2023 Red Blending: Dazzling Wines from a Cool Year... including a Chillable Grenache

Last week we finally got to sit down and taste the eighteen (!) red wines from the 2023 vintage we'd built around the blending table over the past month. The tasting highlighted the incredible combination of vibrancy and depth that we'd all remarked upon during the blending process. From the peppery blood orange and bay-like herbiness of the Terret Noir to the boysenberry, red licorice, and sweet tobacco appeal of Grenache, the soy, melted licorice, black raspberry and graphite umami of the Le Complice, and the pure currant, black plum, and sweet earth depth of the Panoplie, each wine was somehow like itself, but moreso: both deep and expressive, with refinement and lovely high notes. What a pleasure. 2023 was a vintage unlike any that we've seen in a long time, in which we saw record-breaking rains, late budbreak and veraison, the coolest growing season since 2011, and a delayed harvest that didn't finish until mid-November. And unlike the white blending that we finished in April, where yields were still depressed from the residual impacts of 2022's frost, there was good supply of most of our reds, and especially Grenache. So, what a relief that there was such outstanding quality to go with healthy quantities. 

As usual, we got a visit from Cesar Perrin. Unlike usual, Cesar brought two other members of the Famille Perrin cellar team, Valentin Castaneda and Christian Reboul, which meant that we had that many more perspectives and an additional five decades of blending experience around the blending table. Like the Perrins' own system at Beaucastel, we take the blending process in steps and build consensus rather than relying on one or two lead voices to determine the wines' final profiles. After all, when you have nine family members involved in a multi-generational business, as they do at Beaucastel, it's a good policy and good family relations to make sure everyone is on the same page before you go forward. The same is true with a partnership like Tablas Creek where both founding families have equal ownership. Mornings we would taste. Each afternoon, we'd explore different pieces of what we're working on in the vineyard or cellar:

Christian  Valentin  Cesar  Neil and JasonFrom left, Christian, Valentin, Cesar, Neil, Jason

We try to do most of our tasting in the morning because that's when everyone's palates and brains are freshest. Afternoons are for the aforementioned explorations, or brainstorming, or chances to visit with other local winemakers. We began the week, as we always do, by tasting each of the different red lots in the cellar, which in 2023 numbered a substantial 68. On Monday we tackled Cinsaut, Counoise, Muscardin, Mourvedre, Vaccarese, Syrah, and Tannat. Tuesday we dove into Grenache, which encompassed an amazing 24 lots, and then cleaned up some of the trace varieties, including Terret Noir, Pinot Noir, two co-fermented lots and the blended lots that will become our 2023 Patelin de Tablas and Lignée de Tablas wines. We keep our different harvest lots separate until they've finished fermentation so we can assess their quality and character before we have to decide which wines they fit best in. After all, a Mourvedre lot could potentially go into any of six wines: PanoplieEspritEn GobeletCotesPatelin, or the varietal Mourvedre. So our goal at this first stage of blending is to give each lot a grade that's reflective of its overall quality, and to start to flag lots that we think might be particularly suited to one wine or another. This component tasting is also an opportunity for us to get a sense of which varieties particularly shined or struggled, which helps provide direction as we start to brainstorm about blends.

We grade on a 1-3 scale, with "1" being our top grade (for a deep dive into how we do our blending, check out this blog by Chelsea from a few years back). We also give ourselves the liberty to give intermediate "1/2" or "2/3" grades for lots that are right on the cusp. For context, in a normal year, for every 10 lots we might see three or four "1" grades, five or six "2" grades and one "3" grade. As you can see from my notes, this year we saw a lot of "1" grades and very few "3" grades:

2023 red blending notes

How I graded each variety, in the order in which we tasted them:

  • Cinsaut (2 lots): An outstanding beginning, with two quite different lots of Cinsaut both excellent. One was plush and spicy, with great acids and fruit. The other was deeper, with less acid but more texture. I gave them both "1" grades.
  • Counoise (7 lots): Several of these lots showed the pale, pretty, spicy Gamay-style juiciness that our varietal Counoise bottling typically reflects, but unlike in 2022 there were also richer options, culminating in one stunning lot from our new Jewel Ridge plantings with the darker blueberry fruit and rich texture that we look for in Esprit. I gave out one "1" grade, two "1/2" grades, two "2" grades, and two "2/3" grades for lots I thought were pretty enough, but a little on the thin side.
  • Muscardin (1 lot): Progress! Not only did we have a barrel of 100% Muscardin to taste, but it was delicious: spicy and floral, with flavors of raspberry and green herbs. I gave it a "1/2" and we decided to make it our first-ever varietal Muscardin bottling.
  • Mourvedre (10 lots): If we were pleased by the first three wines, we were blown away by Mourvedre. This was the most structured collection of Mourvedre lots in recent years, but they all also showed a vibrancy and a refinement that was just lovely. Six lots got "1"s from me, with three others getting "1/2", one "2"s and nothing lower than that. The only downside is that quantities were barely improved from the punishingly low levels of 2022, so we were going to be constrained in blending.
  • Vaccarese (2 lots): In this darker, higher-acid year, Vaccarese stood out a little less from the wines around it than it has the past few vintages. Still, the grape showed why we're so excited about it, with candied blackberry fruit and vibrant acids. I gave one lot a "1" and the other, which felt perhaps a touch too tannic for Esprit, a "1/2".
  • Syrah (11 lots): Syrah at this stage is easy to appreciate, with its plush dark fruit, spice, and powerful structure. And the lots we tasted had that in abundance, with my main question being whether lots were too monolithic for Esprit. I gave out five "1"s, two "1/2" grades to lots I thought were more medium-bodied and therefore good candidates for varietal Syrah, and four "2" lots split between two with such big tannins I wanted to keep them out of Esprit, and two that were just a little on the quiet side.
  • Tannat (4 lots): Exuberant, with Tannat's normal density but leavened by acids even more vibrant than usual. We didn't bother grading the lots, since they're all getting blended together, but they were all strong. 

What a first day. Of the 33 lots we graded, I gave out fifteen "1" grades and nine "1/2"s. That's unprecedented. And it was strong across lighter-bodied and richer grapes. But would it be just as strong in Grenache, when yields had gone up by an amazing 85% compared to 2022? That was the question for Tuesday. It turned out I needn't have worried:

  • Grenache (24 lots): Grenache can be difficult to taste this early in its evolution, as it is slow to finish fermentation and some lots are just rounding into form. And in recent years we've found Grenache tending toward a pale, spicy profile more like Counoise rather than the darker-fruited, more licorice note found in the Rhone. But led by the growing number of head-trained Grenache blocks, we saw plenty of lots with lushness and sweet fruit, and even some with significant structure. I gave eight lots "1" grades, six others "1/2" grades, nine "2"s and one single "2/3" lot that would end up being the only one declassified into Patelin. If you're going to have so much Grenache that you have to figure out what to do with it, it's great that it's delicious! 
  • Terret Noir (1 lot): The year seems to have treated Terret well, with a little extra darkness in this often-pale grape and nice herby grip. I gave it a "2" and thought it would be great for Le Complice
  • Pinot Noir (1 lot): From the small vineyard in the Templeton Gap that my dad planted outside the house he and my mom built in 2007, where my wife Meghan and I live now. It's planted to a mix of different Pinot Noir clones. Unlike in past years, we didn't keep the different clones separate through fermentation. So there wasn't much to discuss, though we very much liked the assembled wine and thought it would make a compelling 2023 Full Circle.
  • Blend Lots (2 lots): These were impossible to generalize, with one blend of Mourvedre, Grenache, and Counoise outstanding (I gave it a "1") and the other blend of Mourvedre and Grenache pretty and juicy but a little simple. I gave it a "2".

We finished day two with our normal round-table discussion about what we wanted to try in the next day's blending of Panoplie and Esprit and came to the conclusion that given the overall strength of the vintage we should start the blending trials with three test blends, each one leaning a little heavier into one of the big three of Mourvedre, Grenache, and Syrah, and see where that took us. In terms of quantity, the improved yields meant that we felt confident we could bump our Esprit production to around 3500 cases and our Cotes production to around 1500 (an increase of 500 and 300 cases, respectively) while still leaving ourselves room to make some outstanding varietal bottlings. Which ones, and how much, would be determined by the makeup of the blends we chose. 

Wednesday morning was Cesar's last day with us, as he had committed to hosting a dinner that evening in Long Beach and would be returning to France from there, although we got to keep Valentin and Christian for the rest of the week. So we decided to try to come up with some direction for both Panoplie and Esprit while Cesar was here, and then figure we could work out the details later. As always, we tasted our options blind, not knowing what was in each glass.

Panoplie is always overwhelmingly Mourvedre (typically around 60%) and we try to cap the Syrah percentage at no more than about 25%, because Syrah's dominance often threatens to overwhelm the Mourvedre character of the wine. That said, the trial Panoplie with the most Syrah (26%, along with 58% Mourvedre and 16% Grenache) got about 60% of the first-place votes in round one, with the blend that maxed out Mourvedre (66%) and reduced both Grenache (19%) and Syrah (15%) got the other 40% of the first choices. No one preferred the blend with the most Grenache (31%, along with 58% Mourvedre and 11% Syrah). After some discussion, we decided to try a blend which split the difference between the two favorites and ended up with something that everyone loved. Final blend: 61% Mourvedre, 23% Syrah, and 16% Grenache. 

Panoplie decided, we moved on to the Esprit. With the relatively scarce vintage for Mourvedre, we didn't have the option of truly leaning hard (like 50%) into our lead grape. So we tried Mourvedre ranges from 33% to 37%, Syrah ranges from 22% to 31%, and Grenache ranges from 26% to 33%. Somewhat to our surprise, the blend with the most Syrah was again our favorite, with a nice balance of brightness and lushness and youthfully powerful tannins. Unlike the Panoplie, we couldn't think of an obvious way to tweak it to make it better, so we decided we'd table that and come back later to decide which trace varieties we wanted to use. 

After one last lunch together, Cesar headed south and we turned our attention to our remaining wine club blends, starting with En Gobelet. With the easing of the drought and the new production off of Jewel Ridge and other new head-trained blocks, we have more options for this wine than ever before, even after using some of our favorite head-trained lots in Esprit and Panoplie. For the third wine in a row, we chose the blend with the least Grenache (49%) and most Syrah (14%) to go along with 31% Mourvedre and 3% each of Tannat and Counoise. That's still a lot of Grenache, and we felt that the relatively higher percentages of Syrah and Mourvedre gave the pretty sugarplum fruit more density and seriousness. 

For Le Complice, which celebrates the kinship we feel Terret Noir shows with whole cluster Syrah, we dismissed the blend with the most Grenache (41%) and least Syrah (51%) as pretty and luscious but not structured or wild enough, and split between the power of a blend with 65% Syrah, 29% Grenache, and 6% Terret and the herby vibrancy of a blend with 58% Syrah, 29% Grenache, and 13% Terret Noir. As with the Panoplie, splitting the difference made a wine that everyone was happy with: 62% Syrah, 28% Grenache, and 10% Terret. Note that we made less of this (just 360 cases, vs. 750 cases in most recent years) so we can increase the flexibility of what we send out to VINsider club members.

At this point, we'd made four blends and had the following quantities of wine left of our main grapes. Do you notice the outlier?

  • Mourvedre: 1230 gallons
  • Grenache: 9173 gallons
  • Syrah: 2555 gallons
  • Counoise: 2199 gallons

Given those quantities, Friday was going to be a deep dive into Grenache, and it was something of a relief when we convened to taste the Cotes de Tablas first thing in the morning, we had universal consensus that our favorite wine was one that used the most Grenache: 66%, along with 18% Syrah, and 8% each Counoise and Mourvedre. Still, that left us with about 6800 gallons of the grape, enough for nearly 3,000 cases. I have been wanting us to make a more substantial amount of varietal Grenache, enough to release nationally, so I asked Chelsea to blend the best 4800 gallons into what would become a 2,000 case lot for us to taste. We did, and loved it. It was juicy and spicy, with pure cherry and plum fruit, good acids, and appealing sweet spice. It was so good, in fact, that I wondered aloud if adding another 1200 gallons (500 cases) was viable.

We decided that after lunch we would blind taste the 2,000-case varietal Grenache we'd tasted that morning against a potential 2,50o-case Grenache. I went into this expecting that I'd like the smaller lot (with, after all, higher-rated components) and was just hoping that the two blends would be close enough in quality that we'd all be content. Instead, it seemed like the extra lots that we added, which tended to be higher in acid and less ripe, brought out a lovely saline minerality and expressiveness while giving the fruit more focus and taming the little bit of alcoholic heat that we'd been perceiving on the nose. Done, and done. There really is nothing like tasting blind to tell you what the right solution is. 

That left about 1100 gallons of the Grenache that the cellar was calling "the rest". I figured we should taste it so that we'd know, if we were looking to sell it to another winery, what it was like. That happens from time to time. So we did. And while it didn't have the power (or the color) of the 2,500-case varietal Grenache we had just blended, it was pretty, spicy, with a little crushed stone minerality on the nose. The palate showed lovely strawberry fruit and bright acids. We were all admiring it when Chelsea spoke up: "You know, I would love to have a box of this in my fridge this summer." And the last piece fell into place. It turned out that the lots we'd marked down for not being dark or structured enough made the perfect chillable red. We'll have enough to make something like 900 3L boxes to sell here and 65 kegs to sell to restaurants and wine bars around the country to pour on tap. Look for that release (which we're tentatively planning to call Alouette1) in August.

At that point, Christian and Valentin had to return to France, and I had to hit the road for a week of work in Washington DC. When I got back we had a pre-scheduled bottling run, and then a few people had other commitments that kept us from all getting together. So it wasn't until week-before-last that we sat down to put the finishing touches on the Esprit and then taste the full lineup. We'd blocked out, we felt, the right proportions of Mourvedre, Grenache, and Syrah for Esprit, but hadn't been able to dive into the trace varieties to our satisfaction. So back to the blending table we went, and tried three different approaches to fill the 10% of the blend that we'd left for Vaccarese, Cinsaut, and Counoise. And we were grateful that we did. The "baseline" proportion that we'd used in the first round (6% Counoise, 3% Vaccarese, and 1% Cinsaut) turned out to be our least favorite, and the one we liked most maxed out our Cinsaut at 6%, with Vaccarese and Counoise dropping to 2% each. That meant we wouldn't have a varietal Cinsaut, but would have a little more varietal Counoise and Vaccarese. And that's fine. You have to know what your priorities are when you go into blending, and for us, what the Esprit wants, it gets. In this case, what the Esprit got from the additional Cinsaut was more plushness and length, and a touch of licorice-like sweet spice. It felt somehow appropriate that finishing touch on our most important wine came from the first grape that we tasted on the first day of the component trials.

Those decisions made, all that was left was to taste the full lineup of blends and varietal wines, and to add in the non-estate wines like Patelin de Tablas and Lignée de Tablas. It's important for us to make sure everything is properly differentiated. We don't want, for example, a Grenache-dominated wine like Cotes de Tablas to taste too much like our varietal Grenache, or the Esprit and Panoplie, both of which are based on Mourvedre, to feel too close to each other or our varietal Mourvedre. We also were looking forward to tasting our Syrah against the Lignée de Tablas Shake Ridge Syrah. The wines:

2023 blended reds

My quick notes on each of the eighteen wines we made, and their rough quantities: 

  • Counoise (1015 cases): A juicy brambly nose with notes of wild strawberry, rhubarb, and rose petals. Clean, pure, and bright on the palate with flavors of ripe red raspberry, cranberry and pomegranate, bright acids, and a spicy chaparral note on the finish. Like springtime in the woods.
  • Terret Noir (90 cases): A peppery nose of blood orange, pink peppercorn, and sweetgrass. The palate is tannic and pithy with a bay-like herbiness, black raspberry fruit, and a finish of watermelon rind and sagebrush. Fascinating and fun.
  • Muscardin (25 cases): A nose of aromatic bitters and Aperol, spice cabinet and potpourri. On the palate, like cherry Jolly Rancher, but fully dry with fresh green herbs and a nice saltiness on the finish. I have to believe that this will be most people's first exposure to Muscardin, and it should be memorable and fun.
  • Full Circle (260 cases): A distinctively Pinot nose of cherry cola, milk chocolate, leather, and a little sweet oak. The mouth shows cherry skin, sweet earth, and a little oregano-like herbiness from some well-integrated stems. There's a kiss of oak on the finish.  
  • Vaccarese (250 cases): A nose of dark chocolate, black pepper, mint, and black raspberry. On the palate, black cherry, graphite, and cocoa powder, good acids, and then a finish with black tea and black licorice notes over healthy tannins.
  • Grenache Alouette (1080 gallons): A high-toned nose of peppermint stick, cranberry, and grenadine. On the palate, juicy and appealing with flavors of watermelon, red cherry, and candied orange. Medium-bodied, with gentle tannins and refreshing acidity. Should be delicious lightly chilled.
  • Grenache (2500 cases): A nose of boysenberry, red licorice, and potpourri. The palate is full-bodied with flavors of fresh fig, grape jelly, pipe tobacco, and sweet spice. Good structure, with chalky tannins coming out on the finish. I'm so excited to have so much of this.
  • Cotes de Tablas (1500 cases): An umami-rich nose, especially compared to the Grenaches that preceded it, of grilled portabella, black raspberry, cinnamon bread, and dry autumn leaves. On the palate, like all the parts of a plum, from the sweet juice to the bite of the skin, with additional flavors of luxardo cherry, clove, and cocoa powder. The finish brings out a nice bite of tannin and more sweet, earthy spice.
  • Mourvedre (330 cases): A lovely focused nose of red currant, sugarplum, new leather, and an enticing meaty, herby complexity like a leg of lamb that has been rubbed with bay and thyme. On the palate, currant and milk chocolate, red apple skin, and loamy earth. Pure and lovely.
  • Lignée de Tablas Fenaughty Vineyard (560 cases): This blend of 67% Grenache and 33% Mourvedre is one of two new entries into our Lignée de Tablas program. A savory, classically Sierra Foothills nose of dusty blackberry, juniper, and caramel. On the palate, flavors of sweet cream butter, elderberry, and a licorice note that dances between red and black. The finish becomes more savory again, with notes of flint, iron, and black raspberry. More on this wine soon. 
  • Patelin de Tablas (7000 cases): A pretty, savory nose of black pepper and teriyaki marinade. Lovely on the palate with black fruit and black licorice in front leavened by plum skin acids and a finish with sweet sarsaparilla and smoky oolong tea notes. Somehow both serious and playful, and should be a great introduction for people into the category of California Rhone-style blends. The blend ended up 45% Syrah, 30% Grenache, 23% Mourvedre, and 2% Counoise.
  • Syrah (800 cases): A nose of warm dark leather, baker's chocolate, and dark roast coffee. The mouth is plush with flavors of dark chocolate, blackberry, prosciutto, and black licorice, with rich, powerful tannins, minty spice, and an iron-like mineral note coming out on the finish.
  • Lignee de Tablas Shake Ridge Syrah (350 cases): The second new entry into our Lignée de Tablas program. A higher-toned nose than our Syrah, reflective of the high elevation of the Shake Ridge site, of blackberry preserves, brown sugar, bramble, and pencil shavings. The mouth is lively and herby with black raspberry and toasted walnut flavors, and the finish shows more dark fruit and graphite. More on this wine soon too. 
  • Tannat (980 cases): A generously juicy, minty nose of black cherry, graham cracker, and cocoa powder. The mouth is vibrant too, with a lovely chocolate-covered cherry note, salted butter, and boysenberry pie flavors . The finish shows Tannat's characteristic good acids, grippy tannins, and a lingering floral note like violets.
  • En Gobelet (760 cases): A pretty, refined nose of cinnamon toast and strawberry preserves. On the palate, flavors of strawberry-rhubarb pie, baking spices, sweet earth,  and candied orange. Nice lift on the long, gentle finish. Elegant and expressive.
  • Le Complice (360 cases): A lovely umami nose of soy, crushed rock, mint, sweet tobacco, and melted licorice. On the palate, more translucency than the nose suggested, with flavors of tangy black raspberry and plum skin and a clean mineral note reminiscent of wet stone. The long finish shows both sweet and savory herbs, and tannic grip cloaked in black fruit with a graphite-like mineral impression at the end. Memorable and impressive.
  • Esprit de Tablas (3500 cases): A serious nose of pipe tobacco, both red and black currant, licorice, and a little minty lift. The mouth is on point with flavors of black raspberry, mint chocolate, meat drippings, and loamy earth. Deep and full but structured as well, with fine-grained tannins and a finish of sweet spice and dark red fruit. 
  • Panoplie (800 cases): A deep, pure nose of plum pudding, chocolate mousse, meat drippings, hoisin, and leather. On the palate, the purity of the Mourvedre fruit shines: currant and black plum, sweet earth and duck fat. The finish has chewy tannins and a lovely saline persistence with notes of spun sugar and mocha. This should be a great Panoplie to lay down, though it may be so appealing young that a lot of it won't get that far.   

A few concluding thoughts. 

  • What a treat to have both Christian and Valentin around the blending table, and to see their excitement with what we were tasting. Christian, who worked for a long stretch at Domaine Tempier in Bandol and has for the last several years overseen the Famille Perrin operations in Gigondas and Vinsobres, is a somewhat intimidating addition to a blending session that's going to dive deep into Mourvedre. But seeing their enthusiasm for the freshness and lift of the wines they had in front of them, and living vicariously through their first visit to this special place we get to grow grapes and make wine, felt like serious validation of our work. During one of the final lunches, Christian stood up to give a toast, in which he roughly said (I'm translating here) "we are excited to learn that there is in fact paradise on Earth, and it's here in Paso Robles."
  • One of my favorites of Neil's sayings is "hang time is great... until it isn't". The 2023 vintage gave us incredibly long hang time, with harvest not starting until mid-September and not finishing until mid-November. That we got that long, slow ripening essentially without a single heat spike is a rare luxury. The consistent depth and intensity of the lots that we tasted was noteworthy. We know that this vintage is likely an climatic outlier, but that doesn't mean we aren't going to glory in what it gave us. I'm not sure I can remember another vintage with such a well-defined character, which is going to make future retrospective tastings a lot of fun.
  • One very interesting facet of this blending was that we've started to get more significant production off of some of our newly replanted (and mostly head-trained, dry-farmed) blocks. Those young vines, which are healthy and as yet unaffected by the virus we know we have in the vineyard, were consistently among our favorite lots. It will be interesting, as we move forward, integrating those juicier, more powerful lots into the more elegant, mineral-driven lots from the older vines. We want to make sure that we maintain the elegance and freshness that we've come to love (and our fans have come to expect) while also incorporating the more robust, juicy lots that we'll get from the young vines.
  • In terms of vintage comps, I'm not sure we have a great one for 2023. (For some examples, look at last year's blog post diving into vintage character.) It seems like 2011, with its dark fruit profile and lovely acids, is likely the closest to what we saw in 2023, but that was a frost year in addition to a cool year, and there's a generosity of fruit in 2023 that I don't find in 2011. There's something of the weightless elegance of 2015 in 2023, but the wines are more structured and Grenache, in particular, is stronger. It will be a pleasure to get to know these wines as they rest in barrel and eventually (or in the case of the Alouette Grenache, pretty soon) make their way to you.
  • Speaking of the Alouette, this blending session really drove home the value of the collaborative approach we use. It's not up to any one person to come up with a solution to the year's challenges. Ideas can come from anyone around that table, and if the blind tastings we do support them, we'll do it. If you'd told me, three years ago, that we'd conclude a blending session with three Famille Perrin members by deciding to add a chillable red -- and one that we'd market solely in box and keg -- to our lineup I'd likely have looked at you like you'd sprouted a second head. But I think it's going to be a gorgeous wine and a lovely addition to our portfolio. I can't wait to share it with you. 

I'll let Neil have the last word: "I thought the wines across the board were really strong, with good depth and good structure. It's super exciting to see the new blocks coming on; they're going to be a game changer for us. And, of course, how exciting to have our first-ever Muscardin!"

From all of us, cheers.

Lunch table during 2023 red blending

Footnote:

  1. Alouette, if your curious, means “lark” in French, with both of its meanings: the songbird but also something done on a whim, or for fun. For us to make a wine we're really excited about, in a category we've never explored, feels like a lark indeed!

To Infinity (Bottling) and Beyond -- a New Era for Tablas Creek Wine Boxes

By Chelsea Franchi

Tablas Creek is well-versed in the meaning of partnership.  After all, in business and practice, we are a partnership ourselves.  This winery was built upon the personal and professional relationship of two esteemed families: the Perrin Family of Chateau de Beaucastel and the Haas Family of Vineyard Brands.  This initial partnership not only shaped our present approach to business but also serves as a guiding principle in nurturing future collaborations.  We take great pride in the work we put forth in the vineyard, the cellar, and the business, so any ancillary associations we forge have some high standards to live up to.

In addition to taking pride in how we conduct ourselves with others, we prioritize sustainability and recognize the profound impact our actions have on the planet.  In 2022, we released our first wine packaged in the bag-in-box format.  This radical decision was driven by several factors, many of which Jason has outlined in previous blog posts (also here, here and here) but at its core was reducing our carbon footprint.  Bag-in-box packaging offers an impressive 84% reduction in carbon emissions compared to traditional glass bottles.  However, venturing into the realm of boxed wine presented challenges due to our smaller production scale.  Dry goods (the bags and boxes) are difficult to source at a reasonable minimum order quantity and companies that have traditionally filled bags for boxed wine are built to run tens of thousands of bags in a day.  We were able to source packaging supplies from a company that works with our scale and we purchased a small semi-automatic filling machine, enabling us to launch our boxed wine program.

After six successful runs during 2022 and 2023 of the three colors of Patelin de Tablas, we decided it was time to increase production so we could send a small number of boxes out into the market (so you may now see them on the shelf of your favorite wine shop!)  This expanded production meant we needed to find a packaging partner with expertise in bottling; as much as we'd like to keep everything in-house, we simply don't have the time to do it all ourselves.

We'd been in close contact with the team at Really Good Boxed Wine - a high-end boxed wine project started in 2021 - and their guidance was an invaluable resource as we navigated our way through this new-to-us world of boxed wine.  Jake, the founder of RGBW, connected us with Infinity Bottling in Napa Valley, as they had recently invested in a bag-in-box filling machine that would be able to accommodate our production amounts.

Infinity ExteriorInfinity Bottling in American Canyon

A few months, some Zoom meetings, phone calls, and countless emails later, we loaded portable tanks of the 2023 Patelin de Tablas Blanc onto a temperature-controlled semi-truck bound for Infinity Bottling.  On the day of the boxing, I drove up to tour the facility, observe the boxing run, and meet the Infinity crew in person.  It was well worth the trip.  The facility is gleaming and maintained with obvious care, the team is small and tight with strong leadership at the helm, and the quality control is continuous, consistent, and robust.  The team's efficiency and expertise ensured a seamless boxing process, giving us peace of mind knowing our wine was in capable, caring hands.  Partnering with Infinity Bottling underscored our commitment to working with companies that share our values of excellence and integrity while simultaneously reflecting our dedication to delivering only the highest quality wines to our customers.

Here's a little of what the process looked like (compare, if you'd like, to what it looked like when we were doing it in-house):

Bags Being Filled at InfinityThe semi-automatic Torr filling machine manned by a bottling expert at Infinity

Close up of Case BoxTablas Creek 3L boxes getting sealed shut

Full Pallet at InfinityFinished 3L boxes are packaged in case boxes and palletized for shipping

This journey has led us to outstanding partners and immersed us in a community of like-minded individuals striving to redefine industry standards.  If you're curious about that community, check out the new Alternative Packaging Alliance, which we and six other brands formed earlier this year to help spread the word on this customer-friendly, low-carbon package.  Whether it's reducing the carbon footprint of packaging, elevating the quality of boxed wine, or maintaining impeccable standards in the packaging process, we're thrilled to be part of this exciting and transformative movement.  We've found some excellent partners, indeed.

2023 Patelin Blanc four bottles and one boxPatelin Blanc in a 3L box and its bottled equivalent


Why we're glad for the wet 2023-24 winter and glorying in the (so far) cool 2024 spring

This past weekend was Memorial Day, and we spent Saturday evening with friends on their patio. I wore jeans and a long-sleeve shirt and brought a quilted Tablas Creek pullover for after the sun went down. It turned out I needed it starting around 6pm, and the friends broke out their collection of blankets to keep us warm while we hung out and chatted as the light faded and the stars came out. It was lovely. But it was also weird. This is late May! Where was the heat?

We usually assume that Paso Robles Wine Festival, always the third weekend in May, is going to provide the first summer weather of the year. Our goal was always to get a prime table under a big spreading oak tree so we had shelter from the 90° heat. Not this year. The day was sunny but breezy and cool, and as the afternoon drew to a close and the wind started whipping, we were looking for patches of sun to warm our backs. I'm not complaining; I would always prefer conditions like this to it being sweltering for a wine festival. But take a close look at the fleece and denim among our pouring crew:

Team Tablas at 2024 Paso Robles Wine Festival

Those are just two anecdotal examples, but looking at the weather since the beginning of April bears out that it's been cooler than normal. The average high has been about 4°F cooler than normal, and the average nighttime low about 3°F cooler than normal. That may not seem like much. But six days haven't made it out of the 50s. Another 13 days haven't made it out of the 60s. And we have yet to hit 90°F even once. 

April and May 2024 Temperatures vs Average

Looking at it a different way, the first two months of the 2024 growing season have seen high temperatures been slightly cooler than the same stretch last year, which was by far our coolest year in more than a decade. The net result is that we're just starting flowering at a time of year when in a more typical year (like 2021) we'd have been at its peak.

This slow progression is consistent with the winter that we saw. Now that we're likely past any more rain, we can compare the winter of 2023-24 with normal. First, total rainfall compared to previous years, where you'll notice that it was above average at more than 29 inches, but nothing close to the crazy rainfall we got last winter:

Rainfall by year 1996-2024

Looking by month, you'll see that we got pretty close to our average rainfall most months, with the exception of a somewhat dry beginning to the winter (which we're thankful for given the lateness of the 2023 harvest) and a February that produced roughly double normal rainfall:

Rainfall by month winter 2023-24

The rain also came more gently than we often see in winters here, where most of the rain comes in a few big storms. We had 49 days with measurable rainfall, which means that we averaged only 0.59" of rain each rainy day. By contrast, in the winter of 2022-23, we had somewhat more rainy days (62) and those days averaged 0.8" of accumulation. They were also more concentrated in January and March, which were the months where we saw flooding.

While it's generally a solid rule that in California, there's no such thing as too much rain, we were just fine with this most recent winter. It takes about 15" of rain to saturate our calcareous soils and provide sufficient water for our dry-farmed vines to make it through the growing season. It takes another 10" of rain to refill our wells to capacity and start to refill the reservoirs. Anything beyond that flows off and becomes extra capacity. If the state is in a drought, extra water helps replenish critically low reservoir levels. But given that the ample rainfall last winter already did that, we didn't need another 40" year, and we were grateful not to have to deal with creeks jumping their banks or customers dealing with washouts or closures.

The moisture did help keep our soil temperatures low and delayed budbreak to a normal time. Since then, the cool weather has mostly meant that we're having to keep mowing since the grasses between the rows keep growing and with the new growth in the vines it's too late in the year for the sheep to help. That means we're living with a shaggier-than-normal vineyard profile:

Shaggy vineyard May 2024
In the mornings, we're seeing weather that wouldn't be surprising in a place like Santa Barbara or San Diego (where they have terms for this: "May grey" and "June gloom"). But in Paso Robles, what is normally a once- or twice-a-month phenomenon has been pretty regular. I took a few photos on my way into work last week in our Scruffy Hill block that will give you a sense. The atmosphere is lovely for photos, and it's relatively rare here:

Scruffy Hill on foggy morning
A close-up of one of the vines, with others marching away down the hill in the fog, is one of my favorite recent vineyard photos:

Scruffy Hill vine on foggy morning

Finally, in the afternoons we've been getting another pretty but usually rare phenomenon: a fog bank massing over the Santa Lucia Mountains to our west. That fog has burned off during the day, but you can see it looming there, ready to roll back in when the sun goes down:

Fog bank over Santa Lucia Mountains

We're not worried about any of this. The vineyard looks amazing and the lack of stress is a great thing for vine health. The wet winter and cool spring mean that you can reach into the soil anywhere and just an inch or two down you get to damp, dark earth. Plus, it always warms up in Paso Robles, and even in a cool year like 2023, we have a long enough growing season to get the grapes ripe. It looks like we might not have long to wait; the forecast for the next couple of weeks looks like we'll be getting into the 80s pretty regularly, with some low-90s possible Thursday and Friday. Meanwhile we'll enjoy the unusual scenery and glory in the lovely daytime weather. If you're visiting in the coming weeks, you're in for a treat.


"Seasons" by Taylor Collins: a song for Tablas Creek Vineyard

By Austin Collins

It is incredibly difficult to put into words what the subject of this blog means to me. The place I have called home for most of my life and my very best friend in one piece! My dear wife Taylor has written and recorded a song for Tablas Creek called "Seasons". Over the years since we moved here, she often spoke of the "living presence" this property evokes, a controlled chaos of natural farming bordered by the wilds of our oak woodlands. I am honored to present this project to you all, and I hope you listen to the song as you look at these photos that have become embedded in our minds of this beautiful place that we are lucky enough to call home.

Below, Taylor has provided a short account of the process of writing "Seasons":

Play Seasons by Taylor Collins

When I started writing the song, I had specific intentions for it. I wanted to convey the wild nature of the property and at the same time its feeling of comfort and home.

Finn garden

I tried a few things that made it feel too country and too constrained so I reworked it completely, but always had the lyrics about the cyclical pattern of the seasons and rejuvenation.

Finn hugel

I felt it was important to continue the theme of regeneration, beginnings and endings, the way those things tie into the feelings we develop for a place. A place can feel like a family member, or an old friend.

IMG_8158

Because of the way Tablas Creek is farmed and cared for, it retains its soul. It is not just a place of production and that has everything to do with how alive nature is here. I applied that cyclical theme to the chord structure as well and it both simplified the song and made it feel more free.

Finn run

I loved writing a song about this place because it means so much to live here, and to raise children here where my husband grew up and now works. It feels like a complete circle that continues to turn, just like the soil and the life that lives through it and on it here at Tablas Creek.

IMG_0158


What separates a great wine dinner from the many good ones?

I've hosted a lot of wine dinners the last few months. Restaurants, understaffed and overwhelmed in the aftermath of Covid, are starting to have the bandwidth to refocus on special events. Add to that the fact that after a few years where yields were low and demand was high, we finally have wine to sell, so I've been traveling more. And sprinkle on top some invitations that I thought were too cool to turn down, including the Paso Robles Asia tour and the Tasting Climate Change conference in Montreal. At each city I visit, I try to set up a dinner, because I think they are the best way to share the wines and story of Tablas Creek. 

All the dinners I've had the pleasure of hosting this year have been good. Most have been very good. But last week, I hosted a dinner with Chef Spike Gjerde at Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore that was one of the best I can ever remember, and it got me thinking about what it was that separated it from others. I think the event nailed all five of the elements of a great wine dinner:

  • Inspiration. A great menu requires creativity. After all, a great pairing is not as simple as making a dish have similar flavors to the wine it's supposed to pair with. There are times where what a dish (or wine) needs is contrast. And then there's the talent that the greatest chefs have to make dishes that pull subtle notes out of the wines they're paired with and make it somehow taste more like itself. In my experience, great pairings are created by chefs who sit down with a wine and build the dish around it. After all, the wine isn't something that can be changed. The food has to have the right flavors and the right volume to have presence while still allowing the wine to shine. That's not an easy balance to strike. And the wines themselves should be selected because the chef found them inspiring to pair with. It’s hard to make a truly great dinner with, for example, the four wines your distributor may happen to have in quantity.
  • Execution. It should go without saying that it takes more than a great menu to have a great meal. The food needs to be served promptly, and get to the diners hot. That's not easy when making the same dish for 20 or 40 or 70 people. That takes a chef with a good team and good organizational skills, and a front-of-house staff that can keep up.  
  • Atmosphere. That doesn't need to be luxurious. The Woodberry Kitchen dinner was served outside on their brick patio on a drizzly evening. But the chairs were comfortable. The lighting was great. And the three large communal tables meant that the conversation was lively and everyone engaged. Restaurants often try to keep their standard table seating for wine dinners, and place each group at its own table. But in my experience that's a mistake. Bringing people together into larger tables creates a special sort of energy. It also means that solo diners aren't left by themselves.
  • Pacing. A great wine dinner is like Goldilocks and the three bears: not too fast, not too slow. You need space for people to learn about the wines and hear from the winemaker. It's frustrating when people are poured a new wine, you start to talk about it, and then the food is served right away. You're left to talk over the hubbub of service while everyone’s food gets cold. Not ideal. But these multi-course affairs (typically 4 or 5 five courses, and sometimes more) can also drag if the kitchen can't keep up or there's too much time between courses. I finished one dinner at 11pm recently. That dinner started with a reception at 6pm. That's a marathon, and can often result in people losing energy (or drinking too much) before the last few courses are served.  
  • Personality. Guests come to a wine dinner for more than a good meal. They come to learn about the winery, and about the restaurant. They want to hear the inspiration for the different courses, and come away with a new idea or two about food and wine pairing. That requires both a winery representative and a chef interested in sharing their stories and their inspiration and with the talent to keep an audience engaged and bring them along on a journey.

One complicating factor is that it's a surprising but true fact that most chefs aren't all that into wine. Some don't drink at all, or drink liquor or beer. Others like wine, but think of it as an accessory to their food rather than an equal partner. And these chefs can produce good, even very good wine dinners. After all, how wrong can you go with a delicious dish and a delicious wine? But the best wine dinners, in my experience, are designed and executed by chefs who love and are intrigued by wine's mysteries. And at last week's Woodberry Kitchen dinner, Chef Spike's love for the food he was cooking, the pairings he created, and the wines that were featured came through with clarity. 

These photos (thank you to Woodberry Kitchen for taking and sharing them) should give you a sense. The menu was remarkable, and included dishes like asparagus and crab en croute with caviar beurre blanc (left, paired with our Esprit de Tablas Blanc) and filet of beef en valise with smoked oysters and sauce treize cepages (right, paired with two older vintages of our Esprit de Tablas). And critically, all the courses got to the table in great time and at the right temperature.

Woodberry Dinner - Asparagus & crab en croute Woodberry Dinner - Beef with oyster course

The selection of wines included some unusual treats like 2012 and 2015 Esprit de Tablas, our 2022 Dianthus rosé, and the 2018 Vin de Paille Quintessence, which we shipped specially out from the winery.

Woodberry Dinner - Wines

The long, communal tables meant that the conversations were lively all night. Everyone had enough space without feeling isolated:

Woodberry Dinner - Tables

The pacing meant that I had a chance to tell the story of each wine. As if by magic, as soon as I was done speaking the next course appeared. Of course, that's not magic, that's planning and a great team:

Woodberry Dinner - Jason speaking

Finally, at the end, Spike came out to accept a well-deserved ovation and talk about the inspiration for the dinner. He talked about a few of the courses, but like any good storyteller focused on the personal side of things: his own formative years as a young chef where he was invited by my brother to participate in a food and wine showcase in the Caribbean, and ended up between Jean-Pierre Perrin and Jean-Louis Chave listening to them dissect a meal and the pairings that went with it. Some thirty years later, we all were the beneficiaries of the lessons he learned, then and later.

Woodberry Dinner - Jason Spike and Danny

 


You aren’t hearing as much about the Rocks District as you should be. You might be surprised why.

I’m not sure there’s any American Viticultural Area (AVA) as aptly named as the Rocks District of Milton-Freewater. Located in north-east Oregon just 15 minutes south of the city of Walla Walla, Washington, it’s the closest thing I’ve ever seen to the look of Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Vines grow in deep beds of basalt cobblestones, the product of ancient volcanic eruptions, rolled and smoothed as they were tumbled down from the nearby Blue Mountains by the Walla Walla River and then deposited on the valley floor in an alluvial fan. Adding to the region's allure, it sits at roughly the same latitude as the southern Rhone. A majority of the vines are Rhone-derived; more than 45% of the vineyard acres are planted to Syrah, with other Rhone grapes like Grenache, Picpoul, Bourboulenc, Clairette, Grenache Blanc, and Roussanne all represented too. In just a few short years, the Rocks District has built a reputation as a place to find some of the most interesting Rhone varieties in America.

Rocks District Vines - Closeup

Neil, Cesar Perrin, Nicolas Brunier and I had the pleasure of exploring this remarkable terroir with Delmas Wines’ Brooke Robertson while we were in town for the recent Hospice du Rhone celebration.

Jason  Neil  Cesar  and Nicolas with Brooke Robertson

If great wines are borne out of struggle, this region is destined for greatness. Not only do the vines have to navigate the rocks and the paltry twelve inches of rainfall, but they have to live through winter freezes so cold that most producers (including Delmas) now bury their vines every winter to provide insulation, and then unbury them in time to prune and start the growing season1. The 300 days of sun, the long summer days due to the northern latitude, summer daily high temperatures routinely in the 90s°F and not infrequently in the 100s°F, allow for enough ripening in the short season, which can end with a freeze any time after the calendar flips to October. And did I mention the rocks?

Rocks District Cobbles

At Hospice du Rhone, the wines from Rocks District fruit were among my highlights of the Grand Tasting, with as clear a signature as any AVA or appellation I can think of. The fact that it’s a small AVA (just 3,767 acres, or less than 1% of the acreage within the Paso Robles AVA) surely helps, along with its climatic uniformity, but I think that the rocks themselves play an important role. As in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, those rocks absorb and reflect the sun, warming the ripening clusters, producing rich, powerful wines with a distinctive umami flavor of baked loamy earth.

The AVA was created relatively recently, with work beginning in 2011 and formal recognition from the United States Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) in 2015. There are now, according to the AVA’s website, 52 vineyards encompassing 640 acres. More than 50 wineries source fruit from these vineyards, although there are only five production facilities within the AVA’s boundaries. Many more facilities are just a few minutes away, in Walla Walla, the center for wine production (and wine tourism) in the area, and the namesake of the larger AVA in which the Rocks District is nested. And that distance, minor though it seems, provides one of the region’s biggest challenges.

In the federal regulations that govern the American Viticultural Area (AVA) system2, there’s a clause that I’d never noticed before this visit. It says that a wine may be labeled with a viticultural area appellation if it satisfies a series of criteria, one of which is that “it has been fully finished within the State, or one of the States, within which the labeled viticultural area is located”. This clause means that all the wineries with production facilities in Walla Walla (in Washington State) can’t label their Rocks District vineyards with its AVA because that AVA lies entirely in the state of Oregon. Delmas is one of those wineries, so their labels just say Walla Walla.

Neil, Cesar, Nicolas and I were frankly flabbergasted by this restriction when we learned about it. After all, what does a state boundary (or for that matter, where a production facility is located) have to do with viticultural distinctiveness? It seemed to me that this goes against the stated purpose of an AVA, which as explained on the TTB’s website, is:

“An AVA is a delimited grape-growing region with specific geographic or climatic features that distinguish it from the surrounding regions and affect how grapes are grown. Using an AVA designation on a wine label allows vintners to describe more accurately the origin of their wines to consumers and helps consumers identify wines they may purchase.”

That I never knew about this clause in the AVA regulations stems from California’s central place in the firmament of American wine. We’ve never seriously thought about getting fruit from other states. We’re excited, with the launch of our Lignée de Tablas program, to explore other California AVAs, and that’s no problem. But the fact that we can get fruit from the Sierra Foothills (6 hours away from Paso Robles) and use their AVA but Delmas can’t get fruit from their own vineyard, 15 minutes away from the winemaking facility they share with dozens of other local wineries, feels unfair.

The TTB in fact foresaw the challenge that the creation of this new Oregon AVA so close to the region’s winemaking nexus in Washington state would pose for producers. In the 2014 notice of proposed rulemaking for the Rocks District AVA, they solicit feedback on the topic:

“TTB is interested in comments from persons who believe they may be negatively impacted by the inability to use ‘The Rocks District of Milton– Freewater’ as an appellation of origin on a wine label solely because they use facilities located in Washington.”

The TTB must have received enough feedback to convince them that there was support for modifying their rules, because the next year they proposed a rule change to address it:

“The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) is proposing to amend its regulations to permit the use of American viticultural area names as appellations of origin on labels for wines that would otherwise qualify for the use of the AVA name, except that the wines have been fully finished in a State adjacent to the State in which the viticultural area is located, rather than the State in which the labeled viticultural area is located. The proposal would provide greater flexibility in wine production and labeling while still ensuring that consumers are provided with adequate information as to the identity of the wines they purchase.”

I would have thought that the TTB’s proposed rule change would have been uncontroversial, but it ended up far from the case. Organizations that submitted letters in opposition included Napa Valley Vintners, Family Winemakers of California, the Washington State Wine Commission, and the California Wine Institute. Some included proposed changes that would satisfy their concerns, while others just requested that the proposed new rule be scrapped. Even the Oregon Winegrowers Alliance & Walla Walla Wine Alliance submitted a comment in opposition, although the change that they requested was minor. In every case, the stated reason for opposition was because the regional associations worried that state laws that modify the federal regulations overseeing wine production would be unenforceable in a neighboring state. A good example would be the Oregon requirement that to be varietally labeled, a wine must contain 90% of the listed grape, a more restrictive standard than the federal requirement that a varietal wine contain at least 75% of the named grape.

A few of the comments hinted at a second reason: that they were worried that if a cheaper nearby state could make wine from a prestigious appellation, there might be an exodus of jobs to that lower-cost (or less regulated) state, with economic damage to the established reason.

As typically happens when it receives conflicting feedback, the TTB backtracked and the proposed change was never made. This may have avoided the unintended consequences that the regional associations were worried about, but it leaves the producers in the Rocks District with the same challenge that the TTB identified back in 2014. Are they supposed to all build wineries in Oregon when they’re already established in Washington State? Or establish the reputation of their new AVA without the powerful tool of identifying the wines’ place of origin on their labels?

I don’t have a lot of sympathy for the economic argument (made mostly by commenters from the Napa Valley) given that California is already so large, and with such different costs of production, that any negative damage would likely have already happened. Does Napa Valley’s economy suffer when a Paso Robles winery buys grapes and puts out a Napa Valley AVA wine? I don’t see it.3 And even if you did see it, given the size of California, that ship has sailed. 

The other objection, that state wine laws that try to ensure a higher quality product would be unenforceable out-of-state, doesn’t seem to me like an unsolvable problem. In fact, the Wine Institute proposed an elegant solution in their comment objecting to the proposed rule (their addition emphasized):

“(iv) In the case of American wine, it has been fully finished (except for cellar treatment pursuant to §4.22(c), and blending which does not result in an alteration of class and type under §4.22(b)) within the State the viticultural area is located in or an adjacent state, or for, a viticultural area located in two or more States, within one of the States in which the viticultural area is located, and it conforms to the laws and regulations governing the composition, method of manufacture, and designation of wines in all of the States where the viticultural area is located.

It seems to me like this solution gives something to everyone. Appellations like the Rocks District get to build their reputation by appearing on wine labels. Winemakers get the flexibility to source grapes from diverse regions and tell consumers where they come from, without having to build new wineries across state lines. Grape growers are able to benefit from the reputation of the region they help establish. States retain the ability to enforce regulations designed to enhance quality or distinctiveness. And consumers get more clarity on where the wines they love come from. Let's hope that the TTB revisits this issue soon, with a more tailored approach.

Meanwhile, go out and do a little research on which Walla Walla AVA wines actually come from the Rocks District, and try to find a bottle or three. You won’t be disappointed.

Delmas Bottle

Footnotes:

  1. How cold? This January 13th, the low was -8°F and the high just 4°F.
  2. That would be the Federal Register Title 27 Chapter I Subchapter A Part 4 Subpart C § 4.25(e)(3)(iv) for anyone keeping score.
  3. I would also note that I think this argument raises commerce clause objections about a state using regulation to protect its businesses from competition from competing businesses in other states.

Celebrating 25 years of Dianthus… and the return of rosés with color

A couple of weeks ago, I got an email from two of my wine writing heroes, Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher, long time wine columnists for the Wall Street Journal, creators of “Open that Bottle Night” and authors of Love by the Glass1. They had brought a bottle of our Dianthus to New York’s Central Park to enjoy with the recent solar eclipse. They were sufficiently intrigued with the wine to reach out to learn its story. We talked for a half-hour, and our conversation became a really fun article on their site Grape Collective.

There’s a lot to talk about with regards to the Dianthus, not least because it is an anomalous rosé, at least according to current style. Much more popular and commonly seen are the rosés from or inspired by Provence, typically very pale copper-pink. These are rosés that are made essentially like white wines, where the character is determined by the flesh of the grapes with only minimal influence from the grape skins. Our Patelin de Tablas Rosé follows this model. But not the Dianthus.

Two 2023 Roses

Instead, the Dianthus looks to a different model, which also originated in the south of France. Just across the Rhone River, to the west of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, lies the rosé-only appellation of Tavel. Tavel’s wines, made from a list of grapes very similar to that of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, typically receive 24 hours or more on the skins and have a deeper pink color than anything you’d find in Provence. After all, the Tavel region is warmer than the more coastally-influenced Provence, and with that warmth comes weight and richness. To balance that richness, wineries traditionally leave the grapes on the skins for longer, to take advantage of the tannic bite present in skins but not the grape flesh. This skin contact produces a different suite of flavors, typically more red fruited and with richer texture than Provence-style dry rosés, which tend toward citrus fruit and lighter body. That textural complexity also lends itself to pairing with food2, while Provençal rosés tend to be enjoyed more solo. 

We began making the Dianthus 25 years ago, back in 1999, thanks to my mom. She decided that it was crazy that we were growing these grapes that made such lovely rosés in France and not at least making some to drink ourselves. This was before there was any significant market in the United States for dry rosé. The whole category had been so thoroughly kidnapped by white Zinfandel that the baseline assumption was that if a wine was pink, it was sweet. I remember pleading with guests who visited our tasting room in those early days to just try the rosé, that it wasn’t going to be sweet, and that it was included in the tasting. I usually had to tell the whole story about how we started making it (thanks, Mom) and how rosé was as important a part of the production of the wines of the Rhone region as whites or reds. Gradually, over the course of the 2000s, dry rosés from France started to make inroads into the American market, and by the early 2010s the Provençal model was dominant, in part because its exceptionally pale color signified to people that it was dry and not sweet. Darker pink rosés became rarer and rarer. We introduced our Patelin de Tablas Rosé in 2012, and within a few years its production had outstripped that of the Dianthus. But we kept making Dianthus, which I think more than a few people thought was crazy. Making one dry rosé in California was progressive enough. I’m not aware of any other California winery that has a decade of history making two.

I myself can go months without spending much time thinking about Dianthus. It gets a flurry of my attention around our spring VINsider Wine Club shipment, when we typically release it to members. We allocate a little for wholesale as well, but that quantity is so small (this year, it was just 112 cases) and it tends to sell out so fast that I don’t often overlap with its presence on my trips to work with distributors in our key markets. But it happened that I spent a lot of time with the 2023 Dianthus over the last week. I started the week with three days of market work in and around Seattle and finished it at Hospice du Rhone, which was held in Walla Walla this year. Our Washington State distributor chose to bring in a few of those 112 cases, so we were showing it alongside the 2023 Patelin de Tablas Rosé. At Hospice du Rhone, the Dianthus was one of the six wines Neil and I chose to pour:

Jason and Neil at Hospice du Rhone 2024

The reactions that the Dianthus received were fascinating. During my three Seattle days, it generated more questions than any other wine in the lineup we were showing, and we had to pull it out of what we were presenting on Thursday because we’d already taken enough pre-orders on Tuesday and Wednesday to exhaust what the distributor had ordered. The general consensus was that it would be a hand-sell to customers, but the restaurants and wine shops were so intrigued by the wine’s food-pairing possibilities that it was a wine that they wanted to make the effort to get into people’s hands (and mouths). At Hospice du Rhone, which included a master class and rosé lunch featuring the wines of Tavel, the color and style of the Dianthus didn’t even raise much commentary. For that audience – always a bellwether for where the most committed Rhone lovers are going – the deeper color and richer flavors were taken in stride. If someone did ask about it, a quick reference to Tavel and a reminder that Tavel is a lot closer to Chateauneuf-du-Pape than Provence is usually helped the taster wrap their head around what we were going for. And I think that the Dianthus got the most re-tastes of anything on the table except the 2005 Esprit de Beaucastel.

What does this all mean? I think it’s both a great piece of evidence in the cyclical nature of the wine market and a sign that the American rosé market may be getting to be mature enough to accept some stylistic variation. I’ve been preaching to the restaurants that I visit this spring that there is enough sophistication among rosé-lovers that they should offer multiple rosés by-the-glass. Sure, have your Provence standby. But also offer something that is a contrast, either because of its region or its style. After all, a wine-focused restaurant would never have just one white wine by the glass, or just one red. At our tasting room, we’ve been pouring our own two rosés in our Spring Tasting Flight for the last several weeks, and it’s fascinating seeing how different people gravitate toward one wine or the other.

I love both. But it’s been a while since I spent this much time thinking about them both. Cheers to 25 years of Dianthus, and an American wine market that continues to grow in sophistication. We’re finally back to a place that a rosé wine can be… pink.

Chelsea and two roses

Footnotes:

  1. I had one of my favorite Instagram Live conversations with Dorothy and John last May. If you missed it, it's in our archive, no Instagram account necessary.
  2. The Dianthus has provided some memorable pairings when I've hosted wine dinners. A particularly mind-blowing match was when, roughly a decade ago, Chef Julie Simon at Thomas Hill Organics paired it with a Moroccan spice-rubbed quail served alongside a salted watermelon and feta salad. 

Other Wines We've Loved: 2007 Beaucastel

Last night, with my sister Janet in town, we decided to grill. I got a lovely two-inch-thick, two-pound boneless ribeye from our local butcher J&R Meats. I don't normally cook such thick steaks, but think I'm going to in the future. I seasoned it with salt and pepper and set it over a grill in a technique I've been using more and more, where I heat the briquettes and then pile them on the sides of the grill, leaving an area in the middle that's heated from two sides but doesn't have any briquettes there to flare up should fat drip onto them. I grilled the steak for about eight minutes on each side, over a hot but not scorching fire, and then pulled it off the coals to rest for five minutes when the internal temperature hit 135°F. 

To accompany the steaks, I sautéed up some mushrooms we'd gotten from our farm share with white wine, parsley, and garlic (working off an old Mark Bittman recipe), baked some potatoes, and made a salad. It was a meal that showed why the classics are the classics. The steak came out a perfect medium-rare, juicy and with excellent steaky flavor. The tanginess and umami of the mushrooms were a great foil for (or accompaniment to) each bite of steak. The potatoes were fluffy and soaked up the juices. And the salad, which we ate at the end in the French style, was refreshing and tasty. 

To accompany the meal, I wanted a wine with enough fruit and tannin to stand up to the robust flavors on the plate and enough complexity to add to the night's experience. I chose a 2007 Beaucastel, which I remember thinking was one of the greatest young wines I'd ever had when I tried it at a dinner in 2010. Our Controller Denise Chouinard remembered my talking about the wine when I came back to the winery, and got me a case of it later that year. Those bottles have been sitting in my cellar ever since. I decanted the wine to give it a bit of air:

2007 Beaucastel Bottle
 The wine was every bit as good as I'd remembered. I jotted down some notes as we were finishing the bottle:

Still a lovely dense purple-red. Nose of licorice and smoky chaparral and minty currant and black cherry. Flavors of bakers chocolate and black plum, graphite and baking spices. Still youthful and powerful at age 16, with plenty of tannins to go another two decades. 

The five of us finished every drop of wine, and every bite of food, and sat around the table talking for another hour. It was a great reminder of the magic of a great bottle of wine: that it brings people together, evokes past gatherings, reminds you of the traditions you're a part of even as you create new ones. I'm grateful I have several more bottles of this, and can't wait to be reminded of this meal the next time I open one.