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!

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

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

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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


Come soon for the incredible 2016 wildflower season in Paso Robles

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

Wildflowers

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

Mustard

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

Lupine

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

Thistle

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

Single poppy

Poppies

Poppies limestone and deep blue sky

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


Reassessing Winter 2015-2016 After March's Rain

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

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

Winter Rainfall

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

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

Miner's Lettuce

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

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

Budding Grenache Blanc

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

Sadie in the cover crop

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

Mourvedre in Mustard

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

Poppies

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_5967
The final product with our Esprit de Tablas Blanc.

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

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

A few other resources:

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

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


Budbreak 2016: Our Earliest Ever

Yesterday, I got out in the vineyard to hunt for signs of budbreak. It has been an exceptionally warm, sunny February, with weather we'd more associate with April.  And as I suspected, the vineyard had noticed.  Please join me in welcoming the 2016 vintage:

Budbreak 2016 - 1

Budbreak, as you probably guessed from the name, is the period when the grapevine buds swell and burst into leaf.  It is the first marker in the growing cycle, a point when we can compare the current season to past years.  Upcoming markers will include flowering, veraison, first harvest, and last harvest.  If you're thinking that this seems early to be talking about budbreak, you're right.  We have never before seen budbreak in February.  Last year, I wrote about our then-earliest-ever budbreak on March 16th (though it was maybe a week more advanced than what I saw yesterday).  To give you a sense of where 2016 fits within the context of recent years, I went back to look at when we first noted budbreak each of the last eight years:

2015: Second week of March
2014: Mid-March
2013: First week of April
2012: Mid-April
2011: First week of April
2010: Last week of March
2009: Second week of April
2008: Last week of March
2007: First week of April

Although budbreak is still limited to Viognier (our earliest budding variety) and to the warmer tops of the hills, we know it won't be long before the other grapes join in.  I expect to see Grenache, Grenache Blanc, Vermentino and Syrah in the next week or so, followed by Tannat, Marsanne, and Picpoul a week or two later.  We likely won't see the late-budding Counoise, Roussanne, and Mourvedre until the second half of the month, and sections toward the bottoms of our hills (where cold air settles at night) maybe not for a little while after.

While budbreak is a hopeful sign, it's also the beginning of a period of increased risk.  During winter dormancy, the vines are not susceptible to damage from below-freezing temperatures. Once they've pushed new growth, they are.  Because we can receive frosts here in Paso Robles all the way into early May, this means we have at least two months of white-knuckle nights to get through.  We've been fortunate in recent years, with our last damaging frost in 2011.  It seems very unlikely, given the earliness of this year's start to the growing season, that we'll continue our run of good luck.  That said, a late budbreak is no guarantee of safety, and in fact may be an indicator of increased risk, since it was likely cold weather that delayed the budbreak in the first place.  Both 2011 and 2009 (our two recent frost years) saw April budbreaks, which were followed in short order by frosts that cost us something like 40% of our crop.

Looking forward, we have something of an unusual weather pattern developing.  Later this week, our string of warm, dry weather will be ending, and conditions more typical of El Nino will be setting back in.  This morning's agricultural forecast suggests that the jet stream will direct a series of strong, wet, not too cold storms toward California starting this coming weekend.  Early predictions are that we could receive several inches of rain in the first two waves Saturday and Monday.  What's more, they're using one of my favorite California weather terms to describe the long-term forecast: that the "storm door will stay wide open" through the middle of March.

As long as we're receiving these sorts of storms fueled by the relatively warm waters of the south Pacific, we're likely to be at little risk of frost.  If it's enough to make a good dent in our groundwater deficit, that would be a double bonus of massive proportions, and make the sharing of photos like the ones below more joyful and less terrifying.  I'm all for that.

Budbreak 2016 - 2

Budbreak 2016 - 3


We celebrate a respite in what's been a warm, dry February... with rainbows

Yesterday evening, a decent storm passed through the Paso Robles area.  It hadn't been forecast to drop too much rain (we were expecting a half-inch or so) but it turned out to be better than that.  Between 6pm and midnight, we received just over 1.5" of rain, and with the wind whipping up gusts to 37mph it felt like winter for the first time in a few weeks.

Until yesterday, February has been dry and (after a cool first few days) warm.  Beginning February 7th, we saw 10 consecutive days that reached at least the 70's, three times climbing into the 80's.  Only three times in that stretch did the nighttime lows drop below 40°, and our last freezing night was February 5th.  It's still early, but it really felt like spring, and as we watched the local almond trees burst into bloom, we were dreading the arrival of an exceptionally early budbreak.  The wildflowers were starting to bloom in the vineyard.

What's more, despite the promise of our ongoing El Nino conditions, we had dropped behind even a normal year, with the Paso Robles Airport at 90% of average winter-to-date precipitation. February is typically very wet here in Paso Robles: our second-rainiest month, just after January.  At Tablas Creek, an average February provides about 5 inches of rain for us, or about 20% of our annual total.  So, to have the first half of the month provide zero precipitation is a significant missed opportunity, and was particularly disappointing after January (6.65", or 124% of normal) got us off to a good start.

This morning, when we arrived at the vineyard, we were greeted by a remarkable double rainbow.  Two views:

PanoTwitter

and

Square

Looking forward, we have a week of dry weather forecast before we're supposed to return to a wet weather pattern for the end of the month.  What we really need is a few of the big soakings that used to be the norm in winters here, where we might see 3-5 inches of rain in a storm.  It's not that we've received -- at least not before the last few weeks -- consistently fair weather. That was the problem the last two winters: a persistent ridge of high pressure that deflected storm activity well to the north.  December 2015 saw 12 days with measurable rainfall (albeit for a total of just 1.39"), while January 2016 added a whopping 20 days with some rain.  But many of these storms seemed to just miss us, with areas to the north (and even a few times, areas to the south) getting drenched, while we saw more modest totals.

Last night's storm was one of the first all winter to exceed its predicted totals.  May it not be the last.