Have a spot you think I should check out in 2010?  Suggest it in the comments section. 

Cheers,
Tommy

A is for Austin, TX.  I visited this hip little city twice in '09 and always ate well.  The standout meals of my visits were at Mirabelle (where Michael Vilim, the Austin Food and Wine pioneer, hosted another great Tablas Creek dinner) and at Olivia, a great new(ish) restaurant that was designed by a college buddy of mine. 

B is for Beast in Portland, OR.  I had read many great things about this restaurant and I was excited that I had the chance to spend my birthday there back in September.  The food did not disappoint and I loved the unhurried pace of the meal.  I also read a quote on the wall there that has stuck with me since: "If it has four legs, and it is not a table, eat it."  

C is for Catalan in Houston, TX.  Over the past few years, I have eaten (gorged?) here a few times and it has always delivered.  The menu is broad, inventive, regionally driven and well executed and the wine program is excellent (particularly if you like grower Champagne, an extensive dry Rose selection, and a few options from the Jura region of France........... which I do).  Antonio, Chris, and everyone else, I look forward to saying hello in 2010.

D is for Destin, FL.  I had no idea.  Back in April, I attended the Sandestin Wine Festival and couldn't have been more impressed with both the festival and the area.  I had the chance to spend time with friends from the trade, met some new great people, and I am still amazed at how pretty that stretch of the Gulf Coast is. 

E is for eruption, as in Mt. Redoubt.  I visited Alaska back in March for the first time to participate in our distributor's trade shows.  I -- and many other sales reps -- saw more of Alaska than we'd planned.  Because of the temperamental volcano, and its grounding (literally) effect on airplanes, our distributor had to charter a bus to take us from Anchorage to Fairbanks, roughly seven hours to the north.  Oddly, I enjoyed every minute of it. 

F is for Flour + Water in San Francisco.  The hand made pasta, pizza, and salumi, all of which is done in house, is fantastic.  This straight-forward, time-tested concept does not yet exist here in Paso. 

G is for Gjelina on Abbot Kinney in Venice Beach, CA.  Eat here.  The food, across the (rather expansive) board, is fantastic and so are the wine list and overall feel of the place.  I had many great meals here in '09, hung out with some great characters, and I will be returning soon.

H is for Hush in Laguna Beach, CA.  I was fortunate enough to do a dinner with the talented staff from Hush back in November and it was a very memorable night.  The weather was perfect, there were friendly, familiar faces in attendance, and the food and wine pairings were lovely.  I still think about the bison medallions with huckleberry reduction.

I is for Inn of the Anasazi in Santa Fe, NM.  Every year Tablas Creek chooses to participate in the Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta and I have been lucky to have represented us the last three years.  This past festival, we partnered with the gifted culinary crew at the Inn of the Anasazi for an incredible meal.  The dining room was festive and fun and the food and wine pairings were spot-on. 

J is for John's in Boulder, CO.  (File this one under met cool people)  Some places I don't even get to eat at.  Yet.  I really enjoyed all the staff I met here when I called on the account; they were attentive and serious enough, but not full of themselves or claiming to be reinventing anything.  The restaurant itself is kind of tucked away, has a great reputation to go along with its non-pretentious feel and I can't wait to get back to eat, drink, and say hello.

K is for K&L.  A class act.  Both Jason and I participated in tastings at different K&L locations this past year and they were both great experiences.  The staff is knowledgeable and a joy to work with, their wine selection is tough to beat, and they attract a great clientele.  True retail pros (and probably the best Web site of any wine retailer).

L is for Lou in Los Angeles.  I love everything about this place: the location (generic Hollywood strip mall), the menu, the wine list; you name it.  If you are not on the Lou mailing list, sign up for news on his Monday night suppers and his rants, and don't miss Lou's blog

M is for Miami, Fl, and the two restaurants I fell in love with during my trips there in 2009, Michy's and Michael's Genuine.  This is probably no surprise, but many of the restaurants I have been to in Miami have seemed to be more about the scene, and the business of being seen, than the actual product that is served.  This is not the case with Michy's and Michael's Genuine.  Both restaurants are chef-owned and -operated and both are staffed with friendly, knowledgeable, and professional help.  Oh, and the food at both is incredible. 

N is for NOVO in the town I call home, San Luis Obispo, CA.  I think one of the main reasons I have not made the move up to Paso is that I can walk to this restaurant in ten minutes.  I love the wine list here, the variety of small plates to be enjoyed, and their back patio overlooking San Luis Obispo Creek is one of the first thoughts that comes to mind when people ask why I like living in SLO.  

O is for OneSpeed in Sacramento, CA.  OneSpeed is the new pizza joint created by Rick Mahan of Waterboy, also in Sacramento.  I visited shortly after it opened and had one of my top five pizzas of the year there.  Additionally, I love the simple and bright feel of the dining room; it definitely made hammering three-fourth's of a pie at one in the afternoon a little less debilitating than it should have been.  I know it is pretty easy to rag on the whole fancy pizza fetish/trend, but if our country's pizza culture were to become less connected to Domino's, I would be alright with that.  

P is for Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix, AZ.  You foodies have likely all heard about it.  Believe the hype; it is that good.  I talked a high-school buddy of mine into going with me (he asked for Ranch dressing to dip his crust in; it was awesome) on a recent trip to Phoenix, we waited an hour, and then had two incredible pies.  I will go back every time I visit family in Phoenix.

Q is for Quahog, as in the type of clams that were in my favorite chowder of the year at Wimpy's in Osterville, MA.  (Kind of a reach, I know.  Q's are hard.  I will be eating at Quince this year so as to make this endeavor easier next year.)  I was working on the Cape in March of last year and, naturally, wanted to take down a bowl of chowder before leaving.  My coworker for the day, Tony, suggested Wimpy's and I'm happy he did.  The chowder was incredible, considerably brinier than most, which I like, and the sweet couple that now own and run the restaurant were a lot of fun to visit with. 

R is for Root Down in Denver, CO.  This funky neighborhood restaurant inhabits an old auto garage in the Highlands area of Denver and it focuses on locally grown and organically farmed ingredients.  I'm a sucker for restaurants that have a varied selection of small plates (entree commitment issues) and can also make a properly bitter pre-meal Negroni.  Root Down did both well. 

S is for Seattle, WA, one of my favorite markets to work.  Mountains, water, great people, and an endless number of places I want to eat and drink; this city covers just about everything for me.  This past year, we partnered with the talented Chef Jason Wilson of Crush restaurant for what was an exceptional dinner.  Each course was beautifully executed but the highlight for me was the sous vide of Neah Bay black cod with roasted mushrooms in a dashi broth, paired with our Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc.

T is for The Grand Central Oyster Bar in New York.  This was my favorite eating experience of this past year.  My brother and I were both wrapping up a day's work and we met here to have a couple dozen oysters and a few beers.  I enjoyed seeing our Esprit Blanc on the wine list and knowing that we were indulging in a ritual that has been performed at the same location since 1913. 

U is for Uchi in Austin, TX.  I was rather skeptical about this place prior to actually eating there.  All I had heard was that the fare was sushi (in Austin, mind you), that the chef was not Japanese, and that it was expensive.  While all of this proved to be true, Uchi was fantastic.  If in Austin, and you don't mind splurging, this restaurant is not to be missed.

V is for V. Mertz in Omaha, NE.  2009 was the third year in a row that we have partnered with this family-run, fine dining restaurant in Omaha for a wine dinner and it was a lovely event once again.  The Stamp family, and the talented cast they employ, have made Omaha perhaps the unlikeliest entry on my favorite-places-to-visit-each-year list.

W is for Wexler's in San Francisco, CA.  Just about every item on this menu looked intriguing to me and I was bummed that it was just myself and one other the only time I ate here.  Had we been more, I surely would have had the chance to try more of the menu.  I will be returning to Wexler's in the near future so I can continue to sample the soulfully updated classics that are offered.  

X is for WineX (Wine eXchange) in Orange, CA, one of the savviest retailers out there.  Even more than the cheeky humor found in their near daily emails, I appreciate the candor with which they discuss the current state of affairs in the wholesale wine world.  This is an account call I look forward to every year.

Y is for York Street in Dallas, TX.  We teamed up with Sharon Hage and Co. at York Street back in October for a six-course meal that may have been my best work meal of 2009.  Every component of the evening was superb; the wines showed beautifully with Sharon's wonderful food, the York Street staff were professional and fun, and the dining room was full of people that were enjoying one another.  It was a night I simply felt lucky to be a part of.

Z is for Zazie in San Francisco, CA.  I first visited Zazie a few years ago and I was enamored with it from the beginning.  It epitomizes the neighborhood bistro I wish I had where I live.  I have tried a few of the bistro classics that are offered here and they have never disappointed.  The croque monsieur I had in 2009 was the best I had all year.  I imagine, and hope, Zazie will be an annual visit of mine for years to come.