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Veraison 2012

So far, this year's weather has been pretty much perfect.  Lots of days in the 80's and low 90's, lots of nights in the 50's.  Very few days where the highs were in the 70's, and only a few where we got above 95.  Having daily highs range between 80 and 95 is important because most grapevines won't photosynthesize at temperatures above 95.  Instead, they close the pores in their leaves and try to conserve moisture in self-defense.  It doesn't always work; too many days above 95 (or even a few days too much above 95) and you start to see berries turned prematurely into raisins, as grapevines sacrifice some of their potential crop to preserve their overall health.

Given the relatively ideal conditions, it shouldn't be surprising that we're starting to see veraison earlier than in the last two notably cold years.  Veraison is a French word that marks the point in the year where fruit stops accumulating mass and begins to accumulate sugar.  This change manifests itself in several ways, but most visibly in the beginning of color change in red grapes from green to red and in white grapes from vivid green to a softer, more yellowish hue. Viticulturist Levi Glenn caught some early veraison at the top of our Syrah block early this week. Syrah, almost always our first red grape to be harvested, is first off the blocks as usual:

Veraison 2012 Syrah

As a rough rule, we figure six weeks between veraison and harvest for most varieties.  This suggests that we'll start to harvest Syrah (as well as Viognier, which is also starting to go through veraison but whose changes don't make for very exciting visuals) at the very beginning of September.  Starting in early September is normal for most of the world, but for us it's just a touch early.  Our average start date since our first vintage (1997) has been September 9th.  But that doesn't catch the full range of possibilities; in the last decade, we've begun harvest the last week of August twice, the first week of September three times, the second week of September once, and the third week of September four times, including both of the last two years.

Syrah wasn't the only grape in which Levi found signs of veraison.  Mourvedre, although it is typically our last grape harvested, tends to show veraison relatively early, and we've learned to expect ten weeks between its veraison and its first harvest.  A Mourvedre cluster, just starting to turn color, also from the top of its hill:

Veraison 2012 Mourvedre

The weather over the coming weeks will have something to say about our harvest date.  But veraison does provide a pretty reliable gauge of where you are.  And the combination of yields (about average) and weather (warm but rarely hot, and consistent) suggests we're looking at a year very much like 2000, 2002 and 2007.  That has to be a good thing.

[For those interested in more detail on the veraison, check some past veraison posts. For more on the chemistry, out the post from 2007.  For photos of the different red grapes mid-veraison, see the post from 2008. For more on comparative dates on veraison over recent vintages, see the post from 2011.]

In celebration of our "Best Winery Blog" nomination, eight favorite posts from the last year

WBA_logo_rotatorI'm proud to announce that Tablas Creek has again been named a finalist for "Best Winery Blog" at the 2012 Wine Blog Awards.  The world of winery blogs has never been stronger.  The other finalists include two winery blogs I follow regularly (4488: A Ridge Blog and The Journey of Jordan) one other on which I have read several top-notch posts recently (The Kendall-Jackson Blog) and two which were new to me (Wolf Blass Winemakers Blog and King Estate Winery). One of the things I look forward to about these awards each year is getting to spend some time with the other finalists' work.

I am particularly proud that this is the fifth year in a row that Tablas Creek has been a finalist.  No other winery has been a finalist more than twice in the six-year history of the awards.  You can browse the finalists, and if, at the end, you believe us worthy, we'd be honored to receive your vote (Vote here).  Voting ends Thursday, July 26th.

This seems a useful opportunity to reflect back on some of my favorite posts over the last year.  They're organized chronologically, with brief notes on why they've stuck with me.  And hopefully, if you're relatively new to the blog, it will give you a starting point for your explorations.

  • The serenity of foudres (sometimes) (August 2011). Written by Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Magnusson, this is the sort of glimpse into the inner workings of the cellar that I think makes winery blogs worth reading.  You come away feeling like you know the work... but more than that, that you know the people working, and Chelsea's beautiful photography makes you feel like you're there.
  • Why Paso Robles will make California's best wines in 2011 (October 2011). I go out on a limb, partway through harvest, in opposition to a growing chorus of press suggesting the 2011 harvest would be a disaster.  And the more I taste our powerful, vibrant wines from 2011, the more I'm convinced I was right.
  • A tale of two Grenaches (December 2011). This piece came out of a talk I gave at the always-wonderful Yosemite Vintners' Holidays, where I broke down the California acreage statistics for Grenache by county to tell a very different narrative than and I had been reading elsewhere.
  • A closer look at Paso Robles' microclimates (January 2012). After a presentation to a visiting group of Canadian writers, I realized that we didn't have graphical tools to show the incredible diversity of Paso Robles' soils, rainfall, and temperatures. So I made some, and they show more clearly than a thousand words could why we are where we are.
  • The power grab behind New York's proposed "at rest" legislation (March 2012).  Sometimes I think I should have been a political reporter, as I always enjoy the pieces that I get to write about the intersection of politics and wine.  Maybe it's the "good vs. evil" component.  Maybe it's the fact that this is one of the only times I get to do investigative journalism.  But for whatever reason, I am consistently energized by these discussions, and I think that energy comes through in this post's clarity and power.
  • A great dinner, an amazing restaurant, and a wine that marks the beginning of Tablas Creek (May 2012). Probably my favorite post of the year, where Cesar Perrin and I stumble across the bottle that marks the first collaboration (in 1966!) between the Haas and Perrin families, and I discover its history. 
  • Nine lessons the Kimpton Hotel Group offers wineries (May 2012). I love looking at successful businesses and seeing how their innovations can be applied to my world.  With this piece I drew nine generally applicable lessons from a group of hotels I've always loved for their friendliness, individuality, and consistent good service.
  • In defense of expensive rosé (June 2012). This piece gave me the chance to address a topic close to my heart: the relative worth put on wines made in their original homes vs. those made in a similar style in the New World. Plus, it got me invited to sit on a panel tasting of rosés that included the 2011 Domaine Tempier... always a treat.  

OK, now go vote.  The awards are determined 50% by the panel of seventeen expert judges that condensed the hundreds of nominations to five or six finalists, and 50% by the votes of the public -- which means you!

What a difference a week makes

I haven't been giving out blow-by-blow accounts of this summer's weather, for two reasons.  First, you probably don't care much, and anyway the impacts of mid-summer weather on the quality of that year's harvest are minor. Second, it's been remarkably unexciting (though promising) weather. We've had week after week of warm days -- typically topping out in the 80's or low 90's -- and cool nights.  We've had very few cool stretches that topped out in the 70's, and until last week no truly hot stretches where the highs topped 100.  OK, now you're caught up to date... at least until last week.

Last week, we got a massive heat wave, the first in three years, which sent temperatures soaring over 100 on consecutive days.  The nights were warm, too, only briefly dropping below 60 before warming back up with sunrise.  Then, like a driver over-correcting from a missed turn, we swung into this week, where we flirted with record low high temperatures.  A fog bank loomed over our western mountains, and spread inland to an impossibly high level of 4000 feet -- the highest penetration of the marine layer I can remember in my decade here.  A few of photos I took Monday should give you a sense of the drama of this fog bank, rolling in toward the vineyard:

Fog bank july 2012 3

Fog bank july 2012 vertical Fog bank july 2012 2

Looking at a chart of the daily high temperatures (with the seasonal averages marked) gives you a sense of the degree to which both our hot spell and the recent cold snap are divergent from normal:

Summer Temps Chart 2012

From last week, when our high temperatures were 15 degrees above the already-hot seasonal norms, this week the highs have been nearly 25 degrees below seasonal norms.  Yesterday, the weather station at Tablas Creek registered a high of 64.7°. I don't have an easy way of figuring out what the record low high was out here, but the record low for July 17th at the Paso Robles airport was 71°.  Even given that we're typically a few degrees cooler out here than in town, we must have been close. (The airport, if you're curious, reached a maximum reading of 73° yesterday, which is an unusually large differential with us.)

In any case, this unseasonably cool stretch, like the unseasonably warm one before, is forecast to be short-lived.  We're expecting to be back in the low-90s by the end of this week, and the forecast suggests that it will continue to be seasonably warm, with seasonably cool nights, for the rest of July.  And given that this range is absolutely perfect for vines to photosynthesize -- and therefore ripen their fruit -- that's just all right with us. We're still on track for a terrific vintage, maybe slightly ahead of normal in timing. Next stop: veraison.

An evening fit for a prince (or a Hearst)

I get to pour wine at lots of dinners, and even more tastings.  Doing so is a key piece of how we have chosen to market ourselves: not just waiting for people to come and discover us, but going out to where they are and introducing ourselves.  It's a wonderful consequence that these tastings often allow us to support partners in our community whose work we admire.

Every now and then, the setting transforms one of these events into something extraordinary.  One such event happened this past weekend.  We have long partnered with Festival Mozaic, the summer music festival that brings world-class musicians into the Central Coast each July.  Born as the San Luis Obispo Mozart Festival forty-one years ago, Festival Mozaic stages their orchestral and chamber concerts not just in the area's performing arts centers, but also in its vineyards, its missions, and some of its most sublime private homes.  But for me, the most spectacular venue they've chosen is Hearst Castle, which opens its doors to the festival one night each year for a reception and dinner on the Sea Terrace, followed by a chamber concert in Hearst's own theater.  This was the event at which we poured Tablas Creek on Friday.  The setting:

Hearst Castle 2012

Having such a beautiful and well-known landmark to yourself is breathtaking enough, but the food (catered by Hearst Castle's own chef) and the music pushed the evening over the top.  To our backs was the famous Neptune Pool:

TCV corkscrew at Hearst Castle

I spent the whole evening feeling like royalty, from when Meghan and I were waved on through the gate to drive up to the hilltop to bidding the guests farewell in front of the castle's majestic indoor pool.  Experiencing an event in such a unique venue really is unforgettable, and the fact that by donating wine for it we are not only bringing the arts into our community but also providing for the upkeep and restoration of one of California's most impressive landmarks just makes it all the better.

Compost Tea: a Power Shake for the Vineyard

By Levi Glenn

A few years back we started to make and apply compost tea in the vineyard. It was an effort to try to improve our soil, a central theme in organic farming: improve the soil and the plant will follow. Compost tea contains two important soil improving components: nutrition and soil microbes. Microbes are microorganisms that help us in many ways, but most notably by breaking down organic matter (slowly decaying carbon compounds) into yet smaller particles and ones that plants can readily consume. You could see it as basically freeing up nutrition that already exists in the soil. It’s a process that isn’t completely understood, but is definitely going on below our feet. Amazingly, there are an estimated 500 billion microbes in one pound of soil. Yes, that’s billions with a B. What I’m describing is just the one part of the soil food web, one where microbes, worms, nutrients, plants and animals all interact. The more of this life we have in our soil, the healthier the plants that grow in this soil should be. A diagram below (found in the soils section of the USDA's Web site) illustrates:


The complex (and only somewhat understood) interactions in living soil are the main reason why modern chemical farming practices tend to be counterproductive over the long term. Synthetic herbicides kill the weeds above ground, but their effects are farther reaching than this: they also kill off the microbes as well as impacting the food supply for the worms and insects that create a living, vibrant soil belowground. Chemical pesticides have similarly profound impacts underground. That’s at the heart of why we farm organically.

In addition to the microbial component of compost tea, additional benefits include increased growth through improved nutrition, better soil structure, and disease suppression. The tea can be sprayed on the leaves as a foliar fertilizer, or applied directly into the soil through our irrigation lines and drips. One function we’ve been particularly intrigued by is compost tea’s ability to suppress powdery mildew. Spraying compost tea on our grapevines has allowed us to significantly reduce the amount of sulfur we use as a natural fungicide.

Compost_tea_old_makerWe’ve been making compost tea for years, using a simple system we built ourselves (right).  We would then use the tea in two ways.  We would load the brewed tea into sprayers and apply it directly to the leaves to inhibit mildew, and we would run it through our irrigation lines to build up our soils.  This year we took the plunge and bought a 500-gallon commercial compost tea brewer (below).


Brewing takes roughly 24 hours to complete. We start with worm castings, compost and fish bonemeal powder.  Worm castings (below, left) are a fancy term for worm dung, a highly refined source of nutrition. The compost we’re using (below, middle) is made on the property out of our vine prunings, green waste and manure. The fish bone meal (below, right) provides a much needed source of phosphorous in the vineyard and is an additional food source for the microbes in the brewing process. 


These three ingredients are put into a wire mesh cylinder (below, left), which is placed into water to steep. Below each cylinder are powerful bubbling aerators (below, right) that help to saturate the mixture and provide oxygen to the microbes. There are also smaller aerators that go inside the cylinders to further promote an aerobic environment.

Compost_tea_0003 Compost_tea_0001

Before the brewing, the bacteria, fungi, and protozoa in the “tea” are in somewhat of a dormant state. By creating the right environment for these microorganisms by adding water and oxygen to their environment, keeping them at an optimal temperature, and providing an accessible food source, their numbers grow exponentially during the brewing process.

When we’re done, we have 500 gallons of what looks like a weak batch of coffee, but is actually a microbe-rich elixir, a liquid soil of sorts.  And no, you wouldn't want to drink it, any more than you would want to chew on our soil:


When we brew a new batch, if we’re curious what’s in it, we can send a sample off to the lab. The analysis the lab runs shows us the total number of bacteria and fungi in the tea, and the proportion between the two. Some plants prefer a higher concentration of bacteria in the tea, like vegetable crops, where as vines and trees do better with a fugal dominated tea. After a few trial batches we’ve been getting consistently good lab results and are confident in our process. 

While there is often notable benefit from even short-term compost tea use, we hope that longer-term use will provide exponentially greater benefit.  Our principal vineyard challenge is Paso Robles’ harsh vineyard environment: the same thing that makes the grapes we grow such good raw materials for winemaking.  Paso Robles is so dry and sunny in the summer, so cold in the winter, and has such a great diurnal swing in temperature year-round.  Plus, our topsoil is relatively thin and rocky.  It’s not easy maintaining the health of our vineyards in this climate, and doing so is the reasoning behind almost every decision we make in the field.  Applying compost tea at significant volumes, over a matter of years, should help our grapevines to continue to flourish even as the neighbors who are farming more conventionally have to replant because their vines are exhausted. 

So now we’re farming wine grapes, olives, sheep, and microbes. I can’t wait to see what we’ll be growing in the future.

Reflecting on a decade of Esprit de Beaucastel

This week we're bottling the 2010 Esprit de Beaucastel.  About 2000 cases are going into national distribution. Another 1000 will go out to our wine club. 1500 will be allocated to our tasting room.  500 will go into our long-term library for later release.  Some of the cases, palletized and ready to be picked up this morning:

Esprit 2010 in 6-packs

This is our tenth vintage of the Esprit red, though it doesn't seem possible to me that it's been that long.  Of course, it doesn't seem possible to me that I just turned 39, either.  But reflecting back, a lot has changed in that decade.  When we bottled the first Esprit in the summer of 2002, Tablas Creek was in a very different place.

That summer we were coming to terms with the fact that for all our care in choosing our site, importing our clones, and making wine in a manner consistent with Beaucastel, we'd been wildly optimistic with our estimates of how easy our wines would be to sell.

Some of the challenges we faced, at the time:

  • Blends were still an uphill battle. Non-varietal wines, particularly those that weren't a traditional Bordeaux-style blend, were typically consigned to the "other" section of wine lists and the least desirable -- and often unlabeled -- locations in retail.  The fact that our first wines were called, rather unhelpfully, Rouge and Blanc didn't help things.
  • Rhone varieties, at least those from America, were still a very minor category.  Robert Parker's first comprehensive reviews of California Rhones didn't come out until February 2002 (Issue #139) when he declared "No wine category in California has grown as much as the appropriately named 'Rhône Rangers'". That same year, the Wine Spectator wrote a feature article titled "California Rhones Arrive", though the category was small enough that the accompanying "top scoring California Rhone-Style Wines" sidebar shows only 10 wines that topped 90 points.  Still, it took some time for the excitement about this new category to percolate down to the wholesale, restaurant, retail and consumer levels.
  • Paso Robles was still relatively unknown.  Parker had just visited the area for the first time in late 2001, and his first coordinated reviews of the area appeared in his Rhone Rangers piece in 2002.  In the Wine Advocate's first 138 issues, although the region had had the occasional wine reviewed, the words "Paso Robles" did not appear in a single article.

Despite the headwinds detailed above, we'd been working under the old-fashioned European model, where marketing was not a primary consideration for wineries, and tended to be left to agents or distributors.  We'd come to the uncomfortable conclusion that this model wasn't working, at least not when we grew beyond the few thousand cases of wine we made in our first couple of vintages.  In 2002, the year I moved out here, we sold a little over 4,000 cases of wine.  And we made about 12,000.  Of course, you don't sell wine the same year you make it, but if we were struggling to sell the 5,000 - 8,000 cases we'd made in recent vintages, it was clear that we needed to take a much more active approach in our own marketing. 

So we started pushing every way we could think of.  We opened our tasting room.  We started our wine club.  We began to participate in many more events, to spread the word about Tablas Creek to consumers.  We set up work with our distributors and agents around the country, to spread the word to the wine trade.  We reached out to our export agents.  And slowly, with help from many quarters, we turned things around.  A few of the key drivers:

  • The media came on board with Paso Robles in a serious way. Looking at Parker's annual reviews after his cautious beginning in 2002, you can feel him getting more and more excited about the region's potential, and by 2005 was confident enough to declare "there is no queston that, a decade from now, the top viticultural areas of Santa Barbara, Santa Rita Hills, and the limestone hillsides west of Paso Robles will be as well-known as the glamorous vineyards of Napa Valley." Other press would follow, with notable features on Paso between 2005 and 2007 in Decanter, Bon Appétit, Wine Enthusiast, Gourmet, Wine Spectator, Sunset, Decanter (again) and Food & Wine.
  • The Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance did incredible work in promoting the region.  Not only did they bring media into the area, they coordinated a road show that has brought scores of Paso Robles wineries to dozens of stops around the country and touched thousands of trade and consumers, and they began an advertising campaign that raised the region's profile tremendously.  I've written before on the impact of the PRWCA, and I think that it's worth reiterating that the way they've been able to raise the region's profile while keeping a diverse collection of stakeholders united has been remarkable.
  • The Rhone Rangers category has become much higher profile, and increasingly associated with the Paso Robles region.  The media, particularly Robert Parker, played key roles in this, of course, but two organizations have also had a big impact. The wonderful Hospice du Rhone festival, based in Paso Robles, brought exceptionally high profile media, trade and consumers to town each April, and created a strong association between Paso Robles and high-end Rhones.  And The Rhone Rangers have brought the word about Rhones to major markets around the country, including San Francisco and Los Angeles each year and regular stops in Seattle, Washington, DC and (this year) New York.  Over the decade I've been involved, Paso Robles wineries have grown from about 10% of the Rhone Rangers membership to its current level of nearly 40%.  This growth is reflective of real changes in what is in the ground in Paso Robles, driven at least in part by our own decision to settle here, but the region has also been successful at self-identifying with Rhones. Paso Robles wineries put together the first local chapter of Rhone Rangers, back in 2005.  Sadly, Hospice du Rhone announced recently that their 2012 celebration in Paso Robles would be their last, but I got the sense that one of the main reasons was a feeling on the part of its organizers that it had largely achieved what it set out to do.
  • The Sideways Effect.  Although we didn't see a direct benefit (we don't make Pinot Noir and we aren't in Santa Barbara Wine Country) we saw several powerful indirect effects.  The most important, in my opinion, was that the movie popularized and personalized the experience of going out wine tasting, which benefited wineries everywhere.  We also saw a surge of dedicated Southern California wine lovers who skipped the tourist-overrun venues of the Santa Ynez Valley in the couple of years after the movie's release and came, many for the first time, to Paso Robles.  Finally, the message that there are wineries outside of Napa and grape varieties other than Cabernet, Chardonnay and (of course!) Merlot helped all of us in California's less-well-known regions making California's less-planted grapes.

In those early days, I spent a lot of time on the road, showing people the wines, telling the story, encouraging restaurants and retailers to take a flyer on wines that they themselves would have to work to sell.  That so many did and have become regular customers still humbles me.  That we've moved from having to sell each case one at a time to having to allocate our cases so that they don't all get snapped up by a handful of accounts amazes me.

Thank you to all of you who have joined us on this journey.  A decade in, the best is still yet to come.  Cheers!

Bottling 2010 esprit 2