Paso Robles is Insanely Beautiful Right Now

I took a walk yesterday across Las Tablas Creek and up the section of our property that we're calling Jewel Ridge, named after a great old vineyard dog who we buried there. This is the parcel that we bought a decade ago, knowing that we wouldn't need it for five years at least, because land this good, contiguous with our property, doesn't come on the market according to your schedule. So, we bought it, and have spent the last decade building up the soils, using it as a convenient staging zone for our flock when they can't be in the vineyard, and slowly mapping out the new blocks. A quick panoramic from the top, looking west, will give you an overview:

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You can see how green things are getting after the foot of rain we received in late January. This view, looking under one of the walnut trees that we kept (the whole property was a dry-farmed walnut orchard when we bought it) shows it even more clearly. The stakes you see are for us to plant later this winter.

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The ridgetop has spectacular views on three sides, and also looks to us like some of the best vineyard land in the area. We've already planted some Mourvedre and Grenache. The whole property will be head-trained and dry-farmed, following the model that we've loved so much on our Scruffy Hill parcel.

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Almost the entire property is steep, with slopes as much as 30%. That's a bit of a challenge for farming, but nothing we haven't figured out already. This view of the east-facing slope of Jewel Ridge is representative. 

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The highlight of the property is a west-facing natural amphitheater. I took the panoramic photo I shared first looking straight west over that bowl, but because of the panoramic distortion it's hard to see the land's curves. This shot of Sadie halfway down the slope maybe shows it more clearly:

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Another perspective, looking south across the top of the bowl, gives you a different slice. You can see some of the vines we planted last year, tied to the stakes in the middle ground. We hope to get our first small crop off this parcel in 2023.

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As I was walking back, I caught this photo of the moon rising over the west slope of Jewel Ridge. The colors at this time of year (deep blue sky, occasional puffy white clouds, cream-colored rocks, dark brown vines, and bright yellow-green cover crop) is my favorite. 

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One of the appeals of the property to us was the lake that the previous owner's father created in the 1950s by damming up Las Tablas Creek. In the long term, we're exploring how we might use this water to frost protect more of the property. In the short term, it's a lovely spot, with ducks swimming on the surface: 

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Finally, maybe my favorite shot of the day, looking up from the creekbed toward our established vineyard, Sadie posing pastorally:

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We're excited that we've been able to start welcoming guests back to our tasting patio in the last month. If you're planning a trip to Paso Robles in the coming weeks, you're in for a treat.


Tasting the Wines in the Spring 2021 VINsider Wine Club shipments

Each spring and fall, we send out a selection of six wines to the members of our VINsider Wine Club.  In many cases, these are wines that only go out to our club. In others, the club gets a first look at a wine that may see a later national release.  About six weeks before the club shipments will be sent out, we open them all to write the tasting and production notes that will be included in the club shipments. In many cases, this tasting is our first post-bottling reintroduction to wines that we'll come to know intimately in coming months and years. I always think it's fun to give followers of the blog a first look at these notes.

The shipments that will be going out in March include wines from the 2018, 2019, and 2020 vintages. Tasting three vintages together is a great way to get a handle on their relative personalities, and typically my first chance to do a personality assessment on the newest vintage, which we haven't even started blending trials on yet. My quick thoughts, after the tasting, are these:

  • 2018 is noteworthy for its vibrancy. It's a vintage where we knew the whites would be great, with lovely freshness and minerality. We're coming to realize that this profile is just as valuable for the reds, emphasizing the purity of the fruit and producing elegant, balanced wines with beautiful varietal expressiveness.
  • The 2019s show a lovely combination of density and balance, with concentration reminiscent of a year like 2014 or 2017, but slightly higher acids and more overt minerality than either. It's a vintage that offers something for everyone, and seems likely to go down as one of our best-ever years.
  • Finally, 2020, as much as one can tell from tasting two wines, seems to turn up the textural volume even a little on 2019, but without sacrificing either freshness or varietal purity.

I'll start with the classic mixed shipment, and then move on to the additional wines available in the red wine selection and white wine selection shipments. I was joined for the tasting by most of our cellar team: Senior Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi, Assistant Winemaker Craig Hamm, and Cellar Assistants Austin Collins and Amanda Weaver.

Spring 2021 Shipment Tasting Group

The classic shipment includes six different wines:

2020 VERMENTINO

  • Production Notes: Our nineteenth bottling of this traditional Mediterranean varietal, known principally in Sardinia, Corsica, and Northern Italy. It is also grown in the Mediterranean parts of France (particularly Côtes de Provence) where it is known as Rolle. The Vermentino grape produces wines that are bright, clean, and crisp, with distinctive citrus character and refreshing acidity. To emphasize this freshness, we ferment and age Vermentino in stainless steel, and bottled in January, under screwcap.
  • Tasting Notes: An absolutely classic Vermentino nose of lime zest and the ocean, with sweeter notes of honeydew and white flowers underneath. The palate shows a somewhat richer texture than normal at this very young stage, with flavors of lemon drop and key lime pie, and briny sea spray minerality. A sweet, tangy lemongrass note lingers on the long, textured finish. Drink now and over the next few years.
  • Production: 1350 cases.

2019 ROUSSANNE

  • Production Notes: Roussanne yields recovered from the exceptionally low levels we saw in 2018, and the 1300 cases we made as a varietal wine was double what we were able to make the year before. But the larger quantity didn't mean that the Roussanne was any less intense; to the contrary, it's some of the best, most classic Roussanne we've seen. We chose lots for our varietal bottling that came roughly 55% from foudre, 35% from neutral oak puncheons, and 10% in small new barriques. The selected lots were blended in April 2020 then aged in foudre through the subsequent harvest before bottling this past December.
  • Tasting Notes: A powerful nose of lacquered wood, new honey, brioche, and pear skin, instantly recognizable as Roussanne. The palate is broad and textured, with flavors of honeycomb and vanilla custard, pineapple core and a slight tropicality like a salted mango. A little sweet oak comes out on the long finish, with a mandarin pith note keeping the classic flavors of honey and pear fresh. The wine has only been in bottle for a few months, but it's already drinking well. Drink in the next 3 or 4 years for a more luscious, fruit-driven experience, or hold it for 8-15 years for a flavor profile of caramel, wet rocks, and hazelnut.
  • Production: 1300 cases

2020 DIANTHUS

  • Production Notes: For our Dianthus rosé, whose name was chosen for a family of plants with deep-pink flowers, we aim for a style between that of Tavel (deeper pink, based on Grenache) and Bandol (less skin contact, based on Mourvedre). This year's blend is 48% Mourvèdre, 37% Grenache and 15% Counoise, bled off or pressed off after 24-36 hours on the skins. Because of the relatively early finish to the 2020 harvest, we were able to get the wine fermented (all in stainless steel) and ready for bottling in late January. This is a deeply colored, flavorful rosé, ideal with complex, powerful foods.
  • Tasting Notes: A lovely orange-pink color. The nose shows powerful wild strawberry, mint, and pink peppercorn aromas. The palate shows lush texture, tangy yellow plum, and a powerful rose petal florality characteristic of Mourvedre rosés. It's luscious but also vibrant, with a hint of plum skin tannin keeping control over a finish with intense flavors of yellow raspberries, sweet herbs, and rose hips. A rosé to convert people who think that pink wines can't be serious.  Drink before the end of 2022.
  • Production: 1270 cases

2018 TANNAT

  • Production Notes: Our seventeenth bottling of this traditional varietal from South-West France, known principally in the Pyrenees foothills appellation of Madiran, but originally native to the Basque region. Tannat typically has intense fruit, spice, and tannins that produce wines capable of long aging. As we do many years, we blended in our small harvest of Cabernet Sauvignon, making the wine is 97% Tannat and 3% Cabernet. We aged it in one foudre and a mix of new and older smaller barrels for nearly 2 years before bottling it in April 2020, and then aged it another 10 months in bottle before release. 
  • Tasting Notes: On the nose, black cherry, wood smoke, Worcestershire sauce, sweet licorice and brambly spice. The mouth is dense and savory, with flavors of black licorice and eucalyptus, blackberry, black tea, and dark chocolate truffle. A lovely saline mineral note comes out on the finish with plum skin tannins and cedary spice. Relatively elegant and approachable for a Tannat at this stage. A wine to drink any time over the next two decades.
  • Production: 1280 cases

2018 LE COMPLICE

  • Production Notes: Just the third vintage of our newest red blend, which celebrates the kinship between Syrah (60%) and the wildly interesting grape Terret Noir (15%). Although Syrah is dark and Terret light, both share wild herby black spice, and Terret's high acids bolster Syrah's tendency toward stolidity. Le Complice means, roughly, "partner in crime". We added some Grenache (25%) for mid-palate fleshiness. The wine was blended in June of 2019, aged in foudre, bottled in April 2020, and has been aging in our cellars since.
  • Tasting Notes: A savory, herby dark nose of black pepper, pancetta, sweet tobacco, and sandalwood. On the palate, more vibrant than the nose suggests at this stage, with tangy black raspberry, smoky black tea, bitter chocolate, and a cranberry-like crunchiness that is refreshing and appealing. Good acids and youthful tannins suggest that the wine will drink well for two decades or more.
  • Production: 830 cases

2018 PANOPLIE

  • Production Notes: As always, Panoplie is selected from lots chosen in the cellar for their richness, concentration and balance, always giving pride of place to Mourvedre's lovely dark red fruit and distinctive combination of loam, earthiness, and meat. Each lot was fermented individually before being selected, blended and moved to foudre to age in July 2019. Although Mourvedre as always represents by far the largest percentage (64%) of Panoplie, in this relatively elegant, high-toned vintage, we preferred a relatively high percentage of Syrah (24%) for black fruit, density, and tannic richness and less Grenache (12%) for sweet spice and vibrancy. The wine was bottled in July 2020 and has been aging in our cellars since then.
  • Tasting Notes: A deep, lovely Beaucastel-like nose of dark red currant fruit, sweet Middle Eastern spices, pomegranate reduction, and a graphite-like minerality. The mouth is luscious but still vibrant, with flavors of dark cherry, blood orange, and chocolate cake with raspberry reduction. The wine has rich texture, with loamy earth, clove spice, and baker's chocolate. The finish lasted a full minute, reverberating between red and black licorice, with sweet spice lingering at the end. A delicious wine with a long life ahead; we predict two decades of life, easily.
  • Production: 850 cases

There are three additional wines (2019 Viognier, 2019 Marsanne, and the 2016 Esprit de Tablas Blanc) as well the 2020 Vermentino and two bottles of 2019 Roussanne in the white wine selection:

2019 MARSANNE

  • Production Notes: Marsanne is best known from the northern Rhone, particularly the famed appellation of Hermitage, where it produces wines of legendary elegance and ageworthiness. The 2019 vintage, for whatever reason, produced our most textured, Hermitage-like Marsanne ever, another indication that it was a tremendous vintage overall. We fermented it in the new 600-gallon foudres for a balance of richness and a little sweet oak, then chose the lots for our varietal bottling, returned it to large wood for a few more months, and bottled it in June 2020.
  • Tasting Notes: An intense Marsanne nose of Charentais melon,, sweet straw, lemongrass and citrus blossom. On the palate, sweet tropical fruit that reminded me of lychee and ripe kiwi. The finish showed white flowers and tropical honey, solid acidity, and lingering tropical fruit. I think this is the best Marsanne we've ever made, with the texture, fruit, and acidity all up a notch from what we normally see. It's so appealing now that I'm guessing a lot of it will get drunk young, but it should evolve in an interesting way for a decade at least.
  • Production: 340 cases

2019 VIOGNIER

  • Production Notes: Viognier, known more from the northern Rhone than the area around Chateauneuf du Pape, tends to thrive in cooler years. So, you might think that the intensity from the relatively warm 2019 vintage would have made Viognier unpleasantly heavy or floral. You would be wrong. Instead, the cool first half of the growing season appears to have emphasized its freshness, and with the grape's characteristic stone fruit and white flowers balanced by an unusual (for Viognier) citrus zest flavor and better-than-usual acids. As usual, we pressed our Viognier grapes whole cluster at harvest and fermented the juice in stainless steel, then selected lots for our varietal bottling in April 2020 and bottled in June 2020 in screwcap, to preserve its brightness.
  • Tasting Notes: On the nose, new honey, jasmine, and honeydew melon, held in check by tangier aromas of nectarine and citrus leaf. The mouth shows flavors of white peach and keffir lime, with a lively finish of coconut, chalky minerality, and a hint of citrus zest. Drink now and over the next five years.
  • Production: 480 cases

2016 ESPRIT DE TABLAS BLANC

  • Production Notes: We love Roussanne (and the Roussanne-based Esprit Blanc) with a few years in bottle to let the grape's classic honey flavors to deepen to show more crème brulée and nuttiness, and so stashed a few pallets of our 2016 Esprit Blanc on release for our White Wine Selection club members. The classic 2016 vintage was a tremendous one for Roussanne, and we ended our blending trials tied for the most Roussanne we'd ever used in the Esprit Blanc (75%, fermented and aged in a mix of small newer barrels and neutral foudres). 18% Grenache Blanc and 7% Picpoul Blanc provide citrusy acidity and saline freshness. We returned the blend to foudre after it was assembled in April 2017 and aged it through the subsequent harvest before bottling it in December 2017. It has been aging in bottle since then.
  • Tasting Notes: A classic Esprit Blanc nose of poached pear and honeysuckle, vanilla custard and chalky minerality. The flavors are starting to deepen to crème caramel, lemon meringue, baked apple, and just the first hint of hazelnut complexity. The wine's rich texture is kept in check with a hint of tannin likely from the Grenache Blanc, leaving a finish of honey, saline minerality, and sweet spice. Still young and powerful, but on its way to a future of nuttiness and minerality. Drink over the next few years, or cellar for a wonderful and different experience for up to two decades.
  • Production: 2070 cases

Two additional reds (the 2019 Counoise and 2019 Grenache) join the 2018 Panoplie, 2018 Le Complice, and two bottles of 2018 Tannat in the red wine selection:

2019 COUNOISE

  • Production Notes: Valued as a blending grape in France because of its spiciness, its fresh acidity, and its low alcohol, Counoise is rarely seen on its own. But we love being able to share one, and suggest you enjoy it much as you might a Cru Beaujolais: slightly chilled, with charcuterie or as an aperitif. We tend to ferment our Counoise lots in stainless steel to protect it from oxidation, and to age it in neutral oak to avoid weighing down its bright fruit flavors. The lots that we chose for our varietal Counoise were selected and blended in June 2020 and bottled in February 2021, under screwcap to preserve its freshness.   
  • Tasting Notes: Darker than many vintages of Counoise, the wine shows a nose of cranberry and clove-studded orange, spicy and lifted. The mouth is lively with flavors of raspberry and cherry, a sweet wintergreen note, and bright acids that smooth out into a spicy wild strawberry and red licorice finish. A pretty and intriguing wine that should be endlessly flexible with food. Enjoy it any time in the next six to eight years.
  • Production: 460 cases

2019 GRENACHE

  • Production Notes: Grenache yields were down sharply in 2019 as the grape suffered losses from shatter (incomplete fertilization) from cool, windy weather at flowering. But the Grenache that we received was lovely: intensely fruity but also more structured than it is in many vintages, with good acids and plenty of tannin. For our varietal bottling we as usual chose lots that emphasized Grenache's freshness and avoided riper lots that tend toward higher alcohols. The lots were blended in June 2020 and aged in neutral oak until its bottling in February 2021.
  • Tasting Notes: A wild, brambly nose showing raspberry liqueur, potpourri, and a sweet, exotic Chinese five spice note. The mouth shows cassis and fresh cherry, lively acids, and a finish of wild strawberries with notes of sweet red licorice, minty eucalyptus, and star anise. If you prefer your reds crunchy and vibrant, don't feel bad about opening it young. If you prefer to wait for more subtle flavors, drink any time in the next six-to-ten years.
  • Production: 455 cases

If you're a wine club member, you should make your plans to join us for our virtual pickup party. In these times of Covid, we aren't able to safely hold our normal shipment tasting at the winery, but Neil and I will lead people through a live tasting through the shipment the evening of Friday, April 16th. We'll have Chef Jeff Scott join us to share recipes. And we're even planning to offer packs of the six classic shipment wines rebottled into 187ml bottles so you can open the wines and taste along with us. We'll have details on our VINsider News & Updates page.

If you're not a wine club member, and you've read all this way, then why not join up, while there's still a chance to get this spring shipment? Details and how to join are at tablascreek.com/wine_club/vinsider_club

Spring 2021 Shipment Tasting Wines


Revisiting the 2001 Roussanne and the Beginning of the Tablas Creek Varietal Program

2001 Roussanne on Patio

The original model for Tablas Creek was that we were going to make one red wine and one white wine, with the thought that when the vineyard had matured, we might make a reserve-level white and red as well. We named our first wines Tablas Creek Blanc and Tablas Creek Rouge.

Within a few years, we'd come to the conclusion that this simple model was a mistake, for two reasons. First, it didn't give the market much help in figuring out what the wines were. Sure, the Rouge was red. And the Blanc was white. But other than providing elementary French lessons, that didn't help a consumer trying to figure out what was in those wines, or what they would taste like. In an era where blends from California didn't yet have a category on most shelves or wine lists, that was two strikes against us at the start. Second, and more importantly, having just one red and one white didn't give us any flexibility in putting the wines together. If using everything threw off the balance between the varietals, or a lot didn't have the character we wanted, our only option was to sell off those lots. That's a painful choice to make, and although we did it from time to time, usually the blends ended up containing something close to the full production of that color from that year.

Things started to change for us in 1999. We made the decision during the blending of that vintage to pull out a couple of Grenache lots that were juicy but also quite alcoholic and tannic from our main blend, blended them with a little Syrah and Mourvedre, and called the wine "Petite Cuvée". That allowed us to shift our main red blend to be heavier on Mourvedre and feature a richer, lusher profile. We called that "Reserve Cuvée".

The next year, we added a third blend from three remarkable barrels, called it Panoplie, and renamed the two blends we'd made the year before. Petite Cuvée became Cotes de Tablas, referencing the usually Grenache-based wines of Cotes du Rhone, while the Reserve Cuvée became Esprit de Beaucastel, connecting its Mourvedre-driven profile with that of Beaucastel and making our connection with our partners more explicit. And with the 2001 vintage, we applied that same model to the whites, making our first vintage of Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc. We were able to be selective with the Esprit tier, make better wines than before, and get recognition for that from press and collectors. We were able to sell the Cotes tier at a price that restaurants could pour by the glass, and get exposure to new customers. As I wrote last year in my reflections on our 30th anniversary, these changes were a big part of helping us get ourselves established in the marketplace. But as anyone who has counted the 25+ wines that we now make each year will realize, that's not the end of the story.

It turned out that each year there were some lots that were so evocative of an individual grape that it seemed a shame to blend that character away. The first time we acted on this nagging feeling was 2001, when my dad identified two Roussanne barrels while tasting through the cellar in advance of that year's blending. He made the executive decision that we should bottle them alone and we'd be able to figure out how to sell them. It was, after all, only 50 cases. And it turned out that with the opening of our tasting room in 2002, it was valuable having something that was not available in distribution for the people who made the trek out to see us, and even more valuable having a varietal bottling of this grape that was still new to most of our visitors, so they could start to wrap their heads around it. The label has my dad's typically dense, complete description of the selection process on its back:

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And the wine itself has always been compelling. I have a vivid memory of a dinner I hosted in 2004 or 2005 where, when this 2001 Roussanne was opened on the other side of the room, the whole gathering stopped what they were doing and looked over because the room had filled with the aroma of honeysuckle. But it had been years since I opened one, and so I pulled a bottle out of our library yesterday to check in, and invited our winemaking team to join me. It was amazing.

2001 Roussanne on Limestone Rock

My tasting notes from yesterday:

A lovely gold color in the glass, still tinged with Roussanne's typical hint of green. The nose shows sugar cookies and lemon curd, warm honeycomb and cinnamon stick. On the palate, dense and lush with flavors of spun sugar and candied ginger. Someone around the table called it "liquid flan". And as sweet as all those descriptors make it sound, it was dry, with just enough acid to keep it fresh without taking away from the wine's lushness. The finish had notes of graham cracker, dried straw, and vanilla custard. Neil called it "an exceptional moment for an exceptional bottle".

With this wine as the starting point, we added new varietals most vintages in the 2000's, each time when we found lots that evoked the grape particularly vividly. Syrah, Counoise, Tannat, Grenache Blanc, and Vermentino debuted in 2002. Mourvedre, Viognier, and Picpoul saw their first vintages in 2003. Grenache came on in 2006, and Marsanne completed the list of our original imports in 2010. Once we started getting the obscure Chateauneuf du Pape grapes out of quarantine and into production in the 2010s, those made their debuts as varietal bottlings: Clairette Blanche and Terret Noir in 2013, Picardan in 2016, and Bourboulenc, Vaccarese, and Cinsaut in 2019. These wines have proven to be fascinating for us, and great tools to share the potential and diversity of the Rhone pantheon with our wine club members and other visitors to the winery.

But it all started here, in 2001, with two barrels of Roussanne. To know that two decades later that first-ever Tablas Creek varietal wine is not just still alive but a shining testament to the potential of this grape in this place is pretty darn cool.


After a Foot of Rain, the Green Comes Fast

Normally, early February is already notably green. In a typical year, we'd get our first rain in November sometime, with more every week or two through December and January. By this time, you'd expect it to look something like this photo below, taken in early February of 2019:

Green Scruffy Hill February 2019

Not so much, this year. You can see in the photos that I shared in my blog recapping last week's storm that it was almost entirely brown still in the vineyard. The roughly inch and a half of rain we'd received wasn't enough to germinate either the native seeds or the cover crop we'd planted. But with over a foot of rain last Tuesday through Friday, and mostly sunny weather since, the vineyard's transformation from brown to green is happening fast. Here are a few photos that will give you a sense. First, a shot looking up down and back up between two rows of Grenache Blanc toward the western part of the vineyard:

Crosshairs new Green

A little further west, in a head-trained Grenache block, a similar carpet is appearing:

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On a steeper part of the same vineyard block, you can see how we pull the Yeoman's Plow across the slope to slow the flow of water downhill and encourage absorption rather than surface flow:

Head trained vines with yeomans plow lines
A longer view of that same block shows the new green growth even more clearly:   

Crosshairs head trained new green

Despite our late start, I'm not worried that we'll miss out on a significant amount of the organic matter that the cover crops create. Even in a normal year, December and January aren't great months for cover crop growth, with their regularly below-freezing nights and short days. It's not until late February, as the days get longer and warmer, that the cover crop really gets going. But from here on out, I expect the view to change by the day. Annual plants in California are always in a hurry to take advantage of the rainy season to build root and leaf systems, create carbohydrates, and then go to seed, all before the summer's heat and dry conditions take over. The rain may have come a couple of months late, but the cover crops are going to look like they're trying to make up for lost time. And views like this last one, looking at the setting sun through our olive trees, are only going to get greener by the day.

Sunset Olive Trees and New Green

I look forward to sharing the ongoing transformation with you.


Assessing the Historic January 2021 Winter Storm on California's Central Coast

I sit here in my office at the vineyard, looking at a sunny landscape outside, listening to birdsong coming in through my open window. It could be a California Chamber of Commerce commercial. What a change from the last 72 hours, during which we saw the largest storm in our 31-year history drop 12.71" of rain on us. For perspective, that's almost half of what we expect to receive in a normal year (26") and 828% of the total that we'd received so far since fall. Since we installed our weather station in 1996, we've had just five months that exceeded the rain we received in this storm.

Before I dive into how the rain came down, what things look like now, and what we think its long-term impacts will be, let me set the stage. I wasn't out here the past two days, but Senior Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi took a break from overseeing a bottling run we couldn't reschedule to capture this great photo of our flock sheltering under our solar panels during the height of the storm Wednesday:

Sheep huddling under solar panels in storm

The rain started Tuesday around 8pm, with four-hundredths of an inch that hour. Both rain and wind built in intensity, with our strongest gust (40.8mph) coming at 4am Wednesday. That hour was also the first hour where we got over a quarter-inch of rain. We would exceed that total for the next 22 hours, ending 2am Thursday. By that point we had accumulated 9.42" of rain, nearly double the 5.36" that we would expect in an average January. At that point the rain slowed down, but we had measurable rainfall every hour for another 20 hours, ending at 10pm Thursday evening and picking up another 3.02". And while the bulk of the storm had moved past us, we did get some more showers early Friday morning, accumulating an extra 0.27" in total. The final tally of 12.71" is the most we've ever seen from one storm, eclipsing the 9.6" we received in one storm in October of 2009

What drove this storm? A meteorological phenomenon called an atmospheric river, where a relatively narrow plume of moisture stretches from southwest to northeast across the Pacific, funneling tropical moisture toward the California coast. This is different than a typical storm, which is centered around a low pressure system and rotates counter-clockwise. While those storms can bring intense rainfall, they don't generally pummel the same spot for hours on end. Atmospheric rivers are a critical part of California's water systems, and even moderate atmospheric rivers can produce significant coastal rainfall and Sierra Nevada snow. Powerful atmospheric rivers can bring staggering amounts of precipitation, refilling reservoirs and aquifers but also causing flooding and mudslides. A satellite photo shared by the Western Weather Group, which provides forecasts for the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance, shows the storm system clearly:

Atmospheric River Satellite Image

Remarkably, this picture could have been taken any time Wednesday or Thursday, as the plume of moisture barely moved for two days. The Adelaida area where we are was the center of the storm's bullseye, accumulating triple or quadruple the already-significant totals that most of the rest of the AVA saw. And that water adds up. Our area drains into Lake Nacimiento, and the storm raised the lake's level by 24 feet since Tuesday, and its capacity from 21% to 39%. That may not sound like much, but it's a massive lake whose surface area grew by 1,000 acres since Tuesday, adding more than 21 billion gallons to its volume. 

I got out into the vineyard today, and found that it held up better than I'd feared it would to this onslaught of rain. As you would expect given that it had been so dry that our cover crops weren't well established yet, there was some surface erosion in some of our blocks, like this Cinsaut planting:

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 Or at the edge of this old block containing Counoise and Mourvedre:

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The roads, which are less porous than the vineyards, are always at greater risk of erosion. That's true both in the case of unimproved roads, like this one running down from our old nursery buildings toward Last Tablas Creek:

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And even on the vineyard roads where we laid straw to slow the flow of water and limit erosion the many hours of flowing water were enough to overwhelm our preparations:

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The calcareous soils that underlie Tablas Creek are so absorbent that the vast majority of the water soaked in. I only found one vineyard block that had any standing water in it: a head-trained Grenache block near the north end of the property:

Standing Water after January 2021 storm

But most of the vineyard looked like it was in great shape. This old Grenache block is representative:

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The water that did run off ended up in Las Tablas Creek, eventually flowing into Lake Nacimiento. Today, the creek was hardly a raging torrent:

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That relatively gentle flow, even on the last day of a historic storm, should tell you one more thing in addition to providing evidence of how absorbent our soils are. This winter, up until now, has been exceptionally dry. Normally, by the end of January we'd expect to have received about 13.5" of rain. Before this storm hit, our winter total sat at a paltry 1.37". Thanks to our recent atmospheric river, we've recovered from about 10% of normal rainfall to about 105% of normal rainfall. But even with this storm, what we've seen is only about average for a winter at this point.

What's next? Hopefully, a few days of sun to transfer the water from saturated surface soils to deeper layers, and to give the cover crop a chance to get growing. We have gotten a little growth, but it's variable and nowhere particularly well established. This section, which we left fallow this year in preparation for a new Mourvedre planting this spring, is probably the farthest along:

New Green Growth 2021

But before too much longer, we'd like some more rain. It looks like there's a little in the forecast for next week. A moderate storm of a couple of inches every 10 days or so would be just about perfect. If you've got sway with any weather gods, please let them know.

Meanwhile, we'll be grateful that we've made up three months of rainfall deficit in three days. We'll be looking forward to the vineyard being noticeably greener in under a week. And we'll be listening to the splash and burble of Las Tablas Creek flowing after 10 dry months. It may not be rushing torrent, but it's a more than healthy start.

Las Tablas Creek


Wine Shipping State of the Union, 2021 Edition

Six years ago, I wrote my own State of the Union, Wine Shipping Edition, breaking down the 50 states and one district into tiers based on how expensive and difficult it was for us to send wine into each. Casual wine lovers might be surprised to know that not only are there some states to which we are prohibited from shipping wine, but that each state to which we can ship has its own laws, permits, fees, and reporting requirements. Managing this morass takes specialized software and still a big chunk time for one of the members of our accounting team, so it's far from the uniform, frictionless open market that Section 8 of the US Constitution promises:

"The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States; but all duties, imposts and excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;"

I mentioned in my post from 2015 that diving into the arcane details of these state laws only highlights the wisdom of the founding fathers and generations of Supreme Court justices in prioritizing the Commerce Clause, which protects the federal government's exclusive role in regulating interstate commerce. The 21st Amendment, which repealed Prohibition in 1933, as a side-effect sheltered states from the Commerce Clause's requirement to maintain an open, fair market for all players. This means that the wine market provides a glimpse into what a world absent the Commerce Clause might look like. We should all be thankful that most products we might want to buy don't have to face a similar regulatory nightmare. Our current map:

Where_We_Ship 2021

Below you can find an updated summary of what the world of DTC (direct-to-consumer) wine shipping looks like, from a winery's perspective, as we enter 2021, with states broken down into tiers based on the cost and ease of doing business there.

One thing that has changed since 2015 is that the playing field has been made harder to summarize by the rise of "economic nexus" statutes, driven by the 2018 Supreme Court ruling South Dakota v. Wayfair, Inc. This ruling said that states could require out-of-state companies to collect and remit sales taxes, whereas previous rulings had held that states could only comply tax collection and remittance from companies with a physical location (a "nexus") in that state. In practice, this has meant that states have begun to implement transaction thresholds, above which wineries have had to remit state (and sometimes local) taxes, but below which they don't. That annual threshold has tended to be somewhere around 200 shipments or $100,000. For us, we're over that threshold in places like Colorado, Illinois, and of course California, but not in Iowa, DC, or Minnesota (though we're getting close). So, the numbers below reflect the conditions for a winery of our basic size and profile. I've noted the states with current or upcoming economic nexus laws with asterisks (*) below, with some explanatory notes.  

Tier I: The no-brainers (AK, DC*, MN*, MO*)

  • Right now, there are three states and the District of Columbia that have neither permit fees nor significant reporting requirements. Thank goodness for them! But, 4 of 51 isn't a great percentage. All of the others make it more difficult or expensive to ship wine to customers who want it. It's also worth noting that the permit-free status of these states is a holdover from pre-Granholm conditions and it's unclear that continuing without required permits is constitutional. DC and Minnesota are "economic nexus" destinations. If you're large enough to trigger those thresholds, bump them up to Tier II. Missouri will join them as a nexus state next year.
  • Total percentage of US population: 4.02%
  • Total number of reports required annually: 2
  • Total permit fees: $0

Tier II: Inexpensive and/or fairly easy (CA*, FL, ID, IA*, KS, MA, ME, MD, MI, MT, NC, ND, NY, OH, OR, WA, WI)

  • There are an additional seventeen states with permit fees of $200/year or less and modest reporting requirements (0-24 times per year). These states include some big ones like our home state of California, Florida, New York, Oregon, and Washington, but even for the smaller ones, the number of orders that a winery would need to fill in order to pay for the annual investment is very reasonable. You'll notice that most of the major wine-producing states fall into this tier. The two states with potential nexus-triggered reporting include Iowa (a small enough market that most wineries won't hit the nexus threshold) and California (where wineries who are based here likely already have the infrastructure in place). If you're an out-of-California winery selling here, or a winery big enough to trigger Iowa's nexus status, they'd both probably move to Tier III. 
  • Total percentage of US population: 46.93%
  • Total number of reports required annually: 178 (10.5/state avg.)
  • Total permit fees: $1,225 ($72/state avg.)

Tier III: Moderate expense or requirements (AZ, CO*, GA, IL*, IN, NV, NH, NM, PA, TX, VT, VA)

  • Once you get to the next tier of twelve, a small winery would be excused for starting to run cost-benefit analyses before springing for the permits.  Some permits start to get expensive in this tier, like Illinois' $350/year or Vermont's $330/year. Others are less expensive, but have difficult reporting requirements, like Georgia and Nevada (36 reports/year each). Colorado would be in Tier II except for the nexus requirements, which are pretty arcane. If you're small enough not to trigger the statute, move it down a tier. Illinois is probably Tier III even if you don't trigger the nexus, with separate excise tax reporting required for the city of Chicago. But even with their added challenges and expense, there are some pretty large-population states in this tier, and most wineries choose to ship to all or nearly all of them.
  • Total percentage of US population: 30.72%
  • Total number of reports required annually: 289 (24/state avg.)
  • Total permit fees: $2,063 ($172/state avg.)

Tier IV: Difficult or expensive enough to be a real question (HI, NE, SC, WV)

  • At this point, we get to four small states with difficult requirements, to the point that it's not worth it for many wineries to bother. Permits cost as much as $500/year (Nebraska) and $600/two years (South Carolina). West Virginia charges $250/year and requires the submission of 36 reports. And Hawaii requires you to get separate annual permits from each county, at a total cost of $324, and to submit 25 reports. With limited rewards, these costs tend to feel disproportionate.
  • Total percentage of the US population: 3.14%
  • Total number of reports required annually: 78 (19.5/state avg.)
  • Total permit fees: $1374 ($344/state avg.)

Tier V: Compliance Headaches (KY, OK, SD, TN, WY)

  • This next tier of five states aren't hugely expensive, but each has at least one unusual requirement. These include South Dakota's requirement that you register every label you're planning to ship into the state at a cost of $25/label/year, Oklahoma's prohibition from using fulfillment houses (so everything must be shipped from the winery location), and very low per-person or per-household import limits: 1 case/month and 3 cases/year maximum per person in Tennessee, and 4 cases/year per household in Wyoming. I could have added Minnesota in here as well, with its 2 cases/customer/year limit, but it's otherwise so easy (no permit, no reporting) that I left it in Tier I. Kentucky is the newest state to pass a direct-shipping law, and is still working out the kinks. It will probably end up in Tier II, but for now, it's like Oklahoma and not allowing wineries to use fulfillment houses, instead requiring that they ship only from their winery. A headache. 
  • Total percentage of the US population: 5.10%
  • Total number of reports required annually: 68 (13.6/state avg.)
  • Total permit fees: $550 ($110/state avg.)

Tier VI: Extremely Difficult/Expensive (CT, LA, NJ)

  • Connecticut is a shipping state for many wineries, but its expenses and challenges are significant. First, it's a costly permit, at $315/year, and requires 36 reports to be filed annually. Second, you must register each label you propose to sell in the state at a cost of $200/label, renewable every 3 years. At Tablas Creek, we sold 28 different wines direct last year (different wines, not different vintages). That would require a $5600 investment, adding $1866 to the already-considerable annual $1295 cost of permit and reporting. And finally, you can't have different label registrants for wholesale and direct sales. So, if you're like us and sell our wines to our Connecticut distributor through an agent (ours is Vineyard Brands) we couldn't register the same wines ourselves for direct sale.
  • Louisiana, at $400 and 36 reports/year, would be the most expensive state in Tier IV even if it didn't add the extra hurdle of requiring you to choose between selling a wine direct and selling it through wholesale. But it does, and that pushes it over the edge for us. There used to be more states with "distributor exclusivity" requirements like this, but Louisiana is the last one left.
  • How does New Jersey make direct shipping difficult? Let me count the ways. The permit is the country's most expensive at $938 and there are 29 reports to submit annually. There is a significant bond wineries have to post. There are registration fees of $150 per partner per year, an issue for a winery like ours owned by two families, each with several owners. Receiving a permit means that we have established a nexus with the state of NJ and are liable for paying an annual corporate income tax of at least $500. Plus there's a capacity cap of 250,000 gallons (around 100,000 cases) to ship that we fall under, but many wineries don't.
  • Total percentage of the US population: 5.18%
  • Total number of reports required annually: 101 (33.7/state avg.)
  • Total permit fees: $1653 ($551/state avg.)

Tier VII: Almost entirely prohibited (AL, AR, DE, MS, RI, UT)

  • Three states (Arkansas, Delaware, and Rhode Island) allow a winery to ship with few hurdles and minimal reporting requirements if a customer purchases wine at a winery, but won't allow the same customer to order wine by phone or email from home. The logic written into the laws is typically couched in the guise of ensuring that only of-age buyers can purchase, but given that common carriers routinely check ID's in the 40+ states that allow direct shipping, it doesn't pass critical muster and is better understood as local protectionism.
  • Three other states (Alabama, Mississippi, and Utah) allow customers to order wine from a winery, have it shipped to a state-licensed store, where taxes are collected, and then the wine released to the customer. It's slow and expensive, because it requires the customer to request and complete a state "special order" permit before shipping, and while the taxes aren't massive in Alabama, they're a whopping 88% in Utah. Mississippi's permit program is brand new, and may not be workable as initially published. In all three cases, the process is cumbersome enough that the Wine Institute still lists the three states as "prohibited".
  • Total percentage of the US population: 4.92%

Every winery has a different breaking point. For us, it comes in the middle of Tier V. We've decided that 41 states (everything in Tiers I-IV, plus Tennessee and Wyoming) warrant the expense of the annual permits and the reporting. Kentucky will come on line soon to be our 42nd, and I'm going to take another look at South Dakota now that we have a full team in our accounting department. That leaves 8 states that we either can't ship to, or have found that the requirements to do so are unreasonable. At what cost? Shipping to the 43 "shipping" states in Tiers I-V costs a total of $5,212 in permit fees plus the time and expense of preparing and filing 615 reports each year. Figure an hour for each report, at $25/hour ($15,375) for a total expense of $20,587. But for that cost, we can ship to 89.9% of the US population. Available tools (like SOVOS ShipCompliant and Avalara) provide a savings over the labor of preparing the many individual reports and are indispensable for wineries looking to ship to a broad swath of states, but still come with a cost.

Why are there some states that have made it so difficult or expensive that they're choosing to give up the state income that direct shipping would provide? The reasons vary, but mostly fall into one of two camps. Either they're making it difficult for religious or cultural reasons (think the deep south, or Utah) or they've crafted their laws in a way that protects distributors from as much competition as possible. This occurs because alcohol distributors (which are all state-licensed) see direct shipping as a threat to their businesses and are also some of the largest donors to state legislative campaigns.

So, while wine in America is not sold in a free and open market, most of that market is at least accessible to most wineries with some effort and expense. And if we're a long way from the Supreme Court's 1949 ode to the Commerce Clause of the US Constitution in H.P. Hood & Sons vs. Du Mond, the relevant text of which is below, we're at least making incremental progress:

"Our system, fostered by the Commerce Clause, is that every farmer and every craftsman shall be encouraged to produce by the certainty that he will have free access to every market in the Nation… Neither the power to tax nor the police power may be used by the state of destination with the aim and effect of establishing an economic barrier against competition with the products of another state or the labor of its residents."

Notes

  1. If you're interested in diving into the state-by-state regulations, the Wine Institute's Direct Shipping Laws for Wineries page is a great place to start.
  2. Thank you to Jeff Carroll, GM of Avalara for Beverage Alcohol for his feedback on this topic and particularly for his explanation of the growing challenge that economic nexus laws will pose.
  3. If you'd like to get involved in the push for more open direct shipping laws, the nonprofit Free the Grapes, on whose board of directors I serve, has information, resources, and templates for contacting state representatives. 

Looking back at the cold, frost-reduced 2011 vintage with a decade's perspective

2011 was a year unlike any that we'd seen before, and it seems unlikely that we'll see another like it any time soon. It was the second consecutive cold vintage, cooler than any we'd seen since 1998, and much colder than anything we've seen since 2012. It began with devastating frosts on consecutive nights that April 8th and 9th, reducing yields of early-sprouting varieties dramatically. Grenache was off 41%. Syrah and Grenache Blanc were both down 51%. Viognier was down a devastating 71%. Our late-ripening grapes were less affected, but even Mourvedre saw crops reduced 24%. Only Roussanne, always the most frost-resistant grape in the vineyard, saw increased yields over 2010, and our total yields off the estate were down 34%.

The year's challenges didn't end after the frost. Persistent onshore flow meant that we had many more foggy mornings than we're used to, cooler temperatures, and delayed ripening. A heat spike in August was one of our most severe to date, and many vineyards around California, who had pulled leaves because of mildew pressures and worries about slow ripening, saw significant sunburn. Early rain the first week of October came while most of the harvest was still on the vine, and many vineyards saw an explosion of rot. And the frost-delayed beginning to the growing season and the unusually cool summer weather combined to produce one of our latest-ever finishes to harvest, on November 8th, which allowed two more rainstorms to pass through before we were done.

Still, in the end we felt fortunate. We harvested fruit with intense flavors (from the low yields and long ripening cycle) and bright acids (from the cool year). As of mid-October, we were less than one-third complete with harvest, but we were able to harvest everything that was out. Unlike most of Northern California, when the rainstorms passed through Paso they were followed by dry, breezy weather, which meant we didn't have significant fungal issues. And because of our relatively high investment in late-sprouting, late-ripening grapes, we saw lower frost losses than many of our neighbors. I was feeling optimistic enough toward the end of harvest that I wrote a blog with the headline Why Paso Robles Will Make California's Best Wines in 2011.

Still, our options when it came to blending were significantly constrained. We ended up not making many of the wines that we were used to. No varietal Grenache, or Syrah, or Counoise, or Viognier. No dessert wines. Unusual blends of the Cotes de Tablas wines given the scarcity of some of the lead grapes. But we felt at the time that the wines we were making from that year would end up being very ageworthy. The red wines all showed a dark, brooding character that suggested they would age slowly, opening up with time to reveal extra layers of fruit, earth, and spice. The white wines all showed remarkable texture and pronounced salinity. And we've loved the expressiveness of the 2011 vintage in the recent vertical tastings we've done. So it was with great anticipation that we opened all our 2011 wines yesterday. The lineup:

Horizontal Tasting of 2011

My notes on the wines are below. I've noted their closures (SC=screwcap; C=cork) and, for the blends, their varietal breakdown. Each wine is also linked to its technical information on our Web site, if you'd like to see winemaking details or the tasting notes at bottling. I was joined for the tasting by our cellar team (Neil Collins, Chelsea Franchi, Craig Hamm, Amanda Weaver, and Austin Collins) as well as by Marketing Coordinator Ian Consoli.

  • 2011 Vermentino (SC): The nose initially showed all of Vermentino's mineral notes (flint, oyster shell) but with just a little time the citrus leaf and grapefruit pith character emerged. On the palate, very young tasting and bright, with preserved lemon flavors, bright acids, plenty of stony minerality, and briny sea spray notes on the finish. Still youthful and bright, though it's a good reminder to let older screwcapped whites breathe a bit before judging them.
  • 2011 Picpoul Blanc (C): None of us were quite sure why we bottled this under cork, when the other aromatic whites were all screwcapped and Picpoul Blanc had been screwcapped the year before. The wine showed a deeper golden color than any of the other whites we opened. On the nose, sweet aromas of toasted marshmallow, creme caramel, chamomile, and wheat kernels. The mouth was viscous and rich, with flavors of lemon meringue, creamy texture, and a long finish of Asian pear and lemongrass. I think we all wished this had been finished in screwcap too, as it would have shown more of the brightness we love about Picpoul.
  • 2011 Grenache Blanc (SC): A nose of peppered citrus and chalky minerality that reminded me of a Chablis with a decade in bottle. On the mouth, the initial impression was a sweet one of spun sugar, then bright acids took over, then rich texture and a pithy bite on the finish helping keep the sweet lychee flavors fresh. Pretty, youthful, and in an excellent place. A terrific showing for this grape that's known to oxidize young.
  • 2011 Patelin de Tablas Blanc (SC; 45% Grenache Blanc, 34% Viognier, 18% Roussanne, 3% Marsanne): Our second-ever Patelin Blanc showed very well, with a nose of pineapple skin, apple, and crunchy nectarine. On the palate, sweet fruit, good acids, and surprisingly rich texture, with lemon curd and flan flavors and a fruity, vibrant finish with apple fruit leather and mandarin orange notes. Seems to strike a great balance between Viognier's fleshiness and Grenache Blanc's tension. Really pretty.
  • 2011 Cotes de Tablas Blanc (SC; 27% Viognier, 26% Grenache Blanc, 25% Marsanne, 22% Roussanne): An unusual Cotes de Tablas because we had so little Viognier, and therefore decided to leave the Viognier on the skins during fermentation to extract maximum character from the grape. The nose showed sweeter dried peach, white gummy bear and cream soda notes, but also a salty sea spray character. The mouth was spectacular. Rich texture, a pronounced saline note like high quality salted butter, and fruit flavors of dried mango and orange creamsicle. A little skin texture kept things from being too weighty. A highlight for me, and many of us.
  • 2011 Marsanne (SC): Our second-ever varietal Marsanne. A nose like the sea that we all came up with different ways of describing, from kelp forest to sea spray to miso. A little hint of quince... almost sweet but not quite. On the palate, more generous than the nose suggested, with a creamy minerality, egg custard and beeswax notes, and a hint of butterscotch. A little nuttiness (blanched almond) cane out on the long finish. Pretty and elegant.
  • 2011 Roussanne (C): A weird showing for this wine. The color was medium gold, and showed a slight haze. The flavors were a little more reminiscent of a sour beer or cider than typical Roussanne honey and nuts, with coriander, yuzu, and wheaty notes. A hint of retsina-like pine sap and some sweet oak came out on the finish. I'm still hopeful that a little more time in bottle will help this assume a more recognizable form, but for now, it's more interesting than pleasurable.
  • 2011 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (C; 64% Roussanne, 26% Grenache Blanc, 10% Picpoul Blanc): Very Roussanne on the nose, with aromas of pear, pineapple, candied ginger and graham cracker. The mouth is lovely and mouth-watering, with fresh pineapple and sarsaparilla flavors and rich texture that brightens up on the finish leaving lingering notes of roasted nuts and clove. At peak maturity but with plenty left in the tank.
  • 2011 Antithesis Chardonnay (C): Our last Chardonnay bottling, from a vintage that seemed like it should have played to the cool-loving grape's strengths. A creamy nose of marshmallow and sweet oak. The palate showed lots of glycerine texture, and flavors of baked apple and caramel. The finish came off to me a bit sweet-tasting, with notes of chamomile and white tea. Not particularly evocative of Chardonnay to me, and felt a little overripe. Drink up if you've got any left.
  • 2011 Rosé (SC; 58% Mourvedre, 30% Grenache, 12% Counoise): Still a nice deep pink-orange in the glass. The nose isn't recognizably a rosé nose, or even terribly wine-like at this point. Reminded us of a Negroni, with a spicy wintery nose of mulling spices. The mouth shows sweetness on the attack with candied strawberry flavors and a bitter tinge on the finish like Campari. No one would have intentionally kept this wine this long, but it's at least still interesting. 
  • 2011 Full Circle (C): Our second Full Circle Pinot Noir from my dad's property in the Templeton Gap, and not our favorite showing, to the point that we opened a second bottle because we thought the first might have been oxidized. But the second bottle was the same: a nose of coffee grounds and cocoa hulls, a little oxidized and pruney. The mouth is in a nicer place, showing dark chocolate-covered cherries, saddle leather, and a little seed tannin perhaps from whole cluster fermentations. The finish showed a figgy note. This seems like it could have been impacted by the heat spike, or perhaps we just picked it a little too ripe.
  • 2011 Tannat (C): A cool herby eucalyptus note over sweet/bitter aromas that we variously described as dark chocolate, molasses, and black cherry cola. On the palate, still youthful: unsweetened chocolate and juniper forest, still quite tannic, with a nice smoky black raspberry note coming out on the finish. If you have some of this, I'd recommend you stash it at the back of your cellar for another couple of years.
  • 2011 Patelin de Tablas (SC; 52% Syrah, 29% Grenache, 18% Mourvedre, 1% Counoise): This wine has always carried a touch of a reductive character from the cool vintage and the high percentage of Syrah, and it still does, with a gunpowdery minerality over iron, black cherry, and meat drippings. Neil compared it to a Loire Cabernet Franc. The mouth is in a nice place, with a sweet minty chocolate note, savory baking spices, and nicely resolved tannins. I'm sure most of this has long been drunk, but if you find a bottle you're in for a treat. We sold this for $20 at the time. 
  • 2011 Cotes de Tablas (C; 49% Grenache, 28% Syrah, 15% Mourvedre, 8% Counoise): The nose is beautiful, very red fruited in contrast to the darkness of the previous two wines, with notes of cherry and sweet herbs. The mouth is juicy and lively, with beautiful raspberry and sweet tobacco notes. There are still some tannins that keep the juicy finish from being overly sweet. A consensus favorite and absolutely at peak. 
  • 2011 Mourvedre (C): A lovely mature nose of dried cranberry, leather, sweet cola and potpourri. The mouth is fully resolved too with milk chocolate-covered cherries, soft tannins, and a little soy umami note. A hint of oxidation started to come out with a few minutes in the glass, suggesting that while this is very pretty, the clock is ticking. Might be a year or two past peak. Drink up if you've got any.
  • 2011 En Gobelet (C; 29% Mourvedre, 27% Grenache, 26% Tannat, 18% Syrah): With so much Tannat, relatively little Grenache, and no Counoise, it was probably unsurprising that the En Gobelet was so dominated by dark notes and still youthfully tight. The nose was brooding and iron-like, with the other grapes seeming subservient to Tannat. With time, a little minty dark chocolate did come out. On the palate, luscious and mouth-coating like a traditional Black Forest cake made with cherry liqueur. The tannins are still massive, and this wine feels a ways still from its peak.
  • 2011 Esprit de Tablas (C; 40% Mourvedre, 30% Grenache, 20% Syrah, 10% Counoise): Initially reserved on the nose, with savory Worcestershire and roasted meat coming out with time. On the palate, in a very nice place, with semi-sweet chocolate, rose petals, and soy marinade flavors and some powdered-sugar tannins maintaining order. The long finish shows all the components of a flourless chocolate cake, with a meaty, salty lingering note. At peak, or nearly so, with plenty of life left.
  • 2011 Panoplie (C; 60% Mourvedre, 30% Grenache, 10% Syrah): A powerhouse on the nose, with aromas of sugar plums, Worcestershire sauce, loam, and a little minty lift. On the palate, soft and generous, with sweet Mexican chocolate and fresh blackberry, and meat dripping flavors, and well integrated tannins that glide into a generous finish of baker's chocolate, rose petals, and black tea. At peak, with lots more to come.
  • 2011 Petit Manseng (C): Our second bottling of this classic southwest French grape known for maintaining great acids as it reaches high (and occasionally extremely high) sugar levels, which we make each year in an off-dry style. The nose showed lychee, pineapple, green herbs and petrol, reminiscent of an aged demi-sec Chenin Blanc. The palate was like a lemon bar with powdered sugar, sweet but still bracingly tart, with a long finish of mango and caramel. Fun, unique, and still youthful. 

A few concluding thoughts

2011 is a vintage we're unlikely to ever see the likes of again. In the last decade, the impacts of climate change on California have become much more pronounced, and 2011 was already an unusually cold vintage. I'm not sad about that; this was a tough year for grapegrowers around the state, even though I was pleased with how we handled the year's challenges. In this tasting, the wines were a little more uneven than in a truly great year, with a few reds unexpectedly showing signs of age. I'm not sure whether that is a function of the uneven and sometimes very low yields, the heat spike, or the fact that we still had in the back of our heads the ripeness levels we were used to seeing in the 2005-2009 era, and perhaps left some of the grapes on the vine longer than we would have now. It could be a combination. Still, the best wines were really strong, and the whites overall outstanding.

It was not easy selling the 2011 in the market when they were first released. It was clear that the wines had potential, but the character was darker, denser, and more brooding than the blockbuster, juicy 2009's or the elegant, open-knit 2010's. I feel like I spent a lot of time contextualizing the vintage, explaining why Paso Robles shouldn't be painted with the same brush as Napa/Sonoma in this difficult vintage, and hoping people could look beyond the brooding present to what the wines promised to become. I was only partially successful, and it wasn't until we were ready to release the 2012 reds that the 2011's really started to open up. Oh, well. It meant that we stashed a higher-than-normal quantity of our top wines, and have been able to portion them out to people in recent years. There are worse problems to have.

I asked the team to vote for their favorites, and the wines that received multiple nominations cut across the spectrum that we make: Vermentino, Grenache Blanc, Cotes de Tablas Blanc, Esprit de Tablas Blanc, Patelin de Tablas, Cotes de Tablas, Mourvedre, and Panoplie. That both Cotes de Tablas wines showed so well is a continuation of what we've seen time and again at these tastings. Although we think of the Cotes wines as ones to drink while we wait for the Esprits to mature, at a decade out both show consistently well. I should remember that and lay more down.

It's worth noting that nearly all of the wines improved in the glass, and I thought that most of them would have benefited from a quick decant. A lot of people don't think of decanting older whites, but I think it's often a good idea, and particularly so with wines that have been under screwcap. There's a clipped character that most older screwcapped whites have that dissipates with a few minutes of air. It happens anyway in the glass, but a decant would have been welcome.

In uneven vintages, the benefits of blending are even more evident. We made less of both Esprit de Tablas and Esprit de Tablas Blanc in 2011 than we did in 2010. Some of that was because there was less wine to work with, and if we'd made an equal amount of Esprit and Esprit Blanc we wouldn't have had many other wines. But more of that was our commitment to only blending the very top lots into the Esprits. And that quality really showed through in the Esprit Blanc, Esprit, and Panoplie. I think we can be proud of the process that produced those wines.

In a normal year, this tasting would be the prelude for a public event at which we would share the highlights of this tasting with wine club members and other guests. Ten years is a great duration to show the rewards of cellaring; it's enough time that the wines have become something different and started to pick up some secondary and tertiary flavors, but not so long that whites are generally over the hill. That's not an option this year, or at least not right now. If things continue to improve, I'm tentatively thinking of hosting our 2011 horizontal tasting this November. Fingers crossed.


The vineyard in January, from four perspectives

Over the roughly ten day break that encompassed Christmas, New Year's, and the weekends on either end, I had what I thought was a good idea for helping provide some structure to our family. At the beginning of the stretch, each of the four of us suggested two indoor activities and two outdoor activities. We then laid these 16 activities out across the vacation, taking into account closures, weather, and giving us room to take a day off if we felt overscheduled. No one got veto power, so if Sebastian (age 13) wanted the whole family to play Mario Kart... that's what we did. If Eli (age 15) wanted to get breakfast burritos in Cambria and take the dog to the beach... that was our plan for a morning. If Meghan wanted the family to watch Queen's Gambit... we did that too. It turned out to be a lot of fun. Everyone got into the spirit of it.

One of the things that I put on the list was to go out and do a photographic exploration of the vineyard. All of us, to one degree or another, enjoy taking pictures. But since we don't live on the property (we live in town) I'm the only one who's regularly out there documenting what things look like. So, on New Year's Day, we headed off around 3pm to catch the low light and the setting sun. I didn't dictate where in the vineyard everyone went, or try to keep us together, because I know that I have a handful of routes I tend to return to when I'm out taking pictures, and I didn't want that to become everyone's default. I also didn't suggest any particular content or narrative, for the same reason.

I thought that what came of the ramble was really fun. Here's a look at three of my favorite photos from each of us that we took that afternoon.

Eli (Age 15)
We'll start with this photo of one of the vineyard oak trees, with the thin wintery sun shining through some clouds behind it. Both Seb and I took very similar photos of this same tree, but I think this one is the best:

Eli - Oak tree in with winter clouds

Next, a photo of Sadie running through the vineyard. Again, I love the wintery quality of the light that Eli captured, and the manic joy of running dog:

Eli - Sadie running

Finally, a photo of a flock of birds that he caught mid-liftoff. I love the framing of this, and the fact that the whole thing, from unpruned vines to birds in flight, feels wild:

Eli - Birds over vines

Sebastian (Age 13)
I could have filled this entire blog with pictures of the dog that Seb took. But I wanted to highlight his vision of the vineyard instead, starting with this photo of one of the oak trees at the top of the property's highest hill. I love the framing of this shot, with (yes) Sadie skulking around the base.

Seb - Oak tree and Sadie

The winter light was a common theme all of us explored, in one way or another. This photo of Seb's focuses on the clouds, olive trees in the foreground reduced to silhouettes:

Seb - Winter sun
And finally a panoramic Seb took looking up from a part of the property I walk past all the time but don't believe I've ever photographed: the base of our old nursery block, where we've recently converted some shade houses to a new wine storage building (one corner of which is barely visible at the far right):

Seb - Panoramic with olive trees

Meghan
It was hard for me to pick just three of Meghan's photos. But it wasn't hard to choose this portrait of Paco the alpaca, set off against the dry-laid stone of our animal enclosure, as one of the three:

Paco January 2021

After that, Meghan mostly took pictures in black and white. I love this one of our old vineyard truck, olive trees and grapevines in the background:

Meghan - Vineyard Truck B&W

I also loved her black and white photo of Sadie, merle swirling patterns on full display, with her one blue eye glowing white as she looks up our "Scruffy Hill" block:

Meghan - Sadie B&W

Me
I tried to take some shots from perspectives I don't usually pursue. This first one is looking north through an old Roussanne block, limestone rock in the foreground, unpruned vines in the late-day sun:

Unpruned Roussanne vines and limestone rock

We've started our vineyard pruning, but that's not the only thing we trim back each winter. Our fruit trees need to be pruned too, and I loved the geometry of this one, surrounded by new Cinsaut vines that I'm also really excited about:

Newly pruned fruit tree

I took a bunch of sunset-related shots on Scruffy Hill, some of which I've already shared to our social media. But this closeup of a Grenache vine with the multi-hued sky behind, was probably my favorite:

Grenache vine on Scruffy Hill at Sunset

I'll leave you with one more photo of Meghan's, looking up the Scruffy Hill block with me and the boys at the top, each looking for our shots.

Meghan - Scruffy with J E and S B&W

Happy new year, everyone!