Harvest 2016 Begins!

By Jordan Lonborg

The wine grape harvest of 2016 has begun. Early this morning, our first Viognier pick kicked off our estate harvest at Tablas Creek. Our first fruit (also Viognier, from Adelaida Cellars) for the Patelin program came in yesterday. Next week, we expect to bring in more Patelin Viognier from one of Derby's vineyards, Pinot Noir from the Bob Haas's vineyard for our Full Circle Pinot, and some Syrah from Estrella Vineyard for Patelin red. At this stage, we're sampling fruit on a daily basis from several Patelin vineyards and multiple blocks at Tablas Creek to stay ahead of the ripening curve. A few photos from this morning:

JL_harvest2016_david
Vineyard Manager David Maduena examines the Viognier block

JL_harvest2016_viognier_in_bin
The first bin of Viognier

JL_harvest2016_santos
Santos Espinoza -- a Tablas Creek stalwart since 1994 -- inspects the newly-harvested fruit

JL_harvest2016_miles
Our crew are joined for their early morning work by vineyard dog Miles

Our sampling process not only consists of running analysis on sugar concentration (typically measured in degrees Brix), pH, and acidity. At Tablas Creek our process is more holistic, and the numbers are guidelines rather than hard decision points. We walk the blocks, taste the fruit starting at the higher elevations, which ripen first, to decide whether or not to pick.  If the fruit does not taste right, we won't pick it. If a portion of the block is ready to be picked, we will make a pass through that portion of the block, often picking selectively, leaving less ripe clusters for a later pick. Later, when more of the block is ready, we'll make another pass. There are some blocks that will see up to four different harvesting passes. Each one of those passes is kept separate through fermentation, and ends up a separate lot when we start our blending trials in the spring.

For the most part, we will harvest at night. Most of the rest of the harvest is done in the early morning, when it's still cool. The cold nighttime temperatures allow for the berries to avoid oxidation while awaiting their delivery out of the vineyard and to the winery. Both selective picking and night harvesting are processes that take time, hard work and attention to detail. It is a testament to the willingness of our picking crew and our cellar team to go that extra mile that they embrace a process that creates more work, at awkward hours, because in the end it gives us the highest quality raw materials that allow our wines taste the way they do.

Despite the long hours, early mornings, and sore muscles that are undoubtedly on our horizon, I can say without question that this is our favorite time of year at Tablas Creek Vineyard. Harvest is the culmination of all the hard work, planning, and preparation that we've put in throughout the year. While we're biting our nails (February-May) watching our weather stations dreading frost, harvest is our motivation.  When we leave our toasty beds at 2am to turn on the various forms of frost protection we have on the ranch, harvest is our motivation. When we're spending six days a week pruning to stay ahead of bud break, harvest is our motivation. When we walk blocks checking on the various plantings on the property on a scorching Paso Robles summer day, harvest is our motivation.

So next time you are enjoying your next glass of Tablas Creek wine, I ask you to think of all the hard work it took to get that bottle to your table. Trust me, it'll taste even better.

Meanwhile, this is my starting gun. See you in November!!

JL_harvest2016_sunrise
This morning's sunrise, over Viognier.


Just how hot has the summer of 2016 been? More (and less) than you probably think.

I woke to a chilly morning in Paso Robles today, under an overcast sky that seemed equally composed of smoke and fog. The low this morning dropped into the upper 40s, and when I got to the vineyard it was still in the low 60s.  This is a change from the last two weeks, which have been very warm, with an average high of 98.2°, an average low of 57.2°, and six days that topped out over 100°F.

I was interested to research just how warm July was, compared to normal, and I was a little surprised that while it was on the warm side of average, it wasn't as warm, comparatively, as June.  Looking at growing degree days (a commonly used heat summation measure that accounts for both how much time is spent above a baseline temperature (typically 50°) and how much the temperature exceeds that baseline) we saw 689 degree days in June, about 10% above our 20-year average of 626.  The data is probably easier to make sense of in chart form:

Degree Days 2016 vs normal

As you can see, in a typical year, the heat peaks in July and August, with June and September still quite warm.  This year, July was indeed hot, and June nearly as much so: 34% more heat accumulation than normal, above our average July total. Looking at the difference vs. normal shows that dramatically:

Degree Days 2016 pct difference

What pushed June's degree days to such high levels? Two stretches of sustained heat, at the beginning and end of the month, were wrapped around a more moderate middle of the month. The beginning of June saw an eight day period from 6/1 to 6/8 with high temperatures in the mid-to-high 90s and lows around 50°, which isn't unprecedented but is still unusual that early in the year. And then starting 6/19 we saw twelve hot days in a row, with the lowest daytime high measuring 97.1°, nine days in triple digits, and three that topped out above 105°. That's hot, at any time of year.

Late July's very warm weather was balanced out by the first half of the month, which was just about textbook average for the season: two weeks with highs each day between the mid-80s and mid-90s, and lows between the mid-40s and mid-50s.  

And about those cold nights: one thing that bodes well for the vintage is that despite the warm days, we have still had more cool nights than the past couple of years -- 25 days in June and July that dropped into the 40s, vs. just 16 last year and 22 in 2014.

The net impact of the warm close to July has been an acceleration to the veraison that we saw start in mid-July. I took advantage of the cool morning to hike through the vineyard and get a sense of where the different grapes are sitting in their path to harvest. Overall, I think we're almost exactly at veraison's midpoint, with just as many berries now pink to red as there are still green.  Of course, that varies quite a bit by variety, and even within a variety, with cooler spots at the bottoms of hills typically quite a bit behind those same grapes at the tops of the hills.  I'll take them in the order in which we saw veraison start, beginning with Syrah, which I would estimate is at 90% versaison:

Veraison_2016_syrah

Next to go into veraison was Grenache, which I would estimate is about 50% through the process. Note that it was hard for me to get out of the grenache blocks to take photos elsewhere; it's such a beautiful grape, particularly at this time of year when a single cluster can look like a rainbow:

Veraison_2016_grenache

Mourvedre isn't far behind the Grenache, though I found it a lot less even, with many vines that still had small, bright green berries on every cluster even as there were some clusters that looked like they were almost all the way through.  Overall, I'd estimate Mourvedre is at 40% veraison, and the cluster below only slightly more advanced than the average:

Veraison_2016_mourvedre

Finally, Counoise, which is only going through veraison at the tops of the hills, and even there there are more fully green clusters than there are those that look like the one below. Overall, I'd estimate it's only at 10% veraison:

Veraison_2016_counoise

Of course, red grapes aren't the only ones that go through veraison, but it's hard to photograph the subtle changes that white grapes undergo. Two photos might give a bit of a sense. First, Roussanne, which is our last white to ripen, and in which I couldn't find any signs of the softening or turn from green to gold that would indicate that the process has started:

Veraison_2016_roussanne

Compare that to this shot of Viognier, which will likely be our first white to come in off our estate about three weeks from now:

Veraison_2016_viognier

Whether because of the cool nights, the (somewhat) better rainfall we got last winter, or the work we've been doing with biodynamics to make sure our vineyards are as healthy as possible, it seems like the vines are showing fewer symptoms of extreme stress than they were at this time either of the last two years.  And we're hopeful that we'll avoid another hot stretch at least in the near future; today's forecast is suggesting near- to below-normal temperatures over the next ten days.  If we can replicate the cool August weather we got in 2014, we'll be happy indeed.


A Fabulous Dinner in the Woods of Vermont

By Barbara Haas

[Editor's Note: I am very excited to share my mom's first contribution to the Tablas Creek blog. She has been an active partner in this project from the beginning, and the source of many of our best ideas (such as in making our first rosé back in 1999). While this is her first blog, she had a hand in much of the written material we produced in the early days of Tablas Creek. I look forward to many more entries. Thank you to the Windham Hill Inn, which took and shared the photos that appear with this piece.]

Being in the wine business means being in the business of giving pleasure.  We want our wines to taste good and to improve the moments in which they are served.  In order for us to do this, we frequently depend on the shared experience of good food.  The way that wine and food speak to each other is critically important to the appreciation of both.  Think of musical instruments either in tune or not. 

As someone who has been privileged to share a large number of “winemaker” dinners (dinners designed to highlight wine and food), I am reflecting on a recent experience which was one of the best I have had, and I have thought a lot about why this was true.

WinesThe lineup of wines for the dinner

The beautiful, historic Windham Hill Inn and Restaurant in Townshend, VT, has been a steadfast supporter of Tablas Creek wines and owns several vintages in their cellar.  To get there, you really have to know where it is!  A 30-minute drive from our house in Chester, the inn is tucked into a beautiful property at the end of a dirt road, and is totally peaceful and quiet.  The flagstone pathway is bordered by an array of lilies and hydrangeas, and the double entrance doorway (to keep out gusts of snow in the winter) leads you into a warm reception area, which could easily be in a French auberge.  Lots of polished wood, warm fabrics and comfortable furniture surround a small bar area and awaken your sense of anticipation for the aperitif and dinner to follow.

EntranceThe Windham Hill Inn's beautiful setting and entrance

Windham Hill Inn has created dinners to highlight our wines at least eight years in a row, and in my opinion, each year better than the last.  This year’s was a triumph:  focused, generous, and original.

RZH speakingRobert Haas, speaking at the dinner. Barbara Haas sits behind him.

The food was not heavy.  I was still as eager for the fourth course as I was for the first.  With each course, I was delighted by discovery: on my plate and in my glass.  The wines and their paired dishes sang in harmonious duets. 

MenuThe dinner menu

The harmony gave each element more than either had alone.  It was a remarkable experience.  For example:  a perfectly cooked piece of swordfish was accompanied by charred green onion, grilled pineapple, sesame and ginger.  Each element found a responding taste in the Tablas Esprit Blanc 2012.  I marvel at the talent which first recognizes the elements of taste in a wine, and then goes and finds a food which highlights that taste.

Another example was herb-rubbed Vermont lamb loin, with baby bok choy, and fermented black bean and garlic sauce.  The sauces throughout the meal had clean, clear flavors but no heaviness.  In the case of the lamb, the sauce was a simple, clear “jus”.  The rare lamb and its deep-flavored sauce gave the Mourvèdre 2011 ample room and encouragement to express itself.

The chef showed both intelligence and generosity by keeping his dishes focused and simple; in other words, not so tarted up with heavy sauces and irrelevant flavors that they dominated the wine.  This is not an easy job.  Home cooks and professionals alike tend to make food too complicated and “loud” when they are trying to impress, what I like to call “high-decibel food.”  The same tendency happens in wine making. 

LobsterThe second plated course: Maine lobster with a watermelon and heirloom tomato salad

Achieving balance and harmony is challenging but eminently more satisfying, and makes a diner want to come back for more.  A professional taster may recognize each achievement of the chef and winemaker.  A non-professional will simply have a wonderful, satisfying dining experience, without needing to analyze why. 

Thank you and congratulations to Chef David Crone and Wine Director Dan Pisarczyk of Windham Hill Inn for discovering the hidden secrets in our Tablas Creek wines and bringing them to light and value.

SunsetSunset over the rolling Vermont hills


Eat Global, Drink Local

By Evelyne Fodor

[Editor's Note: With this blog, we welcome Evelyne Fodor to the blog. She is a woman of many accomplishments, including a PhD in French (she is a French instructor for the UCLA Extension), a tremendous chef, and a lover of food and wine. Evelyne has become one of Tablas Creek's best-loved wine consultants and made many fans in our tasting room. This is her first blog piece.]

One of the most frequently asked questions at the tasting room is also one of my favorites. “Which food do I pair with this wine?”  At Tablas Creek we take food pairing very seriously. For each of our wines we offer recipes and food pairing suggestions.  Each spring and fall, we invite our members to taste dishes created by local chefs to match our new releases.  We also have a monthly column on our Tablas blog dedicated to this topic.

When one has an eclectic, adventurous palate however, food pairing becomes a very elusive topic. The other day, long-time club members Tom and Karen from Atascadero showed me a picture of an Ethiopian dish they enjoyed and asked me for suggestions on which of our wines to pair with it. If, like Tom and Karen, you love experimenting with regional cuisines such as Indian, Thai, Ethiopian, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese or Moroccan - cuisines with high flavors but notably not associated with wines - the topic is worth exploring.

Spices

I am by no means a specialist but in our wine and food-centric community we have an in-depth understanding of both spices and wines.  I asked three local experts, Lori Di Ciaccio-Foster the owner of Spice of Life in Paso, Brigit Binns owner of cooking school and B&B Refugio and Neeta Mittal, owner of the boutique winery LXV to explain the complicated relationship between spices and wines.

Fascinated by what she refers to as the “mystery of spices,” Lori brings spices from all over the world and blends them in the back kitchen of her small shop. For her, the fusion between spices and wine is striking:  “Blending and harmonizing spices to create vibrant flavors satisfies the mind as well as the palate.” She explained that “each spice captures unique flavors, aromas, and emotions which can pinpoint a specific region or culture.” Like wines, spices thrive best in very specific regions where natural conditions create a unique terroir.  

Spice of Life

Next door to Spice of Life is Neeta Mittal’s LXV Wine Lounge.  With its deep blue walls, day beds full of vibrant colors and plush pillows, the place is a “sensory experience.” Neeta was born and raised in Kerala, "God's own country," a southern state of India also known as the "Land of Spices."  Besides its famous backwaters, elegant houseboats, ayurveda treatments and wild elephants, Kerala is also famous for delicately spiced, taste-bud-tingling cuisine. When Neeta is not involved with her winery, she explores the principles of Ayurveda, vegetarianism and veganism: “As we become more demanding of flavors and more intuitive about our health, spices once thought to be exotic are making an exciting splash in the culinary world.”

Neeta

My last expert is my friend Brigit Binns, the acclaimed author of multiple cookbooks, including The New Wine Country Cookbook: Recipes from California’s Central Coast, in which every recipe is paired with a Central Coast wine.  Recently I met with several of Tablas Creek's wine club members at her Refugio for a class called “The Rosé Less Travelled," with chef Clark Staub, featuring both our Dianthus and Patelin de Tablas Rosé wines. It's also at Refugio that last May Neeta led a three-part cooking series to explore the flavors of Indian cooking and how they partner with Rhône varieties (beautifully!).  Brigit is currently working on a new book project called “Wine First: A Cookbook for Wine Lovers;” her concept is simple: “First, you choose the wine."

So we did! One evening at home, John Morris, Tablas Creek tasting room manager, Neeta and myself lined up a few Tablas wines and started a discussion on the ideal wine pairing.  We selected five whites:  Cotes de Tablas Blanc 2014, Esprit de Tablas Blanc 2012, Petit Manseng 2014, Vermentino 2015 and Picpoul Blanc 2014.  For the reds, we picked most of our Spring shipment including  Esprit de Tablas 2011, 2012 and 2013.  And at the last minute I added our newest release Terret Noir 2014.  I did not include our two rosés, because they simply are too easy to pair with almost anything.  Our challenge was to find affinities in both Tablas wines and regional dishes to create a perfect flavor pairing. We knew the style of cuisines would differ greatly based on climate and available local ingredients but certain spices such as coriander, cumin, cardamom, star anise and turmeric are common to all them.

Meal

John has a deep knowledge of our wines and he has also become an expert in Thai food, as his wife Christina was born and raised in Thailand. He quickly singled out Vermentino 2015. Vermentino is a white medium-bodied wine that grows mostly on the islands of Corsica and Sardinia as well as in Provence where it is known as Rolle. With its somewhat exotic character, citrusy aromas, minerality and crisp acidity, Vermentino is very much appreciated by our guests.  It also pairs very well with Asian dishes that play with the Star Anise spice such as Asian Style Shrimp.  

If for John the choice was simple and straightforward, it took Neeta more time and a few more tastings to figure out which of our wines would be ideal for her Southern Indian dish. She finally chose Esprit de Tablas 2012 which she described as “having a long and complex palate, with flavors of black raspberry, plum compote and leather.”  The moderate alcohol content and gentle tannins with nice fruit and spicy flavors was, according to Neeta, an ideal marriage with her delicately spiced, taste-bud-tingling Tharavu (Duck Dry Curry).

When it was my turn, my first impulse was to pick Petit Manseng 2012 for its rich sweetness, stonefruit characters and sweet spice, which I thought would pair beautifully with my mom’s Moroccan chicken tagine. The word tagine refers to both the conical-shaped dish and the food that's cooked inside it, which in this case is braised chicken flavored with saffron, turmeric, preserved lemon and olives.  Moroccan cuisine has long been integrated into the French culinary tradition due to its colonial history. There is a natural continuity in choosing a Rhône style wine with a Moroccan dish since they both hail from Mediterranean climates. My mom’s tagine is a dish especially well suited here as Morocco shares the same latitude as Paso Robles.

Instead, I choose the Terret Noir 2014, our newest wine. We know very little about the Terret Noir grape, except that it’s a blending partner used in the southern Rhône Valley for red Châteauneuf du Pape wines. It is praised for its "qualities of lightness, freshness, and bouquet" which reminds me of Beaujolais’ Gamay grape. Like Gamay, Terret Noir is pale in color, low in alcohol with bright fruity flavors and a wonderful distinctive herbal aroma reminiscent of garrigue, the low, scrubby vegetation that grows around the Mediterranean coast. The wine’s relatively high acidity made the natural bitterness of preserved lemons and green olives a bit too aggressive, so I simply added (oh mon dieu!) a bit of crème fraîche.

With that in mind, turn up the heat and drink some of our suggestions with all the wonderful African, Asian, Caribbean and fusion dishes that you like!  This is the great way to learn and make your own decision about which Tablas Creek wine pairs best with your tastes.

Tharavu / Duck Dry Curry
A dish from the South of India

Neeta Mittal, LXV Wine Lounge

Duck leg

A few notes before we begin:

  • Always try to grind spices fresh. Spices sitting on your shelf have probably lost their essence.
  • Use a whole duck, if possible, but you can always substitute duck breasts
  • Curry Leaves can be found in an Indian store. You could use a couple of bay leaves with some lime zest, but it won't be the same as curry leaves. I have cooked this dish WITHOUT curry leaves and still tastes great.
  • Use small Green chilies like Thai chilies.
  • You can always email me for ordering just enough spices for this dish, including the curry leaves (neeta@lxvwine.com)
  • Guideline for pairing with Indian food: low alcohol, low tannin, low oak, high acidity, young fruit

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 full duck (skinned and cut into medium pieces and fat removed)
  • For Marinade:
    • Turmeric Powder : 1/2 tsp
    • Red Chili Powder : 3 tsp or to your spice level
    • Coriander Powder : 4 tsp
    • Whole Spices:
    • Cloves: 4 – 5
    • Cardamom: 1
    • Cinnamon stick: 1 inch
    • Bay leaves: 1-2
    • Slightly crushed whole pepper corns: 1/2 tsp
  • For Gravy:
    • Onion: 2 large (finely sliced)
    • Tomatoes:  2 (finely chopped)
    • Dried Whole Red Chilies: 4-5, each broken into two pieces
    • Mustard Seeds: 2 tsp
    • Curry Leaves: few
    • Green Chilies: 8-10 or to your spice level (slit, lengthwise)
    • Coconut Oil: 4 tbsp
    • Ghee: 2 tsp
    • Tamarind: 1 tbsp OR Vinegar: 1 tsp
    • Ginger: 2 tbsp (chopped)
    • Garlic:  2 tbsp (chopped)
    • Coconut milk: 1 cup

DIRECTIONS

  • Marinate the cleaned duck pieces with the marinade for at least 2 hours.
  • Heat coconut oil and ghee in a heavy-bottomed pan.
  • Add mustard seeds and when it starts to splutter, dried red chili, and whole spices. Sauté for a few minutes.
  • Add chopped ginger, garlic, curry leaves, green chilies and chopped onion; sauté till onions turn light brown.
  • Add tomatoes and sauté for a few more minutes, until the oil separates from the tomatoes
  • Add 1/2 cup of water, tamarind (or vinegar), the marinated duck pieces, and salt to taste. Cover and cook for 20 minutes or until the duck is half-done, stirring once or twice in between. Open and cook for 5 minutes at high heat until the gravy almost dries up, stirring in between so that it won’t stick to the bottom.
  • Pour in the coconut milk into half cooked duck and adjust the salt. Lower heat and simmer gently until the curry changes to a brown color and oil starts floating on top. (The coconut milk should get cooked and release coconut oil).
  • Serve Tharavu curry with hot Basmati Rice
  • Pair with a glass of slightly chilled 2012 Esprit de Tablas 

My Mom’s Tagine

Evelyne Fodor, Tablas Creek Wine Consultant

Chicken tagine in pot

INGREDIENTS

  • 6 chicken legs and 6 chicken thighs
  • Kosher salt
  • 1 to 3 tablespoons of oil
  • 5 cups thinly sliced yellow onions
  • 2 tablespoons ground coriander
  • 2 teaspoons ground white pepper
  • 2 teaspoons ground ginger
  • 1 teaspoon saffron threads
  • ½ teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 1½ cup chicken stock
  • 6 quarters preserved lemons
  • ½ cup pitted green olives
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 tablespoons chopped leaf parsley
  • 2 teaspoons chopped cilantro
  • Generously salt the chicken pieces on all sides. Let sit at room temperature for 1 hour.

DIRECTIONS

  • Heat 1 tablespoon of the fat in the bottom of your Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the chicken and cook, turning once, for 3 or 4 minutes on each side, until they are well browned. Remove browned pieces from the pan and add the next batch, continuing until all the pieces are browned. Remove all chicken pieces to a plate.
  • Add oil and onions and sauté on medium high heat, stirring often and adjusting the heat as necessary, for 15 minutes, or until they are a rich golden brown.
  • Preheat the oven to 350F.  Add the spices and a pinch of salt to the onions and stir constantly for about 2 minutes to lightly toast the spices.  Return the chicken to the pan, pour in the chicken stock, and bring to a boil.
  • Cover the tagine, transfer to the oven, and cook for 40 minutes, or until the chicken is tender and is beginning to pull away from the ends.  Remove the chicken from the pan.
  • Return the tagine to a burner and simmer for about 3 minutes to reduce the sauce. Add the lemons and olives. When they are hot, whisk in the butter, parsley, and cilantro.

Mid-July veraison suggests 2016 threatens to be our earliest-ever harvest

When you spend two weeks away in late June and early July, as I did, the vineyard can look quite different when you return than when you left. When I left, most berries were still pea sized, bright green, and hard. When I got out into the vineyard yesterday, things had changed. The grape berries and clusters looked more mature.  The vines' deep green canopies contrasted dramatically with the midsummer blue sky. Quantities look respectable: perhaps somewhat smaller than average but better than 2015.  The vines look remarkably healthy, with really no significant visible effects of the week-plus of 100-degree weather we saw in late June.

And, when I got to the top of the Syrah block, as I thought I might, I found veraison.

Veraison marks the point where a grape stops accumulating mass and starts accumulating sugar. At the same time, red grapes start their color change from green, while white grapes take on more of a yellow tint. Both red and white grapes start to soften. [For more about what's happening chemically, check out this veraison post from the archives.] This landmark comes roughly six weeks before the onset of harvest, and gives us our best estimate for when harvest will begin. A few of the most advanced Syrah clusters:

Veraison 2016

So far, of our red grapes, only Syrah has shown any color change. And only on the tops of the hills, which are typically most advanced, and even there there are many more all-green clusters than there are those like the ones above.  A good example is the photo below, where a more advanced cluster on the left is visible next to another cluster on the same vine that is still entirely green:

Veraison 2016_2

The transformation between hard, sour green berries and sweet, soft, red berries takes some time, and when it starts depends both on how early the vine begins its spring growth and on how fast the ripening progresses, determined by the amount of heat and sun after budbreak. Looking at the chart below, from the Western Weather Group's Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance forecast, suggests that we shouldn't be surprised to be seeing an early veraison, given that 2016 is among the warmest years since 1997:

Veraison 2016 - Degree Days - Resized

While six weeks is a good basic guide for the duration between veraison and harvest, it's not totally constant, and can be influenced by the weather that we get in the interim, as well as by the amount of fruit the vines are carrying.  For example, in 2014 our earliest-ever veraison (noted on July 9th) was mitigated by a very cool August, and we started harvest 45 days later, on August 23rd. By contrast, last year's first veraison was noted on July 18th, but a warm August and a light crop load meant that we began harvest just 39 days later, on August 26th. The last ten years are compiled in the chart below:

Year First Veraison Noted Harvest Begins # of Days
2007 July 20 August 28 39
2008 July 23 September 3 42
2009 July 20 September 1 43
2010 July 30 September 16 49
2011 August 5 September 20 47
2012 July 25 September 5 42
2013 July 17 August 26 40
2014 July 9 August 23 45
2015 July 18 August 26 39
2016 July 13 ? ?

It's clear that we're looking at another early harvest this year. Even if things cool off dramatically -- and there's nothing in the long-term forecast that suggests they will -- we're almost certainly starting harvest in August.  Our longest-ever veraison-harvest interim, from the very cool (and plentiful) 2010 vintage, was 49 days. 49 days from July 13th is August 31st. If, instead, we see an interim like 2015 or 2007, both of which saw small crops and warm weather, we could start as early as August 21st. If we did, that would be our earliest beginning ever. I'm guessing we end up toward the early end of that range, but probably not right at the minimum, given that our crop levels look somewhat better than they did in 2015. But we'll see. 

What's next for the vineyard? We'll watch the different grapes go through veraison. While Syrah is almost always first, Grenache and Mourvedre won't be far behind. Counoise is almost always last. It's an exciting time, with the view changing practically daily. Meanwhile, expect our winemaking team to take some vacation and rest up for the coming frenzy, and while they're here to be getting the last of the year's bottling done so there's space in barrels and tanks for the coming crush.

But while none of this is a surprise, it's still a significant milestone. We now know how much sand is in the hourglass. And that it's been flipped over.


A Nostalgic Ligurian Pairing: Clams in White Wine and Strozzapreti al Pesto With Vermentino

By Suphada Rom

One of my most profound food and wine memories takes me back to Italy, specifically the Ligurian coast. The allure of the crooked seaside streets with squeaking restaurant signs, beckoning you with wafts of dinners yet-to-come. Ducking my head (literally, I had to duck since the arched doorway was about five feet high, at best) into a small restaurant revealed half a dozen tables nestled into every nook and cranny. After quickly scanning the menu, I greedily ordered an appetizer of vongole al vino bianco (clams in white wine) and an entrée of trofie al pesto (a hand-made rolled pasta with a rich pesto sauce). I decided to complete the local trifecta with a cheap half bottle of a local white wine.

These were my pre-wine-geek days, where I was more focused on the food than the wine. And yeah, my wine vocabulary may have been no more than white or acidic, but I knew that what I'd ordered was delicious, and a perfect accompaniment to the dishes I ordered. Fast-forward six years later, and here I am working with all the gorgeous wines at Tablas Creek, including the Italian variety I had ordered that night, Vermentino. I may not have known what the grape was, or what its characteristics were, or anything about it, but I loved it then, as I do now.  

Vermentino and Pasta
Strozzapreti al pesto paired with our Vermentino

So, to pair with our recently released 2015 Vermentino, I chose two courses of nostalgia. The recipes I used were fairly simple and straight-forward, as I think some of the best are. I chose to use the recipe from Food52 for pesto alla Genovese. The clams recipe comes from Saveur for their Garlic-Steamed Manila Clams. I had to make a minor modification, as trofie is not a pasta you find at your local supermarket or even your artisanal Italian food shop. The origin of trofie isn’t entirely known, although it could be traced back to the the verb "strofinare", which essentially means to rub, which in turn could refer to the fact that this pasta is made by hand. Wherever its name is derived from, it finds its roots in Liguria and is commonly seen generously coated by fresh basil pesto. I found that using strozzapreti was a good substitute because its elongated structure and and curled crevices would store just enough pesto for every bite. The curled strips resemble a priest's collar (strozzapreti literally means "priest strangler", although there are alternate origin stories). Here are the results from the dual pairing:

Clams Mep
Steamed clams mis en place

Clams up close
The clams resting in their bath of white wine and herbs. Grab some crusty baguette and sop up the sauce. It's well worth it!

Pesto
Fresh pesto alla Genovese 

Strozzapreti on counter
Hand-formed strozzapreti pasta

Vermentino and Clams
Vermentino with the Garlic Steamed Clams (this plate lasted all of 60 seconds but hey, clams are tiny!)

My first bite consisted of a shell-full of clam, followed by a hunk of bread that had been soaking in the herbed broth. The clams were cooked wonderfully, but the broth is what truly made the dish. Before you even cook the clams, you saute shallots and garlic, whose deep, sweet flavor resonates through the broth. Using the white wine, you deglaze the pan, releasing all the little flavorful bits. Adding in fresh herbs at the end gives the broth not only fresh and vibrant flavor, but color too! I could seriously eat a vat of this broth with baguette. I did manage to disengage from the appetizer long enough to dig into the entree. The pesto was mild in flavor and complex in texture. When you're tossing in the pesto in with the warm pasta, the cheese can adhere to each individual pasta, leaving behind the pesto. I added a splash of pasta water to thin out the pesto slightly, garnering a more even coating. 

In between bites of clam and pasta, I managed to take a sip or two of our 2015 Vermentino. I know what you might be thinking- why is Tablas Creek, who is so focused on French (specifically Rhone) varieties producing Vermentino? The answer is at the very heart of Tablas Creek's existence- our importation of vine material from France. When we starting the vineyard, we wanted to import specific clones from France that would produce quality grapes in the limestone rich soils of Paso Robles. Based on the recommendation of the Perrins' French nurseryman, we began with a handful of varieties from the Rhone and a couple outliers, including Vermentino. Vermentino, also known as Rolle, is easy to grow in the vineyard and even easier on the palate. It exudes aromas of lemon and lime- I happened to find a little piece of my childhood in a whiff of cream soda. There is this expression of fresh citrus, with a rich mouthfeel that coats your palate long enough for the acidity to kick in, lending a generous "pick me up" on the finish. In terms of pairing, I like seafood with this wine a whole lot, especially when there's white wine involved in the sauce. There's a certain briny character in Vermentino that suggests the ocean, and the finish of pithy grapefruit provides a foil for the rich flavors of roasted garlic and shallot. And matching up pesto with this wine is a slam dunk. It's a regional pairing that, for so many reasons, is perfect in itself and needs little explanation except for Try It.

Looking back, I see that, even though I didn't realize it then, I was destined for the path I've been paving for myself. This road entangled with food and wine was one I was sure to not only continue down, but make a career out of. 

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:

  • Recipe for Steamed Manilla Clams can be found here, via Saveur.
  • Recipe for Pesto alla Genovese can be found here, via Food52.
  • You can purchase the 2015 Vermentino by clicking here or by visiting us in the tasting room
  • Although this wine was included in the Spring "Whites Only" Shipment, wine club members can re-order this wine at their 20% discount! Not a member yet? Learn more about the VINsider club here.

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:

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

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"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!

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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!

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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.


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.


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.

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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

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An up close shot of the Niçoise

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

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

If you recreate this dish (or create a TCV wine and food pairing of your own!), be sure to let us know on any of our social media handles - Facebook or Twitter or Instagram - or just leave us a comment here! When you do, tag @tablascreek and use #EatDrinkTablas

A few other resources:

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

The swarm, the hive, and Tablas Creek honey

By Jordan Lonborg

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

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

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

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

Swarm catcher

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

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

Swarm2

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

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

Jordan Lonborg, Viticulturist and resident beekeeper