Grapes of the Rhone Valley: Grenache Blanc

This article is the first in what will be an ongoing exploration of the principal varietals of the Rhone Valley.  A version of this article first appeared in the Tablas Creek newsletter.

GrenacheBlanc Overview
Grenache Blanc is the fourth most widely planted white grape in France. It produces rich, full wines with bright flavors and crisp acidity and is a key element in our flagship white wine, the Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc. It is also growing in popularity as a single-varietal wine, particularly in California’s Central Coast. As the name suggests, it is related to the more widely known Grenache Noir. Many grape varietals have both red and white variants; the best known is Pinot, which has Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris variations. Grenache Blanc, like Grenache Noir, is drought-resistant, vigorous, easy to graft and ripens fairly early in the cycle, after Viognier and Marsanne, but before Roussanne.

Since we brought Grenache Blanc into our nursery, we have sold budwood and grafted vines to a number of other Rhône-producing vineyards in California. The California climate of hot days and cool nights seems to be perfect for the varietal and encourages its two prime qualities: richness with crisp acids.

Early History
Grenache Blanc originated in Spain, and still plays a role in the wines of Rioja and Navarre. From Spain, it spread to France, and has thrived in the vineyards of the Rhône valley and Châteauneuf-du-Pape. In Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the crisp acidity of Grenache Blanc is used to balance the honeyed richness of Roussanne, and white Château de Beaucastel is roughly 80% Roussanne and 20% Grenache Blanc.

Grenache Blanc at Tablas Creek
We imported cuttings of Grenache Blanc from Beaucastel in 1992, and the vines spent three years in quarantine at the USDA station in Geneva, New York. In 1995, the cuttings were declared virus free and released to Tablas Creek Vineyard. These vines were received into our nursery and the first grafted vines went into the ground in 1996 . Our first significant harvest of the varietal was 1999. For the next three years (up to and including the 2001 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc), we could only refer to the varietal as Grenache on our label because Grenache Blanc was not yet recognized by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Not surprisingly, many people found this confusing and we were regularly asked why we added a red varietal into our white blend.  In 2002 we petitioned the BATF to recognize Grenache Blanc as a separate varietal.

Grenache Blanc in California
Even as plantings of other white Rhone varietals have plateaued, the planting of Grenache Blanc has increased; almost 40% of the 159 acres planted in California were planted since 2005. To date, almost one third of all Grenache Blanc in California is planted in San Luis Obispo county, and most of the single varietal Grenache Blancs released in California have come from the Central Coast.

Aromas and Flavors
Grenache Blanc is straw-colored and produces wines that are high in alcohol, with crisp acids. The nose has bright green apple and mandarin orange aromas, with clean flavors of more apple, mineral and a touch of peach. It typically has a lingering finish with a hint of licorice. Although it can stand confidently on its own (as most recently in our 2008 Grenache Blanc, which will be sent out to our wine club members as a part of our spring 2010 wine club shipment), its crispness and long finish make it a tremendous blending component. The crispness of Grenache Blanc shows well at low temperatures, whereas many white Rhône varietals shut down when served too cold. In our Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc, the Grenache Blanc allows the wine to show well, even highly chilled (as many restaurants often serve all white wines). As the wine warms up in the glass, the other varietals unfold, and the full richness of the wine is displayed. Anyone interested in learning more about Grenache Blanc and Grenache is encouraged to attend the Rhone Rangers tasting in San Francisco (March 27-28, 2010), where one seminar will be devoted to the grape.

Tasting the wines in the spring 2010 wine club shipment

Each spring and fall, we send out six wines to the members of our VINsider Wine Club.  With each shipment we include a little update from our wine club director, an order form, and, of course, production and tasting notes for the six wines in the club shipment.  As these wines are typically unreleased, most of them do not yet have a Web page, and for me it's often one of my first opportunities to taste these wines after bottling.  It's always exciting, and the rest of the staff typically joins me as we see, in effect, what's next.  I thought it would be fun to share what I found.


In the order in which we'll be pouring them at our March 6th club shipment tasting event:


  • Production notes: Grenache Blanc continues shine in California’s Central Coast. Most of our production goes into our Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc each year, but in 2008 we reserved a small (565 case) lot for our wine club. It had a very long fermentation (in a mix of stainless steel and foudre) that didn’t finish until nearly a year after harvest. It was bottled in September 2009.
  • Tasting notes: A clean nose of mineral, green apple, grapefruit and pear, with flavors that begin bright with lemon and lime, then broaden in the mid-palate before re-tightening on the finish with a lingering character of green apple skin and wet rocks. Drink in the next two to three years.
  • Press: Tanzer's I.W.C. 89 points (11/09)
  • Quantity Produced: 565 cases
  • List Price: $27 VINsider Price: $21.60
  • More at
  • Production notes: 2008’s relatively cool growing season produced wines of medium body, tremendous elegance, and expressive varietal character. The 2008 Roussanne was fermented 40% in oak (mostly old, neutral barrels), 20% in foudre, and 40% in stainless steel. The wine was blended in July and bottled in September 2009.
  • Tasting notes: An expressive nose of beeswax, lacquered wood, and white flowers, with a powerful spiciness emerging with air. The mouth is juicy yet still restrained, with flavors of peaches and cream. The finish is more mineral, very clean, with almond, pear, honey and chamomile notes. Enjoy now or over the next 4-6 years.
  • Press: Parker 90-92 (8/09); Tanzer's IWC 90 (11/09)
  • Quantity Produced: 720 cases
  • List Price: $27 VINsider Price: $21.60
  • More at
ROSÉ 2009
  • Production notes: The 2009 Rosé reflects the generally tiny crop in 2009, and the particular shortage of Mourvèdre.  We were worried that given the extreme concentration of the Mourvèdre, using as much as we typically do (60% in most vintages) would produce a wine too dark and structured.  So, we reduced the Mourvèdre to 46% and increased Grenache (39%) and Counoise (15%). We left the grapes on their skins for just under two days before drawing off the juice and completing the fermentation in stainless steel. The wine was bottled in January 2010.
  • Tasting notes: Cranberry in color, with an explosive nose of sour cherry, cranberry, Christmas spices and orange zest.  The mouth is incredibly juicy with flavors of maraschino cherry, sour strawberry and apple. Mouth-watering acidity on the long, dry finish cleans up the wine's richness. Drink now through the end of 2011.
  • Quantity Produced: 640 cases
  • List Price: $27.00 VINsider Price: $21.60
  • More at
  • Production notes: The 2007 Grenache, like the 2007 vintage, is big yet balanced, with powerful aromas and flavors, and should benefit from short-term cellaring. The wine was blended in June 2008, aged in foudre, and bottled in March 2009. 10% Syrah gives the wine firmness and a touch of mineral on the finish.
  • Tasting notes: A powerful nose of mint, boysenberry, and licorice. Vibrantly fruity on the palate with unusually dark tones for Grenache: black cherry, blueberry and black raspberry, followed by a long finish with some chalky tannins that cut the wine’s richness. We suggest you hold this wine for 1-2 years and drink for the next decade.
  • Press: Parker 92 (8/09), Wine Spectator 92 (12/09)
  • Quantity Produced: 750 cases
  • List Price: $35 VINsider Price: $28
  • More at
SYRAH 2007
  • Production notes: The powerful 2007 vintage produced our most intense Syrah ever. Aged in a combination of 1200-gallon foudres and small new Dargaud & Jaegle 60-gallon pieces, we blend our Syrah for a balance of fruit, mineral, and spice, and add 10% Grenache for its signature acidity and openness. The wine was blended in August 2008, aged in a single foudre and bottled in March 2009.
  • Tasting notes: A deep, dark nose of ink, soy and iodine, with a little oak and black fruit sneaking through. The mouth shows mineral, blackberry, iron and spice, with beautiful tannins and length. This is a wine for the long term; hold for 3-5 years, and then drink for another fifteen.
  • Press: Parker 92 (8/09); Tanzer’s IWC 91 (11/09)
  • Quantity Produced: 685 cases
  • List Price: $35 VINsider Price: $28
  • More at
  • Production notes: The 2007 Panoplie is a wine of incredible lushness and power. As always, Panoplie is selected from lots in the cellar chosen for their balance, richness, and concentration. The components (60% Mourvèdre, 30% Grenache, and 10% Syrah) were blended in July 2008 and aged in foudre before bottling in July of 2009.
  • Tasting notes: Dense purple-red in color. A dark, meaty nose with aromas of sweet earth, plums and nutmeg. Explosive in the mouth, with flavors of currant, plum, cocoa powder and red licorice, finishing drier and powerfully tannic. Hold, if possible, until 2015, and drink for two decades after that.
  • Press: Parker 96-98 (8/09); Tanzer's IWC 95 (11/09)
  • Quantity Produced: 540 cases
  • List Price: $95 VINsider Price: $76
  • More at

More details on the shipment are available online for anyone interested:  A few final thoughts are below. 

First, these 2007's are built for the long haul.  I wouldn't touch the Syrah for several years, and the Grenache seems to me to be likely to benefit from a year or two of aging.  Surprisingly, it was the Panoplie, of the three, that was the most giving right now.  That's one of the things that we love about Mourvedre: it has loads of chewy tannin and can be aged beautifully, but doesn't have the hardness when young that most similarly-structured varietals have.

Second, I'm really coming to love the elegance of the 2008's.  The 2008 whites show medium body, sparkling acidities, very pretty fruit flavors and spot-on varietal character.  I think that the wines are already showing beautifully, even with varieties like Roussanne that are typically structure-bound at this age.  I'm not sure I'd recommend laying these whites down (though their exquisite balance suggests they could be) but for drinking right now I'm not sure we've ever made a more appealing vintage.

Panoplie 2000-2008: A Vertical Wine Tasting Fit for the Holidays

There are certain wines in our portfolio I drink fairly often, and others that I hardly ever drink.  The ones I drink a lot are probably predictable: I tend to have the current vintages of Cotes de Tablas and Esprit de Beaucastel with good frequency, both tasting with guests at the winery and working out in the market.  I'm a fan of Mourvedre and Roussanne, and my wife is a fan of Vermentino and Rose, so we have those regularly at our house.  And, because their cellar life is longer, because they're our most widely distributed wines, and because we keep a healthy library at the winery, I rarely go too long without tasting most of our vintages of Esprit de Beaucastel or Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc.

But I have gotten several questions recently on how different vintages of our Panoplie have been tasting.  I realized that I honestly didn't know, and didn't have the knowledge to accurately update the vintage chart we maintain.  For the unfamiliar, Panoplie is our top red wine, made only in top vintages, and in the model of Beaucastel's Hommage a Jacques Perrin.  Like the Hommage, it is always heavy on Mourvedre, and tends to be light on Syrah.  We choose Mourvedre lots that are structured enough to stand without Syrah (which lends structure, but also tends to dominate a blend and make it too monolithic).  We blend Panoplie unapologetically to age.  So, we're expecting all these wines to last two decades or more.  But our first vintage of Panoplie is now nearly a decade old, and (understandably) some of the lucky customers who got some of those 67 cases have been asking whether it's drinking well now.  I honestly couldn't tell them.

So, I decided it was time to open up a vertical of Panoplie, ranging from 2000 to the not-yet-bottled 2008, to get a sense of where in their evolutions the wines were, and what we might expect going forward.  I also wanted to get a big-picture overview of how our thinking about this wine had evolved over the last decade.  I was joined for the tasting by my dad, as well as winemaker Neil Collins and assistant winemaker Chelsea Magnusson.  We chose the afternoon of the Wednesday before Christmas as an appropriate day: for most of us the last work day before the holiday weekend.  We were feeling festive, and vertical tastings like this are one of the most fun rewards we get to give ourselves.  The tasting notes (note that we didn't make a Panoplie in 2001):

  • 2000 Panoplie (55% Mourvedre, 30% Syrah, 15% Grenache): a minty, menthol but dark, gamy nose.  In the mouth, grippy tannins and very dark fruit.  Very Syrah-dominant.  It has nice length and good acids to balance the structure, but it's not very giving right now.  This was the only wine in the group that was starting to show some secondary meaty, leathery flavors, but until the tannins calm down a little more I'd recommend that people still give it a little more time.
  • 2002 Panoplie (80% Mourvedre, 13% Grenache, 7% Counoise): a really pretty nose with red licorice and berries.  Sweet-smelling, but totally dry on the palate.  Still has good tannic grip but is rounder than the 2000, with some flavors of bittersweet chocolate and grilled steak joining the brambly berry fruit.  Neil commented that you could taste the Counoise in the brambliness.  Delicious, and still youthful.  My favorite of the tasting for drinking now.
  • 2003 Panoplie (69% Mourvedre, 21% Grenache, 7% Syrah, 3% Counoise; the only Panoplie where we used all four of our principal red varietals): a figgy, plummy, slightly porty nose with a hint of oxidation.  In the mouth, sweet flavors of plum jam and mint chocolate.  Juiciness builds on the palate, which shows more freshness than the nose.  The finish turns darker and is still quite tannic.  The wine doesn't seem fully resolved right now with the nose and palate not really in sync.  I'd suggest people wait a little while and try again.
  • 2004 Panoplie (69% Mourvedre, 21% Grenache, 10% Syrah): beautiful nose of cassis, raspberry, soy, and mint, fresh but layered and deep.  The mouth is full of sweet fruit, particularly blueberry and currant, and the texture is seamless.  You feel the tannins on the finish, but they're cloaked in fruit.  At this stage, the palate seemed a little overtly sweet, but the wine is delicious.  Chelsea commented that this was the wine she'd take home for her parents.
  • 2005 Panoplie (70% Mourvedre, 25% Grenache, 5% Syrah): nose is a little more closed than the 2004; smells tight and extracted, with a eucalyptus and some dark fruit coming out with time.  On the palate, the wine (like many of our 2005's) is still tannic, though it has a promising savory, tangy note that comes out on the finish.  Neil called it "chunky" right now, which I thought was right on.  Definitely wait on this one, probably at least another few years.
  • 2006 Panoplie (68% Mourvedre, 27% Grenache, 5% Syrah): Smells young, with a little alcohol joining the brambly fruit on the nose.  With a little time in the glass, this wine blossomed, with licorice, herbs and more fruit coming out on the nose.  In the mouth, it's nice and juicy with the characteristic tangy acids of the 2006 vintage.  Neil thought it tasted "a little wound up" but that it showed beautiful balance and promise.  That said, it's a lot more approachable than the 2005, but anyone giving it a try should definitely decant.  I'd suspect that it will shut down in another year or two, and then reopen a few years later and drink well for a long time.  My dad's and Chelsea's favorite wine of the tasting.
  • 2007 Panoplie (60% Mourvedre, 30% Grenache, 10% Syrah): The nose is dense and extracted, and just exudes power.  It tastes very rich, at least as dense as it smells, and vibrates with flavors of red and black licorice.  There is an appealing brushy, herby character that suggests that when it calms down a bit, and develops some secondary flavors, it will be a remarkably complex wine.  The tannins are powerful all the way through to the finish, and tend to block the finish a bit.  Definitely wait... but expect to be rewarded handsomely for your patience.
  • 2008 Panoplie (54% Mourvedre, 29% Grenache, 17% Syrah; tasted from foudre; will be bottled summer 2010 and released spring 2011): A nice roasted coffee note on the nose, with an inkiness that appears to come from the higher Syrah content (the cool 2008 vintage was a great one for Syrah).  In the mouth, you taste flavors in sequence rather than all together, which isn't unusual at this stage of a wine's life: first some nice sweet oak, then black fruit, then tannin.  There is a nice lift and clarity on the finish that is totally characteristic of the 2008 vintage.  It's a little disjointed now, but will be very classic and classy.  Neil's favorite wine of the tasting.  This wine will go out in the spring 2011 VINsider Wine Club shipment.

In the big picture, we've refined our model a bit.  As with the Esprit, our percentage of Grenache has risen gradually as the vines have aged and we're liking it more.  We also went through a couple of vintages (2003 and 2004) where the wines were a little sweeter, and have moved back to a drier style.  We took advantage of the vintage character of 2008 to add more Syrah than we have in any Panoplie since 2000 (and will likely do so again in 2009).  But what struck us more than the differences were the similarities.  All these wines were more than half Mourvedre, and the characteristic Mourvedre flavors of plum, currant, mocha and roasted meat was a common denominator in all eight wines.  And they all shared the chewy structure that ripe, concentrated Mourvedre brings and which gives longevity to wines.  The vintages brought variations in character, and the denser, more tannic vintages like 2000, 2005, and 2007 all show even more structure than their corresponding Esprits.  Right now, the relatively more elegant vintages of 2002, 2004, 2006 and 2008 gave more pleasure... but I don't have any doubt that even the biggest of these wines has the balance to age for decades.

It will be a pleasure to find out if I'm right.

The importance of multi-channel marketing (AKA yes, print will be seen by more eyes than email)

This month, we launched the VINsider Wine Club Collector’s Edition, which gives its members access to library vintages of Esprit de Beaucastel and Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc that we’ve aged in our cellars.  As we have held back only a limited quantity of our older wines, we announced an initial limit on numbers for 2009 to 250.  With about 3600 wine club members, I was fairly confident that we’d get to our maximum, and in fact we have.  We’ve reached our 250 and will be cutting off any further registrations at the end of this week.

What has been interesting to me was the relative effectiveness of the different effort we've used to promote this new club.  We have let our club members know four different times about this opportunity. 

  1. July 28th: a mention as a part of our regular end-of-month email for July 
  2. August 9th: a paper letter which we sent out on letterhead
  3. August 17th: a column in our fall newsletter
  4. August 25th: a prominent mention in the end-of-month email for August

I was expecting the greatest response to be from the first email mention, but this was not the case. In the five days after we sent out the email (about the limit, in my opinion, of the impact of a piece of email communication) we netted 27 registrations.  It was the paper letter that had the most impact.  On August 10th, the first day anyone could have received it (realistically, just Southern California) we received 29 registrations.  The next day brought in 49.  In total, in the week after we sent out the letter, we received 147 responses.  The column in the newsletter produced 37 in the next week.  And this last email, which went out not even 36 hours ago, has netted another 44 registrations so far, with more coming in.

I plotted the registrations by day on a graph, with the different marketing events noted:

Collectors Edition Registrations by Day

Our experience launching this program has been for me a salient lesson in multi-channel marketing.  If you send out a regular email (as I think any winery, or really any business with direct customers, should) you should expect that a significant percentage of its recipients are going to ignore or skim the letter.  Of course, some people may just toss a printed letter too, but these days, a physical mailing, if it’s nicely done, is unusual enough that I think it commands more attention.  Of course, a print mailing is more expensive to produce and send out than an email by a factor of something more than 100.  But if what you are promoting is sufficiently valuable, it’s important to remember that it will see a lot more eyes than an email.

As for emails, we saw very different response rates between the initial email that announced the Collector’s Edition program, which saw only a small bump in registrations, and the one that went out yesterday, which produced more response in the first day than the earlier email did in a week.  I think there are three factors at play here.

  1. Position within an email matters.  In the initial email, we soft-played the section promoting the Collector’s Edition.  I didn’t want to steal the thunder of the letter that was coming soon, and so we put the mention toward the end of the email.  We do organize our monthly emails consistently, with -- in essence -- a table of contents at the beginning, so customers can scan the email quickly, but I still think that many people don’t make it past the first or second point in an email.  In the recent email, the announcement about the Collector’s Edition was the first section.
  2. An announcement at the end of a limited time promotion tends to see more response than one at the beginning.  We feature a wine each month, and typically see more orders at the end of this monthly feature than at the beginning, even though we often sell out of the featured wine before the end of the month.  Of course, communicating urgency -- in this case that there were only 25 spots left in the program -- helps.  At the same time, it’s important not to underestimate your customers, and save urgency for when it’s real. 
  3. There is a cumulative effect to repeat marketing by different channels.  Each mention, as long as it feels natural and unforced, raises people’s curiosity and makes it more likely that they will investigate further.  By the end of the month-long program, I’d hope that nearly all our wine club members would have at least heard about and considered briefly our new program.

None of this should be a revelation to marketers.  Still, I spend more of my time working on marketing than I do on any of the many other pieces of my weekly job, and I was taken by surprise at some of our results.  A few general lessons for any winery doing this sort of promotion:

  • Think about print as a complement to email marketing for anything special
  • If you’re going to use email marketing, make sure that your most important items are in the beginning of your email.  Better yet (if you can do it without overwhelming your customers with too much mail) make it the sole focus of an email.
  • Don’t be afraid, if you can do so within your established patterns, to mention an important program in more than one email.  A customer who may be distracted or buried when one mention comes in may have time to read the next one a few weeks later.
  • Expect to receive most of the results of an email within 48 hours.
  • Marketing the same program through multiple channels can have a cumulative effect.

Oh, and as to the immediate item at hand?  We have enough wine allow a slightly larger membership in the Collector’s Edition club, and felt that doing so was fairer than cutting it off arbitrarily less than a day after our “last call” announcement.  So, we’re going to accept any additional registrations through the end of this week.  Anyone who misses that cutoff will be put onto a waiting list for 2010, when we expect to be able to expand the program a little more. If you're interested in this year's shipment, which I think is exceptionally cool, act soon.

Introducing the VINsider Wine Club "Collector's Edition"

Earlier this week, we sent out initial notice to all our VINsider Wine Club members that we are launching a library version of our wine club.  We're calling this the VINsider Wine Club Collector's Edition.

Regular readers of the blog may remember a post from last summer called a library wine club? where I was struggling with how we might go about sharing the wines that we'd been aging in our cellars since the 2003 vintage (a post on which I got lots of good comments from readers).  We've finally come up with a solution that we like, and have taken the plunge.  Here are the details:

  • Collector’s Edition members will continue to receive two shipments of wine per year from us.  The spring shipment will be the same six-bottle selection that all VINsiders receive, but the fall shipment, in which we traditionally include the upcoming vintages of Esprit de Beaucastel and Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc, will be increased to a case by the inclusion of six additional bottles:
    • 2 bottles of a library vintage of Esprit de Beaucastel
    • 1 bottle of a library vintage of Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc
    • 2 additional bottles of the upcoming release of Esprit de Beaucastel 
    • 1 additional bottle of the upcoming release of Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc
  • We will select the library vintages each summer based on the results of a library tasting, whose results we will post on this blog (for an example look at the writeup that followed the library vertical tasting from Francois Perrin's visit in May)
  • We will make available a small quantity of the library wines for re-orders

There were a couple of things that we liked about this solution.  First, it didn't require people to be home to accept another shipment, and didn't require us to make another shipment in either mid-summer (when it's often too hot to ship and lots of people are on vacation) or mid-winter (when lots of people have other major purchases and it's sometimes too cold).  Second, it's not a big additional commitment for members: just six more bottles once a year, and no more than two additional bottles of any single wine.  And we were able to give some nice extra benefits to members consistent with our existing policies.

  • As the resulting fall shipment will consist of twelve bottles, members will receive all the wines at the additional 5% case discount (we sell 1-11 bottles to our club members at 20% off; 12+ bottles at 25% off). 
  • As the shipment will include at least six bottles of Esprit de Beaucastel wines, we will ship it for free.  We made this policy change earlier this spring to encourage the sales of our Esprit de Beaucastel wines. 

I think that the resulting Collector's Edition inaugural shipment is pretty spectacular.  The wines (with their costs) will be:

  • 2 bottles of 2003 Esprit de Beaucastel (library price: $55 each; cost: $41.25 each)
  • 1 bottle of 2005 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (library price: $45; cost: $33.75)
  • 4 bottles of 2007 Esprit de Beaucastel (list: $50 each; cost: $37.50 each)
  • 2 bottles of  2008 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (list: $40 each; cost: $30each)
  • 1 bottle of 2007 “En Gobelet” (list: $40; cost: $30)
  • 1 bottle of 2008 Picpoul Blanc (list: $27; cost: $20.25)
  • 1 bottle of 2008 Bergeron (list: $27; cost: $20.25)

We're limiting inaugural membership in the Collector's Edition to 250, and will always have to limit membership to avoid overwhelming our library. 

A letter will go out to VINsiders next week explaining the new club in detail.  VINsiders who are interested in becoming members can just fill out and fax back the last page of the letter, let us know either by phone and email, or sign up online.  And new VINsiders, whether they join online or in our tasting room, will have the option of choosing the Collector's Edition when they do.

This program is the result of five years’ preparation, and allows us to provide newer members (as well as older members who have already consumed all their earliest vintages) the opportunity to experience Tablas Creek’s most ageable wines, cellared in ideal conditions.  We hope that our fans will be as excited to receive this increased access to our own library as we are to share it with them.

Wine Clubs vs. Mailing Lists

I've gotten several questions recently on why we choose to use the wine club model while other California wineries choose to sell their wine to their supporters through a mailing list.  As I have been answering these questions, I thought that it might be interesting to delve a little into the strengths and weaknesses of each from the perspective of a winery -- and from a consumer.

The wine club model should be familiar to most fans of Tablas Creek, since it's what we use.  In our VINsider Wine Club we send out six bottles of wine twice a year, typically in March and September.  Wine club shipments are generally sent out at a discount (ours is 20%) off of retail price.  Many wineries offer some basic customization options such as red-only or white-only; some also offer different tiers, such as three bottles, six bottles, or a case at each shipment.  A few offer significant customization options, or even allow their members to choose any collection of wines to make up their shipments.  While wineries may allow members to skip a shipment, in our experience few members choose this option, preferring to cancel their membership and perhaps rejoin later.  And most wineries avoid sending large amounts of any one wine in their club shipments, preferring to use them to expose their members to the breadth of the wines that they make, and focusing on small-production wines that are typically different from those in general release.  Members who are interested can order more of their favorite wines, sometimes at an even-greater discount.

The traditional mailing list model works a little differently.  Members receive allocations each ordering period (one to three times a year).  Newer members receive smaller allocations, or allocations of less in-demand wines.  Members who have been on the list longer receive larger allocations and/or better wines.  Members do not usually have to take their full allocations each time, but anyone who passes entirely, or who takes only a portion of their allocation repeatedly, tends to get either dropped from the list, bumped to a less desirable allocation, or just not progressed to more elite levels.  Very often, the mailing list wines are not otherwise available, and are viable commodities on the resale market, so members are able to take allocations of wines they may not necessarily want for themselves and then resell them to other interested buyers.  Typically, mailing list wines are not discounted per se, but the price for these wines on the resale market is higher than the release price, so non-members have to pay the higher prices on the secondary market.

Producer Preferences
From a producer's standpoint, there are advantages to each model.  A wine club allows you to build loyalty and expose a relatively wide audience to limited-production wines.  However, it is not a great way to move larger quantities of any one wine.  For example, at Tablas Creek, we have about 3500 wine club members.  Sending a bottle to each member requires roughly 300 cases of a wine.  But members may feel that as they are already receiving a case of wine over the course of the year, they may not need to order more.  We also have to create enough different wines each year to fill the slots in the wine club, which can be challenging in vintages with short crops.

A winery can target the offers to their mailing list to reflect the quantities of the different wines they have to sell.  So, if they have a lot of a particular wine (let's call it "Merlot") they can set the allocations of the Merlot higher for that vintage.  With 3500 mailing list members, they might set the allocation of that wine to 2 bottles for the lowest-heirarchy 2000 members, to 4 bottles for the mid-tier 1000 members, and to 6 bottles for the elite 500.  Assuming that their members take their allocations, In the end, they will have moved over 900 cases of Merlot to their members.  Members are going to be encouraged to take the wine, even if they don't particularly want it, because of the implied threat of loss of priority on the list and hopefully because they can always turn it over and at least make their money back on the secondary market.

For a winery, the mailing list model is typically a more lucrative way of selling its wine, since they can sell increasing allocations to their longest-term members.  Some wineries get up to sending 5 or 6 cases, or more, to their elite members.  And because they can tailor their offerings to their production, they can always match up supply and sales.  Plus, they typically sell at full retail price.  Some wineries (Turley is a much-mentioned example) can sell tens of thousands of cases through their mailing lists.  But, mailing lists really only work when demand outstrips supply.  I wonder if there are any wineries out there who began with a wine club model, and as their demand grew, switched to a mailing list model?  I haven't heard of it, but it must be tempting for wineries who've built up sufficient excess demand.

Wholesale Distribution Consequences
A wine club, because it contains mostly small-production wines, is largely noncompetitive with a winery's wholesale distribution efforts.  Still, it's always a juggling act for wineries to make sure that club members are getting best prices on wines, and we are careful that our club member discounts bring the prices of even our more distributed wines down to levels comparable to what the same wine might be sold for by the most aggressive discount retailer.  We have lost club members occasionally when a local discounter cuts their prices below our wine club members' prices.

Mailing list wines are rarely available in the wholesale market, or, if they are, are typically either restricted to restaurants (whose higher markups raise the price comfortably above mailing list prices) or sold at mailing list cost to retailers, who then mark up the wine and resell it.  Of course, if the demand on the secondary market falls so that members with higher allocations can't unload their extra, or the winery decides it needs to move wine into the wholesale channels, a mailing list system can fall apart quickly.  So, many wineries who use mailing lists have their hands tied when demand falls.  Wine clubs chug along in times of economic stress, and ours has continued to grow (albeit more slowly than in past years) throughout the current recession.

A Consumer's Perspective
For a consumer, I can see advantages to each.  A wine club is typically a less extravagant commitment than a mailing list membership.  And you tend to get additional discounts for additional ordering, and a wide range of offerings.  But wine clubs are often less flexible than mailing lists, and many wines may be made in quantities so small that it's unlikely you'll be able to get more even if you want to.

I have increasingly started to hear consumers refer to mailing lists where you're required to buy ever-larger quantities of wine to maintain your priority, or to buy quantities of wines you're not particularly interested in to maintain access to the wines you want, as "hostage" lists.  But most members seem to stay members, at least as long as they can re-sell (or "flip") their unwanted wines.  I understand this frustration, and we've always tried to make sure we're not overloading our VINsiders with too much of any single wine.  Anyone who wants more is welcome to order more, and lots of members do each year.

I'd be interested in feedback from anyone who is a member of both wine clubs and mailing lists.  As a consumer, do you have a preference?  Are there practices you'd like to see the wineries you patronize adopt?

Why bother with single-varietal wines if blends are better?

I got a great question recently from Tablas Creek VINsider Wine Club member and blogger Steven Stumpf, whose blog is one of my must-reads each week.  He asked, in essence (and much more diplomatically than I'm rephrasing it) why we make single varietal wines if we believe that blends are the best expressions of Tablas Creek.  I thought that the question was excellent and my response worth expanding and sharing with everyone on the blog.

Before I start, it's worth noting that 80% of what we make, including our flagship red and white wines, are blends.  And we start our blending process by first selecting the lots for the Esprit de Beaucastel wines, which means that they get the best lots in the cellar.  We are convinced that blending the different Rhone varieties allows us to make the best wines we can each vintage, and also (by diminishing the signature of any one varietal on the finished wines) better allows us to express the terroir of the site, which all the varieties share.

Still, each year we make between four and seven single varietal wines.  If we're such committed blenders, why do we bother?  There are four main reasons.

  1. There are often lots of some of the more intense varietals (particularly Syrah and Roussanne) that are so powerfully characteristic of the varietals that we don't feel they integrate well into blends.  Other years, we worry that if we were to blend all the super-intense gallonage of a particular varietal into the blends that varietal would dominate to a degree that we're not comfortable with. In both of these cases, it also seems to us a shame to blend these tremendously characteristic lots away. These are the lots we typically choose to make into single-varietal wines.
  2. The single-varietal wines are great educational tools. They help show the trade and public why we bother with relatively unknown grapes like Mourvedre, Roussanne, or Grenache Blanc. We also think that having top-notch examples of these single-varietal wines helps us educate the public about why they should care about them better than just having them in a blend does. In a blend, it's always possible to say, "well, it's a great blending varietal" with the implication that it's not a great varietal in its own right.  We feel that a part of our marketing the world of Rhone varieties is proselytizing for the varieties we think are worthy of such attention.
  3. There are people out there who are still convinced that the best wines are single varietals.  We can thank Robert Mondavi for this lingering side-effect of his efforts to separate his Napa Valley wines from the field-blended jug wines for which California was known up through the 1960's. We happen not to agree that single varietals are usually better, but having some excellent examples of single varietals is a way for us to increase our potential customer base.  We're confident that if we can get someone to try one of our single varieties, we have a good chance of later getting them to try one of our flagship blends, and eventually to bring them into the world of Tablas Creek.
  4. It allows us to do some cool stuff for our wine club. Most of the single varietal wines we make are produced in small lots: anywhere from 150 to 750 cases.  Many of these wines never make it into distribution.  We think it's a safe assumption that members of our wine club are interested in these unusual varietals, and if we can make for them a Counoise (as we've done in 2002, 2005 and 2006) or a Picpoul Blanc (as we've done in 2003, 2005 and 2008) our club members will get a kick out of getting to try something that rarely if ever exists elsewhere.  This doesn't mean that we don't send our blends to our club members; they get the first look anywhere at our Esprit de Beaucastels each year, they are the only recipients of our Panoplie, and we do occasionally make unusual blends for them (like the En Gobelet wine I wrote about a few months back). But rather than send several bottles of any one wine, we feel that our club members will appreciate getting to try a wider range of ideas and can then buy more of whatever they're most excited about.

It's also worth noting that many of our single varietal wines (like very many others in California) are in fact blends.  For example, our 2006 Syrah is 90% Syrah and 10% Grenache.  Our 2006 Mourvedre is 90% Mourvedre and 10% Syrah.  And our 2006 Grenache is 90% Grenache and 10% Syrah.  Still, the variety listed on the label is typically how it's displayed and marketed, and we we feel we get the benefits of blending on the wine itself while retaining the advantages listed above.

I'm assuming that most of you who read this blog regularly are fans of Tablas Creek.  What do you think of the single varietal wines vis a vis the blends?  Please share.

Paso Robles Wine Festival 2009

Last weekend was the annual Paso Robles Wine Festival.  We joined 92 other Paso Robles wineries to pour in the park on Saturday morning to pour wine for the roughly 4200 attendees.  Of course, it was hot.  You can just about set your calendar in Paso Robles to the fact that the first hot weekend of the year will coincide with Wine Fest, and this year didn't disappoint.  It was a little cooler than last year (around 100 instead of 106) and the heat broke on Sunday afternoon, which proved to be a very welcome and unexpected early respite.  Still, it didn't seem to dampen anyone's spirits.  The Tablas crew (cru?) at the park included eight of us so we would have time to go out and taste ourselves, as well as to get into detailed conversations with anyone who was interested without neglecting other guests:


The Wine Festival as a whole had a very nice vibe to it, and we were busy the whole time.  We poured about 2000 tastes of wine over the four hours, which amounted to nearly seven cases of wine... the same amount we poured in 2008.  Even better, I heard mostly good things about the temperatures at which other wineries were pouring their wines (which was not the case last year).  We were swapping wines in and out of the ice all day, even the reds, which is essential.  The thought of tasting warm red wines on a hot day... ugh.  There were a few instances of the cool kid syndrome where wineries brought much less wine than they would need and poured out in a few hours, but overall, I think that anyone who attended got to taste all the wines they would have wanted to if they took even a little care.

I hope the Paso Robles Wine Alliance was happy with the results; they've done a tremendous job of turning what used to be a giant party into a fairly focused tasting where attendees are overall quite responsible and interested even at the end.

On Sunday, we again used the excuse of having thousands of wine lovers in town to launch the new vintage of our Rosé (in this case the delicious 2008).  We reprised our salmon tasting, and chef Jeffrey Scott did another amazing job of putting together an amazing spread of dishes to pair with Rosé, including cured salmon, fresh cheeses, two salads (heirloom beets and burrata in one, fennel in the other), and strawberries with balsamic vinegar and basil.  The chef at work:


We have for the last several years planned our event for the Sunday morning of Wine Festival weekend, in the hopes of convincing people to begin their day out west of town and work their way back toward civilization.  As we're typically much busier in the afternoon than the morning, this helps ensure that our traffic is steady all day, and it has become an annual event for many of the members of our VINsider Wine Club (for whom the event is free).

I saw a phenomenon this year that I wasn't expecting, and would love some feedback.  While we did sell wine in the morning, we sold only about 40% of our daily sales to 60% of our traffic in the first two hours of the day (which coincided with the salmon event).  And I spoke to several VINsiders who said that they'd come out for the salmon but weren't even going to go and taste, as it was too early in the day for them.  Later that weekend, I read an article in the New York Times magazine where Suze Orman is quoted saying (I'm paraphrazing here) that she never gives things away for free because people just don't value what they don't pay for.  This was truly a phenomenal event, with amazing food and wine, and available to anyone for the price of a tasting fee (which also got the purchaser a full wine tasting and a tasting glass).  Are we doing something wrong if some people come out and partake but don't buy (or even taste)?  Maybe this is overkill?  I'm not sure, but we'll reevaluate before next year.

I'll leave you with two more photos that give you a feel for the family side of the event, and of Tablas Creek.  First, a quiet moment near the end of Saturday's tasting in the park, where Neil is relaxing next to my older son Eli, who just turned four and was taking everything in with very wide eyes:


And finally, one family shot on Sunday, where both kids (Eli and his little brother Sebastian, age 20 months) came out and mingled with the guests at Tablas Creek, many of whom have known them since they were born:


I have the complete photo album, with more photos both from the park and from the salmon and Rose tasting, posted on Tablas Creek's Facebook page:

Congratulations to... my wife Meghan?

So, we just completed the third annual VINsider NCAA tournament bracket.  And once again, our fans showed that their skill in choosing winners extends beyond just wine.  The median entry in the ESPN VINsider group that I set up was in the 60th percentile.  I encourage the Tablas Creek staff to join in the brackets each year, and a handful of us did.  My wife Meghan, who you have to thank for our newsletter, labels and brochures, entered as well, picking UNC to win it all (she's always been an ACC partisan).  Her bracket picked three of the final four and seven of the elite eight and landed her in the 98.5th percentile and at the top of the VINsider pool.

I always knew I had good taste!

My own bracket was fairly embarrassing; I did very well picking upsets in the first round and was in the 99th percentile after two rounds and 97th after three... but things fell apart quickly after that, and my final four of Memphis, Louisville, Oklahoma and Pitt didn't exactly happen. 

Thank you to everyone who played.  It's always a fun diversion for us here!

Creating a new wine: En Gobelet

Our model at Tablas Creek is pretty consistent from year to year.  We make our Esprit de Beaucastel (red and white) and Cotes de Tablas (red and white).  We make our Rosé.  We make somewhere between six and nine single varietal wines depending on what's compelling when we're doing our blending.  Some years we make a dessert wine or three.

Okay, maybe that doesn't sound very simple.  But practically speaking, it doesn't change much from year to year, or at least hasn't changed much since we introduced a relatively extensive lineup of single varietals in the 2002 vintage.  The specifics of which varietals to produce have been more or less dictated by the production levels of the vintage and what we taste when we're putting together our core blends.

One thing that we have not done is subdivide our vineyard and do vineyard block designates.  It's not that we don't believe that this might make for interesting wines; we would love to celebrate any block-level differences we learn about.  We do expect eventually to make a block-designate wine from the dry-farmed, head-pruned, west-facing eleven-acre block on the south side of Tablas Creek.  But we have not yet seen a distinctive character from a specific block that we can track from year to year.  Ask us again in a decade.

Head-pruned-mourvedre One experiment that has shown some promise has been our decision to plant small head-pruned blocks of vines in several of the flatter, lower-lying areas such as the Mourvedre block between the winery and Adelaida Road (visible at right).  We created several other head-pruned blocks in vineyard that we reclaimed from rootstock when we outsourced our nursery operation to NovaVine in 2004.  That effort accelerated when we planted Scruffy Hill (the vineyard block on the other side of Tablas Creek I mention above) in the winters of '05-'06 and '06-'07.  At this point, we have about eighteen acres of head-pruned vines, scattered here and there around the vineyard.

Head-pruning is appealing both for its simplicity and because it is traditional.  The Chateauneuf du Pape regulations which specify the rules for the appellation controllée dictate that all grape varieties except Syrah be head-pruned (taillé en gobelet; literally translated as "pruned in goblet form").  And in Paso Robles, too, the old vineyards are all head-pruned, largely Zinfandel but also Petite Sirah, Carignan and other California "heritage" varieties.  It's much less expensive to plant a vineyard this way, as you plant with less density and no posts, wires, irrigation lines, etc.  And the yields are controlled naturally, as dry-farmed, head-pruned vines rarely produce more than 2 or 3 tons per acre.  This natural yield control is why head-pruning is legislated in Chateauneuf du Pape. 

As we've had a chance to get some of these blocks into production, we're noticing they seem to share  an elegance and a complexity which is different from what we see in the rest of the vineyard.  Perhaps it's the areas where they are planted (generally lower-lying, deeper-soil areas).  Perhaps it's the age of the vines and a comparative lack of brute power.  But, whatever the reason, we believe that these lots show our terroir in a unique and powerful way.

We got the idea of putting several of these lots into one wine for our VINsider wine club last summer, as we remarked again and again on the character that they shared.  We chose to base the wine on Mourvedre and Grenache (which comprise most of our head-pruned blocks) but also added a splash of head-pruned Tannat which gives the resulting wine a little more smokiness and a little firmer finish.  We are calling it En Gobelet, after the French term for head-pruning.  We expect it to act like many Mourvedre-based wines, drinking well when young, then tightening up after 3-4 years in bottle before reopening for another 10 years or more as a mature wine.  A bottle of the wine will go out in the fall 2009 shipment.  The label for the wine is below.