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Bottle Variation, Very Old Wines and the Cork/Screwcap Dilemma

For Christmas dinner this year, we cooked a standing rib roast with Bearnaise sauce, Yorkshire pudding, broccoli, and rice.  The dinner was wonderful, capped off by an absolutely delicious mature Burgundy: the 1985 Corton Clos du Roi from Prince de Merode.  We chose the wine because we thought it would be good, but also because we had two bottles of it and there were six of us at the table.  One bottle just didn't seem like it would be enough.

When I opened the bottles, it was clear that the two were different.  One was flawless: deeply rich with dark red fruit, earth and spice, fully mature tannins and an endless finish.  The other seemed lighter, a little muted, with drier fruit and a piney note to it that was absent from the first bottle.  We drank the better bottle first (of course!) and I hoped that the second bottle would improve with a little time open.  It never really did, though we drank it too, as a lesser version of that wine was still most definitely worth drinking.

Meghan speculated that the second bottle was slightly corked, and I can see how it might have been.  There was a slightly musty character to the wine that we all might have attributed to the bottle's age had we not had the better example to compare it to.  Our experience reinforced my opinion that a very significant percentage of older wines are somehow compromised by their corks. 

We struggle here at Tablas Creek with whether to bottle a wine in cork or screwcap.  We've largely come down on the side that more tannic, more ageable wines do better under cork, as it allows the wines to better take on more of the secondary characteristics that come with age.  The wines that we want to keep as much like they were when they were bottled we bottle under screwcap.  It makes sense to us.

Still, I have this niggling suspicion that when you look over the very long term (say 20 years or more) a much higher percentage of wines are impacted negatively by their cork than the 3%-5% we typically attribute to TCA infection.  Whether the seal isn't quite perfect to start with, or the cork gradually breaks down or dries out over time, or whether there is a tiny level of TCA infection at the beginning that only becomes noticeable over decades as the more primary flavors of fruit and tannin mellow is difficult to say.  It's likely a combination of all three.  Still, it has become a moment for celebration when we open a very old wine which isn't compromised to at least a slight degree by its cork.  Wouldn't it be a reasonable conclusion to think that powerful, ageworthy wines under cork and under screwcap might have aging curves that looks something like the chart below?


If my assumptions are right, there is a period where the more rapid evolution allowed by the cork is superior to the slower evolution under screwcap.  And, there is a period where the faster evolution has taken its toll on the wine under cork and it has fallen off while the slower evolution under screwcap has maintained the wine at or nearer its peak.

Even if this is true, there are some other very important questions to consider before a winery like us would choose to move more of its production of ageworthy wines to screwcap.  First, what is the scale of time of the curve?  Do the curves meet after five years? Ten? Twenty?  Fifty?  Or does it vary by wine?  And to what extent is the flavor of a wine in the cork-is-better period augmented by the taste of the cork itself?  In other words, are the peaks under cork and under screwcap, which we can reasonably assume happen at different times, equal in amplitude?

I don't know the answers to these questions.  And, given the relatively small number of people who age wine for decades or longer, maybe it's largely academic (I think it's unlikely that the curves meet before 10 years).  But my personal experience when I've been lucky enough to drink much older wines suggests that once you get twenty or more years out, your chances of having a pristine wine are comparatively slim.

As happens, I got some corroboration for this theory at the Yosemite Vintners' Holidays earlier in December.  It was, as always, a terrific event, and I was lucky enough to be paired with three other top-notch wineries: Bonny Doon, Merry Edwards and Rombauer.  At the event, each winery gives a seminar to the group, and I led off with the first seminar of the session.  During my seminar (on the many glories of Roussanne) I received a question on why we typically bottle Roussanne-based wines under cork but most of our other whites under screwcap.  I explained how we feel it is important that the evolution of Roussanne be allowed to continue under cork, but that we want to arrest or slow the development of our other, more oxidation-prone, Rhone whites. 

Randall Grahm presented the next seminar later that afternoon.  Bonny Doon, of course, has been one of the earliest and most vocal advocates of screwcap closures, and Randall was asked by a member of the audience to comment on my assertion that corks could help the evolution of certain wines.  In a very gracious answer, he said that it may well be (and probably was) true that many wines, in young- to middle-age, might benefit from cork, but that his opinion was that for long aging, every wine would be better off under screwcap because it was likely to be better protected from oxidation and subsequent decline.

I wasn't in the audience at the time to be asked (I was listening to the seminar from the balcony above while keeping our three-year-old entertained) but I would agree with Randall.  The key question, to me, is trying to choose the best option for the time of life when the majority of our wines will be consumed.  As there are so many variables at play, we experiment a lot.  I'm fascinated to see what the trials where we've bottled the same wines in cork and screwcap, which began in 2002, taste like in another five, ten, and twenty years. 

Yes, screwcaps provide a TCA-free refuge for wines for early drinking.  But might they also offer greater peace of mind for wines intended for very long aging?

Ten Years of Vintage Grades: Paso Robles Report Card 1999-2008

I was called recently by the Wine Spectator, who wanted my review of the 2008 vintage in Paso Robles for their annual report card for the recently-concluded vintage (you can read the resulting article on the Wine Spectator's Web site).  Distilling the complexities of a vintage down to a letter grade is challenging, probably even more so than reducing a wine to a score on the 100-point scale.  A wine is a snapshot, a finished product, and can be evaluated as such.  A vintage is a collection of events whose impacts vary even across a single vineyard, and vary more greatly as you expand the area under consideration.

When I struggled with the question, the writer helped me by saying that the Wine Spectator had rated the 2006 and 2007 vintages a "B+" and that most of my fellow vintners were rating this vintage a "B".  Really?  I understand everyone's desire to cast the most recent vintage in a positive light, but I don't see how anyone could assert that 2008 was only a fractional grade less positive than 2006 and 2007.

After mumbling something to the point that if the last two vintages were "B+" then this most recent vintage was at best a "B-" I tried to make a caveat.  I've felt (and I wrote here six weeks ago) that Rhone producers in the Paso Robles have the chance to make some of the standout wines of the vintage.  We didn't have the issues with shatter and over-rapid ripening that producers of Bordeaux varieties had, we didn't get impacted by the fires that affected much of Santa Barbara, Sonoma, and Mendocino counties, and we didn't get the late-September rain that drenched the North Coast.  Plus, the April frosts that impacted much of the state were more severe in regions to our north and south than they were here.

After I finished the call and had a chance to compose my thoughts a little, I wrote a follow-up note to the Wine Spectator writer who'd called me trying to clarify what I thought about the last few vintages.  My point boiled down to that there's no way that the last two vintages should have been rated as "B+" vintages.  If there ever were a vintage that deserved an "A" grade, it was 2007 (at least if you were grading for quality; quantities were low).  And both 2005 and 2006 should have received "A-" grades, in my opinion.  In this context, a "B" or "B-" grade for 2008 seems deserved for the region (though, for Tablas Creek and other Rhone producers near us, I think that it warrants an "A-" grade, a shade below 2007 and on par with 2005 and 2006).

I included in my note my grades of the last decade's worth of vintages here in Paso Robles, and wanted to share them with all of you.  I give a few brief notes of explanation following each grade, and I have linked the vintages to our harvest reports since we began keeping them if you would like our blow-by-blow experience as the vintage has unfolded:

2008 Vintage: B-  A difficult vintage bookended by frost in the spring and freeze in early October.  Yields were low, and Bordeaux varieties and Zinfandel suffered, and an August heat spike forced many producers to pick before they wanted to.  Beautiful weather in mid- to late-October saved the vintage for producers who could afford to wait.  Rhone varieties were most successful, and produced wines with good flavors and lower than normal alcohols.
2007 Vintage: A  A fabulous vintage defined by the cold, dry winter that preceded it.  Rainfall levels just 40% of normal stressed the grapes. The summer was moderate in temperature, producing a long, slow harvest with yields down 15%-30% from 2005 and 2006. The wines were intensely flavored, dark in color, with surprisingly gentle tannins for such a powerful vintage.  A potentially classic vintage for the Paso Robles region.
2006 Vintage: A-  Above-average winter rains and a cool spring got 2006 vineyards off to a wet and late start. A moderate summer followed, and the resulting harvest was delayed but unhurried, with beautiful weather persisting into November. Winemakers reported a higher then normal crop (perhaps a shade below 2005's levels) with notable elegance, pure flavors, medium body and comparatively lower alcohol levels.
2005 Vintage: A-  2005 was a nearly ideal growing season, begun with early flowering after a wet winter.  Yields were higher than normal and combined with moderate temperatures to encouraged gradual ripening.  Harvest began about 10 days later than normal, which meant that grapes had spent nearly a month longer on the vine between flowering and harvest.  The harvest resulted in the largest crush on record in the region, but the resulting wines were nevertheless intense and balanced.
2004 Vintage: B-  2004 was the third consecutive drought year, marked by a warm spring and very early flowering. A fairly mild summer morphed into a late-August heat wave, with much of the harvest completed by mid-September.  The problems came with the early (mid-October) onset of the rainy season, and many late-ripening varieties weren't harvestable. 2004's wines showed classic flavors and moderate concentration, and tended to drink well young.
2003 Vintage: B  A second drought year marked by the warm, dry winter and spring which brought bud break in early in March. An average summer, with hot days and cool nights still resulted in an earlier-than-normal harvest and wines with somewhat higher than normal alcohols.  Wines showed good richness and substantial tannins, but only moderate complexity.
2002 Vintage: A-  2002 growing season began with a warm, dry winter with the lowest rainfall in five years. Spring remained dry and cool, while June, July and August were very warm.  Moderate temperatures returned in September and weather stayed ideal well into November.  The resulting wines (like 2007) were intense and powerful, with high tannin levels but good complexity.  Red wines have aged beautifully.  Similar overall to 2007.
2001 Vintage: C  The 2001 growing season started with moderate vigor from average rainfall and cold temperatures.  A warm March led to early budbreak, which allowed a major frost event in mid-April to inflict major damage and dramatically reduce yields.  High winds during flowering compounded erratic yields.  A protracted heat wave in the early summer accelerated ripening and set the stage for an early harvest.  Yields were very low, and ripening uneven.  Wines were lighter in body and early-maturing.  Bordeaux varieties produced the best showing.
2000 Vintage: B+  2000 saw average rainfall, with warm springtime weather, early budbreak but no significant damage from frosts.  Summer daytime temperatures were about normal while cooler than average summer nights helped extend the growing season.  Harvest began two weeks later than normal, and wines had good intensity despite slightly higher than normal yields.  Wines showed good persistence and have aged well.  Similar overall to 2005.
1999 Vintage: B+  Slightly below average winter rainfall reduced yields and ripening was further accelerated by a warm, dry spring and summer.  Harvest began in mid-August, the earliest date on record at Tablas Creek.  The wines were intense and tannic when young, with slightly elevated alcohol levels.  The wines needed some time to come into balance, but many have aged magnificently.

Is this helpful?  Other winemakers, do these grades and descriptions seem right to you?

A frosty winter morning (and more good weather ahead!)

We're finally in a great winter weather pattern.  We've seen measurable rain each of the last four days (totaling about 2.5 inches) and a couple of very cold nights in the mid-20s.  It's a terrific time of year for this, as the cold weather forces the vines into dormancy early and the rainfall starts the critical process of replenishing the ground water depleted by the severe drought two winters ago.

What's better, we're forecast for more rain over the next week, with the long-term forecast using phrases like "a more significant storm Monday", "yet another storm system Christmas Eve" and "trough lingers near west coast".

A few photos give you a sense of what the morning was like.  It was still below freezing when I got out here shortly after 9a.m., and the frost was lingering anywhere the sun hadn't yet penetrated.  An end-post in the Syrah section below the winery shows the lingering frost:


The next two shots look at our wetlands wastewater treatement area which we installed back in 2006.  The water plants are largely dormant at this time of year anyway, but the gravel-lined pools were cracking audibly in the sun as the ice covering them started to melt.

Frosty_morning_0003 Frosty_morning_0004

And finally one more shot looking east into the Syrah block with the half-melted dew lighting up the newly sprouted vineyard cover crop:


Spectacular Winter Sunsets in Paso Robles

I don't always enjoy December in Paso Robles.  It gets old that it's dark at 5pm; I get tired of driving home dodging deer; and it's usually cold enough here in winter evenings that even taking the kids for a walk around the neighborhood is a production.  Still, there are benefits.  Winter produces spectacular sunsets here, and the sun sets early enough that I'm usually still at the vineyard and have a handy camera.  I came out of work to go home today only to find the nicest sunset of the winter so far.  So, I grabbed the camera and headed out into the vineyard.  As always, click on the photos for larger shots.

The first shows the moon rising over the eastern edge of the vineyard, gentle colors in the eastern sky:


Next, three photos from the top of the vineyard, framed by an old oak tree and showing spectacularly fiery colors




And finally, one photo that I think is somehow playful: an unusual cloud, looking like a dragon in the setting sun:


Thoughts on our Annual Futures Tasting and En Primeur Offering

Futures_tasting_winesEach December, we offer our VINsider Wine Club members the chance to taste the upcoming release of our two top red wines, before bottling, and reserve these wines at a futures-only 30% discount off of expected release price.  We began this program back in 2003 (offering futures on the 2002s that were in barrel at the time) and have continued each year since.

Offering wines en primeur is is a time-honored French tradition most often associated with first-growth Bordeaux estates.  In outstanding vintages, valued customers are offered the opportunity to secure a limited quantity of sought-after wines at a special price in advance of bottling and subsequent general release.  As the demand for Tablas Creek's wines grow, this is a way for our best customers to ensure that they receive the wines that they want.

We have gone through several iterations of how we've set up the futures tasting.  Initially, we did it on a Saturday afternoon in our barrel room, which worked fine in 2003 the (when our tasting room just wasn't that busy).  The next year, we happened to have a big crowd in our tasting room, and the challenge of getting a hundred people through the tasting room and into the barrel room (and back) proved to be too much for us.  We felt that we'd lost control, with non-club members wandering into what was supposed to be our most exclusive event, and VINsiders strolling back and forth between tasting room and barrel room getting who-knows-how-many tastes.

So, in 2005, we moved the event to the evening and held it in both our barrel room and tasting room.  This worked fine the first year (at around 115 guests) but started to break down the following year.  By 2007, 200 guests had reserved, and the event felt more like a nice holiday cocktail party than it did like a focused exploration of young, powerful wines.  Attendees would spend their first ten minutes in our barrel room tasting the futures wines, and the next forty-five in our tasting room tasting their favorites.  it proved to be impossible to keep focus where it needed to be: on the futures wines.   Our average futures sale of attending customers had dropped for two years in a row, and we decided to rethink our format.

Futures_tasting_placesetting We decided that the best way to focus on the wines was to get people off of their feet, and to present the wines in a more leisurely, intimate setting, with restrained food designed to showcase the wines and soften their youthful exuberance.  So, we moved the event to the afternoon and created three different sessions with a maximum seated capacity of 50 people at each.  A placesetting is at right.

Neil (our winemaker, for the uninitiated) and I began by talking through the specifics that created the powerful, low-yield 2007 vintage, and we then moved to tasting the 2007 Esprit de Beaucastel and 2007 Panoplie.  Finally, we served Chef Jeff Scott's creation to feature the wines: a braised lamb over polenta with root vegetables dish (click here for the recipe) that was the perfect foil.  A panoramic photo, below, gives you a sense of the setting in our cellar:

The results were terrific.  The wines showed magnificently, confirming our impressions that the 2007 reds are likely the best we've ever seen.  The sales reflected this; nearly every attendee ordered futures, and the average sale per person was nearly triple what it had been last year.  The feedback we received from the members who came was that it was a wonderfully relaxed, focused exploration of the wines, and Neil and I both appreciated the chance to share impressions and answer questions with these intimate groups.  At $25 for the seminar, the tasting of these wines, and the lunch, it was a steal.  Plus the ticket price was refunded on any futures purchase, so the event ended up being free to nearly everyone.

We had worried that we would find it difficult filling a 75-minute seminar with discussion about only two wines, but instead found that each session ran nearly 100 minutes and could have lasted longer if we hadn't had to reset for the next group.

Now, we just need to find out why more people didn't come.  From 200 reservations in 2007, we dropped down to just under 100 this year, and only the first (11:00am) session sold out.  We'll just have to work on communicating just how nice the event was to everyone before 2009's edition!

Any VINsiders who are reading this should note that Wednesday, December 10th is our deadline for futures orders for the 2007 reds.  An PDF (faxable) order form is available; click here to view details and prices.

We're Number 39! (a.k.a. an analysis of Thanksgiving wine drinking patterns, courtesy of CellarTracker)

CellarTracker is a fascinating tool.  It is the world's most successful Wine 2.0 site, with over 66,000 registered users, 10,000,000 bottles entered into inventory, and over 700,000 user-written tasting notes.  I use it to monitor the reviews of Tablas Creek wines on an almost-daily basis (1017 have been written so far).  Part of this is simple curiosity, but it's also a useful tool in assessing what stage different wines are in.  I can see how reviews of a single wine have changed over time and get a sense of when it may be entering or leaving a closed stage, or whether there is any trending of positive or negative feedback about a specific wine.  Obviously, there is no guarantee that a particular reviewer is qualified, but there is lots of data that suggests the intelligence of humans when taken in aggregate.  Even better, CellarTracker is free both to view and to use.

Another way in which CellarTracker allows you to group data is by drinking date.  Most days, this wouldn't be particularly interesting (who cares what people are drinking on, say, December 1st?) but on holidays you can get a snapshot of what people are opening for their celebrations.  As of this post, there were nearly 6000 bottles marked as consumed on November 27, 2008 (Thanksgiving Day).

The most popular wines, probably unsurprisingly, were largely American and focused on big names in Pinot Noir and Zinfandel.  The top 10 included Kistler, Seghesio, Kosta Browne, Ridge, Turley and Williams Selyem.  I was more interested to find out where we finished, and was pleasantly surprised that I only had to get to page two, where we're currently tied for 39th-most popular.  This seems at first to be pretty pedestrian (who ever looks forward to being 39th-best at anything?) but we're the top domestic producer of primarily Rhone varietals on the list, and the second most popular Paso Robles producer after Justin.

I was also interested to see that Beaucastel was the top non-Champagne French producer (tied with Duboeuf) and 16th-most-popular overall.

In my last post, I focused on the Thanksgiving wine suggestions of various key Tablas Creek staff.  I was impressed by the diversity of opinion, as seven different staff suggested seven different wines.  And we do feel that nearly everything that we make (fruity unoaked reds, rich whites and dry rose) does pretty well with the diversity of flavors on the Thanksgiving table.  And, confirming our in-house opinions, the sixteen bottles of Tablas Creek drunk on Thanksgiving day were all different -- not a single repeat.

What does this mean?  I'm not sure.  Clearly, the most popular wine on Thanksgiving tables around the country is not Kistler, whatever CellarTracker records.  There's just not enough of it, and it's a little pricey for the average consumer.  Still, CellarTracker is a big community of committed wine enthusiasts, and I'm pleased that Tablas Creek wines show up as often as they do here, and get, overall, such nice reviews. 

And I find the opportunity to rummage around, for free, in such a big, rich database nearly irresistible.

Note that credit for the initial idea for this post goes to Tyler Coleman (a.k.a. Dr. Vino), who in a recent post on his blog looked at CellarTracker's top wines drunk on Thanksgiving.  His focus was a little different than mine, but it was his nudge that got me digging.