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March 2007
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May 2007

Organic weed control

It's the time of year when we start to worry about weed control.  The winter's rains are all but over, and the organic vineyards are dry enough to get a tractor into.  If we get the weeds now, before they go to seed, it makes our lives easier for the rest of the year.  And, after a dry winter like this one, it's particularly important to get the weeds out early, before they start competing with the vines for scarce groundwater.

There are two parts to the weed control we do.  The first is to take care of the cover crops that we've planted between the rows.  How we do this depends on how much nutrition we want to put back into the soil.  If we feel that the soil needs a significant boost, we'll till or disk the cover crop into the dirt.  If we feel that the soils are rich enough (and grapevines generally do best in relatively poor soils) then we'll just mow the cover crops, and let the lack of rainfall kill off the surface plants.  Of course, in a dry year, we're more likely to till the cover crop under, as it immediately stops the removal of moisture from the soil.

The second piece of weed control is the removal of weeds from within rows of grapevines.   Speaking with other growers, this control of weeds between the individual vines in each row is the single largest hurdle to vineyards farming organically.  And we used to really struggle with this, hand-hoeing the weeds away from the vines.  It's terribly hard work, and slow (so, expensive) and, in the long run, not great for the grapevines, as it tends to remove soil from around the vines' roots. 

In 2002, we were able to purchase the Tournesol tractor attachment, made by the French company Pellenc.  This has been a revelation, and despite its high cost, we bought another in 2004. 


It works in a remarkable fashion: it is pulled behind a caterpillar tractor, with a cultivating head sticking out to either side of the tractor.  A rubber sensor arm protrudes a foot or so in front of the cultivating head, and monitors when it hits something solid (either a vine, or a post, or a wire).  This allows the cultivator to rotate in and avoid damaging your vines or your infrastructure, while still allowing you to keep the area under the vines clear of weeds.

There are two more photos of the Tournesol at work below:


Direct Shipping to Florida - A New Challenge

Wineries' privileges to ship to Florida are under attack.  As is happening in many states, the distributors' lobby has been working to reduce or eliminate the abilities of out-of-state wineries to ship directly to consumers, and there have been recent developments consumers in Florida - or wineries who ship to Florida - should be aware of.

Last week, in what sounds like a strange and contentious legislative session, Florida House Jobs & Entrepreneurship Council voted 7-6 against a direct shipping bill modeled after the legislation used in states around the country.  The Department of Business & Professional Regulation, which has allowed wine shipments by executive ruling since early 2006, has said that without approved legislation, it will revoke its ruling on May 5th.  The failure of the committee to forward a bill to the state Senate leaves this permission in limbo.

An good article describing the recent developments appeared in the Orlando Sentinel.

It appears to me that the distributors' lobby, in responding to state legislators' unwillingness to vote publicly against a consumer-friendly (and pro-business) measure like regulated direct shipments of wine, have offered legislators an out: by declaring that the amendment with a production cap had failed, they delivered a bill to the committee that a bare majority could vote against... uniting those legislators who believe that no direct shipping should be allowed with those who believe that it should be allowed only for smaller wineries.  In effect, they offered a "poison pill" provision into the direct shipping bill, allowing legislators to appear to vote against a part of the bill while actually voting against the entire bill.

It is too early to know what impact this will have.  The legislature has until May 5th to pass a workable bill before the state deadline passes.  Interested consumers should write to your state representatives, urging them to pass a workable wine shipping bill.  A sample letter, which can be modified to suit your desires, is available on the "Free the Grapes" Web site.

At Tablas Creek, we have always worked to open legal avenues of shipping, and we hope that Florida will not become the first state to remove shipping privileges granted after the Supreme Court ruling two years ago.

Direct Shipping of Wine: The Supreme Court's Granholm v. Heald Case Explained

[Ed note, July 2008:  I recently wrote an update analyzing the ongoing impacts of the Granholm v Heald decision on wineries that readers of this post might find interesting.]

With the issues surrounding wine direct shipping becoming more complicated (check out Free the Grapes or ShipCompliant's excellent blog) I have had lots of conversations with people around the industry concerning the implications of the Supreme Court's landmark Granholm v. Heald decision from 2005. 

I speak each week with a surprising number of consumers who believe that after the Supreme Court ruling, we should be able to ship wine anywhere, and take it personally when I explain that we can't.

I thought it would be timely and interesting to republish the article I wrote for our Summer 2005 newsletter.  The article is reprinted below.  I'll be revisiting this issue over my next few posts, with an eye toward what has changed in the last 24 months:


We were thrilled that on Monday, May 16, 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down laws that prohibit out-of-state wineries from shipping to consumers while allowing in-state wineries to do so. However, some of the hype surrounding the case gave consumers the mistaken impression that wineries can now ship wine to anyone, anywhere. Rather, this decision is a positive step in the direction of giving consumers access to more wines, but will have only limited immediate impact.

Case Details

In order to know what impact the decision will have, it is important to understand the two cases under review. Michigan and in New York both have enacted laws or regulatory systems that in effect permit their in-state wineries to ship wine directly to consumers, but prohibit out of state wineries from doing so. The mechanisms were slightly different, but the effects were the same. In Michigan, wine writers Ray and Eleanor Heald, joined by San Luis Obispo winery Domaine Alfred, challenged the state’s laws on the grounds that they represented an unconstitutional favoritism of in-state producers over out-of-state producers. The Michigan Association of Wholesalers, fearing that direct shipping could erode their share of the wine market, intervened in favor of the state’s argument claiming that the 21st Amendment to the Constitution immunized states from prosecution for discrimination over alcohol. The district court upheld the state’s regulations, but the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed it.

In New York, small winery owners Juanita Swedenburg (Swedenburg Estate Vineyard in Virginia) and David Lucas (Lucas Winery in California) brought suit against New York claiming that the state’s restrictions violated the Commerce Clause, and again New York wholesalers intervened in the state’s defense. A district court found for the plaintiffs, but the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision, ruling in favor of the state. This led to the Supreme Court combining the two cases to review the question of whether the 21st Amendment permits states to enact regulatory schemes that discriminate in favor of in-state wine producers.

Constitutional Arguments

The commerce clause is actually a very short piece in Article 8 of the Constitution, giving congress “Power to regulate Commerce among the several States” . However, Supreme Court interpretation has concluded that there is a dormant commerce clause assumption implicit in the wording, best expressed in a ruling from 1949:

Our system, fostered by the Commerce Clause, is that every farmer and every craftsman shall be encouraged to produce by the certainty that he will have free access to every market in the Nation… Neither the power to tax nor the police power may be used by the state of destination with the aim and effect of establishing an economic barrier against competition with the products of another state or the labor of its residents. Restrictions so contrived are an unreasonable clog upon the mobility of commerce.

The 21st Amendment repealed Prohibition, while assuring that states or municipalities who wished to remain “dry” could do so:

The transportation or importation into any State, Territory, or possession of the United States for delivery or use therein of intoxicating liquors, in violation of the laws thereof, is hereby prohibited.

The states argued that the ban on out-of-state shipping was necessary for two reasons. First, to ensure that minors did not receive access to alcohol. Second, to ensure that states were able to collect the appropriate tax revenues. They further argued that it was reasonable to permit in-state wineries rights denied to those from other states because the remedies they had against local wineries who broke state laws were more easily enforced.

The plaintiffs in the case countered that there were remedies in place that addressed the states’ legitimate concerns. 26 states have enacted some sort of direct wine shipping, requiring an adult signature at delivery, and requiring wineries that ship into the state to remit the appropriate taxes.

The Supreme Court’s Decision

After reviewing case history, the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, agreed that the 21st Amendment gave states broad powers to regulate alcohol in many ways, including the rights to assume all control over liquor distribution, or to funnel sales exclusively through distributors. However, as the court pointed out in its decision:

State policies are protected under the Twenty-first Amendment when they treat liquor produced out of state the same as its domestic equivalent. The instant cases, in contrast, involve straightforward attempts to discriminate in favor of local producers.

In conclusion, the court ruled that although states may control the distribution in many ways, they must do it equitably:

States have broad power to regulate liquor under §2 of the Twenty-first Amendment. This power, however, does not allow States to ban, or severely limit, the direct shipment of out-of-state wine while simultaneously authorizing direct shipment by in-state producers. If a State chooses to allow direct shipment of wine, it must do so on evenhanded terms.

The court affirmed the Michigan Decision, and reversed the New York decision, remanding the case back to the state legislatures to enact constitutional legislation.

The Decision’s Impact

There are currently only eight states that permit in-state wineries to ship to consumers but prohibit out-of-state wineries from doing the same thing (and who are therefore in violation of this recent ruling).  These are New York, Michigan, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Ohio, Florida, Indiana, and Vermont.  The regulations in those states will have to be re-written, and it is possible that the states will choose to prohibit direct shipping from everyone (including their own wineries) rather than opening the states’ borders to all.  However, it appears unlikely that states with a significant winery presence (including New York, Michigan, and Connecticut) will take an action that would mean economic ruin for some of its small in-state wineries.  States with a strong wholesaler lobbying presence and very few wineries (including Florida and Massachusetts) seem more likely to prohibit all direct shipping of wine. 

[Ed note, April 2007: New York, Michigan, and Vermont passed legislative solutions permitting direct shipping to both in- and out-of-state wineries.  The Ohio and Florida executive branches enacted rules permitting in- and out-of-state shipping.  Massachusetts and Connecticut enacted legislation that theoretically permits wineries to ship to consumers, but with so many restrictions and such high compliance costs that few wineries actually are shipping, and the Indiana Attorney General clarified the state's laws to prohibit any wineries from shipping wine to consumers.]

But, you do have power to affect the decisions state legislatures make.  If you have an opinion, contact your legislator and let him or her know what you think.  Resources online that can help you contact your legislator include the Wine Institute ( and Free the Grapes (

[Ed note, April 2007:  At Tablas Creek, we have since created and maintain a page of wine shipping news here on our blog where we post any news or other developments.]

We will be contacting our mailing list members who live in affected states as soon as we learn what any new regulations mean.  We are also working with our common carriers (FedEx and UPS) to ensure that our customers are protected from questionable or unscrupulous shipping practices. We only ship to the states to which we are allowed by state law, and we mark our shipments clearly as wine. If you live in a non-shipping state, we're happy to help you find local retailers or wholesalers who carry our wine. 

Tablas Creek in the New York Times: "The Pour"

In this Wednesday's New York Times Dining section, Eric Asimov writes a column called "The Dining Table Wine School".  In it, he asks consultants at two terrific New York wine shops to each put together a mixed case of wine for him, with the total cost of the case not to exceed $250.  I agree with him that this is a great way to be exposed to new wines; wine specialists at retail shops, particularly in major metropolitan markets, see thousands of wines a year... more than anyone who is not in the industry is likely to see.  Plus, they're surrounded by what's new and interesting in the wine world.

Perhaps demonstrating a little East Coast bias, the 24 bottles include only 3 selections from California (though, reflecting a bit more, maybe that's fair; California does not produce even 10% of the world's wines, so maybe we should be happy with 3 of 24).  One of these three wines is the Tablas Creek 2004 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc.

Even more interesting, to my mind, than the initial column are the 80+ comments debating both the principle of learning about wines in this manner (most, though not all, agree with Asimov that it is an excellent idea) and the makeup of the cases.  In any case, we're proud to have been included, and looking forward to his posting of his impressions of the wine (along with all the others) over the coming weeks.

An Appreciation of Blending Rhone Varietals

Img_4948Some of my favorite events that we do at Tablas Creek are our annual blending seminars, where we invite our wine club members and other interested members of the public to come, taste through the component varietals, and then work as a table to put together their own blends.  This is in keeping with many of the educational wine seminars that we put on each year. 

Our focus on education has two purposes.  One is a marketing purpose. We know we aren't making Cabernet and Chardonnay (wines that people can categorize easily and have an inherent understanding of).  Instead, we work with obscure grapes and blend them together.  Anything we can do to share with our customers why we persist in such a quixotic enterprise helps open up our experiences to a wider audience.  The second purpose is that the blending, itself, is our favorite time of the year, as the wines stop being potential and start to come together as wine.

Over the long term, our hopes are that people who have joined us in a chance to blend... or a chance to help during harvest... or to try obscure but wonderful varietals will be willing to follow us in our own experiments.

Img_5018What I always find most interesting about these blending seminars is how different the blends are.  Starting with the same raw materials (this year, we had 5 components: Counoise, Grenache, Mourvedre, a Syrah from a neutral barrel, and a Syrah from a new French oak demi-muid) the different groups came up with radically different blends. 

The most controversial component (perhaps unsurprisingly) was the Syrah, both from the new barrel and from the older barrel.  For whatever reason, Syrah has taken its time this year to complete malolactic fermentation, and both samples were a little bubbly and the sample from the new barrel also a little reduced.  That reduction, plus the cedary flavors from the new oak, led some groups to totally eliminate it from their blends.  And the blends that resulted from this decision were tasty: Mourdvedre and Grenache dominated, with lush fruit, good acidity, and lots of immediate appeal.

Img_4976 Other groups took the opposite tack: good percentages of Syrah (as much as 45%, in one case) with less Grenache and Mourvedre, and a focus on the longer term.  These wines were darker, gamier, with a different character to the tannins: creamier in the attack and mid-palate, but firmer on the finish... a classic characteristic of Syrah. 

For me, the least successful wines were the ones that split the difference.  When the wines had around 25% Syrah they muted the forward fruit of the Grenache and Mourvedre but didn't replace it with enough of the Syrah mouthfeel or firmness at the back, and the resulting wines felt both heavy and sharp... not a great combination.

It is this process, this rediscovery of the wines you have each year, that I find most exciting about our focus on blends.  Each vintage gives us something new, and a new opportunity to express that year, and those grapes, and this place.

Congratulations to Tim McGowan

Congratulations to Tim McGowan, from Oak Brook, IL, who won the second annual Tablas Creek VINsider NCAA Tournament Challenge with an entry correctly predicting 6 of the Elite Eight, all of the Final Four, both of the finalists, and the Florida Gators as champions.  His entry ended up in the 99.2nd percentile in ESPN's national brackets.  He narrowly edged out Steven Weitz, from Fort Lauderdale, FL, who ended up in the 99.0 percentile.

Special kudos should also go to Dennis Gorges, of Charlotte, NC, whose bracket up until the final four was so flawless that he was actually in the 100.0th percentile going into the final weekend... in roughly 1000th place of over 2,000,000 entries.  Of course, the last weekend tripped him up, but that's still the first bracket I've ever seen in the 100th percentile that late, and at least within sniffing distance of ESPN's $10,000 top prize.

As we saw last year, our VINsider club members overall score significantly above than the national average.  The median VINsider bracket scored in the 58th percentile, with 10 of the 59 entries (17%) in the 90th percentile or better.

Anyone interested in looking at the brackets and results of the VINsider pool can do so on the ESPN Web site:

Thanks again for playing, everyone!