From the Orchard to the Vineyard: Q & A with Assistant Tasting Room Manager Rumyn Purewal

By Ian Consoli

If you have been to our tasting room in the past four years, the chances you’ve met Rumyn. Rumyn (pronounced rum-in) Purewal has been with Tablas Creek since June of 2017, and at times it feels like we couldn’t run it without her. Her ability to adapt to whatever the team and the customer needs has been invaluable. Whether she’s asked to pour at the bar, spearhead a new seated flight experience, run the register, or greet guests at the check-in station, Rumyn has always been up to the task. So when an opening for the Assistant Tasting Room Manager position opened up, everyone knew she was the perfect fit. Of course, due to her humble nature, everyone knew but her.

In addition to managerial duties, she now makes the calls for the apparel and merchandising part of the tasting room. We are all excited to see how she contributes to the success of our team and your customer experience. On the heels of her promotion to Assistant Tasting Room Manager, I sat down with Rumyn to find out more about her.

Rumyn Purewal in the tasting room

Who are you?

I am Rumyn Purewal, the Assistant Tasting Room Manager at Tablas Creek.

Where did you grow up?

In Yuba City, California.

Tell us a bit about your family and growing up in Yuba City, California.

My grandpa immigrated from Punjab, India, and made enough money working the fields to purchase land. He planted a large peach orchard and worked hard to establish a successful harvesting company. Today, my dad and his brothers run the orchard and the company. I grew up there on my family’s peach farm just outside of Yuba City.

So how did you go from a peach farm to getting into wine?

I went to school at Cal Poly SLO. I studied agricultural business because it was a pretty broad major, and if I ever wanted to go home to the family farm, it would be directly applicable. I fell in love with the Central Coast and began looking for agriculture adventures in the area. I had interned a few years with Farm Credit West and decided I didn’t want to pursue accounting or finance. I also had the opportunity to study abroad in Australia and enjoyed my first experiences within a wine region, so I decided to apply to multiple wineries when I graduated. I interviewed with Tablas Creek, was intrigued by their story and how educational-based they were, and decided to accept a position in the tasting room.

What do you enjoy most about working at Tablas Creek?

I enjoy the people and my co-workers in this very family-oriented setting. I enjoy the farming practices and the opportunity to see the winery become the first in many things without wanting to be the only one, like spreading the cuttings and encouraging others to sign up for the ROC certification. We don’t hoard the knowledge; we want to make it available to everyone.

Rumyn Purewal at work

What is your ultimate goal in the wine industry?

To be determined [laughs]. I like how the wine industry has so much knowledge to absorb. From the way different vineyards farm the grapes, to vinification in the cellar, to all the varieties and regions, there’s just so much to learn. My goal is to keep absorbing that knowledge.

If a genie said you could work at a winery anywhere in the world, where would you pick?

Tablas Creek. Ah, I’m not too fond of this question. If I could go anywhere, I would go to New Zealand.

What’s the best bottle of wine you’ve ever had?

The one that stands out in my mind was a bottle I had at the tasting room of A Tribute to Grace in Los Alamos. The Hofer Vineyard Grenache was just bright, fun, and delicious.

If you were stuck on an island, what three things would you bring?

I would bring my mala (a bracelet my grandma gave me), pictures of my family, and my journal.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I like to dance, adventure, and explore new cities and states.

For what would you like to be famous?

I don’t want to be famous. 0% of me wants to be famous!

Would you rather:

 Cake or Pie?

Neither. I want ice cream!

Breathe underwater or fly?

Fly

Drink, new world wine or old world wine?

Old world

Be a winemaker or a viticulturist?

Viticulturist

Rumyn Purewal near plants


A Report from the Red Blending Table: 2020 Isn't Just a Good Vintage... It's a Great Vintage

On Friday, after a full week of work, we finally got to sit down and taste the fifteen red wines from the 2020 vintage we'd created in a week of blending. We loved them. The Panoplie was plush, dark, and dense, a true blockbuster. The Esprit was somehow both elegant and meaty, with chocolate and spicy purple fruit. Several varietal bottlings were the best I can remember from recent years, including a deep, spicy, blackcurrant and leather-laced Mourvedre and a juicy redcurrant and cocoa powder Cinsaut that provided validation for our decision to include it in the Esprit for the first time. Even the Patelin de Tablas, normally the base of our pyramid, was dense, chewy and tangy, with blackberry fruit and plenty of structure. But I'm getting ahead of myself. 

Our blending process is one we've developed over the decades, built on how they work at Beaucastel. Of course, for the second straight year we were around the blending table without a Perrin, as Covid continues to make (particularly international) travel more difficult. But we feel great about the process we use, descended from the Perrins' own system, which takes the blending process in steps and builds consensus rather than relying on one lead voice to determine the wines' final profiles.

As usual, we started our blending week Monday morning by tasting, component by component, through what we had in the cellar. Because it's too much to ask to keep your palate fresh to taste 66 separate lots of young red wines in one day, we divided this stage up between two days. Monday saw us tackle Grenache, Counoise, Cinsaut, and Pinot Noir. Tuesday we dove into the more tannin-rich grapes: Mourvedre, Syrah, Tannat, Terret Noir, Vaccarese, and our tiny Cabernet lot. Our goal at this first stage is to identify the quality of the different lots, and get a sense of both the character and diversity present in the vintage to help give us direction in blending. Here's some of the lineup of components:

Blending bottles on patio - 2020 reds

We grade on a 1-3 scale, with 1's 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 3-4 "1" grades, 5-6 "2" grades and 1 "3" grade. This year we saw the most "1" grades and the fewest "3" grades I can remember. How I graded each variety, in the order in which we tasted them:

  • Grenache (18 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. Plus, we had a really Grenache crop, which led to our most lots ever. But the quality was consistently good: Seven 1's from me, with four others getting 1/2 grades. Only five 2's and one 2/3. Plenty of Grenache's zesty fruit and spice. A solid number of lots that added to that a chocolatey richness and good structure. Plenty of good pieces to work with for all the wines, and the makings of a great varietal Grenache.
  • Counoise (6 lots): A good-but-not-great showing for Counoise. Although all six lots were juicy and lively, in the Gamay-style that most of you who enjoy our varietal Counoise bottling are familiar with, there was only one lot that showed the richer, spicy, purple-fruited Counoise that we look to use in Esprit. Grades: one 1, two 1/2 grades, and three 2's.
  • Cinsaut (1 lot): Our second Cinsaut, and five barrels this year instead of last vintage's two. A lovely spicecake nose, medium-weight (though richer than the Counoise), zesty tannins, and a nice dusting of cocoa that suggested it might find a place in Esprit for the first time. I gave it a 1/2.
  • Pinot Noir (6 lots): From the small vineyard in the Templeton Gap, outside my parents' house, that my dad decided to plant to a mix of different Pinot Noir clones back in 2007. We fermented each clone separately this year, to get a sense of how they differed, but they will all be blended together. Overall a good Pinot year, although we decided to hold out a few of the new barrels that we thought were making the wine too oak-dominant. Should make for a very nice 2019 Full Circle Pinot.
  • Mourvedre (13 lots): As I mentioned in my 2020 harvest recap blog, Mourvedre yields suffered in 2020, battered by the heat spikes and the dry winter. But the quality of what we got was superb, deep and rich, leathery and meaty, with a lovely luscious texture. I gave seven lots a 1 grade, and five others intermediate 1/2 grades. Only one 2. I'm sure that's a first. The limited quantity would prove a challenge, as we use Mourvedre as the lead for so many key wines. But if such an important grape is going to be short, it was a saving grace that it was so strong, top to bottom.
  • Syrah (13 lots): Syrah at this stage is often the easiest to love, with its plush dark fruit and spice already well-formed. This year was no exception, although the variety of cooperage that we had it in did give us more variation than we saw in Mourvedre. Seven 1's, with two others to which I gave 1/2 grades. Three 2 lots, and one 2/3 that was showing some oxidation but which should be strong once it's cleaned up.
  • Vaccarese (1 lot): Even better, I thought, than our 2019 debut which anyone who follows our social media knows I really dig. Dark, herby and savory, blackberry and chalk, rose hips and leather. Medium-weight or a little above, but less plush than a grape like Syrah. Really fun, different from all the other Rhones, and plenty good enough for consideration for Esprit. I gave it a 1.
  • Terret Noir (2 lots): Terret felt more refined but also somehow less dramatic than it has the past few years. Pale, pretty, zesty and bright, with salted watermelon and sweet spice notes. Notably floral. One lot (which I gave a 2) felt on point for a varietal bottling, while the other (which I gave a 1/2) was more structured and grippy, and seemed a natural for Le Complice.
  • Tannat (3 lots): Dense, chewy, 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 Tannat we want to put into En Gobelet, and how much we're willing to bottle and sell (the crop was big). But quality and personality are never concerns.
  • 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 we couldn't bear to blend it away. Not 2020. It was fine, dark cherry flavors but not particularly evocative of Cabernet. It will go into Tannat and be happy. 

We finished Tuesday with a round-table discussion about what we wanted to try in the blending the next few days, and decided that given the apparent strengths of all three of our main red grapes it only made sense to kick off the blending trials for both Panoplie with three different blends, each one emphasizing one of the varietals, and see what we learned. For the Esprit there was a different concern. With our small Mourvedre crop, we didn't really have the option of a Mourvedre-heavy Esprit unless we wanted to drastically reduce our production. Even with a normal Mourvedre percentage, we were looking at a production level closer to 3,000 cases than the 4,000 that we normally make. So, we decided to try a blend higher in Grenache than Syrah, a blend higher in Syrah than Grenache, and a third blend where we increased them both to almost the same amount as Mourvedre. 

Wednesday morning, we reconvened 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 60% at least) and typically more Grenache than Syrah, because Syrah's dominance often proves to be too much for the character of the Mourvedre. But in this vintage, the Mourvedre was so luscious that we felt it was able to handle a larger-than-usual Syrah component without losing its essential Panoplie-ness, and we settled on our first try on a blend of 59% Mourvedre, 28% Syrah, and 13% Grenache. This is the most excited I've been for a Panoplie since maybe 2007.

Panoplie decided, we moved on to the Esprit. Unlike with the Panoplie, the first round saw a split around the table, with the overall favorite having our highest Grenache component, our least Syrah, and small additions of Counoise, Vaccarese, and Cinsaut. But the higher-Syrah option and the high-Syrah-high-Grenache-low-Mourvedre blend got some votes too. It took us 3 rounds before everyone came around to a consensus: 40% Mourvedre, 30% Grenache, 21% Syrah, 5% Counoise, 3% Vaccarese, and 1% Cinsaut. It's interesting to me, looking at that solution, how close it is to what we decided in 2019. That provides some support to my overall feeling that the two vintages will end up having related blockbuster characters. The one difference: this year, we get to add two new grapes to the blend. With six grapes in the 2020 Esprit de Tablas Blanc, that means that 12 of the 14 Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape grapes will have graduated into the Esprit in 2020!

Thursday, we tackled our remaining blends: the two small-production wine club blends, En Gobelet and Le Complice, and our Cotes de Tablas. Because of the scarcity of Mourvedre, we didn't have a ton of options for En Gobelet. We used all the remaining head-trained Mourvedre, Counoise, and Syrah lots and were basically deciding on the relative quantities of Grenache and Tannat. But there was clear consensus in the first round, and we ended up with a blend 37% Grenache, 25% Mourvedre, 22% Syrah, 11% Counoise, and 5% Tannat. The wine was complex, with red-to-purple fruit, still primary but with the signature elegance we see from our head-trained blocks and tons of potential.

For Le Complice, we had a bit of a different challenge than in recent years. 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 spiciness, although Syrah is very dark and Terret quite pale. But this year Terret was friendlier, with less of the grippy tannin and herby stem character that we've seen each year since our first harvest back in 2013. So, it was really a question of how much lift we wanted from Terret (and Grenache) vs. how much density and plushness we wanted from Syrah. In the end, we all loved the solution with the most Syrah, more than we've ever used before. But oh, what a wine: dense and lush yet with tension and spice. Final blend: 77% Syrah, 15% Grenache, 8% Terret Noir. This had the added benefit of leaving us enough Terret to bottle as a varietal wine!

Because the En Gobelet and Le Complice don't really compete with the Cotes de Tablas for lots, we were able to knock out a third blend that day. We knew the amount of Counoise (substantial) and Mourvedre (hardly any) which we had available for Cotes, and so as usual the blending decision on this wine came down to the relative ratios of Grenache and Syrah. And, as might not be surprising given the results of our trials so far (Esprit the notable exception) we chose the highest Syrah percentage. The wine still leads with the spicy, minerally purple fruit of Grenache, but that iron and smoke backbone that Syrah brought was welcome. Our final blend was 43% Grenache, 33% Syrah, 20% Counoise, and 4% Mourvedre.

On Friday, we reconvened to taste the finalized blends alongside all the varietal wines that we ended up making. And for the second year in a row, we'll have a wide lineup. My quick notes on each of the fifteen wines we made, and their rough quantities: 

  • Terret Noir (70 cases): A spicy, high-toned floral nose like aromatic bitters and watermelon rind. The mouth is salty and tangy, with an herby sweetgrass note and spice coming out on the finish.
  • Counoise (230 cases): A nose of cran-apple, orange peel, and brambly raspberry. The mouth is simple but clean and juicy, with good acids: sour cherry and yellow plum skin. Thirst-quenching and fun.
  • Cinsaut (90 cases): A nose of chocolate-cherry and redcurrant. On the palate, melted popsicle, cola, and cocoa powder, with good dusty tannins and length.
  • Full Circle (390 cases): A very Pinot nose of bing cherry, leather, and sweet oak spice, with a little stemmy wildness lurking behind. The mouth shows nice fruit and structure, a little oak but not too much, with lingering flavors of sarsaparilla, cherry skin, and pork fat. 
  • Patelin de Tablas (2060 cases): A dark nose, dense and rich with black fruit and wood smoke. In the mouth, tangy blackberry, substantial texture, tannins rising on the finish but in good balance with acids and fruit. Because of the amount of Tannat we produced in 2020, we included a little (it should end up around 7%) in the Patelin for the first time.
  • Grenache (1230 cases): Pure and juicy (cranberry and cherry) on the nose, with some pepper spice providing depth. The mouth is juicy and mid-weight, strawberry and red cherry fruit, good acid and brightness. 
  • Cotes de Tablas (1130 cases): A nose with both darkness and lift, black cherry, soy marinade, and a savory black olive note. On the palate, both red and black fruit, deepened by licorice and chaparral notes. A creamy texture, and very long.
  • Mourvedre (140 cases): A deep spicy nose of spicy, leathery blackcurrant and meat drippings. The mouth is chewy sugarplum, more leather, and sweet baking spices. Lots of texture, tangy and long. A testament to what Mourvedre is capable of here at Tablas Creek. A pity there's not more of it, though I should be happy. At the beginning of blending I was worried there wouldn't be any at all.
  • Vaccarese(120 cases): A savory almost Nordic nose of juniper, iodine, and blackberry. In the mouth, tangy black plum, graphite and mineral, salty, structured, and long.   
  • Syrah (470 cases): A dense nose with notes of fig reduction and melted licorice, with wild herbs and pepper. On the palate, plush and long, with black raspberry fruit and a little sweet oak spice.
  • Le Complice (880 cases): A nose like wild, dark spruce forest, bacon fat, and green peppercorn. In the mouth, a beautiful balance between structure and density, with leather, cedar, black fruit and tangy green herbs. Along with Panoplie, the wine of the day, for me.
  • En Gobelet (850 cases): Very red on the nose: plums and redcurrant and dark cherry and red licorice. The mouth is structured and chewy, more restrained than the nose, still very primary but with these lovely tannins with the texture of powdered sugar. Patience.
  • Esprit de Tablas (3400 cases): A nose of spicy purple elderberry, pepper spice, roasted meats, and sagebrush. The palate was generous, with gorgeous purple fruit and Mourvedre's signature rose petal florality, deepened by flavors of meat drippings and milk chocolate. Plenty of tannin, but plenty of lift too. 
  • Panoplie (840 cases): A blockbuster nose, leather and black licorice, deep loamy earth and baker's chocolate. The mouth was more of the same, black cherry and leather and cocoa powder and chalky tannins. Long and opulent.  
  • Tannat (970 cases): A cool tanginess to the nose, candied orange peel and black cherry and minty spice. On the palate, fun and zesty, with lifted blackberry fruit, a little sweet oak spice, and Tannat's unexpected but welcome violet florality. 

A few concluding thoughts. 

First, this felt like an "easy" blending week. We didn't have any serious disagreements, or any wines that just wouldn't come together. Many of the wines were decided in the first round of tasting. Some of that comes from the vintage's scarcity (reducing our options) and strength (meaning we couldn't go too far wrong). But it's also a reflection of the fact that this was a veteran crew around the blending table, with everyone having done this at least four times before, and the core of Neil, Chelsea, Craig and me all with at least ten vintages under our belts.

Second, I came out of that blending session really excited that all these wildly different grapes and blends, each with a well-defined personality, can have come out of the same cellar. That's a testament to the diversity of the Rhone pantheon of grapes, but even more so to our winemaking team's willingness to let each grape be itself, rather than imposing a set of winemaking techniques on them all. I can't wait to start sharing these with people.   

Finally, in looking for a comparable vintage to 2020, I don't think that you have to go any farther back than 2019. Although the 2020 vintage was more challenging because of the heat spikes and fires (not to mention the pandemic) the overall harvest dates and degree days were similar. Beyond that, the distribution of the heat, with a cool first half of the summer and a hot (often very hot) second half was reminiscent. And that's a great thing. 2019 is proving to be a great vintage across both reds and whites. If 2020 can come through all its tribulations and match that, this collection of wines will indeed give us a reason to want to remember the year most of us would prefer to forget.

Blending bottles on patio from above - 2020 reds


Is it possible that we just released the first varietal Vaccarese bottling... ever?

Have I said recently how much I love my work? 

Vaccarese 2019 bottle against limestone wallThis week, we got to release our 2019 Vaccarese, the first bottling of our first vintage of this obscure Rhone red grape. I dove into its history in the blog Grapes of the Rhone Valley: Vaccarese last year, so I'm not going to rehash its full history here. If you'd like to refresh yourself on it, take a moment now. OK, welcome back.

But in getting from growing the grapes to making and bottling the wine to now, finally, getting to share it with our fans I've spent a fair amount of time looking for literature on Vaccarese. It barely exists. In her seminal and comprehensive Wine Grapes, Jancis Robinson dedicates barely three-quarters of a page to it (under its synonym Brun Argenté) and in the subheading calls it a "very minor southern Rhone variety". At just 12 hectares (about 30 acres) in France as of 2012, it's scarce. Most of that, Jancis reports, is in Chusclan, a minor appellation in the Gard, where it is known as Camarèse. (Yes, this grape is old enough that despite its scarcity now and as far as we can tell forever, it goes by three different names. Welcome to the challenges of being a grape ampelographer.) In Chusclan, it is generally blended with Grenache to make rosés. But its percentage is capped at 20%. So, you're not going to find a 100% Vaccarese from Chusclan.

How about Chateauneuf-du-Pape? Very unlikely. According to Harry Karis in his 2009 Chateauneuf-du-Pape Wine Book, there were 4.1 hectares (about 10 acres) in the entire appellation, representing just over one tenth of one percent of the 3,231 hectares planted. [Editor's note April 29th: It appears there may be one! See the comment below from Robert Parker Wine Advocate contributor Joe Czerwinski, reporting on a special cuvee from Chateau des Fines Roches called "Forget Me Not". The wine's page on the producer's website lists a blend of 90% Vaccarese and 10% Grenache. That's the closest we've yet found!]

For confirmation, I checked the Wine Searcher Pro, the industry-leading wine search engine, to see if any Vaccarese bottlings were listed. A global search returned just three results, one Cotes du Rhone for sale in Switzerland and two Chateauneuf-du-Papes, one for sale in Austria and another in Massachusetts. But in all three cases Vaccarese was the fourth or fifth variety in the blend. How rare does this make Vaccarese? Compare the limited results to a grape like Picpoul, which returns 2,720 listings. Grenache Blanc, rarely found on its own, returns 1,670 listings. Even Counoise returns 185 results. 

How about historically? It seems unlikely. Although the grape comes in for praise in Pierre Galet's 1990 ampelography Cépages et Vignobles de France, it's for its blending value. He quotes a winemaker who finds it "particularly interesting for moderating the alcoholic power of Grenache in the rosés of Chusclan and the red wines of Chateauneuf-du-Pape" (my translation). And while there was more acreage in 1990, according to Galet there were still just 40 hectares (100 acres). Going back to the Viala and Vermorel's 1901-1910 Ampélographie doesn't help. They don't have an entry for Vaccarese, instead listing it and a few alternate spellings in the index as "nonspecific names given to grape varieties in the Vaucluse". Brun Argenté is dismissed equally briefly in the index: "a grape variety from the Vaucluse, poorly described ampelographically" (both translations mine again). Camarèse doesn't even get an appearance in the index. So, it's pretty clear that at least for the last century Vaccarese has never been widely planted, or been a lead grape where it was.

So, where does that leave us? Forging our own way. And based on our experiences this week, where we've released the 2019 Vaccarese to our club members and been tasting the 2020 Vaccarese around the blending table, the grape has potential. My (brief) notes on the 2020 out of barrel were "Lovely dark color. Nose herby and savory. Mouth medium-weight, blackberry and chalk, rose hips and leather. Structured." It was good enough that we're going to use a portion of it in our 2020 Esprit de Tablas, in just its second year in production. That's rare for us. For more on that story, stay tuned for next week's blog, on this week's blending. But we'll still have enough to bottle perhaps 100 cases on its own, which I think is important for such a new grape. After all, we want help from other people wrapping their heads around this grape which is so new and so rare.

If any of you have ever had a 100% Vaccarese from anywhere, or even a Vaccarese-led wine, will you please let me know? We'd love to try it as a comparison. If not, and ours if your first, please let us know what you think!      

Vaccarese in row with sign

Have I said recently how much I love my work?


Virtual Wine Club Events are Awesome, and Everyone Should do Them

By Ian Consoli

This past weekend we completed our second virtual Wine Club pickup party at Tablas Creek, and I am fully convinced that everyone should be doing them. We have connected with hundreds of wine club members across the country, without leaving the vineyard and with minimal expenditures of time or money. The positive reviews from members keep pouring in, and, honestly, we’ve had a lot of fun doing these first two. So yes, we’ll continue to do these virtual events even when we feel comfortable hosting events at our tasting room. I think the rest of the wine industry should do the same.

Virtual Wine Club Event

We invite our wine club members out to the winery for club pickup parties twice a year in normal times. We close the tasting room to the public on a Sunday and cap out at ~450 members (four different time slots, 115 per session). We offer a glass of something seasonal on arrival. Jason gives a ~15-minute update on what we’ve been working on over the last six months, and then we invite members to find a pouring station where they get to try each of the wines in their wine club shipments. A chef (usually our friend Chef Jeff Scott) prepares two bite-size dishes, one each for the red wines and the white wines, for everyone to enjoy during the tasting. The events are a lot of fun, and we enjoy getting to see so many members in a single day.

Cue the summer of 2020. We skipped the Spring 2020 pickup party due to the Coronavirus. It was all we could do in April just to unite our members with their wines, given that nearly everyone was in a new situation and we were all working from home. But by summer, Wine Club Director Nicole Getty and I decided we wanted to do something for our members in the fall. With no template or examples that we could find, we put our heads together to come up with a virtual wine club pickup party based on our in-person events. We came up with this structure:

A virtual event hosted by General Manager Jason Haas and Winemaker Neil Collins. Members could either open one or more of the bottles they’d received or order an optional tasting half-bottle kit of our Esprit de Tablas and Esprit de Tablas Blanc. Recipes developed by Chef Jeff Scott and distributed by us to members in advance of the event for them to prepare at-home and enjoy along with the tasting. We would simulcast on our Facebook Live and YouTube channel so that members who didn’t have a Facebook account could still participate. During the broadcast, Jason and Neil started with an update on Tablas Creek, then tasted through each of the six wines with guest appearances from Chef Jeff to explain his recipes and why he paired them with each of the select wines. After confirming recipes and attendance from Chef Jeff, we were ready to go.

The turnout at the event in the Fall of 2020 was shockingly good. Not because I didn’t expect it to work, but because I had been producing live shows for months and typical viewership was in the 20-50 screen range. We were at 80 screens within 2 minutes and crested the century mark for most of the broadcast. I remember watching the number of live viewers climb and climb and thinking, here we go! By the end of the event, we had reached 1300 screens. Jason, Neil, and Jeff were incredible. The content of their conversation was informative, and their personalities were on full display. We estimated the broadcast would last an hour; it lasted two and just flew by. We heard Chef Jeff talk about food like Steve Jobs introducing the first iPhone. Sitting behind the dashboard was a true pleasure, and comments from the audience echoed that sentiment.

After that first success, we knew we were on to something. We analyzed the event’s benefits and think they mostly fall into three items: access, intimacy, and convenience.

  • Access. We offer multiple opportunities throughout the year to meet our owner, winemakers, and viticulturist through onsite events like the pickup party, horizontal tastings, vertical tastings, and our annual pig roast. In addition to these onsite activities, we participate in winemaker dinners around the country to provide that same access. Virtual events allow your fans unprecedented access to whoever you choose. In our case, that meant our proprietor, our winemaker, and the chef who made the recipes specifically for the wines our members were tasting.
  • Intimacy. Jason often jokes that more people have seen his living room in the last year than in the previous two decades. Virtual events offer a face-to-face experience for members. With a chat box in front of them, members can ask your owner and winemaker whatever questions they have, and they will get a response. Wondering why vine quarantines take so long? Just ask. That question you’ve been dying to ask the winemaker about his use of native fermentation? Here’s your chance. Been wondering what kind of truffle oil to use? Don’t know what truffle oil is? Ask the chef. And know that members will remember this intimacy.
  • Convenience. Don’t forget the importance of For all our effort in participating in festivals and dinners around the country, winery events generally require your fans to travel to be where you are. Wine club events even more so. We ship to 40 states, and we have members in every one of them. Even the majority of our California members don’t make it to Paso Robles annually. And the 450+ members who attend each of our pickup parties only represent about 5% of our membership. So, how do you maintain and build your connection to the vast majority of members who don’t visit? Based on these comments, it looks like we’ve found a solution:

Where are they from_

Fast forward six months, to our recent (April 16th) Spring VINsider Virtual Pickup Party. We learned a lot from our first experience, and while most things stayed the same, we realized we wanted a better solution to get wine samples to members who didn’t want to have to open the bottles they’d received. We had the half bottles of Esprit and Esprit Blanc on hand for our fall shipment, making it a relatively easy decision to package them, but even so, having only two of the six wines available as half-bottles wasn’t ideal. Given we don’t bottle any of the wines in the spring shipment in half-bottles, that wasn’t an option anyway. But we like the solution we came up with. We partnered with Master the World, a company founded by two master sommeliers dedicated to providing blind tasting kits for somms-in-training, to make 100 sample packs of all six wines in the Spring Classic wine club shipment. These came in 187ml bottles (quarter-bottles), and we were able to make them available to members, shipping-included for $99.

With the same format, new wines, and a new sample kit, we aired on Friday, April 16th. The results were even better than for the fall event.

Virtual Pickup Party Live Results

A lot is going on here; I’ll summarize my key observations. Between Youtube (YT) and Facebook (FB), our peak live viewership was 138 screens. I emphasize screens because we likely have multiple people on each screen. At just two people per screen, that’s 276 viewers, but I believe that number is conservative. While I focus on the live viewership numbers because it shows how engaging the content is, it’s important to note that our reach was a cumulative 1851 screens, or a low-end potential of 3700 sets of eyes on the broadcast (or 7400 individual eyes)! Total Live minutes viewed on FB was 5300. That means 88 hours of view time on our FB page. Total comments were 234, total reactions (likes, laughs, and loves) were 99. That’s a lot of members taking advantage of this intimate environment!

Between total attendees and their participation in the event, it’s easy to see that people were happy to be there.

But does it sell wine? The short answer is we’re sure it does, although it’s hard to measure. We did see a surge in online and phone orders around the event. Of course, the baseline level of orders is higher now than it was before the pandemic, but still, we know that some of the people who attended and were commenting on the live event placed orders in the next few days. It’s worth remembering that the principal goal of our member events has never been sales. These are club members who are buying every six months anyway. Our main objective has always been to reinforce their connection with us through these events. And we feel sure that we were successful in this goal. It’s also worth noting that if you’re comparing it directly to an in-person event that there are many fewer direct and indirect costs of putting on a virtual party. You don’t have to close your tasting room. You don’t have to prepare or serve food. And the demands on your staff are much less.

Conclusion

We’re excited to continue to host this kind of event in the future. We’re meeting our members where they are, we’re teaching them new recipes, and we’re giving them the opportunity to interact with the proprietor, winemaker, and chef.

We face new questions come October. It seems like we will be able to host an in-person pickup party for the first time since 2019. If we do, will the virtual version still see a large attendance? Will the sales of one cannibalize the sales of the other? Will members choose to go to both? We don’t have the answers to these questions right now, but we’ve seen enough value on several levels to give it a try. It sounds like members are excited about that; here is a selection of the comments we received at the end of the broadcast:

What did they say

Best Practices

I wanted to leave a few tips and tricks we’ve learned along the way for any of our winery friends who are thinking of doing events of their own. You can also contact me directly, as I’d love to share our methodology. ian@tablascreek.com.

  1. Start with an intro video: average viewership numbers start at four minutes. Pick a five-minute song or video to play while viewership populates.
  2. Pay an artist: pick a local band to get that intro song from and pay them for their work. The pandemic has struck artists pretty hard.
  3. Drink wine early and often: we’ve started the last two broadcasts with a 30-minute update before talking about wine. After feedback, we’ll be shifting that model to shorten the intro, start tasting earlier, and sprinkle the updates between the wines.
  4. Use streaming software: we use Be.live, but Streamyard is another excellent alternative. This allows us to stream on multiple platforms and build in visuals.
  5. Have a dedicated producer: let the people on-screen focus on what they’re doing and have someone selecting questions to show on-screen.
  6. Encourage questions: that’s what it’s all about! And be sure you are answering them.
  7. Two people on screen: it’s much more conversational and flows much better than one.
  8. Celebrity guests: adding that third or fourth person from time to time keeps interactions fresh and engaging.
  9. Prepare for things to go wrong: you are working with technology, something will always go wrong, stay on your toes for the whole broadcast and be prepared to troubleshoot.
  10. Have fun: your hosts are drinking wine on camera, guests are drinking wine at home, and the producer drinks wine behind the camera. It is a fun evening with plenty of memories to be made at the end of the day.


Paso Robles is (Still) Insanely Beautiful

In late February, with the vineyard turning greener by the day, I wrote a blog Paso Robles is Insanely Beautiful Right Now. Breaking news - it's still gorgeous. That late-February time frame marked the beginning of a period of explosive growth in the cover crops, with plenty of moisture in the ground from our massive late-January storm and steadily lengthening days. With March came warm weather, and those cover crops have been joined by bursts of color from wildflowers like the mustard below:

Green April 2021 - Tall cover crop and mustard

As if that weren't enough, the grapevines themselves have gotten into the act. Not every variety is very far out, but Grenache is putting on a show, the new leaves an electric yellow-green:

Green April 2021 - New Growth Grenache VF

Another view (Grenache again) against the darker green of the oaks is even more dramatic:

Green April 2021 - New growth Grenache C

Speaking of the oaks, the ones in the vineyard provide a great counterpoint to the geometry of the vine rows. I particularly like this one in the middle of our original Counoise block. Here are two views, the left taken from below, and the right from above:

Green April 2021 - Oak tree in Counoise from below

Green April 2021 - Oak tree and Counoise from above

These photos all make it look like it's all blue skies and sun, but when I took these out in the vineyard yesterday morning, it was 42 degrees and wet after a foggy start to the day. The block and tree in the below photo is the same as in the two previous ones, but in this one I was looking east, toward the rising sun:

Green April 2021 - New growth in Counoise

That moisture is visible too in this photo of our straw-bale tractor barn, with a new Cinsaut block in the foreground:

Green April 2021 - Straw Bale Barn

Maybe my favorite photo of the day was another one looking east, this one over our oldest Grenache block (planted in 1992) down a hill and back up on the other side to a slightly younger Grenache block (planted in 1997), new growth glowing in the sun:

Green April 2021 - New growth Grenache AV

I'll leave you with one last photo, of a long view south from the top of that Grenache block visible in the background of the previous photo. It's all on display: the rolling hills, the riot of green, and the newly-sprouted vines, all set off by the rows of dirt where we've begun to task of taming that cover crop so it doesn't compete with the vines for water:

Green April 2021 - Long View in Grenache

If you're coming for a visit in the next few weeks, you're in for a treat.


Grapevine Layering: An Age-Old Vineyard Technique, Revisited

One of the challenges of having a vineyard that is approaching middle age is the accumulated toll of vine loss. In our oldest blocks, which are approaching 30 years old, the combined impacts of gophers, trunk diseases, virus, and our stressful environment means that we've lost between 10% and 40% of the vines. And it doesn't take anything catastrophic to get to those numbers. Imagine a 2% vine mortality (one in every 50 vines) per year. After 10 years, you've lost 18% of your vines. After 20 years, you've lost 33%. And after 30 years, you've lost 45%. That's just math.

Replanting missing vines among those that have survived is usually an unsatisfactory response to this vine loss, for a couple of reasons. The roots of the vines that survive tend to encroach into the space of any missing vines, which makes it difficult to get the new vine established. And because we're trying to dry-farm our mature blocks, getting the new vines the water that they need to get established tends to work at cross-purposes to the vine training that we're doing, encouraging surface root growth from established vines, which is a waste of their resources. 

The difficulty in getting new vines established among the older vines has meant that we've lived with lower and lower vine density in our older blocks. That comes through in lower yields. Looking at the yield per acre the last few years on these varieties compared to our average in the 2000's shows the cumulative impact. Last decade, Mourvedre averaged 2.8 tons/acre. Over the last five years it's averaged 2.2. Counoise in the 2000's also averaged 2.8 tons/acre but has declined in recent years to 2.5. Syrah has declined from 3.4 tons/acre to 2.6. And even Grenache, typically the most vigorous and productive, has seen average yields decline from 4.3 tons/acre last decade to 3.9 over the last five years. 

Because of the challenge of establishing new vines among the old, we're left with the difficult choice of when to pull the plug and pull out an entire block to start fresh. If the surviving vines are struggling, or the blocks were planted to the wrong variety or on the wrong rootstock, it's worth the sacrifice to pull them out and replant. We're in that process in a few blocks. Each has its own story.

  • One was originally a Viognier block that we planted in an area that turned out to be one of our frostiest. By the time that we realized that and grafted the block over to the late-budding Mourvedre, even the vines that survived were weakened by the years of frost damage.   
  • Another was a block that had originally been planted in 1992 to California-sourced Mourvedre (Mataro) clones. We decided in 2003 because of dissatisfaction with the ripening of these clones to graft the block over to our French Mourvedre clones, but that didn't fix the issue. It might have been a rootstock incompatibility issue, or a virus problem. In the end, we decided to start fresh.
  • Finally, the third block that we pulled out included Syrah that we made the mistake of pruning during wet weather one year back in the 1990s, and we've been struggling with fungal trunk diseases ever since. We lost some vines, but even the ones that survived were weakened. Again, it seemed to make sense to start from scratch.

Layering diagramBut what to do about a block that's missing 40% of the vines, but still making some of our favorite wines? We're trying out a new technique to build vine density in a couple of these blocks. It's called layering. Really, it's an old technique, and takes advantage of the fact that grapevines have the ability to reproduce asexually. If you bury a grapevine cane, each bud has the ability to sprout roots. The connection to the parent vine helps nourish the new vine while those roots get established. Eventually, you can cut the connecting cane and the new vine will grow on its own. Wikipedia has a simple diagram of the process (right).

A few pictures of how we're doing this at Tablas Creek will help illustrate. First a photo of the block where we're trying this: an old Syrah block, planted in 1992 and 1994. You can see that we're missing a lot of vines, probably close to 40% overall:

Syrah block with layering

What we've done is to extend an extra cane, beyond what we're using for the vine to produce fruit that year, from a healthy vine, and then bury it underground and bring it back up in the position of a missing vine:

Syrah block - Layering burying

Those vines are now sprouting:

Syrah block layering new growth

Those new vines will grow, supported by the established root systems of their parent vines, for another couple of years. At that point we can choose to cut the connecting cane or leave it. This can in theory be done infinitely: one vine being layered into another, into another, and another. We've heard stories about entire acres being propagated in this way from a single starting vine. We don't plan on anything so extreme, but if we can rebuild the vine density in some of our favorite old blocks without having to pull out our old vines, that's a huge win for us. We'll be looking at the success of this effort in this Syrah block, and if it works, applying it to other blocks that might benefit. Stay tuned!

Syrah block - latering sprouting


Budbreak as a Metaphor for Life in 2021: We All Emerge from Dormancy, Slowly

This winter, record-breaking storm in January notwithstanding, has been chilly and dry. The storm systems that have made their way to us outside of that one historic one have tended to be duds, dropping just a few tenths or hundredths of an inch of rain. The cause of this, according to meteorologists, has been the return of the Ridiculously Resilient Ridge of high pressure that was a regular occurrence in our 2012-2016 drought. This long-wave weather pattern is characterized by a powerful high pressure system that sets up in the north Pacific, diverting storms that would otherwise impact California into the Pacific Northwest. The net result has been a lot of very dry months this winter:

Winter Rainfall 2020-21 vs Normal

The main difference between this year's ridge and the one in our 2012-16 drought (particularly the one that characterized the 2013-14 and 2014-15 winters) is that this year's set up further west. A high pressure system set up over or just west of California leads to dry, warm weather. But this year's was far enough west to produce a recurring pattern in which storms rotating around the ridge tended to pass just east of California, pummeling the Rocky Mountains with snow, bringing arctic weather as far south as Texas, and producing dry but cold conditions in California. A look at the number of below-freezing days this winter shows that this was one of our frostier recent seasons, with 41 below-freezing readings at our weather station so far. This number ties for our most since 2012-13, and we still have nearly two months of potentially frosty nights to go:

Winter Frost Nights 2010-2021

As recently as week-before-last, we were chased inside during our blending trials by hail, and we had nighttime temperatures drop into the 20s the morning of March 16th. But the last few days have felt different. It's been a week since our last frost night. And after nearly a month where daytime highs didn't get out of the 60s, Saturday hit 76, Sunday hit 80, and Monday hit 77. So, I wasn't surprised to see a lot of budbreak when I got out into the vineyard this morning. Viognier was the most advanced:

Budbreak 2021 - Viognier Flowerws

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. This year, it seems like lots of the grapes are going at once. I saw sprouting in Viognier, Grenache, Syrah, and even Counoise (below):

Budbreak 2021 - Counoise Spur

Budbreak 2021 is happening at an average time, historically, and at almost exactly the same time as last year. We've had some extremes in recent years; we're a month later than our record-early 2016, but two weeks earlier than our latest-ever start to the season in 2012, when we saw 57 frost nights, 21 after February 1st. Here's our information for when we first recorded significant budbreak the last dozen years:

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
2011: First week of April
2010: Last week of March
2009: Second week of April
2008: Last week of March

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. And even with the quick start, more than half the vineyard is still dormant. This Roussanne bud is indistinguishable from what it would have looked like in January:

Budbreak 2021 - Roussanne

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. Sprout 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.

We worry about frost too. Before budbreak, the vines are safely dormant, and a freeze doesn't harm them. But once they 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 more than a month to go before we can relax, and because of how evenly the vineyard appears to be coming out of dormancy, we're already likely past the point where we could safely withstand even a moderate frost. 

We'll be trying to stay one step ahead of the new growth to keep our sheep in the vineyard as long as possible. Knowing budbreak was imminent, last week was their last pass through the Grenache block below. We may only have another week or so in the late-sprouting varieties, but we'll give as many blocks as possible one last graze:

Sheep in Grenache March 2021

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. Is it possible that the same conditions that keep a vineyard dormant longer in the spring raise the risks of frost damage once they finally do sprout? I think so. California weather patterns tend to be long-wave patterns, where conditions are more likely to be similar to what they are now in two weeks than to have changed entirely. Of course, it's spring, which is the most unpredictable season here. We'll see.

Looking forward, we should be OK for this week, with warm, dry weather in the forecast. Next week it looks like it might be wet. It's often in the aftermath of spring storm systems that frost risk builds. So, while we would love more rain, we'll be on high alert after. Fingers crossed, please.

Meanwhile, we'll enjoy the rapid changes in the vineyard, and the hopefulness of new growth. It feels metaphorical this year. We've all spent the last year in various forms of dormancy, trying to keep sheltered and safe. With the hopefulness of declining Covid case rates in California, expanding supply of and access to vaccines, and good government support as businesses reopen, I feel like we're all coming out of hibernation. I have high hopes for this year. Please join me in welcoming the 2021 vintage.

Budbreak 2021 - Grenache


A Sigh of Relief from the Blending Table as the 2020 Whites Are Strong and Unaffected by Smoke

Last week, six of us spent most of the week around our blending table working to turn the 39 different lots we made from our white grapes in 2020 into the blends and varietal bottlings we'll be releasing to you in coming months. For the second year in a row, this was a reduced group compared to normal, with the challenges of international travel dictating that we sit down without a Perrin in attendance, and the Tablas Creek participants reduced to a core six (Neil, Chelsea, Craig, Austin, Amanda, and me) in the interest of maintaining distance around the table. It was further complicated by the fact that we had a couple of storm fronts blow through Paso Robles, chasing us indoors after the first day and (with all our open windows and doors) leading to papers blowing around and everyone breaking out their collection of padded coats and beanies. But at least we knew that fresh air was circulating!

This blending session was particularly interesting because it was our first time sitting down in a comprehensive way and evaluating what came out of the challenges of the 2020 vintage. When I wrote up my 2020 harvest recap, I felt pretty sure that we hadn't seen any smoke taint, or taken any serious harm from the twin heat spikes that broke records as the grapes were ripening. Still, there's only so much that you can tell in harvest's immediate aftermath, when the wines are still sweet and the cellar full of fermentation aromas. So, as we sat down together, we all felt that the stakes were higher than they might be in a more normal vintage. I'm pleased to report that after four days immersed in these wines, I feel confident that 2020 will take its place proudly in our recent string of strong vintages.

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, 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:

Blending Notes - 2020 Whites

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, lots of good grades this year. In rough harvest order:

  • Viognier (6 lots): A really outstanding Viognier vintage, with classic luscious flavors and aromas and better-than usual acidity and minerality. 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. Two "1" lots, two 1/2 lots, and two 2's.
  • Marsanne (3 lots): A strong Marsanne showing, with all three lots showing Marsanne’s classic honeydew and chalky mineral charm. One "2", one "1/2", and our favorite lot (a "1" grade) with a little extra mouthfeel and tropicality that will be the core of our varietal Marsanne.
  • Picardan (1 lot): Perhaps not at the level of the 2019 Picardan (my favorite in our short history) but still very nice: a tropical nose reminiscent of Viognier, but with a clean, pure palate expression and bright acids. The finish was a little short, so I gave it a 1/2.
  • Bourboulenc (2 lots): The second harvest for our newest grape. Last year's was a crazy orange color when it came out of the press, and although it dropped clear and lightened up, it retained a golden tinge to it. So we experimented with a couple of different pick dates this year, and were rewarded by both of them being a more typical color. The two lots were different, with the earlier pick showing a lush nose but a lean, bright palate, while the later pick showed a quieter nose but a creamier, lusher palate. I gave both lots "2" grades, though (as you'll see) we ended up using some in Esprit Blanc.
  • Clairette Blanche (1 lot): We only had 180 gallons of this, our scarcest white grape, and it was lovely: pretty green wheatgrass aromas and a vibrant lemony palate with salty minerality. I gave it a 1.
  • Grenache Blanc (9 lots): OK, now we got to the wines that we had in quantity. Grenache Blanc is often tough to evaluate in this first tasting because it's always the last to finish fermentation. And this year we had a lot of it: over 7,000 gallons. I found the quality very high overall, but with more diversity than in most of the other grapes: four "1" grades with brightness, lushness, and minerality, a 1/2 that was classic but a little leaner, a "2" that was nicely saline but didn't show much fruit, two 2/3 lots, each promising but also worrying, both in the final stages of fermentation and showing a little weirdness, and an "incomplete" that was still sweet enough to be impossible for me to assign a grade. I think these last three lots will all turn into something good, but they weren't there yet. Patience.
  • Picpoul Blanc (3 lots): Outstanding for Picpoul, with all three lots showing both power and brightness. Two 1's that I thought would be perfect for Esprit and a 1/2 that was beautifully fresh and lively and which will be the core of our varietal Picpoul this year.
  • Roussanne (10 lots): These were the hardest for me to evaluate, perhaps because a squall blew through as we were tasting and forced us to run indoors as hail fell on our patio. I only found two lots that were clear "1" grades for me. But four lots got "1/2" grades. The reasons varied. One was lovely but still sweet. Another two had great texture but were (for me) a little worryingly low in acid. The fourth was oak-dominated, clearly too much on its own, but likely valuable in a blend. Then there were three "2" lots, all honeyed and lush, with pure Roussanne flavors, but soft and without the length or persistence we want for Esprit. Finally, there was one 2/3 lot that was atypical for Roussanne, pineapply and bright but relatively light in body. We decided to declassify that to Patelin Blanc, where it will fit in nicely.

We finished Monday by brainstorming ideas for the Esprit Blanc. The shortage of obvious Esprit-caliber Roussanne, and the relative softness of the lots in the next tier, suggested that we try some Esprit Blanc blends with less Roussanne and more of the higher-acid grapes than usual. But whether that should mean more Grenache Blanc, more Picpoul, or more of the obscure whites than usual we didn't know. That's what our blending trials are for!

Tuesday morning, we started on our blending work by tasting three possible Esprit de Tablas Blanc blends. One, which none of us preferred, hewed closer to our "traditional" blend, with none of the obscure grapes and a roughly 60/30/10 balance of Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, and Picpoul. Better was a blend that decreased the Roussanne to make room for more Picpoul and some Clairette and Picardan. But the consensus favorite included our highest percentage of Picpoul Blanc (14%) since 2015 and made room for significant quantities of all three obscure whites. That means that the 2020 Esprit Blanc will for the first time contain all six approved white Chateauneuf-du-Pape grapes. That's exciting! It also will have a quantity of Roussanne that ties for our lowest-ever, at just 45%. But still, the finished wine had texture, lushness, complexity, and minerality, and plenty enough acidity to keep everything lively. The final blend: 45% Roussanne, 28% Grenache Blanc, 14% Picpoul Blanc, 5% Bourboulenc, 4% Picardan, and 4% Clairette Blanche. A note to lovers of this wine: because of the relative scarcity of top Roussanne, we made a few hundred cases less of this than we have in recent years. Consider yourselves forewarned that it may go fast.

Next 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 but added a little more Viognier. Tasting the wines, we settled on the blend heaviest in Grenache Blanc, which seemed to focus Viognier's aromatics while also providing a vibrant, fresh, juicy palate. Final blend: 38% Viognier, 32% Grenache Blanc, 22% Marsanne, and 8% Roussanne.

In making the quantity of Esprit Blanc and Cotes Blanc we wanted, the only grape that we'd used all of was Clairette Blanche. Looking at the quantities of the varietals that this left us, everything seemed fine except that because of the generosity of the vintage and the smaller quantity of Esprit Blanc and Cotes Blanc we made, we were on track to make about 1500 cases of our varietal Grenache Blanc. Given that this isn't a wine we sell much of in wholesale, to keep our supply reasonable we decided to declassify an additional 800 gallons into our 2020 Patelin Blanc. Combined with the relatively large Roussanne declassification, this means that our 2020 Patelin Blanc will be fully one-quarter Tablas Creek fruit. This works out well; we had been conservative in the tonnage of grapes we'd contracted for, worried that the pandemic-induced closures of restaurants would mean we'd end up long on supply. Thanks to a very nice score from Wine Spectator for the 2019 Patelin Blanc, that turned out not to be the case, and having some more of this wine will be good. Plus, those estate lots are only going to make the 2020 Patelin Blanc that much better.

With our blends decided, our final step was to taste them alongside the seven varietal wines that we'll be bottling from 2020. 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. My brief notes on each wine, with the rough quantity we'll be bottling this summer:

  • 2020 Bourboulenc (180 cases): Medium gold. A nose of caramel apple and marzipan, lifted by a bright lemongrass note. On the palate, bright with preserved lemon and chamomile flavors and a little pithy note on the long finish.
  • 2020 Picardan (70 cases): A tropical but lively nose of lychee and passionfruit. A similar palate with mango and sweet spice, cleaning up to a chalky mineral note on the finish.
  • 2020 Picpoul Blanc (250 cases): A nose of fresh pineapple. That pineapple note continues onto the palate, with a richer texture than most picpouls. Long and creamy on the finish with a wet rock mineral note.
  • 2020 Grenache Blanc (1040 cases): Super appealing on the nose: lemon meringue and butterscotch and sea spray. Sweet citrus fruit (lemon drop?) and cream soda on the finish. Still a bit more sugar to ferment but super promising.
  • 2020 Viognier (660 cases): Classic young Viognier nose of Haribo peach. The mouth is leaner than the nose suggests: nectarine, white flowers, and a little pithy bite. Should be really appealing with a lift rare in the grape.
  • 2020 Marsanne (350 cases): A nose of peppered melon rind and apricot pit, absolutely classic for young Marsanne. The mouth is clean and spare, gentle kiwi and sarsaparilla, with a chalky mineral finish.
  • 2020 Roussanne (940 cases): Honeydew melon and jasmine on the nose. Mouth-filling and creamy on the palate, with flavors of beeswax and white tea. More textural than flavorful right now. We're going to put it back in some newer barrels for the next six months.
  • 2020 Patelin de Tablas Blanc (2500 cases): Nose of lemongrass, ginger, and green apple, with a little meaty charcuterie note adding depth. The palate starts with bright apricot and quince flavors, then softens into a sweeter peachy note. Serious and complex for Patelin Blanc, and a worthy successor to the 2019.
  • 2020 Cotes de Tablas Blanc (1230 cases): A nose of nectarine and mandarin, seemingly signed equally by Viognier and Grenache Blanc. A sweet/tart contrast on the palate, with lime and ripe peach. A little coconut-like creamy texture comes out on the finish.
  • 2020 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (1960 cases): Despite its relatively low Roussanne component, very Roussanne on the nose: beeswax and honeysuckle, lemon bar and graham cracker. The mouth is luscious and textured, with citrus blossom honey and vanilla bean, then cleaning up on the finish to honeycrisp apple and saline mineral.

A few concluding thoughts:

  • The power of blending really came through to me in this process. As I said above, I wasn't particularly convinced by the Roussanne lots, as a whole. But the Esprit Blanc turned out to be terrific. The luxury of being able to reduce the quantity of our lead grape and bolster the wine with the texture and acid of Grenache Blanc and Picpoul and the complexity of the three "minor" varieties allowed us to do something we could never have done just using Roussanne lots. There are times when adding other components actually make the wine taste more like the lead grape. This was one of those times. 
  • The 2020 vintage gave us lots of texture and flavor at very low alcohols. The overall potential alcohols of all the Rhone whites as a unit was just 12.52%. Grapes like Marsanne and Roussanne were even lower at 11.5% and 12.4% respectively. I think that this was one area where we saw an impact of the stressfulness of the vintage. Those late-summer heat spikes did a number on the acid levels of all the grapes. Those with normally higher acids (like Picpoul, or Grenache Blanc) had enough to withstand that. But Marsanne and Roussanne are naturally lower acid anyway, and we just couldn't leave them on the vines long enough to get to the sugar levels that we're used to without our acids falling to unacceptable levels. That said, I felt like the finished wines had plenty of texture, and enough acidity. The alcohol numbers on the labels, though, may be eye-openingly low. 
  • It's early to know what vintage 2020 will end up reminding us of. But in recent years, it seems like 2015 might provide a pretty good comparison. In that year too, stressful conditions (the peak of our 2012-2016 drought) led to Roussanne lots with low acids and low alcohols. Our solution was similar: reduce Roussanne in the Esprit Blanc to make room for more of the Grenache Blanc and (especially) Picpoul Blanc. Going back to read my notes from the 2015 white blending I see a lot of similar threads. If the wines turn out like that, I'll be excited... 2015 is one of my favorite recent vintages. 

Of course, we've still got a ways to go. There are lots that need some time to finish fermenting, and everything needs to be racked, blended, and let settle and integrate. But as a first detailed look into a year that dropped a number of new hurdles in our way, it's incredibly encouraging. I now feel confident saying that the wines from 2020 will give us something we want to remember from a year most of us would prefer to forget.

Blending Bottles - 2020 Whites