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March 2013
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Can I get an ice bucket for my red?

If I'm in a restaurant and ask for an ice bucket, you're much more likely to see a bottle of red on the table (and a surprised server) than you are to see a white.  And I'm likely to wave away the proffered ice bucket with most of my whites, with the possible exception of something sparkling. An ice bucket for my red wine? And a white let to sit on the table and warm up?  Absolutely.

Red bottle in ice bucket

Some of my thoughts on this were brought into focus by an interesting conversation I had with Richard Dean, the Sommelier at San Francisco's Campton Place, as we were finishing up a wonderful wine dinner last week. He had featured several Tablas Creek wines, all of them paired expertly, and served -- not a given -- at exactly the right temperature to offer maximum enjoyment. I complimented him on this, and Richard (who has been pouring our 2011 Patelin de Tablas Blanc by the glass for several months) remarked that a regular customer of Tablas Creek had commented to him that the wine showed best when it had warmed up a bit.  Richard wasn't a stranger to this phenomenon, but moved the wine from the refrigerator where they store most of their whites to the cellar where they store their reds, and was amazed to see how many more compliments he started receiving on the wine. 

I was not surprised. 

Serve a wine too cold and the flavors are thinned and the aromatics deadened.  Serve one too warm and it tastes heavy and alcoholic. And serving temperature matters most to the white wines that are richest and most complex.  Within that category -- which includes powerfully built whites like Chardonnay, Semillon, Gewurtztraminer and Pinot Gris, as well as most of the Rhone whites -- the wines that have the highest acidity hold up best to being served very cold, while those that tend to be broader and richer, and lower in acid, can show very little other than a sake-like creaminess when they're served straight out of the fridge.

We've noticed this in our own blending trials. Roussanne, which at cellar temperature is the richest and most complex white we make, shuts down dramatically when it's served right out of the fridge. And it does have an impact out in the market; I've noticed wildly divergent notes on CellarTracker about our Roussanne that I think are directly attributable to people tasting it at different temperatures.  Grenache Blanc, in contrast, shows quite nicely at low temperatures, in part because of its higher acidity and more traditional fruit flavors. One benefit of blending Grenache Blanc and Picpoul Blanc into Roussanne -- as we do in our Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc -- is that the blended wine shows much better than a straight Roussanne would at the cold temperatures at which it is often served in restaurants.  I still think it's important to serve the wine warmer, or at least let it warm up in your glass, but it gives us a fighting chance.

For reds, you often hear the recommendation that red wines should be served at "room temperature". That's all well and good, but whose room are we speaking about?  A beach house in Santa Monica?  An air-conditioned Manhattan apartment?  A Scottish castle?  What may have been normal room temperature (say, 65 degrees) fifty years ago in the United Kingdom, whence many of these wine maxims originate, is likely ten degrees cooler than your average American house.  And many restaurants are warmer still, heated by the massed diners and the kitchen burners.  Most high-end restaurants are now (happily) keeping their wines in a temperature-controlled cellar, but I still see too many restaurants with wines in bins or on racks on the walls, and even the ones with good cellars aren't likely using them for their by-the-glass wines.

Red wines aren't the same, either, as they were decades ago when the "room temperature" recommendation gained popularity.  Most red wines are riper, denser, and higher in alcohol than they were a generation ago, and while these wines can have a lovely richness when they're served cool, warmer temperatures emphasize their more unpleasant aspects, making them seem overweight, alcoholic, and sweet.

Thankfully, it's not that hard to make sure your wines are served at the right temperature. A typical wine cellar is kept in the upper 50s or lower 60s.  That's a great starting point for both reds and whites.  (And, as a point of reference, at Beaucastel they recommend that you serve all their wines, red and whites, at roughly 60 degrees.) If you're serving a sparkling, sweeter or lighter-bodied white, or a rosé, stick the bottle in the fridge for half an hour before you're going to open it, and figure you'll serve it around 50 degrees, and it will warm up a bit in the glass.  If you're serving a red, take it out of that same cellar maybe a half an hour before you open it, or less if your room is warm and the wine will warm up significantly in the glass.  But starting with the red wine too warm doesn't leave you many good options, as it's unlikely to cool off once it's poured.

But if you get an over-warm red wine when you're eating out, don't be shy about requesting that ice bucket. Hey, it's better than asking for an ice cube, right?

The Beauty of Frost Protection

By Chelsea Franchi

The beginning of last week brought some low temperatures to the vineyard and Executive Winemaker/Vineyard Manager Neil Collins and Viticulturist Levi Glenn were forced to work through the night to ensure that the 2013 harvest didn't get fried by frost.  When freezing temperatures are forecast, that's a scary thing for everyone working at a winery, but especially those who man the frost protection devices.  On these nights, the person in charge of frost patrol (usually Neil, who lives on the property) calls our weather post every hour on the hour to track temperature patterns.  And if that temperature drops, it means suiting up in the middle of the night - when it is quite literally freezing outside - to fire up our frost fans, hang curtains (which help direct air flow from the fans) and turn on sprinklers.

By the time I get to work (at 7:00 am), the sun is coming up and the danger of frost damage is past.  However, frost protection is still in full force at that time.  Pulling into the winery, it sounds like we have helicopters trying to land in the vineyard (some of those frost fans are incredibly powerful and move a LOT of air) and the sprinklers are still on.

This is the view I am greeted with on those chilly mornings:

While this is far from a welcome sight from a vineyard or winemaking standpoint, it is truly breathtaking.  Those are low-flow overhead sprinklers at work, pulsing water onto the vines.  This process leaves icicles hanging from the trellis wires and encapsulates the freshly sprouted foliage in glassy sheaths of ice. 


While this may look like the opposite of frost protection, this is exactly what it should look like.  When water freezes, a chemical reaction occurs in which liquid water (which has a lower density) is changed to a phase with a higher density (ice).  As this happens, molecules slow and condense and in doing so, they release energy - and heat, called "latent heat".  While this process does not produce enough heat to warm the plant, it does provide enough heat to prevent the plant temperature from falling below the freezing point.  As long as water continues to be applied (this is imperative), the process of water changing to ice (and releasing latent heat) will continue to protect the plant until the outside temperature becomes warm enough to melt the ice.  Only then can the sprinklers be turned off.


We're going to keep our fingers crossed that our current (gorgeous) weather conditions are a trend, but if you cross your fingers, too, that probably wouldn't hurt.  We appreciate support in all forms.

The High Costs of State Alcohol Franchise Laws

The power to take your business elsewhere is fundamental to capitalism. This power of choice keeps prices reasonable, incentivizes efficiency and customer service, and keeps the business environment healthy by forcing companies to innovate and winnowing out those that don't keep up. Remove the ability to choose another partner and commerce becomes far less efficient.

Wine bottles in chains

But in the world of wine, there are large swaths of the country where such an open market is only a dream. And I'm not talking about the ability for customers to purchase wine freely from wineries and have it delivered to their door (that's a whole different issue).  I'm talking about alcohol franchise laws, which govern the relationship between a winery and the state-licensed distributor that can sell that wine to that state's restaurant and retail customers.  Franchise laws distort the supplier-distributor relationship by granting the distributor indefinite and typically exclusive rights to sell a supplier's product, no matter how good or bad a job they do, no matter whether their key employees stay or leave, and even no matter if the company is sold.

There are currently some twenty states with a version of this alcohol franchise law, in regions as diverse as the northeast (CT, DE, MA, ME, NJ, VT), southeast (GA, NC, TN, VA), upper mid-west (MI, OH, WI), great plains (AR, KS, MO) and mountain west (ID, MT, NM, NV).  There are variations in the extent to which they give recourse for the suppliers.  Some have production limits, so suppliers smaller than an arbitrary size can get out of their franchise ties.  Some require that suppliers keep existing relationships but allow a supplier to add a second distributor.  Some allow you to take your case to a hearings board and leave your distributor if you have cause.  But in all cases it tilts the balance of power in a supplier/distributor relationship even further in the direction of the distributor.

It's not as if distributors need the help.  Most distributors are much larger than most of the wineries they represent.  As a small-to-medium sized winery, I'm sure there isn't a single distributor of the 50+ we use around the country to whom we represent even 1% of their business.  In most cases, we represent a tiny fraction of a percent of their business, and the franchise law's justification -- that small, local distributors need protection from capricious removal of custom from out-of-state liquor goliaths -- is a relic from pre-Prohibition fears of "big liquor" and simply doesn't apply to fine wine.

The costs of franchise laws are significant.  It should be obvious that removing a supplier's ability to choose to move its business elsewhere reduces the incentives to serve the interests of that supplier.  But there are costs to consumers as well, as distributors in states with franchise laws typically work at higher margins than in states without them.  If no other distributor can attract away your high-profile brands with the promise of selling more wine on a thinner margin, distributors are only behaving rationally to make a little more money on what they sell.  Franchise laws also discourage innovation and investment as a distributor can't attract new suppliers by doing a better job and convincing other distributors' suppliers to move. The only way for a distributor to get new business is to buy other distributors, or, in a process that resembles major league baseball's pre-free agency days, arrange for a trade with another distributor.

Distributor consolidation -- in which the number of wine distributors has shrunk by two-thirds over the same two decades where the number of wines for sale in the United States has doubled -- is an issue even in non-franchise states, but it's balanced there by the ability of new distributors to enter the market and attract suppliers dissatisfied by the ever-larger distributors.  It is much less attractive for a new distributor to open in a franchise state, where they can only attract wineries new to the market, and the larger average size of distributors in franchise states reduces the choices that suppliers (and restaurant and retail customers) have and constricts the supply chain.

As in non-franchise states, franchise state wholesalers run the gamut from excellent to indifferent, and we have the pleasure of working with some sterling franchise state distributors. These distributors are among those most hurt by franchise laws because they can't parlay their hard work into more business. Ultimately, franchise laws cause a gradual calcification of the wine market in the states they affect, reducing that market's growth. Many small suppliers I speak to won't sign with a distributor in a franchise state and instead choose to focus their efforts elsewhere, worried that should their needs change they will be locked in and unable to move.

I have yet to read a convincing explanation of why franchise laws are constitutional.  In fact, it seems to me that they violate antitrust laws as well as the Commerce Clause of the US Constitution, which prohibits states from interfering in the free exchange of goods across state lines.  If any readers out there are versed in alcohol franchise law, please jump in in the comments section to explain, if you can.

Despite the potential coalition of suppliers large and small, restaurants, retailers, consumers and innovative distributors, it's rare to hear about the issue of franchise laws.  A potential solution might be found in the model developed for the ongoing and increasingly successful fight for direct shipping, which combines a consumer-focused mouthpiece in Free the Grapes and a few well-funded nonprofits behind it to wage legislative and legal challenges.  If and when this model emerges, you, as a wine lover, will know which side you should support.

Budbreak 2013

With the last two weeks of warm weather, the vineyard has sprung out of dormancy.  Starting with Viognier, Grenache and Grenache Blanc, budbreak proceeds through Syrah, Marsanne and Picpoul, and eventually finishes with Roussanne and Mourvedre.  The photo below, of a Grenache vine from last week, is typical:

New growth April 2013

With budbreak comes our annual period of frost danger, which extends roughly through mid-May.  That means we have a month of white-knuckle nights while we hope that the radiational cooling doesn't knock our temperatures enough below freezing to damage the fresh growth.  So far, we've been OK, and the next week looks relatively warm.  But it's a rare year that we see no damage from frost; we've only seen three such years in the last fifteen.

We have two main weapons in our fight against frost damage.  The first is water.  We have about 20 acres of the vineyard fitted with microsprinklers that we can turn on during frosty nights.  Water's unique physical characteristics (that it takes a large amount of energy to move it from 32° and liquid to 32° and frozen) means that as long as you have water flowing, the temperature cannot get below 32°.  Unfortunately, even with microsprinklers it takes a lot of water to protect an acre of grapes, and we just don't have reservoirs large enough to protect the entire property.

The second weapon we have is wind. In our typical frost, there is as much as a 10° difference in temperature between the valley bottoms and the tops of our tallest hills, caused by the tendency for colder (heavier) air to flow downhill.  Different sorts of wind machines either mix the colder surface air with the warmer air aloft or collect the cold air where it flows and blow it up a chimney a hundred feet or more, preventing it from pooling in low-lying areas.  As you might suspect, the mixing wind propellors are more effective in flat areas, and the wind chimneys, which rely on flows of cooler air, require hills and valleys.  We use both.

We are also mowing, disking and spading our cover crop, reducing friction at the surface and allowing colder air to drain or be blown away by our wind machines.  We're nearly complete with this task and should be totally cleaned up by the end of the week.

Meanwhile, we'll be enjoying the new green growth, the warm spring days, and the growing intensity of the sun.  In these benign conditions you can almost hear the vineyard growing.  We're keeping our fingers crossed that this continues without a (frost-induced) hitch.

Of Broncos and Wine, 1996 Vintage

By Robert Haas

This week we had fun visitors from Vermont: our daughter Rebecca, her husband, their three year old, Emmett, and old friends Mike and Cheryl LeClair.  The LeClairs volunteered to drive our 1990 Ford Bronco here from Vermont in September of 1996 and help with the harvest.  That 1996 harvest was from our new, very young Tablas Creek vineyard but, since our own on-site winery was a year away from completion we vinified and bottled the tiny production over at the Adelaida Cellars winery, a few miles down Adelaida Road.

I wanted to sample a bottle of 1996 with the LeClairs while they were here, so I found a bottle of our Tablas Hills "Cuvee Blanc" from that year.  We used the Tablas Hills label for our wines in 1995 and 1996, grown on our property but made at Adelaida Cellars, and debuted the Tablas Creek Vineyard label we use today in 1997 with the completion of our estate winery.  The 1996 Cuvee Blanc was a blend of Roussanne and Viognier from our then-3-year-old vines.  I brought the bottle to a dinner party at Jason’s to which Cesar Perrin (François’ youngest son, who was 6 years old in 1996) and Neil Collins were also invited. 

1996 Cuvee Blanc

We were all surprised by the resiliency of the wine.  It was delicious: light golden in color, white flowers, honey and almonds on the nose, dry, soft, rich and structured on the palate, with only the slightest hint of its 17 years of age.  You can see the youthful color in the photo below.

RZH Drinking the 1996 Cuvee Blanc

We are often asked about our expected longevity for our wines; mostly about the reds.  Since our first bottlings from our imported vines were in 1996, we do not have decades of experience to go on.  At this point, we believe at least 20 years.  But this weeks’ experience of this 1996 demonstrates the ability of the whites, especially the Roussannes and their blends to age many years and improve in bottle. The blog has the report from one recent vertical tasting of the Esprit blancs.

The ability of a wine to not only age, but to age well, going from rich, juicy, sometimes tannic youth to elegant, nuanced maturity, has always been a mark of quality.  Paso Robles may not have yet deveoped the reputation of ageworthiness to rival that of Napa, Bordeaux or even Chateauneuf-du-Pape, but tastings like these give us every reason to expect that it will. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, that old Bronco that arrived in time to help us with the 1996 harvest is still running. It was great to see that the vintage it helped produce is keeping pace.