Thinking about the Box in Which we are Thinking Inside the Box

By Ian Consoli

I remember the day Proprietor Jason Haas came to me with the decision to allocate a portion of our 2021 Patelin de Tablas Rosé to release in the Bag in Box (BIB) format. We had addressed the idea in multiple managers' meetings, so it wasn't a surprise, but we had a quick turnaround ahead of us. On a short timeline, we picked up a standardized, cardstock, square box, printed the same label we would put on a bottle, and wrapped it over two sides of the box. While we all knew we could make a bigger statement from a design standpoint, our belief in the concept outweighed our worry about the aesthetics. We turned to the old adage of don't let perfect be the enemy of good and carried forward.

Original Tablas Creek Boxes

The launch, as you may already know, was incredibly successful. Another day I will never forget was releasing 300 3L BIBs in an email and watching the website traffic go off the charts while Jason saw the sales pinging away. We were walking back and forth between our offices with our hands on our heads in jubilant exasperation to the oft-frequented term, "bonkers!"

300 boxes filled with premium wine at $95 a piece sold in four hours without a single comment on the lack of design on the box. Yeah, bonkers.

We released 400 more, followed by the 2021 Patelin de Tablas Blanc and 2021 Patelin de Tablas red. Noting the program's success as we entered the second year of releases, we knew we wanted to expand the BIB program from our mailing list to retail shelves. As Jason highlighted in this blog, there were significant barriers to scaling the program up. We just had to figure out how to work around them.

So begins the next chapter in our premium BIB story.

Jason told the story of our boxed wine success as the keynote speaker at the 2023 DTC Wine Symposium, noting the positive reception in the DTC market and the current limitations preventing us from offering these boxes to wine shops requesting them.

Afterwards, Jake Whitman of Really Good Boxed Wine (RGBW) approached us. While we and other wineries had worked to build the reputation of premium BIBs in the DTC market, Jake and RGBW had been paving the way for a premium category of BIBs on retail shelves. He thought there might be a way for us to collaborate to solve some of the issues we addressed and work together to develop the category.

We worked with the team at Really Good Boxed Wine over the past year to expand production and design a box that would stand out on retail shelves nationwide. We are happy to introduce that box to you now, along with its benefits:

New Box Rendering compressed

Design: The previous version of our boxed wine made sense for our current customers. Our wine club and mailing list know who we are; they read our reasons for releasing the wine, know the wine is good, and see the benefits of the BIB packaging. What does it matter what the packaging says when the contents are what you want?

This is not the case when it comes to retail shelves. We needed a box that would speak for us. One of the significant benefits of a box is the real estate on which we can share information. This contrasts with a wine label, where information must be limited. We used an entire panel to summarize the key benefits of the BIB format from one of our blogs, effectively communicating with a consumer who might not know who we are or why our BIB wine is priced differently from the BIBs they are used to seeing.

Shape: RGBW noticed retailers placed their earlier boxed wine designs in, well, the boxed wine section. A $70 BIB targeting a premium consumer in a section where budget shoppers are looking at $15, $20, and $25 BIBs is not competitive. In response, their team designed a box the width of a burgundy bottle. That size allows them to fit alongside wines in bottles in the premium category where they belong. It also means it will be easier for consumers to identify high-quality wine in BIB.

Boxed wine next to a bottle

Shipping: The benefits are not all for the wholesale market. Our early trials revealed an issue with shipping multiple BIBs. An initial three-box limit proved too many, as the boxes would crush each other en route to their location, arriving in a dismal state. We then limited purchases to two boxes, shoving craft paper all around them to protect them. The presentation was as hodge-podge as it sounds.

Jake and his team developed shipping boxes specifically for this BIB design. They have grids that hold each box in place for one-packs, two-packs, and three-packs. Thanks to this change, we can now increase our limit back to three BIBs per customer!

Three-Pack shippers

Perception: We knew our original design was not a long-term solution. Premium wine in a box should feel premium, and this new box does. It is sturdy, has a clean design, and communicates our message of sustainability. We chose black ink on cardstock (similar to our case boxes) to ensure the recyclability of the packaging. This package will stand out on retail shelves and look nice in the fridge.

We plan to release about 950 boxes of the 2023 Patelin de Tablas Rosé in its newest package (Check those emails) and around 800 to retailers in California and a few other hand-selected states soon. These retailers (many of whom commented on our social media posts or responded to our emails to express interest), represent a test that, if successful, could lead to us rolling these boxes out more broadly around the country in 2025. We don't want to be the only ones talking about the benefits in sustainability, shelf-life, and space that boxes offer, and this gives us a chance to activate the network of cool independent retailers and hopefully even a few restaurants!

That national program will launch later this month, so feel free to contact us if you hope to find the boxes near you.

It only makes sense for me to conclude this blog post by thanking the team that made it all possible. The resources given freely by Jake and Michelle at Really Good Boxed Wine are on a level indicative of the most hospitable of the wine industry. With a rising tide lifts all ships mentality, they are to be admired. I strongly encourage you to find their wines near you or order online. Oh yeah, and the wine is Really Good.

New boxed wine design

This time of year, a vineyard's approach to sustainability is clear

If you've ever wondered whether the vineyards you see are farmed chemically or organically, this is the season to check here in California. In an organic vineyard (or at least, one that doesn't use herbicides) mid-winter should show a carpet of brilliant green between, under, and around the grapevine rows. Something like this, which I took out at Tablas last week:

Tablas Creek Vineyard rows

If instead what you see looks like neat stripes of green and brown, you're looking at vineyard rows where the ground has been sprayed with herbicide. It's harder to tell in the summer, because it's standard practice to remove the weeds under vine rows so they don't interfere with the free passage of wind and light among the ripening clusters. Organically farmed vineyards just do that work mechanically instead of chemically. But at this time of year, when you see a vineyard that looks like this, you know what's happening:

Non-organic vineyard rows

There's no guarantee that a vineyard that isn't using herbicides is farming organically. Plenty of vineyards have moved away from glyphosate and other systemic herbicides but continue to use (or at least hold out the option of using) chemical pesticide or fungicide. But I'm not aware of any vineyards for which the opposite is true. Weed control is the easiest piece of moving to organic viticulture in a place like Paso Robles. If they're not doing that, the chances of them controlling insects or fungal pressures non-chemically is in my experience pretty remote.

As for the wineries who have moved away from glyphosate, even if they're still not ready to certify, good for them! I see lots of evidence that we've made progress in the last decade. It used to be, as I drove out Vineyard Drive toward Tablas Creek each day, that nearly every vineyard I'd drive by would have bare ground under the grapevine rows, even in February when the hillsides are vibrant green. Now, it's more like half. That's a sea change in approach. And it's driven by a growth in understanding in the role of soil in farming. Soil, after all, is more than the grains of mineral and organic matter that make up what we call dirt. One of the most fascinating talks I attended at the recent Tasting Climate Change conference was by Marc-André Selosse PhD, Professor at Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris. He pointed out that in a single gram of healthy soil there are one million bacteria, thousands of species of fungi, hundreds of amoebas, and tens of millions of virus. These microbes are turning rocks and minerals into nutrient building blocks while fungi are doing the same thing with organic matter. Insects and worms are digesting and mixing the layers. All this allows soil to integrate organic matter from surface plants, resulting in soils that have their own healthy ecosystem. Eliminating the plant layer at the surface strips the soil of the building blocks of fertility, decimates the microbial and fungal populations in the soil, and allows for its compaction, further reducing its ability to absorb and retain water. 

I have hope that we'll see more change coming soon to California. The recent announcement by Napa Green, probably California's most influential sustainability certification, that they'll require vineyards to move away from glyphosate if they want to maintain their sustainability certification, has made a major splash in industry groups. Of course, you're probably wondering if a winery that's been using glyphosate should ever have been able to claim certified sustainable status. And that's a fair point. I've made it myself. But that highlights how widespread its use has been, that in order to get wineries into their programs and then move them little by little to more sustainable practices, every one of the 20+ sustainability certifications in California has until now allowed the use of glyphosate.

Will wineries move to other non-glyphosate herbicides? Perhaps. It's still cheaper to spray with herbicide than it is to remove weeds mechanically each year. But that difference is small in a place like Paso Robles, where the rain stops in April or May and once you remove weeds they don't typically regrow. I am hopeful that other certifications will follow Napa Green's lead, and require that their certified sustainable vineyards will be required to take this first step away from chemical farming. And that this step will lead to more wineries moving toward holistic systems like Biodynamic and Regenerative Organic Certified.

Will they? Each February, you'll have a chance to check in and update your report card. Just look for the brown stripes of dirt.

The most recent atmospheric river was great news for Paso Robles wine country

That last California storm was a doozy. Los Angeles got nearly an entire year's worth of rainfall in one day. The mountains outside Santa Barbara received enough rain that water levels at Lake Cachuma rose more than 5 feet and are now at the spillway. The Sierra Nevada stations recorded more than five feet of snow. We even had two tornadoes touch down here in San Luis Obispo county, the first time tornadoes have been recorded here since 2004. Thankfully, California was well prepared for these storms, and loss of life and property appears to have been pretty low.

Here in Paso Robles, we were north of the areas most affected by the storm. But still, it was wet, wild, and windy, with about 2.5" falling on Sunday and another inch over the next few days. I posted this video on Sunday, taken out our back deck. Turn the sound on to hear the wind:

To keep our people safe and potential customers off the road, we closed our tasting room Sunday. Still, Neil braved the storm to see how things looked and sent some photos and videos. The vineyard was holding up great. Most of the three inches of rain we received had soaked in, with only a little flowing down the new drainage channel we built this winter:

Drainage channel draining

The capacity of these calcareous soils to absorb water is amazing. And particularly at this time of year, with the cover crops so well established, we hardly ever worry about erosion. But it's still a substantial test to get three inches of rain in a day, or six inches in five days. Working in our favor is the fact that, unlike last January, when we got 20 inches of rain in three weeks on top of already-saturated soils, what we're seeing this year is well within historical norms. In fact, you can barely distinguish the average from the actual rainfall in our monthly rainfall graph:

Rainfall 2023-24 vs Avg through February

Even the roads held up well, thanks to the matting of straw, reeds, and rushes that we placed over them earlier this winter:

Matting on roads

Overall, we're at 111% of normal rainfall to date, mostly because February is only about one-third done and it's typically our second-wettest month. There's every reason to expect more rainfall before the calendar turns to March. But the next week looks sunny, which will be lovely, as it gives time for the soils to draw that water down to deeper layers and is prime growing season for the cover crops. Already, it's so green it practically hurts your eyes:

Oak Tree and Green Vineyard

The sheep are loving all the new grass, particularly after having been on dry feed for a week in our barn while the storm blew through. At this point, we'll likely be able to leave them out in the vineyard in future storms, since the root systems are well enough established that we're no longer particularly worried about soil compaction.

Sheep on Scruffy Hill

I'll leave you with one last photo, which showcases the ingenuity of our vineyard team. We choose to put our compost pile in one of the lowest sections of the vineyard, where water drains in periods of heavy rain. In the late fall, we arrange our compost piles perpendicular to the flow of that water so that water is infused with the nutrients as it flows through: a sort of compost tea on a grand scale. Then, we dug a series of catchment basins downstream from the compost piles. This slows the flow of the water and encourages it to soak in rather than running off. Finally, once those basins start to fill up, we pump the nutrient and microbe-infused water out and spray it onto our nearby vineyard blocks between rainstorms. This shares all the goodness that's in the compost piles across many acres of the property.

Spraying compost tea from retention basins

So, if you were reading headlines about the storms and wondering about how the vineyards in Paso Robles were faring, you don't need to worry. Things are looking great. 

The quest for sustainability: wine's "yes, and" moment

In improv comedy, there's an important concept called "yes, and". In essence, it means that you're taking what your team has done previously and building on it. This is important in improv because it's unscripted: you don't know what's going to come before, but it's your job to keep up and build the momentum. The website of the famous Chicago-based comedy group Second City has a great summary of its importance in the improv world:

A large part of improv is that you are always there for your scene partner or partners, and, in turn, they are always there for you. This is the goal of “Yes, And”! By saying yes to your scene partner, you create something much more entertaining. If you start a scene by saying that you are an alien, and your scene partner completely commits to also being an alien, being abducted by an alien, etc., both of you know you can count on the other person. On the other hand, if you start by saying you are a puppy, but your scene partner says “Wait, I thought you were a cat!”, the scene is compromised. Not only do you feel less confident, but also the audience is less entertained.

As the same page points out, "yes, and" has applications in real life as well, to the point that it's become a business school staple. I was reminded of the concept's relevance twice recently. The first time was when I shared on my various social channels my excitement at the news of Karen MacNeil's announcement that she was no longer going to accept wine packaged in heavy bottles for review. The responses fell along the lines that you would probably predict. The significant majority (about 80%, by my rough count) cheered the decision as an important step for a writer using her platform to nudge a tradition-loving industry in a positive direction. I got a few responses from the right wing fringe (maybe 5%) complaining that this was nothing more than virtue signaling and that things like carbon footprint and climate change were a hoax. But I also got some responses that while this was positive, it was of secondary importance to other environmental issues in grapegrowing, winemaking, or wine marketing. A few of the issues mentioned in these comments were pesticide use, the carbon footprint of wine tourism, and the prevalence of single-use packaging.

Now it's possible that these weren't good-faith comments in the first place. Deflections to other problems have become a favorite tactic of the anti-environmental lobby in recent years, with the goal of muddying the discussion of any particular solution and forcing proponents to defend their proposals against one idea after another. But these responses got me thinking. 

The second occasion recently where I was reminded of the importance of "yes, and" was at last week's Tasting Climate Change Conference in Montreal. The event was inspiring. We heard from experts in viticulture, resource use, and the soil microbiome; discussed the changes that wine regions have already observed and the best projections for what things will look like in another generation; and debated the best way forward for packaging, certifications, appellations, and grape varieties. I sat on a panel with a local importer and a representative from the SAQ (the province-wide monopoly on wine and liquor sales) to discuss the role that producers, importers, and retailers can play in moving the wine community toward a more sustainable future. A core piece of what I discussed was our experiment in recent years in releasing a high-end boxed wine due in large part to its more-than-80% reduction in the carbon footprint of the package compared to four glass bottles and the capsules, corks, and labels they require.

JH Speaking at Tasting Climate Change

To begin my presentation, I wanted to establish that this experiment was not done in isolation, but instead part of a fundamental approach to how we conduct our business. Across our departments, we focus on making choices that have the fewest possible negative repercussions and the greatest possible positive impacts on our people, our land, our community, and the broader environment. I've written about most of these initiatives here on the blog, including: our longstanding commitment to organic and biodynamic farming; our move to lightweight glass; our embrace of kegs in our wholesale sales and our tasting room; our replacement of plastic water bottles with reusable canteens; our reduction in tillage; our move toward dry farming; the growth of our composting and biochar programs; and the installation of a wetland to treat our winery wastewater. One of the reasons we love the Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC) program is because it's both rigorous and comprehensive, with meaningful requirements in soil health, biodiversity, resource use, animal welfare, and farmworker fairness. I fielded as many questions about our farming approach, or our commitment to our people, as I did our packaging.

That's why, to me, the deflections about there being other pressing issues in the world of wine beyond carbon footprint ring hollow. Addressing one issue doesn't mean not addressing another. Should you be using lighter bottles? Absolutely. Your customers will appreciate it, you'll save your winery significant money, and you'll reduce your overall carbon footprint by between 10% and 20% depending on the bottle you were using previously. But should you also move from conventional to organic farming, or from organic to biodynamic or regenerative farming? Also yes. You'll feel better about not exposing your land, your people, and your neighbors to chemicals. You'll improve your soil's resilience and its ability to withstand extreme rain events, heat spikes, and drought. And you'll almost certainly make better wine. How about coming up with new ways of connecting with your customers that don't require you to fly all over the country or them to fly out to see you? Also also yes. You'll save money and realize that the initiatives that you came up with allow you to reach a much higher percentage of your current (let alone potential) customers than you were able to before. I could go on.

If you don't believe that carbon footprint matters or that businesses have a responsibility for the carryon effects of their choices, I'm not sure that any of this will matter to you. But for the rest of us, this isn't a time to think of these challenges as either-or choices. Adopt a more comprehensive approach. Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Get started, and adjust as you learn more.

Yes, and.

A Horizontal Retrospective Tasting of the 2014 Vintage at Age 10

One of the first things we do each year is take a comprehensive look at the wines we made ten years ago. One of the second things we do is share those highlights with our fans at a public tasting (which will this year be February 4th). Why a decade? It's enough time that all the wines have become something that they weren't upon release, without it being such a long horizon that we're worried many will be over the hill. It's also a reasonable enough amount of time that Tablas Creek fans are likely to still have some of this vintage of wines in their cellars. (A fun check on publicly available data is CellarTracker. According to a quick query there, 38% of the 2014 Tablas Creek wines ever entered into the platform are still in people's inventories.) Hopefully, our notes from this tasting will help people decide which wines they want to open, which they want to keep watching, and how they might want to think differently about what they lay down for aging in the first place. It also is an opportunity to revisit our vintage chart

So, it's always exciting for us to do this annual check-in. It was particularly exciting because 2014 was a vintage we all loved when it was young. In my Vintage Doppelgangers blog, here's how I described it:

Our third consecutive drought year plus a warm summer produced wines in the classic, juicy Californian style, with a bit less alcohol than those same wines we were making in the 2000s. We got good concentration with yields similar to 2013, though we needed to drop less fruit to get there. The wines are juicy and luscious, with enough structure to keep them balanced and pretty, high-toned red fruit flavors. Similar vintages: 2003, 2017.

My notes on the wines are below. I've noted their closures (SC=screwcap; C=cork) and, for the blends, their varietal breakdown. Each wine is also linked to its technical information on our website, if you'd like to see winemaking details, professional reviews, or our tasting notes at bottling. Because of its small production we never made a webpage for the Clairette Blanche, so if you have questions about that wine, leave them in the comments and I'll do my best to answer. I was joined for the tasting by our cellar team (Neil Collins, Chelsea Franchi, Craig Hamm, Amanda Weaver, Kaitlyn Glynn, and Austin Collins) as well as by Tasting Room Manager John Morris. The lineup:

2014 Retrospective Wines

  • 2014 Vermentino (SC): We're often surprised with how well Vermentino -- a grape that most people drink young, and is all about freshness and vibrancy -- ages. This vintage was no exception. A nose of oyster shell, lemongrass, flint, and pineapple core. The palate was surprisingly luscious with flavors of lemon curd and key lime pie, a creamy texture playing off bright acids and a long finish with more pineapple and mineral notes.
  • 2014 Clairette Blanche (SC): Our first-ever Clairette Blanche release (we made Clairette in 2013 but decided it wasn't exciting enough to be the grape's first-ever American example) and it was still in a nice place. Aromas of grilled pineapple with a little plasticky note (perhaps from the screwcap?) that blew off with time. The mouth was savory with flavors of melon rind and citrus leaf and a waxy texture. The finish was my favorite part of the wine, with lively acids and lingering orange creamsicle and beeswax notes.
  • 2014 Picpoul Blanc (SC): A classic Picpoul nose of pink peppercorn and juniper over white grapefruit. The mouth was both herby and bright, with flavors of verbena, papaya, and a refreshing note that Amanda described as "fresh mountain air". The finish was richer, with a lingering piña colada character I get from Picpoul in riper vintages. I don't think anyone would intentionally have kept this wine this long, but if you discover one, you're not going to be disappointed.
  • 2014 Grenache Blanc (SC): A classic Grenache Blanc nose showing both richness and brightness: kiwi, brioche, and lemon tart, down to the richness of the crust. The mouth is lovely, like preserved lemon and shortbread, baked golden delicious apple and a lovely little herby rosemary note. A little salty minerality comes out on the finish. Fresh, vibrant, and lovely. A treat.
  • 2014 Marsanne (C): Our first cork-finished wine of the tasting, and it was interesting trying to pull out what difference that made. The nose was explosive and appealing with notes of honey, dried apricot, and caramel apple. The mouth was quieter than the nose, like white tea, vanilla custard, and a little saline mineral note. There was a sweet spice character that combined with the wine's essential creaminess to remind us of eggnog, but dry. The finish showed notes of cinnamon, honey, poached pear, and lemongrass. It's easy to be duped by Marsanne's subtlety into thinking that it doesn't have the stuffing to age, but every time we open one after 10 years we love it, and this was no exception.
  • 2014 Roussanne (C): A dramatic nose of lemongrass, honey, and new lumber that Chelsea described as "honeysuckle on a fresh fence". The mouth showed oak-influenced sweet spice notes of cardamom and crushed vanilla bean with rich texture and Roussanne's classic lanolin note. The finish moves back into the honey realm, kept in check by a sweet green herbal element like fresh-cut grass. 
  • 2014 Patelin de Tablas Blanc (SC; 49% Grenache Blanc, 31% Viognier, 12% Roussanne, 8% Marsanne): Quiet on the nose, perhaps in part because of the screwcap, with subtle notes of lychee, pea shoot, and white flowers. The mouth is similar, with flavors of pineapple core, guava, and orange blossom, plenty of acid, and a peppered citrus peel finish with a little almond-like nuttiness.
  • 2014 Cotes de Tablas Blanc (SC; 42% Viognier, 30% Grenache Blanc, 23% Marsanne, 5% Roussanne): A nose with notable plushness and power in its notes of honeydew, sea spray, and creamy minerality. The palate shows peach pit, melon, and sweet straw notes, with rich texture and a briny mineral note keeping order on the finish. The wine didn't particularly speak of Viognier, having become more textural than fruity, but it made for a fascinating experience.
  • 2014 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (C; 72% Roussanne, 23% Grenache Blanc, 5% Picpoul Blanc): A nose of apple pie -- both baked apple and the buttery crust -- and honey. The mouth is lively with flavors of clove, candied orange peel, baked apple, and sweet green herbs. And yet it was dry, with a more open texture and less oak than the varietal Roussanne. John called it "stately" which spoke to its essential elegance. The finish showed notes of walnut and new honey. A very pretty wine in the middle of what seemed to us like likely to be a long peak.
  • 2014 Patelin de Tablas Rosé (SC; 80% Grenache, 17% Mourvedre, 3% Counoise): Our third-ever Patelin Rosé, with the most Grenache we ever used, was still a beautiful fresh color. It was initially quiet on the nose -- that screwcap, again -- then showed notes of watermelon and wild strawberry, complete with the green leafiness of the foliage. The mouth was remarkably good with flavors of pink grapefruit and tarragon, nice richness, and great acids. If you lost one in your cellar, go ahead and open it. We think you'll be pleasantly surprised. 
  • 2014 Dianthus (SC; 46% Mourvedre, 41% Grenache, 13% Counoise): Despite that Mourvedre-based rosés are supposed to have longer lifespans than those based on Grenache, we haven't particularly loved decade-old Dianthus in past tastings. But this year's was outstanding. The nose showed a cherry, slightly medicinal note that we variously described as Campari, spicy pink peppercorn, and red Life Savers candy. The mouth is holding up remarkably well, with flavors of cherry, wild herbs, and lemon zest. The vibrant acids create an appealing tension with the rich texture, and the finish of strawberry coulis was lovely. Unexpected and fun. 
  • 2014 Full Circle (C): Our fifth Full Circle Pinot Noir, from the warmest vintage we'd had to date. That showed in a nose that leaned toward cherry cola, dried fig, and cocoa powder. The mouth showed a little welcome mintiness to the chocolate notes with additional flavors of potpourri and black cherry. The finish was still fairly tannic, with cherry and chocolate notes. It was less evocative of Pinot Noir than we would prefer (perhaps unsurprising from such a warm vintage) but still in a nice place.
  • 2014 Counoise (SC): The first bottle we opened was badly sherried, which is unusual under screwcap, and made us worried for the whole batch. But the second bottle was outstanding, with a nose of crunchy cranberry, raspberry tea, loam, and redwood forest. The mouth showed dusty, brambly raspberry fruit with a refreshing wintergreen note. A salty minerality played with the wild, spicy berry character on the finish. 
  • 2014 Terret Noir (C): Only our second-ever Terret Noir. An interesting nose of strawberry fruit leather, oregano, Maraschino cherry, and rose petals. The palate is vibrant: cherry Jolly Rancher, black tea, leafy herbs, dried flowers, and chaparral. The grape's signature tannins are still very much in evidence, making for a fascinating textural experience. Would be fun to show to someone who likes cocktails with aromatic bitters. 
  • 2014 Mourvedre (C): A nose of black licorice, cocoa powder, black currant, and new leather. The mouth showed black plum and chocolate powder notes and a lovely saline minerality. Gorgeous and still youthful. One of my favorite showings of our varietal Mourvedre, which is one of our most reliable bellwethers of our greatest vintages. 
  • 2014 Syrah (C): A classic savory Syrah nose of iron, blood, and pine forest. When I asked the table if they could pull out any fruit on the nose, Chelsea replied "olives are a fruit". On the palate, more generous, with flavors of black raspberry, chalky mineral, and a lovely mouth-coating texture. The finish was nicely salty, with more black olive and dark fruit. Impressive, still young, and quintessentially Syrah.
  • 2014 Tannat (C): A nose that we spent too much time discussing whether it was more reminiscent of pancetta, guanciale, or pig trotters (so, yes, pork fat) along with dark cherry and mint chocolate. The palate showed Tannat's characteristic lively acids, which turn the fruit tone more to red cherry, with plenty of tannin and a spicy finish of brown butter, Mexican hot chocolate, and more of that meaty richness.
  • 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon (C): From the two rows of Cabernet vines we have in our nursery, which most years gets tossed into our Tannat. An immediately recognizable Cabernet nose of graphite, juniper, and a sweet earthy note. The mouth showed blackcurrant and sweet tobacco flavors along with suede leather and a little kiss of sweet oak like toasted coconut. Unlike most California Cabernet, the limestone soils here give a translucency to the texture with nice acids that I really love, though it's a bit out of the mainstream. That said, if more California Cabernet had this approach, I'd probably drink it a lot more often.
  • 2014 Patelin de Tablas (SC; 55% Syrah, 29% Grenache, 10% Mourvedre, 6% Counoise): A nose of pork fat and blackberrry, with a little minty lift. The mouth was much juicier, with plum and dusty bramble notes. The finish was a little short, and this was likely at its peak a few years ago. Still, what a value for anyone who bought some of this at the $20/bottle this was on release. 
  • 2014 Cotes de Tablas (C; 44% Grenache, 36% Syrah, 12% Counoise, 8%Mourvedre): A nose of Worcerstershire sauce, plum compote, and spun sugar. In the mouth, like chocolate-dipped strawberries with nice chalky tannins and back to that Grenache-driven powdered sugar note on the finish. Seemingly right at its peak. 
  • 2014 En Gobelet (C; 34% Grenache, 25% Syrah, 21% Mourvedre, 15% Counoise, 5% Tannat): The nose is pretty, with dried cranberry and hibiscus notes over undertones of meaty richness and a clean earthiness Austin compared to walking through the forest when you're mushroom hunting. The mouth showed flavors of açai, chocolate truffle, and fresh coffee bean, with vibrant acids and a little appealing tannic grip. My favorite showing of En Gobelet at this stage that I can remember.
  • 2014 Esprit de Tablas (C; 40% Mourvedre, 35% Grenache, 20% Syrah, 5% Counoise): An absolutely classic Esprit nose of redcurrant and blueberry, new leather, meat drippings, and forest floor. Neil said "this smells like home". The mouth showed chocolate-covered cherry, more of that roasted meat drippings we found on the nose, sweet nutmeg spice, and a licorice note that seemed to bounce back and forth between red and black. Lovely, with a long life seemingly ahead of it.
  • 2014 Panoplie (C; 65% Mourvedre, 28% Grenache, 7% Syrah): A nose that to me evoked a plate set out with prosciutto, fresh figs, and a little drizzle of balsamic glaze, with a little sweet sarsaparilla note over the top. The mouth shows red currant and brown butter shortbread, chocolate-covered açai berry and a meaty appeal like herb-rubbed prime rib fresh out of the oven. Lovely.
  • 2014 Petit Manseng (C): A little nostalgic to taste as we've made the decision to discontinue our bottling of this classic southwest French grape known for maintaining great acids as it reaches high sugar levels. It showed a classic nose of pineapple, membrillo, graham cracker and lemongrass, along with something a little yeasty like buttermilk. The mouth showed flavors of sweet apricot and lychee, with great acids and a lovely crushed rock minerality. A nutty sunflower seed note played with the tropical fruit and mineral on the finish. Fun. 

A few concluding thoughts

In terms of vintage character, Chelsea's description of "plush but pure" seemed to sum it up pretty well. After a stretch between 2010 and 2013 where a combination of cool weather and our desire to move away from a style that we felt in the late 2000's had become too ripe and weighty had led to wines that leaned into a more open-knit, savory approach, 2014 was a bit of a course correction looking for both those savory elements and more fruit intensity. Looking at the progression from 2012 to 2013 to 2014, I can feel us coming to the approach we use today. That's exciting. 

At the time, we thought it was an outstanding red vintage and a good (maybe not great) white vintage. But I thought the whites really shined in the tasting, and the combination of increased intensity and vibrant acids made for a great balance. On the red side, both the fresher, generally early-drinking varieties (think Counoise, or Terret Noir) and the more traditionally ageworthy grapes (think Mourvedre or Syrah) were in appealing stages at age ten. That's a sign of an outstanding vintage overall.

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

When I asked everyone around the table to pick five favorites, 14 different wines received at least one vote, with the Counoise and the Mourvedre leading the way with six votes each. We ended up picking nine wines to share at our public retrospective tasting on February 4th. If you'd like to join us, we'll be tasting Grenache Blanc, Esprit de Tablas Blanc, Dianthus, Counoise, Mourvedre, Syrah, En Gobelet, Esprit de Tablas, and Panoplie. There are still a few spots left at the tasting, and we'd love you to join us.

Winter means the best vineyard sunsets

It feels strange for this Vermont-raised kid to say, but I've become a fan of clouds. There are months that go by here in Paso Robles where you don't see any, and as nice as that probably sounds to those of you blanketed in snow and ice at the moment, it does get old, with the sun feeling like the eye of Sauron by late summer.

But with the advent of fall comes winter weather systems making their way through California. If that happens at the end of harvest, it can be nerve-wracking. But usually it's not a problem here and we're grateful for the moisture. Visually, the combination of shorter days and clouds in the sky means great sunsets. Over the last three months I've been trying to take a walk around the property at dusk each week so I could document the vineyard's transition from fall to winter. If you've been following our social media, you've likely seen several photos from these rambles. But I've also been storing up some sunset pictures that I've loved, and have put them together in this blog. I'll divide them up into three sections, in chronological sequence. First, some shots from the first rain of the year, in mid-November. The color palette is still that of fall, with the leaves still on the vines and the golden hue of dried grasses emphasized by the intense orange glow of the setting sun:

Fall sunset over Mourvedre ex-Chard

Another shot from later that same evening caught the sun reflected off our solar array:

Fall sunset over solar panels

Fast-forward a month to mid-December, and the rain we had received in the intervening month had changed the color settings from summer's gold to winter's green, except that it had been mild enough that there were still leaves on many of the hillside vineyard blocks. This is one of my favorite color combinations to catch, and it's so fleeting that many years -- when we get a hard freeze before it rains -- it doesn't happen at all:

Winter sunset over new green grass

In addition to catching the light, one of the other things that the clouds do is give depth to the layers of mountains to the west of us. In the summer, it's so dry here that it's hard to know whether the peaks of the Santa Lucias are a mile away, or five, or ten. But the moisture in the winter air brings their parade of peaks and valleys into clearer contrast:

Winter sunset over Mourvedre and Santa Lucia Mountains

While in December the tops of our hills still had leaves, the lower areas had seen a few freezes already. That made the grapevines in those blocks -- like this head-trained Counoise vine -- stand out in stark contrast to the green grass and theatrical sky:

Winter sunset over Counoise

Now, in January, the whole vineyard is dormant and the grass has had another month to grow. This scene won't change much for the next three months, except that the cover crop will have periodic trimmings as the flock of sheep move through, and the wild unruliness of last year's tangled canes gives way to orderly patterns as we come through to prune. This is a photo we shared over the weekend on our social media, taken about 20 minutes after sundown thanks to the iPhone's remarkable ability to render in low light. We're looking north, down between hillside Muscardin and Bourboulenc blocks, over head-trained Tannat and Cinsaut in the valley, and then back up over Grenache and Counoise. It's my favorite view of the property, though it's not one I think I've taken before this deep into dusk:

Winter rendering after dark
I'll leave you with one of my favorite shots from that same session, looking west instead of north. The last light of the western sky silhouettes the dormant Mourvedre canes, one of our owl boxes, and the incoming storm front that would eventually go on to drop an inch of rain on us. 

Winter sunset and dormant vines

Happy winter, everyone.

A welcome, gentle start to the Paso Robles rainy season

What a difference a year makes. This week last year we were in the middle of a three-week stretch where four separate atmospheric river storms slammed into the California Central Coast, totaling nearly 20 inches of rain. That was more than we'd received any of the three previous winters, and all that water overwhelmed the creeks, culverts, and drainage basins and produced flooding with visual images so dramatic that we found ourselves the subject of stories in Decanter, Wine Spectator, Fox Weather, the San Francisco Chronicle, and even the BBC.

Still, while last year was extreme, it's usually wet in December. This year's monthly total was 5.13", or 103% of normal for what is typically our second-wettest month. Even better, it's come gently, in three separate storms, each of which spread out across two days. After a November where we received about 80% of our expected precipitation, this year is trending curiously... normally. It's also been relatively warm; after eight below-freezing nights in later November and early December, we haven't frosted since December 13th. These last three warm, wet weeks have provided outstanding conditions for the cover crop to get established, and it's ahead of last year's growth even though we've only seen average (instead of well-above-average) rain:

Green Vineyard Jan 2023 - Lush Cover Crop

It appears that January is continuing with more of the same pattern. Last night brought another half-inch of rain, and there are two more small storms in the 10-day forecast, though nothing that looks like it's going to really dump on us. As long as we get these periodic smaller storms, that's just fine. We do need it to stay wet in January (typically our wettest month of the year, at an average of 5.81" of rain) because it accounts for nearly a quarter of our annual total. Our core rainy season is just four months, with December through March accounting for 78% of our total rainfall since we installed our weather station in 1996. If we don't get our moisture then, it's hard to make it up later.

We are a long way from worrying about oversaturation; there's no water flowing yet in Las Tablas Creek, and while the larger creeks and rivers have had a little water in them in the immediate aftermath of the storms, they're a long way from the steady flows that we saw well into spring in 2023. That said, the soils are deep brown and wet down through the root zones of both grapevines and cover crop. And water-loving plants (and fungi) are having a field day:

Green Vineyard Jan 2023 - Mushrooms

A priority for us at this time of year is doing everything we can to encourage the absorption of the rain that falls and discourage runoff. One of the techniques that we use is keyline plowing. This ancient technique prescribes digging deep furrows in alternate rows of our dry-farmed blocks, keeping roughly perpendicular to the slope. These furrows slow the downhill flow of water and encourage absorption instead of runoff. What's more, because these furrows cut through the layers but don't turn the soil over, the disruption that they provide to the soil networks is minimal. A photo of our Scruffy Hill block is a great example:

Green Vineyard Jan 2023 - Scruffy Hill

So if the soils are so nice and wet, why are we hoping for regarding additional rain? Well, there are two reasons. First, the calcareous soils here in west Paso Robles have a tremendous capacity to absorb, store, and transport water to deeper layers. Additional rain will help recharge the underground rivers and lakes (and everyone's wells). Second, wet soils have a greater capacity to stay cool compared to drier soils, and rising soil temperatures is one of the most important factors in determining the date of bud break. Rain well into March last year helped keep our vines dormant longer than we've seen in any of our drier seasons, and every week that the vines stay dormant through March and April measurably reduces our risk from spring frosts.

But that's a worry for the future. For now, we'll glory in the lovely green growth we're seeing everywhere, the blue skies overhead during this period between storm systems, and feel great about a season that has so far felt benign. After all the excitement of the last two years, we'd be happy with a little bit of boring.

Green Vineyard Jan 2023 - Long View

Our Most Memorable Wines of 2023

As I have done the last few years, I asked our team to share a wine or two that stuck with them from all the ones they'd tried in 2023, and why. This is always one of my favorite blogs to put together. I love seeing the breadth of wine interests of the Tablas Creek team. More than that, I love seeing what inspired them. If you don't work at a winery, you might expect that those of us who do spend most of our time drinking our own wines, but in my experience, that's far from the case. Most people who find a career in wine do so because they find it fascinating, and that interest doesn't go away just because they've landed at a particular winery, even a winery that they love. And most people who work at wineries look at exploring other wines as an enjoyable form of continuing education.

This year, I tried to be more conscious of fostering that continuing education by opening some of the treasures left from my dad's cellar with our team. It was gratifying to see that some of those made people's year-end lists. But what stood out, as usual, was the degree to which the memorableness of a wine was tied to the occasion for which and the company with whom it was opened. As Neil said so well in his submission last year, it is "with food, company and occasion that great bottles become truly memorable ones."   

Here's everyone's submission, in their own words and only very lightly edited, in alphabetical order (except mine, which is at the end, with some concluding thoughts):

Charlie Chester, Senior Assistant Tasting Room Manager
Mine is not about just one wine; it was an experience.

Every year, an email from Jason marks a special occasion at Tablas—Francois and Cesar Perrin are in town to participate in the blending of the Esprit. I'm always excited when that Monday morning email arrives: "Gather the tasting room team; Cesar and Francois brought some wine they want to share." This time, it led to a midweek tasting featuring six vintages each of Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape Blanc and Chateau de Beaucastel Vieilles Vignes Roussanne. (The 2009 vintage of this was my favorite of the tasting.) So, on an ordinary Wednesday at 8:00 am, our tasting room team gathered for a session that was something to remember.

No formalities, just pouring and sipping. The Perrins, a dynamic father-son duo, brought in the good stuff, and we delved into twelve wines with zero fuss. These are the moments that remind me I work at a special place. It's not about unraveling complex tasting notes; it's about enjoying the laid-back journey through the evolution of these wines. More than just wine, it's team time that turns a regular Wednesday into a spontaneous celebration. Here's to those unexpected moments that become the most memorable sips of the year!

Most Memorable Wines of 2023 - Charlie

Neil Collins, Executive Winemaker
I am going to go with winery of the year as I believe it is a property that deserves some recognition. Marci and I were lucky enough to take a short backpack trip up the Loire valley. I made it a point to go and visit Domaine Grosbois outside of Chinon. The entire visit was a treat: farming in the best possible way and producing wines that I loved across the board. An absolute treat!!! If I was pushed to pick one it would be the Gabare. But I’ll take any of the lineup!!

Most Memorable Wines of 2023 - Neil

Ian Consoli, Director of Marketing
2023 was full of incredible wine experiences. Thanks to Jason opening up his father's cellar, I had some of the oldest wine I have ever tried. While those wines land on my list of best wines of 2023, I thought I would focus on the wines I will remember the year for: Barbaresco and Barolo. I was fortunate to spend a couple of weeks in the Piedmont region, where I received an education from vintners and wine shop owners. Two of those bottles were some of the most sought-after in Barolo. Vigna Rionda has established itself as one of the top sites of Barolo's new Grand Crus system. I tried a Vigna Rionda from the site's largest producer, Massolino, and the smallest producer, Guido Porro. Both of these wines were exceptional, serious drinking wines. The Guido was opened the day prior and the way it opened up was more floral than one might expect from a young Barolo. I left the region wholly sold on Nebbiolo, and I am already looking forward to my next glass.

Most Memorable Wines of 2023 - Ian

Darren Delmore, National Sales Manager
My most memorable wines of the year were served side by side with a good friend and a surreal appetizer, just before Christmas. 2018 Domaine Weinbach Cuvée Theo Riesling and 2017 Vincent Dauvissat Chablis paired with “Deep Fried Baby Crabs” at Goshi’s SLO. Dauvissat was in green apple, lemon oil and crushed oyster shell mode, righteously mid-weighted on the palate, whereas the Weinbach was as gingery as the slices themselves, with passion fruit, honey and lime, balanced acidity and a hint of sweetness: simply built for sushi. The crabs were, well, something that would’ve floored Salvador Dali and just what the menu said they were.

Most Memorable Wines of 2023 - Darren

Dusty Hannah, Tasting Room
I would not be surprised if my first two wines are not on anybody else's list because they were shared to the tasting room team at Tablas Creek, by Jason Haas, during one of our meetings. Perks of the job. Thanks Jason!

There is nothing like trying an old wine and these definitely did not disappoint! I can't help but think about all the facets that went into these and all the time that they were sitting in the bottle just to get to my glass. Incredible. This champagne was sent to me as part of my wine education. There was no way I was just going to try it by myself and when I let my buddy have some, he liked it so much he poured it for his pickup party! Although I have had these bottles many times before I shared these two with my parents for Christmas dinner. Paired beautifully with a ribeye. I'm lucky to have had these plenty of times, like I said, but they are very memorable to me. The 2017 still goes down as my all-time favorite wine at Tablas Creek. Happy New Year!

Ray King, Tasting Room
My most memorable wines of the year have been the gifts at various events over the past few weeks. Aged and beautiful. 

1) Chateau Pavie, Saint Emilion, 1970
2) Clos du Val, Cabernet Sauvignon, 1978
4) Tablas Creek Vineyard, Founders’ Reserve, 2001
5) Tablas Creek Vineyard, Panoplie, 2003
6) Tablas Creek Vineyard, Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc, 2010

Most Memorable Wines of 2023 - Ray

Jordan Lonborg, Viticulturist
My most memorable bottle of 2023 was a Desire Lines Shake Ridge Syrah. What made this bottle so memorable was the fact that the great Ann Kraemer, Owner and Vineyard Manager of Shake Ridge Vineyard, opened that bottle for both Neil Collins and myself as we overlooked her property, ate a beautiful dinner, and talked shop about the past, present, and future of grape farming. It was an unforgettable evening with a couple legends. 

Erin Mason, Regenerative Specialist
It was an occasion that brought me to my most memorable bottles of 2023. Just before the start of harvest, I celebrated the fourth anniversary of the Tribute to Grace tasting room opening with the winemaker and team. I’m lucky to be part of two amazing wine families in California—both Tablas Creek and Grace. Angela Osborne, the winemaker and Grenache devotee, has made it a tradition at major celebrations to do a semi-blind tasting of two wines. Only partially blind because we know it’s going to be Grenache… we know one is going to be a Tribute to Grace… and, typically, one Chateauneuf-de-Pape from Chateau Rayas—always the same vintage. This year, we were lucky enough to taste the 2011 Santa Barbara Highlands Grace alongside Rayas. I’ve never described a wine as “transformative,” but this was my second time tasting Rayas and there is truly nothing like it. Also exciting because of the comparisons made between 2011 to 2023 growing seasons in CA. If the Santa Barbara Highlands was any indication, we all have something amazing to look forward to from 2023. Bonne année!

Most Memorable Wines of 2023 - Erin

Monica O'Connor, Direct Sales Manager
My most memorable wine of 2023 was the Domaine Matrot Meursault-Blagny 1er Cru 2019.

This wine was so perfectly balanced, I just savored each sip. The mouth was full of preserved lemon, with soft mineral, subtle hazelnut and a whisper of anise and bright chervil. What made it extra special too is that I visited Beaune over the summer and cycled through Meursault!

We enjoyed the wine on Christmas Eve with a creamy polenta and mushroom dish. It was exquisite!

...And As for Me
I was lucky enough to have my wine of the year -- the stunning 1990 Chave Hermitage -- twice in 2023. The first time was for my birthday in June, at home, with just Meghan and Sebastian as Eli was away spending a month working with the Perrins. I then opened it a second time as part of a collection I brought to supply my table at the amazing Paso Purpose event that raised nearly $2,000,000 to support must! charities in August. It takes a special wine to shine at both an intimate dinner and a bustling outdoor function with hundreds of people. And this was the sort of event where everywhere you looked there was something extraordinary being opened. But Paso Robles, you have to remember, is a relatively young wine region. The wineries who started must! charities were all founded this century, and they're all of my generation. So while there were amazing wines on every table, the 1990 Chave still stood out. It was fully mature, quintessentially Syrah with its chocolate and pancetta flavors, but with all the rough edges smoothed away by time. Instead there were lingering flavors of cedar, dried flowers, and loamy earth. Just a treat, and an amazing opportunity to think about how cool it is that we can drink a wine made from the same place by the same family for 16 generations.

Most Memorable Wines of 2023 - Jason

A few concluding thoughts:
I did my best to link each wine to a page with information about it, should you want to research details. But I don't think replicating a specific wine is necessarily the right goal. If there's one thing that I've learned from writing these end-of-year appreciations for a decade now, it's that it really is the confluence of wine and occasion that makes for the most memorable experiences. Wine, after all, is the ultimate social beverage. The size of a bottle means it's something that you share with others. The fact that wine is ephemeral, that each bottle is a reflection of particular grapes grown in a particular place in a particular vintage, means that each one is different and also a unique reflection of time and place. Add in the human element, where the winemaker or winemakers are taking (or not taking) actions based on what they see, smell, and taste, and you have what is in essence a time capsule that comes with the added benefit of helping you enjoy a meal and bring insight into the flavors it contains. What a perfect starting point for a meaningful evening.

I also noticed the extent to which many of people's most memorable wines were older. It is for sure a challenge to cellar wines. It requires resources: space, patience, and the ability to buy wine in enough quantity that you can enjoy some in its youth while still having enough to open later. And there's always the risk that by the time you open your bottle it might be corked, or you might have missed its peak. But reading these memories highlights that the rewards can be marvelous. One hack: it's often surprisingly affordable to buy older wines online. Sites like Wine Searcher put older vintages at your fingertips in a way that would otherwise require major investment. For example, a few minutes' search found me this 30-year old bottle of Beaucastel for $109

I wish you all memorable food and wine experiences in 2024, and even more than that, the opportunity to share them with people you love.