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May 2012
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July 2012

Selecting the library wines for the 2012 Collector's Edition

One of the treats we get each summer is to choose which older vintage of the Esprit de Beaucastel and Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc we will include in the VINsider Wine Club Collector's Edition shipment in September.  For those of you unfamiliar with the Collector's Edition, we created it in 2009 to give members a chance to acquire our flagship wines with some age on them, and it's been a great success, generating a waiting list each year since we started it.  We will be announcing to our VINsiders next week that registration for the Collector's Edition will be open for a short period.  We are able to add slightly to the membership in advance of this fall's shipment. [A little housekeeping: if you are currently a VINsider member you can upgrade to the Collector's Edition online.  If you are not currently a member, you can indicate that you would like to join the Collector's Edition when you join the VINsider wine club.]

We have been keeping older vintages of the Esprit and Esprit Blanc since the 2003 and 2005 vintages, respectively.  So this week, I tasted the 2005 and 2006 red and the 2005, 2006 and 2008 white to see which we could use this year.  I had not planned it this way, but it was clear that of the wines that I tasted, the 2005's were both clearly the best choices.  The 2006, in both red and white, felt closed down to me, perfectly nice but not nearly as deep or giving as the 2005's, and less expressive than they were a few years ago.  The 2008 Esprit Blanc was very pretty, but wasn't yet showing any significant signs of time in the bottle.  (If you're wondering why I tasted only those vintages, we used the 2007 Esprit Blanc last year for the Collector's Edition, and I didn't want to repeat with the same wine the following year, and the 2003 and 2004 Esprit red went out to Collector's Edition members the last two years and are now too scarce to permit another release.)

My tasting notes:

CE 2012

2005 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc: A rich nose of creme caramel, lanolin, cotton candy, menthol and beeswax.  The mouth is rich but higher-toned than the nose suggests, with flavors of pear, butterscotch, preserved lemon and mineral, and a floral note that reminded me of honeysuckle.  Surprising and welcome acidity comes to the fore on the long finish, emphasizing the mineral notes and playing off the dominant honeycomb profile.  This has come out of a closed phase and is likely at the beginning of a 5-year peak.

2005 Esprit de Beaucastel: The nose is rich, deep and wild, with dark red fruit, game meat, black olive, Provencal herbs and mint.  The mouth, conversely to the white, shows sweeter than the nose suggests, with rich flavors of currant, plum, grilled meat and orange peel, with chewy tannins that frame the tangy and complex finish.  With air, this added an iron-like mineral note that I found fascinating.  I strongly recommend a decant 30 minutes or so before drinking.  While this is beautiful now, I have the sense it can age for easily another decade in the cellar.

The power of print

Last weekend I noticed a small flurry of online wine club signups, as well as a surge in online orders.  We hadn't sent out a recent email (we do that at the very end of the month).  We hadn't gotten any particularly noteworthy press.  It wasn't until it lasted for a few days that I realized we had sent out our summer 2012 newsletter and it had started to hit mailboxes late last week.

Summer 2012 NewsletterWe have always thought of the principal value of our newsletter being marketing, education, and engagement with our consumer and wholesale customers.  Sure, we include an order form in it, but we don't ever get a lot of them back.  And we really don't push sales.  I think of the newsletter in the same way that I think of our work with social media: we're maintaining mind-share, personalizing our business, and educating: doing whatever we can to bring people inside our world, at least for a little while.  We figure that sales will come organically as a result of this marketing.  But when I went back and looked at the impact of our last newsletter, I realized we'd been underselling the direct sales impact of our print newsletter.

We sent our first newsletter of the year out in early February.  For the next two weeks, we nearly doubled the online club signups and orders that we had been averaging (from .22 VINdependents, .37 VINsiders, and 1.91 orders daily to .73 VINdependents, .60 VINsiders, and 4.4 orders).  By my rough calculations, that newsletter directly added sales of around $30,000 in just those two weeks, based on the average long-term revenue a new club member brings in and the actual extra sales from the additional orders we received.  The impact with this newsletter if anything has been more dramatic.  It's a busier time of year, and our online averages have gone from .30 VINdependents, .55 VINsiders, and 2.05 orders per day to 1.00 VINdependents, 1.71 VINsiders, and 5.71 orders per day.  In just a week, the added value to us has been something like $40,000. All this is beyond the intangible marketing, member retention, event promotion and wholesale trade benefits we've come to expect.

Print newsletters are not without costs.  To send ours out to the roughly 18,000 people for whom we have addresses, it costs us something like $15000 in printing, handling and postage costs.  Would an email, which costs us very little, have the same impact? Not exactly. We do send emails out as a regular part of our marketing program: every month to our VINsiders, every couple of months to our VINdependents, and a couple of times a year to our entire mailing list.  But I have the sense that the cohorts that each medium reaches don't overlap 100%.  Of course, there are some mailing list members for whom we only have a physical address and no email, or vice versa.  But even within the group that has both, there are people who will ignore an email (or have it caught by a spam filter) but will read the newsletter (and the opposite). Two areas where print dramatically outperforms email for us are with the trade (who are apparently so bombarded with messages from the hundreds or thousands of suppliers they work with that they ignore all or most) and in spurring wine club signups (since you are typically emailing existing club members).

For me, all this suggests that we're making the right choice to continue to maintain a balance of communication between email and print.  And that even though the print newsletters are relatively costly, the sales and wine club signups they drive -- without us trying to drive sales -- more than pay for their expenses. So the marketing benefits, and all the benefits that we get with elements of the wholesale trade, are gravy.

In defense of expensive rosé

A few years ago, I was out to dinner at Villa Creek with friends.  Dining at Villa Creek is always a treat because not only is the food terrific, but owner Cris Cherry and GM Erick Cadena always put together a great and reasonably priced wine list that showcases not only the best of local wines but also a terrific selection from around the world, particularly from the regions that border the Mediterranean and specialize in the same grape varieties that we (and Villa Creek Cellars) focus on.  I ended up picking a classic: a bottle of Domaine Tempier Rosé, for which, if I remember right, I paid something like $70.

Domaine Tempier

This experience came back to me thanks to a recent comment on our Facebook page, after we had posted a link to an article in our local paper in which wine columnist Laurie Daniel named our 2011 Rosé the "Wine of the Week".  The commenter said, "It's great but bring the price down. It's more than Tavel."  Now our Rosé is not a cheap one; our suggested retail is $27 per bottle.  But the comment begs two questions.  First, why shouldn't our Rosé cost more than a Tavel?  And second, what is it about rosés that means that they should be cheap, anyway?

I'll address the first question briefly; I'm more interested in the second.  Tavel is a wonderful appellation in the southern Rhone (more or less due west of Avignon and southwest from Chateauneuf-du-Pape) which makes some of the world's best rosés.  The appellation is exclusive to rosé, and the wines from Tavel have been among the world's most recognized examples of pink wine for centuries.  But, for all that, it is a Grenache-dominated appellation, with an average yield, according to the Tavel AOC, of roughly 2.8 tons/acre (42 hl/hectare).  So, our Tablas Creek rosé, made from a mix of Mourvedre, Grenache and Counoise at a yield of 2.4 tons/acre in 2011, doesn't seem out of line, particularly given that Mourvedre and Counoise are more difficult to grow than Grenache.  And we farm the Rosé organically, entirely from estate fruit, which most Tavel producers don't.  But does the quality measure up? Independent reviews suggest it does. The Wine Spectator has rated 48 Tavels since the 2009 vintage. Of these, 8 have received 90+ point ratings. They have reviewed our Rosé in the last three vintages, giving us an 88, an 89 and (just this week) a 90 point rating.  I don't say any of this to suggest that our wine is better than the average Tavel (though I think it is) but instead just to illustrate that whether you're measuring by cost of production or quality we belong.  After that, it's up to each of you to decide what warrants you opening your pocketbook. But the idea that the original home of a particular variety should always command a higher price than those same grapes translated elsewhere in the world strikes me as silly.  Drink what you like and which you believe delivers value.

The second question, of why rosé should be cheap, is more interesting. Understanding why requires a brief diversion into winemaking techniques, so bear with me. Many red grapes are harvested with less intensity than a winemaker might want. Since most of the character of a red wine comes from the skins of the grapes, a winemaker can choose to concentrate his or her red wine by removing some of the free-run juice during fermentation and leaving less juice to be concentrated by the full quantity of skins. Just as a teabag in a small teapot will produce more intense tea than the same teabag in a large teapot, a given volume of skins in less juice will produce more intense wine than the same volume of skins in more juice. This technique is called saignée (the French word for "bleeding"). The winemaker then has the choice of pouring the juice that has been removed down the drain, or fermenting it dry and making a rosé out of it. Are these rosés any good? They can be, but often are not. Typically, the reason that the winemaker was bleeding off the juice to start with was that the raw materials were not sufficiently concentrated, which means that the bled-off juice is often uninteresting. What is more, these grapes were picked at optimal ripeness for the red wine for which they were intended: typically riper and with lower acidity than would be desirable in a rosé.

For a winery making a rosé like the one above, any revenue from the reclaimed juice is a bonus.  And often these rosés are dirt cheap. In France, many are available for a few euros a bottle, and there are respectable bottles that make it into the United States for $5-$7.

While these sorts of rosés make up the majority of the world's production, they are far from the only kind made.  There are regions like Tavel where red wines are not allowed, and where any grape that is grown is selected and vinified specifically for rosé, typically pressed off after a day or two and fermented dry away from the skins.  And there are regions like Bandol, where the rosé is sufficiently renowned that a significant portion of the wine is made intentionally as rosé, often picked sooner than the grapes for the reds and requiring a sacrifice of potential red production to produce.  This second reason is one that we've always found compelling.  Far from needing to concentrate most of our red lots, we struggle to find lots that won't be harmed by extra concentration, and base our Rosé on a vineyard block that we harvest specifically for our rosé program.  Each bottle of our Rosé that we make is one less bottle of red wine.

Still, there are two good reasons that argue against very high price tags for rosés.  One is based on cost of production, the other on ageability.  Rosés tend to be relatively inexpensive to produce because they typically don't see any new oak (which is expensive) and they come to market quickly and so don't take up much space in the cellar or accumulate many winemaking costs.  And as, in general, the highest price tags in the world of wine are reserved for the most ageable wines, rosés, which are mostly to be drunk young, don't get a collector's premium.

But why is this any different than, say, an aromatic white like Sauvignon Blanc?  Essentially, it boils down to fashion.  Rosés are just now becoming fashionable, internationally.  Top Bandol brands like Domaines Ott and Domaine Tempier have seen enough demand worldwide that their prices have risen in the last few years from mid-$20s to around $40.  And you're starting to see a few rosé-producing wineries releasing luxury cuvées, most notably Chateau d'Esclans whose top-of-the-line Garrus rosé, aged in new French oak and limited to 6 barrels per year, carries a price tag of around $100.  In a rosé-themed tasting last summer (the always worthwhile RAP tasting in San Francisco) I got to taste four different tiers from Chateau d'Esclans, and preferred the freshness of the less expensive wines to the creamy oakiness of the elite levels, but that richer style clearly has its adherents as well.

So, why did I order the Tempier Rosé from Villa Creek that night?  How often can you find the best example, anywhere in the world, in an important category for $70 on a wine list or $40 on a shelf?  When I do, I feel like it's a shame to turn it down for a mid-range example of a more exalted category.  As for the Tempier, boy, was it good.  And that is my defense of expensive rosé: that even the most expensive examples are relatively inexpensive in the world of fine wines.  Because the category is still not particularly fashionable, you can get some of the world's most compelling wines for relative peanuts.  And then, unlike the big red or oaky white you might have been considering instead, you can go ahead and drink it with those very same peanuts.

An outstanding Outstanding in the Field dinner

In the last decade, the farm to table movement has gone from avant-garde to squarely in the mainstream. (Cue the spoof by Portlandia.) And of course, there are excesses that deserve to be pointed out, and pretense that deserves puncturing.  But, at its heart, it's about wanting to know who was responsible for the food you eat and the wine you drink.  Sometimes, this must be limited to knowledge of provenance, or even just an assurance of ethical production.  But push a little farther to find yourself eating with the farmers, ranchers, winemakers and chefs whose products you're enjoying, and you realize it's about reestablishing the connection with your food that has been obliterated by factory farms, agribusiness and chain restaurants.

Last Thursday, Meghan and I made the trek out to Rinconada Dairy for a remarkable dinner set up in the middle of a sheep pasture under a giant oak tree, a few hundred yards from the nearest building and about 10 miles from the nearest thing that might be called a town.  We were joined for the dinner by Bill & Barbara Spencer of Windrose Farm (who grew the produce) and Debbie Paver of Charter Oak Meats. Rinconada's husband and wife team of Christine and Jim Maguire produced the cheese as well as the venue and the soundtrack from the nearby sheep and goats.  The food was prepared from scratch in a pop-up kitchen in that very same field by Chris Kobayashi, the chef/owner of Artisan Restaurant.  Perhaps most remarkably, we were joined by about 100 food and wine lovers from as far away as Minnesota.  Artisan's Shandi Kobayashi, who put together the menu and its wine pairings, arrived kid goat in arms, trailed by its family:

Shandi with goats

The maestro of this evening, and of evenings like it throughout the year and around the country, was Jim Deneven, the founder of Outstanding in the Field.  Created "to honor the people whose good work brings nourishment to the table", OITF has since 1999 been creating dinners in such unlikely places as sea caves, mountaintops, orchards and pastures.  We hosted one under a spectacular blue moon on a ridge at Tablas Creek in 2004.  Each dinner includes a reception (last week, we poured our Rose and Lone Madrone poured their delicious Bristol's Cider).  Then, the guests are taken on a farm tour, which ends where the dinner will be hosted.  So, the guests will not yet have seen the site, and the theatrics of the arrival are not neglected, with mise en scene set by the plates that diners bring with them to each of the Outstanding in the Field dinners they attend:


We'd wandered over a bit earlier to give the servers the background on the wines that were being paired with the different courses.  These included our 2010 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc, our newly bottled 2010 Counoise, our 2009 Esprit de Beaucastel and the 2010 Vin de Paille Sacrerouge, of which we brought two of the just 150 cases that were produced.  The menu:


Outstanding in the Field by tradition sets one long table and serves family-style, encouraging mingling and interaction between the guests.  The table, empty and full:

Set table Full table
As the evening drew on and the light faded, candles were lit, chefs and farmers offered toasts, and the table became an island of light.

After dark

Not all farm to table dinners work as culinary exhibitions.  But this one did.  All the courses were excellent, but the one that stood out most to me was the middle course: a cheese-rich gnudi (think gnocchi, but lighter in texture and slightly tangy from the cheese) with a pork ragu, porcinis and braised chicken, that we paired with the 2010 Counoise that I was so impressed by a few weeks ago. Artisan was in typically outstanding form, made all the more impressive by the rustic setting.

A decade ago, a dinner like this would have felt radical, at least outside Alice Waters' sphere of influence in the Bay Area.  And it's probably no surprise that Outstanding in the Field got its start, and is still based in, Santa Cruz.  But that experiences like this are now available in much of the country is a sign of just how far the food movement has come in challenging the industrialization of what we eat.  And while we can point fingers at it for being elitist, or pretentious, the trickle-down effects of chefs and diners who care about how their food was grown and made has impacted everything from three-star restaurants to Chipotle.  And this is ground zero.  I challenge anyone who went to this dinner, or who goes to any of the 90 other events that OITF hosts each year, to leave unmoved.

Flowering 2012

Now six weeks into the growing season, it's clear that 2012 is going to follow a different path than 2010 or 2011.  As opposed to being en route to a harvest roughly a month behind normal, as we were last year, we're on a normal track.  There are four viticultural points that we use each year as markers: visible reference points that indicate where we are compared to other years.  These are, in order:

  • Budbreak (typically April sometime)
  • Flowering (typically May sometime)
  • Veraison (typically August sometime)
  • First Harvest (typically September sometime)

Last year, we'd just begun flowering when I published the post Flowering (Finally) on June 6th.  This year, the first week of June finds us largely finished with flowering. On May 23rd, when my dad took an afternoon to wander through the vineyard and catch a few different grapes in flower, we were squarely in mid-flowering.  First, Grenache:

Flowering 2012 grenache

Second, at roughly the same stage, Grenache Blanc:

Flowering 2012 grenache blanc

And third, showing its characteristic small clusters, Viognier:

Flowering 2012 viognier

If you haven't seen grapevines flowering before, you can be excused for finding it underwhelming.  It's not a showy process.  Still, the tiny white flowers that appear at each berry are crucial for the development of the berries.  From this point on, if the berries are fertilized successfully, they'll grow in size and mass until their August veraison, at which point they stop growing but accumulate sugar and ripen the seeds within.

During flowering, you hope for consistent, sunny weather, with only limited wind and no rain.  The risk is that you might get incomplete fertilization, or shatter, where a cluster has only a minority of fertilized berries, looking snaggle-toothed and (often dramatically) reducing yields.  Some varieties, most notably Grenache, are prone to shatter, while others are less so.  This year, we're expecting some shatter, as we received a little rain on May 25th and unusually high winds that same week, but it shoudn't be anything too devastating.  Compared to what grapevines face in most parts of the world, what we've received is minor.

Overall, the year is off to an excellent start.  We largely avoided frost (though did see just a touch of damage on the impossibly late date of May 26th).  We've had consistent sun and good warmth without any 100+ degree days.  Our degree day measurements so far in 2012 show us about 12% above the 15-year average since April 1st, but 48% ahead of 2010 or 2011.  Still, it's far from the hottest beginning to the year we've had; five of the last fifteen years have seen a higher degree day reading, and we're 21% below the degree days from the scorching start to our hottest vintage: 1997.

So far, so good.