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Viognier, Oursins and Age

By Robert Haas

A few days before Christmas I was consolidating the wines in my “cellar” -- refrigerated wine cabinets in our garage plus a refrigerated indoor wine closet -- in order to make room for a several new cases of young white wines, mostly Burgundies, that I recently got from my old company, Vineyard Brands

While shifting wines around I uncovered three bottles of Tablas Creek Adelaida Hills Viognier 1995, hand bottled by Jean-Pierre Perrin and me directly from the single barrel that came from the vines that we planted at Tablas Creek in 1992. I had serious doubts about how that wine from three-year-old vines, from a frost-reduced crop, would be tasting after fourteen years, so I grabbed a bottle and opened it that night. I was astonished at how good it tasted. I re-corked the almost-full bottle remainder and put it in the fridge. 

Viognier bottle

Before there was a Tablas Creek winery, we produced wine in a rented space under the labels "Adelaida Hills" and "Tablas Hills" from the American-sourced Rhone varietals we planted in 1992.

I had ordered some fresh Santa Barbara sea urchins from a great neighborhood local fish market, Pier 46 Seafood in Templeton, and picked them up the morning of the 24th. I got the sea urchin habit while traveling in France in the ‘50s and ‘60s, where oursins were regular entrée offerings, along with huitres, on many menus. In France, as for oysters, they are sized and priced by the number of o’s: ooo being the largest and o the smallest. These guys would have been ooooo in comparison.


Les Oursins

I have not yet gotten many followers in my family for my oursin love so I only ordered a half dozen for myself and had them for lunch at home on that Thursday before Christmas with the opened bottle of Viognier.

The wine was even better the second day, perhaps encouraged by its pairing with the luscious, iodic, slightly sweet marine flavor of the oursins. It had a pale straw, brilliant and clear color. The nose was of honeysuckle, slightly gone-by roses and Meyer lemon. There was hardly any hint of age on the palate. The wine was still vibrant, forceful and young with great balance of apricot fruit, rich feel and fine acidity, and again, a hint of Meyer lemon on the long and graceful finish.

At Tablas Creek, we are often asked how long and well our wines will age. The real answer is that we do not know yet. Our experience is too short but we feel that because of the exceptional terroir of chalky clay soils, cold nighttime temperatures, organic farming and natural winemaking, they will age gracefully, even the whites, for many years. This delightful 14-year-old wine seems to me to be pointing the way.

RZH with viognier and oursins


Panoplie 2000-2008: A Vertical Wine Tasting Fit for the Holidays

There are certain wines in our portfolio I drink fairly often, and others that I hardly ever drink.  The ones I drink a lot are probably predictable: I tend to have the current vintages of Cotes de Tablas and Esprit de Beaucastel with good frequency, both tasting with guests at the winery and working out in the market.  I'm a fan of Mourvedre and Roussanne, and my wife is a fan of Vermentino and Rose, so we have those regularly at our house.  And, because their cellar life is longer, because they're our most widely distributed wines, and because we keep a healthy library at the winery, I rarely go too long without tasting most of our vintages of Esprit de Beaucastel or Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc.

But I have gotten several questions recently on how different vintages of our Panoplie have been tasting.  I realized that I honestly didn't know, and didn't have the knowledge to accurately update the vintage chart we maintain.  For the unfamiliar, Panoplie is our top red wine, made only in top vintages, and in the model of Beaucastel's Hommage a Jacques Perrin.  Like the Hommage, it is always heavy on Mourvedre, and tends to be light on Syrah.  We choose Mourvedre lots that are structured enough to stand without Syrah (which lends structure, but also tends to dominate a blend and make it too monolithic).  We blend Panoplie unapologetically to age.  So, we're expecting all these wines to last two decades or more.  But our first vintage of Panoplie is now nearly a decade old, and (understandably) some of the lucky customers who got some of those 67 cases have been asking whether it's drinking well now.  I honestly couldn't tell them.

So, I decided it was time to open up a vertical of Panoplie, ranging from 2000 to the not-yet-bottled 2008, to get a sense of where in their evolutions the wines were, and what we might expect going forward.  I also wanted to get a big-picture overview of how our thinking about this wine had evolved over the last decade.  I was joined for the tasting by my dad, as well as winemaker Neil Collins and assistant winemaker Chelsea Magnusson.  We chose the afternoon of the Wednesday before Christmas as an appropriate day: for most of us the last work day before the holiday weekend.  We were feeling festive, and vertical tastings like this are one of the most fun rewards we get to give ourselves.  The tasting notes (note that we didn't make a Panoplie in 2001):

  • 2000 Panoplie (55% Mourvedre, 30% Syrah, 15% Grenache): a minty, menthol but dark, gamy nose.  In the mouth, grippy tannins and very dark fruit.  Very Syrah-dominant.  It has nice length and good acids to balance the structure, but it's not very giving right now.  This was the only wine in the group that was starting to show some secondary meaty, leathery flavors, but until the tannins calm down a little more I'd recommend that people still give it a little more time.
  • 2002 Panoplie (80% Mourvedre, 13% Grenache, 7% Counoise): a really pretty nose with red licorice and berries.  Sweet-smelling, but totally dry on the palate.  Still has good tannic grip but is rounder than the 2000, with some flavors of bittersweet chocolate and grilled steak joining the brambly berry fruit.  Neil commented that you could taste the Counoise in the brambliness.  Delicious, and still youthful.  My favorite of the tasting for drinking now.
  • 2003 Panoplie (69% Mourvedre, 21% Grenache, 7% Syrah, 3% Counoise; the only Panoplie where we used all four of our principal red varietals): a figgy, plummy, slightly porty nose with a hint of oxidation.  In the mouth, sweet flavors of plum jam and mint chocolate.  Juiciness builds on the palate, which shows more freshness than the nose.  The finish turns darker and is still quite tannic.  The wine doesn't seem fully resolved right now with the nose and palate not really in sync.  I'd suggest people wait a little while and try again.
  • 2004 Panoplie (69% Mourvedre, 21% Grenache, 10% Syrah): beautiful nose of cassis, raspberry, soy, and mint, fresh but layered and deep.  The mouth is full of sweet fruit, particularly blueberry and currant, and the texture is seamless.  You feel the tannins on the finish, but they're cloaked in fruit.  At this stage, the palate seemed a little overtly sweet, but the wine is delicious.  Chelsea commented that this was the wine she'd take home for her parents.
  • 2005 Panoplie (70% Mourvedre, 25% Grenache, 5% Syrah): nose is a little more closed than the 2004; smells tight and extracted, with a eucalyptus and some dark fruit coming out with time.  On the palate, the wine (like many of our 2005's) is still tannic, though it has a promising savory, tangy note that comes out on the finish.  Neil called it "chunky" right now, which I thought was right on.  Definitely wait on this one, probably at least another few years.
  • 2006 Panoplie (68% Mourvedre, 27% Grenache, 5% Syrah): Smells young, with a little alcohol joining the brambly fruit on the nose.  With a little time in the glass, this wine blossomed, with licorice, herbs and more fruit coming out on the nose.  In the mouth, it's nice and juicy with the characteristic tangy acids of the 2006 vintage.  Neil thought it tasted "a little wound up" but that it showed beautiful balance and promise.  That said, it's a lot more approachable than the 2005, but anyone giving it a try should definitely decant.  I'd suspect that it will shut down in another year or two, and then reopen a few years later and drink well for a long time.  My dad's and Chelsea's favorite wine of the tasting.
  • 2007 Panoplie (60% Mourvedre, 30% Grenache, 10% Syrah): The nose is dense and extracted, and just exudes power.  It tastes very rich, at least as dense as it smells, and vibrates with flavors of red and black licorice.  There is an appealing brushy, herby character that suggests that when it calms down a bit, and develops some secondary flavors, it will be a remarkably complex wine.  The tannins are powerful all the way through to the finish, and tend to block the finish a bit.  Definitely wait... but expect to be rewarded handsomely for your patience.
  • 2008 Panoplie (54% Mourvedre, 29% Grenache, 17% Syrah; tasted from foudre; will be bottled summer 2010 and released spring 2011): A nice roasted coffee note on the nose, with an inkiness that appears to come from the higher Syrah content (the cool 2008 vintage was a great one for Syrah).  In the mouth, you taste flavors in sequence rather than all together, which isn't unusual at this stage of a wine's life: first some nice sweet oak, then black fruit, then tannin.  There is a nice lift and clarity on the finish that is totally characteristic of the 2008 vintage.  It's a little disjointed now, but will be very classic and classy.  Neil's favorite wine of the tasting.  This wine will go out in the spring 2011 VINsider Wine Club shipment.

In the big picture, we've refined our model a bit.  As with the Esprit, our percentage of Grenache has risen gradually as the vines have aged and we're liking it more.  We also went through a couple of vintages (2003 and 2004) where the wines were a little sweeter, and have moved back to a drier style.  We took advantage of the vintage character of 2008 to add more Syrah than we have in any Panoplie since 2000 (and will likely do so again in 2009).  But what struck us more than the differences were the similarities.  All these wines were more than half Mourvedre, and the characteristic Mourvedre flavors of plum, currant, mocha and roasted meat was a common denominator in all eight wines.  And they all shared the chewy structure that ripe, concentrated Mourvedre brings and which gives longevity to wines.  The vintages brought variations in character, and the denser, more tannic vintages like 2000, 2005, and 2007 all show even more structure than their corresponding Esprits.  Right now, the relatively more elegant vintages of 2002, 2004, 2006 and 2008 gave more pleasure... but I don't have any doubt that even the biggest of these wines has the balance to age for decades.

It will be a pleasure to find out if I'm right.

Crescent Moon over Tablas Creek

When I left the vineyard today, at the time of day when the sky is lighter than the ground but not so much that it's not photographable, the crescent moon was hanging over the Tablas Creek winery building.  I grabbed the camera, and got a shot I liked.


The weather has changed again; it was sunny but cold and windy today, and we're expecting our first hard freeze in a couple of weeks tonight.  But, this crisp weather isn't supposed to stay too long... forecasts are suggesting the possibility of some significant rain before the end of December.

Holiday Wine Suggestions - What We're Drinking this Christmas

I am always skeptical of holiday wine pairing articles that tell you the perfect wine to pair with a holiday meal.  Holiday meals, of course, can vary enormously, and the right wine for your meal is the right wine for what you're eating.  But we thought it would be fun to share what we're all planning for our holidays, so I asked our winemaking team, our tasting room managers, and our other key staff what they'd be drinking, both Tablas Creek and otherwise.  I present their suggestions essentially unedited, so you can get a sense of everyone's personality as well as their wine choices.

And us?  We're having dinner with my parents this Christmas, so we get the benefit of their choices!  But the past few years, when we've been on our own, Christmas is a chance to break out a "special occasion" wine.  I typically make a standing rib roast, and pick something I'd otherwise be too intimidated to open.  Last year, we started with an old Saint Emilion: 1979 Haut Pontet.  The fruit was pretty much gone, and it was more intellectually interesting than satisfying.  So, we fell back to something safer and opened a 1989 Beaucastel Chateauneuf du Pape, which is at a spectacular stage right now.  Mature but still lush and pretty close to perfect.  And the warmth of the fruit from the Rhone made a dramatic contrast with the older and more herbal Bordeaux.  Wow. 

Nicole Getty, Director of Wine Club, Hospitality and Events
The traditional Christmas feast at my family's house is a standing rib roast and Yorkshire pudding. We do change up the first course every year however, and we’ve settled on seared scallops with drizzled honey and apples. We’ll serve a 2006 Viognier (Guigal Condrieu) with the scallops and the 2006 Esprit de Beaucastel with the hearty, rich roast.

Robert Haas, Founder
One favorite of mine is Champagne. I think that Roederer estate is the best of the California bubblys. In the imports, I would look for a vigneron estate-bottled wine. For red wine this year, I would be all for Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel 2006. Mom can choose the recipes.

Ryan Hebert, Winemaker
Tablas Creek 2006 Roussanne
This wine tastes exceptionally well right now and I really like how the rich honey notes play off the saltiness of the ham.

2007 Adelaida 2007 Pinot Noir
A very well made Pinot Noir that has the perfect elegance to compliment the turkey.

Chelsea Magnusson, Assistant Winemaker
Tablas Creek Vineyard 2005 Esprit de Beaucastel
In my family, we tend to skip the big meal on Christmas day and instead have a large sit-down meal on Christmas Eve. Almost every year, my family goes skiing on December 24thand we come home to have osso bucco for dinner. For us, this is a wonderful tradition, given the dish’s hearty, soul-satisfying character. A perfect pairing with this is the 2005 Esprit with its layers of earthy complexity and rich, deep fruit. As far as I’m concerned, this wine pairs wonderfully with tired muscles and a crackling fire in the fireplace.

Codorniu Cava
On Christmas morning, the whole family comes to our house where we open presents around the tree with a glass of sparkling wine. I love Cava for its exceptional value and bright, fresh quality, and this particular wine is perfect for Christmas morning. It is a Rosado Brut Cava made from Pinot Noir grapes and the color (bright pink!) and the palette are both about as festive as it gets. And the best part? With a dollar tag coming in at less than $20, we aren’t nervous sabering the bottles to kick off the holiday!

Sylvia Montegue, Tasting Room Assistant Manager
Slow cooked stuffed pork shoulder roast with figs, garlic and Mourvedre will be the main attraction on our table for Christmas dinner 2009. The Mourvedre will be incorporated into the sauce for the meat as well as served along with the meal. I love to serve several vintages of a Tablas wine to showcase the differences that each year brings and to help our guests understand why winemaking is so interesting and definitely a challenge. This succulent cut of meat with figs pairs well with the notes of plum, spice and roasted meats that is evident in the 2006/2007 Tablas Creek Mourvedre.

One can't celebrate the holidays without a bubbly. Period. On New Year's Eve we will have diver scallops with brown butter & shallots paired with Camile Bonville Grand Cru Brut. This is a bright, fresh splash of citrus that cuts the richness of the scallops and wakes up your palate on a dark winter's evening.

John Morris, Tasting Room Manager
I'm still working on the menu, but it looks like I'm going to start with a Bouillabaisse. I will likely serve the 2008 Tablas Creek Rosé. An obvious non-Tablas choice would be a Rosé from Bandol or Tavel, but I think a White Burgundy, a White Bordeaux, or even a Rosé Champagne would work.

The main course will include Lamb Chops with braised root vegetables. I'm leaning toward serving the 2005 Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel, but might also substitute the 2006 Perrin et Fils Gigondas or a Mourvedré-based red from Bandol.

A work in progress!

Monica O'Connor, Tasting Room Team Lead
My two wine suggestions for the holidays are the Tablas 2006 Esprit de Beaucastel and J Vineyards 2006 Pinot Noir Russian River Valley.

Though the 2006 Esprit de Beaucastel is a bit obvious given that it is just so elegant & pretty, this choice for me is about the pleasure and comfort of the holidays enjoyed with family and friends. The 2006 Esprit has a magical quality - lush body, serious earth and playful fruit, extraordinarily balanced. What it has to say, it whispers ~ and it says something new each time so you keep coming back.

I find this wine a sensational pairing with a great variety of foods: ahi or salmon, filet mignon, risotto, Tuscan bean soup with fresh herbs; and really fine over good conversation as well.

J Vineyards 2006 Pinot Noir RRV I really like for its interesting contrasts and the way they integrate. It has a lovely nose of cassis and darjeeling tea, some earth and berries on the palate, with gentle tannins and pleasing acidity. I would pair this wine with duck, perhaps with a reduction of pan juices, wine and figs.

Tommy Oldre, National Sales Manager
For my Tablas pick, I am selecting our 2007 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc, for a couple of reasons. First off, I think it is one of the prettiest wines we have ever made. Secondly, I think it is a great match for most preparations of ham, which I know I will be having this holiday season. Specifically, I really enjoy the way the ‘07 Esprit Blanc, with its Roussanne-based richness, courts the salty richness of the ham and also how the lemony acids in the wine can counterbalance the sweetness offered in most glazes.

For my non-Tablas pick, I select Gasoton Chiquet’s NV Tradition Champagne. Honestly, for me, this is an easy call. This wine is always enjoyable for me to drink; it pairs beautifully with many foods, it has a historically significant presence to it (as the majority of Champagne does for me), and my girlfriend is always happier with me when I bring it home.

Gustavo Prieto, Tasting Room Team Lead
I would pick the Esprit de Beaucastel 2003, because I love the richness of Mourvedre, especially in 2003 that's 50%, nice earthiness, softness and balance and it is drinking quite well now. Also I'm thinking of cooking lamb for Christmas...

For a non Tablas wine I would pick a sparkling wine, since the holidays are all about celebration and I think there is nothing better than a glass of good Champagne, maybe a 1990 Dom Perignon...

Winter Sunset Panoramas

The winter sunsets in Paso Robles are often spectacular.  The current weather pattern, with a mix of clouds and sun, captures the red glow of the setting sun.  In summertime, when humidity levels are very low and clouds rare, sunsets are long-lasting but usually subtle.  In wintertime, the sunsets move quickly, and disappear within minutes, but are consistently amazing.  Even better, they're happening at times when anyone can appreciate them.  Typical for mid-December, these photos were taken between 4:45pm and 5:00pm -- when our tasting room is still open.

This week, we've had great sunsets every day.  Our tasting room manager John Morris took these photos, which I converted into panorama format.  As always for this blog, click on the photos for a larger version.

Sunset panorama 1

Sunset panorama 2

Sunset panorama 3

Better Holiday Roasting - and Better Wine Pairing - with Barbara Kafka

[Barbara Kafka is a longtime friend of the Haas family and a limited partner in Tablas Creek. She is former food editor for Vogue, a frequent contributor to the New York Times and is the author of numerous award-winning cookbooks. She contributed this article for an upcoming Tablas Creek newsletter, and her below recipe is reprinted from her 1995 cookbook Roasting: a Simple Art. Learn more at]
Barbara Kafka

There is a silly tendency to think of roasted birds—for instance chicken and turkey—as foods to go with white wine. I would contend that this is an error when the birds are roasted giving them a deeper taste. Certainly, when it comes to duck and game birds, red is the hands down best choice. I would even argue that a good turkey does better with these wines than with white especially if serving a giblet gravy.

In the Rhone, fine red Rhone wines are often served with roasted birds. Made from the same grapes, Esprit de Beaucastel would do very nicely. It has enough body to partner the fowl; but it also has a liveliness that keeps the whole thing from getting stodgy and heavy. The 2006 Esprit is tasting particularly well now.

I do not recommend stuffing any bird for health reasons. Instead I bake stuffing in the oven. A stuffing using the bird’s liver sautéed and with chestnuts—now available in jars cleaned and roasted—would also go well with these darker tastes.

The only thing to be careful about is avoiding acid vegetables unless they are made smoother with olive oil and even garlic as with broccoli di rape. Braised vegetables such as leeks and endives are perfect friends for these roasts.

I roast somewhat differently than many other people. I roast most things at 500 F. which melts the fat under the skin to baste the bird. I do not brine nor do I baste. The exception is a somewhat complex way of roasting duck. I poach the duck when its skin has been thoroughly pricked with the tines of a fork. Then I dry it and roast it. This gives moist meat and crisp skin. I cannot really suggest duck for a holiday dinner unless there are very few people or a superfluity of oven space.

If gravy seems like too much trouble, the roasting pan can be deglazed with some red wine after the bird comes out. This is a perfect use for some Esprit left over from an earlier feast. Put the pan on top of the stove over medium heat, pour in the wine, bring to a boil and scrape like crazy with a wooden spoon. Add salt and pepper to taste. Another advantage of this method is that it cleans the pan.

The oven must be very clean before roasting, or cooking at this high temperature will cause unpleasant smoke. In any case, there will be some smoke, so turn on the fan or open a window.

Happy roasting and eating.



  • 9 to 20 pound turkey, thawed if necessary, and at room temperature (expect a turkey to take several hours to reach room temperature).
  • Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 1 cup red wine


  • Place oven rack on second level from bottom of oven. Heat oven to 500°F.
  • Rinse the turkey inside and out. Pat dry. Sprinkle the outside with pepper. If stuffing, stuff cavity and crop, securing openings with long metal skewers. Do not truss.
  • Put turkey in an 18” x 13” x 2-inch roasting pan, breast side up. Put in oven legs-first.
  • Roast until the leg joint near the backbone wiggles easily, about 2 hours for a 15-pound turkey (for other sizes, or for stuffed turkeys, consult the chart below). If the top skin appears to be getting too dark, slip a doubled piece of aluminum foil on top of it. Remove the foil 10 minutes before the turkey comes out. Move the turkey around with a wooden spatula periodically to keep from sticking.  Alternately, measure doneness with a meat thermometer: rare 135°F-140°F... medium 160°F... well done 170°F-180°F. The last is criminal.
  • Remove the turkey to a large platter. Let stand 20 minutes before carving.
  • Pour off grease from roasting pan and put pan on top of stove. Add the wine. Bring to a boil while scraping bottom of pan vigorously with a wooden spoon, loosening all the crisp bits in the bottom of the pan, until reduced by half. Serve on the side in a sauceboat or add to your gravy.
Weight Stuffed Unstuffed
9 pounds 1 hour 45 minutes 1 hour 15 minutes
12 pounds 1 hour 50 minutes 1 hour 20 minutes
15 pounds 2 hours 30 minutes 2 hours
20 pounds 3 hours 30 minutes 3 hours


The TTB gets it right on Calistoga

On Tuesday, December 8th, the Federal Register published the TTB's approval of a Calistoga AVA that has been held up since 2007 due to a name conflict with two existing wineries.  This approval is a win for wine lovers, for wineries who make wines of place, and for the supporters of truth in labeling.  It also is a promising step forward for the TTB's consideration of the eleven Paso Robles sub-appellations which were submitted two and a half years ago. 

The proposed Calistoga AVA was initially submitted in 2005.  After the end of what appears to have been a routine review of the (significant) evidence in favor of the creation of this AVA, the TTB received letters from two small wineries (Calistoga Cellars and Calistoga Estate) from within the proposed AVA.  These wineries, who did not source their grapes from within the proposed AVA, argued that their businesses would suffer significant harm from its approval.  An AVA name, once it is accepted, can only be used as a brand on wines that satisfy the TTB's requirements for grape sourcing: 85% or more of the grapes in any wine with that brand must come from the AVA in question.  The wineries argued that they should be protected from the AVA's impacts either by being grandfathered in as exceptions to the AVA rules, or by being allowed to put a disclaimer on their labels.  Their precedent was that since 1986 the TTB has had a grandfather policy which exempts brands established before 1986 from having to follow the grape-sourcing provisions on the TTB's books.

In November of 2007, the TTB essentially agreed to the two wineries' requests, and published Notice No. 77, which proposed acceptance of the new AVA.  It published at the same time Notice No. 78, which included a new grandfather clause that would allow the two wineries (and other wineries, in other, future AVA's, who had previously been using the proposed AVA's name as a part of their brands) to continue their brands without conforming to the TTB's own grape sourcing rules.  At this point, the once-uncontroversial proposal exploded onto the public consciousness of the wine community.  The TTB received 1350 comments to its proposed new rule.  I wrote a blog post at that time called "A well-meaning step in the wrong direction" where I argued that the TTB's new policy would perpetuate a system "even more riddled with exceptions, exemptions and disclaimers".  I believe that all the hue and cry took the TTB by surprise, and it suspended its consideration of the Calistoga AVA (and any other AVA that included potential name conflicts) while it re-evaluated its policy.  They have now published a revised approval of the Calistoga petition which incorporates the elements that we (and many, many other California wineries and winery associations) hoped for.

In the TTB's strongly-worded ruling, after summarizing the scientific and name evidence for the Calistoga AVA (which was never in much dispute) they address the roadblock head-on.  Note that § 4.39(i) refers to the TTB's original grandfather clause covering wine brands established before 1986:

The present rulemaking raised the question of what to do about viticultural area petitions that are received long after the issuance in 1986 of § 4.39(i) on the use of geographical brand names of viticultural significance where the petition proposes a name that results in a conflict with a brand name first used on an approved COLA not covered by the grandfather provision in § 4.39(i). Such a circumstance may occur for legitimate reasons because exact terms of viticultural significance are not always universally agreed upon, and relevant facts and issues regarding terms and areas of viticultural significance are not always brought forward until a petition is published for rulemaking.

What the TTB was forced to do in this decision was to decide between the relative merits of preserving two businesses' accumulated brand rights and recognizing an area of viticultural significance in which dozens of wineries currently produce wines.  First, they address the validity of the proposed AVA:

the evidence submitted supports the establishment of the ‘‘Calistoga’’ viticultural area, with the boundaries as the petition describes and as set forth in the proposed regulatory text.

Next, they take up the more controversial issue of what to do to mitigate the impacts of the new AVA on the two Calistoga wineries who objected and best serve the legitimate interests of the wine community.  It was obvious that the TTB took enormous care evaluating the mountain of comments that they received, most on the proposed new grandfather exemption.  Although the numerical majority of the comments were in favor of the objections by the two Calistoga wineries, nearly all of these were in the form of form emails or post cards that were summarized and dismissed as the marketing actions of a business interest rather than the thought-out contributions of a motivated public.  Similarly, the offerings on behalf of their constituents of the handful of US senators and representatives in support of the two wineries, which echoed the phrasing of the form emails, were also recognized but not apparently given overmuch weight.  Instead, the bulk of the summary of the comments is dedicated to the nearly universal opposition to the new grandfather clause from wineries and winery associations from within and outside Calistoga, of which three were by Robert Haas, by the Paso Robles AVA Committee, and by the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance.  Most of these comments pointed out to the TTB that if their goal is to protect consumers from misleading or confusing labeling, and to protect the integrity of the AVA system, the best option was to require that wineries using the Calistoga name before the establishment of a Calistoga AVA be given a limited period of time to come into compliance.  A disclaimer was dismissed as a viable option.  In the TTB's words:

We believe in this matter that a label with the proposed disclaimer may not provide a consumer with adequate information as to the identity of the product but rather may result in the consumer being misled as to the true origin of the grapes used to produce the wine.

Given the lack of other options (such as a viable alternate name for the AVA) the TTB asserts its right, as many petitioners had been urging it to do, to decide based on the weight of merits of the arguments:

when it cannot be otherwise avoided the government may make a choice between competing commercial interests by requiring existing labels’ compliance with regulations establishing a new AVA.

And sets aside the earlier proposal for a new grandfather provision, at least in the case of Calistoga, as overly problematic.

the use of a grandfather provision would result in the application of multiple standards for the use of one name on wine labels, leading to potential consumer confusion and thus potentially frustrating the consumer protection purpose of the FAA Act labeling provisions. In the present case, we conclude that it is preferable as a matter of consumer protection for ‘‘Calistoga’’ to have only one meaning and association for viticultural area purposes.

The phrase "in the present case" in the above quote is an important one.  The approval of Calistoga, while a promising step forward, does not mean that Notice No. 78 has been invalidated.  But we are hopeful both in light of the agency's obvious care in addressing the concerns of the wine industry and by the logic that they used in declining to establish a grandfather exemption in the case of Calistoga.  While this does not mean that a ruling on the pending Paso Robles petitions is near, it gives us hope that the process is moving forward, and that the TTB's thinking about the advisability of prioritizing brand names over AVA's has evolved since Notice No. 78 was published. 

Will we see a similar conclusion in future TTB decisions?  Stay tuned.

A paean to rain (and a phone call to Mabel)

I'm sitting here on a Saturday evening, kids in bed, listening to the rain come down.  It's an incredibly sweet sound, both because I've always loved the sound of rain at night and also because I know how important it is that we have good rainfall this winter.  I've made about a dozen calls today to our weather station (which we named "Mabel" years ago to give the computerized voice a little personality) to find out what it's like out at the vineyard.  The most recent update from Mabel: 2.51 inches of rain today.  Still raining.  Not that windy, which suggests that the next (and supposedly largest) storm hasn't hit yet.  Excellent.

This is the fourth day in a row where we've seen significant rainfall.  Yesterday tallied 0.6 inches, the day before 0.8, and the day before that, 0.3.  In total, we've received nearly 16 inches of rain this winter, almost exactly what we received all of last winter.  It couldn't be more needed.

This past year was our third drought year in a row.  The impact of drought is cumulative, as vines carry stress over into the succeeding vintage.  And we saw the results at harvest.  Our vineyard produced less than two tons of fruit per acre, and we'll make just 12,000 cases of wine in total from the 2009 vintage.  In 2006, our last vintage that followed a winter with decent rainfall, we made close to 19,000 cases.  Sure, there were other contributing factors to this year's small crop (most notably frost) but you just can't expect a grapevine to produce much fruit if year after year you give it less water than it really needs.

That's why I've spent more time this year than any before poring over different weather web sites, calculating where we are versus the same time last year, and, yes, calling Mabel enough that I'm worried my wife is going to start to be Tiger Woods-suspicious of me. 

I didn't grow up with a farmer's day-to-day appreciation of the importance of weather.  While snow (it was Vermont, after all) was an invitation to play, rain was an interruption to the opportunity to enjoy the outdoors.  Drought, in New England, meant that we had to water the gardens a little more often.  The grass was still green, and the apple orchard still made apples -- not that we would have noticed if the trees had produced 30% less crop.  It still would have been an order of magnitude more apples than we could eat or process.

Managing a family winery brings a unique set of stresses, of which this obsession with the weather is just the latest.  Some are just those of managing an enterprise: knowing that the decisions that you make could possibly make the difference between being able to have a business the next year or not.  That was the principal stress for me in the period between 2002 and 2004, when our production had recently risen into the 15,000 case level, and we had about three years to get our annual sales from around the 5,000 case level to something in reasonable balance with production.  Now, with sales comfortably up to around 18,000 cases this year, it's hard looking forward and knowing that because of the past three years' low rainfall, we're just not going to have enough wine in 2010 and 2011 to sell to everyone who's used to getting it.  I wrote 18 months ago that even as it was becoming clear that the economy was struggling I was worried about running out of wine.  Now, two short crops later, it's a fact, which makes the recent run of great press that we've received a little bittersweet.  As much as we appreciate the recognition, we don't have enough supply of wine to take advantage of the opportunity.  I've found myself saying, with respect to this press (the most recent of which was our best-ever score from the Wine Spectator this week) that when it rains, it pours.

A little more real-life pouring like we've gotten this week could go a long way toward reducing the number of times in the next few years we will have to say "regretfully, we're out of wine". 

Will it happen?  I'll be giving Mabel another call before bed.

A Change in the Weather

This morning, you could feel a change in the quality of the air.  After weeks of dry weather, the air feels softer, the sunlight, filtered through the moisture, less intense.  The hillsides around Tablas Creek are almost impressionistic, each range layered more dimly than the next.  It's a scene that I think is beyond my capabilities to capture photographically, though I tried this morning.  It struck me that it was better done with oil on canvas.  A few of my favorite efforts can at least give you a sense of what it's like:


The contrast between the ground -- which we've been plowing to break up surface roots and better allow the rainfall to penetrate -- and the surrounding hillsides was very different than is normal for Paso Robles.  Humidity here is typically around 10%, which means that distances are deceptive.  Hillsides that are miles away feel much closer.  The hills in the photo below are of the next ranch.  All the visible hillsides are less than a mile away.


I like this shot for the feeling of the day... no longer fall, but not quite winter; dry leaves rattling around on the vines and on the ground; and a softness to the air:


This moisture is hopefully the harbinger of our first real rain since the big storm on October 13th.  The forecasts suggest that our long-lasting ridge of high pressure is breaking down, and the first in a line of storms will arrive on Monday.  This pattern, with the Pacific storm track aimed at California rather than the Pacific Northwest, is typical of el nino conditions.  We hope that this dose alone might bring another ten inches in the next week or so.

Fingers crossed that it does.

Zester Daily and a new model for food and wine journalism

Earlier this fall, I was approached by Corie Brown to contribute an opinion piece to the new food and wine Web site Zester Daily.  Corie was an editor and the wine columnist at the Los Angeles Times before they eliminated her department in 2008, and in her capacity there I found that she brought a journalistic intensity to the wine stories that in other hands often become puff pieces.  I was sorry to hear that the Times had made the decision that it did, but it's just one more bit in a mountain of evidence that newspapers are in trouble.

Enter Zester Daily, which Corie co-founded and for which she serves as General Manager.  It's a cooperative site with 25 contributors from around the world of food and wine, including experts on cooking, gastronomy, health, wine, spirits, gardening and media, as well as writers focusing on the food traditions of different regions around the country.  Their home page is below:


The contributors are noted in their fields; their wine team consists of Patrick Comiskey (Wine & Spirits, L.A. Times, and many other publications), Jordan Mackay (San Francisco Chronicle, New York Times, Food & Wine, and many others) and Corie herself.  The articles are more serious in their conception and execution than is typical for food and wine blogs.  In fact, they're better thought of as articles than blogs as I learned when I submitted my piece on sustainability in the world of wine.  I thought the piece was a good one, but Zester Daily editor Robin Rauzi (also an ex-editor at the Los Angeles Times) turned the piece inside-out.  Nearly every sentence was changed, the piece was reordered and tightened, and the cumulative effect made a much clearer and more powerful article.  It was my first experience being professionally edited, and it was humbling.  I regained a small measure of pride by making some small additional changes, and adding a new paragraph that I thought was needed, and having her accept them as presented.  You can read the resulting article "The Dirt on Sustainability" at the Zester Daily site.

I think that the concept of Zester is an appealing one, and a possible model for food and wine journalism in an era where few newspapers can support full-time journalists.  They're not limiting themselves to strictly writing about cooking, or food --  they expect to address everything from politics to the environment through the prism of food and wine. 

But does it work?  It's a free site, supported by ad revenue rather than subscriptions, and from what I've read, non-search online advertising revenue is hard to come by.  I asked Robin whether it could replace the food and wine journalism jobs that are being lost around the country, and her response was interesting.  She pointed out that Salon began an online food section and The Atlantic launched the Atlantic Food Channel after Gourmet shut its doors, and that interest is growing, not contracting, around the topics of food and wine.  If a company can create a destination for these educated, affluent readers, it will be appealing to advertisers. 

Zester Daily is a site where the contributors share any revenues that the site produces.  So, it will succeed or fail on the collective talents of its creative team, and its ability to publicize and create excitement around these talents.  It probably won't replace the full-time jobs that so many print journalists have lost, but Robin points out that it wasn't designed to do so.  It was designed to allow talented writers to share their thoughts, their work, and their audience, and hopefully provide an outlet, and a little income, for writers who are working on other projects at the same time.

The bottom line: Zester's success in keeping its writers will be determined by its revenues, and its revenues will be determined by its readership.  I hope it works; it has the potential to be a unique and valuable contributor to the world of food and wine.  Please check it out, and I invite your comments here to share what you thought.