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:


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.


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.


Tablas Creek is a 2015 Wine Blog Awards Finalist!

WBA-Finalist-Industry-2015I was excited to learn today that we are a finalist for the 2015 Wine Blog Awards.  These awards were created in 2007 (Thank you, Tom Wark!) to honor the growing number and quality of wine bloggers, and have been awarded each year since.  I'm even prouder that of the nine years the award has been given out, this is our seventh time being a finalist.

Blogging isn't easy to sustain.  It takes commitment to persevere through the start-up phase, when no one much sees what you're writing and you may go months between comments.  And it's a challenge in what is an annual endeavor (making wine) to continue to find new things to talk about.  I'm proud that we've been able to keep it fresh, and feel like what we've done the last year has been particularly good.

This year, the folks running the awards combined two categories (Best Winery Blog and Best Industry Blog) into one, making it that much harder to make into the five finalists.  The others in our category are all deserving, including a two-time winner and another three-time winner.  I hope that you will take some time to explore the many great blogs that made it to this stage in the process.  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 26th.

If you're new to what we do, or have been only an occasional visitor over the last year, here are eight of my favorites of the 67 entries we've posted in the last year, with a little about why each has stuck with me:

  • Customer Disservice: Nine Lessons from a Terrible Hertz Experience: Sometimes, it's a choice between laughing at something frustrating and hitting someone.  I chose to laugh, but it was a near thing. Hopefully, even if it won't be Hertz, someone will learn a useful lesson or two!
  • Dry-Farming in California's Drought: Everyone I see, anywhere around the country, asks me first how we're faring four years into our drought.  Most are surprised to learn that a critical reason why we think we're OK is that we've been increasingly investing in dry farming over recent years. In this three-part series, I try to explain why.
  • Is Facebook Even Worth It Any More?: It's hard to get a social media scoop. But the comments I got from people around the industry after I published this blog in February suggested that many wineries were aware that their posts were reaching fewer fans, but unaware to what extent, or that Facebook has been very clear that this is part of their long-term strategy.
  • State of the Union, Wine Shipping Edition: In honor of the real State of the Union, I broke down the 51 markets we ship to by tier, from relatively straightforward to incredibly convoluted and expensive. I always try to make sure posts are topical and timely, but only succeed to this extent a few times a year.  If you think that wine is a free market product, read on.
  • Worried about preserving an opened bottle? Just stay cool.: I find I often have the most fun with blog posts that answer the questions I get from consumers.  This one gave me the chance to dust off some chemistry in pursuit of an answer that may be surprising to many people.  It also spurred me to collect all these sorts of posts in a Practical Wine Advice archive.
  • The Enduring Effects of Sideways, 10 Years Later: We weren't in Sideways. Nor was Paso Robles, to any significant extent. But this quirky movie's impacts on us and the communities we're a part of have been significant and long-lasting nonetheless.  It's hard to believe it's been ten years!
  • Are direct-to-consumer sales really failing to lift the wine industry? I saw the headline "Direct to Consumer Sales Fails to Lift the Wine Industry" in a major industry journal, and took exception.  Lots of great comments to this one!
  • Finding Closure(s) in Portugal: I always love the articles that Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi writes, which are all funny, thoughtful, and beautifully documented. She reports back here on a trip she took last summer to the cork forests of Portugal.

Thank you all for following along on this journey with me and with us: 598 posts and counting since we began the blog in November of 2005. It's wonderful to hear, as we get ready for our tenth anniversary, that the experts who filtered down the hundreds of nominated entries to the five finalists in our category think we're still going strong.

Weekly Roundup for December 15th: 8000 Years of Wine Storage, Months of Great Press for Paso, and a Week of Rain

This last week, it seems we've been dominated by stories about our rain.  Whether it's in its pre-precipitation anticipation or its post-fall analysis, it's clear that California is excited about the unusual moisture falling from the sky and curious to know whether it makes a big-picture difference in our multi-year drought.  But that's not all we've been seeing.  Paso Robles got another mention in what has been an amazing year for our area, we got a nice mention ourselves from the Los Angeles Times, and we learned about how wine has been transported and stored through the millennia.  Plus, I discovered a blog I'll be following regularly going forward.

OK, About that Rain

  • We wrote about our rain twice, once looking forward to it and once mid-storms.
  • The Los Angeles Times pointed out that the storms aren't just having an impact on the vineyards directly; they're also building the Sierra snowpack, which provides so much of California's summer water source.
  • Looking back, our local KCBX Public Radio interviewed me for a piece on how the drought impacted the 2014 vintage (it wasn't all, or even mostly, negative). My conclusion was "the quality of this vintage, as is often true with low yielding vintages, looks spectacular -- but now it can rain". And it has! Listen »

In Between the Raindrops
LAventure Clouds

  • Winter isn't just about rain clouds and green grass; the interludes between the storms provide mixed skies appealing in a different way than the deep unbroken blues of summer. I loved this shot from the L'Aventure Winery Facebook page, of their iconic sign hanging under a cornflower blue sky dotted with sheep-like clouds.

Some Nice Press for Paso

  • This year has seen Paso Robles recognized in the Washington Post, in Forbes, in the San Francisco Chronicle, in Conde Nast Traveler, and in Passport Magazine. This week, Travel & Leaisure got into the act, putting Paso Robles at #16 in its list of America's Best Towns for the Holidays. Most visitors come to Paso between April and October, and bask in its warm days and clear golden light. The winter is different, softer and greener, slower-paced, and it's nice to see a piece focusing on our winter charms.
  • Paso Robles was also the feature of a great blog posted by Chef and Sommelier Shauna Burke.  Her piece, called Stopping in the Middle: A Weekend in Paso Robles Wine Country, touched on several of my favorite places to go and things to do. Like the rest of her blog, it also was beautifully written and illustrated. I was intrigued that her previous blog piece was about Vermont (where I grew up) and equally impressed with what she picked to feature in that piece. With that inducement, I ended up reading a year's worth of entries, chock full of terrific recipes, thoughtful recommendations and her terrific photography. Check it out »

And for Tablas Creek

  • It was really nice for me to see the 2012 Cotes de Tablas picked by S. Irene Virbila as the Los Angeles Times' Wine of the Week, for two reasons.  The first is that as the "middle child" (between, in price, the Esprit de Tablas line and our Patelin de Tablas) the Cotes wines, which I think have never been better, seem to struggle to get their fair share of attention.  And second, I thought her review was particularly perceptive and really nailed the wine's character: "cherries, plums and wild herbs, with a licorice kick".

Food for Thought (Drink for Thought?)

  • This last piece isn't new (it was published in March) but it was new to us, and we all found it fascinating.  It's a long-format article on the Web site Vinepair called The 8,000 Year Effort To Transport Wine Around The World, going back to when ancient Georgians invented the kvevri, a massive earthenware vessel used to ferment, age and store wine made from locally growing wild grapes.  Smaller, more portable amphorae came next, then wood barrels, and finally bottles in recent centuries.  And even once they were invented, wine wasn't initially put into bottles at the estate; it was transported in barrels and bottled nearer its eventual destination.  In any case, we found the article fascinating, and hope you will too.  Read more »

Weekly Roundup for November 30th, 2014: Giving Thanks, Giving Back, and Getting Wet (Hopefully)

This Thanksgiving week, some of the things that most intrigued us in the world of wine do had to do with thanks (and giving) but also, as we look forward to a week of potentially signficant rain, at our drought and at a growing movement toward dry-farmed vineyards.  Finally, for our thought piece, I wanted to share a lyrical view of our beautiful Central Coast.  The highlights:

Giving Thanks

Giving Back

On Drought and Dry-Farming

  • At the beginning of November, I went up to San Francisco for an event co-sponsored by the Commonwealth Club and the Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF).  It began with a panel discussion on the feasibility and benefits of dry-farming wine grapes and concluded with a walk-around tasting of dry-farmed wines (you can listen to the panel discussion here). With our current drought, I'm seeing renewed interest in the potential of dry-farming grapevines.  This has to be a good thing, on both quality and sustainability fronts (I've written about our own reasons for dry-farming) and it was great to see the Los Angeles Times write a good piece on this small but growing movement.
  • Also this week, we got some good news from the NOAA, which has updated their forecast for this winter and is now saying "above average rainfall is now predicted". Read more »
  • Finally, on the rain front, we're looking forward to what is forecast to be a very wet week.  It is being awaited with great anticipation by the entire Paso Robles wine community.

Vineyard Ass-ets

Cline donkeys

  • We were excited to learn this week that we're not the only winery with two donkeys on staff! On the Cline Cellars Facebook page we met Fancy (left) and Pudding (right).  If you don't follow fellow California Rhone pioneer Cline (home region: Carneros) on social media, you should; their posts are consistently among the cleverest in the world of wine. And, they have donkeys.

Food for Thought (Beverage for Thought?)

  • We'll conclude this week with a paean to the Central Coast, written by UK Native, Napa resident and Master of Wine student Clare Tooley.  In her piece "Saints, Rogues and Kerouac" she writes of Paso Robles: "Paso is colourful and rogue-ish. Wild still, definitely not tamed. In vogue right now but definitely carving its own path."  The whole piece is worth reading: beautifully written and, I thought, right on.  Read more »

Weekly Roundup for November 23rd, 2014: Natural Wine, Ancient Rocks, Knobbly Fruit & Thanksgiving

This week's Weekly Roundup is highlighted by a great thought piece on what makes wine "modern" or "traditional", and whether either of these have a relationship with the idea of "natural wine".  We've included a couple of our favorites of the many Thanksgiving wine recommendations omnipresent at this time of year.  And, of course, we check in with some members of our community who are doing cool stuff.  As always, please share in the comments what you like, and what you'd like to see different.

The bounty of (our) harvest

Artisan photo of quinces

  • We kick off this week's column with a gorgeous photo from Artisan Restaurant.  We've partnered with them on several dinners over the years, including one early this year which featured lamb from our property.  Their photo on Instagram (above) of some knobbly bright yellow quinces from one of our trees caught our eye.  We dropped some off there because we had many more than we had any idea how to use, and wanted to get them into capable hands.  This photo isn't an isolated event; there's beautiful stuff worth following on all of Artisan's social media feeds.  If you're wondering why we grow quinces (along with apples, pears, cherries, plums, peaches and apricots) they're a part of the increased biodiversity we've been working to integrate over recent years.

Something in the (ancient) water

  • Halter fossilOur neighbor Halter Ranch posted a great photo (right, or on the Halter Ranch Facebook page for a high-resolution version) of one of the fish fossils that they found in their rocks and integrated into their winery building.  It's a great reminder that the soils that sit under our vineyards (and much of west Paso Robles) were deposited as seabed in the Miocene period (10-20 million years ago). These were lifted above the surface in the creation of the Santa Lucia Mountains quite recently, by geologic standards.  My dad wrote a great blog piece about our soils' history in 2011, if you're interested in learning more.

The 2014 Harvest

Is there a holiday coming up?

  • Thanksgiving is the American holiday most dedicated to eating and drinking.  Yet, many traditional Thanksgiving foods aren't naturally friendly to many of the most popular American wines, given their questionable affinity to oak and high alcohol.  Happily, Rhones, both red and white, make classic pairings, and it's always a pleasure waiting for the pre-Thanksgiving wine columns suggesting Rhones as an accompaniment.  I thought Laurie Daniel's Rhones for Thanksgiving column for the San Jose Mercury News was particularly good this year, and was pleased to see that our 2012 Cotes de Tablas ("bright fruit with savory notes of wild herbs") was one of her suggestions.
  • We weren't mentioned, but I still really liked Eric Asimov's Thanksgiving recommendation that the wine you choose should "Refresh the Palate". He highlights versatility and energy as two characteristics to look for in your Thanksgiving wine, and recommends an eclectic mix. I'm not sure I could find many of the wines he and his panel recommend (there are rewards for living in New York City, after all) but I do know that I agree completely with his basic advice. Read more »

An event to look forward to

  • This week, the Paso Robles Rhone Rangers announced the details of their 2015 Paso Robles Rhone Rangers Experience. In the last seven years, this event has become a showpiece for the Rhone movement here, and it's a remarkable value: just $85 for the full slate of events, including a nine-wine seminar (this year led by the Wine Enthusiast's Matt Kettmann), a vintners lunch catered by Chef Maegen Loring, a grand tasting featuring some 50 Paso Robles Rhone wineries, and a silent auction that benefits the Rhone Rangers Scholarship Fund.  There's a $35 ticket for just the Grand Tasting, too. Details & tickets »

Food for Thought (Beverage for Thought?)

  • Finally for this week I wanted to point you to a blog that is writing some of the most consistently interesting and erudite pieces in the world of wine today.  Elaine Brown of Hawk Wakawaka Wine Reviews this week tackles the questions raised by the ambiguity inherent in the definition of "natural wine".  We fall in her category 3 ("Wine growers and/or makers that use organic and/or biodynamic viticultural practices and/or less interventionist cellar techniques with few additives but do not define themselves with the movement of Natural wine") and are often dismayed by the reductive arguments on either extreme of the debate. Her conclusion -- that what matters is "if we’re trying to listen, and have a conversation" seems right on to me. Read more »