We reach the peak of the 2021 harvest... and it doesn't feel like a peak

Sometime in the next week, we'll pass the midpoint of the 2021 harvest. In terms of timing, that's pretty normal. Figure we start the last week of August (this year, August 24th). Harvest usually lasts about two months. So, it makes sense that we're just about at its midpoint. In terms of varieties, that's pretty normal too. We're done with the early grapes (Viognier, Vermentino, Syrah, Pinot Noir). We're largely done with the early-mid grapes like Grenache Blanc, Cinsaut, and Marsanne. We've made a start on the mid-late grapes like Grenache, Tannat, Picpoul, and Roussanne. And we're continuing to wait on the perennial stragglers like Mourvedre and Counoise. There have been days where we've been stashing grapes wherever we could find space because all three of our presses were in use at the same time.

Grenache bins in the cellar

So why doesn't it feel like we're in the thick of things? Blame the scarcity of the 2021 vintage, and the lovely weather we've been getting.

For yields, we now have two more data points beyond what we had two weeks ago, when I shared that Viognier, Vermentino, and Pinot Noir were down between 32% and 46%. With Syrah done, we see that our yields declined less than they did with the first three grapes, down 14% to about 37.5 tons. That's good news. But Grenache Blanc, with a few tons still to go, is currently down 52%. Assuming we get the couple of additional tons Neil is estimating, we'll end up down in the neighborhood of 47%. That's not good news.

As for our weather, it's been just about ideal both for people and for grapevines. Over the last two weeks, we haven't hit 100 once (max temp 96F). Seven days have topped out in the low 90s. Four more have hit the 80s. Three never made it out of the 70s. Our average nighttime low has been in the upper 40s. Those temperatures are a luxury for us. September can be scorching here in Paso Robles, and very hot temperatures force us to pick grapes to keep them from dehydrating or having their acids plummet. That has meant that we've been able to sequence out the harvest in an ideal way, without overwhelming our team or our cellar space. We actually have a bunch of empty tanks in the cellar right now, which feels like an unexpected treat. A few snapshots of what is going on. First, the daily work measuring the progress of fermentations (Kayja, left) and emptying tanks that have completed their fermentations (Gustavo, right):

Kayja measuring fermentations Sept 2021 Gustavo digging Syrah tanks Sept 2021

In the vineyard we're currently working on harvesting Tannat. Two of our three blocks got picked yesterday, with the third on tap for today. The photos below were taken on adjacent rows. The row on the left had just been picked, while that on the right was picked just after I snapped this photo. 

Tannat Picked 2021 Tannat on the Vine 2021

One more photo of the harvest, with the crew hard at work under the watchful eye of Pedro Espinoza, a 25-year veteran of our team here and current crew foreman:

Harvest Sept 2021

The Tannat looks amazing, dark and in beautiful condition in bins on our crushpad:

Tannat in Bins Sept 2021

The lovely condition of the fruit is also consistent with what we've been seeing in 2021. The combination of our second consecutive dry winter and our most frost nights since 2012 meant that all our varieties are coming in with smaller berries and thicker skins. The benign weather we've seen this growing season has meant that they're coming in with ideal numbers, with both sugars and acids a bit higher than we've seen in most recent years. That's a recipe for outstanding quality, and reminding me more and more of 2007.

We took advantage of the recent cool stretch to do some vineyard-wide sampling. It looks like we'll continue to see things sequence nicely. There's more Grenache and Marsanne on tap after today's Tannat. Then we'll finish up some of the blocks we've picked selectively. Then we'll dive into Roussanne in a serious way. I'm still hopeful that the later grapes, which suffered most from 2020's heat and which are likely to benefit most from this year's moderate temperatures, will be down less than what we've seen so far. Meanwhile we're going through those later varieties and dropping any second-crop clusters or grapes that don't appear to be coloring up as well as we'd like. You can see evidence of this work throughout the vineyard. This is in one of our Counoise blocks:

Dropped clusters Sept 2021

One good piece of news: we've been able to secure some really nice additional fruit for our Patelin de Tablas wines. That's always been one of the primary benefits for us of the Patelin program. In years where our own crop is plentiful, we use more Tablas fruit in those wines. In years where it's scarce, we reach out to the big network of growers who have our clones in the ground in Paso Robles and secure some more fruit to purchase. That should mean that even if many of our estate wines are scarce or can't be made in 2021, we'll at least have some wines for the pipeline. And all of that fruit has looked outstanding.

So, now we wait. We keep our fingers crossed that conditions remain good (the next week looks ideal). And we watch the harvest chalkboard fill up. Will the second half of harvest provide a new narrative? Stay tuned.

Harvest Chalkboard Sept 21 2021


Aspen-inspired reflections on what it means to be a sustainable winery

This past weekend I flew to Aspen to participate for my first time in the Aspen Food & Wine Classic. It was my first work flight since January of 2020 and the only out-of-state visit and only wine festival I have planned this year. I've been cautious in this ongoing pandemic both what I commit Tablas Creek to and what I choose to participate in myself. But this seemed like an opportunity I couldn't pass up.

I'd been invited by Food & Wine's Executive Wine Editor Ray Isle1 to join him on a panel with the title "Wines for a Healthy Planet". It was a chance to talk through the many permutations of sustainable, organic, Biodynamic, Regenerative Organic, natural, and more, in front of as high a profile audience as any in the world of wine. We've been a part of (or at least adjacent to) most of those categories over the years, and I had a chance to have a real conversation with Ray about what it means to be a responsible winery in this day and age. And yet because of the many different ways in which the wines Ray chose advance the goal of a healthier planet, the discussion went places that I hadn't expected, and I come back to California with some new inspirations on how we might continue to evolve our farming and our operations. I wanted to share those thoughts while they're fresh in my mind, and encourage any readers to share other innovative ways that have come across their radar that might go beyond a farming certification.

Jason Haas and Ray Isle at Aspen Food & Wine 2021

I'll follow Ray's lead and share the eight wines in the lineup, in the order in which we tasted them, with some thoughts on how each advances the discussion.

  • 2019 Frog’s Leap Rossi Reserve Sauvignon Blanc. John Williams, Proprietor and Winemaker at Frog's Leap in Napa Valley, is an inspiration of mine, famous for his early adoption of organic farming, his no-nonsense approach to what really matters in Biodynamics, and his embrace of dry farming. He's been outspoken about how all three are how he's made wines of soul and balance in an era when most of his neighbors were chasing power unapologetically. As a pioneering advocate for natural ways of making wine, John's Sauvignon Blanc was a great way to start. [Note, if you haven't read John's lovely piece "Thinking Like a Vine" you should.]
  • 2019 Tablas Creek Esprit de Tablas Blanc. I got to debut our newest vintage of Esprit Blanc next. I've spoken plenty about our own approach to farming and to building a responsible business, but focused in my remarks at the seminar to explaining the significance of the Regenerative Organic Certification that we received last year. More on this in a bit.
  • 2016 Pyramid Valley Field of Fire Chardonnay. New Zealand has been a world leader in sustainable farming practices, with 96% of its acreage included in its nationwide sustainability program. Pyramid Valley takes that one step further by implementing Biodynamics, producing this brilliant Chardonnay from their limest0ne-rich site in North Canterbury. You could taste in the vivacity of the wine the health of the vines and their expressiveness of their soils. 
  • 2019 J Bouchon Pais Salvaje. OK, here things got weird and even more fun. Pais (known in America as Mission) is an ancient grape variety, likely Spanish in origin, that was brought to the New World by Spanish missionaries to produce sacramental wine five centuries ago. It has largely lost favor in recent decades as new varietals arrived here, but this wine was unique in my experience. Made from wild grapevines more than a century old, seeded (presumably) by birds and growing as a wild grapevine would, climbing trees in a riverbed in southern Chile, these vines have never been cultivated, irrigated, pruned, or otherwise intervened with. They're picked by workers on tall ladders leaned against the trees. Their website has a photo. Truly a wine made without impacts on its environment! The wine itself was bright and spicy, showing its 50% carbonic fermentation, rustic and refreshing. 
  • 2018 Cullen Red Moon Red. From the Margaret River region in Australia, Cullen has been organic since 1998 and Biodynamic since 2003. Beyond that, they're the first winery I know of to be certified as carbon-neutral, achieved both by reductions in their own footprint (the glass bottle they use is the lightest I've ever felt) and through the funding of reforestation programs and a biodiversity corridor project. The wine, a blend of Malbec and Petit Verdot, was minty, spicy, and light on its feet, about as far away from the jammy stereotype of Australia as it's possible to get.   
  • 2018 Tenuta di Valgiano Palistorte Rosso. Made in Tuscany from a blend of Sangiovese, Merlot, and Syrah, like many of the other wines the Tenuta di Valgiano was organically and Biodynamically grown. But unusually, it was made from a vineyard entirely surrounded by forest, isolated from other vines that might have been treated in a more industrial way. The idea of chemical drift isn't one that gets talked about much in grapegrowing, the wine gave Ray a chance to share stories of other vineyards that saw their border rows of vines defoliated by herbicide sprays.
  • 2016 Torres Grans Muralles. The Torres family of wineries, stretching from Spain to Chile to Sonoma, is one of the world's largest family-run producers. They're also leaders in sustainability, particularly in their work co-founding International Wineries for Climate Action (IWCA), whose participants commit to reducing their carbon footprint 50% by 2030 and 100% by 2050. This wine shows another piece of their commitment to how wineries can have positive impacts on their communities, sourced from ancient vineyards in the Spain's Conca de Barberà region discovered as a part of a conservation effort Familia Torres began in the 1980s, in which they placed ads in small-town newspapers looking for farmers with plots of old, overgrown grapevines. This led to the discovery of two heritage varieties (Garró and Querol) which combine with Garnacha, Cariñena, and Monastrell to produce this unique wine.
  • 2017 Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon. We finished with a classic. Spottswoode was one of first wineries in Napa Valley to begin farming organic in 1985 and has been certified since 1992. They're now Biodynamic certified as well, a B Corp (the first, winery, I believe, to achieve this), and participants in programs like 1% for the Planet and IWCA. Their "One Earth" list of initiatives is an inspiring example of how a winery can make a positive impact in multiple ways. But just as important is the example they set. Far from environmental sensitivity being something for the fringes of wine, all these efforts help them make a superlative version of America's most famous and popular grape.

I asked Ray for how he chose this diverse collection of wines. His reply emphasizes that while farming is important, it's not just about that:

“I did this seminar because I wanted to highlight how wineries around the world—literally in every wine region—have become more and more invested in agricultural and winemaking practices that are good for the environment, rather than potentially detrimental. Whether that’s through organic viticulture, regenerative agriculture, biodynamics, or climate-conscious programs for reducing a wineries’ carbon, water or energy footprints, there’s a global shift in wine right now towards this sensibility. I feel like the producers I chose—Spottswoode, Pyramid Valley, Frog’s Leap, Tenuta di Valgiano and others, including of course Tablas Creek—are at the forefront of these efforts. Plus, they all make excellent wine; that’s pretty vital, too.”

I come away from this experience convinced that the biggest sustainability challenge for the generation of wineries that, like us, have adopted organic or Biodynamic farming in the last few decades is going to be to improve our business practices. We will of course continue to invest in our farming. I'm proud that Tablas Creek is helping lead the way on some of these initiatives, specifically the work that we've done to achieve Regenerative Organic Certified status. But as I wrote when I published the results of a carbon footprint self-audit in May, the challenges of improving packaging and energy use and water conservation will loom large over the wine community in coming years.

After being a part of this seminar, I have a bunch more ideas running around in my head. Thanks, Ray.

Footnote:

  1. If you'd like to get to know Ray a little (and you should) he was my guest in one of my Instagram Live conversations this summer. Our archived conversation can be found here.

Harvest 2021 at the Quarter Pole: Seriously High Quality but Major Alarm Bells on Yields

This year feels very different than last. In 2020, it got hot in early August and didn't relent for three months. The starting point was actually on the later side, historically, because of our relatively late budbreak and cool June and July. But once harvest got started, it was one wave after another. I felt like we were buried by fruit.

2021 hasn't felt this way so far. Some of that, for sure, is because our temperatures have been downright idyllic for this time of year. I mentioned in my harvest kickoff blog two weeks ago that we'd had quite a cool leadup to our first picks, with high temperatures 10 to 20 degrees cooler than seasonal norms. It's warmed up a bit since then, but we had another cool three-day cool stretch last week where we didn't get out of the 70s, and our average high so far in September has been 92.2F, which is right at our 30-year seasonal average. This has meant that the grapes have taken a little more time to get from almost-ripe to ready-to-pick than they did last year. But some of it is because all our picks have been lighter than the same picks last year, sometimes alarmingly so. Our harvest chalkboard so far:

Harvest chalkboard through September 9th

We expected that crop levels would be light this year given that it was a dry, chilly winter, with most of our rain coming in one storm (which means that as absorbent as our soils are, we lose more to runoff than we would if the rain were distributed more widely) and some cold temperatures coming late (which tends to reduce berry size). But we were all taken by surprise by just how light some of these first picks turned out to be. We've finished picking three grapes so far, and all three look like they're down significantly. Viognier is down least, off by about 32% compared to last year. The Pinot Noir from my mom's that we use for our Full Circle Pinot was off by 33%. And Vermentino, which usually hangs a big crop, was off 46%. What's more, the berries are smaller, so the yield of juice per ton of grapes is likely to be lower. Yikes. 

A few caveats to those numbers. Cold or frosty spring weather tends to impact the earliest-sprouting grapes most, because they're the first out. Viognier and Vermentino are among our earliest to see budbreak. We haven't harvested any of our head-trained, dry-farmed blocks yet, which tend to be less affected by dry conditions, and those blocks look great this year. And in our Pinot, we made the decision to try to cut down our cluster counts a bit after feeling like we've pushed the vines a little too hard the past few years. So, I'm not expecting us to finish the harvest down 35%. But still, I'm expecting something more in the realm of between 2 and 2.5 tons per acre rather than the 3.35 that we saw last year. Those numbers might not seem like a massive difference, but each ton of grapes translates into 60-65 cases of wine, so across our 115 producing acres, that means we're looking at something like 17,000 cases of estate wine rather than last year's 24,000. That's going to constrain what we can do for sure.

There are two saving graces here that I see. First, quality looks amazing. The numbers look ideal, with higher sugars and higher acids than we've seen in recent years. The red grapes are deeply colored, with small berries and thick skins. Check out how dark these Syrah grapes are, in one of our open-top fermenters being foot-stomped in preparation for a whole cluster fermentation:

Foot treading syrah

For another view, check out the small size and dark color of the Syrah cluster I'm holding:

Syrah in bin and hand

The second saving grace is that the vineyard looks really healthy. Last year, our early varieties saw increased yields over 2019, but as the cumulative impact of three months of uninterrupted heat mounted, our later-ripening grapes saw lower yields as we lost Roussanne, Mourvedre, and Counoise crop to raisining and vine exhaustion. I'm hopeful that we won't see the same this year, as the weather has been much friendlier. The lower yields are likely to help the vines stay healthier longer too. Here's a side-by-side of Mourvedre (left) and Counoise (right), both looking good still with grapes on the vine: 

Mourvedre on the vine Counoise on the vine


It is something of a maxim in vineyard analysis that when you see evidence of yields being light, they end up even lighter than you were thinking, while when you see evidence of heavier yields it ends up being even heavier than you expect. The difference this year is that instead of seeing lower cluster counts, we've just seen smaller clusters with smaller berries. That's a little harder to quantify before harvest begins. But it's been validated by the numbers we've been seeing in our harvest measurements, and by the vines' evident health. 

With our estate fruit, we don't have much we can do about lower yields until we get to blending time. There will almost certainly be some wines we don't make this vintage, and others we make in significantly lower quantities than usual. We'll figure it out once we get to blending in the spring. But meanwhile, knowing things look light, we have been on the phone to make sure we can source a little more fruit for our three Patelin wines. We know that a wine like Patelin Rosé isn't a perfect substitute for our Dianthus, but if we can make an extra 750 cases to show and sell here at the winery, and make a little less Dianthus to conserve fruit for our red wines, that's the sort of tradeoff we have control over now... and a lot better than being out of rosé entirely next July.

More and more, this year is reminding me of 2007. That too was a vintage that followed a cold, dry winter, where we saw smaller clusters with remarkable intensity. It also surprised us with reduced yields, particularly in early grapes like Viognier and Vermentino. But the payoff was some of the greatest wines that we've ever made. If in two months I am still talking about how 2021 reminds me of 2007, I'll be thrilled. If a vintage is going to be scarce, it had better be outstanding. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, we'll be starting to bring in Grenache, both for red wines and for our rosés. And enjoying crushpad scenes like this one.

Crushpad with Grenache


Going Different Places, Doing Different Things: An Interview with Second-Year Intern Kayja Mann

By Ian Consoli

Every year we hire two or three interns during the harvest season to help us manage the 400+ tons of fruit that come through our cellar. Sometimes, one of those interns turns out to be a rock star and we invite them back for a second tour. Such is the case this year, as Kayja Mann has returned for another round after debuting here during the harvest of 2020. Cellar work during harvest, while it’s exciting and rewarding, is also physical and wet, with long, grueling days, so when an individual decides to do it again, I feel obligated to sit down and see where the motivation comes from.

The first thing one notes about Kayja is that she always has a smile on her face. Senior Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi recently supported Kayja from the sideline as she ran a 100k in Lake Tahoe (65 miles!!) and Chelsea noted that her smile at the end of the race was as consistent as any day in the cellar. So, as you can imagine, Kayja brought that same positivity to her experiences in the cellar. She truly is a delight and I can’t wait for you to meet her.

Kayja Mann on a forklift at Tablas Creek

Who are you?

My name is Kayja. I graduated from Cal Poly SLO a year and a half ago. I have been trying a bunch of different jobs and living in various places ever since. I studied business in college. When COVID hit, my plans kind of changed, and I started to form an interest in wine.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Sebastopol, California, so definitely wine country.

Did you form an interest in wine while you were growing up in Sebastopol?

No, not at all. My parents don't drink wine that much. It was all around, but I didn't have much interest at all. My interest in wine started during quarantine when I took a spirituality in wine class at Cal Poly with a couple of my really good friends. The course was online, so we'd get a bottle of wine and go sit on the lawn for class. It provided us a platform to try a bunch of different wines, and we started paying attention to other varietals from different places. The course was really cool because it focused on the spirit of the wine, like if this wine was a location, what location would it be? It was a different way of thinking about wine.

How did that new love of wine lead you to Tablas Creek?

A friend studying enology was planning to do a wine harvest during the fall of 2020. With COVID happening, my plan to go abroad was no longer an option, so I asked her, "Can I do a wine harvest? Could anyone do that?" She said, "Yeah, just apply to a bunch of places." I did, and Tablas Creek was the one I wanted the most because of its regenerative and biodynamic practices. Neil [Collins] was nice enough to get back to me and let me know; sorry, we're all full. Then a couple of days later, he called again to let me know a spot opened up if I still wanted to join. I came out, met everyone, and thought, alright, this is sweet. I'm going to be a part of this group. And I quickly signed on for Harvest 2020.

Right, this is not your first harvest with Tablas Creek. Why did you decide to come back for a second round?

I had such an awesome experience last year. I came in with no background in wine and figured it out with the help of the team. It's such a comfortable environment to work in. Everyone's super supportive and gives you a lot of agency to figure things out on your own. They act as resources if you want to come and ask. That was huge. I really liked the work environment where it's like, take that project and run with it. After that great experience, I thought it'd be cool to come back and build on what I learned last year. Luckily, they welcomed me back.

Kayja Mann working the sorting table at Tablas Creek

Do you see a career in wine for yourself?

Last year, it was something fun and different. I honestly didn't know if I would come back because I'm still figuring out what I want to do. But now I am here again. So truthfully, I don't know, but this year I'm coming into it thinking, is this something that I could see myself continuing to do? Maybe I'll have an answer for you at the end of harvest.

How did you hear about Tablas Creek?

I was just trying to find wineries in the area. I looked up something super vague, like sustainable wineries or sustainability wineries in Paso, or maybe biodynamic or regenerative, something along those lines. An article popped up on Tablas Creek, so I went to the website and liked what I saw. I previously worked for Dr. Bronner's, a co-founder of the Regenerative Organic Alliance. I was excited to see another company pursuing that certification process and be here last year when the certification was officially released.

If a genie said you could be head winemaker anywhere in the world at any winery. What would you choose?

That's so tough. I want to say New Zealand, but I think that's just because I want to go there. I know the weather doesn't work for this, but if there was a winery in Steamboat Springs, CO, where I live now, I would love to be a winemaker there.

Best bottle of wine you ever had?

I've been into bubbles recently and really like the Pet Nat from Lone Madrone. But probably the most memorable bottle was a vin jaune from the Jura region. It was funky and floral and definitely stood out because it's just such a different taste.

What's next for you after this harvest?

I'm heading back to Steamboat Springs to hopefully be on ski patrol at the resort there.

Would you rather:

Cake or pie?

I'm going to go with cake. As long as it's not chocolate cake.

Breathe underwater or fly?

Fly, for sure.

New-world wine or old-world wine.

Both.

Be a winemaker or a viticulturist?

I don't know enough about what a viticulturist's day-to-day looks like, so I have to go with winemaker.

Kayja Mann in front of barrels at Tablas Creek


Harvest 2021 begins slowly after an unusually cool August stretch

On Monday, we brought in our first purchased grapes, just over nine tons of Viognier from Derby Estate destined for our 2021 Patelin de Tablas Blanc. On Tuesday, we got our first estate fruit, three and a half tons of our own Viognier and (surprise!) half a ton of Roussanne that we cherry-picked off the ripest vines to keep from losing it to birds, squirrels, or raisins. Vineyard Manager David Maduena, starting his 30th harvest here at Tablas Creek, brings in the last few clusters:

David bringing in Viognier clusters

And with that, the 2021 harvest began. No wonder our cellar team was ready to celebrate, first in the winery:

Cellar Crew Celebrating Beginning of Harvest 2021

And later, with our annual beginning-of-harvest sabering and toast:

Toast after Harvest 2021 Sabering

And now, we wait. This feels very different than last year's harvest, even though it started just one day earlier. Unlike 2020, when it got hot in early August and really never cooled down until we were done picking, after six more-or-less average weeks between early July and mid-August, we've eased into a period of more than a week with high temperatures 10 to 20 degrees cooler than average for this time of year:

Daily High Temperatures July-August 2021 vs Normal

I'll share a few photos of the unusual weather. First, one photo of the fog sitting thick above some head-trained, dry-farmed syrah vines in our "Scruffy Hill" block:

Syrah in the Fog on Scruffy Hill

Or this long view looking down through a trellised Mourvedre section, grapes already deep red though we're at least six weeks away from harvesting them:

Long View of Mourvedre on Nipple Flat in Harvest Fog
If you're used to seeing pictures from wine regions more open to the Pacific (think the Sonoma Coast, or Santa Maria Valley, or Carneros) then fog while grapes are ripe on the vine may not seem surprising. But Paso Robles is different. The Santa Lucia Mountains are unbroken to our west at around 3,000 feet, meaning that fog has to travel 100 miles south up the Salinas Valley to even reach town (elevation 700 feet). That happens a few mornings each month. But we're not in town. To get those additional 10 miles west to us, the fog has to either come from town across a 2,000 foot ridge, or be so thick that it just comes over the coastal mountains. That happens just a few days each summer, and typically burns off within a few hours of sunrise. Over the last week, we had two separate days where the marine layer was so thick that it never burned off, and several others where it took until late morning. That is the first time since 2011 that I can remember this happening. One more photo, looking up through the grenache vines on Scruffy Hill: 

Looking up at Grenache in the Fog on Scruffy Hill

Before you start worrying, this cool weather is not going to have any negative impacts on the 2021 harvest. To the contrary, this pause allows the vines to muster strength for the finishing push. It also delays the point at which the vines have been under so much stress that they show signs of virus or other maladies. Now if we thought that it was going to stay like this for another month, we might start to worry. But that's not going to happen. We'll be back into the upper 80s today, and 90s over the weekend before it's forecast to cool back down early next week. All this is a more normal pattern than the unbroken heat that we've seen the last couple of vintages. And it sets the stage for a more spaced-out harvest than we saw in 2020, when we took just six weeks to finish what normally comes in nine. That's something all of us are looking forward to.

Whats next? We're using this time to do a thorough sampling of all our early blocks. It seems like we might get a little more Viognier next week. We'll be looking at Vermentino, the Pinot Noir at my mom's, and maybe even some Syrah, though that's probably not going to start coming in until week-after-next. And we'll be enjoying the lovely harvest aromas of fermenting Viognier in the cellar, and thinking back on this unusual August respite where we had to break out the long sleeves two months before we'd normally expect to. It's just the beginning, but it's been a good beginning.

Owl box in harvest fog


A Maine Summer Dinner and Pairing: Fresh Cod and Esprit Blanc

Earlier this summer, we took an extended vacation to New England. I'm from Vermont, and long-time readers of the blog will know that my parents would always go back for the summer and fall to the 1806-era farmhouse that I grew up in. My mom still does. My sister and her husband converted the barn of that farmhouse (which was in one iteration the office for the importing company my dad founded, Vineyard Brands) into a home for their family to live in. So, this summer trip back is a chance to bask in family, give our boys the chance to spend time with their cousins, and soak up some welcome moisture and green mountainsides in the middle of what always feels like a long, hot, dry summer here. After not being able to travel back last summer, we extended this year's trip to a full month, and created a mini-vacation within that Vermont trip by renting a house on the water in Maine for a week. It was lovely.

To someone from California, the difference between Vermont and Maine may seem minimal, but it's not. If Vermont is the New England equivalent of Lake Tahoe, Maine is its Mendocino. And nowhere is that distinction so clear as in the food, where Vermont focuses on fresh produce and local cheeses while Maine's specialty is seafood. We did the requisite oceanside lobster rolls, but Maine seafood is more than just lobster. The rocky coasts and cold, clean water make an amazing source for everything from oysters to crab to the New England staple, cod. And it was in searching for a great cod recipe that we stumbled upon one of our trip's culinary highlights: a simple but delicious recipe we found in the New York Times Cooking app for One-Pan Roasted Fish with Cherry Tomatoes

We made a few alterations to the recipe. We found good local slicing tomatoes, which we chopped roughly instead of using cherries. We didn't have any fresh mint to hand, so we used fresh basil. And the starch that we had was some local new potatoes. But the result was delicious. Note the nautical chart placemats, which I think are a required purchase for any guest house on the Atlantic Ocean:

Esprit Blanc and Cod

The recipe calls for a teaspoon of honey, which got me thinking about Roussanne for a pairing. What I had to hand was the 2019 Esprit de Tablas Blanc that we'll be releasing this fall. [For my detailed tasting notes on it, check out my blog from last week about the upcoming Fall 2021 VINsider Wine Club shipments.] I was a little worried that the sweetness of the honey and that of the ripe tomatoes was going to be too much for the wine. I couldn't have been happier to be wrong. The creaminess of the fish, still moist but flaking apart easily, combined with the lightly roasted tomatoes to make an amazing pairing for the rich, textural character of the wine. The saline notes on its finish seemed to speak to both where we were and where the fish had been just a few days before. The honey wasn't noticeable in the food, but it emphasized the honeyed Roussanne character of the wine. We cleaned our plates, finished the bottle, and dredged the potatoes through the sauce it made, wanting more.

There are times where you stumble on the perfect wine, for the perfect meal, in the perfect place. This was one of those dinners. But the recipe was so easy, and would be so adaptable to different fish, different tomatoes, different starches, that it's going to be a regular in our arsenal going forward. If you make it, try it with a bottle of Esprit Blanc. It was magical.


Tasting the Wines in the Fall 2021 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 wines that may see a later national release. Before each shipment, we reintroduce ourselves to these wines (which, in some cases, we may not have tasted since before bottling) by opening the full lineup and writing the notes that will be included with the club shipments. Yesterday I sat down with Winemakers Neil Collins and Chelsea Franchi and we dove into this fall's collection.

We base each year's fall shipments around the newest releases of the Esprit de Tablas and Esprit de Tablas Blanc, and this fall's shipment is no exception. But there's a lot more to this fall's shipment than these two wines. We have three (we think, really terrific) varietal wines, one red and two white, and our small-production En Gobelet blend, selected entirely from our head-trained, dry-farmed vineyard blocks. We think it's one of the most compelling classic shipments we've ever put together, and I think the additions to the red wine and white wine selections are exciting. I'm excited to get them in our members' hands soon.  

The classic shipment includes six different wines:

Fall 2021 VINsider Shipment - Classic

2020 GRENACHE BLANC

  • Production Notes: Although our overall yields were low in 2020, Grenache and Grenache Blanc were the exception, and we were able to make a bit more of our 100% Grenache Blanc than normal. The warm 2020 growing season gave us a diversity of options between richer, more caramel-tinged lots and brighter citrusy ones. For the varietal Grenache Blanc, we chose to split the stylistic difference, with some lots fermented in stainless steel (for energy) and other from foudre (for roundness). The lots were blended in May 2021 and bottled under screwcap the next month.
  • Tasting Notes: A lovely nose of quince, fresh pineapple, wet rocks, and gardenia florality. On the palate, on point between brighter and lusher elements: mouth-filling with flavors of green apple and a hint of butterscotch, with vibrant acids and a Meyer lemon pithy bite keeping the finish precise. Absolutely Grenache Blanc in character and one of our favorite vintages ever. Drink now and over the next few years.
  • Production: 1074 cases.
  • List Price: $30 VINsider Price: $24

2020 VIOGNIER

  • Production Notes: The heat in 2020 didn't really hit until August, and the Viognier lots from that year seemed to reflect the cool June-July more than the very warm harvest season. We noted during blending the unusual vibrancy in Viognier, and love the resulting wine, which balances the grape's classic stone fruit and honey flavors with brighter-than-usual acids. All the Viognier lots were whole cluster pressed and fermented in stainless steel, then the chosen lots blended in May 2021 and bottled in June. 
  • Tasting Notes: A nose of peaches and pineapple core, sweet green herbs and lemongrass. The palate is nicely balanced, clean and precise, with flavors of nectarine and mandarin and medium body. The finish is long and bright, delicately herby with lingering stone fruit flavors. Just how we like Viognier, with none of the cloying heaviness it can be prone to. Drink now and over the next five years.
  • Production: 693 cases
  • List Price: $35 VINsider Price: $28

2019 ESPRIT DE TABLAS BLANC

  • Production Notes: The more we come to know 2019 the more convinced we are that it will go down as one of our best-ever vintages. That gave us a range of options for the Esprit Blanc during blending. The vintage's power and density was most evident in Roussanne (63%, fermented in a mix of oak of various sizes and ages). To that core, we added a little less Grenache Blanc than normal (just 20%) and increased Picpoul (14%) to give extra vibrancy and tropical notes to both nose and palate. 3% Picardan rounds out the blend and emphasizes the minerality. As we have done since 2012, we returned the blend to foudre after it was assembled in May 2020 and aged it through the subsequent harvest before bottling it in December 2020 and letting it rest an additional 9 months in bottle before release.
  • Tasting Notes: A lovely, creamy nose of wildflower honey, sweet baking spices, citrus pith, and briny minerality. The mouth is textured and dry, with both the richness and essence of egg custard, flavors of quince and pear, and a long finish with echoing honey, fresh vanilla bean, and limestone mineral notes. A powerful, textured Esprit Blanc that is drinking well now but which we expect will really shine with time in the cellar. Drink over the next two decades.
  • Production: 2250 cases
  • List Price: $50 VINsider Price: $40

2019 SYRAH

  • Production Notes: After no varietal Syrah in 2018, when it all got snapped up by our blends to give density and power to the more elegant year, the 2019 vintage's more structured character meant that the blends needed less Syrah and we were able to save enough out to bottle it as a varietal wine. All the lots showed the grape's characteristic black olive, black pepper, blackberry, and smoke aromas, and its plush mouthfeel, with the iron fist of Syrah tannins cloaked in dark fruit. For our varietal bottling we selected a mix of lots from newer and older oak, then blended them in June 2020 and aged the wine together in one 1200-gallon oak foudre and some smaller barrels until bottling in April 2021.
  • Tasting Notes: A deep, brooding nose of blackberry thicket, graphite, teriyaki marinating meat, and iodine. The palate is intensely concentrated without feeling at all heavy: blackcurrant and iron, with plush tannins that provide significant grip. A long finish with lingering flavors of black raspberry and chalky minerality completes the picture. This should drink well for two decades or more.
  • Production: 712 cases
  • List Price: $40 VINsider Price: $32

2019 EN GOBELET

  • Production Notes: Our twelfth En Gobelet, a non-traditional blend all from head-trained, dry-farmed blocks, and mostly from the 12-acre block we call Scruffy Hill, planted in 2005 and 2006 to be a self-sufficient field blend. These lots tend to show more elegance and minerality than our closer-spaced irrigated blocks, although in 2019 the wine shows plenty of power and density. We chose a blend of 37% Grenache, 33% Mourvedre, 20% Syrah, 8% Counoise, and just 2% Tannat, as the wine had enough structure that it didn't need much of Tannat's tannic power. The wine was blended in June of 2020, aged in foudre, and bottled in April 2021.
  • Tasting Notes: A deep red fruit nose with Mourvedre's classic meaty richness deepened by a warm spice reminiscent of Mexican chocolate, all leavened by a juniper savory minty note. On the palate, vibrant with tangy, salty flavors of redcurrant and mocha. The long, red-fruited, richly tannic finish suggests some time in the cellar will be rewarded. Serious and built for the long term; wait six months if you can, and then drink any time over the next two decades.
  • Production: 910 cases
  • List Price: $55 VINsider Price: $44

2019 ESPRIT DE TABLAS

  • Production Notes: As always, the Esprit is based on the red fruit and meatiness of Mourvedre (39%). In this blockbuster vintage, we found that a relatively high percentage of the higher-acid Grenache (30%) and Counoise (10%) and a bit less Syrah than normal (21%) produced something both deep and elegant, with warm spices and a lovely loamy earthy umami character. The wine's components were fermented separately, then selected for Esprit, blended in June 2020 and aged a year in foudre before bottling in July 2021.
  • Tasting Notes: A deep nose, with brooding aromas of cassis and bay leaf, with sweeter notes of licorice reverberating between black and red coming out with time. On the palate, fresh and vibrant, with fresh fig and raspberry coulis flavors, a salty prosciutto-like savoriness, and lovely rich tannins cloaked by alternating blue and deep red fruit, ending on a sweeter star anise note. A blockbuster that promises more rewards to come with cellar aging. Give it a few months if you can; then drink either before the end of 2024 or again starting in 2027 any time over the subsequent two decades.
  • Production: 3650 cases
  • List Price: $60 VINsider Price: $48

Two additional wines joined the Viognier, Grenache Blanc, and Esprit de Tablas Blanc in the white-only shipment (we doubled up the Esprit Blanc):

Fall 2021 VINsider Shipment - White

2020 BOURBOULENC

  • Production Notes: Our second-ever bottling of Bourboulenc, from our second-ever harvest of this relatively obscure Rhone white. Bourboulenc is known in France to make wines with fresh fruit aromatics and a distinctive nutty character, with fairly good acids and relatively low alcohol. After an unusually golden color from our debut vintage in 2019, we were more conscious of protecting the clusters from the sun, and were rewarded by a more classic, tropical result. It was good enough that we included 5% in the 2020 Esprit Blanc, but this 165-case varietal bottling still represents more than 60% of our total harvest. It was blended in May 2021 and bottled in June.
  • Tasting Notes: Classic light gold. A nose of fresh pineapple and chalky minerality, as well as lusher notes of lychee and poached pear. The mouth shows flavors of fresh mango, orange blossom, and limestone minerality. Lovely acids come out on the finish, emphasizing the pineapple fruit and leaving a lingering note of petrichor. Our experience aging Bourboulenc is limited, but we plan to drink ours over the next few years.
  • Production: 165 cases
  • List Price: $30 VINsider Price: $24

2018 PETIT MANSENG

  • Production Notes: Our ninth bottling of this traditional grape from southwest France, Petit Manseng is best known from the appellation of Jurançon, where it has made admired sweet wines for centuries that you rarely hear about in America. Petit Manseng achieves sufficient concentration and sugar content -- and maintains its acids sufficiently -- to make naturally sweet, balanced wines without botrytis. Harvested at 28.4° Brix and a pH of 3.13, we fermented it in barrel, and stopped its fermentation when it had about 85 grams/liter of sugar left and sat at an alcohol of 13.2%. This is a little sweeter than we've finished the Petit Manseng in recent years, but as usual 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 June 2019.
  • Tasting Notes: Medium gold. An exotic nose of citrus leaf, grilled pineapple, and chalky minerality. In the mouth, the wine begins lushly sweet, with flavors of pears in syrup, mango juice, and candied orange peel. Then the acids reassert themselves, suggesting lemon drop with a pithy bite. The very long finish splits the difference, with notes of tropical flowers, grilled citrus, sweet spices, and a spicy pink peppercorn note. A little sweeter and more intense than but reminiscent of a demi-sec Vouvray, for anyone with that as a reference point. Drink now or age for up to another decade for a nuttier character.
  • Production: 180 cases
  • List Price: $50 VINsider Price: $40

Two additional reds joined the Syrah, En Gobelet and two bottles of the Esprit de Tablas in the red-only shipment:

Fall 2021 VINsider Shipment - Red

2019 FULL CIRCLE

  • Production Notes: The tenth vintage of our Full Circle Pinot Noir, grown on the small vineyard outside the Haas family's home in Templeton, in the cool (for Paso) Templeton Gap AVA. Its name reflects Robert Haas's career: from a start introducing America to the greatness of Burgundy, through decades focusing on grapes from the Rhone, one of his last acts was to plant Pinot at his home and oversee our first few vintages. The grapes were fermented in one-ton microfermenters, half de-stemmed and half with stems for a more savory profile, punched down twice daily by hand. After pressing, the wine was moved into a mix of one-year-old and two-year-old Marcel Cadet 60-gallon barrels, for a hint of oak.  The wine stayed on its lees, stirred occasionally, for 10 months, before being blended and bottled in August 2020. We've aged the wine in bottle for an additional year since then.
  • Tasting Notes: A spicy nose of cherry cola, black pepper, juniper, and black tea. The mouth is medium-bodied, with flavors of cherry skin, red licorice, milk chocolate, and a little hint of mulling spices. The finish is long and fresh, with flavors of candied orange peel, mocha, and black cherry. Drink now and over the next decade.
  • Production: 482 cases
  • List Price: $45 VINsider Price: $36

2019 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. The classic 2019 vintage produced some of our favorite-ever Mourvedre lots, seemingly equally balanced between Old World-style loamy, meaty elements and the lusher red-fruited, milk chocolate mouth-coating density that we associate with Paso Robles. All our Mourvedre lots were fermented in large wooden tanks and moved to neutral barrels to await blending. The chosen lots were blended in the spring of 2020, then aged in foudre and smaller neutral barrels until bottling in April 2021.
  • Tasting Notes: An Old World nose, more reminiscent of Bandol than most of our varietal Mourvedres: pine forest and blackberry thicket, juniper, thyme, and wild game. The palate is more generous than the nose suggests, with dark red plum and currant fruit, and deepening elements of loam and cocoa powder. The finish shows plum skin and bittersweet chocolate, mouth-watering and still tasting very young. It seems like six months or so in the cellar will be well rewarded, and then drink any time over the next 15 years.
  • Production: 640 cases
  • List Price: $45 VINsider Price: $36

The tasting was a great way to hone in on the character of our two most recent vintages. 2019 is a blockbuster vintage, combining noteworthy fruit intensity with good structure and lift. I think several of the 2019 reds are the best we've ever made. 2020 seems just as strong, though we only have the whites to judge so far. The flavors seem both intense and balanced, and the weights of the wines right on point. I can't wait to get these wines in our club members' hands and find out what they think.

Fall 2021 VINsider Shipment Tasting Wines

If you're a wine club member, we've got a range of options for you to try these wines. We are planning to host a live, outdoor, in-person pickup party on Sunday, October 3rd. Neil and I will be hosting another virtual pickup party the evening of Friday, October 15th. And we'll again be offering club members who visit the opportunity to choose the shipment wines as their tasting flight between mid-September and mid-October. Consider this a "save the date"; we will be putting details on all this on our VINsider News & Updates page and announcing them via email soon.

If you're not a wine club member, and you've read all this way, then why not join us while there's still a chance to get this fall shipment? Details and how to join are at tablascreek.com/wine_club/vinsider_club


Veraison 2021 Sets the Stage for a Coin Flip between a Late August and Early September Start to Harvest

I got back this week from spending most of a month in Vermont to find the vineyard transformed by veraison. From bright green pea-sized berries, the grapes have become full-sized and rainbow shades of purple, red, pink and green. This Grenache cluster is a great example of the diversity of color:

Grenache Head Trained Veraison

Veraison, if you're unfamiliar with the term, is a physiological stage of grape evolution where the berry stops accumulating mass and starts accumulating sugar. More visibly, red grapes start their color change from green, while white grapes take on more of a yellow tint. Both red and white grapes start to soften. [For more about what's happening chemically, check out this veraison post from the archives.] This landmark comes roughly six weeks before the onset of harvest, and gives us our best estimate for when harvest will begin.

Although it's less exciting visually than with reds, white grapes too go through veraison; in fact, Viognier is largely through. Vermentino, Marsanne, and Grenache Blanc will come next, and Picpoul and Roussanne will bring up the rear. You can see the slightly golden tone that these Viognier clusters are starting to pick up:

Viognier

The 2021 growing season has continued on the somewhat later-than-normal track that started back at budbreak in late March. We've largely avoided extremes so far, as we were on the southern fringes of the big heat spike that impacted the Pacific Northwest in late June and early July. Still, those late-June weeks pushed our degree days well above the month's norms. July (average high 93.4F) has been just about average, historically. The growing season so far:

Degree Days 2021 vs Average

July is typically when the vineyard starts showing signs of the marathon that is the growing season. The relatively moderate conditions have kept the vineyard looking green and vibrant, and the vines making steady progress toward harvest. We didn't see any evidence of color in the vineyard until July 21st, but Syrah is moving fast now, and the others getting started. I thought it would be fun to give you a visual tour. I'll start with Syrah, as usual the first Rhone red to enter version and the fastest to change colors. This cluster is a little ahead of most (which I'd estimate at 50%), mostly red but still with a few green berries finishing up:

Syrah Vertical

Mourvedre, even though it's always late to harvest, is the next-most-advanced, well further into veraison than Grenache. Although this is one of the more advanced clusters, it's probably 25% of the way through overall. Note though that this doesn't mean it's going to be picked any time soon; it often has relatively early veraison and then just spends a long time in this last stage of ripening:

Mourvedre

Grenache is the next most advanced. I think it's the most beautiful grape in nearly every season, but in veraison it outdoes itself, with the berries turning jewel-like in the sun. Look for lots more Grenache pictures in the next month, as we get further along than the 10% veraison I'd estimate we have now:

Grenache Head Trained

Cinsaut is a little behind Grenache, at something like 5% of the way into veraison. Note the characteristic large, slightly ovoid berries:

Cinsaut

Finally, Counoise. It took some searching to find much color. This cluster, with a few pink-purple berries in a sea of green, is about as advanced as it gets. I'd estimate we're around 1% on Counoise, overall:

Counoise
It's important to note that while the veraison posts you're likely seeing from your favorite wineries may make it seem like veraison is a moment, like Christmas, it's probably better understood as a continuum, like winter, and first veraison is like first frost, or first snowfall. It will likely be a week or two so before even all the Syrah clusters are red, and more than a month until the last clusters of later grapes like Mourvedre and Counoise have finished coloring up. 

While six weeks is a good basic guide for the duration between veraison and harvest, it's not totally constant, and can be influenced by the weather that we get in the interim, as well as by the amount of fruit the vines are carrying and the inherent tendencies of the different varieties. For example, a consistently cool August in 2018 gave us more than six weeks between veraison and our first harvest on September 10th, while last year's consistent heat gave us just a five week interim. The last decade is compiled in the chart below, with each year linked to my blog post about that year's veraison:

Year First Veraison Noted Estate Harvest Begins # of Days
2011 August 5 September 20 46
2012 July 25 September 5 42
2013 July 17 August 26 40
2014 July 9 August 23 45
2015 July 18 August 26 39
2016 July 13 August 18 36
2017 July 20 August 30 41
2018 July 29 September 10 43
2019 July 30 September 4 36
2020 July 21 August 25 35
2021 July 21 ? ?

Using the range of durations between first veraison and first harvest (35 to 46 days) we can have good confidence that we'll begin picking sometime between August 25th and September 5th. The weather between now and then will determine where in the range we'll fall. I asked Viticulturist Jordy Lonborg for what he was thinking about harvest and he noted the relatively light crop, which he attributed to smaller berries and clusters due likely to some combination of our dry, cold winter and some chilly weather during flowering. The light crop suggests that harvest will likely begin on the earlier end of the range above. But he was excited about the vines' health, and thought that we had everything in place for a harvest in good conditions with concentrated flavors.

What's next for the vineyard? We'll watch the different grapes go through veraison. That progress is already happening fast, and the view in the vineyard is changing daily. We'll be posting regular photos of veraison's progress on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram pages. We'll use that time in the cellar to finish bottling the last of our 2019 reds, refill those barrels and foudres with our newly-blended 2020s, and get started cleaning and checking all the tanks and equipment we'll be using once harvest begins.

So, now we wait. We may not know exactly how much time is on that timer, but we can hear it starting to tick.

Syrah veraison horizontal