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September 2012

Pre-Harvest Jubilation

By Chelsea Franchi

We had our scale certified last week, which was just one more reminder of the ever-present fact that harvest is barreling down on us (no pun intended).

Steaming barrels in the afternoon sun

Harvest is what we live for (well, work for) here in the cellar.  It is the hub of the winemaking cycle.  Without harvest, what would we do the rest of the year?  Harvest is, without a doubt, the most exciting time of year for me.  It's exhausting, exhilarating, and stimulating.  You really get to know the people you work with during harvest (to everyone I work with: my most sincere apologies).  With everyone being pushed to their limits mentally and physically, you're bound to let your true colors show.  That's part of what makes harvest so exciting - getting the opportunity to push yourself and becoming familiar with your own breaking points.  While most people would look at that as a negative (and I can understand why), it's one of the many reasons I love my job as much as I do: it's challenging, in every sense of the word.  And I like that.

The start of this year is even more testing.  The lab equipment was dusted off and fired up last week to start running numbers on fruit samples (mostly for Patelin fruit) and Neil and Ryan are off in France.  Which means, those of us who are left here have the opportunity to own the cellar (for a few weeks, at least).  And by all accounts, it looks like we're more than up to the challenge.

Lab equipment at the ready

We've been checking numbers (sugar, pH and total acidity) and tracking the progression of said numbers.  The presses are clean and ready and the sorting table and must pump are both lying in wait.  Picking bins have been brought out from storage and for the early part of this week, we're focusing on sanitizing barrels and tanks so they will be ready for the new juice of 2012.

The barrel brander

RackingArms IMG_6313
Racking arms waiting to be scrubbed clean and tanks getting power-washed

It's nice to have these rituals before the full force of harvest smashes down around us - the misty fall mornings spent chugging coffee as the first bins of fruit pull onto the crush pad, driving a forklift through the silence of night with only two tiny headlights and the stars to light the way, the incessant squishing of my water-logged boots, the hammering sound of fruit raining down onto the sorting table.  The wet heat of a fermenting tank and the thick, rich smells of grape juice evolving into wine.  Lead-heavy exhaustion replaced by buoyancy the second the stereo is cranked up (Journey, please!).  Climbing into the press after its first use of the season - and for that matter, climbing into the press after its last use of the season.  And what harvest mosaic would be complete without those six beautiful words spoken at the end of an impossibly long day:  "Hey, who could use a beer?"

It would be interesting to see how my co-workers would arrange their harvest montage, but this is my view.  These are the snapshot experiences I look forward to every year.  I'm ready.

An anniversary dinner of rack of lamb, roasted tomatoes and avocado salad with Esprit de Beaucastel

This is a busy week of celebrations for me. Meghan's birthday was Friday. Sebastian's birthday is Monday. And our anniversary was Saturday. As it's squeezed between other parties, we often keep it low-key, and certainly compared to Friday night's amazing dinner at the Cass House (and even Sebastian's Star Wars-themed birthday party) Saturday night's dinner was relaxed. But it's such a spectacular time of year for our back yard garden and for our local farmers' markets that what started as a simple weekend meal turned out to be pretty extraordinary. It was also easy and relatively quick to prepare, and seemed like a good time to put the new camera that I got for my own recent birthday through its paces.

The menu: rack of lamb, roasted tomatoes, and avocado salad. I particularly like the combination of lamb and tomatoes, as lamb needs something with some acidity to balance its richness. 

The rack of lamb is basically no prep.  I got a small rack (about 1.25 lbs) and rinsed it off, patted it dry, rubbed it with salt and pepper, and let it come up to room temperature.

Last Import - 10

The tomatoes were almost as easy. I modified a recipe ("roasted cherry tomatoes with basil") from one of my favorite cookbooks -- Vegetable Love, by Barbara Kafka -- to suit the many smallish heirloom tomatoes our backyard garden has been producing.  I cut the tops off the tomatoes and cored the larger ones, then put them in a baking dish with some peeled garlic cloves and poured olive oil and sprinkled salt over everything.  After I'd rubbed the oil around, it looked like this:

Last Import - 02

To cook the lamb, I used the tried-and-true Joy of Cooking recipe: sear both sides for 2 minutes on the stovetop then put the whole pan (rack bone-side-down) in a 425° oven until a meat thermometer reads 130°, about 20 minutes.  The tomatoes took about the same amount of time: 25 minutes at 500°, with everything shaken around bit once mid-way through the cooking. While these dishes cooked, I made the avocado salad. I used local Bacon avocados, a large-pitted, thin-skinned avocado that makes its appearance every summer at our local farmer's market at such cheap prices it seems a shame not to use them at every opportunity. I cut up two of these avocados and added a small red onion, chopped, from our garden. Onto this I poured a simple vinaigrette made with champagne vinegar and good dijon mustard.  The result is one of the simplest, most delicious salads imaginable:

Last Import - 17

When the tomatoes came out of the oven, they were smoky and sweet, their natural flavors intensified by the roasting. I'm sure they were particularly good because it's been a great tomato season here in California (hot and sunny) but honestly, I think you could cook grocery store hothouse tomatoes this way and they would be delicious. The garlic softened and sweetened to the point that our boys were fighting over the cloves. The photo below was taken just before I added some strips of fresh basil onto the top, the coup de grace:

Last Import - 18

When the lamb had cooked, I took it out and let it rest for about 10 minutes, then sliced the chops:

Last Import - 19

To pair with the meal, I chose a bottle of 2008 Esprit de Beaucastel. Lamb, with its stronger flavors, likes more strongly flavored red wines, and is a great match for Mourvedre. I chose a younger Esprit because I thought that its more robust flavors would do better with the sweetness and tanginess of the tomatoes. Though I think just about any vintage would have been a success, the 2008 showed beautifully, and complemented the meal just the way great pairings should: the chewy tannins of the wine were softened by the fattiness and richness of the lamb, each bite of tomato added a burst of sweet-tart-smoky flavor that brought out the wine's generous fruit, and each component somehow made the others taste more intensely like themselves. The scene, mid-dinner:

Last Import - 23

Our boys are pretty good eaters, but it's still rewarding to make a fully grown-up meal and have them fighting over the last servings. Even the dog got in on the fun. A success, all around. Two of the happy customers:

Last Import - 28  Last Import - 50

Happy summer, everyone. May your celebrations be equally successful.

Looking forward to an El Nino winter in 2012-2013

With two weeks of near-100° weather recently in our rear view mirror, and harvest not even yet begun, it's strange to already be thinking about winter weather.  But in my email inbox today I received a special alert from the Western Weather Group, the agricultural weather specialists whose forecasts we receive as a part of our membership in the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance.  It included the following map:

El Nino forecast 2012-2013

There are a lot of qualifying words in there, but the simple message is that the Climate Prediction Center has looked at the oceanic conditions and projected 40%-50% greater than normal precipitation for California.  These predictions are based on the surface temperatures across the equatorial Pacific, the section of ocean whose fluctuations determine whether we see El Nino, normal, or La Nina conditions.  Typically, El Nino years shift the storm track south, providing wetter-than-normal conditions across California and colder, drier than normal conditions across the Pacific Northwest.  La Nina years see lower than normal rainfall in Southern California, though Northern areas tend to do OK.

Having an El Nino winter on the horizon is generally a positive thing.  We want as much rainfall as possible in the winter, since we know we won't receive rain in the summer growing season and we want our soils and underground aquifers and reservoirs to store up as much moisture as possible against the coming dryness.  Of course, it opens up the possibility of earlier than normal storms, like the massive mid-October rainstorm we received in the middle of the 2009 harvest. For that reason, the consistently warm summer and the comparatively early harvest we're expecting are even more welcome.

Will any of this turn out?  It's all just a probability, so there are no guarantees.  But I'm much happier going into a harvest season knowing that there's a strong likelihood of above-average rainfall to follow than the opposite.  Now just to get it to hold off until November...

New Marsanne and Grenache Blanc releases: data points on the unique 2011 vintage

With several of our white wines getting scarce in the tasting room, this week we decided that we would release two new varietal white wines: the 2011 Marsanne and the 2011 Grenache Blanc.  So, we opened them early in the week to write up the tasting notes for the Web site.  I was blown away by the power and vibrancy of both wines, and am coming to the conclusion that at least for whites, 2011 is a truly special vintage at Tablas Creek.  The combination of richness and high acidity is literally unprecedented in our experience.

A little background.  The 2011 vintage was marked by two factors.  First, we saw one of our most devastating spring frosts in our history in April, which reduced our yields by an estimated 40%.  Typically, a low-yielding vintage produces wines with noteworthy power and concentration, but also tends to produce sweet, low-acid grapes at harvest-time. Examples in our history include 2002, 2007 and 2009: ageworthy vintages with great lushness that balance their power with relatively pronounced tannins.  Enter the second defining characteristic of 2011: it was cold.  Really cold.  Either our coldest or second-coldest vintage (to 2010) ever, depending on which measurements you choose.  Typically, cold vintages produce wines with long hangtimes, low sugar levels at harvest, noteworthy minerality and great elegance.  2010 was this sort of vintage.  So, what happens when you combine low yields and cold temperatures?  Apparently, good things.  All the 2011 whites have a mouth-filling breadth that is only highlighted by their vibrant acidities.  The fruit is more apparent on the nose and on the palate than in 2010, but they still finish clean, with a powerful saline minerality. And they're some of the lowest-alcohol wines we've made. The two new wines, with my notes below:

2011 GB and M

  • 2011 Grenache Blanc: An intensely creamy, mineral nose that also includes sweeter flavors like pear and anise.  In the mouth its initial impression of sweet fruit (strawberry, quince and green apple) is followed by vibrant acids, then turning sweeter again on the finish, suggesting preserved lemon and anise  and leaving a lingering impression of saline minerality. Drink now and for the next two to three years. 13.3% alcohol, our lowest Grenache Blanc ever.
  • 2011 Marsanne: Aromas of peaches and cream, honey, and citrus blossom, with rich yet surprisingly bright flavors of pineapple, mango, and creamy minerality, a rich yet clean texture and long finish with tropical fruit and sweet spice. Drink now and over the next five years. 13.0% alcohol, exceptionally low for a white Rhone from California.

These wines are both small production (225 and 120 cases, respectively) and neither one will see much in the way of wholesale distribution.  Thanks to the frost, there just wasn't much fruit in 2011.  But the national market has already seen the 2011 Patelin de Tablas and the 2011 Patelin de Tablas Blanc, which show a similar combination of richness and vibrancy, though the expression of minerality isn't quite as apparent in our non-estate wines.  Perhaps the best early example has been the 2011 Rosé, which has been perhaps our favorite vintage of this wine ever.

The best news?  We're only at the beginning of the release cycle for our 2011's.  The next couple of years should be fun.

Tasting the wines in the fall 2012 VINsider club shipment

Every six months, we send out a six-bottle shipment of wines to the members of our VINsider Wine Club.  The fall shipment is the showcase for our signature wines, and is typically centered around both our Esprit de Beaucastel and our Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc.  But this year is a little different.  We decided that we had been releasing our Esprit Blanc before it was really ready, and have made the commitment to cellar our flagship white another year before releasing it.  This freed up another spot for one of our small-production wines.

So, joining the 2010 Esprit de Beaucastel in this upcoming shipment we chose two whites (Vermentino and Roussanne) from the rich yet vibrant 2011 vintage and two reds (Tannat and En Gobelet) from the elegant, mineral-laced 2010 vintage.  Note that there are only five wines because club members get two bottles of the 2010 Esprit de Beaucastel.

We opened the shipment's wines today to draft the tasting and production notes that will be included in the shipment, which will leave the winery the week of September 17th. I thought that readers of the blog might enjoy a preview. I was joined by our new National Sales Manager Darren Delmore. 

Fall 2012 shipment


  • Production Notes: Our tenth bottling of this traditional Mediterranean varietal, known principally in Sardinia, Corsica, and Northern Italy. It is also grown in the Rhône Valley (particularly Côtes de Provence) where it is known as Rolle. The Vermentino grape produces wines that are bright, clean, and crisp, with distinctive citrus character and refreshing acidity. To emphasize this freshness, we ferment and age Vermentino in stainless steel, and bottle it in screwcap.
  • Tasting Notes: Incredibly pale color, with exotic aromas of lychee, citrus leaf and crushed rock. In the mouth, the wine packs a surprising punch, bright with lemon/lime acids, herby and clean, minerally and persistent. Just 13.1% alcohol, but one of our most intensely flavored Vermentinos ever. Drink now and for the next 2-3 years.
  • Production: 825 cases
  • List Price: $27 VINsider Price: $21.60


  • Production Notes: Although 2011’s spring frosts largely spared the notoriously late-sprouting Roussanne, yields were still low and these low yields combined with the unusually cool growing season to produce structured Roussanne with good acidity, suitable for aging. We fermented the Roussanne lots that were selected for our varietal bottling roughly 50% in foudre, 35% in small, older neutral oak barrels, and 15% in new demi-muids. The selected lots were blended in April then aged for an additional four months in foudre. 
  • Tasting Notes: A different beast entirely, with aromas of grilled bread, pear, pine resin and white flowers.  The mouth is classic, structured roussanne, rich yet savory with flavors of butterscotch, thyme, white chocolate and just a touch of oak.  Still a baby, this is a serious white to age (for up to a decade) and serve with substantial food like roast pork.
  • Production: 620 cases
  • List Price: $30 VINsider Price: $24


  • Production Notes: our ninth bottling of this traditional varietal from South-West France, known principally in the Pyrenees foothills appellation of Madiran, but originally native to the Basque region. Tannat typically has intense fruit, spice, and tannins that produce wines capable of long aging, and it is often blended with Cabernet Sauvignon, although our 2010 Tannat is unblended because we were so taken by our small production of Cabernet in 2010 that we bottled it separately
  • Tasting Notes: A vibrant red-black in color, with plush, polished black raspberry, smoked meat and laquered wood on the nose. The flavors that follow are surprisingly pretty, pure and seamless for a Tannat this young, before a wash of tannins reassert control.  The lingering finish vibrates between sweet fruit and dusty, loamy earth. Drink this now or cellar for a decade or more.
  • Production: 760 cases
  • List Price: $40 VINsider Price: $32


  • Production Notes: 37% Grenache, 28% Mourvedre, 13% Syrah, 12% Counoise, 10% Tannat.  Our third En Gobelet, a unique blend (we think perhaps the only one in the world) of Grenache, Mourvedre, Syrah, Counoise and Tannat mostly from the 12-acre head-trained, dry-farmed vineyard block we call Scruffy Hill. Grenache and Counoise provide rich purple fruit and bright acidity, while Tannat and Syrah contribute dark color, smoky, spicy flavors and firm tannins, and Mourvedre brings dark red fruit, earth, spice and ageability. Unlike most of our wines, the En Gobelet was largely co-fermented, then aged in foudre.
  • Tasting Notes: A pretty nose showing grenache's characteristic grape, milk chocolate, pepper spice, and floral components.  An initial perception of sweetness in the mouth is quickly banished by grippy tannins that suggest a rest in the cellar is recommended.  In the near term, pair it with a marbled steak, or age it for 5-10 years to reveal the leather and truffle notes that are lurking in the background.
  • Production: 700 cases
  • List Price: $45 VINsider Price: $36


  • Production Notes: 45% Mourvedre, 30% Grenache, 21% Syrah, 4% Counoise. Like all the 2010 reds, the components that went into the Esprit spent nearly a month longer than usual on the vine, as the 2010 ripening cycle was lengthened by the coolest year in our history. This long hangtime shows in the vintage's noteworthy minerality, and in its intensity without any sense of excess weight. Esprit is as usual based on the red fruit, earth and mocha of Mourvèdre, while Grenache brings rich mouthfeel, glycerin and a refreshing acidity. Syrah provides black fruit and mineral and Counoise adds vibrancy and brambly fruit. The wine's components were fermented separately, then selected for the Esprit, blended and aged in foudre.
  • Tasting Notes: The nose shows Mourvedre's signature currant, balsamic, black tea and roasted meat aromas, given lift by a brighter raspberry note and an unusual gunpowdery mineral note. The mouth is lusher than the nose suggests, with plum, blueberry, pepper steak and dark chocoloate notes. Well-mannered tannins keep order without blocking or weighing down the wine. Beautifully balanced. A wine that provides pleasure now, but which should also age gracefully for two decades.
  • Production: 4400 cases
  • List Price: $55 VINsider Price: $44

A Summer Dinner in Vermont

By Robert Haas

One of summer’s greatest challenges for the Vermont gardener is keeping up with the zucchini production.  So we need to find recipes in order to benefit from our garden and, of course, wines to accompany them.  Here is an old standby recipe inspired by The Victory Garden Cookbook, by Marian Morash, published in New York in 1982 by Alfred A. Knopf.  Mr. Knopf, a customer of mine at M. Lehmann, was a great lover of good wine and food, and a frequent publisher of works by knowledgeable food and wine writers.

2 eggs
2 cups grated zucchini
2 ears local corn, scraped off the cob
¼ cup flour
1 Tb melted butter
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup coarsely grated VT cheddar cheese
2 Tb oil for frying 

  • Grate the squash on the coarse side of a box grater, put into a colander and salt to drain of excess liquid.  
  • Slice the corn off the cob and scrape off the milky residue with the back of a knife. 
  • After about 20 minutes, gently squeeze the liquid out of the squash with your hands, and continue with the recipe.
  • Beat the eggs and combine with all remaining ingredients except the oil.
  • Heat a well-seasoned iron or non-stick pan or a griddle and add the oil.
  • Spoon the batter with a ladle into the hot oil and fry until crisp on both sides.  Smaller fritters are easier to turn.  
  • Drain on paper towels and serve hot.

For the wine, ironically I discovered one from about the same vintage as the book: a 1981 premier crû Burgundy: Vosne-Romanée Orveaux of Jean Mongeard, tucked away in the cellar.

Orveaux 1981

I brought it up expecting a gentle, elegant wine, albeit from a disregarded vintage.  Wrong!  The wine was rich and full-bodied, redolent of ripe sun-dried cherries, with a velvety palate and ripe tannins: unexpectedly intense, and at a perfect age, with a touch of that now unfashionable “barnyard" character which I learned to appreciate.  It went beautifully with the fritters.  I had put away several cases of 1981's from Mongeard and Ponsot in my Vineyard Brands days because both vignerons had beautifully farmed a vintage with heavy spring frosts, frequent storms during June and July and damaging hail in August.  However, they saved their harvest of a tiny crop by careful navigation during a difficult September.  The trade and the press wrote it off: “A vintage to forget.”  I’m glad that I didn’t.  And best of all, I still have some of the wines in the cellar.