Previous month:
July 2010
Next month:
September 2010

How to make the most of trade and consumer tastings

Last Sunday, I was standing behind the Tablas Creek table at the Family Winemakers of California tasting in San Francisco.  We were one of 340 wineries pouring wines for more than 1700 trade and 700 consumers (an additional 1700+ trade came on Monday).  Family Winemakers (as it's known in the trade) is, in my opinion, Northern California's best trade tasting each year, and brings out the sorts of top buyers from restaurants and retailers who you usually have to go see personally.  The potential value of a tasting like this is enormous, given the concentration of qualified customers.  And yet, I hear wineries complain after tastings -- even big, well-run tastings like these -- that they can't see the value.

One of our neighboring wineries commented that it was their first Family Winemakers tasting, and they wanted to know how our table was so busy.  Part of it, of course, is that, if not a household name at this point, we're fairly well known among the wine trade.  But that wasn't always the case.  And I don't believe that it's out of a winery's control how much value they get from a tasting like this.  It's no more a viable sales strategy to simply go to a trade tasting and hope that people come to find you than it's a viable marketing strategy to open your doors and assume your customers will walk in.  As I gave the winery next to us a few ideas of how to make sure that you squeeze every possible bit of value out of a big tasting like this one, it occurred to me that the ideas might make the basis for a good blog piece.

A few days after the tasting, I got an unexpected phone call that drove home the point.  One innovation that the Family Winemakers instituted this year was offering wineries the opportunity to pass along a $10 discount coupon to their customers.  It was a great strategy because it both gave the wineries a reason to publicize the tasting, and gave Family Winemakers the ability to track whose promotion was most effective.  Of all the 340 wineries who participated, apparently Tablas Creek's promotion was the most successful, resulting in 42 consumer tickets being purchased with our unique discount code.  OK, I'm pleased with the effort that we make.  But we're a mid-sized Paso Robles winery.  The greater part of our customer base is in southern California, and we have only about 1000 people on our mailing list in the Bay Area.  If our promotion was the most effective, when many wineries in this North Coast-dominated tasting have many times that number of potential local customers, it tells me that far too many wineries aren't making the most of opportunities like this one.  Here's a checklist for wineries:

  • Make sure that your mailing list includes location.  This will allow you to sort it for regional events.  If your top customer in Kansas City keeps getting notes about tastings and dinners in Orange County, they're probably going to get annoyed.  And the result will be that the only notes you'll send out are about events at your winery.  Knowing where your customers are allows you to target them selectively for dinners and tastings in their area.  And make sure you're asking for location wherever you're soliciting for new contacts, whether online, in your tasting room, or at events.
  • Select a good email marketing tool.  The tools for email marketing are incredibly powerful and remarkably inexpensive.  The two market leaders are Constant Contact and Vertical Response, and both are good options.  We use StreamSend, which I like for its flexibility and its lower cost.  And there are countless others as well.  Any of them will give you invaluable information about your email campaigns, including which links get clicked on and by how many people, what addresses are undeliverable, and what percentage of your notes get opened.  This information allows you to keep your database up to date and to learn from your past campaigns.
  • Send an email out to the geographically-relevant members of your mailing list roughly three weeks before every event you do in the market.  Your consumers (and, if the event includes a trade component, your trade) will appreciate knowing about the event, whether it be a multi-winery festival, a wine shop tasting, or a wine dinner.  And it's not a terrible thing for your trade supporters to know that you do these sorts of events; I've several times gotten an email back from a retailer or restaurant, who, upon hearing I'll be in town for another event, wanted to schedule something with me.  Incidentally, if you're worried your existing fans may crowd out new customers, remember that it's useful to have existing supporters at your events for several reasons.  First, they're likely to bring you new customers by sharing the information with friends.  Second, having a busy event, or a busy table at an event, gives you good buzz.  And third, you've helped support the events, restaurants and retailers who support you, which leads to good trade relations.
  • At each event, get contact information for as many of the people who come by your table as possible.  If these are consumers, have mailing list cards or a guest book out on the table, and encourage anyone interested to give you their information then and there.  Don't be shy; you'll get many times the number of people signing up if you suggest it than if you wait for them to ask.  If you see members of the trade, trade business cards with them, and note on the back what wines they were interested in.  If they don't have business cards, or if you already know them and it will feel weird to ask them again, keep a notebook handy to note who liked what.  It's the only way to have the information that will allow you (or more likely your broker or distributor) to follow up effectively. 
  • Have easy pocket-size take-home information about the individual wines you're pouring.  We started making cards like the ones pictured below for our wines years ago, and they're great to have.  At the tasting, it helps provide details about complicated wines (and our wines, being mostly blends, take some explanation).  After a big tasting, a card like this will help people remember their favorites, and having your contact information there makes it a lot easier for them to act.  Finally, from a practical standpoint, having individual cards helps make your larger, glossier, more expensive "about the winery" pieces more usable since they won't go out of date.
  • Esprit08talker   Cotesblanc08talker
  • Spend some time circulating around the room to see who is there, and encourage them to come see you.  Obviously, this is only practical when you have multiple people there to work an event.  But it can be great both in ensuring that key members of the trade taste what you've brought and in getting referrals from other tables.  Bring tastes of wine to other wineries' tables, or to the table of the restaurant serving food across the aisle.  At big tastings, lots of customers ask each table where else they should go.  Do what you can to make sure that you get your share of these recommendations.
  • Get the information about what trade stopped by your table and what they liked to your distributors and brokers within a week or so for follow-up.  Then check back in with the distributor a few weeks later to find out what came of the leads you gave them.  I'm not suggesting that you pester them, or demand a written report about every lead, but if the distributor knows that you care enough to follow up, they're likely to be more diligent in pursuing the leads you provide for them.
These suggestions aren't rocket science, but should help make sure that a winery is effectively covering its bases before, during, and after each tasting that it does, and giving itself every chance to succeed.  And given that everyone's budgets are tight right now, it's more important than ever. 

Notes from the Cellar: Assembling the 2009 reds, and getting ready for harvest 2010...

By Chelsea Magnusson

The cellar has been an absolute mess this week.  And for good reason - veraison has begun in the vineyard, and we are slowly wrapping our heads around the fact that another harvest season is right around the corner. 


It looks like a disaster, but I promise, it's actually progress!

In preparation, we sat down to take a look at the 2009 reds we had in the cellar.  At this point, they were all in barrel, still separated by varietal and lot (where they came from in the vineyard, when they were harvested, etc.).  Ryan and I pulled samples from each of the individual lots and put them in bottle so we could taste through the entire vintage blind and take tasting notes (while we’re being straight here, I might mention that I’m still blown away by the fact that I actually got paid to taste through 28 spectacular wines!  What an unbelievably cool job.) 

The cellar crew, consisting of Ryan Hebert, Neil Collins and myself, was joined by General Manager Jason Haas and National Sales Manager Tommy Oldre.  After tasting through the vintage and sharing our thoughts, we were able to make decisions on where we thought each wine fit in best.  The lots that carried themselves with power and grace were positioned into the Panoplie program, wines with elegance and depth were paired with like-style lots for the Esprit de Beaucastel, and wines with a unique juiciness and affability were placed with the Cotes de Tablas family.  Obviously, that is an extremely simple generalization, but when tasting though each lot, everyone had a pretty clear idea of where they thought the wine should be used.  We also set aside lots for a varietal Grenache (sadly, there will be no Syrah or Mourvedre from the tiny 2009 harvest).  After finalizing the decisions, Ryan marked each barrel with an “E” for Esprit, “P” for Panoplie, “C” for Cotes, or “G” for Grenache.  Our last 2009 red, the En Gobelet, had already been assembled as a blend and put into foudre for aging.  


A barrel destined for Esprit, with two Panoplie barrels in line behind it.

One thing I would like to mention (especially for those of you who attended the Harvest Seminar last year, or are planning to attend this year) is that the three barrels of Grenache that you harvested and processed went into the Panoplie – kudos! 


From there, the wines were racked off their lees and put into stainless steel tanks as finished blends. They'll settle here for a week or two and then we'll move them to foudre for a year of aging.


The barrels have been cleaned (they are steamed, rinsed with ozone, and hit with a dose of sulfur dioxide) and are now stacked and lined up, ready for harvest.


Ryan cleans the lees out of barrels before they are washed.

Copy 7664

Clean, happy barrels ready to be filled with the 2010 vintage.

So far, we're anticipating that our harvest season will start around mid-September.  It is important to remember, however, that agriculture is unpredictable.  We're steadily getting the cellar in harvest shape so we're ready when it begins - because when harvest hits, it hits hard.

Côtes (de Tablas), Côte (d’Or) and the pleasures of aged wine

By Robert Haas

The age of a wine is a relative thing. Some wines are old young and others are young old. Many great red wines are rushed to the table too young these days. Most restaurants and retailers do not have the financing or space to lay down wines and we, as consumers, have the same problems or simply lack the patience to wait. And many wines, maybe more now than ever, are made to consume young. Sometimes, however, we are presented with opportunities.

I recently tasted our 2001 Côtes de Tablas at the delightful Bistro Henry in Manchester, VT. Chris Kleeman, Henry’s good friend, takes charge of the wines and decides in some cases to cellar some of his choices for later release to the list – certainly a rare luxury these days. The 2001 Côtes is an interesting historical landmark. Since we did not make any Esprit de Beaucastel in 2001, only a little Founders’ Reserve, the Côtes was a blend of virtually the entire vineyard. The 2001 Côtes was still showing quite youthfully, with good color and absolutely no hint of bricky edges. It showed good blackberry, gooseberry and strawberry fruit on the nose and palate, was poised and bright with some dusty tannins at the back end.

What would happen today if we blended our entire vineyard into one wine? We try this each year, for fun, in part because our original intention for Tablas Creek was to make just one red and one white wine each year. Probably the result would be deeper and richer than it was in 2001; the 2001 vintage was marked by April frosts and uneven ripening, with the Grenache component probably the weakest of our three red varieties, and the vines were still young. Yet my feeling was that the 2001 Côtes de Tablas still has a long life ahead of it. At any rate, it was fun and interesting.

Maltroie Recently I had another wonderful and very different tasting experience: drinking a great mature wine from a little known and often much underrated premier crû vineyard in Burgundy. I was preparing wines for a tasting of old Burgundies when I ran across a 1985 Chassagne-Montrachet La Maltroie from Georges Deleger that had no following vintages in my cellar because Georges retired shortly thereafter. Barbara and I had it for dinner with some rare cold beef filet. The wine was brilliant. Still deeply colored and chock full of cherry and raspberry fruit, rich on the palate with beautiful ripe and rounded tannins, and handsomely structured. The sensation brought me back 25 years to the actual tasting in Deleger’s cellar in the spring of 1986. I was blown away. It was the first 1985 red Burgundy that I had tasted in the barrel. Even though I expected 1985 to be a great vintage I was not prepared for that terrific a red wine to come from a Chassagne vineyard (Chassagne-Montrachet is better known for its brilliant whites). That spring trip brought me to many other terrific wines from that lovely and long-lived vintage.

We are still enjoying a number of 1985 Burgundies today, wines that I tasted and bought back then, but this particular experience last week brought me back to a clear sensory remembrance of the scene in Georges Deleger’s cellar in Chassagne that spring day in 1986.

One of the traditional attributes of a great wine is its ability to improve with age. Great wine changes over time and has a life of its own: youth, adolescence, maturity, senility and finally death. In general, the greater the wine, the longer that each period lasts. Tablas Creek is still too young a vineyard for us to predict long-term aging. Give us another fifty years of experience. But tastings like my recent one of our 2001 Côtes de Tablas – a wine from young vines that was never meant for long aging – make me think we show promise. And wines like the 1985 La Maltroie remind me why it matters.

We welcome two new grapes to Tablas Creek: Clairette and Terret Noir

Regular followers of Tablas Creek will know that we selected and imported our eight principal Rhone varieties (Roussanne, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc, Viognier, Mourvedre, Grenache, Syrah, Counoise) at the very beginning of our history, in 1989, before we'd even started laying out the vineyard.  It was cuttings from these vines, post-quarantine and post-propagation, that we started planting in 1994, and which we've used to plant the rest of the vineyard.  We continued over the next decade to bring in additional clones of several varieties, and added one new grape (Picpoul Blanc) that went in the ground in 2000.

We've been surprised at times about the varieties that have thrived here.  Many, most notably Mourvedre, Grenache and Roussanne, we expected to do well, and chose our property accordingly.  But others, like Grenache Blanc, Picpoul Blanc and Counoise, seem to develop character in Paso Robles that they only occasionally, if ever, achieve in France.

So, in 2003, we decided to bring in the rest of the Chateauneuf du Pape grapes: Bourboulenc, Cinsault, Clairette, Muscardin, Picardan, Terret Noir and Vaccarese.  We've been waiting ever since as the vines were quarantined (they all had viruses) and then cleaned up at U.C. Davis.  We received the first two varieties earlier this month, and put them in the ground last week.  Please welcome Clairette and Terret Noir:

Clairette   Terret_noir

Of the two, the character of Clairette is better known, and it's much more widely planted with about 7500 acres in the Rhone Valley at the end of the 1990's, according to Jancis Robinson, and additional acreage in South Africa, Australia, Italy and Eastern Europe.  It was even more important historically, and formed, along with Picpoul, the Languedoc's extraordinarily popular Picardan wine that was exported throughout Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries.  It is used both to make still wines (often blended with the higher-acid Picpoul or Grenache Blanc) and to make the Rhone Valley's best-known sparkling wines in Clairette de Die.  It tends to have floral, mineral, almost soapy aromas, to be relatively low in acid, and to oxidize easily. 

Terret Noir is less well known; it is reputed to keep its acidity well late in the growing season and to bud late, both useful characteristics in Paso Robles, where we are prone to frost in April and bake in October.  Although it was once (before 1850) the most planted variety in the departement of Herault, very little is reported of its flavors.  Our 1904-edition French ampelography praises Terret Noir for bringing "qualities of lightness, freshness, and bouquet".  As of 2000, there were only 1000 acres of Terret Noir planted in France.  About all Jancis Robinson has to say about it is that it "can add useful structure and interest".  The Perrins don't have much more to report, so we may well be making the first serious investigation into Terret Noir in more than a century.

Both of these varieties are being planted into half-acre blocks in the newest section of our vineyard, at the extreme western edge of the property, to the west of the seven-acre block we planted in 2008.  We'll be leaving space for our other late arrivals.  Look for the first production off of these vines in 2013!

Grapes of the Rhone Valley: Marsanne

Marsanne Marsanne produces wines with distinctive melon and mineral flavors, rich mouthfeel, and a characteristic nuttiness with age. When blended, its relative restraint and minerality complement more aromatic varietals like Viognier.  And in its ancestral home of Hermitage and in other cool climates, Marsanne can make some of the world's most ageable white wines.  At Tablas Creek, we use most of our Marsanne in our Côtes de Tablas Blanc each year, with the Marsanne comprising about one-third of the blend.

Early History
Marsanne is believed to have originated in the town of Marsanne, near Montélimar in the northern Rhône Valley. The white wines of St-Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage, Hermitage, and St-Péray are made predominantly from Marsanne, often blended with Roussanne.  As early as the seventeenth century the white wines from Hermitage were considered among the world's finest.  Thomas Jefferson praised white Hermitage as "the first wine in the world without a single exception".

The grape arrived in Australia in the late 1860s, and has been grown successfully in the vineyards of Victoria ever since. Australia has a hospitable home for the varietal; while 80% of the world’s Marsanne is grown in France (3665 acres as of 2016), Australia is #2 with nearly 400 acres. It arrived in California in the 1980s, and it has become an increasingly important component of white Rhône-style blends and is also bottled individually. Qupe Wine Cellars, whose vintner Bob Lindquist has been an early and persistent advocate for the grape, has been instrumental in promoting Marsanne.  Qupe began making what has become probably the state's most respected single-varietal Marsanne in 1987.  As of 2009, there were 107 acres of Marsanne planted in California, which represents about 3% of the California acreage dedicated to white Rhone varieties.

Marsanne in France
Plantings of Marsanne in the Northern Rhone have been growing over the last half-century as growers replace the more difficult -- and later ripening -- Roussanne with the easier Marsanne.  The vineyards at JL Chave (which have been in the same family since the middle ages) were historically equal parts Roussanne and Marsanne, but have been gradually moved to their current composition of 85% Marsanne and just 15% Roussanne. 

Marsanne's history is less distinguished in the southern Rhone, and it is not permitted in the wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.  It is, however, one of the eight white grapes permitted in the Côtes du Rhône appellation. As such, Marsanne is a significant component (usually 30%) of the Coudoulet de Beaucastel white blend.

Marsanne in the Vineyard and Cellar
There are approximately three acres of Marsanne planted at Tablas Creek, representing about 7% of our white Rhône production. The climate in Paso Robles is slightly warmer than Marsanne’s native northern Rhône Valley, and the varietal here is an aggressive producer with no significant growing problems, though it is sensitive to water levels. Careful monitoring throughout the growing season is often necessary. Marsanne vines produce a relatively heavy crop of loosely clustered berries, and require a secondary fruit pruning (of green or unpollinated clusters) six to eight weeks after the flowering. This practice, coupled with conscientious leaf pulling, encourages uniform ripening. Marsanne ripens right in the middle of the picking season -– later than Viognier, earlier than Roussanne and about at the same time as Grenache Blanc -- and its berries are golden and medium-sized when ripe. It tends to ripen at fairly low sugars; in 2009 its average Brix level was 20.3, the lowest of any variety harvested, and our Marsanne is often around 12% alcohol after fermentation. 

We showcase Marsanne's proclivity for displaying the mineral flavors of the soils in which it is grown by fermenting it in stainless steel tanks.  In most years, it is blended with a richer, more heady and aromatic Viognier lot sometime 3-4 months after harvest and this resulting tank forms the base of our Cotes de Tablas Blanc from this vintage.

Flavors and Aromas
Marsanne is a light straw color, almost green, with moderate acidity and excellent mid-palate richness. Its mineral flavors and aromas, and its low alcohol, make it an ideal blending grape. The varietal has been historically blended with Roussanne, where it tones down the viscosity and acidity of Roussanne and provides a more complex flavor. Although did in early years add Marsanne to our Roussanne-based Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (most recently in 2001), the varietal is truly given a chance to shine in our Viognier-based Côtes de Tablas Blanc.  We have been noting an increase in the intensity and complexity of our Marsanne lots, and hope to make a single-varietal rendition soon.

A tasting of the wines in the fall 2010 wine club shipment

Each spring and fall, we send out six wines to the members of our VINsider Wine Club.  With each shipment we include a letter from our wine club director, an order form, and production and tasting notes for the wines in the club shipment.  As these wines are typically unreleased, most of them do not yet have a Web page, and for me it's often one of my first opportunities to taste these wines after bottling.  It's always exciting, and the rest of the staff typically joins me as we take a look at the future.  This tasting was particularly fun for me because it was my first serious look at the 2008 reds and my first comprehensive look at any of the 2009 whites since bottling.  It will be fun to showcase wines from two such different -- but strong -- vintages. 

Incidentally, if you're wondering why there are only five wines pictured (and described) in what is always a six-bottle shipment, it's because the shipment will include two bottles of the 2008 Esprit de Beaucastel.


In the order in which we'll be pouring them at our September 18th club shipment tasting event:


  • Production notes: Vermentino is best known in Corsica, Sardinia, and northern Italy, but also found in the Rhône Valley, Côtes de Provence and Languedoc under the name Rolle. Our 2009 edition shows the noteworthy intensity of this low-yield vintage. Our two blocks were picked on September 22nd and October 8th and averaged 22.4º Brix and a 3.45 pH. The wine was vinified in stainless steel, and we stopped malolactic fermentation to emphasize the varietal’s brightness and freshness. It was bottled in screwcap in March 2010.
  • Tasting notes: Inviting meyer lemon, mineral and kiwi aromas are followed by a creamy lushness surprising for Vermentino, and a rich, long, spicy finish. Drink now or for the next few years.
  • Quantity Produced: 420 cases
  • List Price: $30 VINsider Price: $24.00


  • Production notes: This is our fifth bottling of our Bergeron-style Roussanne (in the cool Savoie region of Alps, Roussanne is known as Bergeron). To make our Bergeron, we chose some Roussanne from one of the coolest spots of the vineyard, and fermented it in stainless steel to preserve its freshness and acidity.
  • Tasting notes: A nose of green apple, mineral, herbs and preserved lemon. In the mouth, very mineral and notably saline, quite rich for a Bergeron, almost buttery. The finish shows notes of caramel apple and the wine cries out for shellfish. Drink for the next five years.
  • Quantity Produced: 480 cases
  • List Price: $30 VINsider Price: $24.00


  • Production notes: Roussanne, with its wonderful balance of richness, minerality, and acidity, as usual forms the core of our 2009 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc. 2009 was our third consecutive drought year, and yields were further reduced by serious April frosts. The blend for 2009 includes 62% Roussanne, 26% Grenache Blanc (for roundness and distinctive green apple and anise flavors), and 12% Picpoul Blanc, our highest-ever percentage, for acids and minerality in this lush vintage. The wine was blended in May and bottled in July 2010.
  • Tasting notes: Similar in many ways to the blockbuster 2007, though with the appealing softness and breadth to the texture that distinguish the 2009 whites. The wine shows a rich, lifted nose, very spicy, with aromas of ginger, tangerine, asian pear, beeswax and herbs. The mouth shows rich Roussanne flavors of honey and spice and a long, dry finish with toffee and pear notes. A slight tannic bite suggest that this wine will benefit from short-term cellaring, and drink well from mid-2011 through the end of the decade.
  • Quantity Produced: 1800 cases
  • List Price: $40 VINsider Price: $32


  • Production notes: Mourvèdre has an (undeserved, in our opinion) reputation for toughness and rusticity. In fact, if it gets ripe and is handled cleanly in the cellar, we find it the Rhone varietal most reminiscent of Pinot Noir: with good intensity of flavor, medium body, good acidity and an ageability that is belied by its initial approachability. This 2008 Mourvèdre was picked late (between October 10th and November 3rd), fermented in open-top fermenters, and then moved to foudre for aging. It was blended in August 2009, aged one additional year in foudre, and bottled in June 2010.
  • Tasting notes: A garnet color. Spicy nose of red cherry, plum and pepper. The mouth is consistent with the nose, with a little meatiness lurking under the bright fruit. The tannins firm up on the long, coffee-laced finish and suggest a good life ahead. Drink now and for the next decade.
  • Quantity Produced: 675 cases
  • List Price: $40 VINsider Price: $32


  • Production notes: Our signature red wine showcases the spiciness and impeccable balance of the remarkable 2008 vintage. It is as usual based on the red fruit, earth and mocha of Mourvèdre (38%), while Grenache (30%) brings rich mouthfeel, glycerin and a refreshing acidity. Syrah (26%) plays its largest role since 2002, providing black fruit and mineral and 6% Counoise adds vibrancy and brambly fruit. The wine was blended in August 2009, aged in foudre and bottled in July 2010.
  • Tasting notes: A deep, spicy nose with waves of fruit alternating between red and black raspberry and cherry, grilled meat, balsamic, and licorice. The palate is highlighted by beautiful acidity, an appealing mintiness, and substantial but fine-grained tannins. The wine is tasting just great now, and we think it will only get better. Enjoy over the next two decades.
  • Quantity Produced: 3400 cases
  • List Price: $50 VINsider Price: $40

More details on the shipment are available online for anyone interested:  A few final thoughts are below. 

First, these 2008's show just an amazing degree of complexity and intensity of flavor with absolutely no sense of weight.  This is in dramatic contrast to the impressively structured 2007 vintage, whose primary impression is one of power and density.  The 2008 reds have well-delineated varietal character, a distinctive spiciness, wonderful acidity, and should both drink well young and age gracefully.  Do I think that they'll age as long as the 2007's?  Probably not.  But they'll give enormous pleasure while they're young, and their balance suggests that medium-term aging will only increase their complexity.

The 2009 vintage seems to me to be a softer version of 2007: equally lush, but perhaps a touch less structured.  The viscosity of the wines combines with their overt minerality and relatively low acidity to make wines whose richness is balanced by a saline mineral character more than by acidity.  In this sense, it's a vintage whose wines would be absolutely at home in the Rhone Valley, where the white wines are typically rich and softer than those from Paso Robles.  These wines often surprise with their ageability, and I'm particularly excited to see where the 2009 Esprit Blanc goes over time.

Veraison 2010!

And... (drumroll please) we have veraison for 2010.  It's actually less far behind than we were expecting, more like one week than the two weeks we were late at flowering.  [As points of comparison, I wrote about veraison on July 27, 2007, July 30, 2008 and July 24, 2009.  If you're interested in learning more of the science behind what happens at veraison, check out particularly the 2007 post.]

We've had ideal ripening weather for the last week or so, with highs in the upper 80s and low 90s, cool nights, and sun.  As usual, the Syrah is furthest along.  We saw our first red berry last Friday (July 30th) and clusters are coloring up rapidly at this point:


It's important to remember that even as some clusters are coloring up, there are others on the same vine that are still all green.  From an extended ramble through the vineyard this morning, I'd estimate that we're probably 30% through veraison in the Syrah:


Oddly, the other variety in which we're seeing significant veraison is Mourvedre, which is typically our last varietal harvested.  The typical spread in veraison times (about 3 weeks) is not as great as the typical spread in harvest times (about 2 months) so it's not an indicator that we'll harvest everything at the same time.  Still, it's a surprise to see it go before Grenache.  Note the couple of exposed stems, a sign that either (more likely) birds or (less likely but possible) winemakers have keyed in on and tasted the ripest berries:


Finally, one other photo of Mourvedre shows how uneven the veraison process is even within a single cluster.  I'd estimate about 20% veraison in Mourvedre overall, but clusters can have berries that are purple and sweet, purple and sour, and green all at the same time:


As for the other red varieties, well, Ryan reports that there is the first sign of veraison in Grenache, but I couldn't find it in my walk this morning.  And Counoise, which is always late going through veraison, doesn't appear to have started yet.

The fact that we've actually caught up somewhat in what is the second-coolest summer since 1997 is a great indicator of the weaknesses of using a measurement like growing degree days to measure ripening conditions.  The hottest days are not good for photosynthesis; above about 95 degrees, most grapevines stop photosynthesizing as they close the pores in their leaves to conserve moisture.  So while you can get dehydration in periods of extreme heat, you don't get physiological ripening.

Still, I'm glad we're in Paso Robles and not in the North Coast.  The reports I'm hearing from Napa and Sonoma are of days spent socked in by fog, temperatures topping out in the 60s and 70s and ripening three to four weeks behind normal.  I'm all for cool weather maintaining good acids, but grapevines do need sun.  I just hope that if things stand as they are now, reviewers will take the time to evaluate the different regions of California on their own merits and not be tempted to paint with an over-broad brush.

Introducing a Greener Wine Bottle

Early this year, I wrote the blog post In Search of a Green(er) Wine Bottle, which details our quest for a wine bottle that both appealed to our aesthetics and didn't weigh more than the wine inside it.  We had, before our 2008 bottling (which included the 2006 reds and the 2007 whites) adopted a beautiful, but heavy, bottle for our top wines and have spent the last two years grappling with the suspicion that we'd come to exactly the wrong conclusion and were undermining our efforts toward sustainability and annoying our most loyal customers.

After Neil and I visited all the glass vendors at the Unified Grape & Wine Symposium, I wrote:

What we're looking for is a bottle that looks like a top-end bottle, but weighs half as much.  And, somewhat to our surprise, those bottles just don't exist yet. We aren't willing to go to a cheap-feeling or cheap-looking bottle, but would love to be able to further reduce the weight of the bottle we use.  We are interested in hearing from you as to what you look for in bottles, both in a wine that you already know and when you're choosing a new wine off a retail shelf.

The comments that readers left in that blog piece as well as on our Facebook page intrigued us.  The respondents who wanted lighter bottles outvoted those who cared about the heft and stature of the bottle by at least five to one.  And there are good reasons for this.  Big wine bottles don't fit in people's wine racks.  They are harder to pour.  They cost more to ship.  And they cost more to manufacture.

As we thought about the challenge and looked at bottle after bottle we came to the conclusion that the aesthetic idea that a broader, taller bottle is higher quality may be becoming a relic of a more profligate age, in the same way that it's easy to imagine a future where the luxury SUV -- for a time the epitome of solid, prosperous respectability -- carries an ever-greater implication of environmental tone-deafness.

We went back to looking at simple, classic Burgundy bottles, and came to the conclusion that the one that we liked best was also the lightest.  It weighs just 16.5 ounces, barely half the 31.5 ounces of the Esprit bottle we used the past two years.  It fits fine in everyone's wine racks.  It will be much easier to pour.  It will work better in our bottling line.  And a case of wine bottled in the new bottle weighs more than 11 pounds less than it would have in the old.

The efficiency and environmental consequences of this change are significant.  This year, we moved more than 8000 cases of wine into this new bottle.  That change reduces the amount of glass that we are buying, shipping to us and then shipping either via truck to our wholesalers or via air freight to our direct customers by 90,000 pounds.  Those 90,000 pounds accounted for nearly 26% of the weight of the filled cases, and provided zero utility for the end consumer.  In fact, they provided negative utility, as they made the wine they contained harder to store, pour, and move.

So, when you first see the wines in the new bottle, let us know what you think.  We hope that you'll agree that the bottle looks great.  And we're very happy that we can share the wines we're so proud of in a package that is consistent with our ethic.

New esprit bottle

A photo of the new bottles, in the foreground.  The old bottles are behind.