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December 2007
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February 2008

Tablas Creek on "Vinography: A Wine Blog"

In my recent post on lessons from two years of blogging I promised that I'd write about some of the blogs that I have found compelling, for various reasons.  I'm still working on this post, but when I do, one that will certainly be on it is Vinography: A Wine Blog.  Blogger Alder Yarrow, based in San Francisco, writes one of the most wide-ranging wine blogs, covering topics that include wine events, wine- and vineyard-related art, restaurant and wine bar reviews, and (of course) wine reviews.  And Alder is so well connected, and Vinography so regularly updated, that he has the opportunity to break stories before the mainstream wine press.  His January 4th expose of the sting on other retailers' interstate shipping gathered 96 comments so far and scooped articles in the Wine Spectator and Decanter. 

Occasionally, he'll do an in-depth profile of a particular producer, and we were fortunate enough to be the subject of a feature article yesterday.


Alder asked if I would send examples of some of the more obscure bottlings we make to supplement the Tablas Creek wines he has tasted at past tastings including the Rhone Rangers, Family Winemakers and Hospice du Rhone.  These wines (often made in quantities under 250 cases) are rarely reviewed, so it's a great chance to get an outside viewpoint.  I thought his introductory comments were typically (and particularly) thoughtful.  You can read the whole post.

Cut-off low: My new favorite phrase

This winter, we've already had two occurrences of storms caused by cut-off low pressure systems, where an area of low pressure becomes detached from the Jet Stream and meanders around, often for several days, spinning and (when moisture is available) sending multiple bands of clouds and precipitation onto shore.  Forecasters have a hard time predicting the creation and behavior of these cut-off lows, as weather forecasting models often produce conflicting results (as they do with other self-contained weather events, like hurricanes).

The current cut-off low was not forecast at all as recently as late last week, and over the weekend it was predicted to bring showers on Tuesday (under a quarter of an inch) and slightly heavier rain (up to half an inch) today.  In fact, we've received over three inches so far from this storm, with no sign of letup.  Now, the forecast suggests that we'll see bands of precipitation all week, and then maybe a substantial storm as we get to early next week.  It's been wonderful, gentle rain so far, with hardly any wind and a moderate pace that has allowed it all to soak in.  In a sign that we're finally replenishing our ground water, Tablas Creek is running noisily away.

A good shot of the current conditions, showing the band of north-south precipitation that has been flowing north over the Paso Robles area for the last 36 hours, from the National Weather Service:


Sulfites in Wine - What's Causing my Headache?

In my recent post on lessons I've learned from blogging I recommend that bloggers write about the questions they find themselves asked all the time.  Following my own advice, I realized I've recently answered several questions about sulfites in our wines.  There are two phrasings to this question, both getting at the same issue.  One phrasing runs along the line of "oh, you farm organically.  Does this mean that your wines are sulfite-free?"  The other phrasing is "I get headaches from the sulfites in wine.  Does the fact that you're organic mean I can drink your wines?" 

Just the other day, I got pulled in by a discussion on organic wines and sulfites on the excellent blog 1 Wine Dude.  As I was writing the response, I realized that this is exactly the sort of issue I'm recommending that others address.  The confusion surrounding the issue would be farcical if it didn't negatively impact the acceptance of organic wines in the marketplace.  The punch line of the joke (which no one I know really finds funny) is that sulfite sensitivities don't typically cause the headaches that most people who believe they suffer from sulfite allergies describe as their principal symptom.  Those who report headaches are far more likely to be reacting to the histamines (or, more rarely, the tannins) in wine.  Or the alcohol.

As for us, yes, we use sulfites.  If we didn't, our wines would be unstable to a degree we're not comfortable with, and we're making wines for aging over the long term.  We do what we can to minimize the concentration to under 100 parts per million (the average American wine is about 350 ppm).  Still, I am not aware of any top winery anywhere in the world who omits sulfites entirely from the winemaking process.  And, sulfites have been used since Roman times in wine.  The fact that (unlike in other countries) United States regulations prohibit us from calling our wines organic is an unfortunate consequence of the widespread fear in America that many, many people are allergic to sulfites.  Fortunately, sulfite allergies are quite rare, and wine contains minor quantities of sulfites compared to other common foods.   

Important fact #1: If you (other than wine) eat quite normally, and wine (particularly young, red wine) gives you headaches, you almost certainly are not allergic to sulfites. 

Sulfur occurs in many foods, including (according to WebMD):

  • Baked goods
  • Soup mixes
  • Jams
  • Canned vegetables
  • Pickled foods
  • Gravies
  • Dried fruit
  • Potato chips
  • Trail mix
  • Beer and wine
  • Vegetable juices
  • Sparkling grape juice
  • Apple cider
  • Bottled lemon juice and lime juice
  • Bottled Tea
  • Many condiments
  • Molasses
  • Fresh or frozen shrimp
  • Guacamole
  • Maraschino cherries
  • Dehydrated, pre-cut or peeled potatoes

Particularly common sources of sulfites are dried fruit, potato chips and french fries, and condiments.  Three ounces of dried apricots, for example, contain 175mg of sulfur dioxide.  By contrast, a four ounce glass of Tablas Creek (at 100ppm of sulfites) contains about 12mg.  Even a glass of wine with average sulfite levels would contain about 40mg of sulfur dioxide.  You'd need to drink half a bottle to get the same sulfites as that handful of apricots. 

The FDA estimates that about 500,000 people in the United States have sulfite allergies (about two-tenths of one percent of the population).  Those who do need to be very careful about what they eat and drink, as exposure to sulfites can cause respiratory reactions.  Six people have died in the last 30 years in the United States due to sulfite reactions (none traceable to wine).  The reactions to a sulfite allergy are typically wheezing, coughing, hives, abdominal pain, and difficulty swallowing, the same reactions you'd expect from, say, a medical allergy (and, in fact, those with allergies to Sulfa drugs are much more likely to have other sulfite allergies).

Headaches, on the other hand, are not mentioned in the literature on sulfites, but are common reactions to an excess of histamines.  Many more people have sensitivities to histamines, which are common in pollen as well as many other plant materials.  Reactions to histamines include headache, itchy eyes, runny nose and flushed skin... the common effects of hay fever.   It's less well known that histamines are also common in the skins of grapes.  This explains why many people are sensitive to only red wines (which spend time in fermentation next to grape skins) or only to young wines (histamines break down over time in bottle).

Important fact #2: as with seasonal allergies, sensitivities to the histamines in wine can be treated with an over-the-counter antihistamine such as Benadryl or Claritin.

So why does the government mandate that wines display "CONTAINS SULFITES" on the back of nearly every label, but make no mention of histamines, when histamine reactions are much more common than sulfite allergies?  Essentially, histamine reactions are not particularly dangerous.  Inconvenient, sure, but not life-threatening.  However, from the number of questions I get, it's clear that the government-mandated warning has convinced lots of people that they're allergic to something they're not, and obscured the easy steps people could take to minimize their reactions. 

I've already written about how the fact that American wines with sulfites are prohibited from being labeled organic discourages vineyards from farming organically, so I won't go into that again here.  It's just another example of the unintended consequences of even well-intentioned government.

Tablas Creek and Beaucastel Dinner in New York

It's a good week for Tablas Creek accounts in the blogosphere!  On Tuesday, January 8th Brad Coelho, author of the wine blog, organized and hosted a Tablas Creek and Beaucastel dinner at Zoe Townhouse in Uptown Manhattan. 


The question to be addressed, in Brad's words, was:

"I didn’t know whether I’d witness a brother-sister relationship in the wines or something more akin to that of distant cousins. Nevertheless, I figured that juxtaposing wines from different areas that came from the same clones, same producer and same ideology would be an intriguing match-up. The tasting did not disappoint."

Brad has a great account of the dinner, along with full tasting notes of current and library wines from both Tablas Creek and Beaucastel, on his blog.

Tablas Creek wine dinner at Simon Pearce recapped on oenoLogic

One advantage for Tablas Creek is that my parents still spend part of the year in Vermont.  This means that, unlike a lot of California wineries, we get a chance to have a home base outside California in which to build good supporters through regular patronage.

Vermont (at least Southern Vermont, where I grew up and where my parents still spend 5 months a year) is not densely set with culinary gems.  We routinely had to drive 45 minutes to get terrific restaurant meals (which, I guess, puts us in with most of the residents of Los Angeles.  The difference: we were going 45 miles).  One of these great restaurants is Simon Pearce, in Quechee, VT.  They have an unusual combination of factory outlet store (their specialty is high-end rustic blown glass) and top restaurant.  My dad has set up dinners there each of the past three years.  This year's dinner was yesterday.

There is a great account of the dinner, with comments on the wines, by Thor Iverson on his blog oenoLogic.  Thor is a Boston-based wine writer and educator, and has a longer track record with Tablas Creek than most writers.  You can still find online an old column of his in the Boston Phoenix from the late 1990s where he discusses one of our our first efforts, as well several notes on the old bulletin boards.  Plus, he's been tasting and commenting on various Tablas Creek wines on oenoLogic for a while now.

I was particularly interested in the description of the 2000 Clos Blanc, which is a wine that has gone through many phases in its seven years of life.  I recently took the Tablas Creek tasting room staff through a vertical tasting of our wines back to 1996, and it was our impression that it's now going through it's awkward Roussanne middle age, although it's still an impressively rich wine.

In any case, if you missed Thor's great (and speedy) recap, check it out.

Pacific Storm Recap & Photos: Saturday, January 5th

Happily, we've emerged largely without damage, but with a welcome replenishing of groundwater.  The one-day rainfall totals at Tablas Creek were a whopping 6.02 inches, the most we've ever measured in one day since we installed the weather station seven years ago.  The damaging winds didn't develop (perhaps because we're on the eastern-facing slopes of the Santa Lucia mountains) but it was still windy, with gusts topping out at 43 miles per hour.  We took a drive out to the winery to see what things looked like, and snapped some photos for everyone.

The roads were fine, although there was some dirt- and gravel-cover from washed-out driveways, and the typical California tree detritus.  Below is a shot on Vineyard Drive, just south of Tablas Creek:


The day was pretty, with sun struggling to break through the clouds and the occasional lingering shower.  Driving around the vineyard, the damage was limited to some minor erosion on the roads and at the bottoms of some of the steeper hills:

Road_erosion Vineyard_erosion

The cover crops have been late in sprouting this year, as we haven't had any sustained wet periods.  Still, they'd gotten enough of a head start from December's rain to hold the soil in place.  Two good shots of the sprouting cover crop, the first looking south through the Roussanne, and the second looking north through the old Grenache section:

South_through_roussanne Cover_crop_in_grenache

The ground was very thirsty, as evidenced by how little water was running in Tablas Creek just 12 hours after having received over 6 inches of rain. 


This is the clearest indication of how much more rain we need.  Even with this last storm, we're at just over 11 inches for the year so far, only about 40% of our average annual total.  Finally, I wanted to leave you with a photo from the top of the vineyard, looking south across the Grenache and Counoise, that gives a great feel for the morning's weather:


We're forecast to get two much smaller storms in the aftermath of this one, one coming through tomorrow and another on Tuesday.  Neither is supposed to give us much more than half an inch of rain, but we'll happily take what we can get.

Pacific Storm Update: Friday evening

As of 5:00pm, we'd already received 4.94 inches of rain out at the weather station in the middle of the vineyard.  The forecast suggests it's supposed to continue raining hard through tonight, so the estimates we'd had of nearly 10 inches now sound conservative.  This afternoon, it has been raining at about 0.75 inches per hour.  It has not been quite as windy as we'd been expecting, with wind speeds consistently around 25-30 m.p.h and the largest gust topping out at 43 m.p.h just after 3:00 p.m.  The most recent satellite photo (again from the National Weather Service):


So far, so good.  We're looking forward to hearing water running in Tablas Creek after this.

For anyone thinking of coming out, tomorrow is supposed to be a lot less blustery (and less wet, too) so we're planning to open the tasting room as normal.

Weather permitting, I'll post some photos tomorrow.

Pacific storm update: Friday mid-day

We're in the early stages of one of the strongest storms to hit Paso Robles in decades.  We're expecting between 6-12 inches of rain at Tablas Creek, with winds upwards of 60 miles per hour.  We're closing the offices and tasting room at 1PM today, and sending everyone home.  I'll keep updating on what we're seeing here over the next few days.  A satellite image (courtesy of the National Weather Service):


The warnings from are perhaps even more impressive:

The strongest in a series of storm systems is plowing into the West with its impacts spreading far inland to the Rockies this weekend.

Already, the wind and heavy rains have hit the southern Oregon and the northern half of California. Winds in the coastal mountains either side of the Oregon-California border gusted over 150 mph during the morning. Winds gusted to near 90 mph in the San Francisco Bay Area causing a great deal of tree and power line damage. Winds gusted to just over 100 mph on the hill tops around Oakland. Winds have also gusted to between 60 and 70 mph in the Redding and Sacramento areas.

Heavy rain totals in the coastal mountains north of San Francisco have reached 8 inches.

Heavy rain is gradually shifting southward from northern California into central California and finally into Southern California. Rain totals will range from 2 to 5 inches in the valleys and along the coast to as much as 1 foot in the coastal mountains. Flash flooding is likely along the entire California coast and will not be confined to burn areas.

Snow levels will plummet in the northern California mountains and the Sierra now through Saturday morning with levels reaching valley floors over northern California.

A foot or two of snow will fall in parts of the Cascades of Washington and Oregon. In the mountains of California, hourly snowfall rates could reach 6 to 8 inches. Snow accumulations between 2 feet (valley floors) and locally 12 feet (ridge tops) will bury the Sierra by the end of the weekend. White-out, blizzard conditions will make any travel through the Siskiyou and Sierra Mountains deadly.

Damagingly strong wind gusts will continue over California especially in the vicinity of a strong cold front, ranging from between 50 and 70 mph at the lowest elevations to as high as between 150 and 200 mph at the ridge tops of the Sierra. Strong and damaging winds will also impact western Washington and most of Oregon, where winds could gust over 60 mph.

Swells along the Washington, Oregon and northern California coasts will peak between 30 and 35 feet overnight and high surf warnings have been issued. Snow and damaging winds will increase through interior parts of the West this weekend, impacting Nevada, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, and the Colorado Rockies. Several feet of snow could fall at the higher elevations with wind gusts to over 80 mph.

Heavy rain may reach into the Desert Southwest this weekend, including the Las Vegas area and the lower Colorado River Valley. Rain and mountain snow will also increase over parts of Arizona and New Mexico.

We need the rain, so this is welcome... and the vineyard's cover crop is growing nicely, so we hope to avoid too much erosion.  Still, a historic storm like this provides some nail-biting moments.  I'll keep updating as I have information.