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September 2011
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November 2011

A Day in the Life of a Limousin Oak Fermenter

By Robert Haas

When you enter our new tasting room you can see our Séguin-Moreau 1600 gallon Limousin oak cuves in the background:


We really love them.  But they are much more than a mise en scène for our visitors.  They are valuable because of their flexibility.  With the flat bottom and the wide door at the base, they can be used to ferment red wines (unlike our foudres).  They have a large stainless-steel door on the top, and if we want to ferment without oxygen (as we often do for Grenache and Counoise) we can close the door.  But if we want to use them for open-top fermenting (as we typically want for Syrah and Mouvedre) we just leave the door on top.  Instant flexibility.  And they're useful during the rest of the year, too: when their covers are fitted, they act like a foudre and provide large oak ageing before bottling. 

Four of them are new this year.  We are running several fermentations through each in order to minimize the influence of new oak on our wines, so when the primary fermentations are finished we remove the wine to other storage and the berries to the press, in a process known in French as écoulage, literally translatable as "detanking".  Then we reuse the cuves for the next lot of harvest.  A photo of the écoulage, below:

Cuve ecoulage

The interiors of the cuves are fairly high-tech, and include heat-exchange piping for cooling or warming as needed.  In the two photos below you can see the floor of one just emptied and cleaned and the inside with its piping.

Cuve bottom door Cuve interior

Looking up from inside the cuve shows its open top with its safety grid:

Cuve top grid_0001

We are picking mourvèdre today. The grapes are going to fermentation in the emptied tank.  They arrive from the vineyard in half-ton bins, are taken off with a fork-lift, weighed and dumped onto our vibrator belt to be conveyed to the de-stemmer.  From there the de-stemmed berries and their natural juice go into the newly emptied cuve (below) to restart its cycle of use.  Simple, huh?

Cuve recoulage_0001

Harvest, Weeks of October 10th and 17th: Full Speed Ahead as Frosty Weather Looms

We've made an amazing amount of progress over the last couple of weeks.  The conditions have been perfect, with an average high temperature of 83 (range 72-91) and an average low temperature of 50 (range 44-55).  We've had ample sun every day.  These conditions have meant that everything is ripening steadily but not under much stress, and we can choose the ideal moment to harvest each block.

Over the two weeks, we've brought in a little over 107 tons of fruit off the Tablas Creek estate, and another 19 tons of purchased fruit for the Patelin wines.  The estate fruit includes our first pickings of Counoise (October 12th), Tannat (October 13th), and Mourvedre (October 22nd) and lots more Grenache, Syrah, and Roussanne.  We also completed our Viognier (October 13th), Marsanne (October 17th), and Grenache Blanc (October 20th) harvests which along with Vermentino makes four varieties we've finished and our first chance to look at yields compared to previous years.

By varietal, our yields have been:

Grape2011 Yields (tons)
2010 Yields (tons) 2009 Yields (tons)
Viognier 3.3 22.5 12.2
Marsanne 9.0 13.2
Grenache Blanc 21.0 34.8
Vermentino 11.9 19.1
Total Whites 45.2 89.6

We have known all summer that our Viognier was essentially wiped out by the frosts in the spring.  And the other varieties we've completed are all relatively early varieties that were impacted by the frosts.  So the fact that we're above 2009's historically low yields is a good thing.  But it's clear that we're well below what we harvested in 2010 in every grape variety except perhaps Roussanne, and that our yields overall will be closer to the roughly 200 tons that we harvested in 2009 than to the 350 tons we harvested in 2010.  As of the end of last week, we'd harvested 154 tons off the estate. We figure that at that point we were somewhere around 70% done, which puts us around 225 tons of estate fruit for the year.

The quality, though, looks amazing.  We've never seen such thick skins, and such deep colors, in the reds, and the sugar/acid/pH numbers look like they came from enology textbooks.  A few photos will give you a sense of things.  First, two photos of Grenache, one on the vine and one in a bin.  Given that Grenache is usually one of the ligher-colored red grapes, the colors we're seeing are particularly impressive.  On the left, a cluster still on the vine.  On the right, in a bin outside the winery:

Grenache_cluster  Grenache_in_bin

The grapes aren't the only thing that are showing exceptional color.  The sky has been an amazing dark blue with exceptionally low humidities.  The colors in the photo below (golden barrels, green wild roses trailing over the cream limestone rocks, and the amazing sky) are about as intense as it gets around here:


The Mourvedre is looking (and tasting) wonderful.  We've seen remarkably even ripening in this notoriously uneven grape.  Below, it shades on a sunny day last week under its canopy of leaves:


In the cellar, we've been running both red and white presses nearly every day, as the last whites come into the cellar at the same time that the earlier reds are ready to be pressed off their skins.  We'll be delving more into the cycle of grapes through the cellar in our next post, but visitors this past weekend for the Paso Robles Harvest Festival and the previous weekend for our Harvest & Winemaking Seminar (below) saw a beehive of activity: red grapes coming in, being sorted, destemmed and pumped into tanks, while other reds are being pressed off and moved to barrel and whites are being pressed whole cluster the same hour they arrive in the cellar.


For all the benign weather, we know that fall is ending.  The forecast for tonight calls for a good chance of frost, and tomorrow night is supposed to be nearly as cold.  There's not much out that could be hurt by a frost (everything is nearly ready to pick and frost only impacts a vine's leaves' ability to photosynthesize, not the grapes themselves) but it's a good reminder that we're nearing the end of the ripening season.  And the vineyard is starting to look autumnal; both Mourvedre and Syrah (the two most colorful grapes) are starting to show red and orange in their leaves. I'll leave you with one particularly fall-like Mourvedre leaf, below.  We'll be enjoying the colors as we get the last grapes in over the next week or so.


Why Paso Robles will make California's best wines in 2011

Last Thursday, as I was driving down to a couple of events in Los Angeles, I received an email (clearly addressed to a larger distribution list) from Tim Fish of the Wine Spectator. Tim was soliciting photos of inundated vineyards, rotted grape clusters or other signs of damage from the previous week's rains.  Given that the rainstorm was a relative non-issue for us (we resumed harvesting less than a week later and haven't seen any rot) I have been worrying ever since about the potential collateral damage to us from the perception that 2011 has been a poor harvest in California. It's easier for the trade to assimilate one message for a region than for them to understand a complex picture.  And for all the progress the Central Coast has made I still think that, to a large extent, what happens in Napa and Sonoma determines the perception of the quality of a vintage in California.

But California is a big place.  Paso Robles is further from Napa than Avignon (the heart of the southern Rhone) is from Beaune (the heart of Burgundy).  And while most of California has been cooler and wetter than average, there have been important regional variations in how much and when the moisture has arrived and surprising differences in how both cool and hot temperatures have been distributed.  Here are several reasons why I think that Paso Robles is uniquely positioned within California for an outstanding vintage:

  • The vines started healthy after a rainy winter.  Paso Robles is not unique in this, but droughts are one issue that we have to deal with more often than our neighbors to the north.  This year, we had the advantage of our second consecutive winter well over 30 inches of rain, and the vineyards have thrived.  Varieties like Roussanne and Mourvedre that typically look ragged at this time of year are still green and healthy.
  • Paso Robles is not a valley that opens to the Pacific.  Thank you, Santa Lucia Mountains!  The relatively deep marine layer that has been in place most of the summer has meant that many areas more open to the Pacific have been cool and damp while we were warm and sunny, shielded by our range of mountains.  The result has been remarkably consistent ripening weather; after a cool spring that lasted roughly until June 15th, the weather has been ideal.  Nearly every day since has been in the 80's or low 90's. 
  • The recent heat wave that affected southern California spared Paso.  When I was driving down last week, it was hotter (96) in Santa Barbara than it was (91) at Tablas Creek.  I'm not sure I ever remember that.  And places like the Santa Ynez and Santa Maria Valleys, Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande all saw temperatures well over 100 for several days.
  • The rain that we got two weeks ago was followed immediately by wind and sun.  We got 1.5 inches of rain early in the morning of October 5th.  I posted a video that afternoon in which you can hear the wind whipping through the vines and see the abundant sunshine.  The rain we received was actually good for the vines, who were reinvigorated by the moisture.  The same was not true in much of the North Coast, where vineyards already stressed by the cool, damp summer stayed overcast after the storm and created outbreaks of botrytis.
  • Our April frosts provided natural control over yields.  Not that I would wish a frost on anyone, but in a cool year, having less fruit on the vines makes your chances of getting that fruit ripe better.  It sounded like many North Coast producers waited a long time to decide to drop fruit in the hopes of ripening.  Starting with lower yields from the beginning gives better ripening early.

Will this year be a great one for the Paso Robles area?  I don't know.  There are some vineyards that were so badly hit by the frosts that their crops are negligible and may be out of balance.  And there were significant mildew pressures here (like in much of California) from the wet winter, the cool spring and the fact that it hardly ever got above 95 degrees.  Some vineyards we know lost large portions of their crops to mildew outbreaks.

Yet, from what we're seeing, and from the other local wineries we're talking to, the fruit that is coming into the cellars here is intense and yet balanced, with good acids, thick skins, dark color and excellent complexity.  The numbers (Brix, pH, acids) are textbook.  And the forecast for at least the next 10 days is excellent, with warm days, cool nights, and no rain on the horizon.  We're at this point expecting to harvest more or less continuously until things are done, and we don't expect any vineyard blocks to be unharvestable.

Will 2011 go down in history as a "bad" vintage for California?  I hope not.  But if it does, I feel comfortable saying that you will be able to feel safe turning to Paso Robles as an exception to that rule.

Harvest, Weeks of September 26th and October 3rd: Things Ramp Up and then Pause for Rain

After a slow start to harvest, the accumulation of warm days produced a rush at the end of September.  Between September 26th and October 4th, we harvested 112 tons of fruit, including most of what will go into our Patelin Blanc (mostly Viognier and Grenache Blanc) and perhaps half of what will go into our Patelin (mostly Syrah).  We also brought in 28 tons of estate fruit, principally Vermentino, Roussanne and Chardonnay, though also a little Syrah, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc and even Grenache Noir.  Two photos from that period will give a sense of what we were working on.  First, a photo of bins of Grenache Blanc lined up outside the winery, waiting to be pressed:


And then a photo of our destemmer, working on Syrah.  Our newest piece of equipment for this year's harvest is a vibrating conveyor to even out the flow of clusters to the destemmer.  Rather than a traditional conveyor belt, with moving parts and hinges that are almost impossible to keep clean, this is a slightly inclined stainless steel channel that vibrates, moving the clusters downhill toward the destemmer in an even flow.  It's been a remarkable success, reducing the number of clusters that have made it through the destemmer undestemmed and producing nicer-looking berries with less stem particles:


Just as it looked like all of the 2011 harvest was going to come tumbling in in a rush, the weather changed.  A storm front on Monday, October 3rd dropped a negligible amount of rain (0.08 inches) but paved the way for a larger storm on Wednesday, October 5th.  This second storm dropped 1.6 inches of rain on the vineyard, not insignificant for early October, and we haven't harvested anything significant since. 

With mid-harvest rainfall, you worry not so much about what happens with the rain as you do about what happens after.  If it stays wet and cloudy, you can have outbreaks of rot spread quickly through the vineyard.  Happily, the storm blew through quickly and by that afternoon the sun was out and the wind was blowing.  I took the below video, in which you can hear the wind whipping the vine leaves, less than 12 hours after the rain stopped:

A little rain during harvest can actually be a good thing in these conditions, as the water invigorates the vines and actually increases their ability to ripen the grapes that they hold.  But it typically puts at least a brief stop to the harvest as the grapes swell with the new water and then need at least a few days to reconcentrate.

Since the rain came a week ago, the weather has been mostly clear and dry, but not that warm, with daily highs generally in the 70's.  We've resumed testing around our own vineyard and with the vineyards with whom we're working on Patelin, and it looks like we'll resume harvesting on Thursday.  It is forecast to warm up the rest of this week, which should accelerate the process.  Meanwhile, we've been pressing off some of last week's harvest, which looks and smells great.  The photo below is Syrah in the press, wonderfully inky and minerally in the cellar:


So far, we've harvested just under 50 tons of estate fruit (about 15% of the 350 we're expecting off Tablas Creek Vineyard) and about 110 tons of purchased fruit (about 70% of the 160 tons we're expecting to contract for in total).  So our focus over the next few weeks will turn to our own vineyard.  Look for lots more Syrah, Grenache, Grenache Blanc and Roussanne over the next 10 days, any hopefully the first Mourvedre.

It's a Wonderful Day in the Patelin (and we have photos to prove it)

By Chelsea Magnusson

A few months ago, my husband, Trevor, and I sat down to dinner in our backyard with a bottle of our new go-to wine: the Patelin de Tablas.  I was so struck by the warmth and the casual feel exuding from the moment, I grabbed my camera and took a picture (and yes, I am that person... you know, the one who's always taking pictures of their food?)  Looking back at the photo a few days later, I realized that I took the picture because to me, the moment perfectly captured what I see Patelin to be: easy, comfortable, casual, and genuinely, solidly GOOD. 

For those of you who are not yet familiar with this wine, you can read notes on the 2010 Patelin de Tablas Blanc and the 2010 Patelin de Tablas.  A little historical background from the cellar perspective:

In 2009, we had a pretty rough year in terms of harvest tonnage we brought in from our vineyard.  In many ways, it's great to be an estate winery - we have complete year-round control of what happens in our vineyard, we know the subtle nuances of each individual block, we can experiment with different farming techniques, etc.  Basically, it boils down to this: the fruit was grown on our property, in our soil, under our watch.  However, being all estate comes with challenges.  One of them being that we are at the complete mercy of mother nature.  If we have one good frost, not enough heat, not enough rain, too much rain at the wrong time, or any number of other issues, our production can be decreased.  

For the 2010 vintage, it was decided that Tablas Creek would start a new project.  Fruit would be purchased from neighboring vineyards, hence the name of the new wine: "Patelin de Tablas" (the word "patelin" means "neighborhood" in French).  All of our other wines remain estate grown, and we do contribute some of our estate fruit into both the Patelin de Tablas Rouge and Patelin de Tablas Blanc.

For those of us in the cellar, the Patelin project has proved to be challenging in a wonderful way.  And it is fun.  Really fun.  The personalities that have come into the cellar (and I mean both the growers and the fruit) are fascinating.  The people we have met are all so outstanding, and the fruit they bring us carries with it a character that we physically cannot produce on our estate.

So I think it goes without saying that I am unbelievably excited about this new wine.  When I was looking back on the photo I took in our backyard, I thought it would be fun to see what kind of moments others at Tablas Creek would capture if given the prompt "how do you like your Patelin?"  I wanted to see the way others enjoy this wine and I was so pleased with what I received, I thought I should share:


The Haas family - Bob, his wife Barbara, Jason and his sister Rebecca - celebrating at Bob and Barbara's home in Vermont.  Rebecca sent me the photo and I am told they are Glidden Point and Belon oysters from Barbara Scully (who was recently featured in a blog post by Bob).


General Manager Jason Haas had this wonderfully charming photo snapped at Shakespeare in the Park in San Luis Obispo.  Patelin apparently pairs beautifully with theatre on the lawn at dusk!


National Sales Manager Tommy Oldre sent this photo with the question, "how else would I enjoy Patelin?" Here, he is pictured doing what he does best: making new friends and pouring Tablas Creek wine at Venokado in Santa Monica.


Tasting Room Manager John Morris took this photo from the beautiful new patio at Tablas Creek.  As usual, his plate is full of gorgeous bounty from his home garden.


Accountant (and self-proclaimed Spreadsheet Queen) Eileen Harms and her husband, Paul enjoying what looks like a bottle of Patelin Rouge and a bottle of Patelin Blanc in their backyard under a full moon... a wonderful lesson: if you can't choose, indulge in both!


Wine Club and Hospitality Assistant Manager Monica O'Connor just couldn't resist and was forced to submit two photos: the first is a photo of her son and daughter-in-law who live in New York (what better way to enjoy Patelin than with loved ones?) and the second, a photo of Humphrey Bogart with a quote that was originally intended for Lauren Bacall, now directed toward Patelin: "You'll fall in love with her like everyone else."


Wine Club and Hospitality Assistant Dani Archambeault submitted this unbelievable photo of a shared bottle of Patelin looking out over Paso Robles wine country.  Such a stunning photo... perhaps the Paso Robles Chamber of Commerce should think about using this shot for travel and tourism advertisements?


Assistant Tasting Room Manager Jennifer Bravo submitted a few photos, but this was my favorite: a bottle of Patelin, the newspaper, and a tin of smoked oysters.  Perfect.


Viticulturist Levi Glenn sent in a Patelin still life that made me wish it was dinner time.


Rat de Cave (a self-professed term meaning "cellar rat") Shawn Dugan enjoyed Patelin out of a mason jar at the Templeton Concert in the Park summer series.


Winemaker Ryan Hebert and his wife, Laura, definitely went above and beyond with their "assignment".  I received a memory card with a whopping 86 photos.  Seriously.  Now, I thought I was excited about this wine!  This was my favorite, but I also had to share one more that Laura submitted, because I thought it was funny (and wonderful) how two people in the same household enjoyed Patelin differently:


And finally, this is my photo that spurred the whole photo essay; dinner with some of my favorite boys at home in our backyard:


After looking through all of the photos, it looks as though everyone enjoys their Patelin in more or less the same fashion - with wonderful company and great food in fun settings.  We hope you do the same, and would love to see your photos.  Please send any that you take to us at [email protected].  We'll publish the best in a later blog post!

Lobster Terrine Recipe

I've spent the last few days in Vermont with my parents and sister, in the house in which I grew up.  As is usual when we're together there, we spend most of the day cooking, eating, or planning meals.  This trip, my dad decided to make a lobster terrine for the first time, and it was surprisingly easy and notably delicious.  It's basically the same ingredients as a lobster salad, but more elegant.  We enjoyed it at lunch with Ed Behr, owner and publisher of the Art of Eating and a friend of my parents.  The recipe is below, but first a photo of the end result:

Terrine with tomatoes1

Serves 4 as a main dish or 8 as a first course.

1 1/2 cups chopped cold lobster meat (roughly the meat from two 1-pound lobsters or one 1 3/4 pound lobster)
1 cup chopped celery
1/4 small onion, minced
1/4 cup cold lobster broth (easy to get; just drain the lobster over a bowl when you're dismembering it)
1 tablespoon unflavored gelatin
3/4 cup mayonnaise
3 tbsp lemon juice
1/3 cup heavy cream
Freshly ground black pepper


  • Chop the lobster meat, celery and onion in a food processor until it is a coarse paste.
  • Place the lobster broth in the top of a double-boiler or in a small enameled saucepan.  Add the gelatin and heat gently until gelatin is dissolved, stirring occasionally.
  • In a large bowl, add the gelatin/broth mixture to the mayonnaise, while stirring. 
  • Add the lemon juice to the broth/mayonnaise mix, stirring.
  • Mix the lobster and vegetables into the mayonnaise/broth/lemon juice.
  • Whip the heavy cream and then fold it into the mixture.
  • Season to taste with pepper.
  • Spoon the mixture into a one-quart terrine, cover and chill in the refrigerator until firm.
  • Serve with a simple tomato salad (garden tomatoes, onion or scallion, and salt).

We cooked the lobsters the night before and chilled them in the fridge overnight.  There was still plenty of juice in the lobsters to use for the broth.  We used simple storebought mayonnaise but it would be good I'm sure with homemade as well.  Just be careful not to overwhelm the delicate flavor of the lobster. 

The lunch began with a tasting of Tablas Creek wines with oysters on the half shell from Barbara Scully's Glidden Point Oyster Sea Farm. The wines that showed best incuded what we expected (the 2010 Vermentino and the 2010 Patelin de Tablas Blanc) and also the richer 2010 Antithesis Chardonnay and the 2010 Marsanne, both gaining sweetness and complexity when paired with the briny oysters.  The oysters:

Last Import - 11

And the lineup of wines:

Last Import - 39

The terrine was richer fare, and while both the Antithesis and the Marsanne continued to show well, the Roussanne-based wines provided the best match.  The 2009 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc played wonderfully with the rich texture of the mousse, and the 2010 Roussanne, a bit young and spiky on its own, rounded out with the lobster into a remarkable pairing where each partner informed the other a bit.  The terrine, with our favorite pairings:


A delicious meal, fun pairings that illuminated the different wines, and great company.  A day well spent.