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February 2011
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April 2011

A beautiful day in the neighborhood

Every year, there's one day where all of a sudden it feels like spring.  This year, that day is today.  After a week of storms, and a month and a half of cloudy, wet, cool and often cold weather, today the sun is out, the air is soft and warm, and it feels like the cold rain of this past weekend was weeks ago.  The vineyard is still almost entirely dormant, but with all the water in the ground, the long sunny days, and temperatures which are forecast to hit 80 degrees this week, it won't be for long.

But the recent wet, cold weather has done its job of setting the vineyard back by a few weeks.  This means a shorter frost season, though we'll still be sweating the next six weeks.  By contrast, in 2009, the vineyard was at a similar stage on March 3rd... nearly four weeks ahead of this year.  And it was 2009 when we saw our most damaging frosts since 2001.

I decided to take a walk in the vineyard, and I was blown away with how beautiful it was.  All the rain we've received this winter (nearly 35 inches, 125% of normal) has produced a terrific wildflower season, and the cover crop is knee-high and growing fast thanks to the ground positively oozing water and the long hours of sunlight.  The scents of the wildflowers provided a wonderful background to the vineyard walk, like fresh honey with every step.  I wish I could have bottled that sensory experience.

Barring that ability (when will they invent scratch-and-sniff computing, anyway?) these photos will have to do.  First, my favorite photo that I took, with the soft blue sky, the yellow-green of the cover crop and the explosions of wildflowers:


The ground was so wet that springs were seeping out of hillsides everywhere.  One of the biggest is below, just west of the winery in the Chardonnay block:


The mustard is out in force.  Hillsides that are entirely native grasses are yellow blankets at this points, and even in the sections where we've seeded with a cover crop, plenty of the mustard sneaks in.  Two photos, first a closeup in a section we did seed:


And next from an unseeded block:


We're a little early for the California poppy (our state flower) but there were a few, blazing like orange neon in the sun:


The other major native wildflower is a pretty purple one we've been seeing more and more of in the vineyard over recent years.  It's lower-lying, often obscured by taller grasses and mustard but covering the ground in areas where those don't grow well:


The contours of the hillsides are emphasized at this time of year, since the vines are still dormant and in neat rows:


The wildflowers aren't the only thing in bloom.  I leave you with a photo of the flowerbursts from one of the cherries that we planted on the terraces above the winery, bright white against the blue sky:


Zombie legislation: HR 5034 lurches back to life as HR 1161

Last year, beer and wine wholesalers' associations spearheaded the introduction of HR 5034 into the US House of Representatives.  Although the legislation was never passed (it never even made it out of committee) by the end of the legislative year it had amassed 153 co-sponsors, or more than one-third of the House's total membership.  The bill would have effectively rolled back the status of alcohol law to where it was before the Granholm v. Heald decision required states to treat in-state and out-of-state wineries equally.  This is potentially significant to wineries like us because the voices of in-state wineries (and the local jobs that they represent) proved decisive in several state legislatures who were forced either to open up direct shipping to all wineries or cut off their own wineries from the bulk of their customers.  We can now ship to 32 states, with Maryland expected to be the next that will come on line later this year.

Beyond wineries, the principal beneficiaries of liberalized wine shipping laws are consumers, who receive greater choice and lower prices thanks to increased competition.

Although HR 5034 did not make it into law, on March 17th an updated piece of legislation was introduced into the 2011 Congress.  Perhaps the sponsors thought that last year's "Comprehensive Alcohol Regulatory Effectiveness (CARE)" title wasn't sufficiently caring; this year's bill is slightly renamed to the "Community Alcohol Regulatory Effectiveness (CARE)" Act.  It states its purpose "to recognize and reaffirm that alcohol is different from other consumer products and that it should continue to be regulated by the States".  More specifically, the legislation clarifies that "Silence on the part of Congress shall not be construed to impose any barrier under clause 3 of section 8 of article I of the Constitution (commonly referred to as the ‘Commerce Clause’) to the regulation by a State or territory of alcoholic beverages."  Interested readers can read the complete text of HR 1161.

Why would anyone want the US Congress to differentiate alcohol from other consumer products?  Because of the money at stake.  As a quick review (I wrote about this more extensively last year, to which I refer anyone wanting more background) the 21st Amendment to the Constitution, which repealed Prohibition, grants states the rights to regulate alcohol within their borders.  State legislatures have traditionally taken an expansive view of what this permits, at times bringing them into conflict with the Commerce Clause of the Constitution that gives the US Congress sole authority to regulate interstate commerce.  The end result has been the near-universal adoption of the three-tier system, where producers or suppliers of alcohol (the first tier) must sell to state-licensed wholesalers (the second tier) who must sell to retailers and restaurants (the third tier).  Only this third tier, in the classic three-tier system, can sell to consumers.  Each tier has its profits built into the system, which means that the typical price that a winery like Tablas Creek sells to a wholesaler is about half the end sale price to a consumer.

With the increasing ease of Internet and mail-order commerce -- and the move of small wineries and wine tourism into the American wine consuming mainstream -- cracks have appeared in the foundation of the government-protected wholesale tier.  Exceptions to the three-tier system are now the norm for wineries, and the Granholm decision made explicit the Court's opinion that states cannot discriminate against out-of-state wineries but must establish a level playing field.  Wholesalers see the logic used by the Supreme Court in Granholm as a threat.  What if, they worry, courts permit out-of-state wholesalers to make deliveries to in-state restaurant and retail accounts?  What if chain retailers can purchase from whichever wholesaler, in whatever state, will give them the best price, and then supply their in-state stores out of a central warehouse?  Or, scariest of all, what if retailers cut out the middleman wholesaler in one of the states that allows them to do so (like California) and then begin self-distributing to their locations around the country?  It's fairly clear to me that wholesalers view stores like Costco as their biggest threats, not small wineries like us.

Of course, all these steps that alcohol wholesalers fear have already happened in nearly every other consumer product.  Consumers have the option of buying direct from the manufacturer, or from stores in other states, or in person.  The result has been a dramatic lowering of prices and a proliferation of innovative producers, who can leverage the power of Internet long-tail marketing to reach customers whose concentration in any one area may be low, but whose cumulative buying power is significant.  Wholesalers have not disappeared in other consumer products, but their power has been limited as their customers have more options and demand better service and more competitive prices.  But understanding why alcohol wholesalers are worried doesn't mean that one should feel sympathetic to their efforts.  The casual disregard the bill's wholesale advocates show for the harm that this bill would cause their suppliers (wineries, breweries, distilleries and importers) their customers (restaurants and retailers) and consumers around the country can be breathtaking.

Despite the claims of proponents of the legislation that wineries wouldn't be harmed -- and the phrasing of the bill does include some safeguards for nondiscrimination in winery direct shipping that were absent from HR 5034 -- the proposed legislation would still be bad for both wineries and consumers, and terrible for retailers.  Although a clause states that states "may not intentionally or facially discriminate against out-of-State or out-of-territory producers" there are many non-facial discriminations that can be put into place that have similar effects.  Some states have put into place capacity caps, where only wineries under a certain size can ship to in-state consumers.  Of course, the cap is carefully set just above the size of the largest in-state producer.  Other states require that wine be purchased in-person, which of course is much easier at an in-state winery than an out-of-state one.  And retailers, who should by any logic I can understand also be subject to the same legal principals espoused in Granholm, would not be covered by the language protecting "producers".  This omission is particularly important because retailers were recently rebuffed without comment by the Supreme Court in their effort to apply the logic of Granholm to their businesses and are still unable to access most out-of-state markets.

The proponents of the legislation take pains to refer to the bill's supporters as "bipartisan", and I imagine it's no coincidence that the bill's eight co-sponsors include four Democrats and four Republicans.  I think it's more accurate to say that the bill is nonpartisan than that it is bipartisan; there is really no overriding constitutional principle here except for a very narrowly-defined emphasis on states' rights (if you consider it a state right to put into place discriminatory laws regulating commerce).  But what is at play, like last year, is money.  The Wine Spectator found last year that beer and liquor wholesalers had made over $11 million in campaign donations over four years to House and Senate campaigns, a total that rose dramatically after the Granholm decision.  In total, the organizations that supported HR 5034 outspent those that opposed it by a total of more than four to one.

The risks of this year's bill are real.  Last year, Nancy Pelosi (whose district contains dozens of wineries) was an important opponent of the legislation.  With the change in leadership in the House, Pelosi's influence is diminished while new Speaker John Boehner's position on the bill is unknown.  I urge wineries and wine lovers not to be complacent about the act's prospects.  With the money at stake, wholesalers' organizations are committed to protecting their interests over the long haul, and are willing to continue to pour money at legislators to ensure that their opinions are heard.

Join Free the Grapes to get involved

There are two important actions we can all encourage.  First, we in the wine industry need to continue to spread the word that this bill is a threat not just to the livelihoods of family wineries but also an anticompetitive piece of legislation that will raise prices and dramatically reduce availability of wines for consumers around the country.  And the second is to make sure that our congressional representatives know that we're watching.  As usual, the Web site Free the Grapes has great tools to make this easier, principal of which is a form with a customizable letter that will be sent automatically to your congressional representatives.  I have already reached out to Representative Kevin McCarthy (whose insight and behind-the-scenes work last year was welcome) and will let readers know what I hear back.

A welcome wet start to Spring

In an ideal world, we wouldn't receive five inches of rain on one of our three busiest tasting room weekends of the year.  But we're not complaining.  We're now up over 31 inches of rain for the winter, topping last year's total with still six weeks to go in our rainy season.  And the vineyard looks wonderful, with the cover crop lush and green and the ground water ample as the vines are poised to come out of dormancy.


A little more wet, cool weather would be welcome over the next few weeks; we know that we're at risk of frosts into mid-May, and the colder it is at the beginning of the spring, the later the vines will sprout and the fewer frosty nights we'll hold our breaths hoping to escape damage.

Even better, the rain didn't appear to keep people away; we welcomed nearly 500 people through our new tasting room yesterday, the Saturday of the annual Paso Robles Zinfandel Festival.  That number was up about 10% compared to last year.

The rain started out light yesterday, turned moderate in the afternoon, and intensified after dark.  And it was intense.  I called our weather station for an update at 10pm, and we'd received 1.3 inches of rain for the day.  When I called again this morning, yesterday's total had spiked to 2.9 inches, and we'd already received 2 inches today.  You've probably already done the math necessary to figure that for the two hours before midnight we were receiving nearly an inch of rain per hour.

I've never seen Tablas Creek so flush with water, and there was evidence (gravel and sticks washed into the middle of the road) that it was higher last night than this morning.  Tiny creeks were noisy with rushing water, and any low-lying area held a flowing stream.  It's probably hard for visitors used to seeing Paso Robles in the dry summertime to imagine this green landscape of streams and springs, but it's my favorite time of year, and necessary for the vineyard's short-term productivity and long-term health.  It looks like we'll be able to dry farm again this year.

I took a drive out to the vineyard this morning to see whether we'd washed away in the heaviest rain last night, and took some photos of what I found.  First, what is normally a dry grassy valley heading out of Halter Ranch.  This flows under Adelaida Road and into Tablas Creek, though it looked like at least at some point last night it was flowing over Adelaida Road.


And Tablas Creek itself, which has been flowing all winter but only slowly of late, is now loud and full:


The vineyard itself doesn't show any signs of damage from the rain.  That's one good thing about late-season storms; the cover crops have had plenty of time to grow and we don't worry about erosion anywhere but on the roads.  One shot of the bright green cover crop, the dark brown dormant vines and the misty gray sky.  The prunings from the vineyard are still in the middle of the rows, not yet collected for chipping into our compost pile:


The cover crop is a mix of the plants that we seed for (including peas, oats, vetch and clover) and native winter flora.  Below are two closeups; on the left is a photo of several of the native plants growing up through the prunings, and on the right some of the oat grasses with droplets of water on them.

Post-rainstorm_0008  Post-rainstorm_0009

As for the roads, there was a little water running down the sides, but no damage.  I had brought Eli (who is almost 6) out with me, and he was fascinated by the shapes that the water made around the pebbles and mud.  He took a photo that illustrates nicely how little runoff we had:


I was worried a bit about all the new plantings that we put in around our new tasting room over the last few weeks, but needn't have been.  Everything appears to have drained as planned, and a little stone waterfall just inside the front gate was splashing merrily:


We're thrilled with the winter we've had.  It was wet early, which allowed the ground water to penetrate deeply, warm in the middle, which encouraged good cover crop growth, and has been cold and (now) wet late, which should ensure that the vines sprout late and the soils have ample moisture for the growing season.  And there's more in the forecast; even as I've been writing this blog post it's started raining again, and we're supposed to get another few soakings before the end of the week.

This storm's arrival on Zin Fest may not have been ideal.  But as a first-day-of-spring gift, we'll take it.  Happily.

Chronicling a Year in the Southern Rhone

In January I had the pleasure of sitting in on Marc Perrin's presentation of the wines of Beaucastel, Domaines Perrin, and La Vieille Ferme to the Vineyard Brands sales team at their annual sales meeting.  (I followed with a presentation of Tablas Creek).  The wines were beautiful, and the 2009's from the southern Rhone will be stunning.  But what I took away from the experience was a deeper appreciation of how remarkable a family the Perrins are, both passionate about the tradition they inherit and willing to innovate and experiment to improve.  This balance between tradition and innovation manifests itself in wonderful ways in the wines they produce, of course, but equally so in their marketing. 

Far from the stereotype of technophobic French farmers, the Perrins have been at the forefront of new media, creating the Perrin Family Blog in 2003 and more recently diving wholeheartedly into Twitter (@Beaucastel) and Facebook (

At the January sales meeting, Marc played a draft of a seven-minute video montage chronicling a year in the southern Rhone.  The video takes you through the annual cycle, from pruning to budbreak to ripening to harvest to fermentation and winemaking.  I particularly love the vignettes of the family (and Claude, their cellarmaster) deliberating about blending decisions, but the entire video is wonderful.


Our New Tasting Room is Ready!

We're thrilled that our months-long expansion is in its final stages.  The building is done.  The furniture in the new tasting room is complete, and that in our semi-private tasting rooms is nearly done.  We've got most of our landscaping in the ground, with the last pieces coming in the next week.  We even thought we'd be able to get into our tasting room this weekend before the accumulation of small things (permitting questions, contractor touch-ups, equipment testing) suggested that it might be better to be a little more conservative.  We're planning on next Tuesday (March 15th) as our first official day in our new space.

Those of you who have been following the construction project on Facebook have gotten to see the building at many stages.  And I've written recently on the blog about how we hope the experience of visiting the tasting room will communicate who we are.  But as recently as last week I posted a photo looking into our tasting room that showed the floors and tasting bars all still covered with protective wrapping.  But in the last week everything has come together.  I'm excited to be able to present our new tasting room.  First, the view from the front door, looking roughly north-west:


A few features worth noting: the floor is three different colors of cork, which should be soft underfoot and should absorb some sound.  The sculptural centerpiece in the middle of the room will hold our merchandise, but will also break up the room so that when you're tasting at any bar you'll only see one other bar.  This helps keep the experience intimate even as we've nearly doubled our square footage.  And you can see that the cellar surrounds the tasting experience.  It's hard to tell in this photo, but those barrels are huge... eight feet high on the bottom row, fifteen at the top.  And they're really close.


Moving further into the room, you're looking now to the north, where the foudres are on full display.  The bar on the right will hold our cash registers (we've doubled the installed space for these) so checking out will be easier.  All the bars and the centerpiece are made principally of bamboo, which makes for a beautiful finish and is among the most environmentally friendly of building materials.


Continuing into the room, the camera is now on the back bar, looking back east toward the entrance.  You can see the two big cuvinets that are behind the checkout bar, as well as the sculptural leaf logos that are on the front of each bar.  The countertops are the same that we have used in our current tasting room, stained and sealed concrete, which gives a warm, natural feel to the bar tops.


Finally, a view of the back of the sculptural centerpiece that will be the home for our merchandise.  This view is from the back corner of the room, looking south-east toward the front door.  It will look different once it has books, art, clothing and jewelry displayed, but it should be both beautiful and functional.

It's incredibly exciting for us to be so close to moving into our new space.  We hope that we've been able to improve upon what we appreciated about the space that we were in (the personal interaction, the proximity of the cellar, the natural look and feel of the materials) while allowing us to give better service to all the people who come to visit us each year.  We also have two additional rooms (not visible from any of these photos) to the south of the main tasting room which we can either open up to give us additional tasting bar space, or close of either for a private group or just to keep the space more intimate.  One of the rooms will even have the capability of pulling up chairs for seated tastings, which we're thinking we might use for special by-appointment library tastings.  Those rooms aren't quite done yet; when they are I'll post another series of photos on the blog.

Meanwhile, everyone who will be in town for Zinfandel Festival will be in for a treat.  Nothing like baptizing a new space with our second-busiest weekend of the year!  Come on out and let us know what you think.  After all, it's not about us... it's about you.

A Tasting of the Wines in the Spring 2011 VINsider Wine Club Shipment

Every six months, we send out a six-bottle shipment of wines to the members of our VINsider Wine Club.  The fall shipment is in many ways the showcase for our signature wines, and typically includes both our Esprit de Beaucastel and our Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc.  The spring shipment is more eclectic, but typically highlighted by the next vintage of Panoplie, our elite wine made in the image of Beaucastel's iconic Hommage à Jacques Perrin.  We also typically try to send out our Rosé each spring as a preview of this wonderful summertime wine, and the 2010 is a beauty, crisp and spicy, rich yet clean.  Beyond that we choose whichever wines we're particularly excited about.  This year, we chose the beautiful newly-bottled 2010 Vermentino, crisp and classic in this cool vintage, the 2009 Grenache Blanc, remarkably lush yet still focused from the concentrated 2009 vintage, and two single-varietal reds from 2008: the bright yet surprisingly deep 2008 Grenache and the structured, mineral-laced 2008 Syrah.

My dad and I opened the shipment's wines this Friday to draft the tasting and production notes that will accompany them in the shipment.  These shipments will leave the winery the week of March 21st, so we'd waited to write the notes until the last possible moment.  I thought that readers of the blog might enjoy a preview.


  • Production Notes: The 2010 Vermentino is our ninth bottling of this traditional Mediterranean varietal, known principally in Sardinia, Corsica, and Northern Italy. It is also grown in the Rhône Valley (particularly Côtes de Provence) where it is known as Rolle. The Vermentino grape produces wines that are bright, clean, and crisp, with distinctive citrus character and refreshing acidity.
  • Tasting notes: A classic nose of mineral, citrus leaf, and lime zest. In the mouth, an initial impression of sweet citrus quickly turns crisp, with great acids, just a hint of tropical fruit, and a long, clean rocky finish. Pair it with rich oysters or as an aperitif. Enjoy now or over the next two to three years.
  • Production: 1235 cases
  • List Price: $27 VINsider Price: $21.60


  • Production Notes: Grenache Blanc continues to shine on California’s Central Coast. Most of our production goes into our Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc each year, but in 2009 we reserved a small lot for our wine club. It had a very long fermentation in a mix of stainless steel and foudre that didn’t finish until nearly a year after harvest. It was bottled in June 2010.
  • Tasting notes: A smooth nose of buttered toast, preserved lemon and caramel, with a mouth-filling richness on the palate. The finish at first is bright and lemony, and then turns softer with lingering creamy, mineral notes. Drink in the next two to three years.
  • Production: 524 cases
  • List Price: $27 VINsider Price: $21.60

2010 ROSÉ

  • Production Notes: After a tiny crop in 2009, production was back up in 2010, and the composition of our Rosé reflects that, with our traditional blend of 59% Mourvèdre, 30% Grenache and 11% Counoise. We left the grapes on their skins for just under two days before drawing off the juice and completing the fermentation in stainless steel. The wine was bottled in February 2011.
  • Tasting notes: Cranberry in color, with an explosive nose of red chile jam, watermelon, plum, mineral and spice. The mouth is bright with flavors of watermelon and tart cherry. The sweetness of the fruit is chased quickly by bright acids and a long, deep finish with echoes of lime and tangerine. Drink now through the end of 2012.
  • Production: 1468 cases
  • List Price: $27 VINsider Price: $21.60


  • Production Notes: The 2008 Grenache, like the 2008 vintage, is exceptionally elegant yet with sneaky power and remarkable complexity for such a young wine. The Grenache was harvested in excellent conditions in early October, fermented in individual lots in closed stainless steel fermenters, blended in June 2009 and aged in foudre until its bottling in April 2010. Unlike in previous vintages (into which we blended 10% Syrah) the wine is 100% Grenache, as we found it to be exquisitely balanced on its own.
  • Tasting notes: Bright medium red, with a classic Grenache nose of currant, red plum, and cherry. Fresh and pure on the palate with flavors of red fruit and milk chocolate, nice chalky tannins that provide firmness and a touch of saline minerality on the long finish. Drink now or over the next six to eight years.
  • Production: 480 cases
  • List Price: $40 VINsider Price: $32

2008 SYRAH

  • Production Notes: The cool 2008 vintage was an excellent one for Syrah. Harvested largely in the middle two weeks of September and fermented in both open-top stainless steel fermenters and upright 1500-gallon oak casks, we blended the wine in June 2009 and aged it primarily in 1200-gallon foudres but also in two new 60-gallon barrels to provide a touch of oak. As with the Grenache, we chose to keep the wine 100% Syrah due to the expressiveness of the varietal in the 2008 vintage. The wine was bottled in April 2010.
  • Tasting notes: Translucent blue-black in color, with a nose of sweet oak, black fruit and mint. The flavors are consistent with the nose, with surprising acidity that should give the wine a long, graceful evolution. Think tart blackberries, with an appealing brambly component. The finish turns creamier, the hint of oak returning. Hold for 6 months or more, and then drink for another fifteen.
  • Production: 476 cases
  • List Price: $40 VINsider Price: $32


  • Production Notes: The 2008 Panoplie marries the vintage’s characteristic elegance with an incredible array of flavors. As always, Panoplie is selected from lots in the cellar chosen for their balance, richness and concentration. The composition (54% Mourvèdre, 29% Grenache and 17% Syrah) reflects the quality of the Syrah in this cooler vintage, but is still based on the structure and meatiness of Mourvèdre. The wine was blended in July 2009 and aged in foudre for a year before being bottled in July 2010.
  • Tasting notes: Dark brick red in color, with a dark, meaty nose showing aromas of raspberry, chocolate, leather and baking spices.  The mouth is rich but with a current of mineral-driven coolness running through it, showing flavors of plum, chocolate, loam, red bramble fruits, just a touch of oak and fine, ripe tannins.  The very long finish is minty, fruity and earthy all at once.  Although it's drinking beautifully now, we expect it to tighten up in the next few years, then reopen around 2016 and drink well for two decades.
  • Production: 500 cases
  • List Price: $95 VINsider Price: $76

More details on the shipment are online for anyone interested: