Frost damage and recovery... and damage and recovery

Paso Robles has many natural climatic advantages. We don't have to worry about hailstorms in the summer, or rain during harvest. Our humidity is low so mildew isn't usually a big challenge. The chilly summer nights mean that our grapes maintain good acids and get extended hang-times even despite our 320 days of sun each year and our typically hot summer days. But the one natural risk that we deal with each year is spring frosts. And after a decade of avoiding them, 2022 marks their unwelcome return.

During dormancy, frosts are not harmful and in fact usually beneficial. But after budbreak, which began this year in mid-March, any new growth is susceptible to frost damage. Our tools to deal with frosts are limited. We have micro-sprinklers that do a great job, but only enough water to protect our most frost-prone ten acres. We use big fans, which work by mixing the cold air at the surface with the warmer air aloft, to protect our next-most-vulnerable 30 acres. These fans work if there is a defined inversion layer, where above-freezing air is within 10 feet or so of the surface. That happens with a surprisingly large percentage of our spring frosts here, but it's not as reliable as water. As for our other 80 acres of grapevines, on hilltops and steep slopes, they have to fend for themselves. Usually they're OK. 

This year, we first saw some post-budbreak frost nights in mid-April, when several nights saw lows just below freezing and on April 13th temperatures dropped briefly into the upper-20s. Those frosts singed the new growth in several blocks, including some higher blocks that are rarely affected, but they didn't wipe anything out, and it appeared that the frost fans really helped. I would estimate that those frost events cumulatively impacted less than 5% of the property's producing vines, and I was feeling fortunate, on the whole.

Fast-forward to last week. Sometime between 5am and 6am last Wednesday, May 11th, the weather station in the center of Tablas Creek Vineyard registered 30.6°F. That's cold, particularly for this late in the year. And it did some damage in that area, singeing the growth of some of the Tannat, Cinsaut, Counoise, and Syrah. Fortunately, it was below freezing for less than an hour, and it looks like the fan we have set up there kept things from getting too bad. The Cinsaut vine below is on the more-damaged side, and even it isn't a complete loss:

May 2022 Frost - Cinsaut

You can see from the above photo that frost manifests itself, at least after a couple of days, in crispy, brown leaves that look burned. Often it's just part of a vine that gets frozen, with areas of damage as you see at the top and other leaves, shoots, and clusters that are fine. It can feel arbitrary or even capricious, and it's not hard if you walk around the vineyard to find vines with one frozen shoot among a dozen green ones, or one surviving shoot among a dozen frozen ones, as in this Syrah vine:

May 2022 Frost - Syrah

In this central section of the vineyard, which is about 10 acres, I'd estimate damage for our mature sections in the 15% range. That's painful but not crippling. I'm more worried about the two new vineyard blocks in that area, whose young vines got frozen and who don't have the same reserves that older vines do to regrow. I think it's likely that we'll see some vine mortality, but it's too early to know how much.

Unfortunately, a different section of the vineyard got hit much harder. That block, which we call Nipple Flat and whose 11 acres includes blocks of Roussanne, Picpoul, Grenache Blanc, and Vermentino, is at the southern end of the property, closest to Las Tablas Creek. Because it's the property's lowest point, and cold air flows downhill, last Wednesday night was colder, and it stayed cold longer, dropping below 32°F at 3am and bottoming out at 28.1°F at 6:15am. We have a fan there too, but evidently the cold air pooled deep enough that it was blowing below-freezing air around. You can see from the below photo that the swale in the background is all brown, in contrast to the not-quite-as-low section in the foreground that is still green. That lower area (which accounts in my estimate for about 60% of this block) will likely not produce any fruit this year:

May 2022 Frost - Nipple Flat

This isn't the first time we've seen damaging spring frosts. We lost half our crop due to April frosts in 2001, 2009, and 2011 (I even wrote about our 2011 frost on the blog). Those were a little different, earlier in the year (so the vines were less far out) but more widespread, where our frost fans didn't do any good since even at the tops of the hills the temperatures were below freezing. That meant that everything had to re-sprout, and the damage to our production was roughly relative to how far out they were, with the earliest grapes taking the biggest hit.

Because of our experience in those past years, we know pretty well what happens after April frosts. The frozen shoots die back, but the grapevines have enough vigor to sprout secondary buds, and those buds typically carry half the fruit load of the primary buds. You can see a good example from our April frost, in our Grenache. The frost-damaged shoot was still there this week, almost hidden in the canopy of new growth:

April 2022 Frost - Grenache

What happens next with the extensively damaged sections of the vineyard is uncharted waters for us, because of how late this frost event was and how far out the vines were. We assume that they will re-sprout and produce new canes and leaves. Evolutionarily, the vines need to photosynthesize carbohydrates and store up that energy to survive the winter and have a go at making fruit in 2023. Will they set clusters? Maybe a few, but I'm not expecting much, because they've spent a lot of their winter reserves in growth that is now damaged. Any crop they do set is going to be a month at least behind, and we'll have to worry about whether it will be able to ripen before (hopefully) rain and (eventually) frost this November.

In terms of impacts to our 2022 harvest, our biggest worry is Roussanne, where the eight acres on Nipple Flat account for roughly three-quarters of our producing acreage. That will have real impacts on how much Esprit de Tablas Blanc we can make and what its blend will be, and likely will preclude a varietal Roussanne. Our bigger picture, though, is not as dire. The badly-affected blocks represent something like 10% of our producing acreage. When you add in the more minor damage in other blocks between our April and May frost events, we're probably looking at something between a 15% and 20% reduction on the crops that we would have had if we'd avoided frosts. That's not nothing: probably 3,000 or 4,000 lost cases of wine that we'd otherwise be making in 2022.

But it could have been worse. 


With Cesar Perrin back, we welcome Muscardin to the blending table and build a 2021 red vintage that looks outstanding

On Wednesday we finally got to sit down and taste the thirteen red wines from the 2021 vintage we'd built over the past two weeks around the blending table. It was one highlight after another. From the tangy watermelon and blood orange flavors of the Terret Noir to leather, teriyaki, and redcurrant of Mourvedre, the warm spices and elegant minerality of the En Gobelet, and the intense black licorice and olallieberry of the Panoplie, each wine was somehow both supremely itself and clearly reflective of the low-yielding, intensely flavored 2021 vintage. Sure, we wished there were more of many of the wines. And there were some wines we just couldn't make in this scarce vintage. But as we thought after our white blending last month, what there is will be exceptional. 

After a two-year absence, it was great to have Cesar Perrin join us at the table. But while his voice was welcome, our process isn't dependent on any particular participant. Instead, like the Perrins' own system at Beaucastel, we take the blending process in steps and build consensus rather than relying on one lead voice to determine the wines' final profiles. When you have nine family members involved in a multi-generational business, as they do at Beaucastel, it's a good policy and good family relations to make sure everyone is on the same page before you go forward. The same is true with a partnership like Tablas Creek where both founding families have equal ownership. More importantly, we're also convinced it makes better wines.

With the welcome return of Hospice du Rhone in the middle of Cesar's visit, we spread out our tastings more than we often do, beginning by splitting the tasting of the 59 different red lots between the Friday of Hospice and the Monday after. On Friday we tackled Grenache, Counoise, and Pinot Noir. Monday we dove into the more tannin-rich grapes: Mourvedre, Syrah, Tannat, Terret Noir, Vaccarese, Muscardin, Cinsaut and our tiny Cabernet lot. We keep our different harvest lots separate until they've finished fermentation so we can assess their quality and character before we have to decide which wines they make the most sense in. And that's our goal at this first stage of blending: to give each lot a grade that's reflective of its overall quality, and to start to flag lots that we think might be particularly suited to one wine or another. This component tasting is also an opportunity for us to get a sense of which varieties particularly shined or struggled, which helps provide direction as we start to brainstorm about blends. Here's some of the lineup of components:

2022 red blending components in lab

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

  • Grenache (16 lots): Grenache is often a challenge in this first tasting, as it is slow to finish fermentation and some lots are just rounding into form. But it was a highlight in 2021, with the generous fruit and spice we always expect from the grape, and several lots that also had the density and plushness that we get in our best vintages. I gave more than half the lots (nine in total) "1" grades, with one other getting a "1/2". Four "2" lots and two "2/3" lots rounded out the best Grenache showing I can ever remember at this stage. 
  • Counoise (6 lots): A solid showing for Counoise, with all the lots having the lively, spicy Gamay-style juiciness that our varietal Counoise bottling typically reflects. One lot also added the richer, more structured Counoise that we look to use in Esprit. Grades: one "1", two "1/2" grades, two "2"s, and one "2/3".
  • Pinot Noir (1 lot): From the small vineyard in the Templeton Gap that my dad planted outside the house he and my mom built in 2007, where we live now. It's planted to a mix of different Pinot Noir clones, and while in some years we have fermented each clone separately, they all always end up in the Full Circle Pinot Noir. In 2021 we fermented them together, and had just one lot to taste, which balanced Pinot's classic dark cherry and cola flavors with just a little oak. There weren't many choices to make here, but it will be a compelling 2021 Full Circle.
  • Mourvedre (15 lots): Mourvedre was strong as well in 2021, with more powerful structure than we often see, and the meatiness and red fruit that it contributes to our flagship blends on full display. Six lots got "1"s from me, with three others getting "1/2". Only five "2"s and one "3" that will get declassified into Patelin.
  • Cinsaut (1 lot): Our third vintage of Cinsaut, and the largest quantity (and strongest showing) to date. Richer and more structured than the Counoise, with enough grip to think it could contribute to some of the wines we intend for people to lay down. I gave it a "1/2".
  • Syrah (12 lots): Syrah at this stage is easy to appreciate, with its plush dark fruit, spice, and powerful structure. The main question we have, beyond identifying the extraordinary lots from the merely good ones, is in evaluating the different winemaking choices we made and deciding where to best deploy the lots with noteworthy oak or stemmy herbiness. I gave out five "1"s, five "1/2" grades (these included most of those lots with notable stem or oak character, as I felt they weren't necessarily slam dunks for Esprit or Panoplie), just two "2" lots and nothing lower than that.
  • Vaccarese (1 lot): Maybe the surprise of the tasting for most of us, with dark, rich fruit, solid tannic structure, a little floral lift, and a lovely salty minerality on the finish. Less plush and more vibrant than Syrah, but similarly dark. We all found it plenty good enough for consideration for Esprit. I gave it a "1".
  • Terret Noir (2 lots): I felt like Terret is coming into its own, with the high-toned wild strawberry balance of fruitiness and herbiness that we've come to expect, but a little more plushness and better-integrated tannins than we've seen in the past. I gave the denser, more structured lot (which seemed a natural for Le Complice) a "1/2" and the other fresher, prettier lot (which felt on point for a varietal bottling) a "2". 
  • Muscardin (1 lot): 2021 marked the first year we've had enough of our newest grape to include in our blending trials. Exciting! Even better, we liked the wine a lot: spicy and red-fruited, with a minty/herby/juniper note, good acids, and nice saltiness on the finish. Reminiscent of a more refined Terret Noir. I gave it a "2" and we all thought it would be a nice addition to the Le Complice. Just 30 gallons in one half-barrel, so not enough to bottle on its own. Next year, we hope.
  • Tannat (3 lots): Plush, tannic, and chocolatey, yet with the acids that always surprise me in such a powerful grape. Not a lot of decisions to be made here, except for how much oak we wanted in the blend and how much Tannat we feel is the right addition to En Gobelet. I gave two lots "1" grades and another, whose oak felt a little dominant, a "2".
  • Cabernet (1 lot): Typically, the few rows of Cabernet in our old nursery block go into our Tannat, but we always taste it and have a few times decided to bottle it on its own when we had enough to make that viable and such well-defined Cabernet character that we couldn't bear to blend it away. In 2021 we only had one barrel, so even though we loved it we didn't have enough for a solo bottling. It will go into Tannat and be happy. 

We finished Monday with our normal round-table discussion about what we wanted to try in the blending the next few days. Complicating the decision was the overall scarcity of the crop. With the reds down 18% off a relatively small base we realized if we made our preferred quantity of Esprit and Cotes (3500 cases and 1500 cases, respectively) we wouldn't have much left over, and critically wouldn't have enough different wines to send out to our wine club. So we made the decision to cut back to the absolute minimum we need, 2800 cases of Esprit and 1200 cases of Cotes. It's painful to do that in such a strong vintage, but we didn't feel we had any choice. As for the composition of the flagship blends, the strengths of all three of our main red grapes suggested we kick off the blending trials for both Panoplie and Esprit with three different blends, each one emphasizing one of the varieties, and see what we learned. We also loved the minor varieties this year, and decided to try adding some Vaccarese and Cinsaut (along with Mourvedre, Grenache, Syrah, and Counoise) to Esprit to see if we liked their contributions.  

Tuesday morning we convened to work out the two blends, starting with the Panoplie. As always, we tasted our options blind, not knowing what was in each glass. Panoplie is always overwhelmingly Mourvedre (typically around 60%) and typically more Grenache than Syrah, because Syrah's dominance often threatens to overwhelm the Mourvedre. This dynamic held true in our first three-wine trial, with the Panoplie with the most Syrah (28%) being no one's favorite, while we split between a high-Grenache/low-Syrah (31%/11%) option and one that held them both in the low 20% range. In a second round, we tried splitting the difference between those two wines while adding some Counoise, as well as a blend where we used more Syrah, displacing Mourvedre. Each had their advocates, with the Counoise blend showing elevated fruit and vibrancy (but a little less density) and the higher-Syrah, lower-Mourvedre blend showing remarkable density but somehow losing a little of the elegance that Mourvedre brings even to powerful wines. In the end we came back around the option in our first flight that got the most first-place votes: 54% Mourvedre, 24% Grenache, and 22% Syrah. It showed both powerful fruit and serious richness, but still felt appropriately elegant for Panoplie.

Panoplie decided, we moved on to the Esprit. Like the Panoplie, we started off with a high-Grenache/low-Syrah option, a high-Syrah/low-Grenache option, and one that had them in roughly equal proportions. Unlike with the Panoplie, we had near-universal agreement around the table on the first round, coalescing on the third option, which was a wine with both powerful fruit and noteworthy lift, structured but fresh. When the numbers were revealed, we also learned that this blend had the year's full production of both Cinsaut and Vaccarese in it: 35% Mourvedre, 26% Grenache, 23% Syrah, 7% Vaccarese, 5% Cinsaut, and 4% Counoise. That means we won't have those two grapes as varietal bottlings this year, but that's OK. Our rule is that if the Esprit needs something, it gets it. Just a heads up to anyone who loves (or is just curious about) those two new grapes. If you want to try one, snag some 2020 before they're gone. It also cemented our decision to plant more of both Vaccarese and Cinsaut this year!

Wednesday, we tackled our remaining wine club blends, starting with En Gobelet. Because we used a relatively high number of head-trained lots in Esprit and Panoplie, we didn't have much wiggle room on Syrah or Counoise, and our blending decisions came down to what the right proportions were of Grenache and Mourvedre, and how much Tannat we wanted. In the end, there was clear consensus in the first round, and we ended up with a blend of 39% Grenache, 29% Mourvedre, 16% Syrah, 11% Counoise, and 5% Tannat. The wine was complex, with red-to-purple fruit and good structure alongside the signature elegance we see from our head-trained blocks.

For Le Complice, we had a more fundamental question. The wine celebrates the kinship we feel Terret Noir shows with Syrah, and particularly the Syrah lots fermented with stems or whole clusters. Both grapes share a peppery, sage-like green spiciness, although Syrah is very dark and Terret quite pale. In order to make the wine more friendly, particularly in the mid-palate, we've always added about 20% Grenache. Our question for ourselves was how much of that spicy, herby character makes the best wine. Being distinctive and intriguing are important and valuable, but so is drinking pleasure. And with those thoughts in mind, our favorite blend in the first round was one that de-emphasized the stemmy character for something a little lusher, with a greater contribution from Grenache. But it seemed a little too far from what we'd done in previous vintages of Le Complice. So we decided to try a fourth option, leaving the percentages the same but swapping in a two-barrel 100% whole-cluster Syrah lot that we'd initially held out because we thought it might be too dominant for one of the more traditional Syrah lots. And we all loved that final wine, with both richness and lift, meatiness and herbiness. It should be a stunner when it's released. Plus, this will be the home for our 30 gallons of Muscardin! It may only make up 1% of the wine, but it seems happy there. Final blend: 59% Syrah, 32% Grenache, 8% Terret Noir, and 1% Muscardin. 

At this point, after a prowl through the wines aging in the cellar, Cesar had to head back to France, but we soldiered on the next morning, building the Cotes de Tablas. Because we'd held down the quantity of Esprit, and because the solutions we'd come to in most of our blends had leaned into Grenache (our most plentiful grape) we had more options than we often do. The Cotes is always led by Grenache, but that total has been anywhere from 35% to 60% in recent years. In our first round, we eliminated one blend that leaned a little heavier into Mourvedre as lacking in the vibrancy we love in Cotes, but split between a juicy, lively option that had 56% Grenache and 25% Syrah, and a more structured, tannic wine that with 42% Grenache and 30% Syrah. After some table blending, we decided that essentially splitting the difference between the two made everyone happy: 47% Grenache, 30% Syrah, 15% Counoise, and 8% Mourvedre.

We took another break to prep for this week's bottling, but on Wednesday we reconvened to taste the finalized blends alongside all the varietal wines that we ended up making. We won't have quite the lineup that we had last year, but it's still a substantial one. Even better, we were thrilled by what we tasted.

Around the blending table 2022

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

  • Full Circle (305 cases): A very Pinot nose of dark cherry, green herbs, and sweet cola. The mouth is vibrant, with flavors of cranberry and baker's chocolate, sweet earth and a little hint of sweet oak. 
  • Terret Noir (70 cases): A watermelon and blood orange nose, with a buttery pie crust note offering surprising richness. On the palate, peppered citrus and baked red apple, lovely lift, a little of Terret's signature grip but in beautiful balance with the fruit. Pretty, lively, and fun.
  • Counoise (265 cases): A juicy bramble patch nose, raspberry and leafy herbs. The mouth is exuberantly juicy, with plum and earth and vibrant acids. Fresh and refreshing, like a glass of springtime.
  • Mourvedre (515 cases): A more serious nose than the three previous wines, with leather, teriyaki, and redcurrant notes. The mouth shows lovely loamy earth, dark red berries, and a little hint of chocolate. It promises to continue to deepen and gain texture with its time in barrel.
  • Grenache (975 cases): An amazing vibrant nose of red licorice and grape, deepened with peppery spice. The mouth is exuberant, with sweet red fruit held in check with vibrant acids and some serious tannins. The finish shows sweet spice and more licorice. My favorite varietal Grenache we've made in a long time. 
  • Syrah (425 cases): A dark nose, not very giving right now: black licorice, iron, and molasses. The mouth is friendlier than the nose suggests, with blackberry and a little sweet oak, a return of that iron-like minerality, and substantial tannins. The classic "iron fist in a velvet glove" of young Syrah.
  • Patelin de Tablas (3900 cases): Dark chocolate and soy on the nose, with additional potpourri, black raspberry and white pepper notes. The mouth is in a nice place, seemingly evenly balanced between Syrah and Grenache with black and purple fruit, nice grip, and a lingering brambliness that reminded us of a walk in our local oak woodlands. The blend ended up 43% Syrah, 28% Grenache, 23% Mourvedre and 6% Counoise.
  • Cotes de Tablas (1100 cases): A nose poised between red (Luxardo cherry) and black (blackcurrant), with noteworthy sweet spice. On the palate, Grenache comes to the fore, with flavors of elderberry and licorice, and a little tannic grip keeping control at the end.
  • En Gobelet (885 cases): A nose of warm spices, dark cherries, and chocolate. The palate is gentle after the exuberance of the other wines we tasted, with vibrant plum skin and cocoa powder notes, chalky minerality, and dusty tannins at the end. As we hope the En Gobelet will be, more about elegance and terroir than density or power.
  • Le Complice (870 cases): A nose of menthol and dark chocolate, chaparral and soy marinade. The mouth shows flavors of iron and black plum, lots of chalky minerals and sage-like herbs. Then a little sweet oak wraps around the finish like a warm blanket. Intriguing and memorable.
  • Esprit de Tablas (2820 cases): The nose is on point for Esprit: sweet dark redcurrant fruit, loamy earth and anise, all classic expressions of Mourvedre here. On the palate, currant and plum fruit, new leather and anise, with good structure and finishing tannin. Already delicious, with lots more time to continue to flesh out. 
  • Panoplie (865 cases): A powerful nose, olallieberry and black licorice, minty coolness and spicy herbs. The mouth is plush and powerful, rich in fruit and tannin, deep loamy earth and baker's chocolate. Long and opulent but with lovely minty lift.  
  • Tannat (720 cases): Dark on the nose but somehow chalky and mineral as well, with a little mint chocolate note. The mouth is a different beast, like a dark berry pie with firm tannins and a little sweet oak. All this gets cleaned up on the finish by Tannat's signature acids and violet florality. 

A few concluding thoughts. 

  • What a pleasure having Cesar around the table again. His ability to step in after being gone so long, to offer context from his decade of experience at Beaucastel yet understand the uniqueness of Tablas Creek, makes him an amazing addition to the blending team. Yes, I feel great about our process, and am proud of the wines that we made in the two pandemic years when a Perrin visit wasn't possible. But it was great to have him back, and to see his excitement about what we were tasting.
  • I came out of that blending session really excited at the degree to which the strength and character of the vintage showed through in these many wildly different grapes. You wouldn't think that the same things that early grapes like Syrah and Cinsaut need would be great for late grapes like Mourvedre and Terret Noir. You can't assume that the conditions in which a vigorous grape like Grenache and a low-vigor grape like Counoise each would thrive would be the same. And yet all were good, and many were outstanding. That's the sign of a truly great vintage.  
  • In looking for a comparable vintage to 2021, I continue to think that 2007 was as close as we've seen. The wines we're making now are a bit different in style than they were then, a little less ripe, a little more elegant. But the conditions that produced the blockbuster 2007 vintage were pretty close to what we saw in 2021: intensity, from a very dry, cold winter that didn't reduce the cluster counts much but gave us smaller clusters of smaller berries. Freshness, from the relatively moderate harvest season, each hot stretch relieved by a cooldown immediately after. The yields, right around 2.5 tons per acre, were also similar in both vintages. Given that those 2007's were some of the best, longest-lived wines we've made, if I still think the same in another year I'll be very happy.

I'll let Neil have the last word, as I thought a comment he made in our final tasting summed it up nicely: "All these wines have a lovely force behind them. Not big, not heavy, but intense in personality."

Cellar Team tasting with Cesar


What does it mean that Napa Valley is too pricey for the Wall Street Journal?

The article making waves in wine circles this weekend was Lettie Teague's most recent column for the Wall Street Journal: Who Can Afford Napa Now? Not This Wine Columnist. In it, she uses the opening of a $1300/night hotel and a $900 tasting package as examples of a region whose increasing focus on high-priced experiences runs the risks of alienating long-time customers and locals while also pricing out the new generation that the local industry hopes will become future Napa wine lovers. In her conclusion, she includes a comment from Tor Kenward, the winery owner with the eye-opening $900 tasting:

"Of course there are many other wine regions in California where the prices are lower and winery tastings are even, often, free. 'I tell wine lovers to go to Mendocino, to go to Santa Barbara,' Mr. Kenward said. I decided to follow his advice myself. Stay tuned to this column."

It is of course true that looking only at the most expensive hotel rooms and winery tasting packages (many of which are signaling to their hoped-for audience with the price) isn't the full story. As Lettie explains in the article, the average tasting fee for a "base" experience in Napa Valley has risen, but is still just $40.62 according to CellarPass. An "elevated" experience averages $82.26. And a quick check of Expedia for a two-night Thursday/Friday stay in June offers budget lodging options in the low-$200s and nicer hotels and resorts starting around the mid-$400s (yes, there are more expensive options, including the $1799 price tag for the Stanly Ranch whose $1300 base mid-week rate was the article's main example). So, while Napa Valley is an expensive place to visit, it's still possible for a consumer used to buying $50+ bottles of wine and spending $100 per person on a meal to build a viable trip without totally breaking the bank. But her point remains: people who want to feel that they've experienced the best the region has to offer must now budget several thousand dollars for a visit.

In my nearly three decades in business, it's been drummed into me that it's a very good idea to focus on your core product, and to tailor your other offerings to support that main product. In our example at Tablas Creek, we want to sell wine and add (and keep) people loyal to our wine club. So we've priced our other offerings accordingly. Our tasting fee is $25/person, and we comp that on the purchase of two bottles of wine. Tastings are free to all our club members. Our tours are free. We pour guests 6 or 7 tastes of wines priced between $28 and $65, so the cost of the tasting just covers the cost of the samples. For what it's worth, I consider each tasting fee we collect a failure, because it means that the guest didn't like anything enough to buy two bottles or the experience enough to sign up for one of our wine clubs.

So why do we charge a tasting fee at all? Two reasons. First, we want to weed out people who just want a cheap place to drink wine. If people look at our fee and think "that seems like a lot" they're probably not great candidates to buy our wine, and we want as much of our limited capacity as possible to go to current or potential future customers. Second, people often don't value what they don't pay for, as this article from Business Insider explains well. You are signaling how much you believe your offerings are worth when you put a price on it. Your decision to offer it for free sends a signal about how much someone should value that product or experience. 

Still, the 15% or so of our visitors who pay a tasting fee isn't a big piece of our profitability. Even if we changed our policies and 100% of our 30,000 annual guests paid the $25 it would be less than 10% of our revenue. So it's easy to be generous with our visiting policies, and use them to support the wine sales and wine club signups that are our bread and butter. For me, the sign that this is working is the relatively small percentage of visitors who pay a fee, and the long median tenure of our wine club members, which at the end of last year was a little more than four years, roughly triple the industry average.

So, what's going on in Napa? I think it's best understood as a shift of business priorities, with some unintended follow-on effects. At $100+ per experience, unless it's for a very expensive wine, the tasting fee is not a supporting product. And at $900, it's not a supporting product no matter the price of the wine. That experience, and the fee it comes with, is the main event. And that's what I think is at the root cause of some of the sky-high prices there. With the massive popularity of Napa Valley as a tourist destination, and many of the tourists coming from international locations where it's impossible or impractical to ship wine, a winery is behaving rationally by looking to turn the visit itself into a profit center. Yes, it may shock and disappoint a regular visitor to the region, but the high prices are telling those visitors that they're not the winery's target audience anyway. For someone coming from far away and looking for a once-in-a-lifetime experience, I get it. It's not what I'd look to do as a wine lover. And it's not what I'd want Tablas Creek to do as a business. But I get it.

The unintended consequences come in for the wineries who see their neighbors (who may have different target audiences or production levels than they do) raising prices and are then left with the dilemma that pricing, as I mentioned earlier, is seen a proxy for worth. Do they raise their prices to keep up and risk losing their historic audience? Do they keep their prices and risk being seen as less elite than their neighbors? Or do they try to split the difference (as, if I read between the lines in the article, it seems that the lovely, historic Spottswoode Winery has done) and feel guilty about it? Unfortunately there's not a great solution once a critical mass of wineries has set dramatically higher prices for themselves.

But whatever the downstream results, it seems clear that Napa Valley has set itself up for a future with higher, and perhaps dramatically higher, prices for visitors. With that, it seems inevitable that some wine lovers who are turned off by the change will decide to branch out and come to places like Paso Robles, where creating life-long customers for our wine remains the primary focus. And that writers, like Lettie, who have previously focused a large share of their attention on Napa Valley, will decide to write more about other California wine regions. Those are downstream consequences that would be just fine with me.

Rainbow over Paso Robles sign


On the Road Again

By Darren Delmore.

Like a UFO in its own right, my Tablas Creek Subaru Outback fireballed through the Chihuahuan desert in late-February. It’d been awhile since I’d hit the road for wholesale market work. My Southwest odyssey included winemaker dinners and tastings in Arizona, Texas and New Mexico. I saw a country that was coming back, climbing out of the pandemic, and ready to drink some Tablas Creek.

Call me old school, but driving instead of flying had more pros than cons; including the transport of newly released rosé samples, catching up on long phone calls, the bevy of interesting wine podcasts that are available nowadays (I’ll Drink to That, Disgorgeous), and the chance to add in a mystical pitstop like Marfa, Texas along the way. Plus, now I truly know the meaning behind the phrase “longer than a Texas mile”.

Marfa

Texas, as suspected, seemed like nothing unusual had really happened over the last two years. My week-long tour there, which began in Houston, was as busy as any market visit in my ten year history with Tablas Creek, and included a luncheon for wine directors and shop owners, appointments from Uptown to Montrose, and even a sold-out in-person dinner at the great Backstreet Café, with whom we partnered for a virtual wine dinner during the thick of things. It was good to see their sommelier Sean Beck owning the room like normal, and blowing off some social rust of my own. The crowd washed down chili-rubbed snapper on lemongrass risotto with Cotes de Tablas Blanc, feasted on lamb sausage and white bean cassoulet with Patelin de Tablas Rouge, and capped off the night with Bulgogi style braised beef cheeks on a pomegranate reduction, paired with our Mourvédre. 

I witnessed Austin on a rare, freezing day with a wind chill factor sending things into the 18 degree temperature range. Not even the warm, pillowy breakfast tacos at Tacodeli could prepare me for the frigid airmass.

Tacodeli

I’ll never forget my parking lot tasting of the new wines with the Austin Wine Merchant, homeless folks asking us for tastes, and realizing how many layers of fabric I was lacking.

AWM

Had I not driven, I would’ve never made it up to Dallas, courtesy of a massive ice storm that shut down highways and the school system on the Thursday I was slated to work and do a wine dinner. I white knuckled it from Austin to Dallas in a specific window of Wednesday night before the freezing rain set in, like a Wal-Mart trucker with a haul full of toilet paper back in April 2020. Our dinner event was ultimately canceled because of the ice, though our Vineyard Brands manager Todd got me around town to show our wines to a handful of accounts and make the journey worthwhile.

Then off again, passing through Amarillo and on to Santa Fe to the shuffling sounds of Townes Van Zandt and Khruangbin, I arrived in time for top chef Laura Crucet’s culinary crescendo at Pig and Fig Café in White Rock, New Mexico. We debuted the 2021 Patelin de Tablas Rosé to the forty-plus attendees, before art-exhibit-worthy plates of braised buffalo ravioli with Mourvédre and tzatziki drizzled Moroccan Lamb Kefta with Esprit de Tablas Rouge transported us all into gastronomical bliss.

The homestretch of Arizona had me in Phoenix visiting a few restaurant accounts and wine shops, all of which had an increased focus on more organically grown wines than I remember from before the pandemic. Spring training was still on hold, so buyers and restaurant owners had a lot of downtime to meet and taste and hear what's new. You now can find our wines at Sauvage, Faraway Wines and Provisions, Restaurant Progress, Tratto, and many more cool AZ accounts.

Tratto

Lastly, I concluded the odyssey in Tucson, in the Barrio Viejo to be specific, at the beautiful, classic restaurant The Coronet. I showed the owners around our vineyard during Covid, and we plotted a delectable collaboration. The timing seemed right; the Gem Show had just brought somewhat normal business to town, snowbirds had flocked in, and we had fifty reservations for a dinner event that included Thai Mussels and Roussanne, Duck Leg Confit and Patelin de Tablas Blanc,  and Venison on a charred onion blackberry puree with Esprit de Tablas Rouge. VINsiders, restaurant owners from Alaska, and Tablas fans from Minnesota were in the house, to the tinkling ivories and bassy grooves of a local jazz trio.

Barrio

I had to step back a few times and take the familiar scene in. We’re back, it seems, and we’re out here.


Spring in the Vineyard: A Wildflower Explosion and a Burst of Growth

It's been a month or so since I took people on a photographic tour of what's going on in the vineyard, and this is a time of year when things change fast. So, let's dive in.

Spring is my favorite time in Paso Robles. The hillsides are green. The air is softer than it was during the winter, and the days warm and pleasant, but not yet the stark summer that can feel floodlit during the day. Nights can still be chilly, and we do worry about frost, but so far this spring we've been OK. This weekend might be a different story, but we've done what we can to be prepared. Meanwhile, the vineyard is springing to life, with buds swelling, then opening, then bursting to leaf with remarkable speed.

But it's the explosion of color that is springtime in Paso Robles' calling card.  The rain that came during the winter combines with the longer days to produce a month of proliferating wildflowers. The most visible of these flowers are the bright orange California poppies, our state's official flower:

Wildflowers 2022 - Poppies

Low to the ground, the cover crop's most colorful component is purple vetch. These provide a carpet underneath taller elements, but in shady areas are impressive all on their own:

Wildflowers 2022 - Vetch

In areas where the sheep haven't grazed, the wild mustard's yellow blooms give splashes of color that always make me think of a giant toddler let loose with a can of yellow spray paint:

Wildflowers 2022 - Mustard

But the most impressive wildflower arrays are the lupines. These purple clusters can cover the ground, swaying rhythmically and producing an intoxicating scent. They're unmissable on the sides of the roads out in the Adelaida District this year:

Wildflowers 2022 - Lupine

I've been showing you lots of non-vineyard areas because that's what's most colorful, but the vineyards boast an impressive carpet of greenery, studded with purple, white, and yellow flowers from the vetch, radishes, mustard and sweet peas mixed in with the grasses and clovers:

Wildflowers 2022 - Mixed Cover Crop

But, of course, it's the vines that we care most about this time of year. The splashes of vibrant yellow-green from the new growth of our early-sprouting varieties (like Viognier, below) provide a contrast in texture more than color against the gold-green grasses, particularly in the morning sun:

Wildflowers 2022 - Viognier

This explosion of spring color won't last long.  Soon, the weather will heat up and dry out, and the color palette will shift from winter green to summer gold. We've already started getting the cover crop incorporated into the vineyard so the vines can benefit from its nutrition and don't have to compete with extra roots for available water. But if you're coming in the next month, you're in for a treat.

Wildflowers 2022 - Riot


A Report from the Blending Table: the 2021 Whites May Be Scarce, But They're Exciting

We've spent the last four days around our blending table, working to turn the 36 different lots we made from our white grapes in 2021 into the blends and varietal bottlings we'll be releasing to you in coming months. With the ongoing challenges of international travel, we again convened without a Perrin in attendance, though Cesar will be visiting for red blending next month and we'll have a chance to get his thoughts before anything goes into bottle. After four days immersed in these wines, I feel confident that he'll love what he tastes. And that's great! After the painfully short 2021 harvest (white grapes down 36.5% overall) we knew our options might be constrained. But the reward in scarce vintages is typically noteworthy intensity. That (spoiler alert) definitely holds true with 2021. 

If you're unfamiliar with how we do our blending, you might find it interesting to read this blog by Chelsea that she wrote a few years ago.

Our first step, on Monday and Tuesday, was to taste each variety in flights, give each lot a grade, and start assessing the character of the year. Our grading system is simple; a "1" grade means the lot has the richness, elegance, and balance to be worthy of consideration for Esprit Blanc. A "2" grade means we like it, but it doesn't seem like Esprit, for whatever reason. It may be pretty, but without the concentration for a reserve-level wine. It might be so powerful we feel it won't blend well. Or it might just be out of the style we want for the Esprit, such as with too much new oak. A "3" grade means the lot has issues that need attention. It might be oxidized or reduced. It might still be fermenting and in a place that makes it hard to evaluate confidently. Or it might just not have the substance for us to be confident we'll want to use it. Most "3" lots resolve into 2's or 1's with some attention. If they don't, they end up getting sold off and they don't see the inside of a Tablas Creek bottle. A snapshot of my notes:

2021 White Blending Notes

My quick thoughts on each variety are below. For context, in a normal year, for every 10 lots we might see 3-4 "1" grades, 5-6 "2" grades and 1 "3" grade. When we think a lot is right on the cusp between two grades, we can note that with a slash ("1/2", or "2/3"). As you'll see, the Roussanne in particular got a ton of good grades this year. In rough harvest order:

  • Viognier (4 lots): A really strong Viognier vintage, with good richness but also better-than usual acidity. Since we don't use Viognier in Esprit Blanc, a "1" grade just means that it's as good and expressive as Viognier gets, with freshness to balance its plentiful fruit and body. One "1" lot, two "1/2" lots, and one "2".
  • Marsanne (3 lots): If possible, an even stronger Marsanne showing than Viognier, with all three lots showing Marsanne’s classic honeydew and chalky mineral charm. One lot was still unfinished and got a "1/2" from me. The other two I gave "1"s to. With yields off more than 40% I was worried that despite how good it would surely be we wouldn't be able to showcase this with a varietal Marsanne, but as it turned out, we will, and it should be terrific.
  • Picardan (2 lots): Neither lot was quite finished fermenting, which made it difficult. Both had nice herbiness and good acids, but neither had as much richness as we've found in our favorite Picardan lots. One "2" and one "2/3". While there won't be Picardan in the Esprit Blanc this year, we have good confidence it will finish up and make a delicious varietal bottling.
  • Bourboulenc (3 lots): After our issues in 2019 with our debut vintage of Bourboulenc having a crazy orange color when it came out of the press the cellar team separated out the press fraction this year. That lot, while it had interesting aromatics, was low in acid and had an almost amber color. I gave it a 2/3 and it got declassified into Patelin. The other two lots had lots of good texture with solid acids. I gave them both "1/2" grades.
  • Clairette Blanche (1 lot): We only had 192 gallons of this, our scarcest white grape, and it was spicy and tropical, with lots of texture. I gave it a "1/2".
  • Grenache Blanc (8 lots): Grenache Blanc is often tough to evaluate in this first tasting because it's always the last to finish fermentation, and this year was no exception. I gave out two "1" grades to lots with brightness, richness, and the grape's characteristic pithy bite, two "1/2" grades to lots with classic flavors but a little leaner, two "2" grades to lots that were in the final stages of fermentation and showing some oxidation but seemed promising, a "2/3" to a heavy press lot with an amber color and some bitterness, and a "3" to a lot with dark color and notable oxidation. I have confidence that even these last two lots will become something good with a little cellar attention, but they weren't there yet.
  • Picpoul Blanc (2 lots): One 708-gallon "1" lot that we all loved, with sweet tropical fruit and bright citrusy acidity, and a 120-gallon "2" lot that we thought would end up just as good, but was still a bit sweet and showing a little oxidation.
  • Roussanne (13 lots): Although there were plenty of strong lots among the other grapes, there was also unevenness. So it was a relief to have our strongest collection of Roussanne lots I can remember. I gave seven lots "1" grades, which would gave us plenty of Roussanne options for Esprit Blanc. Three others got "1/2" grades due to their oak, which we liked but thought had the potential to be too dominant in Esprit Blanc. Three "2" grades to pretty, classic Roussanne lots without quite the level of texture and richness our top lots got. And nothing lower than that.

We finished Tuesday by brainstorming ideas for the Esprit Blanc. With plenty of Esprit-caliber Roussanne, good acids across the board, and the relative unevenness of Grenache Blanc, we thought this might be a good year to lean into Roussanne and Picpoul. But which of the higher-acid whites should be included, and just how much we would reduce Grenache Blanc from the roughly 25% we have most years, we didn't know. That's what our blending trials are for! Complicating matters was the overall scarcity of the vintage, which meant that we knew we would struggle to make enough lots big enough (600+ cases) to send out to our VINsider wine club members. We needed four whites from this vintage in quantity and quality to send out, and that meant at least one varietal bottling, plus the three blends, or two varietal bottlings plus Esprit Blanc and Cotes Blanc. To give us enough options, we made the decision to make somewhat less Esprit Blanc than usual, something more like 1,600 cases than our usual 2,200 cases. That's 600 cases of top-quality fruit available to other wines.

Wednesday morning, we started on our blending work by tasting three possible Esprit de Tablas Blanc blends. Our least-favorite had the most Grenache Blanc (18%) while our favorite had the least (12%) and instead got lovely tropicality from 16% Picpoul. But even our favorite felt like it could lean heavier into Roussanne than the 64% that it contained, and had plenty enough acid that we could swap that in for portions of the brighter Grenache Blanc, Clairette, and Bourboulenc lots that it contained. The cost would be making less Roussanne and not having enough for a full club shipment, and having to use the Patelin de Tablas Blanc instead, which we would prefer to avoid since wines that don't make it into distribution feel more special to include to club members. But our rule is that the Esprit wines always get first dibs on what they need to be great, so in a second round we tasted that wine against a new one which upped the Roussanne percentage to 70% and added the rest of the top Picpoul lot (17%), with 10% Grenache Blanc, 2% Bourboulenc, and 1% Clairette. That gave the wine a deeper, more honeyed profile, with exceptional richness and length. It should be impressive young, but feels to us like it's got a long life ahead of it. Consider yourselves forewarned that because of its scarcity it may go fast.

That afternoon we tackled the Cotes Blanc. Viognier always takes the lead, but we weren't sure whether we wanted Marsanne's elegance or Grenache Blanc's density and acid in the primary support role. So, we decided to try one blend with more Grenache Blanc and less Marsanne, one with more Marsanne and less Grenache Blanc, and one where set them to roughly equal levels. As sometimes happens, there was a clear favorite, which to our surprise was the one with the most Grenache Blanc. That at first was surprising, but given that we used so little Grenache Blanc in Esprit Blanc we had some truly outstanding lots available for Cotes Blanc, which produced a wine that we loved: luscious but structured, persistent and appealing. As a bonus, it also gave us the chance to make a varietal Marsanne, which I'd almost given up hope of doing. Final blend: 44% Viognier, 32% Grenache Blanc, 14% Marsanne, and 10% Roussanne.

In making the quantity of Esprit Blanc and Cotes Blanc we wanted, we hadn't used all any of our grapes. Even after declassifying one Bourboulenc lot and two Grenache Blanc lots into Patelin Blanc, we'll still have a great range of options from 2021. And that's how we finished up the blending week: tasting the three blends alongside the eight varietal wines that we'll be bottling from 2021. Our principal concerns here are to make sure that the varietal wines are differentiated from the blends that lead with the same grape (so, our Esprit Blanc is different from Roussanne, our Cotes Blanc different from the Viognier, etc) and to make sure that the blends fall into the appropriate places in our hierarchy:

2021 Whites after Blending

My brief notes on each wine, with the rough quantity we'll be bottling this summer:

  • 2021 Bourboulenc (200 cases): Medium gold. A nose of orange bitters, green herbs, and citrus blossom. On the palate, the citrus note continues with Seville oranges, sweetgrass and chamomile, with nice texture and a long finish.
  • 2021 Picardan (175 cases): A complex, savory nose of lime, peppery citrus leaf, and briny oyster shell. Super bright on the palate with lemon and fresh green herbs, zippy acids, and a mineral finish.
  • 2021 Clairette Blanche (50 cases): Scarce, because we just don't have much Clairette in the ground. But after not making one at all in 2020 I'm happy to have even 50 cases. A high-toned nose of wintergreen, preserved lemon, and limestone. A hint of sweetness on the palate (this isn't quite done fermenting) then turning creamy with a lemon drop zippiness and little lemon pith bite that emphasizes the grape's signature minerality.
  • 2021 Picpoul Blanc (50 cases): Scarce, because we used so much Picpoul in Esprit Blanc. A pretty nose of ripe apple, with a hint of oxidation from the fact that this Picpoul lot hasn't finished fermenting yet.  That's clear on the palate too with some remaining sweetness and notes of crystallized pineapple, lemon drop, and wet rocks. Should be outstanding by the time it's done. 
  • 2021 Grenache Blanc (750 cases): A classic Grenache Blanc nose, pithy, briny, and vibrant. A great combination of acids and richness on the palate, with a long finish where that pithy note comes back to the fore. Should be a great wine club shipment wine.
  • 2021 Viognier (190 cases): A high-toned nose of peaches and white flowers with a little bit of tarragon-like sweet herbiness. Nicely fruity on the palate, with nectarine and mineral character and solid acids. Medium-bodied, which I loved, given that Viognier can have a tendency toward heaviness. Not this one.
  • 2021 Marsanne (230 cases): Quite polished already, with a nose of honey, petrichor, and white flowers. The mouth is clean and spare, with gentle flavors of white tea, honeydew melon, and chalky minerality. Lovely.
  • 2021 Roussanne (480 cases): A notably rich nose with flavors of beeswax, lemongrass, and cedary oak. Similar on the mouth, with the honey flavors given lift by a nice lemony brightness. We're going to put this in neutral barrels and have high hopes for something amazing as the oak integrates.
  • 2021 Patelin de Tablas Blanc (2900 cases): A lovely floral, fruity, buttery nose, orange blossom and white peach, seemingly dominated more by Viognier than Grenache Blanc right now even though there's twice as much of the latter than the former. Good balance on the mouth, with flavors of pineapple and preserved lemon (there's the Grenache Blanc!) and good acids coming out on the peachy finish. Charming already, and exciting that we were able to make this in good quantity.
  • 2021 Cotes de Tablas Blanc (1215 cases): A nose of caramel and brioche, with a little minty lift. The palate is lovely, with good richness held in check by good acids. The ripe peach and lime flavors seem equally balanced between the Viognier and Grenache Blanc components. A creamy texture emphasizes the stone fruit flavors on the finish.
  • 2021 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (1610 cases): The nose is very Roussanne, with poached pear, crystallized pineapple, honeysuckle and sweet oak. The mouth is luscious and textured, with honey, green apple, and graham cracker flavors, solid acidity, and the little dancing mango-like tropicality that I think comes from the Picpoul. This, like the Roussanne, will go back into foudre to let the oak integrate.

A few concluding thoughts:

  • The vintage's character, if I had to distill it down to one word, would be power. Not alcoholic power; the average Brix reading of our whites was just 20.35, which translates to a potential alcohol of around 12.6%. And I don't mean heavy; the wines all had good acids. But the textures were rich. The flavors were deep and intense. I don't think at this stage one would describe the wines as playful, though that often comes out with a little time. But I have confidence that these will be wines with well-defined character and intense flavors. Given that our yields were so low, that's what we'd have expected, though (see 2015) it doesn't always work out that way. 
  • The impact of blind tasting was on full display. It's tempting to write the story of a vintage early, and decide what's going to fit together best as a part of that narrative. But as is demonstrated to us every year, the reality of tasting blends is that you don't know what's going to fit best together until you try it. As evidence, the Cotes de Tablas Blanc and its high percentage of Grenache Blanc, in a year when at the component stage we thought we preferred Marsanne. But it turned out that Marsanne wasn't what Viognier needed this year to show its best self. I am proud of the process that we use, which guarantees that the wines we make reflect the specifics of each vintage. 
  • The scarcity of 2021 is going to have impacts across our business. Even though we managed to make enough different wines in enough quantities, there in many cases won't be much left over after we send them out to club members. If there are wines that you know you love, I would pay attention to the release announcements and plan to get them at release. The days of having a wine like Grenache Blanc, or Picpoul, or Viognier available for several months are likely a thing of the past. We do have more vines in the ground from last year's planting, but that help is still a few years away. 
  • This is the stage where I often try to reach for what vintage(s) in our history might be good comps for what we've been tasting. And yes, it's early to make these sorts of judgments. But in recent years, it seems like 2016 might provide a pretty good comparison. At the end of our five-year drought, 2016 produced powerful components and seemed particularly strong for Roussanne. In the Cotes Blanc we came to a similar conclusion, using more Grenache Blanc and less Marsanne to better play of Viognier's richness. The solution we came to for the 2016 Esprit Blanc tied for our highest-ever percentage of Roussanne at 75%. That's similar to this year, though we've never before had more Picpoul than Grenache Blanc. But it's at least a starting point. We will see in coming months if I'm right.

It's important to note that while we've decided on blends, it's not like the wines will go into bottle next week. There are lots that need some time to finish fermenting, and everything needs to be racked, blended, and let settle and integrate. The Roussanne and the Esprit Blanc will go into foudre and have another 9 months to evolve. And even the varietal wines are three months from seeing a bottle. But still, this is our first comprehensive look at our most recent vintage. So far, so good.


Budbreak 2022: Early, Despite Our Chilly Winter (Blame the Lack of Rain)

This winter's precipitation has fizzled after a wonderfully wet December. Although we've still got a few chances for more rain (including later this week) there's nothing substantial on the horizon, and March is the last month when we'd expect significant rainfall. So, we're resigning ourselves to another drought year. As you'd probably expect, that is likely to have an impact on our yields. What you might not expect is that it also impacts when the growing season starts. But it does. Because rising soil temperatures are one of the main signals that grapevines use to come out of dormancy in the spring, and because dry soils warm up faster than wet soils, we've been on the lookout for our warmer spots -- and our earlier-sprouting varieties -- to start their growing season. So this is no big surprise:

Budbreak 2022 - Grenache

So far, we've only seen leaves on three varieties (Grenache, above, plus Grenache Blanc and Viognier) and even in those blocks, it's rare. Viognier, for example, has lots of swollen buds but only a few tiny leaves visible, even at the top of the block:

Budbreak 2022 - Viognier

Budbreak, as you probably guessed from the name, is the period when the grapevine buds swell and burst into leaf. It is the first marker in the growing cycle, a point when we can compare the current season to past years. Upcoming markers will include flowering, veraison, first harvest, and last harvest. And like harvest, budbreak doesn't happen for every grape simultaneously. Early grapes like Viognier, Grenache Blanc, Grenache, and Vermentino tend to go first, followed by Syrah, Marsanne, Tannat, and Picpoul, and finally, often three weeks or more after the earliest grapes sprouted, Roussanne, Counoise, and Mourvedre.

Budbreak 2022 is happening a bit early, historically, a couple of weeks earlier than average. That said, we're still two weeks after our earliest-ever budbreak in 2016. Here's when we first recorded significant budbreak the last decade:

2021: Last week of March
2020: Last week of March
2019: Second half of March
2018: Second half of March
2017: Mid-March
2016: Very end of February
2015: Second week of March
2014: Mid-March
2013: First week of April
2012: Mid-April

Note that it's pretty much impossible to assign a hard date for something like budbreak. After all, it's not a single vine we're talking about, it's a continuum across 125 acres of vineyard with eighteen different varieties. Well more than 90% of the vineyard is still dormant. This Grenache bud, from halfway up the block from which the first photo was taken, looks just like it would have in January:

Budbreak 2022 - Dormant Grenache

As I noted in the introduction, budbreak happens when it does largely due to increases in soil temperatures. Grapevines (and all deciduous plants) are waiting for the annual signals that it's safe to come out of dormancy and begin their growing season. The colder the temperatures and the more water in the soils, the longer the vines stay dormant. As winter rains ease, days lengthen, and the sun becomes more intense, those soils start to warm up, and the vines begin a race to reproduce. Evolutionarily, plants are trying to balance competing risks and benefits. Emerge too early, and they risk suffering damage to their reproductive prospects through frost. Too late, and they might not have enough time to ripen their fruit, which is necessary so that animals eat it and distribute the seeds.

Now our biggest worry becomes frost. Before budbreak, the vines are safely dormant, and a freeze doesn't harm them. We've had 35 days this winter where the weather station in our vineyard measured below freezing temperatures, a more or less normal number for us. But once the vines sprout, the new growth is susceptible to frost damage. April frosts cost us roughly 40% of our production in both 2009 and 2011, and we don't feel truly safe until mid-May. So, we've still got nearly two months to go before we can relax. We'll be up a lot at night, turning on frost fans and microsprinklers to help protect the new growth as best we can. Because all our low-lying areas are still dormant, and we choose later-sprouting grapes to go in those lower, more frost-prone vineyard blocks, we're still likely OK if we get a moderate frost in the next week or two. But by the end of March we'll be beyond that.  

Meanwhile, we're trying to keep our sheep in the vineyard as long as possible. Knowing budbreak was imminent, we've moved them to late-sprouting blocks like this Mourvedre section at the south end of the property. With the early start to this year's cover crop growth, this was their third pass here, which is great:

Budbreak 2022 - Sheep in Mourvedre

You might think that earlier budbreak increases the risks of frost damage. And yes, all other things being equal, having fewer nights where you have to worry about temperatures dropping below freezing is better than having more. But if you look at the two most recent frost years (2009 and 2011) both of those saw budbreak in April. That said, after six solid weeks of high pressure between mid-January and late February, the weather pattern we're in now is more mixed. There's no big rain on the horizon, but there are some smaller storms. It's generally in the aftermath of the passage of a cold front that we worry about a hard freeze. So rain now comes as a mixed blessing. Fingers crossed, please. 

Meanwhile, we'll enjoy the rapid changes in the vineyard, and the hopefulness of new growth. It feels metaphorical this year. With March 2020 marking the beginning of lockdowns for most of the country and March 2021 marking the start of a transitional year, as vaccines got into circulation and people started emerging cautiously into mixed company again, this March feels less fraught. We just hosted our first educational seminar here in more than two years. I poured at the Rhone Rangers tasting, my first big indoor event in exactly two years. We have a full slate of tastings and wine dinners planned this spring.

And now the vines are joining the party. Let's hope their (and our) journey out into the world is a smooth one.

Budbreak 2022 - Grenache Blanc


Warehouse Wizard: An Interview with Logistics Manager Eddie Garcia

By Ian Consoli

In 2020, we built an on-site storage facility to house the wines we make available in the tasting room, our exports, and our vast library to update our vintage chart, host events, and fill our Collector's Wine Club shipments. This building has many benefits, from access to our wines to, most importantly, a decrease in our winery's carbon footprint compared to off-site storage. This building also created a need for a logistics manager at Tablas Creek. Enter Eddie Garcia.

Eddie is awesome. He is an absolute pro at organization, communication, and the many other functions of a successful logistics manager. He also happens to co-manage the Tablas Creek Fantasy Football team in the Paso Wine League with me. Finally, a communication outlet for my 17 weeks of obsession!

I learned that he's even more than that in my interview with him. Eddie embodies a common thread I find when talking with anyone who works at Tablas Creek: passion. There's a passion for wine, food, and our impacts on the planet. Importantly and uniquely, I also find a passion for each individual's position within the company. There are positions where passion seems a given; winemaking and viticulture come to mind, but logistics? Yes, even logistics. Eddie's dedication to his job emanates from him as soon as he broaches the topic. He embodies the Tablas Creek ethos to exist in humility and choose actions based on the betterment of the system. It takes a special kind of logistics manager to keep everything running at a business like Tablas Creek. Eddie is that person. I can't wait for you to meet him.

Eddie Garcia at Tablas Creek

Who are you?

My name is Eddie. I am the Logistics Manager here at Tablas Creek.

 Where did you grow up?

I was born in Glendale, CA, and grew up in North Hollywood until we moved to Templeton in 1994. It's been a real blessing to be up here, and I don't envision ever wanting to move out of our area. It's everything you want. I mean, beach, mountains, camping. I'm good.

What's your family like?

My family is pretty big. I have three sisters and my mom; we are scattered across the United States. I have two boys, Ryan, who is 14, and Frankie, who is 7.

How do you spend your free time?

It all depends on what day of the week it is. When I have my kids, I’m all about being Dad. Playing games on the switch, jujitsu practices or enjoying soccer Saturdays. When it’s no kids, it’s enjoying trips to do tastings at wineries I’ve never been, seeing concerts at our local venues, and even catching up on watching TV series I’ve never seen. Right now, I’m watching The Sopranos and I’m hooked!

What professional experience did you have before coming to Tablas Creek?

Most recently, I was with Broken Earth Winery for about three years, working the warehouse and managing logistics. Before that, I was at Firestone Walker for seven years, which got me into the beverage industry. Seeing the logistics, production, and craft brewery scene was a real eye-opener. I worked for other beverage distributors in the area too. I worked for Pacific Beverage in Santa Margarita and Allied, the local Coors distributor in Santa Maria. It's interesting because I never envisioned wine and beer would be the way my career would go, but it's been really rewarding. I feel situated and understand I could carry into my golden years hanging out with wine as a career.

How would you describe your job at Tablas Creek, and what does your day-to-day look like?

I see the logistics position as the spinal cord of any company because we're everywhere. I do wine club. I do exports. I handle DTC as far as in the tasting room and online fulfillment. So logistics is like the spinal cord, which is the body's nervous system, right? It is how the brain communicates to our hands and legs and everything else that gets things moving. That's what logistics does. So when the general manager, tasting room manager, direct to consumer team, or whoever feeds me information, I get the wine, fulfill the order, and do what I need to do to keep the process moving.

I was originally hired to be half facilities and half logistics, but the logistics part of the job is so demanding that we had to change it up. Advanced logistics is not only accommodating the current needs of the business; it's saying, what else do you need? You always want to expand it and grow. And in the past year or so, I feel I've been able to do that.

Eddie Garcia at Tablas Creek at his desk

How did you hear about the role at Tablas?

I heard about the position from our former Assistant Controller, Pam Horton. I had previously interviewed with her when she worked at Hearst Ranch. They went a different direction, but there's always a silver lining. I remember thinking something else is going to happen down the road. A little shy of a year later, Pam, who had started working at Tablas Creek, found me one night when I was working part-time at Food 4 Less and asked if I was still looking for a job. She told me to put in a resume for the logistics position. I was a bit hesitant because it was in the middle of the pandemic; I stopped looking for jobs and focused on stability. She really got the ball rolling for me. I thank her for the opportunity and for bringing me here.

Did you know about Tablas Creek before your interview?

Yes. I am a part-time limo driver, which gives me a feel of the different wineries in the area. So I've been to Tablas and met [Tasting Room Manager] John a couple of times on the driver's side. I knew this place was here but never knew the story. Since working here, I have enjoyed learning about Robert Haas, the Perrin family, and their footprint on the Paso Robles wine industry. When you're driving people, you're just dropping them off. So now, finally understanding who we are and what we are about is awesome. I love talking about what I do and who I work for.

How do you like the job so far?

I love it. Kind of reiterating what I said earlier, I took this position and made it into something that wasn't envisioned at first, and I'm hoping that I can add on more. So, I love what I do here at Tablas.

What at Tablas Creek are you most excited about going forward?

Expanding on the new regenerative organic certification. I think we will be the torch bearers of establishing responsible farming and viticultural practices in our area. It's like Firestone Brewery, which started at one corner building, and now they have that whole cul-de-sac. That expansion took somebody with a vision, and I feel like we can do that with responsible farming. I'm excited because we're leading the charge to change the way people think about wine and the winemaking process.

What are you excited about concerning the future of the logistics department?

The opportunities the opening of our new on-site storage building brings. We're keeping more of the product here versus sending it out to third-party storage. And by us doing that, we're able to monitor and control the situation. We know where our wines are being stored, how they're being stored, and where we can go to clarify the situation if there is an issue. We're able to find different ways to reduce our carbon footprint. I know that's a big thing for us, whether it be direct to consumer or shipping to our distributor houses. We can make sure their trucks are leaving full, not sending half, not sending partials or one pallet here, one pallet there, and the wine's not being moved three or four times.

Eddie Garcia at Tablas Creek on a Forklift

Do you drink wine?

Absolutely.

When and how did you get into wine?

I started getting into wine when driving limousines and getting feedback from my clients. I didn't have a reason to go wine tasting before, but talking to my clients got me involved, and then employment in wine sealed that interest. Working for Broken Earth gave me access to industry tastings. Now I work for Tablas. That's how I started getting into wine, and now I don't really drink craft beer anymore. It's like a complete 180. I'd rather have a nice bottle at night. Wine is a staple to a great meal or even just the ability to unwind after a long day.

What's the best wine you've ever had?

The 2014 dry-farmed Cabernet from Ventoux in Templeton. Phenomenal. Anything they do out there is really good. My second favorite wine would be their 2017 Tache Le Verre, a Santa Barbara County Syrah. So jammy, the legs on the glass were amazing. Those are my two, and I can tell you the vintage, the bottle, the varietals. Great wines.

Who is your #1 overall pick in fantasy football next year?

As of right now, it’s Jonathan Taylor.

Would you rather:

Cake or pie?

Pie

Fly or breathe underwater?

I'd rather fly. Breathing underwater makes me feel claustrophobic.

Be a winemaker or a viticulturist?

Ooh, that's tough because both of them have their passions. I'd probably say winemaker, though, because of the opportunity to create it and make it your own.

Is there anything else you want the audience to know about you?

Thank you. Thank you to everyone for the support of Tablas. Hopefully, everybody enjoys the wines that we have out in the marketplace. There's more to come.

Eddie Garcia at Tablas Creek storage