Spring Equinox Update: Paso Robles is Still Absurdly Beautiful

About two months ago, I posted a blog Paso Robles is Absurdly Beautiful Right Now, sharing some photos I'd taken in the newly-green vineyard, ground fog wending its way around vines, solar panels, and olive trees. Fast-forward two months, and we're seeing the lovely consequences of combination of the last two weeks of sun and the nearly 30 inches of rain that we've received. The result has been a vineyard as green as I can ever remember, set off against impossibly blue skies and the dark brown of the still-dormant grapevines. To wit:

Tablas Creek Newly Pruned Vineyard Square

Although we'd had two dry weeks before today's half-inch of rain, there is water everywhere, seeping out of hillsides and running merrily in Las Tablas Creek. You can see a puddle sitting in the swale between the east-facing Vermentino vines (foreground) and the west-facing Mourvedre vines (behind the frost fans).

Tablas Creek Crosshairs Block

The vines themselves are still dormant thanks to a series of below-freezing nights, although the warmth of the sun suggests that we'll see bud-break before too long. In fact, this was the week last year when we first saw leaves. I don't expect that this year -- it has been colder, and all the water in the soil is keeping soil temperatures down -- but early April seems like a pretty safe bet. So, views like this, with a bare Counoise trunk silhouetted against the blue sky, will be short-lived:

Head-trained Counoise vine at Tablas Creek

The dormant trunks make amazing patterns in the vineyard, like the Mourvedre cordons below:

Tablas Creek Mourvedre Cordons

Still, as impressive as the green grass is, it's the sky at this time of year that always steals the show for me. Here's a view looking up toward our tallest hill, over Counoise and Grenache blocks. You can see the still-unpruned Grenache in the foreground; we wait longest to prune this, our most frost-prone grape:

Tablas Creek looking up toward highest hill

I'll leave you with one last view of the vineyard contours, looking up the same hill of Vermentino in the first two photos. The sweep of the land comes through, I hope. 

Tablas Creek Newly Pruned Vineyard Horizontal

Up next, we hope: what should be a spectacular wildflower season. The superbloom is in full swing just a little to the south of us. As the days continue to lengthen, and the sun warms, we should see an explosion of color here too. And when we do, I promise we'll share.


A Grapevine Pruning Tutorial with Viticulturist Jordan Lonborg and Vineyard Manager David Maduena

After four relatively quiet months, March is go time in the vineyard. The days start to get longer, the cover crops and wildflowers explode into growth thanks to the sun and rain, and it starts to feel like spring is just around the corner.  Of course, it's not, quite; it's still often below freezing at night, and with the cold weather we've seen this year, the grapevines shouldn't sprout for at least another few weeks. But all of a sudden you know the clock is ticking.

Normally, we'd prune starting in January. And we did get a bit of a start this year.  But it's been wet enough that there were lots of days where we couldn't get into the vineyard, and pruning in the rain is an invitation to fungal infections and trunk diseases. That means we're behind where we'd normally be. You can't prune too early, because you need to wait until the vines are dormant so that they can store up the necessary vigor in their roots. And pruning too early encourages the vines to sprout early too, and in an area prone to spring frosts -- like Paso Robles -- that's a risk.  So, rather than prune in December, we typically do the bulk of our pruning in February and March, starting with the varieties that sprout late, and which we're not too worried about freezing, like Mourvedre and Roussanne.  We try to finish with Grenache, Grenache Blanc, and Viognier, which all tend to sprout earlier, in the hopes of getting another week or ten days of dormancy out of them. 

Viticulturist Jordan Lonborg and Vineyard Manager David Maduena took 90 seconds to explain what they aim for in their pruning, and then demonstrate:

Pruning at Tablas Creek Vineyard from Shepherd's Films on Vimeo.

All this is done by hand.  We have about 115 acres that need to be pruned.  80 of these acres are trellised like the ones in the video, at roughly 1800 vines per acre.  The other 35 acres are head-trained, at much lower density, between 350 and 600 vines per acre.  That's more than 160,000 vines to prune.  At 20-25 seconds each, that's slightly more than 1,000 man-hours of work.  Figure that we typically have 8 of our full-time crew working on pruning in this season, with an hour of breaks each day makes 146 days of work... or with a crew of 8, just over 18 work days each.  That sounds about right... roughly a month of work, if the weather holds.

Why does all this matter? Pruning our vines well has several positive effects:

  • It reduces yields and improves quality.  As a rough estimate, you can figure on one cluster of grapes per bud that you leave during pruning.  Leaving six spurs each with two buds predicts roughly a dozen clusters of fruit, which should give us about the three tons per acre we feel is ideal for our setting and our style.
  • It makes for a healthier growing season.  If we space the buds correctly, we should have good vertical growth of canes and have clusters of fruit hanging below the canopy.  This configuration means that air flow through the rows should naturally minimize mildew pressure.  It will also shade the fruit from the sun at the hottest times of day, while allowing any nutrients or minerals we spray onto the vineyard to penetrate the canopy.
  • It promotes even ripening.  Different vines in any vineyard block have different base levels of vigor.  If left to their own devices, some might set a dozen clusters while others might set thirty.  Of course, the more clusters, the slower they ripen.  Getting an even cluster count helps minimize the spread between first and last fruit ripe in a block and makes the job of the picking crew much easier.
  • It sets up the vine for the following year.  Done well, pruning encourages the growth of wood in places where it will be needed in future years, filling in gaps where cordons may have died back in previous years or separating spur positions that have grown too close.
  • It saves labor later.  A good example of how much labor good pruning saves can be found by looking at a frost vintage, where the primary buds have been frozen and secondary buds left to sprout wherever the vine chooses.

We estimate that we're about 70% done with our annual pruning work. This week is supposed to be sunny, and if that holds, by the end of the week we should be largely done. And then we have another little break where we wait for budbreak and get to start worrying about frost. As I said a few years back, springtime is terrifying... but hopeful

Pruning shears at Tablas Creek


You may not be aging your Rhone whites. But if you do, here's what to expect.

As regular readers of the blog know, we keep a library of all the wines we've made.  We use this for the tastings we conduct in-house and for the public, like our 10-year retrospective every spring and our mid-summer vertical tastings. We use it to supply our Collector's Edition wine club and the Collector's Vertical Tasting we offer by reservation. And it gives us the opportunity to feature aged wines at the occasional special dinner or event out in the market.

You may not know that one of the things for which we use our library is to help restaurants who want to build a collection of back vintages of Esprit de Tablas (or Esprit de Beaucastel). We do this by offering mixed-vintage vertical packs, that include three bottles each of four different vintages. The red vertical pack is our more popular, and for the last couple of years has included the 2006, 2008, 2009, and 2010 vintages. But we also do a white vertical pack, which for the right restaurant can be even more fun, since so few customers have experience aging white wines.

Our current white vertical pack includes three bottles each of the 2005, 2007, 2008, and 2011 vintages.  I decided to open one of each of them today to check in and see how they're showing, and thought that readers of the blog might appreciate the inside look. The lineup:

Four older Esprit Blancs

My notes from the tasting are below. I have linked each wine to its page on our Web site, if you'd like to see tasting notes from when it was bottled, or any of the details of its production:

  • 2005 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (70% Roussanne, 25% Grenache Blanc, 5% Picpoul Blanc): Powerfully Roussanne on the nose with creme brulee, mint, beeswax, and a slightly dusty candied character that reminded me of Necco wafers. The mouth was fresh and lovely, rich but with a little pithy Seville orange marmalade bite, with flavors of cream sherry and marzipan, and a lovely preserved lemon acidity that came out on the finish and left a clean, lively impression. 
  • 2007 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (68% Roussanne, 22% Grenache Blanc, 10% Picpoul Blanc): A little more age evident than the 2005, with cedar, hay, and dried herbs on top of the dried pineapple and beeswax that the wine has had since its youth. More generous on the palate, with flavors of burnt sugar, fennel, and candied orange peel. There was a little resiny spice and a licorice/menthol lift on the finish. Weighty and serious, this is a wine crying out for rich food like lobster.
  • 2008 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (65% Roussanne, 30% Grenache Blanc, 5% Picpoul Blanc): Similar on the nose to the 2007, with spicy bitter oranges, lemongrass, and spun sugar. The mouth is beautifully mid-weight, with flavors of marzipan and candied lemon peel, lovely briny minerality, and a long, clean finish. That said, it showed quite a bit differently than the last time we tasted it in 2017 (when we all commented on how fruity it was). I'm not 100% sure what conclusion to draw from this, except that these wines are all alive and can change dramatically even after several years in bottle.
  • 2011 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (64% Roussanne, 26% Grenache Blanc, 10% Picpoul Blanc): Very different than the first three wines on the nose, with aromas of juniper and hops and rising dough and lemongrass, in many ways more like a sour beer than a wine. The mouth is clean and mineral-driven, with flavors of green apple and lemon and honeysuckle. The finish was my favorite part, with lingering impressions of cream soda and wet rocks, and a saline minerality. From our coolest-ever vintage, and shows it.

One conclusion: from this tasting, as well as previous vertical tastings, I think that the windows of time that we've been attributing to aging Roussanne's life stages have been too short.  I also think that the normal description of the phases we've been using ("youthful", "mature", "closed", etc) don't really do these wines justice. They change and move around, showing different characters at different stages.  If I had to identify these stages and the time frames in which you can expect them, they would be:

  • Youth (roughly 2-6 years after vintage, or right now, our 2013-2016 Esprit Blanc): Roussanne-based whites in this stage are rich, unctuous, primary, floral, and honeyed. Citrus blossom, pear, new honey, and a little salty minerality on the finish. This is an immensely appealing stage, and I understand why so many get drunk young.
  • Early maturity (roughly 7-10 years after vintage, or right now, our 2010-2012): In this phase, the wines are starting to lose some of their baby fat and picking up more savory, herby, mineral-driven character. The acids appear more prominent, and the brininess that in younger wines only shows on the finish becomes more prominent.
  • Middle age (roughly 11-14 years after vintage, or right now, our 2006-2009): Wines in this phase tend to deepen and see their tones darken, with honey character caramelizing, more butterscotch or burnt sugar notes, and the citrus blossom deepening to a candied orange peel. The wines show some oxidative notes, which can for some consumers be off-putting. But they're not oxidized (see next phase).
  • Maturity (roughly 15-20+ years after vintage, or right now, our 2001-2005): The oxidative character that these wines showed earlier drops away, and the wine becomes more medium-bodied and paler in color. The floral character re-emerges, combining with caramel and nutty notes and the wines' persistent minerality to make something magical.

If this feels daunting, I don't blame you. You can't go wrong drinking these wines young. But late last year, I shared that one of my recent wine resolutions was to buy fewer wines, but more of the ones I loved, so I could follow their evolution. And I don't think there's a better choice for a resolution like that than a Roussanne-based white like the Esprit Blanc. Of course, you have to be up for a bit of a roller-coaster ride, but following these wines is always fascinating, and you'll learn a lot. 

And finally, one take-home message. If you get one that's tasting heavy and feels on the verge of being too old, I would suggest that the right response isn't to quickly open and drink all the other bottles you've saved because their time might be nearly over. Instead, I would think that the thing to do is to write yourself a reminder to check back in another few years, and see if instead the wine is just about to take another turn on its road to whatever destination it has chosen.


Assessing the Lovely Rainy Chilly 2018-2019 Winter So Far

OK, I may have given my feelings away in the title of this blog. So far, this winter has been wonderful. We got four inches of rain in November to kick things off (a total topped only three times in the 23 years we've had our weather station going). This got the cover crop growing and began the process of incorporating the compost we'd spread around the vineyard into the soil. A chilly but sunny December ensured that the vines were fully dormant and the cover crop well established, and then our rainy January (9+ inches) and February (10+ inches and counting) brought us to where we are now: a year where as of February 25th we've already reached our annual winter rainfall average, and are about 130% of where we'd expect to be in a normal year.

Tablas Creek rainfall by month winter 2018-19

Oh, and the vineyard looks like this:

Green Tablas Creek Vineyard February 2019

For the winter, we've already reached the 25 inches that is our long-term average, thanks mostly to the last two months. And there is more rain in the forecast; if we finish the year at the same 130% of normal that we are to date, that would put us at 32.5 inches, not quite at the heights we achieved before the 1998, 2005, 2010, 2011, and 2017 vintages, but close:

Tablas Creek Rainfall by Year 1996-2019

There is water seeping out of hillsides and flowing merrily in Las Tablas Creek. The vineyard dogs have been returning from their romps exhausted and muddy:

Las Tablas Creek

You may have to be Californian (or at least to have lived here for a while, and through our recent drought) to understand how exciting the sound of running water is. Our Shepherd even made a video for those who want to savor it: 

So, on the water front, so far, so good. How about on the temperature front? Regular readers of the blog know that below-freezing nights aren't unusual in Paso Robles in the wintertime, but we've seen an unusual concentration recently. After only one frost night in November, we got four in December, five (including four consecutive nights in the mid-20s) in January, and a whopping fifteen so far in February, including the last eight. While rainy months and frosty months aren't unusual here, months that are both rainy and frosty are, because typically it only freezes when it's clear enough for radiational cooling to take place. Unusually this month, we've had cloudy nights below freezing, culminating in a rare snowy afternoon here last week:

What does all this mean for the 2019 vintage? It's early to say. But there have been years where late February already felt like spring, with our local almond trees in bloom and us starting to worry about bud break. For the grapevines, the two most important factors that they sense and which together cue them to come out of dormancy are the amount of the daytime sunlight (less this year because of all the clouds) and the soil temperature (well below average due to the constant rainfall and the cold nights and days). So, I would predict that we'll see a later beginning to the growing season than in recent years, and likely later even than last year's late-March bud-break, which was itself a bit of a throwback to the 2000's. That would be great; the benefit of a later budbreak is that we have fewer white-knuckle nights where we have to worry about frost, since by mid-May we are past that worry. If we can push budbreak back into April, so much the better.

So, while this winter has produced more Californian grumbling about the cold and rain than I remember hearing before, we'll take it. The vineyard is in great shape, and the vines still fully dormant. The persistent rain has meant an incredibly green cover crop with plenty of food for our flock. And the fast-moving weather systems have given us rainbow after rainbow. We ❤ you, winter in Paso Robles.

Rainbow over paso robles


Ian Consoli: The Prodigal Son Returns (to Marketing)

By Linnea Frazier

With this blog I am so happy to introduce Ian Consoli, our new Marketing Assistant. I will be leaving for a cellar position in New Zealand in March, but Ian has already begun transitioning into my marketing role from the tasting room and we couldn't think of a better way to familiarize the face behind the future emails than with a blog! If you've visited our tasting room over the last year, it's likely that you tasted with this man. His knowledge and impish personality will speak for itself. 

Where were you born and raised?

The township of Roblar, 8.6 miles south of Tablas Creek.

What drew you to Central California?

I wanted to come home.

Young Ian

How did you first hear about Tablas Creek?

I used to manage business and marketing objectives for a small non-profit in Los Angeles. We were coming up on a big fundraiser and I was trying to put together a big item package. One of my childhood friends (Jake Miller) worked in the tasting room at Tablas so I asked if he thought he could help. He more than helped by putting the whole package together himself with the first donation being wine and a tour from Tablas Creek.

You've been working in the tasting room until now. What will your new role here at the winery entail?

As the new marketing assistant I will be doing a lot of listening and a fair amount of talking. If you hashtag #tablascreek or tag us on your posts, I will be the voice answering any questions you have or adding context. Same if you comment on our social media content. If we have news to share, or we're coming to your neck of the woods, you'll see my name at the end of the email. I'll be working on blogs like these so you get to know our team better. Less visibly, I'll be working behind the scenes on the digital backend to help more people find Tablas Creek if they come to Paso Robles, and our content when they're searching for topics that we've researched. I'll also be coordinating our participation in events locally and around the country. To that note hopefully you'll see me at an event near you!

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What are you most excited for in your transition from Hospitality into Marketing?

Learning. It’s what hooked me on wine in the first place and marketing, like wine, is always developing. The challenge of keeping at and ahead of trends is an exciting position to be in.

Which are your other favorite wines or wineries locally or around the world?

Tablas is my favorite winery. I think if you drink the same winery’s wines every day for a year and you still love them it’s hard to argue. After that I’m pretty true to my millennial status in my obsession with organic and biodynamic wine. Ambyth in Templeton is awesome, Lo-Fi Wines in Los Alamos is exciting, Solminer in Los Olivos is intriguing. Regionally the Loire Valley has my curiosity at the moment.

If you had to pick one red and one white to drink for the next month which would you choose?

Tablas Grenache 2016

Esprit de Tablas Blanc 2012

What is one of your favorite memories here?

The first time Neil Collins talked to me.

What would people be surprised to know about you?

I sew.

Unique Spring - Ian (002)

How do you like to spend your days off?

I like surfing so if I can I get in the water. I own an aussie named Rasta (after Dave Rastovich) and enjoying every day I can with him is a priority. I really like organizing things so as lame as it sounds I spend a lot of time going to my parent’s house and organizing their garage. I’m also taking wine business classes on the side so I donate a day to that typically. And of course going wine tasting.

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How do you define success?

Success is the measurement of smiles one sees in a lifetime.


Tasting the wines in the Spring 2019 VINsider Wine Club shipments

Each spring and fall, we send out a selection of six wines to the members of our VINsider Wine Club.  In many cases, these are wines that only go out to our club.  In others, the club gets a first look at a wine that may see a later national release.  About 6 weeks before the club shipments will be sent out, we open them all to write the tasting and production notes that will be included in the club shipments.  In many cases, this tasting is our first post-bottling introduction to wines that we'll come to know intimately in coming months and years. In some cases (like this time) where the shipments contain wines that aren't yet even bottled (they will be the last week of February) it's a chance to get to know wines that are newly finished.  I always think it's fun to give followers of the blog a first look at these notes.

Spring 2019 VINsider Shipment Wines

These shipments include wines from the 2016, 2017, and 2018 vintages.  It was fascinating to taste these three vintages, all of which we think were very strong, together, and to get a sense of how they compare.  My quick thoughts, after the tasting, are that 2016 is a deep and serious vintage, not austere, but with classic old-world savory character and the structure that should allow them to age beautifully. 2017 is a blockbuster, where every wine shows the health of the vineyard from the 43 inches of rain we received after five years of drought. The wines are exuberant and intensely juicy, but not heavy, with acids that highlight the fruit. Finally, 2018 (we only tasted two wines) seems to hit a mid-point between the two previous vintages, with lush textures yet somehow -- if one can tell that from normally cheerful wines like Vermentino and Dianthus -- an additional dose of seriousness compared to the sunny, open-natured 2017s.  I'll start with the classic mixed shipment, and then move on to the red-only and white-only shipments, noting which wines will be included in each. 

The classic shipment includes six different wines:

2019 Spring Mixed Shipment V2

2018 VERMENTINO

  • Production Notes: Our seventeenth bottling of this traditional Mediterranean varietal, known principally in Sardinia, Corsica, and Northern Italy. It is also grown in the Mediterranean parts of France (particularly Côtes de Provence) where it is known as Rolle. The Vermentino grape produces wines that are bright, clean, and crisp, with distinctive citrus character and refreshing acidity. To emphasize this freshness, we ferment and age Vermentino in stainless steel, and will be bottling it under screwcap at the end of February.
  • Tasting Notes: A clean, spicy Vermentino nose of grapefruit peel, citrus leaf, green herbs and sea spray. Briny. The palate starts notably creamy, then Vermentino's characteristic vibrant acids come out, highlighting flavors of white grapefruit and lemongrass, with an ocean spray note that lingers on the long, zippy finish.  Drink now and over the next few years.
  • Production: 1140 cases.

2017 ROUSSANNE

  • Production Notes: Roussanne was the one grape whose yields did not recover in 2017, but the rainfall (and the healthier vines that resulted) produced serious wines with density and yet brighter acids than we see in Roussanne lots from most years. We fermented the Roussanne lots that were selected for our varietal bottling roughly 55% in foudre, 35% in neutral oak puncheons, and 10% in small new barriques. The selected lots were blended in April 2018 then aged through the subsequent harvest before bottling this past December.
  • Tasting Notes: Precise on the nose, with aromas of lacquered wood, pear skin, ginger, and sweet spices. The mouth is clean and light on its feet for Roussanne, reminiscent of Marsanne in many ways with flavors of cantaloupe and lemongrass, medium body, and a bright finish with just a hint of sweet oak. The wine has only been in bottle for a few months and we expect it to continue to flesh out and its flavors to deepen over the next year. Hold for a few months at least, then drink over the next decade or more.
  • Production: 1050 cases

2018 DIANTHUS

  • Production Notes: For our Dianthus rosé, whose name was chosen for a family of plants with deep-pink flowers, we aim for a style between that of Tavel (deeper pink, based on Grenache) and Bandol (less skin contact, based on Mourvedre). This year's blend is 51% Mourvèdre, 39% Grenache and 10% Counoise, bled off or pressed off after 24-36 hours on the skins. The wine was fermented in stainless steel and will be bottled later in February. This is a deeply colored, flavorful rosé, ideal with complex, powerful foods.
  • Tasting Notes: An electric pink. The nose shows powerful watermelon and cherry fruit, mint, and baking spices. The mouth is vivid, with strawberry juiciness followed by vibrant acids and a tangy plum skin impression bringing both refreshing acidity and a touch of tannin to the long finish. A rosé to convert people who think that pink wines can't be serious.  Drink before the end of 2020.
  • Production: 1500 cases

2017 COTES DE TABLAS

  • Production Notes: The Cotes de Tablas is our chance to let Grenache shine, as it does in most Chateauneuf du Pape blends. Grenache had lovely weight and expressiveness in 2017, so we used a relatively high percentage (53%) to lead the wine. Syrah (25%) adds dark fruit and minerality, and keeps Grenache's fruitiness grounded.  Additions of Counoise (12%) and Mourvedre (10%) add a savory earthiness to the wine, which was blended in June 2018 and aged in foudre until its upcoming bottling later in February.
  • Tasting Notes: Powerfully Grenache on the nose: red cherry, wild strawberry, and star anise, with the Syrah providing a little tobacco-like herby savoriness that keeps the nose from coming off confected. The mouth is deep and flavorful, with flavors of black cherry, pepper spice, and milk chocolate. Nice powdery Grenache tannins come out on the finish, leaving an impression of pithy cherry skin and wild herbs. Drink now and over the next decade.
  • Production: 2135 cases

2016 LE COMPLICE

  • Production Notes: This new blend, our first in a decade, celebrates the kinship (Le Complice means, roughly, "partners in crime") between Syrah (59%) and our newest red grape, Terret Noir (19%). Although Syrah is dark and Terret light, both share wild herby black spice, and Terret's high acids bolster Syrah's tendency toward stolidity. We added some Grenache (20%) for mid-palate fleshiness, and a touch of Roussanne (2%; co-fermented with a Syrah lot we chose) came along for the ride. The wine was blended in June of 2017, aged in foudre, bottled in April 2018, and has been aging in our cellars since.
  • Tasting Notes: On the nose, like Syrah but with a dash of translucency: minty dark chocolate, spruce forest, juniper berry, and angostura bitters. The mouth is both deep and lifted, with black plum, baker's chocolate, Seville orange peel, and savory herbs. Dusty tannins come out on the finish. We don't know how this will age, but suspect it will drink well for two decades. We are excited to find out!
  • Production: 750 cases

2016 PANOPLIE

  • Production Notes: As always, Panoplie is selected from lots chosen in the cellar for their richness, concentration and balance, always giving pride of place to Mourvedre's rich meatiness and firm structure. Each lot was fermented individually before being selected, blended and moved to foudre to age in July 2017.  Although the Mourvedre was outstanding in 2016, and our blend reflects that (66%), the real star of the vintage was Syrah,  and the 25% Syrah we added is Panoplie's highest percentage ever. 9% Grenache adds lushness, sweet spice, and vibrancy. The wine was bottled in July 2018 and has been aged in bottle in our cellars since then.
  • Tasting Notes: A deep, inviting nose of dark red currant fruit, sweet nutmeg spice, new leather, and a little animal wildness: think drippings from a leg of lamb.  The mouth is dense with black currant, loamy earth, clove spice, and powerful tannins cloaked with lush luxardo cherry fruit. A lifted rose petal floral note comes out with some air, and sweet milk chocolate notes play with red fruit on the long finish. A delicious wine with a long life ahead; we predict two decades of life, easily.
  • Production: 760 cases

There are two additional wines (as well as second bottles of the Roussanne and Vermentino) in the white-only shipment:

2019 Spring White Shipment

2017 VIOGNIER

  • Production Notes: The productive, consistently high quality 2017 vintage allowed us to produce a varietal Viognier, which has only been the case about half the time. Viognier, known more from the northern Rhone than the area around Chateauneuf du Pape, sprouts first of all our grapes, making it the most prone to frost, but was spared in 2017 and thrived throughout the growing season. It was whole cluster pressed and fermented in stainless steel, then blended and bottled in May 2018 in screwcap, to preserve its brightness. 
  • Tasting Notes: An incredibly appealing nose, classic Viognier with a little extra lift: jasmine flowers and pineapple, meringue, and mint. The mouth is flavorful but restrained, more pineapple than peaches in syrup, with a tropical lychee note, fresh nectarine, a little pithy bite that comes out on the finish and leaves a lingering impression of white flowers and chalky minerality. This should hold for a few years at least, but really, I can't imagine it being any better than it is right now.
  • Production: 300 cases

2016 PETIT MANSENG

  • Production Notes: Our seventh bottling of this traditional grape from southwest France, Petit Manseng is best known from the appellation of Jurancon, where it has made admired but not widely disseminated sweet wines for centuries. Petit Manseng achieves sufficient concentration and sugar content -- and maintains its acids sufficiently -- to make naturally sweet, balanced wines without botrytis. Harvested at 26.8° Brix and a pH of 2.99, we fermented it in barrel, and stopped its fermentation when it had about 57.8 grams/liter of sugar left and sat at an alcohol of 13.6%. The high acidity makes it taste much drier than the sugar reading would suggest. The wine was aged on its lees in barrel and bottled in July, 2017.
  • Tasting Notes: An exotic nose of crystallized pineapple, briny mineral, coconut, and lemongrass. The mouth is sweet but not overly: ripe pineapple, exotic lychee tropicality, then the acids reassert control, leaving a finish of mineral and cinnamon. Drink now or age for up to another decade for a nuttier character.
  • Production: 125 cases

Three additional reds join the Panoplie, Cotes de Tablas, and Le Complice in the red-only shipment:

2019 Spring Red Shipment

2016 TANNAT

  • Production Notes: Our fifteenth bottling of this traditional varietal from South-West France, known principally in the Pyrenees foothills appellation of Madiran, but originally native to the Basque region. Tannat typically has intense fruit, spice, and tannins that produce wines capable of long aging.  As we do many years, we blended in our small harvest of Cabernet Sauvignon, making the wine is 97% Tannat and 3% Cabernet.  We aged it in one foudre and a mix of new and older smaller barrels for nearly 2 years before bottling it in April 2018, and then aged it another 6 months in bottle before release. 
  • Tasting Notes: On the nose, expressive: boysenberry, brambly spice, black mission figs, with a menthol herbiness and Tannat's characteristic (and welcome) floral undertone that always reminds me of violets. The mouth is beautifully balanced, and more approachable than often is the case with young Tannat, chewy with flavors of black cherry, meat drippings, rosemary, baker's chocolate, a little spicy oak, and a graphite-like minerality. Tannat's tannins are quite refined, cleaning up the wine on the finish and leaving impressions of black plum skin, pepper spice, and mineral. A wine to drink any time over the next two decades.
  • Production: 770 cases

2016 MOURVEDRE

  • Production Notes: Mourvedre is the one red grape that we try to bottle on its own each year, because we think it is a wonderful grape that too few people know, and one we feel worthy of some proselytizing.  Mourvedre, like all our reds, saw recovered yields compared to 2015, but still only tallied a below-average 2.1 tons/acre. All our lots were fermented in large wooden tanks and moved it to neutral barrels to await blending.  For our varietal Mourvedre, we choose the friendlier, more open lots, which were blended in the spring of 2017, then aged in foudre until bottling in August of 2018.
  • Tasting Notes: A lifted, comparatively high-toned nose for Mourvedre, with aromas of leather, blood orange, garrigue, and allspice. The mouth is more classic, with Mourvedre's signature redcurrant, leather, loam, and sweet spices, medium body, and excellent balance. The finish is refreshing, with gentle, chewy tannins. Just 12% alcohol. Drink now for a brighter impression, or age for 10-15 years for deeper tones.
  • Production: 810 cases

2017 PATELIN DE TABLAS

  • Production Notes: Patelin is French slang for "neighborhood" and the Patelin de Tablas is our red Rhone-style blend sourced from seven great neighboring Rhone vineyards (plus our own). We base the wine on the spicy savoriness of Syrah (48%), with Grenache (32%) providing juiciness and freshness, and Mourvedre (16%) and Counoise (4%) earth and structure. Fermented in a mix of upright oak fermenters and stainless steel tanks and aged in wooden uprights, it was bottled in July 2018 and has been aging in bottle since.
  • Tasting Notes: A lovely nose, very Syrah, of pine forest, pancetta, blackberry, and dried herbs. The mouth is juicier than the nose suggests, with smoky blackberry, licorice root, crushed rock, and saddle leather, with chalky tannins and flavors of black cherry and freshly turned earth that come out on the finish. Delicious now, but still fleshing out, and with the substance and balance to age for up to a decade.
  • Production: 3580 cases

If you're a wine club member, you should make your reservation for our shipment tasting party, where we open all the wines in the most recent club shipment for VINsiders to try. This spring's party will be on Sunday, March 31st.  If you're not a wine club member, and you've read all this way, then why not join up, while there's still a chance to get this spring shipment? Details and how to join are at tablascreek.com/wine_club/vinsider_club


Are the gloomy messages about the state of the wine industry warranted? I say not for wineries like us.

I've spent much of the last two weeks at wine industry symposia: first the Direct to Consumer Wine Symposium in Concord, CA, and then the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium another hour north in Sacramento. I spoke on panels at both, at the first on measuring ROI on winery events, and at the second on technical and market challenges and opportunities for rosés. But I also took advantage of being there already -- and the free passes that come with being a speaker -- to sit in on some of the other sessions. Both events began with "state of the industry" reports, with quite different outlooks.

DTC Wine Symposium SessionPhoto courtesy DTC Wine Symposium

The core message I took home from the DTC Symposium was mostly positive: that direct-to-consumer wine sales continue to grow at a healthy rate, with shipping totals topping $3 billion for the first time in 2018, and growth coming broadly across wineries of all sizes.  What's more, the tools that wineries have to capture, analyze, and fulfill these consumer-direct sales have never been better.  The take-home message from Unified was less positive, with worries about declining sales at restaurants and supermarkets, grape market oversupply, demographic challenges for wineries as their prime customer base (mostly Baby Boomers) ages, and challenges connecting with Millennials through traditional wine marketing. These have spawned some much-discussed articles (within the wine community, anyway) containing lots of hand-wringing about what the future might bring to California wine. A couple (click-bait titles notwithstanding) will give you a sense of the worries:

In a second piece, on his own blog (Millennials are talking but the wine industry isn't listening) Blake Gray identifies some of the barriers that may be keeping Millennials from gravitating toward wine, at least at this point in their lives: the industry's resistance to transparency in labeling, its steadfast promotion of just a small handful of grape varieties, and an inability (or unwillingness) on behalf of wineries to engage with the Millennial consumer. I'd add a few others, including the often high price of premium wines and winery experiences, which puts them outside the reach of many cash-strapped Millennials, the marketing of wine as elite (which often crosses the line and comes across as elitist, to an audience that prizes authenticity), and the dominance of shelf space in the wholesale and grocery markets by a handful of large wine companies, when what every study of Millennials indicates they want is 1) a closer relationship with real people behind the products they consume, and 2) confidence that those products are produced in a way that matches their values.

So, which is it? Are wineries in good shape, or are there dark clouds on the horizon? As is usual with complicated questions, it depends on where you're looking, and over what time frame.

Let's look at the negatives first. Some of the largest wine companies (including Bronco, Gallo, and Constellation Brands, all of whose sales skew toward lower-priced wine in chain retail) saw sales decline last year. Many traditional fine dining restaurants have closed or rebranded as consumer trends have shifted toward more casual experiences. Nielsen data showed that overall wine retail sales declined slightly (0.5%) by volume last year, at least in the 70% of retailers that participate in the Nielsen data collection.1 The combination of distributor consolidation and winery proliferation have made it harder for most small-to-medium wineries to sell through the wholesale channel. And tasting room visitation was down in many established regions in 2018, including Napa and Sonoma, even as tourism was up.2 So, if you are a small-to-medium winery who wants to sell their production through wholesale, a large winery whose sales skew toward the lower end of the retail spectrum, or a winery in an established region whose customer acquisition mostly happens in your tasting room, you likely have cause to worry.

On the positive side, winery direct-to-consumer shipped sales grew again in 2018, by about 12%, to more than $3 billion, a figure nearly triple what it was just in 2011.3 Wineries can now ship to 90% of the US population, with the right permits. The average price of a bottle of wine sold increased both in three-tier retail and in direct-to-consumer last year. Although tasting room visits are down in many areas, our experience is that people are spending longer when they do visit, are more interested than ever in learning the story and the practices behind the wines, and are happy to spend more: our average sale per visitor was up 8% last year. The price ranges of wine that saw sales declines were the under-$10 bottles (at which, I think it's fair to say, California does not excel) while all higher price points saw sales growth. And most importantly, total winery sales, when you take direct-to-consumer into account, grew 4% in 2018. That means that the pie continues to grow, and it seems like it's primed to continue to grow in the segments that most impact wineries of our general size (small to medium) and profile (producing wines between $25 and $60, with DTC providing the majority but not the totality of our revenue).

Some of what I see as more equivocal data has been painted in the most negative light. There are some demographic trends that wineries need to plan for. Wine's largest audience, for the last two decades, has been Baby Boomers, and with the average Boomer reaching retirement age -- the time at which, historically, cohorts start spending less on wine -- they will need younger generations to step in. And GenXers, of which I am a proud member, have been doing so. Will Millennials, who are a larger cohort than GenX, step up when it is their turn? It remains to be seen. But I think that the doom and gloom about them is pretty overblown. The median age of a Millennial is 30, but the Millennials at the peak of the demographic bubble are just 24. Were many Baby Boomers drinking wine at age 30, let alone 24? No. How about GenX? Not much. Millennials are drinking more wine than preceding generations were at the same age, which should be a positive enough trend. But I think the news is better than that, at least for wineries like us. They are also much more likely to drink craft beer or craft cocktails, to be interested in the source and making of the foods and drinks they consume, to have grown up in a wine-drinking household, and to be open to trying wines from new grapes and new growing areas.

Are many Millennials hamstrung by the poor job market when they entered the work force and saddled with student debt? Absolutely. But even if they never attain the buying power of earlier generations, it seems to me that the sorts of wines that Millennials are likely to embrace are the sorts of wines that wineries like Tablas Creek would like them to embrace: smaller family run wineries, from organically farmed vineyards, incorporating grapes that may be outside the mainstream but are good fits for their growing locations, and wines that offer value, at whatever price point.

Does that sound like a gloomy future? Not to me.

Footnotes:

  • 1. Note that there are some important retailers whose data is not included, most notably Costco, and that the Nielsen data also does not include winery DTC sales.
  • 2. All these data points are from (and beautifully explained in) the 2019 SVB Wine Report, the industry's gold standard for data collection and analysis. 
  • 3. This data point and the ones that follow come from the 2019 ShipCompliant Direct to Consumer Wine Shipping Report

Paso Robles is Absurdly Beautiful Right Now

Last week, we got four more inches of rain over three days, bringing our January total to 8.66 inches and our winter total to 14 inches.  We're slightly ahead of where we'd expect to be at this time of year, and what's better, it's come in surges, with sunny interludes in between that allow the ground to dry out a bit and the cover crop to grow. The net result is a landscape that is as far away from summer's stark golden brown as it's possible to imagine:

Looking down past solar panels to nursery area

I've been sharing these photos bit by bit over our Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter accounts, and they've been racking up some of the highest numbers of likes I can remember, so they seem to have touched a chord, particularly with the northeastern two-thirds of the country seeing polar weather right now.

I thought it would be nice to collect some of my favorites in one place. In no particular order, starting with a look down over the low-lying area we call Nipple Flat, showing both the undulating lines of the winter vineyard and the fog that's been settling in our valleys each night:

Looking down Nipple Flat

The moisture in the air that transforms the winter landscape can be hard to imagine if you've only visited in summer, but as I've written before, our winter climate is as much rain forest as our summer is desert:

Top of New Hill

The battle waged daily between the fog lifting off the saturated ground and the sun rising makes for a landscape that changes by the minute each morning:

Row 9

That rising sun makes for some great drama in photographs, like this one of one of our 39 owl boxes, most occupied now with nesting barn owls:

Owl box and rising sun
By the time most of our visitors arrive, that fog has largely burned off, and the dramatic green of the grass and blue of the sky are the lasting impressions: 

Solar panels and Mount Mourvedre

We know that summer is the typical season when most guests visit Paso Robles Wine Country. But winter is my favorite season here. I hope that I've done it justice.