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August 2011
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October 2011

Harvest, Weeks of September 12th and 19th: A Quiet Beginning

As is typically the case, the 2011 harvest began quietly, with a few grapes trickling in over the first week or so before picking up steam.  The first grapes of the season arrived on Thursday, September 15th: about three tons of mostly Viognier (there was a little Roussanne mixed in) from two small vineyards in the El Pomar section of Templeton.  These will go into the 2011 Patelin de Tablas Blanc.  A photo of the first bin to reach the winery is below.  The hand belongs to Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Magnusson:


The next day saw us bring in our first red, Syrah, for the Patelin red.  This is fermenting in open-top stainless steel fermenters and in our wooden upright tanks.  A cool photo from last week through the opened top of the upright shows the Syrah bubbling away like a witch's brew.  As typically happens for us, the native yeast fermentations started right up, no problem.


The week of the 19th saw the first fruit from Tablas Creek Vineyard: about six tons of Vermentino off a beautiful parcel planted in 2007 at the western edge of the property.  Most encouraging about this picking is that we had estimated that there were about 9 bins in that section but found that there were really 12.  This and other similar results bode well for yields throughout the vineyard, which I had been worried would be at 2009 levels: below 2 tons per acre.  I'm no longer so worried about that.  The photo below shows the Vermentino, bins in the cellar in front and a press full of Vermentino behind:


The next day saw our first estate Roussanne, which looked great and allayed another fear we'd had, that with the cold spring and the late start to harvest we might be looking at an end of harvest in mid-November like last year.  But it appears that while the varieties that had sprouted before April's frosts are delayed, those that were still dormant are more or less on schedule.  That will mean that while we'll have a crazy October we're not likely to have as much fruit hanging in November as we did last year.

At the end of last week we got in our first Grenache, from La Vista Vineyard just down the street from us on Adelaida Road.  This was a very strong component of last year's Patelin, and this year's Grenache looked great:


The last two weeks have been warm, with most days topping out in the low- to mid-90s, and nights that dropped down only to the mid-50s.  This is perfect ripening weather, and it was clear at the end of last week that this week harvest was going to hit us full force.  We put in our first Saturday of the season (La Vista Syrah) and for this week we're looking at Syrah from several blocks, Pinot Noir from my dad's vineyard in Templeton, more Viognier, Vermentino and Roussanne for sure and perhaps Chardonnay, Grenache Blanc and Marsanne.  Happily, things cooled off on Sunday and Monday (highs in the 70s) so we could assess.  But with a warm day today and more warmth forecast for the rest of the week, we might see nearly 100 tons before the end of September.

We're buckled up and ready to roll.

Maine's Greatest Oysters

by Robert Haas

I began my love affair with oysters on the half shell when I first went to France in 1954.  Sure, I had eaten the ubiquitous Blue Points in New York restaurants (with cocktail sauce of course) but I discovered then the flavors really fresh cold water oysters, served with just lemon and fresh ground pepper and accompanied by a Chablis or a Sancerre, could bring to the table.

Barbara Scully I was unaware of the availability of terrific oysters at retail for home delivery here until Glidden Point Oyster Sea Farm, owned by Barbara Scully (right), was brought to my attention a few years ago at a wine and oyster tasting in Peacham, VT by Ed Behr, the Vermont-based food and wine devotee best known as publisher of The Art of Eating.  Home for the Glidden Points is the Damariscotta River, which flows with some of the cleanest water on the East Coast.  It is an excellent place to farm because it produces oysters with a rich buttery-yet-briny taste.  Ever since that tasting, my family, friends, and winery neighbors have often profited from that discovery.   A few days after our tasting I called Barbara for the first time to order some oysters to enjoy at home.  I was intrigued by the idea of “estate grown” oysters with “terroir.”  Not only estate grown but hand planted and harvested by diving rather than dragging.  Barbara’s terrific web site is a must visit for any who love these hard-shell bivalves and would like to learn more about them, their culture and their history.

Whereas oysters on the half shell were rare in restaurants and even rarer at retail in their shells in the U.S., they were offered frequently in France from simple bistros to the Michelin three-star elites back in the fifties.  I really do not know why that was.  Perhaps we had lost the art of eating during prohibition, when of course, the emphasis was on high proof drinking; or perhaps a lack of refrigeration or commercial airfreight for shipping.  It was not always so.  Colonists gobbled up the then-abundant oysters in the river estuaries on the East Coast, and oysters are often mentioned in literature describing fine meals back in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Judging from the piles of oyster shells from Native American feasts -- for example, the Glidden Midden on the Damariscotta shore -- oysters were a favorite American fare as long as two thousand years ago.

Last week my wife and I were renting a small house in Rockland, about half an hour away from Edgecomb, where Barbara Scully and her two teenage children tend the retail shop and the wet storage landing dock on the Damariscotta River where the oysters await shipping.  We went to visit, bought two dozen oysters (of course) and persuaded Barbara to take us on a tour later that week of one of her farm sites up river.  Seedling oysters (below, left) mature in plastic cages (below, right) for their first year before they are planted on the bottom to grow four more years. 

Baby Oysters  Oyster incubators

Only then does Barbara dive to harvest them using nets like the one below. 

Harvest Net

We asked her kids if they ever dived to harvest.  The quick answer was "No, only mom dives".  The farm is a tough, exacting and sometimes dangerous business that "mom" has been working at for 24 years.  She not only plants, grows and harvests herself; she answers the phone and tends the retail stand.  Wow!

So order your Glidden Points (here).  When they arrive grab your shucking knife, some lemon and a pepper mill.  Open a bottle of 2010 Vermentino that you have stashed in your fridge or the 2010 Marsanne that is in your fall VINsider shipment and have a feast.

Corkiness: not just for wine these days.

Once you learn the musty, wet cardboard smell of 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA) it's unmistakeable.  TCA-infected wine is commonly referred to as "corky" or "corked".  I've been smelling TCA a lot lately.  No, we haven't been experiencing a raft of corky wines.  In fact, the quality of corks has never, in my experience, been higher, or the incidence of corked Tablas Creek lower.  I'm finding corkiness in unexpected places from housewares to the produce section.

TCA A little science first.  TCA, pictured right, is created when when naturally occurring airborne fungi come into contact with phenolic compounds in the presence of chlorine.  (The closely related chemical 2,4,6-tribromoanisole is created through the same interaction of fungi and phenolic compounds in the presence of bromine.)  Phenolic compounds are everywhere and include many of the flavors we taste and the aromas we smell -- including both the flavonoids and tannins in wine.  In our modern world where water is routinely chlorinated and vegetables often washed with a chlorine rinse before packaging, so is chlorine.  Chlorophenols are also produced during the chlorine bleaching process used to sterilize wood, paper, and foodstuffs.  Bromine is nearly as prevalent in our environment, as tribromophenols are common industrial chemicals, added to wood to preserve it and used as fire-retardant agents in polyurethanes, plastics, paper, and textiles, and -- ironically --  as fungicides and antiseptics.

The fungi convert the phenolic compounds into chlorinated anisole (or brominated anisole) derivatives.  Once they are created they spread rapidly as they are highly volatile.  Plastic is not a barrier, and in fact can be a carrier.  Shipping pallets have been identified as a primary vector of contagion.  Heat and sunlight do both destroy these anisoles, and in fact putting infected materials outside on a dry, sunny day is one way to combat the problem.  (Don't try this with wine.)

Corky non-wine items that have arrived at Tablas Creek have included the cork bottoms of marble coasters we bought to sell in our tasting room, the cardboard backing of a poster frame, and most ironically a shipment of wine bags: the six-bottle insulated nylon bags that wine reps use to carry their samples from appointment to appointment.  In each case we've removed these from our premises as soon as they were identified.  We've also eliminated all chlorine-based products in the cellar.

But it's not at the winery that I've been seeing corkiness, and I don't think that corkiness in wine is a growing problem.  If anything, it's a declining problem in wine as wineries learn how to avoid creating it in the cellar, cork producers clean up their own harvesting and manufacturing processes (corks used to be harvested and left on the forest floor for months to dry, picking up plenty of mold spores, and then bleached with in a chlorine bath after cutting) and many wineries have simply switched to screwcaps, synthetic corks and other alternative closures.

No, the problem has cropped up in my lunch and in my home refrigerator.  I honestly can't remember the last bagged produce that I opened that didn't smell at least slightly corked.  Baby carrots are the ones that I come across most often, but I've found corky potatoes, green beans and apple slices in the last few months as well.  And I have a real feeling it's just the tip of an iceberg.  Jon Bonné of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote in April about a corked salad he received in a Healdsburg restaurant.  George Heritier of the terrific blog Gang of Pour recently found a corked wine box.  But if much (most?) packaged produce contains corkiness, given how volatile the responsible anisole compounds are, doesn't it seem likely that the warehouses where these foods are stored and shipped are infected?  And how does that get cleaned up?

It's ironic that at the moment, the cork you pull out of the nice bottle of wine you're serving with your dinner may be the least likely culprit in your meal's musty, malodorous note.

Photos of each Rhone grape variety as harvest nears

Harvest is beginning to feel imminent.  We haven't brought in any fruit yet, but we've prepared our log books, washed out all our tanks and equipment, put our harvest cellar team together and we're ready.  We're expecting our first fruit from a couple of the vineyards we use for Patelin later this week.

We don't expect anything off our own property for another week or two, but with the beautiful warm weather we've been having for the last three weeks we've made a lot of progress.  Syrah and Mourvedre are through veraison, Grenache is nearly done, and even Counoise is making good progress.  The whites are also coming along nicely.

I spent an hour prowling the vineyard this morning to get shots of what each grape looks like now.  I'll take them in the order in which we expect them to come into the cellar.  First, Viognier, which was most affected by the April frosts and which is scarcest in the vineyard.  We're hoping for five tons off the roughly five acres we have planted:


Next, Syrah, which looks great.  Already showing its classic blue-black color, with thick skins and lots of flavor:


Next will likely be Marsanne, which I'm feeling more positive about after today's explorations.  Yields will be lower than normal, but not as drastically as in the Viognier.  And the vines and clusters look terrific:


Grenache Blanc will likely come in next.  It was reduced by the frost, but Grenache (both red and white) is sufficiently vigorous that it still set a decent crop.  I may be being optimistic about its timing; it will likely be a later Grenache harvest than we've ever seen before:


Grenache Noir is typically harvested soon after Grenache Blanc, though this year I'm sure that some Grenache lots won't come in before November.  Different vineyard blocks are at widely different stages, with some looking nearly full red and others still mostly green.  Some Grenache blocks have very little crop, and others look fine.  Our normal practice of harvesting Grenache selectively and carefully will be particularly critical this year.  The cluster below is probably about average for the vineyard, mostly through veraison but still fairly light in color and with some greenish berries mixed in:


Roussanne, which would normally be very late, seems comparatively more advanced this year.  It came through the frosts just fine and looks to be in exceptional condition; for whatever reason, the typical late-season Roussanne malaise that we're used to seeing hasn't materialized this year.  In fact, I may have misplaced it, as I'm almost certain we'll see our first Roussanne lots before our first Grenache lots.  Below, you can see Roussanne starting to get its typically russet color:


Right around when Roussanne is harvested, we typically bring in Picpoul.  I'd think that Picpoul, which is planted in our coldest pocket, will likely be a little later this year.  Still bright green, it seems a while off yet:


Normally, Mourvedre would be last.  But like Roussanne it was largely unscathed by the frosts, and actually started veraison first of the reds.  It does take a long time between veraison and ripeness, but I still will go out on a limb and say we'll bring some in before we do Counoise, which is still partly green even in the ripest areas.  The Mourvedre looks really strong this year:


Last is Counoise, which was just starting to sprout at the time of the frosts.  That's not as bad for productivity as if a vine is more advanced (as were, say, Viognier and Grenache) but it does tend to delay ripening significantly.  And Counoise is already late.  I'm hoping we bring it in in October this year, but wouldn't be surprised if it's November.  The cluster below is a little more advanced than what's average in the vineyard, but still shows some green berries mixed among the pink and red:


Overall, I'm feeling a little more positive about yields than I was after my last extended trek around the vineyard three weeks ago.  Our two most important varieties (Roussanne and Mourvedre) look good, and most blocks of Syrah look fine.  Grenache and Grenache Blanc will be reduced, probably by half compared to last year, and Marsanne and Counoise are probably similar.  Viognier will have a quarter of last year's crop, if that.  While that all may sound bleak, that's not too bad given that Mourvedre and Roussanne account for nearly half our total planted acreage.  We'll see, soon enough, if I'm right.

Tablas Creek Grenache retrospective: a vertical tasting of every Cotes de Tablas and every varietal Grenache ever

This weekend, we're delving into Grenache in what should be a fascinating seminar.  We'll taste each vintage of the Tablas Creek varietal Grenache (2006-2009), three different Grenache-dominated vintages of our Cotes de Tablas, and then four Famille Perrin wines that are based on Grenache.  Our goal is to explore the expressions of this, the second-most-planted grape in the world.  From our upcoming Tablas Creek events page:

Sunday, September 4th 12:00p.m.
Grenache Grand Tour

Grenache is the most widely planted grape in the southern Rhône Valley, and the second most widely planted varietal in the world. It works wonderfully in blends, and is also capable of making profound wines on its own. It drinks well young, and is typically more approachable in its youth than Syrah or Mourvèdre, yet makes wines that can age for decades. And at whatever age, in (nearly) every incarnation, Grenache is a wonderful partner with food. This September 4th, we will look at Grenache in all its glory. Join partner Jason Haas and winemaker Neil Collins as we taste every vintage of Tablas Creek Grenache, several of our Grenache-based blends, three different appellations of Grenache-based wines from Perrin & Fils in the southern Rhone, and a Grenache-dominated Beaucastel. We'll finish the day with a Grenche-friendly lunch prepared by chef Jeffrey Scott. This exploration of the vibrant world of Grenache is $55 for VINsiders and $70 for guests. Advance reservations are essential; contact Nicole Getty at 805.237.1231 x39 or [email protected].

So, to get ready (and to decide which vintages of Cotes de Tablas we should open) Winemakers Neil Collins and Ryan Hebert, Wine Club & Hospitality Director Nikki Getty, and National Sales Manager Tommy Oldre joined me in a comprehensive Grenache tasting yesterday.  A look at the assembled wines:


The tasting was fascinating.  We found that the wines fell into two identifiable categories: those from more elegant years, with a classic, vibrant mid-weight Grenache signature (like 2003, 2004, 2006 and 2008) and those from more powerfully structured years with more richness, more licorice and dark fruit, and more tannin.  Which sort of vintage a drinker will prefer is likely to be a matter of personal preference rather than qualitative difference.  But knowing which vintage fall into which camps should help you know which you're more likely to enjoy... or which you'll want to lay down. 

More relevantly, we came out of the tasting convinced that Grenache is already doing great here at Tablas Creek, and likely only to get better.  It's a variety that shows well both in more elegant and more powerful vintages.  It shows well young, but has proven to be remarkably ageable.  And these were not expensive wines, not consciously made to cellar.  The Cotes de Tablas retailed between $20 and $25 all through the 2000's.  It was a pleasure to realize that these wines have not just held up this well, but have gained in richness and complexity.  Tommy's comment toward the end of the vertical was "you know, anyone who was buying these wines and laying them down was getting a steal."  Kudos to any of you who did.

Grenache Flight

  • 2006 Grenache (90% Grenache, 10% Syrah): a pretty mid-weight nose and translucent color, spicy, with vanilla bean and lively red fruit.  It's in a nice place in the mouth, with plenty of fruit, slightly candied, and soft tannins.  Good acidity at the end keeps everything fresh.
  • 2007 Grenache (90% Grenache, 10% Syrah): richer and jammier than the 2006, with powerful strawberry and mineral nose.  In the mouth, still very young, rich yet cooled and lifted by mineral, showing a little sweet oak on the finish, and big tannins.  We thought that it was a wine to wait on, or to drink with big food.  Ryan's comment after just two wines: "I didn't realize I liked single varietal Grenache so much!"
  • 2008 Grenache (100% Grenache): An intriguing nose, both lifted and dark, with violets, tar and chocolate.  Intense yet not full-bodied.  Still quite primary, and needs some time for the finish to calm down.  Interesting progression through the mouth, with the initial attack sweet and the finish very dry, with big tannins.  Totally classic for Grenache at this stage in its life; lay it down for a year or two.
  • 2009 Grenache (100% Grenache): A tangy nose of barbeque spices, smoke and pepper.  The mouth is rich but still relatively tannic; Tommy called it "brawny".  Still very, very young.  There's a nice coffee note on the finish that suggests it's going to be gorgeous.  Won't go out for a while (it's scheduled to go out to our wine club in March 2012) and will still probably be a candidate to lay down for a year or two then.

Cotes de Tablas Flight

  • 1999 Petite Cuvee (65% Grenache, 25% Syrah, 10% Mourvedre): This was the precursor to the Cotes de Tablas, and we made just a few hundred cases in 1999 of lots that we thought weren't up to the standards of the 1999 Reserve Cuvee, mostly Grenache that we thought too tannic for its weight.  The wine was sold only in our tasting room, and we never thought it would go this long, but it's showing admirably, with the nose the only part showing any age, lots of soy and balsamic.  There's some sweet fruit on the attack, but then big tannins, still a little drying on the finish.  A nice licorice note lingers.  Neil commented that it would be really nice with a dry-aged ribeye, and it could even stand to age a little longer.
  • 2000 Cotes de Tablas (84% Grenache, 16% Syrah): Our first Cotes de Tablas, from about 600 cases worth of lots we thought pretty but not sufficiently intense to go into the 2000 Esprit, that to our surprise got a 92-point rating from Robert Parker and sold out in less than a month.  There are times when an outside perspective helps you realize the quality of something you've been overlooking each day, and this was one example.  Now showing lots of complexity, with a gamy, meaty, spicy, tobacco-y nose, just beautiful.  In the mouth, lots of sweet Grenache fruit, very lush, still fresh and mouth-filling.  Benefited from time in the glass; so if you have some, decant it for a little while before you drink.
  • 2001 Cotes de Tablas (38% Mourvedre, 34% Syrah, 24% Grenache, 4% Counoise): An anomaly for the tasting, as in 2001 we decided that the spring frost had scrambled up the vintage sufficiently that we weren't going to make an Esprit de Beaucastel, and declassified nearly the entire vintage into the Cotes.  So, Grenache was the #3 variety behind Mourvedre and Syrah.  The nose showed leaner than 2000, nice aromatics of cola & leather, definitely signed by Mourvedre.  In the mouth, nice balance, flavors of rare steak, spice and plum, mid-weight, pretty but less dramatic than the wines around it. Drink now and for the next few years.
  • 2002 Cotes de Tablas (45% Grenache, 22% Syrah, 21% Mourvedre, 12% Counoise): Our first "modern" Cotes de Tablas, blended primarily as a wine in its own right rather than as a consequence of lots we didn't want in the Esprit.  A powerful yet savory nose (Tommy called it "really cool") of asian spices, leather, cranberries and soy.  A sweet attack, the first signs of age showing in a mid-palate of roasted meat and dark spices, then a gentler finish than the initial impression would have suggested, with nice richness and soft tannins.  Probably not going to get any better, so drink up.
  • 2003 Cotes de Tablas (60% Grenache, 24% Syrah, 12% Mourvedre, 4% Counoise): A clean pretty nose of cherry cola, strawberry and a little pepper spice.  In the mouth, just lovely: fresh red strawberry and raspberry fruit, a dusting of dark chocolate, and a great middle-weight and texture with just enough tannins to clean up the wine's perception of sweetness.  Must be close to its apex, and the wine of the tasting for us.
  • 2004 Cotes de Tablas (64% Grenache, 16% Syrah, 13% Counoise, 7% Mourvedre): A very pretty color, a little darker than the 2003, with a slightly smokier, tangier nose.  Sort of halfway between 2002 and 2003 aromatically.  The mouth showed flavors of rare steak, balsamic and Tommy noted a cool spiciness that he nailed as paprika.  Good acids and relatively firm tannins suggest that this is still a year or two away from peak.

[Between 2005 and 2007 we bottled the Cotes de Tablas in both cork and screwcap versions.  We hadn't checked in on them in a while, so we tasted both.  They weren't tasted blind, which of course influences our perceptions of them, but since some of us are screcap proponents and others tend to favor corks, we were pleased that our impressions of the wines' relative merits were pretty consistent.  I've included notes from both versions below.]

  • 2005 Cotes de Tablas (43% Grenache, 24% Mourvedre, 18% Syrah, 15% Counoise)
    • Cork: Just a hint of bricking on the rim, with a nose rich and licoricey with savory aromas of dark soy.  In the mouth gorgeous and lush, with purple-black fruit.  Still quite a big, young wine, nice chalky tannins.
    • Screwcap: Color younger, more true red, with a nose that we variously described as mineral, flinty and gunpowdery.  The fruit took a few minutes to come out in the glass but was very pure when it did, higher-toned than the cork version.  The mouth hasn't gotten the same breadth as the cork finish, but got richer and richer with time open.  Both versions could probably benefit from a decant at this point, but certainly the screwcap.
  • 2006 Cotes de Tablas (72% Grenache, 11% Syrah, 9% Mourvedre, 8% Counoise)
    • Cork: Nose is spicy, minty, junipery, with a surprising (and welcome) orange peel note.  The mouth is sweet and slightly piney, with good richness on the mid-palate.  There is a nice, linering finish.
    • Screwcap: Nose is similar, a little less expressive and slightly higher-toned, almost pomegranate.  In the mouth, a perception of a little more acid, brighter tannins and a touch more minerality.  Not as different from the cork version as either 2005 or 2007.
  • 2007 Cotes de Tablas (50% Grenache, 25% Syrah, 25% Counoise)
    • Cork: The first bottle was corky, which drove home the risks of cork.  The second bottle showed a powerful, slightly gamy nose, sweet & rich, intensely grenachey with licorice, spice and purple fruit.  In the mouth, sweet fruit and nice tannins, relatively well resolved for such a young wine.
    • Screwcap: Powerful nose, a touch more perceptible alcohol than the screwcap, but with lurking dark red jam that came out more and more with air. The mouth showed similarly to the cork version, a touch younger and more tannic, with the tannins less resolved and integrated.
  • 2008 Cotes de Tablas (42% Grenache, 21% Syrah, 20% Counoise, 17% Mourvedre): Only bottled in screwcap. A beautiful nose, junipery, minty and citrusy like the 2006, but with an additional sweet spice note (cloves?) that was nice.  The mouth is mid-weight, with nice tannins and a cool, grainy texture with just a hint of oak from a new wooden fermenter than part of the blend spent some time in. Drinking great now, but can age, too.
  • 2009 Cotes de Tablas (43% Grenache, 24% Syrah, 18% Counoise, 15% Mourvedre): Only bottled in cork.  Smells dense & extracted, with cola and licorice notes and dark spice.  The flavor is intensely cherry, with broad texture, chalky tannins and quite dry on the finish.  Low-ish in acidity, but big tannins keep the wine balanced.  A great Cotes to lay down, if not quite ready now.

A few concluding thoughts.  First, on corks vs. screwcaps.  It seemed clear to us that, at least at the stage at which we were tasting the wines (fairly newly opened, about 5 years old) the cork version was richer, with better-integrated tannins.  But as the wine sat in the glass, and with time open in the bottle, the screwcap version gained breadth and approached the cork version, though always remaining a little higher-toned.  The difference seemed greater in the denser, more concentrated (and more tannic) vintages of 2005 and 2007 than it did in the more elegant 2006, which suggests that our decision to put the wine back under cork for the powerful 2009 vintage, and then going forward as we make a more intense Cotes de Tablas by declassifying less-intense lots into the Patelin de Tablas, was a good one.

Of course, the one disappointing wine was the corked 2007.  A dilemma.

It was clear to all of us that we've been giving Grenache short shrift in our evaluations of its capacity to age.  Cotes de Tablas wines a decade old were showing vibrantly, clearly right in their sweet spot at 6-10 years of age, but with the capacity to go happily several more years.  And lest we be tempted to attribute that to the additions of Syrah and Mourvedre, the varietal Grenaches, even the 2006, showed fresh and youthful.

Our favorite wine of the tasting was the 2003 Cotes de Tablas, which satisfied just about everyone, whether they were looking for more richness or more vibrancy.  Other favorites included 2000, 2004 and 2006.  That the 2003 Cotes should show best in its vertical, just as the 2003 Esprit de Beaucastel showed best at our most recent vertical of Esprit reds, suggests that these wines may age very well indeed... perhaps nearly as well as the Mourvedre-dominated Esprits.