Introducing Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC): Farming Like the World Depends on It

By Jordan Lonborg

In February of 2019, Tablas Creek was approached by Elizabeth Whitlow (Executive Director of the Regenerative Organic Alliance) to see if we would like to take part in a pilot program of a new approach to farming called Regenerative Organic. It was clear from the organizations behind this effort, including the Rodale Institute, Patagonia, and Dr. Bronner’s, that this was going to be appealing, both inclusive of and yet more comprehensive than organic and biodynamic. I’ll let their Web site explain:

“Regenerative Organic Certified™ was established in 2017 by a group of farmers, business leaders, and experts in soil health, animal welfare, and social fairness. Collectively called the Regenerative Organic Alliance (ROA), our mission is to promote regenerative organic farming as the highest standard for agriculture around the world.”

At first, considering the fact that we are already certified organic and biodynamic, juggling a third certification was not the most exciting proposition for me. But as I began to dig through the ROC Framework and its requirements, it became clear that this was a certification that Tablas Creek Vineyard had to get behind and fully support. We accepted the invitation to be the only winery in the pilot and the ball started to roll.

Regenerative farming is a style of farming in which soil health and building that soil is the main focus. It is a term that was developed by Robert Rodale (the son of the legendary organic farmer J.I. Rodale) to “distinguish a kind of farming that goes beyond sustainable.” But as appealing as this sounds, there’s more: regenerative organic builds in requirements that participants also certify the humane treatment of any animals on the farm and that the farming crews are paid living wages, work in safe conditions, and understand their rights. Therefore, this certification incorporates three pillars; soil health, animal welfare, and social fairness.

The heart of Regenerative Organic Certified is the Soil Health Pillar. The property must be certified organic. Various regenerative farming tactics must be employed such as no-till farming (with few exceptions), cover cropping, incorporation of livestock and mob grazing (when animals are given a small area where they can completely graze that area in a short amount of time and then are moved to start the process over again), and creating habitat for pollinators and beneficial insects are a few of the recommended or required practices. Composting on-site is encouraged. Comprehensive soil tests showing that you’re maintaining or building carbon are a requirement, because one of the fundamental tenets of ROC is that farming can be and must be an agent for fighting climate change and reducing the use of nonrenewable resources. After all, their slogan is “Farm like the world depends upon it.”

Mushrooms growing on Compost pile Growth from biochar application


Because of the work we've been doing with biodynamics, there weren't many practices we needed to change or implement here. But the testing that we needed in order to show that we were building carbon content in our soils was tremendous validation that the way that we've been farming really is capturing carbon and building soils that match up well with the highest national and international standards. 

Jordy with AlpacaFor the Animal Welfare Pillar, like the Soil Health Pillar, ROC requires that livestock on the property are to be certified organic under USDA standards. The humane treatment of the livestock in all aspects of their life is a necessity. The health, nutrition, shelter (where applicable), protection, herding methods, handling methods, transport, and slaughter are all evaluated when applying to be Regenerative Organic Certified.

As is true with any pilot program, the goal is to incorporate new standards while providing feedback to help make those standards stronger and more consistent. By this measurement, the pilot program was a huge success. Both Tablas Creek and the ROA learned a great deal about which requirements within the pillars needed adjustments and which didn’t for vineyards. For example, the initial draft of the standards included an ironclad requirement for no-till farming. In the process of trying to achieve the “gold” ROC standard, we picked up a few more certifications along the way. Not only is the herd certified by CCOF, Demeter-USA, and Regenerative Organic, they are also certified by Animal Welfare Approved. I can assure you, this highly decorated flock is extremely proud of themselves at the moment and if you were to see them now you’d swear they looked a bit taller.

Flock of sheep in tall grass

What separates ROC from most other certifications is its Social Welfare Pillar. The dark side of agriculture in today’s world is how farmworkers are treated. This certification addresses that situation head on. It ensures that the farmworkers, whether employed or subcontracted, receive a living wage, that they understand their rights, and that their working conditions are clean and safe. These are just a few examples of what is incorporated in the Social Fairness Pillar.  

We also received a certification from the Equitable Food Initiative. This group ensures the social welfare of the farmworker crews on the property. We all spent a week of intensive training together. These sessions lasted all day long and consisted of physical activities, team building skills, communication skills (both with each other and management), problem solving skills, and education sessions in which they and we together explored in detail their rights as farmworkers both individually and as a group. It was an extremely powerful week.

Vineyard Crew

Not all of the third party certifications that we obtained are necessary for achieving Regenerative Organic Certified. We took these extra steps in an attempt to obtain the highest level of the certification. For anyone who is reading this post and is interested in obtaining this certification for your operation, reach out to the ROA to determine where you are on the path to ROC and what certifications you will need.

Tablas Creek Vineyard has always been extremely proud of our organic and biodynamic certifications. That said, we have never felt that the certifications were ends in and of themselves. And there are pieces of both of those protocols that we think could be improved. Anyway, we farm the way we do because we feel that it is the right thing to do for the land and the people that work here. But this certification is different. It sends a powerful message to the wine industry, consumers, and our local community. It shows them that Tablas Creek is not willing to accept anything less than the very highest standard for our soils, our animals, and the welfare of the people who work here.

We are beyond proud to be the first vineyard in the world to be Regenerative Organic Certified and we fully believe that this certification can and will be the future of farming in all forms of agriculture!!    

A big thanks to the folks at the Rodale Institute, Patagonia, and Dr. Bronner’s for spearheading this movement! Keep farming like the world depends on it!!!


Tasting the Wines in the Fall 2020 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 wines that may see a later national release. Before each shipment, we reintroduce ourselves to these wines (which, in some cases, we may not have tasted since before bottling) by opening the full lineup and writing the notes that will be included with the club shipments. Yesterday I sat down with Winemaker Neil Collins and we dove into this fall's collection. For what we found, read on:

Neil and Jason after shipment tasting

We base each year's fall shipments around the newest releases of the Esprit de Tablas and Esprit de Tablas Blanc, and this fall's shipment is no exception. But there's a lot more to this fall's shipment than these two wines. We have a couple of (we think, really terrific) varietal wines, one red and one white, and two other smaller-production blends, again one each red and white. We think it's one of the most compelling shipments we've ever put together. I'm excited to get them in our members' hands soon.  

The classic shipment includes six different wines:

Fall 2020 VINsider Classic Shipment

2019 GRENACHE BLANC

  • Production Notes: The cool-then-warm 2019 growing season pushed yields a little below average, resulting in unusually small Grenache Blanc grapes that turned out to have both exceptional brightness and rich texture. For the varietal Grenache Blanc, we chose lots that were fermented in stainless steel (for energy) and foudre (for roundness), blended them in May 2020 and bottled the finished wine under screwcap in June 2020.
  • Tasting Notes: An intense Grenache Blanc nose of lemon curd, sweet green herbs, and crushed rock. On the palate, like a lemon meringue pie with the hint of graham cracker underlying the bright, luscious lemon. The finish is lovely and long, with a little pithy Grenache Blanc tannin coming out at the end. Drink now and over the next few years.
  • Production: 860 cases.
  • List Price: $30 VINsider Price: $24

2019 COTES DE TABLAS BLANC

  • Production Notes: Viognier is always the lead grape in our Cotes Blanc, and we balance Viognier's lushness with the elegance of Marsanne and the brightness of Grenache Blanc. In 2019, the Viognier (44%) already had nice acidity, so we chose to use more Marsanne (29%) to bring elegance and minerality, and a relatively low percentage of Grenache Blanc (19%), leaving more Grenache Blanc for our varietal bottling in this relatively scarce Grenache Blanc year. 8% Roussanne rounds out the blend and provides structure. The selected lots were blended in May 2020, and the wine was bottled in June 2020.
  • Tasting Notes: An elegant nose, with Marsanne seemingly at the fore right now: nectarines, lemongrass, honeydew, and a rich, wheaty element that Neil described as clean straw. The mouth is lovely, with flavors of peach pit, tangerine, and newly-mown hay drying in the sun. Lovely acids and sweet green herbs come out on the long, balanced finish. Drink now and for at least the next five years.
  • Production: 1540 cases.
  • List Price: $30 VINsider Price: $24

2018 ESPRIT DE TABLAS BLANC

  • Production Notes: For the second year in a row we incorporated two of our newest white grapes into the Esprit Blanc blend. Of course, Roussanne (66%, fermented in a mix of oak of various sizes and ages) still takes pride of place, but the different higher-acid, more mineral varieties (21% Grenache Blanc, 8% Picpoul Blanc, 3% Picardan and 2% Clairette Blanche) all add citrusy acidity and saline freshness. As we have done since 2012, we returned the blend to foudre after it was assembled in April 2019 and aged it through the subsequent harvest before bottling it in December 2019 and letting it rest an additional 9 months in bottle before release.
  • Tasting Notes: A lifted nose of orange blossom, honeycomb, and spicy pine nut. On the palate, the signature clean, precise elegance of the 2018 vintage, with flavors of baked custard, marmalade, and saline minerality, deepened by a little sweet oak. Then lively and juicy on the finish like biting into a fresh pear, complete with the little hint of pear skin tannin. A balanced, elegant Esprit Blanc that we expect to go out two decades, gaining additional nuttiness and complexity with time in bottle.
  • Production: 2315 cases
  • List Price: $45 VINsider Price: $36

2018 GRENACHE

  • Production Notes: Grenache was one of the stars of the cool 2018 vintage, producing lots with lifted fruit, lots of peppery spice, and a little tannic bite that suggests it will produce wines that can age gracefully. 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 2019 and aged in neutral 1200-gallon oak foudres until bottling in May 2020.
  • Tasting Notes: A nose of wild strawberry, allspice, brambly briar patch, and sarsaparilla root. The palate is generous with vivid cranberry fruit and all the elements of plum pudding, from creamy richness to the tangy baked plum and the bursts of plum skin tannin. Bright acids and youthful grippy tannins provide balance to the juiciness on the finish. We suggest you wait a few months for the tannins to integrate, then drink in the next few years for a crunchy and vibrant experience or wait six to ten years for a deeper, softer profile.
  • Production: 1160 cases
  • List Price: $35 VINsider Price: $28

2018 EN GOBELET

  • Production Notes: Our eleventh En Gobelet, a non-traditional blend all from head-trained, dry-farmed blocks, and mostly from the 12-acre block we call Scruffy Hill, planted in 2005 and 2006 to be a self-sufficient field blend. These lots tend to show more elegance and minerality than our closer-spaced irrigated blocks, although in 2018 the wine shows plenty of power and density. We chose a blend of 36% Grenache, 28% Mourvedre, 27% Syrah, 6% Counoise, and 3% Tannat. In this lifted, elegant vintage, we chose our highest-ever percentage of Syrah for this blend, giving the wine heft and Syrah's signature creamy, meaty density. The wine was blended in June of 2019, aged in foudre and bottled in May 2020.
  • Tasting Notes: A explosively vibrant nose of boysenberry, blackcurrant, black pepper, and roasted meats. The mouth is juicy but firmly tannic, with flavors of cassis and black cherry, wood smoke, and cracked peppercorn. Syrah's signature creamy dark minerality comes out on the finish. Serious and built for the long term; wait six months if you can, and then drink any time over the next two decades.
  • Production: 860 cases
  • List Price: $55 VINsider Price: $44

2018 ESPRIT DE TABLAS

  • Production Notes: Although the Esprit is based as always on the red fruit and meatiness of Mourvedre (40%), in this vintage noteworthy for its lift and minerality we found that the darkness and density provided by Syrah (27%) was essential and we needed a little less of the bright spiciness of Grenache (23%). Counoise (10%) rounds out the blend with brambly notes and sweet spice. The wine's components were fermented separately, then selected for Esprit, blended in June 2019 and aged a year in foudre before bottling in July 2020.
  • Tasting Notes: A deep brooding Mourvedre nose of loamy redcurrant and roasted meats, new leather and black plum. The mouth shows spicy licorice and nutmeg lift over baked plums and Mourvedre's signature plum skin tannin maintaining balance with the wine's mouth-coating texture. The long, richly tannic finish, with lingering flavors of wood smoke, roasted meat, and crushed rock, promises more rewards to come with cellar aging. The wine was showing beautifully despite only having been in bottle one week when we tasted it; we recommend that you drink either between now and 2023 or again starting in 2026 any time over the subsequent two decades.
  • Production: 4325 cases
  • List Price: $60 VINsider Price: $48

Two additional wines joined the Cotes de Tablas Blanc, Grenache Blanc, and Esprit de Tablas Blanc in the white-only shipment (we doubled up the Esprit Blanc):

Fall 2020 VINsider White Shipment

2019 BOURBOULENC

  • Production Notes: Our first ever bottling of Bourboulenc, from our first-ever harvest of this relatively obscure Rhone white. Bourboulenc is known in France to make wines with citrus aromatics and a distinctive smoky character, with fairly good acids and relatively low alcohol. As we have no road map for this wine, never having harvested or fermented it before, we treated it gently, fermenting with our signature native yeasts in a mix of stainless steel and neutral oak barrels. It had a distinctive orange color (not that different from Roussanne) coming out of the press, and while much of that settled out in fermentation, it's still a lovely rich gold. We used our entire production in this 135-case varietal bottling, put into bottle in June 2020.
  • Tasting Notes: Medium gold color. A nose of lychee and wet rocks, lightly floral, with an unusual and appealing fresh almond note. On the palate, richly textured and softly mineral, with pineapple fruit and a little mintiness, pretty and delicate and lovely. We have no idea how this will age, but suggest you drink it over the next few years.
  • Production: 135 cases
  • List Price: $30 VINsider Price: $24

2017 PETIT MANSENG

  • Production Notes: Our eighth bottling of this traditional grape from southwest France, Petit Manseng is best known from the appellation of Jurançon, where it has made admired sweet wines for centuries that you rarely hear about in America. Petit Manseng achieves sufficient concentration and sugar content -- and maintains its acids sufficiently -- to make naturally sweet, balanced wines without botrytis. Harvested at 28° Brix and a pH of 2.99, we fermented it in barrel, and stopped its fermentation when it had about 62 grams/liter of sugar left and sat at an alcohol of 14.4%. The high acidity makes it taste much drier than the sugar reading would suggest. The wine was aged on its lees in barrel and bottled in June 2018.
  • Tasting Notes: Medium gold. An exotic nose of lemon marmalade, briny mineral, citrus leaf, and lemongrass. In the mouth, the wine is a roller-coaster, first sweet like candied orange peel, then lemon drop acids assert themselves, and finally the finish relaxes to a combination of clementine orange, sea spray minerality, and citrus blossom. A little sweeter and more intense than but reminiscent of a demi-sec Vouvray, for anyone with that as a reference point. Drink now or age for up to another decade for a nuttier character.
  • Production: 170 cases
  • List Price: $50 VINsider Price: $40

Two additional reds joined the Grenache, En Gobelet and Esprit de Tablas in the red-only shipment:

Fall 2020 VINsider Red Shipment

2018 FULL CIRCLE

  • Production Notes: 2018 is the ninth vintage of our Full Circle Pinot Noir, grown on the small vineyard outside the Haas family's home in Templeton, in the cool (for Paso) Templeton Gap AVA. Its name reflects Robert Haas's career: from a start introducing America to the greatness of Burgundy, through decades focusing on grapes from the Rhone, one of his last acts was to plant Pinot at his home and oversee our first few vintages. The grapes were fermented in one-ton microfermenters, half de-stemmed and half with stems for a more savory profile, punched down twice daily by hand. After pressing, the wine was moved into year-old Marcel Cadet 60-gallon barrels, for a hint of oak.  The wine stayed on its lees, stirred occasionally, for 10 months, before being blended and bottled in August 2019. We've aged the wine in bottle for an additional year since then.
  • Tasting Notes: A pretty nose of cherry cola, Chinese five spice, teriyaki, and black tea. The mouth is medium-bodied, soft, and generous, with raspberry fruit, a little sweet oak, and a lightly tannic finish with sarsaparilla and wild strawberry notes. Drink now and over the next decade.
  • Production: 475 cases
  • List Price: $45 VINsider Price: $36

2018 MOURVEDRE

  • Production Notes: Mourvedre is the one red grape that we try to bottle on its own each year, because we think it is a wonderful grape that too few people know, and one we feel worthy of some proselytizing. The cool 2018 vintage produced a very Old World style of Mourvedre, with loamy, meaty elements just as strong as the red-fruited notes we typically see at the fore here in Paso Robles. All our Mourvedre lots were fermented in large wooden tanks and moved to neutral barrels to await blending. The chosen lots were blended in the spring of 2019, then aged in foudre until bottling in May 2020.
  • Tasting Notes: A very Old World style of Mourvedre, with loam at the front, then pie cherries and meaty note reminiscent of a rosemary-rubbed leg of lamb. The mouth is more generously fruited than the nose suggests, with flavors of plum and redcurrant fruit, new leather, and some chewy tannins that come out on the finish and reassert a loamy, juniper forest note. It seems like time in the cellar will be well rewarded, but feel free to drink any time over the next 15 years.
  • Production: 640 cases
  • List Price: $45 VINsider Price: $36

The tasting was a great way to hone in on the character of our two most recent vintages. 2018 shows a cool climate signature with vibrant, expressive, spicy wines with elegance and the potential to age. 2019 is a blockbuster vintage, combining rich textures with lively acidity and powerful varietal characters. I can't wait to get these wines in our club members' hands and find out what they think.

If you're a wine club member, you're probably aware that we're not going to be hosting a traditional wine club pickup party because of COVID, but we've come up with a few ways to give members the chance to experience the wines. These include the option of "shipment flights" should members come for a distanced patio tasting in September and October, a virtual tasting party the evening of Friday, October 15th for which we'll be putting together tasting packs that include half-bottles of the two 2018 Esprit de Tablas wines, and the newest season of Chelsea & the Shepherd, which we'll be debuting around the time the shipment goes out. We have details on all this 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 us while there's still a chance to get this fall shipment? Details and how to join are at tablascreek.com/wine_club/vinsider_club


Veraison 2020 reflects our cool July and suggests a (gasp) normal start to harvest

The 2020 growing season has been a lovely antidote to all the chaos out in the world. Unlike many years, we've avoided both heat spikes and extended chilly periods. A graph of the daytime highs since May 1st gives a sense of how things have been distributed through July 22nd. You can see more 80s than 90s, plenty of 70s, and only three days (barely) in triple digits, one each month:

High Temps 2020 Growing Season

July has been particularly nice; our average high temperature so far this month has been 87.6°F. Compare that to the last three years, whose Julys averaged 91°F, 96.5°F, and 95.6°F. And remember, those are the high temperatures each day. Nights have been chilly, and it takes a while each morning for it to warm up. We haven't yet had a night this summer that didn't drop below 60°F, and our average nighttime low has been 47°F. That's kept the vineyard looking green and vibrant. The net result has been gradual progress by the vines and outstanding vine health.

Veraison, if you're unfamiliar with the term, is a physiological stage of grape evolution where the berry stops accumulating mass and starts accumulating sugar. More visibly, red grapes start their color change from green, while white grapes take on more of a yellow tint. Both red and white grapes start to soften. [For more about what's happening chemically, check out this veraison post from the archives.] This landmark comes roughly six weeks before the onset of harvest, and gives us our best estimate for when harvest will begin.

We didn't see any evidence of color in the vineyard until late last week, and it wasn't until this week that there was enough color change to be worth photographing. Now that it's started, I thought it would be fun to give you a visual tour. I'll start with Syrah, usually the first Rhone red to enter version and the fastest to change colors:

Veraison 2020 - syrah

It's important to note that this cluster is somewhat more advanced than the average one. Even at the top of the hills, many of the Syrah clusters are green. At the bottom of the hills, there's very little color change to be found. And as for the other grapes, Mourvedre is the one where we're seeing significant color change. If you know that Mourvedre is almost always one of our last grapes to harvest, you might be surprised. But it isn't always last to enter veraison; it just takes a long time to go from first veraison to first harvest:

Veraison 2020 - mourvedre
It took some significant searching by both Neil and me to find any color in Grenache. The best we could do is this one cluster, with a few red berries in a sea of green:

Veraison 2020 - grenache

As for Counoise, it's still completely green. The cluster below is just one example; I could have pointed the camera just about anywhere and shown you more or less the same thing:

Veraison 2020 - counoise

Although the veraison posts you're likely seeing from your favorite wineries may make it seem like veraison is a moment, like Christmas, it's probably better understood as a continuum, like winter, and first veraison is like first frost, or first snowfall. It will likely be a few weeks before even all the Syrah clusters are red, and probably six weeks until the last clusters of later grapes like Mourvedre and Counoise have finished coloring up. 

While six weeks is a good basic guide for the duration between veraison and harvest, it's not totally constant, and can be influenced by the weather that we get in the interim, as well as by the amount of fruit the vines are carrying and the inherent tendencies of the different varieties. For example, we noted first veraison on July 30th in both 2010 and 2019. In 2019, perfect ripening conditions (consistently very-warm-but-not-hot weather) in August and September gave us a short runup before our estate harvest began September 4th. In 2010 vintage, a very cool August delayed the start of harvest compared to 2019 by nearly two full weeks, to September 16th. The last decade is compiled in the chart below, with each year linked to my blog post about that year's veraison:

Year First Veraison Noted Estate Harvest Begins # of Days
2010 July 30 September 16 48
2011 August 5 September 20 46
2012 July 25 September 5 42
2013 July 17 August 26 40
2014 July 9 August 23 45
2015 July 18 August 26 39
2016 July 13 August 18 36
2017 July 20 August 30 41
2018 July 29 September 10 43
2019 July 30 September 4 36
2020 July 21 ? ?

Using the range of durations between first veraison and first harvest (36 to 48 days) we can have good confidence that we'll begin picking sometime between August 26th and September 7th. The weather between now and then will determine where in the range we'll fall. 

What's next for the vineyard? We'll watch the different grapes go through veraison. What starts like a trickle quickly becomes a flood, and the view in the vineyard changes daily. Grenache is sure to start to color up soon, and Counoise a bit later. White grapes too stretch out across a continuum; in fact, Viognier has already started veraison, although the visible changes are subtle enough that a photograph doesn't really show anything. Vermentino and Marsanne will move into veraison on the earlier side, Grenache Blanc and Picpoul in the middle, and Roussanne bringing up the rear, as usual. It's an exciting time. We'll be posting regular photos of veraison's progress on our Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram pages. In the cellar, we're bottling the last of our 2018 reds, refilling those barrels and foudres with our newly-blended 2019s, and starting the process of pulling out and cleaning all the tanks and equipment we'll be using once harvest begins.

So, while veraison doesn't mean we know exactly when we'll start to see fruit, it is the most useful signpost we have. And we know that the clock is ticking.

Veraison 2020 - pinot


Tasting the wines in the 2020 VINsider "Collector's Edition" shipment

Each summer, I taste through library vintages of our Esprit and Esprit Blanc to choose the wines for the upcoming VINsider Wine Club Collector's Edition shipment. We created the Collector's Edition version of our VINsider Wine Club back in 2009 to give our biggest fans a chance to see what our flagship wines were like aged in perfect conditions. Members also get a slightly larger allocation of the current release of Esprits to track as they evolve. This club gives us a chance show off our wines' ageworthiness, and it's been a great success, generating a waiting list each year since we started it.

This year, our selections will be the 2012 Esprit de Tablas and the 2014 Esprit de Tablas Blanc. Although both vintages were warm and sunny, and that showed up in the wines we made those years, 2012 was the first dry year after two wet ones, and the vineyard really showed no signs of stress all growing season, by 2014 we were starting to see the effects of our drought in lower yields and a denser, chewier lushness. That said, both wines showed a lovely balance of fruit and mineral, structure and openness, and richness and elegance when I tasted them today. The pair:

CE 2020 Wines

My tasting notes:

  • 2014 Esprit de Tablas Blanc: Lovely medium gold. Rich on the nose, with aromas of gingersnap, lacquered wood, yellow pear, and sweet green herbs. The palate is similarly exuberant, with rich texture and flavors of baked spiced pear and honey. A little pithy Grenache Blanc tannin kicked in on the finish, ushering in a briny minerality that was a welcome counterpoint to the wine's lushness. 72% Roussanne, 23% Grenache Blanc, 5% Picpoul Blanc.  Delicious now, and will certainly be good for another 5-10 years or more.
  • 2012 Esprit de Tablas: A deep nose of iodine, soy marinade, cassis, and chalky minerality. The mouth shows bittersweet chocolate and black cherry notes, warmed by sweet baking spices. The finish is long, with good tannins, plum skin, and black tea, and the 2012 vintage's signature freshness. 40% Mourvedre, 30% Grenache, 21% Syrah, 9% Counoise. It's already deepened notably since my last tasting of it just over a year ago, and my sense is that it's only getting better. Still, it's lovely now, and anyone who pops one open upon arrival is going to be very, very happy.

So how have the wines changed? Both have deepened since bottling. The flavors in the Esprit Blanc have shifted from fresh pear to poached pear, and from new honey to something more like creme brulee. The flavors in the Esprit have shifted from more red-fruited to something poised between red and black, and the texture has become richer. And yet they're both still youthful enough that anyone who loved them when they were young will feel like they're visiting an old friend. And, of course, they're nowhere near the end of their lives, so collectors who like a fully mature profile can wait another decade easily. 

The complete Collector's Edition shipment is awfully exciting, at least to me, between the combination of the library vintages and the variety of new wines. I'm really loving the vibrancy and freshness of all the 2018s, and am excited to share some of our first of the luscious 2019s:

  • 2 bottles of 2012 Esprit de Tablas
  • 1 bottle of 2014 Esprit de Tablas Blanc
  • 3 bottles of 2018 Esprit de Tablas
  • 2 bottles of 2018 Esprit de Tablas Blanc
  • 1 bottle of 2018 En Gobelet
  • 1 bottle of 2018 Grenache
  • 1 bottle of 2019 Cotes de Tablas Blanc
  • 1 bottle of 2019 Grenache Blanc

We will be adding to the Collector's Edition membership, subject to available space, in the next few weeks. If you're on the waiting list, you should be receiving an email soon with news, one way or the other, of whether you've made it on for this round. We add members, once a year, in the order in which we received applications to the waiting list. If you are currently a VINsider member and interested in getting on the waiting list, you can upgrade to the Collector's Edition online or by giving our wine club office a call. And if you are not currently a member, but would like to be, you can sign up for the VINsider Wine Club Collector's Edition, with all the benefits of VINsider Wine Club membership while you're on the waiting list.

Those of you who are members, I'd love to hear your thoughts.  And thank you, as always, for your patronage. We are grateful, and don't take it for granted.


Which of the many Covid-19 changes to the wine industry will prove enduring?

Usually, at this time of year, I'm locking in the plans for the market visits I'll be making for the busy fall selling season. When I travel, I typically spend my days riding around with distributor reps calling on restaurant and retail accounts to show them our new releases, and my evenings hosting in-store tastings and winemaker dinners to help those same accounts tell the Tablas Creek story to their customers. But I won't be visiting any out-of-state markets the rest of 2020. That's for sure, and I think the first half of 2021 is likely to be more of the same.

Instead, I've been scheduling Zoom meetings and arranging for sample deliveries to wholesale accounts, working on a national strategy to organize virtual tastings around the releases of the 2018 Esprit de Tablas and Esprit de Tablas Blanc, trying to figure out what sorts of trade visits to Tablas Creek we can safely host, and finalizing details with my guest for Wednesday's Instagram Live broadcast.

Jason on video chat with Sadie

I think it's safe to say that this pandemic will be a generation-defining event, in the way that 9-11 was, or the Vietnam War. Covid has spurred changes large and small to nearly everyone's personal and work lives. I've been thinking a lot about which of the changes that we're making to our business will be things that will endure even after the pandemic is in the rear-view mirror, and which will fade away as we get back to normal life. Here are my current thoughts.

Things that seem like they will endure

  • Virtual trade tastings. These sorts of tastings have been (in my opinion) exceptionally effective. We've figured out how to rebottle wines into sample bottles and get those samples to the restaurant and retail buyers (and media) in a relatively cost-effective way. Then, over Zoom, we can present the wines, have a conversation, show photos, answer (and ask) questions, and generally be interactive. Compare this to the closest thing in the before world: a trade lunch or trade seminar. People have to physically get to your location, you always get tons of cancellations, it's expensive, and it's inflexible. What you lose from being online is negligible, but what you gain is massive. People can be anywhere. There are no commute costs and no one cancels because they're stuck in traffic. You can add people up to the last minute, and you can even record the events for people who couldn't join you to watch later.    
  • An increased focus on reaching consumers online with live events. At Tablas Creek, Neil and I both started doing live broadcasts weekly at the beginning of the pandemic, him on Facebook and me on Instagram. They've both been sufficiently compelling that although we've moved to an ever-other-week schedule, we're planning on keeping them going indefinitely. I've written about how one of the things this pandemic has done is encourage us (and other wineries) to meet consumers where they are, rather than force them to come to us. This is a great way to do this, at very low cost, and they're archived and posted on our social media channels for people to revisit at their leisure. 
  • Shift toward e-commerce and delivery. Our baseline of weekly phone and internet orders during the pandemic was roughly three and a half times what it was last year. That's a huge increase. I know that some of it was an unsustainable surge in people stocking up, and some of it was that everyone was at home cooking instead of out at restaurants (and so they needed to buy wine to go with those meals). But that's a lot of customers who now know how to use the online tools who didn't before, and I think it's extremely unlikely that the baseline will go down to where it was before. I've read in other industries that the pandemic spurred five years of changes in behavior in a few months. That sounds right to me, at least for this metric.
  • Tastings by appointment at wineries. We've always been proud that you didn't need an appointment to taste at Tablas Creek, and felt that allowing someone who is recommended to visit to make a spur-of-the-moment decision to do so was central to our mission to spread the word on the Rhone Rangers category. But we realized that there was no way that we could control our flow of tasters (which then allows us to maintain distancing and ensure a good experience for those who come) without appointments. So, we implemented them. The results have been quite positive. The average sale per customer has gone up about 13%, as have wine club conversions, and we haven't lost much traffic, because when visitors see that Saturday is sold out, they've been booking Friday or Sunday visits instead. That means we can give everyone better experiences, and we've seen the results in sales and club signups. I can easily imagine not wanting to go back.
  • Fewer wine cruises. We've hosted wonderful cruises that brought people to Beaucastel and around French, Spanish, and Italian wine regions each odd-numbered year since 2013. And we were far from the only ones. By the past few years, it seemed like every winery, wine region, and wine association was sponsoring a wine cruise somewhere. I don't think they will go away, but I do think that we'll see fewer of them, as I think it will take a long time for people's tolerance for close quarters and enclosed spaces to return to where it was pre-Covid.
  • Wine and drinks to-go from restaurants. One of the relief measures that most states passed in the immediate aftermath of shut-down orders was to allow restaurants to sell beer, wine, and cocktails for takeout with their food. And it's been wonderful, with really no negative impacts on anyone that I can think of. While a few places might re-enact restrictions on this business, I think most of them will stay in place, not least because restaurants are likely to be struggling with reduced capacity or outside dining only for quite a long time. By the time things get back to normal, I just can't see state governments choosing to punish restaurants by taking away this revenue source. 

Things that likely won't endure

  • The end of wine festivals. There just aren't going to be wine festivals, at least not as we know them, until there's a Covid vaccine. Sure, events will move online. (Along those lines, if you want to experience the famously exclusive Aspen Food & Wine Classic, you can do so online for free. One of our wines is even included in a seminar!) But I don't think that this spells the end of wine festivals, because the online experience is so far removed from what you get if you go to an event and can choose from hundreds of wines from dozens of wineries, and sample tastes from scores of restaurants. That doesn't translate online very well, and as soon as people feel safe in crowds, I expect these sorts of events to come roaring back.
  • Virtual consumer tastings. We pivoted to offer virtual wine tastings during the three months when our tasting room was closed. And we enjoyed them, and got lots of positive feedback. But as things have moved toward reopening, we've seen demand fall pretty sharply. In April, we sold 58 of our virtual tasting packs per week. In May, that declined to 23 per week. In June, it fell to 8 per week. Some of that was other wineries jumping into that same space. But a lot of it was, I think, Zoom fatigue, and the fact that sitting in front of a computer is a pale reflection of a winery visit, no matter how engaging a winery tries to make it. We're going to plan to continue to offer virtual tastings, but I don't expect the demand to be huge. The sorts of virtual events that I do think will endure are those that offer experiences that aren't a knockoff of what you can get at a winery, like panel discussions including far-flung members of the wine community, and offering deep insights into regions, grapes, or techniques. 
  • Cheap wine shipping. There were a ton of pressures, both short- and long-term, for wineries to offer free or discounted shipping during the first round of stay-at-home orders. And we did, offering $10 flat-rate shipping for more than three months. It seemed the least we could do to help people sheltering at home, and we were worried that the closure of restaurants would mean that a big outlet for our wines would disappear, leaving us with lots of extra inventory. As it turned out, we did lose most of that restaurant business, but the growth in direct sales mostly made up for it, though at the cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars in shipping subsidies. Boutique wineries can generally not easily replicate Amazon and other e-commerce giants' infrastructure of having warehouses around the country, and therefore being able to offer fast, cheap ground shipping. Many wines are made in tiny quantities, and the logistical challenges of splitting, say, 70 total cases of inventory of our newly-released 2019 Picardan among multiple warehouses and our tasting room are really thorny. Because wine is perishable, two-day shipping or faster is pretty much non-negotiable. And because wine bottles are heavy, air shipping is expensive. Even with the better rates that our fulfillment center can negotiate because of their volume, it's around $100 for us to send a case of wine to the east coast, and not much less to go to Texas or the Midwest. That's a lot of cost to eat if you're offering free or steeply discounted shipping, particularly if your wines aren't $50 or more per bottle. Essentially, nothing has changed since this Twitter thread I shared in February. All together, this means that I don't think that most wineries will be able to keep up free or nearly-free shipping indefinitely:   

So, I'm curious. What did I miss? Any big wine industry changes that you're seeing that you think are here to stay? Or that will be relegated to the dustbin of history as soon as we have a Covid vaccine? Please share in the comments.


Tasting every vintage of Esprit de Tablas Blanc and Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc, 2001-2019

As it has across America and around the world, the pandemic has disrupted our routines in ways large and small. The large ways I've talked about at some length here on the blog. But bigger questions like if and how we open safely, or what the market impacts of nation-wide closures will be are just a part of the story. Another, less dramatic part is that we don't have the same rhythm of events here at the winery. For example, each summer we look at a specific wine by opening every vintage we've made. We use this tasting to pick eight to ten of these vintages for a public retrospective tasting. These are some of our favorite events each year.

Enter 2020. We aren't able to host large gatherings here at the winery. So, no public summer retrospective tasting. But I realized that it's still important for us to continue to make regular explorations through our wine library, both so that we have the context to make the right winemaking decisions with our most recent vintage, and so that our fans who may be cellaring our bottles have some insight into how they're developing. 

With that in the background, I decided to get our cellar team together and open all the Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc and Esprit de Tablas Blanc wines we've made, from the debut vintage in 2001 to the 2019 that we blended recently. It made for quite a morning:

Amanda opening Esprit Blanc

I recognize that it may seem strange to some people to talk about the aging curve of white wines. And for many grapes, I wouldn't recommend it. But Rhone whites, and particularly Roussanne, have the structure and richness (and just enough acidity) to evolve in an interesting way for decades. Beaucastel's white wines, and particularly their Roussanne Vieilles Vignes, are renowned for lasting generations. Want a professional opinion? No less an authority than Jeb Dunnuck, who got his start writing the Rhone Report before covering the Rhone for Robert Parker's Wine Advocate and more recently setting out on his own, recently tweeted this:

Joining me for this tasting were Winemaker Neil Collins, Senior Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi, Assistant Winemaker Craig Hamm, and Cellar Assistant Amanda Weaver. My notes on the wines are below. I've linked each wine to its page on our Web site if you want detailed technical information, professional reviews, or our tasting notes from when the wines were first released.

  • 2001 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (44% Roussanne, 22% Viognier, 18% Grenache Blanc, 16% Marsanne): I thought this was a little less impressive than it has been the last few times I've opened it, with a nose of hazelnuts over crème caramel, with a little eucalyptus lift. Rich and butterscotchy on the palate, with lemon custard and a little pithy bite on the finish. Nice elegance, but more signs of age than I'm used to seeing in this wine. I'm not sure if it was just this bottle, or if after nearly 20 years it's starting its long decline, but we would never have thought that it would have gone this long.
  • 2002 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (70% Roussanne, 25% Grenache Blanc, 5% Viognier): The deeper golden color and the nose both show more age and ripeness than the 2001, with aromas of almond brittle, marzipan, and burnt sugar. There is a nice minty note that is particularly welcome given the density of the other aromas. On the palate, rich and lovely, with some age, but not over the hill: crème brulée, marmalade, and a lovely, long, clean finish with flavors of candied orange peel. I got a little alcoholic heat on the finish. A great showcase for the density and power of Roussanne.
  • 2003 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (68% Roussanne, 27% Grenache Blanc, 5% Viognier): Similarly golden as the 2002. On the nose, toasted hazelnuts, star anise, clove, graham cracker, and burnt sugar. The mouth showed the same caramel, nut, and baking spice flavors that the nose suggested but also livelier acids than the 2002. A little pithy bite on the finish provided nice lift too. Seemingly at the end of a long, lovely peak.
  • 2004 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (65% Roussanne, 30% Grenache Blanc, 5% Picpoul Blanc): The first year that we included Picpoul in the blend, and while the color was similarly golden as the 2002 and 2003, the nose showed more lift: jasmine, lemon custard, and the first wine in the tasting to show the briny sea spray minerality on the nose that we've come to look for. On the palate, long and precise, with flavors of salted caramel, mango, candied ginger, and minty eucalyptus. The minerality carried through to the finish, with a crushed rock note lifting the beeswax impression.
  • 2005 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (70% Roussanne, 25% Grenache Blanc, 5% Picpoul Blanc): A less golden hue than 2002-2004. The nose is spicier and less rich/caramely too: like grilled rye bread, lemongrass, and aromatic bitters. The mouth was quite a contrast, with very rich texture and the impression of super-ripe almost vin de paille-like apricot and honey flavors, though no residual sugar. On the finish, lingering crème brulée and peach liqueur notes, with a little sweet green herby character for relief. A little disjointed for me: lots of interesting elements but not quite together. 
  • 2006 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (65% Roussanne, 30% Grenache Blanc, 5% Picpoul Blanc): The youthful pale gold color that we see in younger Esprit Blanc. On the nose, also the first one that reminded us all of what we're making now: new honey, baked pear, preserved lemon, and sweet spice that Chelsea nailed as cinnamon stick. The palate was lovely too, with flavors of brown sugar and lemon cake and a little pithy bite leading into a finish of honey, saline minerality, and a little cedary spice. Gorgeous and integrated. A clear favorite among the older vintages.
  • 2007 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (68% Roussanne, 22% Grenache Blanc, 10% Picpoul Blanc): A spicy nose with menthol, charcuterie, sweet oak spice, and a little pungent character that I noted as aromatic bitters and Neil described better as charred orange peel. The mouth is rich, with great texture and flavors of Seville oranges. Clean and long, with salty, piney notes providing lift over richer honey and caramel notes on the finish. I haven't always loved this vintage of the Esprit Blanc because of its unrelenting richness, but this showing was outstanding.
  • 2008 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (65% Roussanne, 30% Grenache Banc, 5% Picpoul Blanc): After three more youthful vintages, this 2008 felt older again, with aromas of spun sugar, baked golden delicious apples, and new leather. The mouth is full, bordering on heavy, with flavors of orange creamsicle, preserved lemon, and charcuterie. It did improve with time in the glass, which suggests that it may be in a closed phase. Decant if you're drinking one now, or wait a year or two.
  • 2009 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (62% Roussanne, 26% Grenache Blanc, 12% Picpoul Blanc): Nice richness on the nose, honey and lacquered wood, nectarine and white flowers, with a sweet green note like newly cut grass. On the palate, both fruity and yeasty: imagine pineapple upside down cake, but dry. Tremendous texture. Lingering flavors of honeycomb and candied orange peel, enlivened by fresh green herbs on the long, focused finish. A great showing for this wine, which like the 2007 I often found in its youth so dense that it was easier to admire than love. 
  • 2010 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (60% Roussanne, 35% Grenache Blanc, 5% Picpoul Blanc): An immediately appealing nose of brioche, fresh pear, new honey, and sweet spice. The mouth is similarly lovely: fresh pineapple, crushed rock, and poached pear, with a rich, soft texture but lively acids cleaning things up. On the finish, candied grapefruit and beeswax. I've always loved this vintage, from our coolest-ever year, and this showing was no exception.
  • 2011 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (64% Roussanne, 26% Grenache Blanc, 10% Picpoul Blanc): From a similarly cool vintage as 2010, but from a frost year that gave more density and a linear firmness to everything we made. Aromas of lemon, lemongrass, and minty juniper. On the palate, rich but notably dry: preserved lemon and savory custard, quince, and a little savory oak. There was also a whey-like character that we didn't find in any other wine in the sequence. Unique and distinctive, if a bit polarizing.
  • 2012 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (75% Roussanne, 20% Grenache Blanc, 5% Picpoul Blanc): A reticent nose, then like a quieter version of 2010, showing sea spray, honey, and Thai basil. The mouth is more generous and open, with vanilla custard, fresh honey, and caramel apple flavors. The finish showed a little pithy red apple skin bite, against a backdrop of tasted marshmallow and baked pear. This has been a favorite in most past vertical tastings, and it was less impressive this time. It's about the point at which it would enter a closed period, so I'd recommend people be patient and wait.
  • 2013 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (71% Roussanne, 21% Grenache Blanc, 8% Picpoul Blanc): An intensely Roussanne nose of jasmine and sarsaparilla, honeysuckle, key lime, and sweet resin. The mouth is rich but dry, with flavors of pineapple, honeycomb, and vanilla custard. There's plenty of structure, and a very long, savory finish. It seems like it's going to have a long, interesting life.
  • 2014 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (72% Roussanne, 23% Grenache Blanc, 5% Picpoul Blanc): Rich on the nose, with aromas of gingersnap, lacquered wood, yellow pear, and sweet green herbs. The palate is similarly exuberant, with rich texture and flavors of baked spiced pear and honey. A little pithy Grenache Blanc tannin kicked in on the finish, ushering in a briny minerality that was a welcome counterpoint to the wine's lushness.
  • 2015 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (55% Roussanne, 28% Grenache Blanc, 17% Picpoul Blanc): The vintage with our highest-ever percentage of Picpoul showed a notably different nose: more tropical, with aromas of papaya, passion fruit, and sweet spice. The mouth shows more delicacy than most of our other vintages, with flavors of nectarine, peppered citrus, lovely freshness, and a finish with lemon drop, beeswax, and salty minerality. I loved this, but it was a bit of an outlier stylistically.
  • 2016 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (75% Roussanne, 18% Grenache Blanc, 7% Picpoul Blanc): Rich, dense, concentrated Roussanne character on the nose, a little like the 2013: lacquered wood, grilled lemon, maple syrup, and ripe pear. The palate was rich yet precise: honeydew melon, lemon meringue, and a little cedary oak. Gorgeous key lime acids come out on the finish, leaving a minty, tropical lift.
  • 2017 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (68% Roussanne, 17% Grenache Blanc, 7% Picpoul Blanc, 4% Clairette Blanche, 4% Picardan). Our first vintage with the two new grapes included. A really pretty nose, somehow both deep and lively: honeysuckle, new leather, and sweet oak. The mouth is vibrant, with flavors of grilled pineapple, mandarin peel, lemon custard, and baked apple. The finish is lively and lovely, with honey and sweet spice. A consensus favorite among our newer vintages.
  • 2018 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (66% Roussanne, 21% Grenache Blanc, 8% Picpoul Blanc, 3% Picardan, 2% Clairette Blanche). Bottled this past December and not yet released. A nose of yellow roses, fresh pear, yellow raspberries, and an orange leaf-like sharpness. On the palate, lovely and high-toned, with fragrant fresh honey and green herb character. Plenty of weight and texture, but the flavors are still deepening to match. Should be great to watch as we get toward its fall release.
  • 2019 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (63% Roussanne, 20% Grenache Blanc, 14% Picpoul Blanc, 3% Picardan). Just blended, and currently sitting in large oak. A really bright nose of Meyer lemon, minty spice, and a little yeasty leesiness that seems like a relic from its recently-finished fermentation. A lovely rich texture but also tons of Keffir lime brightness, flavors of pineapple core, passion fruit, and white pepper. Still a baby, with lots of time both in barrel and bottle before its release in the fall of 2021, but there's nothing here that changes my mind that 2019 will go down as one of our greatest-ever vintages.

A few concluding thoughts:

  • The overall quality of the wines was exceptionally high. I asked everyone around the table to pick four favorites, and the wines that got multiple votes were 2001 (3), 2006 (3), 2009 (3), 2013 (2), and 2017 (5). But there were wonderful vintages that didn't get "favorite" votes too. The wines do change and evolve, and you should do your best to explore if you prefer your Esprit Blancs older, younger, or somewhere in the middle. But across the board, we thought that they were great showcases for the texture, richness, structure, spice and minerality we think this property imbues in our white wines.
  • We were happy with the direction we've taken in recent vintages. The last three years, which incorporate to varying degrees additions of Picardan and Clairette Blanche, all showed really well, the zesty acids seeming to highlight the Roussanne-driven richness without thinning the wines' texture. I also think we were all happy with the amount of oak that we were putting on these wines. There was a stretch where we felt they weren't showing quite enough of the spice and weight of the large French oak we love, and then it took us a vintage or two to get that dialed in. 
  • The wines do move around. The outstanding showings for vintages like 2007 and 2009, which weren't our favorites in many past tastings, and the fact that some vintages we loved last time out (most notably 2008 and 2012) seemed a little disjointed in this tasting, do point what an evolutionary roller coaster Roussanne can be. I dove more deeply into the phases of how Roussanne ages in a blog last year, if you're interested in a rough timeline of what to expect. Nothing in this tasting changed my conclusions from that blog that we'd been underestimating the duration of all Roussanne's evolutionary stages.
  • Don't forget the vintage chart. We update this chart several times a year based on the results of tastings like these, wines we open in the normal course of life, and feedback we get from customers and fans. It's there whenever you want it.

After decades in the wine wilderness, the higher-acid Rhone white grapes are ready for their spotlight

2019 was a watershed year for us, in a number of ways. We celebrated our 30th anniversary. Our long-time Winemaker Neil Collins was named Paso Robles Wine Industry Person of the Year. We were invited to be the pilot vineyard in the new Regenerative Organic Certification that we think will become sustainable farming's gold standard. We were honored by our first-ever feature article in the Robert Parker Wine Advocate. But for me the most significant achievements were grape-related. First, we completed our collection of Chateauneuf-du-Pape grapes with the grafting of Muscardin into the vineyard. And second, we got our first-ever harvest from three new grapes: Cinsaut, Vaccarese, and Bourboulenc.

Bourboulenc's arrival had particular significance because it meant that we finally had all the approved Chateauneuf-du-Pape white grapes in the cellar, joining Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Picpoul Blanc, Clairette Blanche, and Picardan. (As well as Viognier and Marsanne, which are allowed in Cotes du Rhone though not Chateauneuf du Pape.)

Rhone whites are generally thought of as settling on the richer, more textural, lower-acid side of the white wine spectrum. And that's definitely one face of what the Rhone offers. But it's far from the only face of the family. It includes rich, low-acid wines (like Viognier). Rich, mid-acid wines (like Roussanne). Rich, high-acid wines (like Grenache Blanc and Bourboulenc). Medium-weight, low-acid wines (like Marsanne). Medium-weight, high-acid wines (like Picpoul and Picardan). And light-weight, high-acid wines (like Clairette Blanche). The fact that the wines that were preferred by growers beginning particularly in the 1970s tended toward the richer, lower-acid part of the spectrum (think the rise of Roussanne, Marsanne, and, most dramatically, Viognier, of which just 35 acres were planted in total in the late-1960s) was a function of the marketplace's preferences toward powerful, aromatic wines, and of what worked in that comparatively chilly decades that preceded the 1990's.

Starting with the 1990s we've seen three decades each warmer than the last, and each the warmest on record world-wide. With the climate warming around the world, all grapes achieve ripeness more reliably than before. I remember my dad commenting five or six years ago that the warming climate had basically eliminated bad vintages in France (typically characterized by thin, acidic wines from cold, rainy years). Of course, those warmer years also produce wines with less acid and more sugar (and therefore more alcohol and body). That reduces the risk of growing the grapes on the higher-acid, lower-body edge of the spectrum, because they're likely to get to full ripeness and have enough body. It also makes the lower-acid grapes more at risk of being heavy or out-of-balance. For this reason, Clairette Blanche is currently seeing a resurgence of interest in Chateauneuf-du-Pape for its ability to bring freshness and elegance to the ever-weightier Roussanne and Grenache Blanc. 

2019 white varietal wines

Enter the forgotten Rhone varieties: Picpoul Blanc, Clairette Blanche, Bourboulenc, and Picardan. All four have high acids at harvest. All four saw years of decline in the Rhone, and because international markets tend to follow what is in demand in a grape's homeland, all four were late to arrive in California. None pre-dated our arrival. And even as we brought in Roussanne and Marsanne, Grenache Blanc and Viognier, we decided to wait to focus on these less-planted white varieties. It wasn't until we saw what a revelation Grenache Blanc turned out to be here in Paso Robles that we dipped our toes into the water, importing Picpoul Blanc in 1997, planting it in 2000, and getting our first small crop in 2003. All it did was force its way into (and displace Viognier out of) our Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc in 2004, just its second harvest. 

Our next round of imports began in 2003, but because these grapes were so rare that we had to take field cuttings, all our imports had virus and had to be cleaned up by UC Davis. The grapes trickled out of quarantine, Clairette Blanche in 2009 (we planted it in 2010) and Picardan in 2012 (we planted it in 2013). Bourboulenc didn't make it until 2015 (we planted it in 2016). But both Clairette and Picardan showed Picpoul's precocity, finding their way into Esprit Blanc in 2017, their fifth and second vintage, respectively, at Tablas Creek.

It probably shouldn't have surprised us. We're convinced that grapes like Picpoul and (to a lesser extent, Grenache Blanc) are victims of a vicious circle in France. Because they're not much respected and don't command a high price on the market, they tend to be only viable economically if they're cropped heavily. So, they're usually overcropped and then earmarked for quick fermentations and inexpensive bottles, which reinforces that they're of low value. Here in California, we crop them modestly, give them the same attention in the cellar as our other grapes, and then allow them to find their place in the blends and varietal bottlings through the blind tastings that kick off our blending trials each year.

For the first time, in 2019, we have all four as varietal bottlings to share with you. They were bottled the week of June 8th, and I opened these four high-acid wines this past week in order to write tasting notes for our Web site. I thought it would be fun to share them with you now. I've linked all the wines (except the Bourboulenc, for which we're still waiting for a bottle photo) to its page on our Web site if you want detailed production notes.

  • 2019 Clairette Blanche: a clean mineral nose of lemongrass, lychee, and honeydew melon. The palate is bright and yet mouth-filling, with flavors of fresh apricot, lemon, chalky minerality, and a little sweet anise-tinged spice. The finish is clean, long, and mouth-watering, with a lingering citrus note.
  • 2019 Picardan: clean but rich aromas of nectarine, yellow raspberry, and sun-dried hay. On the palate, quite rich texture balanced by yellow plum flavors and a preserved lemon pithy bite. The finish is long and peachy, with a lingering note of saline minerality.
  • 2019 Picpoul Blanc: an immensely appealing nose of yellow roses, fresh pineapple, sea spray, and sweet green herbs. The palate is mouth-watering, with flavors of salted pineapple, yellow raspberry, and briny minerality. Tropical and saline notes come back out on the long, vibrant finish. Drink now and over the next few years.
  • 2019 Bourboulenc: a rich golden color. On the nose, aromas of marmalade, caramel, and a briny sea spray minerality. The palate is richly textured yet bright, with flavors of mandarin and nectarine, and a little Meyer lemon pithy bite coming out on the long, minerally finish.

We didn't make much of any of these wines: just 70 cases of Clairette Blanche, 80 cases of Picardan, 145 cases of Bourboulenc, and 280 cases of Picpoul. And because we have so many whites from 2019 -- not just these, but Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Marsanne, Viognier, and our blends -- we've decided to space out their releases. We'll be announcing the release of the first two (Clairette and Picardan) to club members this week. Picpoul will follow next month, and Bourboulenc will go out to members of our VINsider "white-only" club in September.

After my tasting of these four wines, I just can't imagine that these grapes will remain obscure for long. Although each had its own personality, every one had texture and richness, vibrant fruit and refreshing acids, and all showed the saline minerality we attribute to our calcareous soils. We can't wait to share them with you.


Why Calcareous Soils Matter for Vineyards and Wine Grapes

What do regions like Champagne, Burgundy, Chablis, Tuscany, Alsace, the Loire, Saint-Emilion in Bordeaux, and Chateauneuf-du-Pape all have in common? They've all got soils that are variously described as chalky, decomposed limestone, and calcareous. In chemical terms, all are high in calcium carbonate, the basic building block of marine life.

So too does much of the Paso Robles AVA, particularly the sub-AVAs of the Adelaida District, Willow Creek District, Templeton Gap, El Pomar, and Santa Margarita Ranch. In all these regions, if you find a road cut, the rocks will be chalky and white, and if you dig into them you'll find marine fossils, from fish scales to oyster shells to whale bones. Yes, ten million years ago, our part of Paso Robles was under the Pacific Ocean. This makes our land, in geologic terms, relatively young. When they make their way to the surface, the rocks are creamy white and surprisingly lightweight:

Calcareous Soil on Scruffy Hill

What Are Calcareous Soils?
Calcareous soils are formed from the crushed up and decayed shells and bones of sea creatures. These layers settle down to the bottom of shallow oceans and, depending on how much heat and pressure they're subjected to, can be as soft as talc or chalk, or as hard as limestone or even marble. Of course, in order for plants to be able to access the calcium carbonate, it needs to be friable: soft enough for roots to penetrate. This means that even when you hear about a region having "limestone soils" the value to the plants isn't in the limestone itself, but in areas where the limestone has decayed into smaller particles.

From a grapevine's perspective, it doesn't really matter if the calcareous soils come from the erosion of limestone (as in Burgundy) or whether they never quite got heated and compressed enough to become rock (as in Paso Robles). The net impact is the same. There are four principal reasons why these soils are so often good for wine quality.

Wet limestone
In winter, the calcareous clay absorbs moisture,
turning dark.  Note the roots that have pene-
trated between the layers of clay.

Benefit 1: Water Retention & Drainage
Calcium-rich clay soils like those that we have here have water-retention properties that are ideal for growing grapevines. Some water is essential for cation exchange -- the process by which plants take up nutrients through their roots. But grapevines do poorly in waterlogged soils, which increase the likelihood of root disease. Calcium-rich clay soils have a chemical structure composed of sheets of molecules held together in layers by ionic attractions. This structure permits the soil to retain moisture in periods of dry weather but allows for good drainage during heavy rains.

The porosity of our soils mean that they act like a sponge, absorbing the rainfall that comes in the winter and spring months and holding it for the vines to access during the growing season. We've done backhoe cuts in late summer, after it hasn't rained for several months, and while the top few feet of soil are dry, there's moisture in the layers six feet down and more.

At the same time, we never see water pooling around the vines. Part of that is that our whole property is hilly. But hillside vineyards in other regions still end up with standing water at the bottoms of the hills. We never do. That balance of water retention and drainage is ideal, and it allows us to dry-farm in the summer months of what is essentially a desert climate. 

Benefit 2: Higher Acids at Harvest
We've had anecdotal evidence of calcium-rich soils producing wines with more freshness for years. At the symposium on Roussanne that we conducted last decade, producers from non-calcareous regions (from Napa to the Sierra Foothills to vineyards in eastern Paso Robles with alluvial soils) consistently reported harvesting Roussanne roughly half a pH point higher than those of us from calcareous regions like west Paso Robles and the Santa Ynez Valley. But the chemistry of why this was the case has only become clear in recent years. 

It appears that the key nutrient here is potassium, which is central to the processes by which grapevines lower acidity in berries as fruit ripens. High calcium levels displace potassium in the soils, inhibiting this chemical process and leaving more acidity at any given sugar level. Of course, this can be a challenge. I have friends in other parts of Paso Robles whose pH readings are so low at the sugar levels that we like to pick at (say, 22-24° Brix) that they have no choice but to wait for higher sugars. This can produce wines that carry massive levels of alcohol. But in moderation, it's a wonderful thing. I'm grateful that (unlike in many California regions) we can let malolactic fermentation proceed naturally, producing a creamy mouthfeel without unpleasantly high alcohol levels. In much of California, the higher harvest pH readings mean that they have no choice but to stop the malolactic bacteria from working to preserve the sharper malic acids in the finished wines, for balance. 

Tablas Creek - calcareous rock cut
The calcium-rich layers of the mountain behind
the winery shine bright white in mid-summer

Benefit 3: Root System and Vine Development
Unlike cereals and other annual crops that have shallow root systems, grape vines have deep root systems. This means that the composition of the deeper soil layers is more important for vine health and wine character than that of the topsoil. It also means that amending the soil (by, for example, liming to add calcium) is less effective than is natural replenishment of essential nutrients from deeper layers. 

Grapevine roots are remarkable. They can penetrate dozens of feet into soil in their search for water and nutrients, and they continue to grow throughout the vines' lives. This means that the physical properties of the soil are important: a hardpan layer through which roots cannot penetrate can have a serious negative impact on a vine's output. Calcareous clay's tendency toward flocculation (soil particle aggregation) creates spaces in which water can be stored. In addition, the softness of these soils means that as they dry out, they shrink, creating fissures through which roots penetrate to where more residual moisture can be found. As they get wet, they expand again, opening up yet more terrain for the vines' roots to access. This process repeats itself annually. In our vineyard we've routinely found grapevine roots ten feet deep and deeper in experimental excavations.

Benefit 4: Disease Resistance
Finally, there is evidence that calcium is essential for the formation of disease-resistant berries. Calcium is found in berries in its greatest concentration in the skins, and essential for the creation of strong cell walls and maintaining skin cohesion. However, if calcium is scarce, plants prioritize intracellular calcium over berry skin calcium and berries are more susceptible to enzyme attack and fungal diseases.

Where Are California's Calcareous Soils?
When my dad and the Perrin brothers were looking for a place to found the winery that would become Tablas Creek, calcareous soils were one of three main criteria they were looking to satisfy (the others were sun/heat/cooling and rainfall). But they quickly realized that soils like these are rare in California, except in a crescent of land in the Central Coast between the Santa Cruz Mountains to the north and Lompoc to the south. The portion of this this area that is on the western slope of the coastal mountain ranges is too cold to ripen most Rhone varieties. The western and southern pieces of the Paso Robles AVA, on the eastern slopes of the Santa Lucia Mountains, are home to the state's largest exposed calcareous layers, and it's largely because of this that in 1989 we bought property here.

There's a great story about how they went about finding soils. As they tell it, they decided that it was a lot cheaper and faster to look at road cuts than to hire backhoes and dig their own. They looked for the better part of four years around California without finding soils that excited them. Until they were driving along Peachy Canyon Road one afternoon in 1989, saw one of the many switchbacks where CalTrans had dug into the hillside to make the roadbed, and pulled over to see if the white rocks that they noticed were really what they'd been searching for. The composition looked right, the fossils looked right, and they then brought over a French geologist to confirm their impressions. They put in an offer on the property where we are now later that year.

We've thought since the beginning that finding calcareous soils would be a key to making great wines. Learning the science behind why only underscores the importance that the vineyard's founders put on this search.

Tablas Creek - Calcareous Rocks and Vines

Further Reading:
Thanks to Dr. Thomas J. Rice, Professor Emeritus of Soil Science at Cal Poly, for pointing me in the right direction on some of the trickier geology questions. See also: