Previous month:
December 2013
Next month:
February 2014

The future of the proprietary blend

This week, I joined much of the rest of the California wine community in Sacramento for the Unified Grape and Wine Symposium.  Unified, as it's called, is part trade show, part educational conference, and part social hall, with nightly reunions of all the significant viticultural universities and lots of the informal socializing that helps keep a community together.

I was up there to speak on a panel titled The Proprietary Wine: Rethinking the Constructs of Blended Wine, a topic near and dear to my heart.  I and the other panelists shared how we thought about, and went about creating, the blends that we each focus on.  I showed the 2012 Patelin de Tablas Blanc and the 2011 Esprit de Tablas, to have an opportunity to discuss how our approach differs for an estate wine and for the Patelin line, which is primarily from a collection of other local vineyards.

Blending components

It became clear that each of us, to one degree or another, agreed that the freedom to blend different grapes, and the liberty to adjust to what each vintage gives you, allows us to make wines that we find more consistent and more interesting.  But more than why we blend and what we hope to gain from it, I thought that the most interesting part of the seminar came in the question-and-answer period at its conclusion, specifically a question as to whether we thought that blends would, in the short or long term, take the mantle of desirability from the varietal wines that now dominate the marketplace.

On one side of the debate stands the success of the other panelists (whose quantities had grown in a shorter time than we've been active well into the tens and hundreds of thousands of cases) as well as brands like Menage a Trois, which came up in discussion several times as one of the top selling wines in the country despite its unconventional composition.  Also on that side is the 15+% growth in both the red and white blend categories reported in Nielsen data from 2012.  Arguing on the other side of the debate was the proprietor of a small winery, who asked me privately after the session whether I had any answer to the questions she gets from wine buyers just where they're supposed to put her blend on their shelves or on their lists.  I hear that less than I did, but it would still certainly be easier to be in a more widely recognized category.

My general feeling is that blends will continue to grow in acceptance, but not because of a paradigm shift.  In fact, I feel that the growth of acceptance of blends is part and parcel of the growing acceptance of unusual grapes and new growing regions.  The American market even a decade ago was dominated by six grapes (Cabernet, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc) and maybe eight foreign regions (Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Rhone, Germany (mostly German Riesling), Spain (mostly Rioja), Italy (writ large), Australia, South America (mostly Chile with a little Argentina).  Perhaps you could add in South Africa and New Zealand.  It was these regions that warranted their own sections in even the best stores and wine lists.  If you didn't fit into one of these categories, you tended to get stuck in "other red" or "other white".  I know, because that's where we spent a lot of our history.

Fast forward a decade, and while retail has by and large been slower to change -- some notable exceptions notwithstanding -- wine lists are a great deal more inclusive than they were.  Most large lists are still organized by grape or region, but there are many more grapes and many more regions listed.  And small lists, which are more and more common even in many top restaurants, have more flexibility in their category-less simplicity to include whatever wines their buyer thinks interesting and complementary to their food.  If it's based on Vermentino, or Negrette, it's likely listed that way, without fanfare or apology.

These developments are part of the maturation of the vibrant American wine market.  I don't mean to say that there is a more mature wine consumer, though many Americans are still relatively new to wine, and I think that as wine lovers spend more time with their passion their tastes do tend to become more diverse, but that there are more and more different types of wine consumers in this wonderfully heterogeneous market.  That means you don't need to convert a Chardonnay lover to Picpoul in order to be successful.

And that is a future to be excited about.

Vintage Hollywood

I have recently been finding myself contrasting two recent vintages primarily in terms of their personalities, rather than (or at least, in addition to) their flavors.  Our 2011 vintage produced wines that are tense, wound-up, powerful and brooding, that make you make an effort to get to know them.  The wines from our 2012 vintage are sunny, open, friendly, and easy to like without being simplistic.  Yes, these are notably anthropomorphic descriptions, and I have described each without mentioning anything about sweetness, acidity, flavors or texture.  And yet, don't you have a sense of what the two vintages' wines are likely to taste like?

That got me thinking of which movie stars might correspond to those two vintages, and once I got myself started, I couldn't stop.  So, I present to you the last ten vintages, with a female and male movie star who will help you get to know them, and a little explanation as to why. Images courtesy Wikipedia.

Star Banner.fw

  • 2004: "We didn't know they had it in them".  The 2004 vintage struck us at the time as likely to produce friendly, appealing wines without perhaps the structure and depth to age into elegance.  We were wrong, and the vintage has had remarkable staying power and has become something we didn't think it would be.
    • Female star: Mila Kunis, because when you saw her in That 70's Show, did you think she would be an A-list talent, as well as one of the most genuinely funny interview subjects in Hollywood?  Me neither.
    • Male star: Matthew McConaughey. Wooderson didn't seem likely to graduate to Dallas Buyers Club.
  • 2005: "Came through a few rough patches".  2005 wines were big and brawny when they were young, obviously with potential, but they shut down hard in middle-age and got downright difficult, to the point that we actually had to delay including the 2005 Esprit de Beaucastel in our Collector's Edition Wine Club because it wasn't ready.  But now?  They're the wines I pick when I want to impress.
    • Female star: Drew Barrymore, who as a teenager didn't seem likely to mature into the funny, self-possessed star she is now.
    • Male star: Robert Downey Jr., whose transformation from talented tabloid regular to master of multiple genres has been remarkable to see.  Did you realize he's the most valuable movie star in Hollywood, and has been for two years running?
  • 2006: "The overachiever".  A little like 2004, except that the wines seemed more solid and less friendly at the start, likely to be respected and admired but unlikely to be loved.  Then they steadily put on substance while rounding off rough edges, until they were stars in their own rights.  It happened so gradually we were actually surprised when our 2006 Esprit de Beaucastel became our first wine to make the Wine Spectator's annual "Top 100" list.
    • Female star: Amy Adams, who seemed destined for typecast roles as the funny sidekick but who has pushed her boundaries until she's one of the most marketable women in Hollywood.
    • Male star: John C. Reilly, the consummate character actor who parlayed strong work in a steady stream of sidekick roles in great indie films into juicy lead roles in blockbusters like Chicago and Gangs of New York.
  • 2007: "The star".  Big, glossy, powerful, clearly A-list material, our most impressive vintage suggests the classic Hollywood star, at the height of his or her powers, who can play any role successfully.  Yet, you never forget you're watching a star conscious of his or her own power.  No one would describe the 2007 vintage as "cozy".
    • Female star: Catherine Zeta-Jones.  A-list lead.  Talented singer.  One of the most beautiful women of her generation.  Would I be terrified to meet her?  Absolutely.
    • Male star: George Clooney.  Ridiculously talented, funny, self-deprecating and successful in a number of different roles, but you never forget you're watching a movie star.  That's what 2007 is like.
  • 2008: "The quiet pro".  This vintage, sandwiched between the showier 2007 and 2009 vintages, was excellent in its own right, but didn't demand a lot of attention.  It's like the star you're always happy to see in a movie, but whose name probably isn't on the marquee.  Yet at the end, you're glad to have spent the time with them.
    • Female star: Julianne Moore: classy, elegant, always appealing, and often in roles that show off her acting rather than her beauty.  Always an asset to a cast.
    • Male star: Jake Gyllenhaal: ditto.  Can lead a major production, but it doesn't seem to happen as often as it could.
  • 2009: "The dark side".  Powerful, tightly wound, the 2009 vintage is like 2007 with some added menace: an a-list star willing to go without makeup in pursuit of a meaty role.  We're expecting the 2009's, which are a bit forbidding and tannic now, to unwind only gradually, but to reward patience handsomely.
    • Female star: Angelina Jolie, the classic female action hero, whose depth is promised and only gradually revealed. A powerful presence, alluring and intimidating in equal measure.
    • Male star: Daniel Craig, whose take on James Bond is darker than previous iterations, played straight rather than with a wink, still plenty suave while adding more muscle and an introspective streak. A Bond who doesn't let you inside.
  • 2010: "Classic elegance". The comparatively stress-free 2010 vintage, a wet year coming after three years of drought, produced wines that have to me always come across as effortlessly appealing, not notable for their power but beautifully delineated and in perfect balance, like a movie star who ages gracefully.
    • Female star: Gwyneth Paltrow, charming in whatever role she takes on, from the big screen to the kitchen, but seemingly most at home playing a version of herself.
    • Male star: Denzel Washington, whose quiet confidence and air of class allows him to imbue humanity into characters who in other hands would be straightforward villains or saccharine heroes. Watch Training Day and Remember the Titans and marvel that he starred in these back-to-back.
  • 2011: "A little intimidating". 2011 turned up the volume on 2010, gaining intensity from a spring frost and retaining bright acids from our second consecutive cold year.  All the wines have a brooding darkness and the promise of great depth. At the same time, they require a certain investment on your part as their consumer to meet them on their terms. They're not interested in pleasing the crowds.
    • Female star: Halle Berry, who could have settled into a comfortable role as model and actress playing beautiful people, but seemed to search out troubled characters that were impossible to pigeonhole.
    • Male star: Hugh Jackman, who inhabits Wolverine's character comfortably: funny and sociable in short, bitter bursts, but ultimately inward-focused and intense.
  • 2012: "Pleased to meet you". In dramatic contrast to 2011, 2012 comes to greet you with a smile. This isn't to say that there's not depth behind this happy facade, but the first impression I have with all the wines from 2012 is that they're charming, with generous fruit, engaging and enticing.
    • Female star: Reese Witherspoon, recent arrest notwithstanding, plays characters with an easy smile who you want to root for and for whom joy seems a regular emotion.
    • Male star: Tom Hanks, whose wide range never seems to include dour or unappealing characters.  Of course, if you were casting for an unappealing character, would you cast Tom Hanks?  Exactly.
  • 2013: "The prodigy". In our as-yet-limited experience of the 2013 vintage, it seems to combine the appeal of 2012 with the depth and intrigue of 2011.  We're not sure where it's going yet, but we know it's going to be fun to follow and get to know.
    • Female star: Jennifer Lawrence, whose range at age 23 is already staggering, and whose career arc is likely to be meteoric.
    • Male star: Leonardo DiCaprio, circa 1997.  There isn't really a current equivalent to the promise that a 22-year-old Leonardo DiCaprio showed, already nominated for an Oscar (at age 19) for his role in What's Eating Gilbert Grape and within a few months of becoming the biggest star in the highest-grossing movie ever.

I'm sure any list like this is going to create controversy, and would love to know your nominations for the characteristics of our different vintages.  Or maybe I'm totally off base and you've only made it this far because you're wondering if I've lost my mind.  In any case, let me know what you think in the comments.

Why "California's Driest Year on Record" is less serious (and more) than you're hearing

As January 2014 dawned, California residents were greeted with a collection of terrifying headlines about the lack of rain the state received in 2013.  The Weather Channel posted a national story titled "Record Driest Year in California, Parts of Oregon". The San Francisco Chronicle warned "After dry spell, get ready for water restrictions" while the LA Times editorialized "LA's driest year: Time to shut off the lawn sprinklers for good".  The Huffington Post plays it straight "2013 Is California's Driest Year On Record" while the Wall Street Journal reported "California Stretched by Worsening Drought".  A map published by the NOAA showed nearly all of California under some water stress, while a large swath (inconveniently centered around Paso Robles) was under "Extreme Drought":

NOAA Drought Map

The data from our weather station at Tablas Creek bears this out.  In all of 2013, we received 3.71 inches of rain.  That's just 13% of what we consider our normal rainfall of 28 inches, and easily the least in a calendar year since we started keeping records in 1997.  The story in areas east of us is worse: the weather station at J. Lohr, in the Paso Robles Estrella River heartland, totaled just 1.93 inches in 2013.

Why it's not as bleak as it seems
So, why is this story not as bleak as it looks? It all looks much worse because of how the rain we've received the last two winters falls on the calendar.  The rainy season in California doesn't follow the yearly calendar; it starts in November and goes through April.  This season largely corresponds to winter, when agricultural crops like grapevines are dormant.  A grapevine doesn't care whether the rainfall arrives early or late in the dormant season; it's not going to start using that water until it sprouts in the spring.  So looking at how much rain fell between January 2013 and April 2013 (some 2.35 inches at Tablas Creek) and ignoring the fact that November and December 2012 were unusually wet (11.74 inches) gives a false picture of both what last winter was like and what the growing conditions are now.

Similarly, the winter of 2011-12 was characterized by late rain: more than two-thirds of the 15 inches of rain that we received that winter came in 2012.  Between the late rain that winter and the early rain the following winter, it looks like 2012 was an about average rainfall year, with just under 23 inches of rain out here, when in fact both the winters of 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 provided roughly half of normall rainfall.

So, while a headline like "13% of annual rainfall" makes for good copy, the situation on the ground is more nuanced.  We've had two consecutive low-rainfall but hardly bone-dry winters in the books, and we're in the middle of what looks like another dry --maybe even very dry -- winter.  That's plenty bad enough, but not unprecedented.

Why it may be worse than it seems
So why is the situation worse than it seems?  We're not sure whether our historical norms are still what we should expect on average.  We're in our 15th winter since 1999-2000, and in those winters, we've only seen four seasons with above-average rainfall (2004-05, 2005-06, 2009-10, and 2010-11).  Two others (1999-2000 and 2007-2008) saw more or less average rainfall.  That leaves nine years with 60% or less of normal rainfall, raising the question of what normal rainfall actually is for us now.

Most models of climate change suggest that rising global temperatures will result in drier conditions in the American southwest, including California.  The EPA's Climate Change Center concludes that "human-induced climate change will likely result in more frequent and more severe droughts" in the our area.  Both the EPA's low-emission and high-emission models project for significant declines in California precipitation over the 21st century:


Drought is by nature a cyclical phenomenon.  But whether the current three-year dry pattern breaks this spring, next year, or later (and we're definitely hoping for sooner than later) it seems inevitable that we're entering a period where even relatively wet areas like ours will suffer more frequent and more prolonged periods of low rainfall, with all the attendant stresses on ground water supplies and growing tensions between agriculture, housing and recreation.

What to do?
How a vineyard is developed determines to a great extent the amount of water it needs each year to remain healthy and productive.  The more closely spaced grapevines are, the more support they will need each year.  This suggests that the old-school California vineyards planted before widespread irrigation are a model worth studying.  These vineyards were planted at very low density by modern standards, often as much as 12 feet by 12 feet apart (rather than the current norm of 3 feet by 8 feet).  We've been planting recent blocks -- such as our head-trained, dry-farmed "Scruffy Hill" block, pictured below -- using this old-fashioned vine density, and are cautiously optimistic about the results.  Sure, we're not going to get 4 tons per acre, but that's not what we want anyway.  We're seeing acceptable yields (2 to 2.5 tons per acre) and excellent vine health without irrigation over the last two dry years.

Scruffy Hill

Other vineyard techniques that we've been using and expect to see more widely adopted in coming years include deep ripping of the soils before the rainy season, to encourage water to penetrate rather than run off, switching from more frequent but shorter-duration irrigation to less-frequent but longer-duration irrigation to encourage deeper root growth and better vine self-sufficiency, and greater exploration of higher-vigor, deeper-rooting rootstocks instead of the lower-vigor, more shallow-rooting rootstocks that are the most common today.

Even if "California's Driest Year on Record" is a bit of a statistical fluke, it's clear that it's dry here and likely to get drier.  Anyone who is not planning now for that future is courting disaster.

Looking back a decade later at the 2004 vintage at Tablas Creek

2014 is a year of milestones for Tablas Creek.  It's been 25 years since we bought our property in 1989.  It's been 20 years since we picked our first grapes and made our first wines, in rented space at Adelaida Cellars down the road, in 1994.  Also in 1994, we got our first French cuttings in the ground, forming the foundation of the vineyard we have today.  Typically, the French wait until a vineyard is a decade old to use the grapes produced for their top wines, so 2004 is a landmark of sorts -- the vineyard's first "adult" vintage -- if you hold to such arbitrary things.  On a much more minor note, 2004 was also the first year we used screwcaps to finish a significant number of our wines.

In celebration of all this, we thought it would be interesting to check in on our 2004 wines to see how they were doing.  So, we did.  Sometimes, this job has its perks.  We opened every wine we made that year, with the goal of picking 8-10 for a slimmed-down (but hardly lean) version of this tasting we're planning for March 1st.  This later version will be open to the public, so please join us.  Details are here.

The lineup included 8 white wines, one pink, six reds, and two sweet wines, both white.  It was more than a bit intimidating:

2004 Horizontal

Joining me for the tasting were my dad, Winemaker Neil Collins, Viticulturist Levi Glenn, Cellarmaster Tyler Elwell, Sales Manager Darren Delmore, Marketing Coordinator Lauren Cross, and Assistant Tasting Room Manager Jennifer Bravo.  Below are my notes, in the order in which we tasted the wines. For complete production details and on-release tasting notes, click on the wine. For some reason, we never put up Web pages for the Bergeron and Antithesis, so I've tried to give a little extra background on those wines below.

  • 2004 Vermentino: At first, the nose came across as a little old, grassy, slightly scotch tape. But with air it improved, showing some sweetness and a nice lime peel note.  The mouth was still holding on, smooth, with nice acidity and appealing saltiness.  Darren thought it reminded him of an Australian riesling. We all thought it surprisingly fresh.  Screwcap.
  • 2004 Grenache Blanc: The nose showed some oxidation, with menthol, honey, and Scotch whiskey. The mouth showed better, with anise notes and a clean richness.  Neil, who liked it a lot, commented that with a nice paté or some rillettes, it would be beautiful.  The finish was long and rich. Cork.
  • 2004 Viognier: A similar plasticky smell at first on the nose as the Vermentino, and like the Vermentino, that blew off, to be replaced by green apple aromas with little hints of white flowers lurking behind.  The mouth was less exciting, not much viognier character, but with with both richness and good acids. An intellectual wine. Screwcap.
  • 2004 Antithesis: Our 100% chardonnay made from a small block in our nursery, named as such because on its first release in 2000 it was our only non-blend and only non-Rhone. This was the first white that I found pleasurable and not just interesting.  A darker color, likely from oak aging, with a nose unmistakably chardonnay: butter and butterscotch, and honey. The mouth is stone fruits (I thought peach syrup, Neil apricot preserves) but dry.  And for all these sweet descriptors, it had precision and length.  A pleasure, and a surprise. Cork.
  • 2004 Cotes de Tablas Blanc: The nose was rich, a little oxidized, and for me, a little heavy.  The palate was broad with bubble gum and mineral, fresh wet stone, maybe a little less acidity on the finish than I'd like.  This is riper (14.5% alcohol) and higher in viognier (55%) than we've been making our Cotes Blanc wines recently, and I like the direction in which we've taken them. Cork.
  • 2004 Bergeron: A wine that we made several years from roussanne planted in our cooler blocks and picked earlier, in homage to the roussannes of the Savoie. Very fresh on the nose, spicy, peppery and light in color.  The mouth showed to me a great coolness, with peppered grapefruit and good length.  Tyler noted its great acidity but with roussanne's characteristic breadth. Screwcap.
  • 2004 Roussanne: Smells older (which it isn't) and bigger (which it was) than the Bergeron, with peach pit and beeswax that's absolutely characteristic of our Roussanne.  In the mouth, it was powerful, with lots of texture and a little oak still that I was surprised hadn't integrated completely.  Big, and long, and very varietally typical. Cork.
  • 2004 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc: The nose shows aspects of both Roussanne and Grenache Blanc, with butterscotch and almond balanced by a menthol-like freshness.  The texture in the mouth was my most noteworthy aspect, saline and creamy, with less weight than the 100% Roussanne but fresher.  Levi described the flavor as "salted caramel".  The finish was lingering, with anise and mineral that someone described as "rain on the rocks". Beautiful. Cork.
  • 2004 Horizontal rose2004 Rosé: An amazing color (right), electric pink.  The nose shows age but wasn't oxidized, with marascino cherry predominant.  The mouth was rich, with a watermelon candy character and a little tannin from the 48 hours its mourvedre component spent on the skins.  My dad thought it "very mourvedre".  I thought it would showed a nice Beaujolais character and wrote down "quite yummy". A pleasant surprise to all of us. Screwcap.
  • 2004 Cotes de Tablas: We've consistently underestimated the Cotes de Tablas wines' ability to age, and this tasting gave us yet more evidence. The nose was gorgeous, with eucalyptus, fresh tobacco and bright, brambly fruit. Levi commented that it tasted "like a 2-year-old wine". On the mouth, it showed powerfully its grenache aspect (it was 64% grenache) with lots of strawberry fruit up front, and chalky grenache tannins on the end.  We all thought it could go another decade. We sold this for $22 at the time. Cork.
  • 2004 Mourvedre: My dad's comment, after only putting his nose in the glass, was "that's nice!". Meaty and leathery on the nose, with sweet red fruit and milk chocolate.  On the palate it was chewy and salty, leathery, with plums and incense.  Softer all around than the Cotes red, a fact which we all found interesting. Seductive. Cork.
  • 2004 Syrah: Classic syrah nose, with black fruit, juniper, and black olive. Very dark in color. Tyler identified boysenberry. The mouth showed baker's chocolate, black cherry, and peppermint on the finish.  There's still lots of tannin and a little oak on the finish, and the wine tasted to me like it's yet to reach its peak.  This drives home how much syrah benefits from aging. Cork.
  • 2004 Tannat: A woodsy, smoky nose of menthol and eucalyptus. Pine needles on the ground. Still pretty impenetrable (Darren asked if "bullet-proof" was a descriptor).  Neil thought it wanted some cassoulet, and at that point, who didn't.  The finish was if anything lighter than the attack, showing some red licorice and raspberry notes, along with dark chocolate.  My dad summed it up: "We don't call it Mr. T for nothing". Cork.
  • 2004 Esprit de Beaucastel: On the nose, softer than the preceding two wines and definitely showing its Mourvedre aspect: plums, meat drippings and milk chocolate.  Jenn thought it smelled "like my jar of bacon fat". It was soft, supple and well rounded, fully mature, though we didn't think it was on the downslope. Classy and classic. Cork.
  • 2004 Panoplie: The nose at this stage I found less appealing than the Esprit, a little confected and a little pruney, but with fig and tar.  The mouth, on the other hand, tasted like it had just been bottled, with lots of powerful dark red fruit and tannins that built and built.  Someone called it "a time capsule". I'd decant this for a while if I were drinking it now, or hold it for another few years. Cork.
  • 2004 Vin de Paille: This was perhaps the hardest wine of the tasting for me.  The nose was a little weird, sweet but somehow pickley.  The mouth was more straightforward, with flavors of marmelade and honey, and a cedary note on the finish.  I'm not sure if it's in a phase it will come out of, or if it's past its prime. It shouldn't be over the hill given its 39% roussanne and its sweetness, but our experience with wines like this is limited. Cork.
  • 2004 Vin de Paille "Quintessence": From a single barrel of roussanne that we dried on straw and held an extra year in the cellar. Both cleaner and bigger than the regular Vin de Paille, with flavors of butterscotch, golden raisin and maple sugar.  Neil described it as "like the caramel of a creme caramel". We all wanted it with a poached foie gras. A great way to end the tasting. Cork.

A few concluding thoughts.  First, we preferred all our screwcap-finished wines after they had a chance to breathe.  Consider decanting your older wines that have been finished in screwcap, but don't shy away from aging them because of their closure.  Second, we've consistently underestimated the ageworthiness of our "lesser" wines and instead focused on the Esprits and the Panoplie.  I loved (in addition to the ones I expected) the Antithesis, the Bergeron, the Rosé (!), the Cotes red and the Syrah. There are rewards to be had from aging many wines.

Finally, come and see for yourself!  At the tasting on 3/1 we decided we'll show the Antithesis, Bergeron, Roussanne, Esprit Blanc, Rosé, Cotes red, Mourvedre, Syrah, Esprit red, Panoplie, and Quintessence.  Not a bad way to spend a Saturday afternoon, I submit.