What separates a great wine dinner from the many good ones?

I've hosted a lot of wine dinners the last few months. Restaurants, understaffed and overwhelmed in the aftermath of Covid, are starting to have the bandwidth to refocus on special events. Add to that the fact that after a few years where yields were low and demand was high, we finally have wine to sell, so I've been traveling more. And sprinkle on top some invitations that I thought were too cool to turn down, including the Paso Robles Asia tour and the Tasting Climate Change conference in Montreal. At each city I visit, I try to set up a dinner, because I think they are the best way to share the wines and story of Tablas Creek. 

All the dinners I've had the pleasure of hosting this year have been good. Most have been very good. But last week, I hosted a dinner with Chef Spike Gjerde at Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore that was one of the best I can ever remember, and it got me thinking about what it was that separated it from others. I think the event nailed all five of the elements of a great wine dinner:

  • Inspiration. A great menu requires creativity. After all, a great pairing is not as simple as making a dish have similar flavors to the wine it's supposed to pair with. There are times where what a dish (or wine) needs is contrast. And then there's the talent that the greatest chefs have to make dishes that pull subtle notes out of the wines they're paired with and make it somehow taste more like itself. In my experience, great pairings are created by chefs who sit down with a wine and build the dish around it. After all, the wine isn't something that can be changed. The food has to have the right flavors and the right volume to have presence while still allowing the wine to shine. That's not an easy balance to strike. And the wines themselves should be selected because the chef found them inspiring to pair with. It’s hard to make a truly great dinner with, for example, the four wines your distributor may happen to have in quantity.
  • Execution. It should go without saying that it takes more than a great menu to have a great meal. The food needs to be served promptly, and get to the diners hot. That's not easy when making the same dish for 20 or 40 or 70 people. That takes a chef with a good team and good organizational skills, and a front-of-house staff that can keep up.  
  • Atmosphere. That doesn't need to be luxurious. The Woodberry Kitchen dinner was served outside on their brick patio on a drizzly evening. But the chairs were comfortable. The lighting was great. And the three large communal tables meant that the conversation was lively and everyone engaged. Restaurants often try to keep their standard table seating for wine dinners, and place each group at its own table. But in my experience that's a mistake. Bringing people together into larger tables creates a special sort of energy. It also means that solo diners aren't left by themselves.
  • Pacing. A great wine dinner is like Goldilocks and the three bears: not too fast, not too slow. You need space for people to learn about the wines and hear from the winemaker. It's frustrating when people are poured a new wine, you start to talk about it, and then the food is served right away. You're left to talk over the hubbub of service while everyone’s food gets cold. Not ideal. But these multi-course affairs (typically 4 or 5 five courses, and sometimes more) can also drag if the kitchen can't keep up or there's too much time between courses. I finished one dinner at 11pm recently. That dinner started with a reception at 6pm. That's a marathon, and can often result in people losing energy (or drinking too much) before the last few courses are served.  
  • Personality. Guests come to a wine dinner for more than a good meal. They come to learn about the winery, and about the restaurant. They want to hear the inspiration for the different courses, and come away with a new idea or two about food and wine pairing. That requires both a winery representative and a chef interested in sharing their stories and their inspiration and with the talent to keep an audience engaged and bring them along on a journey.

One complicating factor is that it's a surprising but true fact that most chefs aren't all that into wine. Some don't drink at all, or drink liquor or beer. Others like wine, but think of it as an accessory to their food rather than an equal partner. And these chefs can produce good, even very good wine dinners. After all, how wrong can you go with a delicious dish and a delicious wine? But the best wine dinners, in my experience, are designed and executed by chefs who love and are intrigued by wine's mysteries. And at last week's Woodberry Kitchen dinner, Chef Spike's love for the food he was cooking, the pairings he created, and the wines that were featured came through with clarity. 

These photos (thank you to Woodberry Kitchen for taking and sharing them) should give you a sense. The menu was remarkable, and included dishes like asparagus and crab en croute with caviar beurre blanc (left, paired with our Esprit de Tablas Blanc) and filet of beef en valise with smoked oysters and sauce treize cepages (right, paired with two older vintages of our Esprit de Tablas). And critically, all the courses got to the table in great time and at the right temperature.

Woodberry Dinner - Asparagus & crab en croute Woodberry Dinner - Beef with oyster course

The selection of wines included some unusual treats like 2012 and 2015 Esprit de Tablas, our 2022 Dianthus rosé, and the 2018 Vin de Paille Quintessence, which we shipped specially out from the winery.

Woodberry Dinner - Wines

The long, communal tables meant that the conversations were lively all night. Everyone had enough space without feeling isolated:

Woodberry Dinner - Tables

The pacing meant that I had a chance to tell the story of each wine. As if by magic, as soon as I was done speaking the next course appeared. Of course, that's not magic, that's planning and a great team:

Woodberry Dinner - Jason speaking

Finally, at the end, Spike came out to accept a well-deserved ovation and talk about the inspiration for the dinner. He talked about a few of the courses, but like any good storyteller focused on the personal side of things: his own formative years as a young chef where he was invited by my brother to participate in a food and wine showcase in the Caribbean, and ended up between Jean-Pierre Perrin and Jean-Louis Chave listening to them dissect a meal and the pairings that went with it. Some thirty years later, we all were the beneficiaries of the lessons he learned, then and later.

Woodberry Dinner - Jason Spike and Danny

 


You aren’t hearing as much about the Rocks District as you should be. You might be surprised why.

I’m not sure there’s any American Viticultural Area (AVA) as aptly named as the Rocks District of Milton-Freewater. Located in north-east Oregon just 15 minutes south of the city of Walla Walla, Washington, it’s the closest thing I’ve ever seen to the look of Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Vines grow in deep beds of basalt cobblestones, the product of ancient volcanic eruptions, rolled and smoothed as they were tumbled down from the nearby Blue Mountains by the Walla Walla River and then deposited on the valley floor in an alluvial fan. Adding to the region's allure, it sits at roughly the same latitude as the southern Rhone. A majority of the vines are Rhone-derived; more than 45% of the vineyard acres are planted to Syrah, with other Rhone grapes like Grenache, Picpoul, Bourboulenc, Clairette, Grenache Blanc, and Roussanne all represented too. In just a few short years, the Rocks District has built a reputation as a place to find some of the most interesting Rhone varieties in America.

Rocks District Vines - Closeup

Neil, Cesar Perrin, Nicolas Brunier and I had the pleasure of exploring this remarkable terroir with Delmas Wines’ Brooke Robertson while we were in town for the recent Hospice du Rhone celebration.

Jason  Neil  Cesar  and Nicolas with Brooke Robertson

If great wines are borne out of struggle, this region is destined for greatness. Not only do the vines have to navigate the rocks and the paltry twelve inches of rainfall, but they have to live through winter freezes so cold that most producers (including Delmas) now bury their vines every winter to provide insulation, and then unbury them in time to prune and start the growing season1. The 300 days of sun, the long summer days due to the northern latitude, summer daily high temperatures routinely in the 90s°F and not infrequently in the 100s°F, allow for enough ripening in the short season, which can end with a freeze any time after the calendar flips to October. And did I mention the rocks?

Rocks District Cobbles

At Hospice du Rhone, the wines from Rocks District fruit were among my highlights of the Grand Tasting, with as clear a signature as any AVA or appellation I can think of. The fact that it’s a small AVA (just 3,767 acres, or less than 1% of the acreage within the Paso Robles AVA) surely helps, along with its climatic uniformity, but I think that the rocks themselves play an important role. As in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, those rocks absorb and reflect the sun, warming the ripening clusters, producing rich, powerful wines with a distinctive umami flavor of baked loamy earth.

The AVA was created relatively recently, with work beginning in 2011 and formal recognition from the United States Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) in 2015. There are now, according to the AVA’s website, 52 vineyards encompassing 640 acres. More than 50 wineries source fruit from these vineyards, although there are only five production facilities within the AVA’s boundaries. Many more facilities are just a few minutes away, in Walla Walla, the center for wine production (and wine tourism) in the area, and the namesake of the larger AVA in which the Rocks District is nested. And that distance, minor though it seems, provides one of the region’s biggest challenges.

In the federal regulations that govern the American Viticultural Area (AVA) system2, there’s a clause that I’d never noticed before this visit. It says that a wine may be labeled with a viticultural area appellation if it satisfies a series of criteria, one of which is that “it has been fully finished within the State, or one of the States, within which the labeled viticultural area is located”. This clause means that all the wineries with production facilities in Walla Walla (in Washington State) can’t label their Rocks District vineyards with its AVA because that AVA lies entirely in the state of Oregon. Delmas is one of those wineries, so their labels just say Walla Walla.

Neil, Cesar, Nicolas and I were frankly flabbergasted by this restriction when we learned about it. After all, what does a state boundary (or for that matter, where a production facility is located) have to do with viticultural distinctiveness? It seemed to me that this goes against the stated purpose of an AVA, which as explained on the TTB’s website, is:

“An AVA is a delimited grape-growing region with specific geographic or climatic features that distinguish it from the surrounding regions and affect how grapes are grown. Using an AVA designation on a wine label allows vintners to describe more accurately the origin of their wines to consumers and helps consumers identify wines they may purchase.”

That I never knew about this clause in the AVA regulations stems from California’s central place in the firmament of American wine. We’ve never seriously thought about getting fruit from other states. We’re excited, with the launch of our Lignée de Tablas program, to explore other California AVAs, and that’s no problem. But the fact that we can get fruit from the Sierra Foothills (6 hours away from Paso Robles) and use their AVA but Delmas can’t get fruit from their own vineyard, 15 minutes away from the winemaking facility they share with dozens of other local wineries, feels unfair.

The TTB in fact foresaw the challenge that the creation of this new Oregon AVA so close to the region’s winemaking nexus in Washington state would pose for producers. In the 2014 notice of proposed rulemaking for the Rocks District AVA, they solicit feedback on the topic:

“TTB is interested in comments from persons who believe they may be negatively impacted by the inability to use ‘The Rocks District of Milton– Freewater’ as an appellation of origin on a wine label solely because they use facilities located in Washington.”

The TTB must have received enough feedback to convince them that there was support for modifying their rules, because the next year they proposed a rule change to address it:

“The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) is proposing to amend its regulations to permit the use of American viticultural area names as appellations of origin on labels for wines that would otherwise qualify for the use of the AVA name, except that the wines have been fully finished in a State adjacent to the State in which the viticultural area is located, rather than the State in which the labeled viticultural area is located. The proposal would provide greater flexibility in wine production and labeling while still ensuring that consumers are provided with adequate information as to the identity of the wines they purchase.”

I would have thought that the TTB’s proposed rule change would have been uncontroversial, but it ended up far from the case. Organizations that submitted letters in opposition included Napa Valley Vintners, Family Winemakers of California, the Washington State Wine Commission, and the California Wine Institute. Some included proposed changes that would satisfy their concerns, while others just requested that the proposed new rule be scrapped. Even the Oregon Winegrowers Alliance & Walla Walla Wine Alliance submitted a comment in opposition, although the change that they requested was minor. In every case, the stated reason for opposition was because the regional associations worried that state laws that modify the federal regulations overseeing wine production would be unenforceable in a neighboring state. A good example would be the Oregon requirement that to be varietally labeled, a wine must contain 90% of the listed grape, a more restrictive standard than the federal requirement that a varietal wine contain at least 75% of the named grape.

A few of the comments hinted at a second reason: that they were worried that if a cheaper nearby state could make wine from a prestigious appellation, there might be an exodus of jobs to that lower-cost (or less regulated) state, with economic damage to the established reason.

As typically happens when it receives conflicting feedback, the TTB backtracked and the proposed change was never made. This may have avoided the unintended consequences that the regional associations were worried about, but it leaves the producers in the Rocks District with the same challenge that the TTB identified back in 2014. Are they supposed to all build wineries in Oregon when they’re already established in Washington State? Or establish the reputation of their new AVA without the powerful tool of identifying the wines’ place of origin on their labels?

I don’t have a lot of sympathy for the economic argument (made mostly by commenters from the Napa Valley) given that California is already so large, and with such different costs of production, that any negative damage would likely have already happened. Does Napa Valley’s economy suffer when a Paso Robles winery buys grapes and puts out a Napa Valley AVA wine? I don’t see it.3 And even if you did see it, given the size of California, that ship has sailed. 

The other objection, that state wine laws that try to ensure a higher quality product would be unenforceable out-of-state, doesn’t seem to me like an unsolvable problem. In fact, the Wine Institute proposed an elegant solution in their comment objecting to the proposed rule (their addition emphasized):

“(iv) In the case of American wine, it has been fully finished (except for cellar treatment pursuant to §4.22(c), and blending which does not result in an alteration of class and type under §4.22(b)) within the State the viticultural area is located in or an adjacent state, or for, a viticultural area located in two or more States, within one of the States in which the viticultural area is located, and it conforms to the laws and regulations governing the composition, method of manufacture, and designation of wines in all of the States where the viticultural area is located.

It seems to me like this solution gives something to everyone. Appellations like the Rocks District get to build their reputation by appearing on wine labels. Winemakers get the flexibility to source grapes from diverse regions and tell consumers where they come from, without having to build new wineries across state lines. Grape growers are able to benefit from the reputation of the region they help establish. States retain the ability to enforce regulations designed to enhance quality or distinctiveness. And consumers get more clarity on where the wines they love come from. Let's hope that the TTB revisits this issue soon, with a more tailored approach.

Meanwhile, go out and do a little research on which Walla Walla AVA wines actually come from the Rocks District, and try to find a bottle or three. You won’t be disappointed.

Delmas Bottle

Footnotes:

  1. How cold? This January 13th, the low was -8°F and the high just 4°F.
  2. That would be the Federal Register Title 27 Chapter I Subchapter A Part 4 Subpart C § 4.25(e)(3)(iv) for anyone keeping score.
  3. I would also note that I think this argument raises commerce clause objections about a state using regulation to protect its businesses from competition from competing businesses in other states.

Celebrating 25 years of Dianthus… and the return of rosés with color

A couple of weeks ago, I got an email from two of my wine writing heroes, Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher, long time wine columnists for the Wall Street Journal, creators of “Open that Bottle Night” and authors of Love by the Glass1. They had brought a bottle of our Dianthus to New York’s Central Park to enjoy with the recent solar eclipse. They were sufficiently intrigued with the wine to reach out to learn its story. We talked for a half-hour, and our conversation became a really fun article on their site Grape Collective.

There’s a lot to talk about with regards to the Dianthus, not least because it is an anomalous rosé, at least according to current style. Much more popular and commonly seen are the rosés from or inspired by Provence, typically very pale copper-pink. These are rosés that are made essentially like white wines, where the character is determined by the flesh of the grapes with only minimal influence from the grape skins. Our Patelin de Tablas Rosé follows this model. But not the Dianthus.

Two 2023 Roses

Instead, the Dianthus looks to a different model, which also originated in the south of France. Just across the Rhone River, to the west of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, lies the rosé-only appellation of Tavel. Tavel’s wines, made from a list of grapes very similar to that of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, typically receive 24 hours or more on the skins and have a deeper pink color than anything you’d find in Provence. After all, the Tavel region is warmer than the more coastally-influenced Provence, and with that warmth comes weight and richness. To balance that richness, wineries traditionally leave the grapes on the skins for longer, to take advantage of the tannic bite present in skins but not the grape flesh. This skin contact produces a different suite of flavors, typically more red fruited and with richer texture than Provence-style dry rosés, which tend toward citrus fruit and lighter body. That textural complexity also lends itself to pairing with food2, while Provençal rosés tend to be enjoyed more solo. 

We began making the Dianthus 25 years ago, back in 1999, thanks to my mom. She decided that it was crazy that we were growing these grapes that made such lovely rosés in France and not at least making some to drink ourselves. This was before there was any significant market in the United States for dry rosé. The whole category had been so thoroughly kidnapped by white Zinfandel that the baseline assumption was that if a wine was pink, it was sweet. I remember pleading with guests who visited our tasting room in those early days to just try the rosé, that it wasn’t going to be sweet, and that it was included in the tasting. I usually had to tell the whole story about how we started making it (thanks, Mom) and how rosé was as important a part of the production of the wines of the Rhone region as whites or reds. Gradually, over the course of the 2000s, dry rosés from France started to make inroads into the American market, and by the early 2010s the Provençal model was dominant, in part because its exceptionally pale color signified to people that it was dry and not sweet. Darker pink rosés became rarer and rarer. We introduced our Patelin de Tablas Rosé in 2012, and within a few years its production had outstripped that of the Dianthus. But we kept making Dianthus, which I think more than a few people thought was crazy. Making one dry rosé in California was progressive enough. I’m not aware of any other California winery that has a decade of history making two.

I myself can go months without spending much time thinking about Dianthus. It gets a flurry of my attention around our spring VINsider Wine Club shipment, when we typically release it to members. We allocate a little for wholesale as well, but that quantity is so small (this year, it was just 112 cases) and it tends to sell out so fast that I don’t often overlap with its presence on my trips to work with distributors in our key markets. But it happened that I spent a lot of time with the 2023 Dianthus over the last week. I started the week with three days of market work in and around Seattle and finished it at Hospice du Rhone, which was held in Walla Walla this year. Our Washington State distributor chose to bring in a few of those 112 cases, so we were showing it alongside the 2023 Patelin de Tablas Rosé. At Hospice du Rhone, the Dianthus was one of the six wines Neil and I chose to pour:

Jason and Neil at Hospice du Rhone 2024

The reactions that the Dianthus received were fascinating. During my three Seattle days, it generated more questions than any other wine in the lineup we were showing, and we had to pull it out of what we were presenting on Thursday because we’d already taken enough pre-orders on Tuesday and Wednesday to exhaust what the distributor had ordered. The general consensus was that it would be a hand-sell to customers, but the restaurants and wine shops were so intrigued by the wine’s food-pairing possibilities that it was a wine that they wanted to make the effort to get into people’s hands (and mouths). At Hospice du Rhone, which included a master class and rosé lunch featuring the wines of Tavel, the color and style of the Dianthus didn’t even raise much commentary. For that audience – always a bellwether for where the most committed Rhone lovers are going – the deeper color and richer flavors were taken in stride. If someone did ask about it, a quick reference to Tavel and a reminder that Tavel is a lot closer to Chateauneuf-du-Pape than Provence is usually helped the taster wrap their head around what we were going for. And I think that the Dianthus got the most re-tastes of anything on the table except the 2005 Esprit de Beaucastel.

What does this all mean? I think it’s both a great piece of evidence in the cyclical nature of the wine market and a sign that the American rosé market may be getting to be mature enough to accept some stylistic variation. I’ve been preaching to the restaurants that I visit this spring that there is enough sophistication among rosé-lovers that they should offer multiple rosés by-the-glass. Sure, have your Provence standby. But also offer something that is a contrast, either because of its region or its style. After all, a wine-focused restaurant would never have just one white wine by the glass, or just one red. At our tasting room, we’ve been pouring our own two rosés in our Spring Tasting Flight for the last several weeks, and it’s fascinating seeing how different people gravitate toward one wine or the other.

I love both. But it’s been a while since I spent this much time thinking about them both. Cheers to 25 years of Dianthus, and an American wine market that continues to grow in sophistication. We’re finally back to a place that a rosé wine can be… pink.

Chelsea and two roses

Footnotes:

  1. I had one of my favorite Instagram Live conversations with Dorothy and John last May. If you missed it, it's in our archive, no Instagram account necessary.
  2. The Dianthus has provided some memorable pairings when I've hosted wine dinners. A particularly mind-blowing match was when, roughly a decade ago, Chef Julie Simon at Thomas Hill Organics paired it with a Moroccan spice-rubbed quail served alongside a salted watermelon and feta salad. 

Other Wines We've Loved: 2007 Beaucastel

Last night, with my sister Janet in town, we decided to grill. I got a lovely two-inch-thick, two-pound boneless ribeye from our local butcher J&R Meats. I don't normally cook such thick steaks, but think I'm going to in the future. I seasoned it with salt and pepper and set it over a grill in a technique I've been using more and more, where I heat the briquettes and then pile them on the sides of the grill, leaving an area in the middle that's heated from two sides but doesn't have any briquettes there to flare up should fat drip onto them. I grilled the steak for about eight minutes on each side, over a hot but not scorching fire, and then pulled it off the coals to rest for five minutes when the internal temperature hit 135°F. 

To accompany the steaks, I sautéed up some mushrooms we'd gotten from our farm share with white wine, parsley, and garlic (working off an old Mark Bittman recipe), baked some potatoes, and made a salad. It was a meal that showed why the classics are the classics. The steak came out a perfect medium-rare, juicy and with excellent steaky flavor. The tanginess and umami of the mushrooms were a great foil for (or accompaniment to) each bite of steak. The potatoes were fluffy and soaked up the juices. And the salad, which we ate at the end in the French style, was refreshing and tasty. 

To accompany the meal, I wanted a wine with enough fruit and tannin to stand up to the robust flavors on the plate and enough complexity to add to the night's experience. I chose a 2007 Beaucastel, which I remember thinking was one of the greatest young wines I'd ever had when I tried it at a dinner in 2010. Our Controller Denise Chouinard remembered my talking about the wine when I came back to the winery, and got me a case of it later that year. Those bottles have been sitting in my cellar ever since. I decanted the wine to give it a bit of air:

2007 Beaucastel Bottle
 The wine was every bit as good as I'd remembered. I jotted down some notes as we were finishing the bottle:

Still a lovely dense purple-red. Nose of licorice and smoky chaparral and minty currant and black cherry. Flavors of bakers chocolate and black plum, graphite and baking spices. Still youthful and powerful at age 16, with plenty of tannins to go another two decades. 

The five of us finished every drop of wine, and every bite of food, and sat around the table talking for another hour. It was a great reminder of the magic of a great bottle of wine: that it brings people together, evokes past gatherings, reminds you of the traditions you're a part of even as you create new ones. I'm grateful I have several more bottles of this, and can't wait to be reminded of this meal the next time I open one.


April in Paso Robles is Peak Green

If you asked me to pick my favorite month in Paso Robles, it would be April. The days are longer, and the sun warmer. You get your first days in the 70s and by the end of the month probably touch 80 once or twice, but the nights are still chilly and you're coming out of the winter season which makes the warmth all the more welcome. The grapevines burst out of dormancy and come to life. And the combination of green hillsides, blue skies, and puffy white clouds is remarkable:

Green vineyard and blue skies April 2024

Of course, April isn't without risk. The new growth is vulnerable to frosts, and days that top out in the low 60s can freeze at night. We saw some light damage from a cold night last weekend, and were grateful that it didn't come three weeks later, when the whole vineyard would have sprouted. These last few weeks of dormancy provide a striking contrast between the dark brown vine trunks and the electric green of the cover crops, as in this view of our Scruffy Hill block:

Puffy clouds over green Scruffy Hill April 2024

The flowers you see in the above photo are the daikon radishes from our cover crop. After our flock of sheep passes through, the plants that were grazed are stimulated to reproduce, sending up a carpet of flowers and seeds. That's even more dramatically in evidence in the head-trained Tannat block below:   

Flowing cover crop in dry-farmed Tannat April 2024

It's not just the growth of the cover crops and grapevines that make it feel so alive in April. Standing in the middle of the vineyard the buzz of bees and the chirping of birds envelop you. And looking down you can see the life in evidence everywhere:

Ladybug on Roussanne trunk

In April, there's still enough moisture in the air to provide a nice sense of distance, as visible in this view over the western edge of our property toward the peaks of the Santa Lucia Mountains roughly eight miles away:

Looking west from Crosshairs block in April

We'll be getting all this growth under control in coming weeks, with the goals of retaining the lovely moisture we got this winter, allowing cold air to drain and so reducing our risk of frost, and leaving the soil as undisturbed as possible while doing so to protect the soil networks. So the picture is going to change by the day.

I'll leave you with one photo, from a perspective easily visible if you approach Tablas Creek on Vineyard Drive from the south. As an introduction to Tablas Creek, I don't feel like we could do much better:

Tablas Creek sign and owl box on Scruffy Hill

Happy April, everyone.


Budbreak 2024: Right on Time

This winter has continued to follow a pattern something close to the platonic ideal of a Paso Robles winter. Some November rain to get the cover crop started. A cold December, to force the vines into dormancy. Regular and plentiful rain January through March, to keep soil temperatures down, but with sunny and warmer intervals, to encourage cover crop growth. And then a turn in April toward spring-like weather. And as we'd expect, as we passed the spring equinox we've started to see budbreak in our early-sprouting varieties. Below are Viognier (left) and Syrah (right):

Budbreak 2024 - Viognier Budbreak 2024 - Syrah

The rainfall-by-month graph for the winter so far shows the classic nature of what we've seen:

2023-24 Winter Rainfall through March

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, Vermentino, Cinsaut, and Syrah tend to go first, followed by Marsanne, Tannat, and Picpoul, and finally, often three weeks or more after the earliest grapes sprouted, Roussanne, Counoise, and Mourvedre. We've seen budbreak in all the early varieties, but are still waiting even for the middle varieties like Marsanne, which I was surprised to find still fully dormant on a ramble around the vineyard yesterday:

Budbreak 2024 - Marsanne

This year is about average for us, significantly later than most of our drought years, though a couple of weeks earlier than 2023. The timing that we're seeing comes despite that we haven't recorded a below-freezing night here at our weather station since February 12th. That budbreak waited some six weeks after our last frost reinforces the importance of wet soils, which hold cool temperatures better than dry soils do. For an overview, here's when we saw budbreak the last dozen years:

2023: First week of April
2022 Mid-March
2021: Last week of March
2020: Last week of March
2019: Second half of March
2018: Second half of March
2017: Mid-March
2016: Very end of February
2015: Second week of March
2014: Mid-March
2013: First week of April
2012: Mid-April

In addition to the variation by variety, there's variation by elevation and vineyard block. Grenache is a good example. I took the following four photos as I walked up the hill. The first photo is from the bottom of the block, where cool air settles at night. You can see the buds swelling, but no leaves yet:

Budbreak 2024 - Grenache bottom of hill

A little further up the hill, you see the first leaves emerging:

Budbreak 2024 - Grenache lower middle of hill

At roughly two-thirds of the way up the hill, you see some buds unfurling larger leaves:

Budbreak 2024 - Grenache upper middle of hill

And at the top of the hill, nearly all the buds are out:

Budbreak 2024 - Grenache top of hill

It will be another few weeks before we see much sprouting in late-emerging grapes like. This is Roussanne (left) and Mourvedre (right), both looking more or less as they would have in mid-winter:

Budbreak 2024 - Roussanne

Budbreak 2024 - Mourvedre

Now our worries turn to frost. 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 a May frost cost us 20% of our production in 2022, with Mother's Day marking the unofficial end of frost season. So, we've still got more than a month to go before we can relax, and I'm thankful that it will be a few weeks before our later-sprouting varieties and our lower-lying (read: more frost-prone) areas are out enough to be at risk. 

That said, there's nothing particularly scary in our long-term forecast. We're supposed to get one more late-winter storm later this week, but it doesn't seem likely to drop below freezing. After that, we're expecting drier weather as the storm track shifts north. But there's a long way to go.

Meanwhile, we'll enjoy the rapid changes in the vineyard, and the hope that always comes with the emergence of new buds. Please join me in welcoming the 2024 vintage.


2023 white blending trials suggest that we're looking at a truly special vintage: "each grape was clearly itself, but more so"

We spent four days last week around our blending table, working to turn the 37 different lots we made from our white grapes in 2023 into the blends and varietal bottlings we'll be releasing to you in coming months. Overall, we were really happy at the end of the week; the quality of what we tasted was uniformly outstanding, and quantities a lot better than what we saw in 2022. However, 2022 was so scarce -- due to the combined impacts of drought, frost, and our decision to pull out one underperforming Roussanne block -- that even with quantities of estate white grapes 55% higher in 2023 the wines will still be in short supply. So we still had some constraints on our blending this year that meant we entered the blending week with some fundamental questions. Would there be enough outstanding lots to give us choices with the Esprit de Tablas Blanc? Would the improved yields allow us to make a Cotes de Tablas Blanc? Would we have anything left to make varietal wines, and which ones? For the answers to these questions and more, read on.

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. And for a different behind-the-scenes glimpse, Neil recorded and posted little video updates of what we were working on and what we were thinking each day, which I enjoyed watching a lot at the time and found great fun to look back on now that we're done. If you missed them, they're on his Instagram feed.

Our first step 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. Then, we start from the top of our hierarchy (with the whites, that's the Esprit de Tablas Blanc) and brainstorm possible blends, taste those blind against one another, rank our favorites, and come to consensus, sometimes through multiple iterations. Once we've determined the blend and quantity for the Esprit Blanc, we set aside the lots needed and look at what we have left for possible Cotes de Tablas Blanc and varietal bottlings. Finally, we taste everything we're going to make to be sure that each feels complete and individual. A snapshot of my notes is below. If you look closely, you'll see just how many 1's there are and how few 3's:

2023 White Blending Notes

The team which assembled for the entire week included Neil, Chelsea, Craig, Amanda, Austin, Kaitlyn, and myself. We had a few days when Gustavo and Erin joined us. I'm conscious of the fact that these blending weeks are like final exams for the cellar team, where their work is suddenly made public and evaluated. The high quality across the board is a great testament to their work over the last six months. I'm also grateful for the work that goes into these tastings, including pulling hundreds of individual lots, careful measuring and assembly, and then the lab work to get the samples clean and ready to taste. I captured this photo of Amanda, Craig, and Austin on Wednesday morning, tools of the trade in hand:

2023 White Blending Team

As usual, we took the first two days to taste through all the individual lots, with the core varieties we use for Esprit Blanc (Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, and Picpoul) on Monday, and everything else on Tuesday. My quick thoughts on each variety are below. For context, in a normal year, for every 10 lots we might see three or four "1" grades, five or six "2" grades and one "3" grade. 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"). In rough harvest order:

  • Roussanne (10 lots): The quality of the Roussanne was outstanding, with excellent richness and texture across the board, and surprisingly good acids for this usually low-acid grape. I gave six lots, with characters spanning the spectrum between focused and mineral-driven, and opulent with a kiss of sweet oak, "1" grades. One other, to which I gave a "1/2", was less vibrant but pretty, while three others got "2" grades for various reasons, two were a touch softer than I'd like for the Esprit (but will be delicious in a varietal Roussanne) while one (which ended up going into Cotes Blanc) was high toned with great acids but without the characteristic Roussanne breadth.
  • Grenache Blanc (9 lots): A great Grenache Blanc showing, with six lots getting "1" grades, one "1/2" and two "2" lots that in other years could have been 1's. Everything was mouth-filling but electric with green apple and key lime acids, long finishes, and good minerality. The two that I gave "2" grades to were still sweet enough I was reluctant to earmark them for Esprit, but in all likelihood will when they're dry be just as good as the ones I gave "1" grades to.
  • Picpoul Blanc (4 lots): A little like the Grenache Blanc, I had trouble not giving all four lots "1" grades, as they all showed what we like best about Picpoul: its tropical fruit, creamy texture, and electric acids. I ended up marking one lot down to a "1/2" because it was a little less expressive than the others, but in reality it could have been a "1".
  • Viognier (4 lots): A Viognier vintage with good richness and good acids, but with a little less Viognier character than I was expecting. The two lots that had that luscious tropicality along with the richness and acids got "1" grades, while the other two got a "1/2" and a "2".
  • Marsanne (4 lots): Although I gave the same grades I did to Viognier (two 1's, a 1/2, and a 2) I felt like it was a really good Marsanne vintage, and I feel like in retrospect I was grading a little harshly. The top lots had pretty luscious honeydew character with nice texture and a salty mineral note. The "1/2" was still a little sweet but heading in the right direction, while the "2" lot was a touch on the dense side, more like Roussanne than Marsanne.
  • Picardan (1 lots): Only one Picardan lot this year, but it was lovely, with kiwi and pear fruit, nice minerality, and a little pithy bite on the finish. I gave it a "1".
  • Bourboulenc (3 lots): Three lots, all quite different from one another. My favorite, textured with nice cantaloupe fruit, rich texture, and salty minerality, I gave a "1". Another that was darker and nuttier, but still within the boundaries of what we consider characteristic for Bourboulenc, got a "2". And the third, which was still sweet and unfinished, had an unusual coffee grounds character that I wasn't sure what to make of. I gave it a "2/3" but am sure it will in the end become something worthwhile. This tasting also suggested that it was to Bourboulenc that we would look to find the small Tablas Creek component for Patelin de Tablas Blanc in 2023.
  • Clairette Blanche (1 lot): Just one two-barrel lot of Clairette Blanche in 2023, with classic peppered citrus character and a clean minerality that I loved. I gave it a "1".
  • Cotes Maduena Blend (1 lot): From a newly replanted block, we made a small field blend of Clairette Blanche (61%) and Roussanne (39%). It was still sweet, seemingly at this point more dominated by Clairette than Roussanne and without a super well-defined character though pretty enough. I gave it a "2". 

We finished Tuesday by brainstorming ideas for the Esprit Blanc. We've figured that our bare minimum of Esprit Blanc that we need to sell here and around the country and world is around 1700 cases, and that's what we've made the last two years. But given that we're already sold out of our 2021 Esprit Blanc, six months before the 2022 will be released, I wanted to increase our production back up to around 2100 cases. At that quantity, we didn't have infinite options (so, for example, we couldn't make a blend that was 70% Roussanne or 25% Picpoul because the quantities just weren't there) and we decided to make one blend that used our maximum possible Roussanne (around 55%), another that used our maximum Grenache Blanc (around 25%) and another that leaned more heavily into the brighter varieties like Picpoul and Bourboulenc and see where that took us. All three blends were going to use our full production of Picardan and Clairette, which were only going to amount to 5% and 2%. It's a bummer knowing that we won't have either of those as varietal wines, but with so little it didn't make sense to split up what there was. 

Wednesday morning, we started on our blending work by tasting three possible Esprit de Tablas Blanc blends. To my surprise, our least favorite was the one that leaned most heavily into Grenache Blanc. It had good texture and plenty of acids, but felt less expressive than the other two glasses. Our second-favorite was the one that maxed out Roussanne. It had the deepest flavor, and lots of length, but felt a little one-dimensional. Our consensus favorite turned out to be the glass with the least Roussanne (still, at 48%, 15% more than we were able to use last year) which left more room for Grenache Blanc, Picpoul, and Bourboulenc. It was the most charming on the nose, with the most evident fruit, great acids, and plenty of texture and length. And thinking about it, I can understand why. The difference between 48% and 55% Roussanne doesn't sound huge, but at 48% we were using roughly the top 60% of the Roussanne that we produced this year. The additional Roussanne required to get to 55% meant that we were using some Roussanne lots that received "2" grades instead of just the consensus "1" lots. It isn't surprising that replacing that "2" rated Roussanne with "1" rated Picpoul, Grenache Blanc, and Bourboulenc made for a better wine. And the concentration of the vintage meant that we didn't have any worries about it not having sufficient presence to stand proudly in the historical lineup of Esprit Blanc. Final blend: 48% Roussanne, 22% Grenache Blanc, 13% Picpoul Blanc, 10% Bourboulenc, 5% Picardan, and 2% Clairette Blanche. Side note: I love that it again includes all six of the white grapes legal in Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

In 2022, it was clear that we didn't have the quantity to both make a Cotes de Tablas Blanc and the number of varietal wines we needed to satisfy our wine club and tasting room. So, we made the difficult choice to sacrifice Cotes Blanc for a year. I'd been hoping that quantities would rebound to the point that making Cotes Blanc again would be an easy choice, but instead it was a difficult choice. We need about 1300 cases of Cotes Blanc for the various uses we make of it (wine club, tasting room, and wholesale sales) and if we made that quantity, that would leave about 1750 cases of varietal wines in some combination. In that mix, we needed one wine of at least 800 cases (to go out to our wine club in the "classic" mix) and at least three others at 150+ cases (to go out in our "White Wine Selection" mix). Add those up and it works... but leaves only a little wiggle room. Given our post-Esprit quantities, the only variety with enough gallonage to include in a classic shipment was Grenache Blanc. So for our Cotes Blanc trials Chelsea put together three options, one using our maximum amount of Viognier and Marsanne, another using our maximum amount of Viognier and Grenache Blanc, and another reducing our Viognier a bit and making room for a little more of everything else. If we didn't love any of the options, we could bail on the Cotes Blanc and just make varietal wines.

Happily, all three of the test blends were good, and we truly loved the last one, which reduced Viognier to 34% and included more Marsanne (31%), Grenache Blanc (20%), Roussanne (13%), and a little Clairette Blanche (2%) that came along for the ride because it was in the Cotes Maduena field blend. The Viognier-heavier blends both felt rich and dense, perhaps a bit too much so despite their bright acids, while the blend we chose showed more elegance and translucency to its flavors while still being mouth-filling and luscious. It felt like just what we wanted for this lovely vintage. Added advantage: we're able to make a varietal Viognier, which I hadn't been expecting.

On Thursday, we convened to re-taste the blends we'd decided on as well as the varietal wines that our blending decisions resulted in and the two non-estate wines that weren't included in the blending. Our main goal in this tasting is to make sure that there is definition between the different wines that share a lead grape (say, our Viognier and our Cotes de Tablas Blanc, or our Roussanne and our Esprit de Tablas Blanc) as well as the estate and non-estate wines (like our estate Grenache Blanc and the Lignée de Tablas Grenache Blanc that we made from Zaca Mesa Vineyard grapes this year). To make these comparisons easier, we tasted in two flights of five wines, in the order below. My brief notes on each wine, with the rough quantity we'll be bottling this summer:

  • 2023 Bourboulenc (175 cases): A pithy nose, but rich, with mineral, almond, and mango notes. One the palate, quite rich, still a little sweet, with flavors of cumquat and baked apple, marmalade and toasted graham cracker. There's a nice pithy bite at the end. But when it's bottled, this is going to taste quite different than it does now.
  • 2023 Picpoul Blanc (175 cases): A high-toned nose of kiwi, honeydew melon rind, crushed rock, and lemon verbena. On the palate, fresh pineapple and green apple fruit, creamy texture, and lovely acids that reveal a wet stone minerality on the finish. Lovely. 
  • 2023 Grenache Blanc (900 cases): A classic Grenache Blanc nose of baked green apple, chalky minerals, anise, and sage butter. On the palate, flavors of lemon drop and apple galette, lovely rich texture kept in check by vibrant acids and Grenache Blanc's phenolic architecture that offers a hint of tannin on the finish.
  • 2023 Lignée de Tablas Grenache Blanc Zaca Mesa Vineyard (220 cases): A nose reminiscent of sauvignon blanc, with notes of gooseberry and sea spray, elderflower and ripe pear. Similar in the mouth, with white grapefruit and green herb flavors like lemongrass and thyme. Fresh and lively, lighter in body than our estate Grenache Blanc. Pretty and fun.
  • 2023 Patelin de Tablas Blanc (4300 cases, plus some wine for boxes and kegs): A plush nose equally balanced between Grenache Blanc and Viognier right now: apricot and ripe pear, oyster shell minerality, and a little pithy note. On the palate, white grapefruit and honeycrisp apple, anise, chamomile, orange oil, and a chalky mineral note on the finish. Lovely acids. Exciting that we have a solid supply of this! Final blend: 50% Grenache Blanc, 23% Viognier, 10% Roussanne, 8% Marsanne, 8% Vermentino, 1% Bourboulenc.
  • 2023 Marsanne (100 cases): A lovely nose of grilled peach, honeycomb, sweet green herbs, warm straw, and petrichor. In the mouth, gentle but persistent, with flavors of cantaloupe and preserved lemon, lovely texture, and a little gentle minty lift.
  • 2023 Viognier (150 cases): So very young on the nose, with high-toned mandarin peel and pear blossom aromas, a little pepper spice, and some barely-ripe apricot. The mouth is lush with flavors of nectarine, cumquat, and Meyer lemon. The finish is long, with a pithy bite and a lingering saline note.
  • 2023 Cotes de Tablas Blanc (1300 cases): A plush nose of buttered popcorn, white flowers, melon, and salted caramel. On the palate, a burst of sweet bright fruit like baked lemon squares with additional notes of honeydew melon and crushed rock. The long finish shows lemongrass and mineral notes.
  • 2023 Roussanne (260 cases): Absolutely characteristic of Roussanne on the nose, with aromas of honey and cedar and lanolin. On the palate, notes of vanilla custard, white flowers, a little kiss of sweet oak, and surprisingly bright acids maintaining order on the long finish.
  • 2023 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (2100 cases): A nose equally poised between Roussanne and brighter notes, including kiwi, honeycomb, baked apple, lemongrass, and toasted pine nuts. On the palate, mouth-filling with flavors of quince and pear, rich texture, lovely acids, and notes of jasmine and salty minerals on the lingering finish. We can't wait to see where this goes with the additional 8 months of barrel aging it will get before its December bottling.

A few concluding thoughts:

  • It was very nice to be out of the painfully scarce 2022 vintage, but the tasting drove home that white wines are still going to be in short supply in 2023. And I noted that in my 2023 harvest recap: that while white yields were up 55% in 2023, they were so low in 2022 that we still ended up below our historical averages. Once you set aside what we need for wine club shipments and our wholesale commitments, we're still looking at releases of most of our varietal wines in the 50-150 case quantities. If these are wines you look forward to, keep an eye on your emails. They will go fast.
  • Why were things low? I think a lot of it can be attributed to the toll taken on the vineyard in the 2020-22 drought and the 2022 frost. The buds for a growing season are set the year before, so a grapevine that's under extreme stress one year will usually not set a big crop the next year even if it gets ample rain and no frosts that winter. But with the ideal 2023 growing season and the lovely wet-but-benign winter we've gotten so far, I have high hopes for 2024. Fingers crossed, please, that we dodge frost.
  • In terms of what vintage in our history might be a good comp for what we saw in 2023, I feel like we need to go back to 2011 to get something that reminded me of what we saw in 2023. That 2011 vintage was historically cool (cooler even than 2023) with yields reduced by spring frosts. The result was a late-ripening vintage with both concentration and vibrancy, a lot like what we saw around the blending table last week. Sure, there are differences; we've got more grapes in production now than we did then, I think our farming is stronger; and we didn't get the disruption of a spring frost. But those 2011 whites were outstanding, and if that's our baseline I think we'll be happy.
  • I asked everyone around the table at Thursday's tasting to give a brief overview of their thoughts on 2023, and wanted to share a few of the answers. Chelsea contributed, "Everything is so perfectly poised with florality, minerality, and acidity. There's a great balance between fruit and non-fruit elements." Austin added, "Purity. Each component was clearly unique and varietally characteristic." Craig said, "Elegance and acidity. That's the throughline." Amanda called them "Confident and stately." Kaitlyn called the lineup "super delicate and pretty." Neil praised the wines' "great balance and intricacy, especially the blends." I'll end with Gustavo's contribution, which I thought captured my own thoughts well, that each grape was clearly itself, but more so, almost the platonic ideal of Rhone whites: "Each wine is what it is and I enjoyed that."

Now that the blending decisions have been made, we can move forward in getting the wines racked, blended, and given time to settle and integrate. The Patelin Blanc will be the first to go into bottle, in May. The Cotes Blanc, Lignée de Tablas Grenache Blanc, and all the estate varietal wines except Roussanne will be next, in June. And the Esprit Blanc and Roussanne will go into foudre and have another nine months to evolve before their scheduled December bottling.

It's not always easy coming into a blending week with high expectations. But it was exciting that the wines exceeded even what we'd been hoping for them. There wasn't a single "3" grade given out by anyone around the table all week. And the finished wines that we made showed all the promise of their components, and more. We can't wait to share them with you. We do apologize that while better than 2022, quantities are still scarce and these wines will go fast. We promise, they're worth making an effort to secure.

2023 White Blending Wines


Solar Powered -- in Ways You'd Expect, and in Ways You Probably Wouldn't

[Editor's note: a couple of weeks ago, when I was on the road, Director of Marketing Ian Consoli put together a social media post about our energy use. I realized that it told a story that we'd never fully addressed on the blog. So I expanded it into this.] 

One way or another, nearly all the energy we use as a society comes from the sun. The question is just whether we’re going to harness its current output, or the past output as stored by ancient plants and turned over time into coal, oil, or natural gas. So, as a business which is concerned with its impact on the environment, you have to wrestle with two questions: how to use less energy, and how to choose the sources where that energy comes from. At Tablas Creek, we're trying to approach both choices thoughtfully.

Solar and green vineyard

Before even thinking about sources of energy, it's important to look at how you can use less energy overall. After all, there's a reason why the EPA warns you against solarizing your inefficiencies. Even renewable energy comes with costs, both in hard costs of manufacturing and installation, and in opportunity costs in other projects that don't get done. So, how do we use less energy overall? Here's a short list. Our winery and office are entirely outfitted with motion-sensitive lights. We use 100% electric forklifts and quads powered by our solar array. In 2020 we built a highly insulated night-cooled, solar-powered wine storage building to store our on-site inventory and reduce trips to outside warehouses. We forward-stage our wine club shipments so that they can be shipped ground rather than air and still get to customers with two days or less transit time. Our cellar is extremely well insulated and utilizes night air exchange. We have individual heating and cooling coils in most of our fermentation (and some of our aging) vessels, including the wooden upright tanks you see front and center when you come to our tasting room:

Upright fermenters from tasting room

Now for some things you might not expect. Packaging accounts for half the carbon footprint of the average winery. Carbon footprint is, essentially, a proxy for energy use. We’ve used lightweight glass for nearly 15 years, which alone reduces the total carbon footprint of a winery by between 10% and 20% depending on the weight of the glass that they were using before. We’ve sold our wines to restaurants and wine bars in reusable, zero-waste stainless steel kegs for even longer. Those kegs, even with the return shipment to California for washing and reuse, result in a 76% reduction in carbon footprint compared to glass. And, of course, over the last couple of years we’ve been putting our Patelin de Tablas wines in 3L boxes, in large part because they have an 84% lower carbon footprint than the same wine packaged in glass (photo credit to my wife Meghan, who brought one of our new Patelin Rosé boxes on a weekend trip recently).

Patelin rose box at sunset

As for the energy we do use, we've decided that solar is the way to go. If there is a resource we have in abundance in Paso Robles, it’s sun. Our 320 days of sun each year are a key part of why it’s such a great place to grow wine grapes. It also makes producing our own energy a great option, with an ROI of less than 10 years. We have four solar arrays, installed in 2006, 2015, 2019, and 2021. These arrays total 245kWp in capacity, and in 2022 produced 102% of the electricity we used to power our winery, office, and tasting room (we don't yet have the total from 2023 but expect to do even better given the more limited need for cooling in that cooler vintage). Using renewable energy, generated on site, means that you basically eliminate the 11% of the average California winery's carbon footprint that comes from energy use (chart below from the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance): 

Carbon footprint of California wine

Finally, one last unexpected way we use the sun’s energy to power our operations. Don’t underestimate the power of photosynthesis. Every square inch of leaf is like a little photovoltaic cell. Our regenerative farming prescribes avoiding bare ground and using cover crops. The plants we grow, both the grapevines in the summer and the cover crops in the winter, capture the sun’s energy as the power source that turns atmospheric carbon dioxide into carbohydrates. Our flock of sheep is the next stage in this energy transfer, eating grasses and ground cover and transferring 80% of that biomass to our soil, where it powers the vineyard without needing to bring in fertilizer or other inputs.

Sheep on New Hill March 2024

Our sun has been shining for some 4.5 billion years, and has another 5 billion years to go. There isn't a more reliable source out there. Leaning in and learning how to use it? That seems the safest, and most sustainable, bet we can make.