San Luis Obispo County: the Little County that Could

This week, the San Luis Obispo Tribune posted a nice article pointing out the terrific representation of San Luis Obispo County in the two most influential year-end "Top 100" lists published by the Wine Spectator and by the Wine Enthusiast.  The Wine Spectator included seven local wines in their Top 100, while the Wine Enthusiast added three more in their Top 100.  Let's stop and think about this for a moment.  That's 10 of the 200 wines represented in the two lists from our little county, or 5%.  And even better that most of the wines listed were toward the tops of the lists. Already pretty satisfying, right? It's actually even better than that.

Tablas Creek Long View 2014

How much wine does San Luis Obispo County make, compared to the rest of the state, country, and world?  In 2016, San Luis Obispo County ranked seventh in the state of California by bearing acreage according to the USDA:

  • San Joaquin: 68,210
  • Sonoma: 58,007
  • Monterey: 44,095
  • Napa: 43,589
  • Fresno: 37,831
  • Madera: 32,763
  • San Luis Obispo: 31,480

Overall, our county represents 6.8% of the 459,629 bearing acres in the state of California.  So, 5% doesn't seem like that great a representation.1  But of course, not all the wines in the two "Top 100" lists are from California. In fact, just 39 of the 200 wines in the two lists (17 in Wine Enthusiast and 22 in Wine Spectator) are from California.  So, that's 25.6% of the state's "Top 100" representatives that come from SLO County.  Not bad.

Perhaps you'd prefer to look at what percentage of American wine our little county represents?  Opening up the list to wines from Washington, Oregon, and New York adds an additional 22 wines.  That reduces SLO County's percentage from 25.6% to 16.4%, still well above the 3.45% of the country's total production that San Luis Obispo County represents.2

Or perhaps you're prefer to look internationally.  In 2015, the United States produced 10.48% of the world's wine.  So, San Luis Obispo County produced 0.36% of the world's wine: just one out of every 277 bottles made.  That means that in the two "Top 100" lists, the 5% that SLO County represents is overperforming by something like 14 times, measured as our percentage of world production. 

However you choose to measure it, we punched way above our weight class in 2017.

You go, San Luis Obispo County.

Footnotes:
1. It's actually a little better than it sounds, since although SLO County represents 6.8% of California's acres, it represents something less than that of its production. That's because coastal regions like ours generally produce many fewer tons per acre than counties in the Central Valley.  Figuring out by how much is a little tricky, since production isn't tracked by county, only by Grape District.  In the California Grape Crush Report for 2016, District 8, which includes San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, and Ventura Counties, produced 224,584 tons.  If SLO County represents the same 67% of tonnage that it represents of the district's bearing acreage, which seems reasonable, it would produce 150,471 tons, or about 3.7% of the state's 4,031,000 total tons produced.

2. This calculation required a bit of cross-referencing, since grape acreage statistics in states outside California, Washington, Oregon, and Texas are hard to come by.  I used instead the tons estimate I calculated in the above footnote, and calculated the percentage of total national production based on the Wine Institute's data that California represents roughly 85% of the United States' total national production.


Should a Vermentino ever get 98 points?

Yesterday, we posted to our Twitter feed a great review that our 2016 Vermentino received from the trade publication BevX:

I then had a brief exchange on Twitter with Sean Ludford, who runs BevX:

This got me thinking.  What is it about certain grapes or styles that allows them to be great?  I wondered how many Vermentinos had received 90+ scores from larger publications, so I looked in the Wine Spectator's database. They've scored 430 Vermentinos over the years. Of those, 17 have received 90+ scores, including just two 91s and one 92.  That's less than 4% of the Vermentinos reviewed (which, presumably, are the better ones) that received an "outstanding" or "classic" score.

Thinking about other grapes that fit a similar profile (bright, crisp, generally best drunk young) I looked up Picpoul. Of the 60 that they tasted, only one (from our neighbors here in Paso Robles, Adelaida Cellars) got a 90.  That's 1.7%.

Going more into the mainstream, Chardonnay returns 25,485 results in the Wine Spectator database.  Of these, 5,206 have received 90+ ratings (20.4%).   Sauvignon Blanc returns 10,706 results, with 935 (8.7%) receiving 90+ scores. Pinot Grigio returns 2,204 results, but only 82 90+ scores (3.7%).

Rhone whites as a whole score well.  Take Roussanne, for example.  Of the 456 Roussannes reviewed by the Wine Spectator over the years, 70 (15.4%) received 90+ ratings, with our 2014 Roussanne being one of three that topped the list at 93 points. Viognier has 362 90+ wines out of 2,404 (15.1%).  Marsanne has 33 90+ scores out of 269 wines (12.3%). And Grenache Blanc, which only returns 212 results, has 24 90+ scores, four of them ours (11.3%). Only Picpoul is an outlier here.

So, what does it mean that 20+% of Chardonnays can be "outstanding" or "classic", 11-15% of most of the Rhone whites, but only 4% of Vermentinos?  I think there are a few factors at play.

  • Ageworthiness. I do think that reviewers put a premium on wines that can be aged into something greater than they were in their youth. This makes some sense to me. A truly great wine should be interesting over time, and assume different personalities. Just as a great book is something that you want to return to at different stages of your life, and from which you can gather different insights depending on your own life experiences. Vermentino, as beautiful as it can be, is not a wine that we think improves with time in bottle.
  • Richness. There also seems to be a correlation between a wine's body and high scores.  Most Rhone whites (with the possible exception of Grenache Blanc) show a lot of body. And even Grenache Blanc can have plenty of body; it's just balanced by high acids.  But grapes that are lighter in body, like Picpoul or Pinot Grigio (or Vermentino) tend not to be treated the same way.  Sauvignon Blanc, which can be made richer but is typically bright and lean, falls somewhere in between.  If we were able to taste the styles of the highest-rated wines in the category, I would guess that they'd tend toward the richer side of the grape's spectrum. Here is a case where I think there's room to debate. Is there a place for rich wines? Of course. But I know that I value refreshment in wine as much as I do power. And yes, great wines should offer at least some of both.
  • Oak. What else distinguishes white wines with more body from those with less? The more substantial wines are more likely to have been fermented in oak, and to have a higher percentage of that oak be new. Does this mean that a category that typically isn't made with oak has to be oaked to get high scores? I hope not. You're starting to see this with some luxury rosé cuvées, most visibly Chateau d'Esclans, whose top-of-the-line Garrus rosé, aged in new and one-year-old French oak, has on its Web page a litany of reviews calling it the "best rosé in the world". But is the wine better, or is it the oak that tells people they should value it more? I think it's at least partly the latter. I tasted Garrus along the other three tiers from Chateau d'Esclans, and I preferred the freshness of the less expensive wines to the creamy oakiness of the elite levels, not least because the oak to me worked against the freshness and charm that I look for in rosés. That said, the richer style clearly has its adherents. A grape like Vermentino is not likely to be put into new barrels, and thank heavens for that. But the sweet spice and weight that new oak brings to a wine is at least a part of what cues reviewers to identify wines as elite.
  • Provenance. Looking at the scores, the percentage of high scores is correlated with the percentage of each wine that is made in California. Now, before I dive into this potential land mine, let me make it clear that I do not believe that California wines are held to a different (lower) standard, that the Wine Spectator is biased in favor of California, or that all California wines are better than wines from the Old World.  That said, I do believe that California winemakers have taken a new look at many grapes which in the Old World were made in a certain way by tradition.  Take Picpoul:
    • In France, the Picpouls (mostly from the Pinet region, in Languedoc) are generally produced plentifully, harvested early with modest sugars, fermented fast and bottled young to showcase the wines' bright acids.  And they are all so cheap (generally under $10 retail) that there is little opportunity or incentive to innovate.
    • At Tablas Creek, we farm the same grape at lower yields, in a climate with colder nights, and those combine to produce wines with just as much acidity, but more concentration and texture than the French versions.
    • It's noteworthy that just 9 of the 70 Picpouls are from California, and yet most of the ones that received the high scores were. Same with Vermentino: just 9 of the 430 reviews are for California wines (6 of these are ours).
    • Are the wines principally different because of climate? Sure, in part. But I think it's at least as much in the freedom that we have from tradition, and the higher price point of most California wines, that has encouraged and rewarded a new approach to these formerly unfashionable grapes.
    • The wines with longer histories in California have more reviews but tell the same story; thirty of Roussanne's seventy 90+ scores come from California.

Ultimately, the ceiling score for wines is determined by the accumulated reputation of a category over the years.  And I don't think this is a bad thing, or that all grapes are created equal. Cabernet, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir command the world's highest prices and the lion's share of many magazines' top scores because the market has decided that their best examples are worth the high prices they command. Is there an extent to which this is tradition? Sure. But these are great grapes, which have proved their value and reputation over generations. There is a reason why I reach for a Chardonnay a lot more often than I do for a Pinot Grigio, and I don't want to suggest that the same percentage of every grapes should receive 90+ scores.

That said, remember that loving unfashionable grapes is a tremendous opportunity to enjoy a category's great examples on the cheap.  What the best Chardonnays from Montrachet or Cabernets from Napa Valley will set you back can be measured in hundreds or thousands of dollars.  This 98-point Vermentino?  $27, and less since June is the month it is our featured wine.

In the end, I find it refreshing to think that a grape can be celebrated for being outstanding in its own right and not bump up against some glass ceiling of worthiness. Is there really no such thing as a "classic" Vermentino"? Maybe not, if the definition of a classic is one that will stand the test of time; I know I'm going to try to drink all my 2016 Vermentino before the 2017 is even picked. But I hope there is the opportunity to identify a wine that is outstanding at a moment in time, even if (especially if) it's now the best it will ever be.  And as Sean Ludford said in his last tweet, "excellence is excellence".  Amen to that.


A Rebuttal: Drink what you like. And celebrate wine's diversity.

It's rare enough that the mass media writes about wine that I was pleased to see an opinion piece on wine in this Sunday's New York Times, called "Ignore the Snobs, Drink the Cheap, Delicious Wine".  In the piece, author Bianca Bosker begins with a visit to Treasury Wine Estates. One of the world's largest wine companies, Treasury is best known for owning flagship brands like Penfold's, Stag's Leap, Lindeman's, Beringer, and Chateau St. Jean, but those are just a few of the wines they make. Between all their brands, according to their Web site, they sold over 30 million cases of wine in 2015. Ms. Bosker is impressed enough by their wine creation process (which she describes as "created from the consumer backwards") that it encourages her to rethink the place of wines that are, like those she saw, more engineered in a lab than grown in a vineyard.  If you haven't read it, go do it now. OK, welcome back.  

Stock photo - wines in lab
Copyright: freeprod / 123RF Stock Photo

I don't at all disagree with the idea that people should drink what tastes good to them. I think it's great that the wines that are being made for the masses are better than they were a generation ago. I do hear, again and again, that the chance of finding a truly flawed wine is the lowest it has ever been. That's all good. It's a noble goal to make people feel better about drinking the wines they like, and to dispel the intimidation factor from wine. But while this is just an excerpt from what will surely be a more nuanced book, I fear that her central conclusion is wrong, and wrong in a way that will discourage, rather than encourage, the creation of a new generation of wine lovers. 

Let's address the cringe-inducing op-ed title first. I hate that wine knowledge is -- so often -- conflated with snobbery by the general media. The sommeliers I know are eager to share that knowledge, genuinely enthusiastic about wine, accepting that people have different tastes, and explicit that their goal should be to unite their customers with wines they'll love. That said, from my experience with publishers, I'm guessing it was the Times's editors who chose that title and not the author, so I'll leave that there. The second half of the title ("Drink the Cheap, Delicious Wine") seems like something that no one should object to.

And yet... the challenge is, of course, who gets to define delicious, and what that means for the wines that result. I love finding great wines that are steals for their quality, often from overlooked grapes or lesser known regions.1 The process of experimentation and discovery with these sorts of wines tends to lead people to understanding: these less heralded wines are often quite different from one another, and people may well learn that they love the freshness of Gamay but hate the herbal character of Cabernet Franc. Or vice versa. So, as consumers experiment, the diversity of what they taste also helps them better define what they like.

But rather than use modern techniques to create homages to the best simple village wines that a novice drinker might have enjoyed a generation ago, it seems from the author's descriptions that what she found were caricatures of expensive wines. Perhaps this is unsurprising. The production techniques that many elite wineries use for their highest-end wines are expensive: think very low production, to produce intensity; late harvests, to produce luscious flavors; aggressive sorting, to ensure that only the highest quality grapes begin fermentation; and new oak barrels, to provide sweet spices. These together result in wines that tend toward being rich and dense, with sweet fruit, low acid, and soft tannins. That's clearly a flavor profile with its adherents, even if it's not particularly mine.

It doesn't seem like it particularly is the author's taste, either. She describes the wines as "rich, syrupy and heavy", which sounds like a nice thing to pour over your pancakes, but maybe not to accompany your rib eye. Or maybe it does, to you. But even if so, all this reliability comes at a cost.

The rub is that, in a crowded marketplace, these focus-group-engineered wines necessarily displace wines of more interest and more diversity. The process by which focus-group wines are made means that they taste much the same, whatever their varietal makeup or their appellation of origin. Maybe this is OK, if these sorts of wines act as a gateway, getting people on a path that leads (eventually) to wines of more character and diversity. The author (and the Treasury spokesperson she interviews) asserts that. But I'm not sure. While any one of these wines may have a greater chance of appealing to any individual consumer, it seems to me that their sameness -- and the fact that these wines are the (often overwhelming) majority of what's on the shelves in supermarkets -- limits their ability, as a group, to connect with a range of potential wine lovers with different tastes.2

Wine can be a challenging thing. Many consumers who love wine are still intimidated by the arcane (and often foreign) names of places and grapes, the mysteries of fermentation and aging, and the often high prices that come alongside some famous names. But what is the solution to this? Is it to celebrate the elimination of wine's complexities, where wine all follows a specific taste formula designed to please the maximum number of novice drinkers? That seems a shame. Think of food. Is there a place for a Big Mac in American dining? Sure. But does it matter that food can be more than that, or that there are social implications of settling for what's mass-produced for focus groups? Also yes.

And should people aspire to drink better than "root beer with a splash of Hershey’s syrup and vodka," as the author described the wines she tasted in the lab? I don't think that's too much to ask, and I reject the idea that a sommelier (or winemaker) who is trying to lead people along a path to something more meaningful (even if it's more challenging) is somehow doing their customers a disservice.

Footnotes:

  1. So does every wine writer I read, from Robert Parker to Eric Asimov, who like very different sorts of wines. We try to make wines that fit into this basic criteria with our Patelin de Tablas line.
  2. It also seems to me a shame that you also lose what makes wine unique among beverages: that it is a window into the grape(s) that it came from, the place in which it's grown, and the people who made it. But maybe that's just me being romantic.

On being a kid-friendly winery

I was pleased to see us mentioned in Mother Magazine's Paso Robles Guide, published online today. I was even more pleased to see Paso Robles recognized:

Mother Magazine Paso Robles

We moved out to Paso Robles in part because we were ready to start a family, and we haven't been disappointed.  From the great downtown park to a terrific library system, the different children's museums to an active youth sports community, it's been a great place to raise our two boys.  But I think that the kid-friendliness of the food and wine community has been noteworthy as well.  It's been fun to see the enthusiasm of the servers in the restaurants we visit, taking the kids seriously as they learn how to navigate their way around a real menu. And the bartenders we ask to make up fun kids' cocktails. We've never felt like we attract dirty looks by bringing the kids into the many great restaurants here, and for that we're grateful.

So it's really nothing more than paying it forward to do what we can to help make parents who visit Tablas Creek with kids feel welcome.  And, having been a parent in the shoes, so to speak, of our visitors, it's easy to remember how grateful even simple accommodations made us feel.  What do we do?  It's not rocket science.

  • Offer an activity for kids while parents taste. In our case, we have a kid-sized coloring table in the corner of our tasting room, with pictures of grapes and vines that they can color.  Heck, you don't even need to be a kid to use it, though if you're more than about 5'2" your knees may complain.  But giving parents the chance to focus on your wine instead of corralling a bored kid who otherwise is underfoot is good for your customers, your bottom line, and your sanity.
  • Offer events for families to do together.  Clearly, many or most of the events you're going to offer as a winery are going to be focused on wine drinking (or pairing, or making) and won't be appropriate to kids.  But much of what a winery does is agriculture, and it's important and typically fun to get kids involved in how things are grown and made.  We use animals as a part of our biodynamic program, and have created events to bring families out to meet the animals and learn their role in a healthy vineyard.
  • Be inclusive where you can.  We take as many people as are interested out on tours to see the vineyard, our grapevine nursery, and the winery.  All of this is interesting to kids, in my experience.  Have them taste different grapes and see if they can describe what makes them different.  Explain why you plant, or graft, or farm the way you do.  It costs nothing, builds goodwill, and gets kids involved in important conversations.
  • Be involved in your community.  The work that we do here is only one way that we interact with our customers.  Many of them live in our community, and most of them visit.  We have made it a point to get involved in the community activities that enrich the life experiences of kids who grow up here, from creating a partnership with the Performing Arts Center, to donating wine to raise funds for art in schools at the Paso Arts Fest, to creating a program with must! charities to support the Boys' & Girls' Club here in Paso and a local expansion of the Big Brothers Big Sisters program.  There are so many ways to make a difference... and many of the most compelling focus on kids.

It's really not the case where in making your winery family-friendly you have to choose to somehow make it less adult-friendly.  In general, thinking of the needs of kids who may be (unwillingly) accompanying their parents when they come out to visit you is going to make for a better experience for not only their parents, but also the kid-free customers who might otherwise be caught in the crossfire.

And if you can create an experience that involves an alpaca, some donkeys and a whole passel of sheep, so much the better.

Levi at meet the animals
Former Viticulturist Levi Glenn at our "Meet the Animals" family event a few summers ago


Outtakes from my Decanter "My Paso Robles" article

Earlier this year, I was flattered to be asked by Decanter Magazine to write an insider's guide to Paso Robles for inclusion in their annual California supplement.  My goal was not to recommend wineries, but instead to give potential visitors an idea of some of the other gems of the area: things to do that you might not know about, or that might not appear in a guide book.  What fun.  The article was published last month:

Decanter_my_paso

Unfortunately, it isn't available online.  So, I wanted to share it here.  This also gives me the opportunity to provide some additional details on my recommendations that weren't able to fit into the magazine due to space constraints.  So, here goes:

My Paso Robles

I was sitting in our downtown park last summer on a warm Thursday evening, listening to a local band play and watching my kids thread their way through the crowd with their friends, when I realized that this is what people look for when they come to wine country, and more than that, what we were looking for when we moved out fourteen years ago from a city life to join my family in working on our Tablas Creek project. We were drinking local rosé out of plastic tumblers, sitting with two other winemaking families on blankets, and eating caprese sandwiches from tomatoes we’d gotten at our local farmer’s market that week. And it’s not just that concert series. Paso is like that: few pretensions, still country, but with an appealing overlay of cultural opportunities brought by the wine community over the last three decades.

Justin Baldwin, the founder of the pioneering Justin Winery, is fond of saying that when he arrived in Paso Robles in 1983, the best meal in town was the tuna melt at the bowling alley. When I first started spending time out here in 1995, it wasn't quite that bleak, but still, when you wanted a great meal, or interesting shopping, you went over to the coast, or down to San Luis Obispo. No more. Our little town, which locals just call "Paso" (population, about 30,000), is now home to a remarkable collection of restaurants, hotels, and shops, driven by the dramatic growth of our local wine community, from 17 wineries when we started Tablas Creek in 1989 to some 260 today.

Local agriculture means more than wineries. The area has a long history of ranching, and the ample (for California) natural rainfall west of town made it a historical centre of both grain and nut production. Several local olive ranches are producing some of California's best olive oils. Just 20 miles away, the coast offers fishing, kayaking and surfing, a milder climate in which citrus and avocado orchards thrive, and Hearst Castle, the most visited state park in California.

In Paso, you have a vibrant mix of three communities, which interact in interesting and rewarding ways. You have the old ranching community, many of whose members have in recent decades dedicated a portion of their ranches to vineyards. Cowboy hats here are not worn ironically. You have the wine community, which has attracted a mix of new graduates, young families, and second career refugees into the area from (mostly) other parts of California, bringing a more urban, multicultural aesthetic. And you have a vibrant Hispanic community, both first and second generation, with taquerias and mercados, some of which play it straight and some of which incorporate influences from California and beyond.

Whatever you do, plan to stay for at least a few days. We're not near any major cities (or airports, for that matter, although the one-gate San Luis Obispo airport makes for a convenient arrival point) and the pace here isn't one where you should try to do it all in a day or two. Slow down, limit your winery visits to 3 or 4 per day, and take in some other attractions. And then plan to come back.

  • Stay at Hotel Cheval. When this 16-room boutique hotel opened in 2007 it brought a whole new level of luxury and professionalism to lodging in Paso Robles. It's still the town's classiest spot to stay, with live music evenings in their great bar (the Pony Club) and the benefit of being just half a block from the downtown park: an easy walk to (and more importantly back from) the town's restaurants.
  • Visit the Abalone Farm in Cayucos. San Luis Obispo County's agriculture isn't all wine. Ranching is big here too, as are strawberries, citrus, and avocados. Abalone fishing has a long local history, but decades of overharvesting from which wild populations are only beginning to recover means that if you want to try local abalone you should come here, just up from the kelp forests of Cayucos, to one of just three licensed fisheries in the state. You have to call and make an appointment, but a visit is a fascinating look at the five-year journey this mollusk makes from spawn to plate.
  • Shop like a local at General Store Paso Robles and Studios on the Park. Less than a block apart from each other are my two favorite places in town to shop. Studios on the Park is a cooperative work space and gallery for a dozen local painters, sculptors, and printmakers. It even offers classes if you're feeling creative. The General Store is the place to go for anything Paso Robles-themed, as well as a curated selection of cookbooks, housewares, and picnic items. I'd go even more often if my wife Meghan hadn't already bought everything there.
  • Play a round of disc golf at Castoro Cellars. I played Ultimate Frisbee competitively for two decades. Disc golf is more my speed now, and the Udsen brothers Max and Luke built a course that takes players through the gorgeous hillside vineyards of their family's winery.
  • Try the cider at Bristol’s Cider House. Made by our winemaker Neil Collins in homage to his Bristol, England roots, the line of Bristol's Ciders is available to taste at his Atascadero cider house. The ciders are creative and delicious, and the themed food nights (curry Thursdays, anyone?) are great fun.
  • Eat a plate of al pastor tacos at Los Robles Café (no Web site; 805.239.8525). Don't be put off by the bare-bones exterior, a few blocks north of the park on Spring Street. This is the kind of place you think should be everywhere in California: a great, inexpensive local taqueria, where they're equally comfortable taking your order in Spanish or English.
  • Go to the railroad station for the best sushi in town at Goshi (no Web site; 805.227.4860), and know that half the tables there will be winemakers out with their families, refreshing their palates with beer, sake, and amazingly fresh fish.
  • Go for cocktails and appetizers around the square, hitting Artisan, Villa Creek, Thomas Hill Organics and La Cosecha. Everything is within a few blocks, so rather than spend all night at one restaurant, try several. At each stop, try an appetizer and a drink. If you're wined out, sip cocktails made from local craft spirits, like Alex and Monica Villicana's re:find distillery.
  • Order the cauliflower at The Hatch or the French onion soup at Bistro Laurent. New classic, or old? Chef Laurent Grangien was the first to open a fine restaurant in Paso Robles back in 1997. His onion soup has been a staple on the menu ever since, and is a requirement for my boys if we've been out shopping. Meanwhile, the Hatch, started by Maggie Cameron and Eric Connolly just in 2014, is Paso's newest culinary hotspot, with southern-inflected sharable plates and particularly delectable cauliflower with their version of hot dip.
  • On a summer Thursday, bring a blanket, a picnic (try 15degrees C in Templeton), a bottle of local rosé, and join the rest of the community for one of the concerts in the park.  Fun for all ages.

So, that's my Paso. What are the can't miss stops in yours?


A Wonderful Article on Robert Haas's Remarkable Career and Legacy

My dad generally avoids the spotlight. So it was particularly nice to read a wonderful article on his career that was published this week by Warren Johnston in the Valley News, a daily newspaper serving the portion of the Connecticut River Valley where he and my mom spend their summers. 

Most readers of the Tablas Creek blog likely know him from his impact on the world of Rhone grape varieties, both from his long history representing Beaucastel and the other wines made by the Perrin Family, and from his work with the Perrins in bringing Tablas Creek Vineyard into existence. That work -- and particularly the decision to make available the high quality Rhone clones that we imported into the United States -- was influential enough to earn him a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2014 from the Rhone Rangers

This article focused equally on other aspects of his career, particularly his time with Vineyard Brands when he ran one of America's most influential wine import companies out of a converted barn in a Vermont town of 2700 residents.  We still have this poster hanging in our tasting room:

Robert Haas Selections poster

His career in wine has spanned nearly seven decades, and has included stints in nearly every aspect of the industry.  A few highlights:

  • As a retailer, he worked with his father at M. Lehmann in Manhattan to offer the first-ever futures offering on Bordeaux.
  • As a broker, he represented some of the top estates in Burgundy and Bordeaux, like Domaine Gouges, Mongeard-Mugneret, Domaine Ponsot, Chateau Lafite and Chateau Petrus.
  • As an importer, he built a company in Vineyard Brands that added dynamic brands like La Vieille Ferme and Marques de Caceres to his venerable list of estate producers. This balance of estate wines and larger brands (unique at its time) gave the company the diversified range of products that allowed it to thrive across different economic cycles.
  • When he was ready to retire and invest in Tablas Creek, rather than sell the company, he was one of the first American small businessmen to use an employee stock ownership plan to turn the company over to its employees. Today the company continues to thrive, with much of the senior leadership hired two and even three decades ago by him.
  • An early advocate of California, he represented wineries like Kistler, Joseph Phelps, Chappellet, Spring Mountain, and Clos du Val in the 1970s, and helped launch Sonoma-Cutrer in the 1980s.
  • He co-founded Winebow with Leonardo Locascio and Peter Matt in 1980, to provide Vineyard Brands with a high quality wholesaler in New York. Winebow has grown to be an influential importer as well as a distribution powerhouse.
  • His work in founding the Tablas Creek nursery -- and his decision not to keep the clones we'd imported proprietary -- has allowed California's Rhone movement to blossom in a way otherwise impossible.  More than 600 vineyards and wineries around the United States use Tablas Creek cuttings.
  • He's even growing grapevines at his house in Templeton to make our Full Circle Pinot Noir.

In writing that list, I was struck by the extent to which the things he creates (or helps create) outlive his involvement with them. That's a testament to his determination in putting companies on a firm foundation, as well as his judgment in choosing people to work with and, when necessary, to succeed him.

One of my great pleasures in working here at Tablas Creek has been to get to see my dad through the eyes of the many people he has influenced.  Yesterday's article was a good reminder for me that as he gets ready to enter his tenth decade, his influence is as enduring as ever.


Tablas Creek is a 2016 Wine Blog Awards Finalist

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

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

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

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

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

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


Grenache Blanc's Moment in the Sun

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

Grenache blanc rows in May

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grenache Blanc ready for harvest

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

Footnotes

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

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

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


We Celebrate a Meaningful Honor: 2016 Green Award for Sustainability

This week, I made the long drive up to Sacramento to accept an award that I'm as proud of as any that we've ever received.  This award is a 2016 California Green Medal, a program created by the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance last year to encourage and spread the word about the state's wine-led push to make grape growing and winemaking more environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable.  From the award:

Green Awards_04202016_083

The awards recognize wineries in three categories, for their innovations in bringing greater sustainability to their environment, their community involvement, and their business practices.  There is also an umbrella award for their vision and leadership in promoting sustainability in all three categories.  The application is essentially identical no matter which category you're going for. So, we applied for all of them, as all three are areas in which we've made a real effort. That said if I'd had to guess at a sub-category in which we'd have been recognized, it would have been for the environment.  So, it was something of a surprise, but a happy one at that, that we were chosen for the community category. The event produced a beautiful video in which they announced us as the award winner:

What, specifically, have we been doing to promote sustainability?  Here's a partial list:

Water Use

  • Property developed to wean vineyard off irrigation. We can now go into a second year of drought before needing to supplement
  • 35 acres of wide-spaced vines (12x12 or 10x10) planted totally without irrigation
  • Have been the subject of a case study on dry farming by CAFF and hosted a series of dry-farming seminars since 2012
  • Converted to steam-cleaning barrels saving thousands of gallons of water per year
  • New 50-acre property in process of being planted entirely without need for irrigation

Soil & Nutrition Management

  • Vineyard has been certified organic since 2003 and farmed organically since inception in 1989
  • Cover crop includes legumes and is returned to the soil through mobile flocks of sheep, alpacas and donkeys, reducing need for outside fertilization
  • Cover crops are harvested annually to provide fodder for our animals when they cannot be in the vineyard
  • Nutrition is supplemented through the compost pile maintained on-site from our prunings and the skins, stems and seeds at harvest
  • Compost teas, made in house and used as foliar sprays, reduce the amount of sulfur needed to apply to the vineyard
  • Biodynamic applications provide crucial micronutrients to the vineyard

Pest Management

  • Biodynamic practices including interplanted fruit trees and native plants, encouraging natural insect controls of pests
  • Network of owl boxes and trapping program controls gopher population without poisons
  • Planted cover crop outcompetes weed seeds
  • Weeding is done mechanically using custom “tournesol” tractor attachment
  • Organic soaps and oils used as needed to control pest populations

Biodiversity and Wildlife Conservation

  • We've farmed biodynamically since 2010 with own mixed flock of sheep, alpacas, and donkeys to graze cover crops, reduce organic fertilizer needs (down 30.1% vs. 2010-2011) and eliminate tractor passes
  • Interplanted fruit trees and sections of property left to native vegetation attract and provide habitat for beneficial insects
  • Wetlands area filters wastewater with the roots of cattails, reeds, and rushes while providing wildlife habitat
  • Beehives house three wild-caught swarms of honeybees
  • Vineyard blocks are designed with wildlife pass-throughs in each

Energy Efficiency & Greenhouse Gas Mitigation

  • Installed a 35kW solar bank in 2006
  • Installed an additional 50kW bank in 2015. We're still assembling data, but know that solar provides a majority of our annual power needs
  • Winery and office outfitted with motion-sensitive lights, dramatically reducing wasted electricity
  • Electric car and Tesla charging stations, installed early in 2016, are free for customers to use while visiting
  • Reduced wine club packaging material in 2014 by 50% for most picked-up packages
  • In March, we began the use of a hub system to transport wine shipments to the East Coast and ship from there, reducing shipping air freight and carbon footprint

Human Resources

  • Employees compensated beyond the industry standard with fully funded medical, dental and vision benefits, employer-matching 401k plan, educational support, wine shares and annual profit-sharing bonuses to both part-time and full-time employees
  • Employees encouraged and supported to continue education as it pertains to their positions
  • Our core vineyard team of 10 is employed year-round, allowing them to build a life here and allowing us to benefit from their expertise

Solid Waste Management

  • Replaced plastic water bottles with reusable stainless steel canteens, saving 19,000 bottles/year (760 gallons crude oil & 2700 lbs CO2)
  • Switched to lightweight glass (16.5 oz/bottle) in 2010, reducing case weight by 26% and total glass weight by 45 tons/year.
  • Have been leaders in move to package in reusable stainless steel kegs; in 2016 we will keg 7700 gallons of wine (22% of total production) reducing bottle needs by 38,500 bottles
  • Use 100% post-consumer recycled product and soy inks for brochures

Neighbors and Community

  • We have partnered on events with organizations like must! charities, local animal shelters, and arts organizations
  • Donated more than $100,000 to support local youth and arts programs since 2002
  • Sponsored 16 local youth sports teams since 2010 
  • Within the local wine community, we helped create the Paso Robles Rhone Rangers chapter and led the community effort to approve 11 new AVAs
  • We've organized and hosted industry seminars on organic farming, dry farming, and Roussanne 
  • Jason Haas has served on boards of Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance (current Chairman), Rhone Rangers (former President), and Family Winemakers of California

The four recipients were all well represented at the event, and all seemed eminently worthy. We congratulate them all! The other three were Jackson Family Wines (Leader), McManis Family Vineyards (Business) and Halter Ranch (Environment). The four of us, together with Karen Ross, Secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, the keynote speaker at the event:

Green Awards_04202016_123

It did not escape notice that two of the four honorees were from Paso Robles, or that Halter Ranch and we are neighbors. That two wineries from Paso Robles were winners is a testament to the innovation in this community, as well as the leadership provided by the Vineyard Team (until recently the Central Coast Vineyard Team), based in Atascadero. Their educational seminars and the fun Earth Day Food & Wine Festival (which just happened last weekend) have done a great deal to demystify sustainability to a broader base of vineyards and wineries here than maybe anywhere else.

Looking forward, I feel like the wine community is uniquely positioned to lead California agriculture toward sustainability.  We grow a crop that originated in a part of the world where water was scarce, which does best in arid areas without great fertility. The areas are generally not well suited for grain or row crops. Grapevines are very long lived, so vineyards can invest in long-term solutions. We produce a product from that crop that is value added, where efforts we make in producing better grapes can be rewarded by the market. And we largely have direct relationships with our customers which allow us to leverage any good work we're doing into better loyalty. All of that is true for any American winery. In California, we have the added advantage of living in a climate where rainfall is seasonal, so weed control can be handled mechanically with a minimum of expense, typically just once a year, in the late spring. And our very low humidity means that we face much less pressure from fungal diseases compared to most wine producing regions. In essence, if anyone can do it, we should be able to.

And I feel that if we have the opportunity to put sustainability at the forefront of what we do, we have that obligation. It was great to spend some time celebrating others on that same path.


Outtakes from Zester Daily's Focus on Grenache

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

JH Zester Grenache

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

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

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

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

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

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