Harvest 2016 Recap: Solid Yields, High Quality and a Furious End to our Earliest-Ever Vintage

And boom, after a flurry of activity last week, we're done with harvest.  Last to arrive, on Saturday, was a final pick of Grenache, but the final week saw 72.8 tons from a whopping six different grapes: Tannat, Counoise, Mourvedre, Roussanne,  and our small bock of Cabernet, in addition to the Grenache. And not just one pick of each.  We saw six different Mourvedre picks, five Grenache picks, and two picks each for Counoise and Roussanne.  This is not usually how things sequence out; in a normal year, we'd expect the last week to be dedicated to Mourvedre and Roussanne, while the other grapes are done.  No wonder our hard-working cellar crew was ready to celebrate:

Crew final bin

The compressed and overlapping picks were characteristic of 2016's harvest.  Because we plan to use each of our fermentation tanks and casks as many as 6 times each harvest, the shorter the total duration of the harvest, the more pressure we have on our available space.  But in the end, we managed to make it all fit, and were very happy with the quality we saw. But you can see from the below chart that it didn't follow a normal bell curve distribution, with a slow beginning and end.  Instead, after a modest start, we stayed busy, with at least 70 tons coming in all of the last five weeks. In fact, our last two weeks were our two busiest weeks in terms of tons harvested off the estate. In the chart, blue is purchased fruit for the Patelin program, and orange estate grown fruit:

Harvest by week - tons

Yields were much better than 2015, and even a little above the levels we saw in 2013 and 2014.  The increases were particularly noteworthy in the early grape varieties whose yields were so low last year, with grapes like Viognier, Vermentino, Grenache and Syrah all up 70% or more (of course, all those grapes were down at least 40% last year from our 2014 levels).  But even with the later varieties, on which we weren't expecting much of an increase, we saw some, with Roussanne up 11.9% and Mourvedre up 32%.  The complete picture, with 2014 added for some context:

Grape 2014 Yields (tons) 2015 Yields (tons) 2016 Yields (tons) % Change vs. 2015
Viognier 11.4 6.3 14.2 +125.4%
Marsanne 9.9 5.9 4.5  -23.7%
Grenache Blanc 31.9 22.0 30.6 +39.1%
Picpoul Blanc 7.5 5.0 7.7 +54.0%
Vermentino 17.3 8.7 19.0  +118.4%
Roussanne 42.8 42.0 47.0  +11.9%
Total Whites 120.8 89.9
Grenache 50.7 30.7 58.8  +91.5%
Syrah 38.1 21.4 36.8  +72.0%
Mourvedre 52.3 47.5 62.7  +32.0%
Tannat 15.4 9.8 12.3  +25.5%
Counoise 17.0 13.7 18.0 +31.4%
Total Reds 173.5 123.1
188.6 +53.2%
Total 294.3 213.0 311.6 +46.3%

Overall yields ended up at 2.97 tons per acre, right at our ten-year average.  Other years in which we've seen yields between 2.5 and 3 tons per acre have included 2003, 2004, 2007, 2008, 2013, and 2014, which includes many of our favorite vintages. Those crop levels seem to bring a balance of intensity and elegance that make the blending a pleasure in the spring.

Looking at average sugars and pH at harvest gives a quick way of measuring a year's ripeness.  Since 2007:

Year Avg. Sugars Avg. pH
2007 24.42 3.67
2008 23.87 3.64
2009 23.42 3.69
2010 22.68 3.51
2011 22.39 3.50
2012 22.83 3.65
2013 22.90 3.63
2014 23.18 3.59
2015 22.60 3.59
2016 22.04 3.71

2016's average sugars were our lowest-ever at harvest. Nearly every grape saw declines in average sugar levels, though most were small; only Tannat and Grenache Blanc saw (slightly) higher average sugar levels than in 2015.  At the same time, we saw higher average pH levels than we have in the last decade, particularly in grapes like Roussanne and Mourvedre. I think that in this measurement is where you see the largest impact of our ongoing drought, as well as the impact of the warm weather starting mid-September.  This idea is borne out by the fact that the vineyard looks exhausted now, in mid-October, at a time when in many years it's still leafy and green.  Overall, it was a warm year, just a hair cooler than our warmest-ever year, 2014.  Every month except May was warmer than average, even with a cool stretch that lasted nearly a month between mid-August and early September.  The chart below summarizes (October's information is for the first 8 days, as we finished harvesting on October 8th):

Degree days - growing season final

We picked even more lots this year (114) than last, when we ran out of space on our harvest chalkboard.  This too was necessitated by the drought; we wanted to get the fruit off the healthiest vines while they had good acids, while letting the clusters that were ripening more slowly continue to accumulate sugar, even at the price of lower acids.  

Harvest chalkboard - finished

All this happened in near-record time.  At just 51 days between its August 18th beginning and its October 8th conclusion, this harvest clocks in at nearly a week shorter than average (our 10-year average is 57 days). The beginning was our earliest-ever, about two weeks earlier than normal, and the end our third-earliest, trailing just 2013 (by one day) and the warm, frost-reduced 2001 vintage (by 5 days).  We're done nearly three weeks earlier than normal, and will face our third Harvest Wine Weekend (coming up this weekend) in the last four years with no fruit left to harvest. 

In character, it's early to tell what things will be like, but two things give us good hopes for its prospects.  First is the overall similarity in sequencing, weather, and yields to 2014, which we consider our best recent vintage overall.  Second is the deep colors and intense aromas of what we've been harvesting.  Skins on our red grapes appear to have been very thick. Flavors should be intense.  One of the late-ripening Mourvedre clusters illustrates:

Late Mourvedre cluster

The last project for us for harvest 2016 is to make our first Roussanne Vin de Paille since 2012.  This traditional dessert wine-making technique involves drying newly-harvested clusters on straw, and only pressing and beginning fermentation when they have reached our desired level of concentration -- typically around 35°-40° Brix -- after about 3 weeks.  [For more details on how and why it's done, see our blog Vin de Paille: A Dessert Wine Making Technique for the Obsessed from a few years back]. We laid our last Roussanne pick, from Friday, down on straw in one of our greenhouses, and will spend the next few weeks tracking its progress.

Vin de Paille greenhouse

A closeup shows the natural honey color of the Roussanne, which will only get more golden as it dries:

Vin de Paille closeup

Now that the fruit is in, it's welcome to start raining any time.  There is a hopeful forecast that suggests our first rain of the season may come as early as this weekend.  Meanwhile, we're enjoying the autumnal views of the vineyard without having to worry that the cooler nights and the coming chance of precipitation may interfere with what, in a normal year, would still be harvest season.

Colorful owl box

Harvest 2016 at its midpoint: things heat up, literally and figuratively, in Paso Robles

On Friday, Neil came to me and said that according to their estimates, they'd reached the midpoint of harvest that day.  And looking at the numbers, that seems right to me.  We're done with Viognier, Vermentino, and Marsanne. We're nearly done with Syrah and Grenache Blanc. We're perhaps one-third done with Grenache, and have made a start at Roussanne. All the grapes for Patelin Blanc, most of those for Patelin red, and the majority of the Grenache for the Patelin Rose have been picked.  Off the estate, only Picpoul, Tannat, Counoise, and Mourvedre are untouched so far.  The cellar is humming, with both presses running, new fruit arriving, and barrels and tanks getting cleaned to make space for all the arrivals:

Craig on forklift through press

Our hopes that yields would be much improved over 2015 seem to be holding up.  Of the grapes that we've finished, we saw more than twice as much Vermentino and Viognier as we did last year.  Marsanne was down 25%. But with a couple of small blocks still to go, Syrah is already up 62%.  I'm not expecting the late grapes like Mourvedre and Roussanne to be up much from last year (after all, they were hardly down compared to 2014) but overall, we're likely to be up around 2014's levels, which would be great.

One big project last week was getting the Grenache in off of the dry-farmed, head-trained block we call Scruffy Hill.  It was quite a scene, on a cool, crisp day that felt more like late October than mid-September.  A big fog bank was sitting over the Santa Lucia Mountains to our west, and the day topped out at 71°F, a rare treat at this time of year. A few photos, starting with Vineyard Manager David Maduena overseeing things, fog bank clearly visible:


The fruit looked amazing, deep blue and plentiful on the widely-spaced vines:

Scruffy Hill Grenache vimne

It looked just as good back at the winery. The block produced about 25% more fruit than last year, at picture perfect numbers. Flavors were intense:

Grenache bins in front of empty bins

We had one more very cool day last Tuesday, when the sun peeked through the thick fog only at around 4pm, and the temps topped out at 65°F.  Then, a warming trend began, with each day 6-8 degrees warmer than the one before.  By this past weekend, we had two days around 100°F, and and all of a sudden, everything looks like it's ripe.  Looking at our daily highs compared to our 1981-2010 averages will help show the swing:

Aug-Sept Daily High Temps

Before this weekend, temperatures since August 10th had averaged 2.5°F below normal. The last few days have been a different story.  Still, while we're happy to have had a fairly moderate beginning to harvest, it's not a bad thing that it's heating up now.  The later grapes (like Mourvedre, Counoise, and Roussanne) have all been losing chlorophyll, and with it ripening capacity, over the last few weeks.  Having a warm stretch now, while the vines are still mostly green, will do more good than a similarly warm stretch three weeks from now. And with a grape like Mourvedre, which always struggles toward the end of the season, a little boost is just what the doctor ordered. A photo of the Mourvedre from late last week shows the autumn-tinged foliage:

Mourvedre mid-Sept

Looking forward, we've got one more hot day in the forecast tomorrow, and then it's supposed to cool off mid-week before warming back up again next weekend.  An alternating pattern like this often works out well for the cellar, as the cooler periods allow them to catch up on all the lots that have gotten ripe during the warm stretches.  Full speed ahead.

A Cool Stretch Lets Us Ease into Harvest 2016; Yields Seem Solid

The cellar is full of bins of fruit. Our white press is running all day pressing newly harvested Viognier, Grenache Blanc, Clairette Blanche, and Vermentino, and our red press has been working on the first loads of Syrah. Everything smells yeasty and spicy, with the tang of CO2 in the air. We are fully in the thick of harvest.  

Clairette in bins

After a very warm June, July, and beginning to August, cooler weather returned about two-thirds of the way through August, and it's been relatively cool ever since.  In fact, the first week of September has been significantly cooler than normal, with degree days down 24%.  We can complete one more month in the heat graph, and you can see that while August is usually about 20% warmer than June, this year it was cooler, though still a touch above our 20-year average:

Degree Days 2016 pct difference Sept

The cooler respite has been welcome, as there were lots of blocks that were getting close even a few weeks ago, and the cooler weather has allowed us to sequence them a little more gracefully into the cellar.  So far, we've picked about 163 tons of fruit, roughly evenly split between reds and whites.  The bulk of what we've brought in so far (about 70%) has been purchased fruit for the Patelin de Tablas program, both because many of the Patelin vineyards are in somewhat warmer parts of Paso than we are, and because the grapes that these wines are based on -- Grenache Blanc and Viognier for the white, and Syrah for the red -- are harvested on the early side anyway.  We're probably two-thirds done with Patelin.

We're really just beginning the estate harvest. The 50 tons we've picked so far has been mostly Viognier and Vermentino (14 tons each), Syrah (10 tons), Pinot Noir (7 tons) and Grenache Blanc (2 tons).  We've also picked most of our Marsanne, though we only got a ton in so far and are expecting yields on this grape to be down.  The other grapes offer hope for a more generous harvest, though.  In 2015, we only harvested 9 tons of Vermentino and 6 tons of Viognier, totals we've already surpassed with a little more still to come in. One Syrah block (our Syrah "C" clone) we picked just 2.63 tons last year and received 5.16 tons this year, nearly double.  Of course, we're comparing quantities to grapes that saw cripplingly low yields in 2015, so it's not like we're seeing a windfall of grapes.  But yields look a lot more like 2014 (when we ended up harvesting 298 tons off the estate, just a hair below our 10-year average) than like 2015 (where totals ended up at 215 tons only because our late-ripening grapes were down much less than our early ones).  So, while it's early, we're feeling cautiously optimistic about quantities.  If we do end up around 2014's totals, that would mean that we're about 17% done so far.

Quality seems super.  Our sugar and acid numbers are pretty close to textbook, and we're seeing deep colors and tasting vibrant flavors.  We don't see any impact from the two weeks of intermittently smoky weather caused by the nearby Chimney Fire, and feel pretty confident that the smoke wasn't thick enough or long-lasting enough to have left any residue on the grapes.

As for what's next, we're sampling virtually the entire vineyard this week, as well as all the remaining Patelin vineyards.  We're expecting most of the Grenache for us to press directly into the Patelin de Tablas Rosé before the end of the week, as well as more Syrah and Marsanne off our own estate, more Grenache Blanc for Patelin Blanc, and the first Grenache for our Patelin red.  The floor of the cellar looks like a painter's palette:


In the vineyard, even the latest ripening grapes have completed veraison and are looking (from the outside, at least) like they're ripe.  On the inside, however, grapes like Mourvedre (below) are still weeks, maybe even a month, away from being ready to pick.  Sugars are still in the mid- to high-teens, pH levels are still in the high 2's, seeds are still green, and flavors are not yet developed.  They may look great (and in fact, they make good eating) but we know we have to be patient.

Mourvedre on Vine Sept 2016

The pattern we've seen so far -- early budbreak, warm summer, then a cooldown as harvest approaches -- reminds us a lot of 2014.  Yields seem similar as well.  Given that 2014 is the best vintage in our recent memory, that's got to be a good thing.  Stay tuned.

White blending gives us our first detailed look into the scarce, concentrated 2015 vintage

This week, my brother Danny flew out to join me, my dad, Neil, Chelsea, and Tyler around the blending table as we took our first comprehensive look at the whites from 2015. As usual, we started our blending week Monday morning by tasting, component by component, through what we had in the cellar. Because of the many varieties that were very short compared to recent years [for why, see my 2015 harvest recap] there were fewer lots than usual, and many lots were smaller. Of our major components, only Roussanne saw similar quantities to 2014:

Grape Gallons (2015) Gallons (2014) % Change
Viognier 972 1750 -44.5%
Marsanne 948 1560 -39.2%
Grenache Blanc 3621 4827 -25.0%
Picpoul Blanc 804 1176 -31.6%
Roussanne 6853 6781 +1.1%
Clairette Blanche 144 92 +56.5%
Total Whites 13342 16186

As you would guess from the chart above, we knew going in that we were likely to be constrained by our quantities in what we could make.  Still, the first stage was to go through the lots, variety by variety, and get a sense of both the character and diversity present in the vintage:


We grade on a 1-3 scale, with 1's being our top grade (for a deep dive into how we do our blending, check out this blog by Chelsea from last year). My quick thoughts on each variety:

  • Viognier (3 lots): A really good year for Viognier, with 2 of the 3 lots getting 1's from me. Concentrated, tropical and deep, with surprisingly good acids and a little welcome minty lift. Absolutely worthy of bottling solo, but in this short year it will all go into the Cotes de Tablas Blanc.
  • Picpoul Blanc (3 lots): Very strong for Picpoul, too, with luscious depth and electric acids. The one lot that got a 2 from me could have been a 1 as well.
  • Roussanne (13 lots): A very heterogeneous mix, with a relatively large number of lots with very low acids.  Some of these had the richness and charm to carry their weight; others felt heavy. Those with the best acidity were really powerhouses, with a creamy, honeyed charm that should be very crowd pleasing. My grades: six 1's, five 2's, one 3, and one incomplete (for a lot that was still fermenting actively).
  • Grenache Blanc (5 lots): Very classic and polished for Grenache Blanc at this stage, quite uniformly good (three 1's and two 2's from me), with lots of the variety's signature green apple. We just wish there was more of it.
  • Marsanne (3 lots): Pretty clearly Marsanne's best showing ever for us, to the point that my dad (who in past years has suggested we think about pulling Marsanne out entirely) mused out loud that we should look to plant more acreage. Great minerality, nice acids, elegant and complete. If there had been more, we'd love to have bottled it on its own, but like the Viognier, it will all go into Cotes Blanc.
  • Clairette Blanche (1 lot): Just the 3rd vintage of this new grape for us, the Clairette was pretty: like new-cut grass drying in the sun. Not much complexity here, but fun for us all. We'll bottle this on its own, to continue to share it with others.

Tuesday morning, we started on our blending work by tasting possible Esprit de Tablas Blanc blends.  The last few years, our Esprit Blanc has been 70% or more Roussanne, though in very rich years this has not always been true. Case in point: the 2009 vintage, whose combination of drought and frost produced yields that approximated pretty closely those we saw in 2015.  And like 2015, it was a warm year, with Roussannes with a great deal of weight and relatively low acids.  In our blending trials the following spring, we ended up preferring our blends with more Picpoul and Grenache Blanc, and less Roussanne, though we could only use 12% Picpoul because that was all we had.  The 2009 Esprit Blanc ended up containing 62% Roussanne, 26% Grenache Blanc, and 12% Picpoul Blanc. This year, knowing how strong the Picpoul and Grenache Blanc were, we tried out some blends with high percentages of both, and ended up choosing in our blind trials (blind meaning we tasted not knowing the percentages in each wine) a blend that maxed out on Picpoul again. Happily, we now have more Picpoul in production than we did in 2009, and our preferred blend contained 55% Roussanne, 28% Grenache Blanc, and 17% Picpoul Blanc. This wine will be blended in the next month or so, be moved to foudre to age for another year, and be bottled next spring.

Once we'd decided on the Esprit Blanc blend, the other wines fell into place with remarkable speed.  I figure that our minimum quantity of Cotes de Tablas Blanc, for its various demands to our wine club, in our tasting room, and to the national market, is 1500 cases.  This wine is always led by Viognier, and using all our Viognier only made up 26% of a 1500-case lot. All the Marsanne made up 25% of the lot.  Because these two varieties were so strong, we were confident in that the finished wine would be great, and chose some of the brighter, more mineral-driven Grenache Blanc (25%), and some of the least assertive Roussanne (24%) to finish off the blend.  We tasted it, ready to make adjustments if necessary, and decided we couldn't think of anything that would improve it.  Those who get some 2015 Cotes Blanc are in for a treat.

At this point, we'd used all our Viognier, Marsanne, and Picpoul, and had enough Roussanne left for about 1200 cases of a varietal bottling, and enough Grenache Blanc for about 600 cases. And that, as often happens in short vintages, was that. Wednesday morning, we tasted the five wines we'll make from 2015 (including the Patelin de Tablas Blanc, that received one declassified Roussanne lot to add to its purchased fruit), to make sure that each felt complete and fell into its appropriate slot relative to the lineup.  They did: 


We wrapped things up yesterday afternoon with a prowl through the cellar, tasting a selection of barrels to begin the process of wrapping our heads around the reds from 2015.


We won't blend those until late April, but it was clear that the vintage will be a strong one there too. As for the details, stay tuned.

En Primeur: a Tablas Creek tradition since 2003

By Lauren Phelps

Today, we were joined by many of our most enthusiastic wine club members for our annual futures tasting, which provides the first opportunity for anyone outside the cellar to taste (from barrel) our newest vintage of Esprit de Tablas and Panoplie.  

Our Cellar, Newly Decorated for the Holidays

For a little background, 13 years ago we began offering wine en primeur, which is a time-honored French tradition most often associated with first-growth Bordeaux estates. In outstanding vintages, valued customers are offered the opportunity to secure a limited quantity of sought-after wines at a special price in advance of bottling and subsequent general release.

The Tasting List

Our focus today was on the 2014 vintage, which we have felt since blending may turn out to be one of our best.  We showed our two top red wines from the vintage, the Esprit de Tablas and Panoplie, each of which was blended this past spring.  They have been resting in foudre until this morning's tasting, and are only about halfway through their barrel aging; they'll remain in foudre until bottling next summer.

The Wines

Jason Haas provided a bit of context for the tasting by summarizing how 2014 compared to other recent vintages, while Viticulturist Levi Glenn and Winemaker Neil Collins dove into the details of the challenges and opportunities that 2014 presented in the vineyard and cellar.  Finally, Robert Haas shared his thoughts on how these wines have come together and express themselves, and where they may go in the future.

The 2014 vintage produced wines that are notably luscious, but with good tannins behind them. Jason compared it to 2007, a similarly intense vintage with plenty of fruit balanced by substantial but ripe tannins.  We think that the wines will be impressive young (they showed very well today) but will also be among the most ageworthy we've made.

Neil (foreground) and Levi (behind) speak to the group

Founder Robert Haas

We find that often the most interesting topics are raised by the participants in our events, and very much enjoyed the lively question and answer session that followed the vintage discussion and tasting.

A wreath hangs on a Roussanne tank

Because we feel it is important to taste these wines both on their own and with food, we asked Chef Jeffery Scott to make a dish that would pair well with them.  He chose a coq au vin, braised in syrah, and we contributed the 2008 Esprit de Beaucastel out of our library to give guests a chance to see how a (relatively) mature version of the wine might look. [Editor's note: we're working with Chef Jeff to get the recipe, or at least a version that doesn't require a 3-day preparation of the stock, and will post it here on the blog if and when we do.]

Chef Jeffery Scott's delicious coq au vin

We hold this tasting every year, always in early December, if you're setting your calendars for next year. And if you missed the tasting,  you haven't missed your opportunity to buy the wines at their futures-only discount. Members interested in ordering wine en primeur should contact our Wine Club team no later than Monday either by email at vinsider@tablascreek.com or by phone at 805.237.1231 x36.


In the spirit of a winemaker- Q & A with Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi

Editor's Note: This is the second interview in a series that we hope will help readers get to know the key people at Tablas Creek a little better.  If you have questions for Chelsea, please leave them in the comments.

By: Lauren Phelps

I recently sat down with Chelsea and asked her a few questions about her life, what brought her into the wine industry and how she became an essential member of the Tablas Creek family.


Where were you born and raised?

I grew up in El Dorado Hills, the Sierra Foothills of California in an area between Tahoe and Sacramento. Which is now an exceptional wine growing region but when I was living there I didn’t notice much of a focus on winemaking. We went back up last year and the wineries there just blew me away. It is just so cool to see what people are producing up there. We found a lot of Rhone producers and a lot of great Barbera.

When and how did you get into wine?

My parents were always really into wine, not in a professional sense, but we always had wine open for dinner. I grew up with wine and was surrounded by people in the wine industry. Wine was never an industry that seemed overly romantic, it always seemed attainable.

When you went to Cal Poly, was your intention to become a Winemaker?

It was a rather serendipitous turn of events because both of my parents went to Cal Poly, and had met there so I always knew I was going to go there. Originally I applied for business but was only accepted after I reapplied under ag-business with an intention of later switching my major. After taking a few of the ag-business classes I realized that I really liked the people in that major and if they were any indication of the people I was going to be working with professionally for the rest of my career I decided, I can do this. So I stayed in ag-business and thanks to my advisor’s recommendation I tried wine and viticulture which turned out to be a great fit.

Can you tell me a little about how you started working at Tablas Creek?

Initially when I was going to school at Cal Poly I knew I really wanted to work at a winery and I applied to Tablas Creek. I had been wine tasting here and the Esprit Blanc, in particular, changed the way I thought about wine, not just in Paso Robles, but I fell in love with the Esprit Blanc and the other Tablas wines too. At the time, the only available job at Tablas Creek was a greeter at the door of the tasting room. I had just turned 21 and I knew that being a greeter wasn’t what I wanted to do but it was where I wanted to do it. After a while, I was able to worm my way into the tasting room which I really loved. I loved being able to talk to people about wine and about all of the crazy things I was learning about at Cal Poly. Then when I graduated I knew I wanted to go into production and thankfully Tablas Creek created a cellar position for me. That was at the end of 2007 and I’ve been here ever since.

Why did you transition from the business side to wine making?

I think it was mostly growing up with a more tomboy sensibility; I always liked the idea of a challenging physical job and being able to create a tangible physical object at the end of the day: this is what I made with my hands today. I really liked the idea of creating something, especially if it’s something that you’re really proud of.

What is your general winemaking philosophy?

I think it’s to make the best wine you possibly can. I have definitely adopted the Tablas Creek philosophy which is that it starts in the vineyard. The way that we do things in the vineyard is so labor intensive, handpicked… everything is hand-done, in the cellar too, we don’t have the high tech equipment that some of the newer wineries do. Everything is very traditional. We are actually touching every single berry that goes into the tanks and I think that makes a difference. I am surrounded by very passionate people and it’s very infections. You can’t help to love what you do.

Who are your favorite winemakers in history, through personal account, or their wines?

Growing up I always liked the Au Bon Climat wines. The things that Jim Clendenen does with his wines and that winery are incredible. Those wines have always been so consistently good, consistently beautiful and elegant. John Alban, I mean, he’s John Alban! Those two guys are just historically notable. They don’t just make wines to follow trends they both commit to consistency and quality.

What’s your favorite wine region in the world – other than your own?

That definitely changes, but for the last couple of years, I’ve really been into the wines of Portugal mostly because they are lesser known, especially here, and you have to hunt them out. And when you do find them, a lot of them are rustic, and I really like that. The wines are not overly polished, they’re cool and country. I love the earthiness, the smokiness. And going to Portugal a couple of years ago and being able to understand the wine within the context of its culture, its cuisine and understand the terrior more intimately was just so great. It makes so much more sense when you have that complete picture.

What’s the best wine you’ve ever tasted? The most interesting?

The best wine I ever tasted was a 1985 Stags Leap cabernet. My parents had purchased it, as it was my birth year, and on my 21st birthday my parents took me to Napa. We had an over-the-top fantastic tasting experience and for dinner that night we opened that bottle of ‘85, it was such a great experience, being there with my parents and celebrating with them like that. That is one thing about winemaking that I really love is having the ability to create something, like an Esprit or a Panoplie that a parent may buy for their child’s birthday and having a hand in someone else’s experience... their celebration.

How do you spend your days off?

It depends on the season; my husband Trevor and I are going up to Mammoth on opening weekend. In the winter we are skiing a lot. In the summer we do a lot of paddle boarding and hiking both here and in Mammoth. We like to spend time with our Labrador.

How do you define success?

If you go to bed every night and think, “that was a killer day” then that is success. I think being happy with where you are in life and really enjoying the people that you surround yourself with, I can’t really think of any better way to go through your day than that.

Chelsea Pooch

Harvest 2015 Recap: Mourvedre and Roussanne (somewhat) to the Rescue

The last two days, we picked the last batches of Roussanne off of our estate.  This makes in one case six passes through a single block, harvesting what's ripe, leaving the rest to ripen a bit more, and repeating every week or two.  In a year like 2015, when yields are so low that you treasure every single grape, the extra investment is worth it.  And, it seems like this extra care has been warranted, as our latest-ripening grapes have turned out to be the ones whose yields are down least.

Last Pick Chalkboard

Two weeks ago, before the Counoise, Mourvedre and Roussanne harvests were quite done, it looked like every grape was going to be down between 40%-50%, as we'd seen in the earlier varieties.  But these last three grapes came in much better, down 19%, 9% and 2% respectively, which leaves us overall with an estate harvest that's down 27.6%: serious, but better than the 40%+ that we'd feared.  The details:

Grape2014 Yields (tons)2015 Yields (tons)% Change
Viognier 11.4 6.3 -45.1%
Marsanne 9.9 5.9 -40.3%
Grenache Blanc 31.9 22.0 -31.0%
Picpoul Blanc 7.5 5.0 -33.0%
Vermentino 17.3 8.7 -49.4%
Roussanne 42.8 42.0 -1.8%
Total Whites 120.8 89.9
Grenache 50.7 30.7 -39.5%
Syrah 38.1 21.4 -44.0%
Mourvedre 52.3 47.5 -9.1%
Tannat 15.4 9.8 -36.6%
Counoise 17.0 13.7 -19.4%
Total Reds 173.5 123.1
Total 294.3 213.0 -27.6%

We had speculated at the beginning of harvest that while the drought was playing a part, a big piece of the lower yields on the earlier-sprouting varieties was the cool, wet, windy May that impacted these grapes' abilities to set fruit during flowering.  The weather in June, when Counoise, Mourvedre, and Roussanne flowered, was benign.  Knowing that these grapes were down roughly 10% while the earlier grapes were down an average of 40% suggests that in fact the majority of the blame should go to the May weather rather than to the four dry years.

Overall yields off our estate ended up at 2.01 tons per acre, which is (barely!) our lowest ever, just a hair below the 2.03 tons per acre we saw in 2009's drought- and frost-reduced crop.  If the intensity is comparable to 2009, then we're in for a treat when we get to the blending stage this spring.

Looking at average sugars and pH at harvest gives a quick way of measuring a year's ripeness.  Since 2007:

YearAvg. SugarsAvg. pH
2007 24.42 3.67
2008 23.87 3.64
2009 23.42 3.69
2010 22.68 3.51
2011 22.39 3.50
2012 22.83 3.65
2013 22.90 3.63
2014 23.18 3.59
2015 22.60 3.59

I think that in this measurement is where you see the largest impact of the drought.  The sugars look more like the cool years of 2010 and 2011 than they do like the warmer years we've seen before and since.  And, of course, until late August, this year was actually cooler than our 10-year average.  For a more graphical look at how the 2015 vintage progressed, take a look by month at the accumulation of degree days out here at Tablas Creek.  As you can see, we alternated between warmer-than-average stretches and cooler-than-average stretches:

2015 Degree Days vs Average

The difference between normal and 2015 is even more dramatic when you look at it as a percent change.  May saw fully 30% fewer degree days accumulated than our eighteen-year average, October so far has been more than 40% above normal, and only June was within 10% of normal:

Temp Pct Chg vs Average

The above graph gives a hint as to why we think we saw relatively modest sugars for our latest-ripening grapes. While warm weather is good for ripening, hot weather actually causes the vines to shut down photosynthesis, and you don't get the same sugar accumulation you do when it's more moderate. We had three separate heat spikes at the end of the ripening cycle.  Hence our last two lots of Roussanne, which despite an exceptionally long hang time averaged only about 19° Brix. Yet the flavors were good, the grapes and clusters looked good, and we expect to find a happy home for all the lots we brought in.  A few Roussanne clusters, from last week, illustrate the russet tinge that gives the grape its name:

Roussanne Clusters

I mentioned at the beginning of this piece that we had gone multiple times through even more of our blocks than normal, to maximize our quality while getting as much yield out of this reduced crop as possible.  We will keep these lots separate until we start to consider our blending options in the spring.  And boy will we have a lot of options.  You can see on our harvest chalkboard that around the end of September, Madeline (who maintains this chalkboard) realized that because we were picking so many blocks multiple times we were ending up with enough lots to warrant doubling up lots per line.  Even so, she ran out of space in mid-October:

Final Chalk Board

In character, it's early to tell what things will be like, but the combination of very low yields and moderate sugars/acids suggests we are working with a vintage unlike any we've seen in our recent memories.  Clusters and berries have been very small all year, which means that skin-to-juice ratios were high on our red grapes.  Flavors should be intense.  Some of the last-harvested lots of Mourvedre illustrate:

2015-10-13 15.04.57

At 63 days between its August 26th beginning and its October 28th conclusion, this harvest clocks in at a week longer than average (our 10-year average is 56 days) and about average in terms of start and finish dates.  This is a far cry from many growers to our south, who started and finished nearly a month ahead of us.  I'll have some additional thoughts on what made Paso's experience of the 2015 harvest unique in an upcoming blog.

I had speculated mid-summer that our dry-farmed, wide-spaced blocks looked like they suffered less in the drought than our traditional trellised, close-spaced blocks.  And it looks like this turned out to be the case, as we got 13.90 tons off of our Scruffy Hill picks, down less than 1% compared to last year's 13.94 tons.  Our other head-trained, dry-farmed blocks showed a bit of a decline, down 9.8% to 17.32 tons, but still held up better than the closer-spaced blocks.

Now that the fruit is in, it's welcome to start raining any time.  We've been preparing the vineyard for this rain, seeding our cover crop, spreading compost, and putting out straw in areas that might be prone to erosion.  A storm that looked like it might hit this week dissipated before it got here, but there's another in the forecast for early next week.  Bring on el nino.

The man behind the beard: Q&A with Winemaker, Neil Collins

Editor's Note: This interview begins a series that we hope will help readers get to know the key people at Tablas Creek a little better. We're starting, appropriately, with Winemaker Neil Collins, who has made every vintage of Tablas Creek except 1997, when he was working at Beaucastel. If you have questions for Neil, please leave them in the comments.

By: Lauren Phelps

Neil is the Executive Winemaker and Vineyard Manager at Tablas Creek Vineyard and a busy man. He also makes the wines for his own label Lone Madrone, which is run by his sister Jackie and his wife Marci, and a growing line of traditional styled hard apple ciders (Bristols Cider) which you can taste at his new cider bar in Atascadero.  Neil’s blend of respect for tradition and willingness to experiment is integral to the spirit of Tablas Creek. We were proud to learn that he was named 2013 San Luis Obispo County Winemaker of the Year in an award voted on by his peers. 

I recently sat down with Neil and asked him a few questions about his life, what brought him into the wine industry and his vision for the future of Tablas Creek.

Winemaker Neil Collins Summer 2012

Neil, can you talk a bit about where you were born and what brought you to the States?

I was born and raised in Bristol England, the south-west of England. At that point there weren’t any vineyards, not really anyone making wine, a lot of wine was being consumed but traditionally it was not a wine country, now there is a lot of good wine and cider. I came to the States just to visit my sister Jackie in Santa Barbara for a six-week vacation and I never really left.

Can you tell us about how you met your wife Marci?

So when I ran out of money on my vacation and had to get a job I started working in the kitchen at a restaurant my sister opened with some friends of hers, it was called the Paradise Café in Santa Barbara. Then six months after I started working there, Marci started working in the kitchen and that’s where we met, we met in Paradise.

What began your interest in working with wine and what were your first experiences?

I was working in restaurants and began getting intrigued by wine and its production. The original intent was just to do a year in the cellar; harvest to harvest, to learn so I could understand wine better for the restaurant business. After the year long stint, I just kept going.  I started with Wild Horse during the 1991 harvest because the building at Adelaida was still in construction, so even though I got my job offer from Adelaida, I worked one harvest with Ken Volk at Wild Horse. Then after harvest in January of 1992 I moved to Adelaida where I stayed until March of 1997 working along side John Munch.  Then I went back to England for 6-months, then to France to Beaucastel for a year and finally to Tablas Creek.

Which winemakers have inspired you the most?

Paul Draper (Ridge Vineyards) has done an incredible job sticking by a great style. He makes great wine, very traditionally and he has stuck by that, his winemaking is meticulous and thorough and they ave great character. Obvously Jacques Perrin who is an inspiration to all of us here, Claude from Beaucastel, and of course I have an immense amount of respect for Ken Volk and John Munch (Le Cuvier), Josh Jensen (Calera), Bob Lindquist (Qupe). Ken Volk was instrumental since my first harvest and he was a great person to learn from because he incredibly throughout and diligent and super meticulous so it was a great foundation because I learned everything the right way. And then Munch is completely the opposite and willing to try anything, experiment and push things to the edge; which the two of those combined is fantastic because you get the complete spectrum and I can take the best from both.

Which is your favorite wine region?

At the moment? It changes, as of today I would say I really like the wines of the Loire Valley, the whites from Alsace and I like Gigondas a lot.

Have you been more drawn recently to whites or reds?

It’s seasonal; there are so many factors like the environment and food. I do like whites, they’re very intriguing. They’re much more transparent, less to hide behind. When they’re beautiful, they’re beautiful. There’s an elegance and balance with whites that’s not easy to accomplish and when it is achieved… well, when it’s really good it’s really good.

What is the story behind Tablas Creek En Gobelet?

So, that started with a desire to plant head-trained vines because we were interested in getting the Grenache to perform a bit better and since most of the great Grenaches of the world that I’m familiar with are head-trained vines, it seemed like a good connection. And then, that paired with our desire at Tablas Creek to make wines that are very reflective of this estate, my opinion would be that dry-farmed, head-trained vines are the purest expression of the given piece of land. So with all of those things combined that would be where the first plantings of head-trained vines came from.  We actually started with Mourvedre, not Grenache, in 1999.  When that kind of worked, we planted Scruffy Hill and it has proved, at least so far for us, to be a great way to farm and has produced very interesting wines that are unique and different from the other wines that we make.

What is the vision for the recently acquired 160 acre parcel?

The vision for the new property is very much inspired by the success of Scruffy Hill and it’s very similar terroir-wise. It has everything you could want; it’s steep, it faces in every direction and thre’s a kind of knoll in the middle. It’ll be planted 5 to 10 acres a year, at this point, all in the head-trained, dry-farmed style. That’s what we’re planning to start in the spring of 2016 with Grenache, Mourvedre and a little Roussanne.

How has the drought affected the vineyard?

It’s a concern, if it doesn’t rain this year, we’re anticipating that it will, but if it doesn’t, we’ll assess whether or not we’re going to plant the new property. We were going to plant late this summer and we decided that it just doesn’t make sense to get vines started in these conditions. So we put it off until spring of next year. Hopefully we’ll see some rain. We don’t need a lot, but we need something. Planting a dry-farmed vineyard in the 4th or 5th year of a drought is daring business.

Does the possibility of El Nino erosion concern you?

We’ve ordered more cover crop seed than usual and we’re going to get it into the ground earlier than normal. We’re going to get the compost in earlier as well. We’re bringing in more straw than we normally do to put on the steeper roadways. None of this is going to hurt if it doesn’t pan out to be what everyone says it will be.


2015 International Grenache Day - The Cellar Crew Harvests Grenache

By Lauren Phelps

Today is International Grenache Day and enthusiasts are connecting all over the world and coming together to celebrate this unique grape. (For a fun overview, check out the #GrenacheDay hashtag on Twitter.) We celebrated by harvesting a half-acre block of our vineyard that was originally planted by our VINsider Wine Club members back in 2003.  The hands-on seminar focused on planting and vineyard care and gave members an opportunity to make an impact on the vineyard and wine we’re working with today.

Early this morning, Viticulturist Levi Glenn and his trusty vineyard dog Mavis collected samples from the block we call Grenache Noir Wine Club Head Pruned -- GNWCHP for short -- to test whether the lot was ready to pick.

Mavis Samples

Mavis is convinced; let's see what Neil Collins, Vineyard Manager and Executive Winemaker has to say.

Neil Sample

Neil used a refractometer to asses the sugar levels on the Grenache sample and decided we could harvest this block of estate Grenache.

Group Pick

Our cellar crew enjoyed a welcomed break from processing fruit and got to feel the sun on their faces as they picked Grenache in the vineyard this morning.


The fruit looked spectacular and although yields looked light on this block, quality is fantastic!

Grapes with Hammer

We picked .75 tons from the head-pruned, dry-farmed lot.

Chelsea forklift

What a way to celebrate #Harvest2015 and International #GrenacheDay!  Cheers!

Mid-September Harvest Update: Why harvest started earlier than we predicted... and why our frighteningly low early yields may soon improve

Harvest, pushed by the last week of hot weather, has started to move fast.  We've brought in nearly 80% of the grapes for our Patelin de Tablas wines, and nearly finished our early white grapes (Viognier, Vermentino, Marsanne) here off the estate.  Tuesday, we picked our first estate reds, with two lots of Syrah. The harvest board is growing:

Harvest board 9.11.15

You'll notice that most of the entries on the board are in purple chalk, indicating that they're from purchased fruit. This reflects that most of the vineyards that we buy from for the Patelin wines are ahead of our own estate.  It's also a reflection that the grapes on which we base our Patelin wines (Grenache/Viognier for the white, and Syrah/Grenache for the red) ripen at the earlier end of the spectrum, while our two most important grapes for our estate wines (Roussanne and Mourvedre) ripen late.

Why harvest began earlier than we'd predicted
In my veraison post and harvest preview,  I predicted an early September start to harvest based on our date of first veraison and the range of times in recent years between veraison and harvest.  (The exact range I'd predicted was between August 28th and September 7th.)  Instead, we began picking Viognier off our estate on August 26th. Why? First, August was the warmest on record in San Luis Obispo County. Second, our VIognier harvest was exceptionally light.  Off of 5.8 producing acres, we harvested just 5.5 tons, less than half of last year's pig-reduced crop.  The tiny yields weren't unexpected, but they are unprecedented, and it's unsurprising that the combination of low yields and hot weather resulted in our shortest-ever time between veraison and harvest.

Our only other estate grape to come in in August was Vermentino, which had its own yield issues.  We've only picked one block (our cross-hairs, or CH block) but that block, which produced nearly 10 tons last year, yielded just 3.71 tons this year.  If not for these two low-yield-accelerated blocks, my prediction for an early-September start to harvest would look better.

Ongoing concerns on yields
We've known since our first Patelin lots of Viognier arrived that the grape was going to be scant, due to the third year of drought and cool, wet weather when it was flowering. Vermentino, though, was a bit of a surprise, and when it came in so light, it started a mild panic in the cellar.  We do have two other (smaller) blocks of Vermentino still to be picked, but it's now an open question as to whether or not we'll have enough even to supply a wine club shipment for 2015.

And yet, some things look fine
There are a few elements that are allowing us a glimmer of hope despite the painfully low yields on the grapes we've mostly picked.  

First is that the cold, unsettled May that we believe impacted the yields of the early-flowering grapes does not appear to have had the same impact on the later grapes like Roussanne, Mourvedre, and Counoise.  These June-flowering grapes look, from our vineyard surveys and our cluster counts, to be more or less in line with last year's yields.

Second is that the head-trained, dry-farmed blocks look fine.  I was out on Scruffy Hill yesterday, which is all head-trained and dry-farmed, and the yields looked quite healthy, both in Grenache (below, left) and Mourvedre (below, right):

Scruffy Grenache

Scruffy Mourvedre


Third, quality looks super. It's easier to tell at this stage on the reds, where you can look at thickness of skins and depth of color, and the first estate reds we've gotten have been dark, chewy, and flavorful. The initial bins of Syrah off the estate, below, show it well:

Syrah in bin

Fourth, there are some Patelin vineyards whose yields have been fine, with excellent quality.  Take, for example, the Estrella Syrah that came in on 8/21 and 8/22.  We'd been hoping for 25 tons, to form the chunky, meaty core of the Patelin red. The vineyard was productive enough that they were able to get us 31 tons.  This has helped us mitigate the fact that many other vineyards are seeing lower (and often dramatically lower) yields.  This Syrah, in the press, looks and smells great:

Syrah in press

Looking forward
The next few weeks will give us a much clearer sense of what 2015 will look like on our own vineyard. We're picking Grenache today, and it looks like we'll have a steady stream of estate lots (Syrah, Grenache, Grenache Blanc, our first Roussanne, and maybe even a little Mourvedre) coming in shortly. Stay tuned.