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July 2014

Finding Closure(s) in Portugal

By Chelsea Franchi

Here at Tablas Creek, we do things by hand and with care.  In the vineyard and the cellar, it's paramount that everyone feels pride for their work and I'd like to think that attention and consideration translates to the product in the bottle.  I certainly appreciate that I work in an industry that is focused on craftsmanship and old-fashioned elbow grease (that's food grade, of course) especially when so many things around us are produced via automation.  I should be clear that I don't have a problem with mechanized production for most items, and these days I tend to assume that large scale production facilities are manned by machines.  So it's nice to discover I'm wrong (every now and then).

Last week, I had the extremely good fortune to be invited on a trip to Portugal with a group of eight other wine industry professionals, hosted by our cork supplier, M.A. Silva.  The purpose of the trip was to tour around Portugal, watch the cork harvest, and see what a cork manufacturing facility does.  And in our spare time, educate ourselves a bit on the subject of Portuguese wines (*ahem*).  And before you ask, the answer is "yes".  I do know how lucky I am.  Truly, I do.

Just so you don't think I was sitting on the bank of the Douro drinking Touriga Nacional and eating bacalhau the whole time I was there, here are some bite sized facts you're welcome to pull out at your next cocktail party:

  • The cork tree is an oak
  • The first harvest of cork oak bark happens after the tree reaches about 25-30 years of age
  • A cork tree can only be harvested once every nine years
  • A single cork tree will live anywhere from 150-200 years (allowing approximately 14-15 harvests during its lifetime)
  • Harvesters of cork bark are the highest paid agricultural workers in Portugal, due to the highly skilled nature of the job

To see the cork harvest in action, we drove to the Alentejo region, which is held in high esteem for the quality of cork produced.  These forests are regulated and protected with rigorous standards, and it was clear, after spending just a  short time watching the harvest, that there is great respect for the land, the trees, the product, and the culture surrounding all of it.  I've never seen anything quite like a cork harvest.  I had a general idea of the process, but seeing it in action was one of the most fascinating and mesmerizing things I've ever witnessed.

By the time we pulled into the cork forest, the harvest crew was already well into their day.  There were workers everywhere - typically about two per tree.  One worker would scramble into the high branches and begin his work from the top while the other worker started in on the base and trunk.  Each worker carries a long-handled hatchet and begins carefully hacking a line into the cork bark.  If the cut is too deep, they risk killing the tree - hence the need for trained and experienced laborers.  From there, the bark is stripped off in long sheets where a tractor comes by to pick it up.



20140616_012805 20140616_012828
A freshly stripped cork tree (left) and the harvested cork bark (right)

20140616_013123Loading the cork bark onto tractors for transport out of the forest

20140616_020422Cork bark stacked and awaiting transport to the M.A. Silva processing facility

20140616_121231The grading and sorting area 

After the cork has dried, it's taken to a facility where it's sorted (by hand), graded (by hand) and sterilized.  All of this manual labor was an impressive sight to behold (we'd seen hundreds of workers by this point), but it was the next step that really surprised me.  I'd seen a piece of cut cork bark with wine corks punched out of it - in fact, we have one such model in our tasting room that I recommend asking about next time you're here (if you're into that sort of thing).  But to see how it gets to that point was a bit of a shock.  One worker cuts the cork plank into uniform strips while workers down the line punch the wine corks from the strip of bark.  Different workers choose different methods: some prefer to use an automatic punch tool that they manually feed, while others choose a foot pedal for increased control (as seen in the video below).  The reason I was so taken aback by this process was the knowledge that we purchase approximately 180,000 corks each year.  And every single one of those was punched by hand.


From there, each individual cork goes through a very thorough set of tests conducted by computers: checking density and visual aspects (including but not limited to: holes, pores, cracks, chips, hardwood, etc.) before going onto a conveyor belt where the presorted and computer inspected corks were inspected once more by two sets of human eyes.

It was a delight to see that we're not the only ones so concerned with putting in the effort to responsibly grow, harvest and produce our product.  To learn that others, especially those that have direct contact with our wines, respect and practice the same values was an incredibly pleasant surprise.  I'm not saying we're about to abolish screwcaps here at Tablas Creek.  I am, however, saying the next time I have the opportunity to pull a cork from a bottle of handcrafted wine, I'll certainly take a moment to appreciate the craftsmanship of the closure before turning my attention to what's in the glass.

20140619_152500Let's be real.  While I didn't spend the whole time drinking wine on the Douro, I did spend some time drinking wine on the Douro.

Veraison in June? Not so fast, in Paso Robles at least.

In his blog this week, the Wine Spectator's Tim Fish reports that regions as diverse as Contra Costa, Santa Lucia Highlands and Santa Maria Valley are already seeing veraison: the point at which red grapes start turning color, and all grapes stop growing in size and turn to accumulating sugar.  [For a good overview of the science behind veraison, check out this blog piece from 2007.] Since veraison typically means harvest is six weeks away, this news is pretty stunning.  Harvest in early August?  In coastal California?

I was quoted in the article, that we hadn't seen veraison here and didn't think we were that close, although we do expect an early start to harvest more or less in line with last year's late August beginning.  Saxum's Justin Smith, just down the street from us, was even more surprised, commenting, "Whoa, are you serious?"  I really didn't think we were that close, so I decided to go out and get representative photographs of each of our grapes, to check in on their progress.  What I saw reinforced my belief that we're on a more or less normal trajectory: on the early side, like 2013, but nothing hugely different.  I'll share the photos I got, and then explain my thoughts on why I think we're not seeing some of the very early ripening of some of our neighboring regions. 

First, the whites, beginning with Viognier (left) and Marsanne (right):

Viognier Marsanne

Then, Roussanne (left) and Grenache Blanc (right):

Roussanne Grenache Blanc

Next, the reds, starting with Grenache (left) and Counoise (right):

Grenache Counoise

Next, Syrah:


And finally, Mourvedre:


Even the earliest-to-ripen grapes like Syrah and Viognier are showing pea-sized berries, not yet even fully round, still bright green and seemingly a long way away from turning red.  In last year's blog piece on veraison, I went back to 2007 and found our first signs of veraison over the last seven years had ranged from July 17th (2013) to August 5th (2011), with an average date of July 25th.  Will this year threaten last year's earliest-ever veraison?  Perhaps.  But that's still a month away, and I'm not expecting to see it much before then.

Why would we in Paso Robles, which people typically think of as a warm region, be seeing veraison so much later than "cool" regions like Santa Maria and Santa Lucia Highlands?  The hint to the answer is in investigating what those two regions have in common with Contra Costa, but not with us: a relative lack of below-freezing temperatures.  All three regions are relatively open to the Pacific, and are therefore moderated by the ocean's unchanging cool -- never cold, and never warm -- water.  Although our vineyard sits only ten miles from the Pacific, Paso Robles is not coastal in that way.  The southern end of the Santa Lucia Mountains sits solidly to our west, unbroken at about 3000 feet.  This barrier keeps out most of the moderating influence of the Pacific, and allows us both to cool down and heat up more than the aforementioned regions.  In the summer, this gives us warm to hot days and cool to cold nights, often with a swing of 45 degrees or more.  In the winter, we see a swing nearly as large, with days in the 60's and 70's, and regular freezes at night.

These freezes are often a risk, as we can be damaged by frost as late as mid-May.  Happily, we escaped this year.  But in the late winter or early spring, a frost can have the useful impact of delaying budbreak and the onset of the ripening cycle, while more moderate regions can actually get an earlier start.  Typically, the difference between these regions isn't huge: a matter of a few weeks.  But this year, when we barely got below freezing after a cold December, the more moderate regions didn't at all.  How close were we to a similarly early start?  I'd point to the nights of February 4th and 5th, both of which got down to 29 degrees here.  That doesn't sound like much, but it meant that even with the warm weather that followed, our budbreak didn't start until mid-March.  The more coastal regions didn't get a frost after December, and I remember driving through the Santa Maria Valley in the second half of February and marveling that their vines were already showing green.

What will the impact be on the quality of the wines this year?  It's unclear.  Typically, you'd like your vines to have as long a ripening cycle as they can, but there's little evidence to suggest whether it's better or worse for things to start (and end) later than it is for them to start (and end) earlier.  I'm not sure it will have a big impact.  It is nice harvesting when it's cool, as it gives the grapes some protection against oxidation on their trip from vine to winery, and this cool is more likely in October than August.  So, to that extent, I'm happy we're not exceptionally early.  But in any case, I'm grateful enough that we got through our early spring without any frost damage -- and received March's generous rainfall -- that I'll take a slightly early veraison in stride.

Introducing the wines for the 2014 Collector's Edition shipment

Each June, I have the pleasure of tasting through our library vintages of Esprit de Beaucastel and Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc, with the goal of choosing the wines for the VINsider Wine Club Collector's Edition shipment in September.  For those of you unfamiliar with the Collector's Edition, we created it in 2009 to give members a chance to acquire our flagship wines with some age on them, and it's been a great success, generating a waiting list each year since we started it.  We will be adding people on our waiting list to the Collector's Edition next week, subject to available space.  This is done based in the order in which people joined the waiting list; our current wait time is just over a year.  If you are currently a VINsider member you can upgrade to the Collector's Edition online.  If you are not currently a member, you can indicate that you would like to join the Collector's Edition when you join the VINsider wine club.

In last year's Collector's Edition shipment, we chose to feature both Esprits from 2006.  This year, we'll use the 2005 Esprit red, and move to the 2008 Esprit Blanc.  Why the move back in vintage for the red, and up in vintage for the white?  The 2007 red didn't taste to me like it was quite ready.  It's still tight, laced with iron, with big tannins that seem to me like they need another year to resolve.  That's often the case for our most substantial vintages; they spend longer in each stage: youth, where they're exuberant and juicy, with big tannins cloaked by lush fruit; in middle-age, where some of the baby fat has faded and the tannins stand out more; and in maturity, where the tannins have softened and come back into balance with the fruit, and the wine has developed secondary flavors of leather and roasted meat.  These flavors are in full evidence in the 2005, as you'll see in the tasting notes below.  The 2007 white, on the other hand, was so luscious that we included it in our Collector's Edition shipment back in 2011, and we don't have enough left to include again.  So, the 2008 was next in line, and it will be a treat.
One quick note, before the tasting notes.  If you find the idea of an aged white wine surprising, consider that Roussanne acts in many ways -- in the vineyard, cellar, and bottle -- like a red wine.  It has big structure that takes time to come into balance, it is resistant to oxidation, and the secondary flavors that it gets with time in bottle, including hazelnut and caramel, fit well with Roussanne's more youthful flavors of pear, honey and mineral.  The wines:

Collectors Edition Bottles 2014

My tasting notes:

2008 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc: Shows a deep, rich nose of grilled bread, marzipan, menthol, butterscotch, sage and terragon.  The mouth shows powerful flavors of creme brulee, apricot, clove and marmalade.  The finish is long and creamy, with peach pit and saline mineral.  The wine's flavors broadened steadily as it sat in the glass, and I recommend a decant if you're enjoying it now.  If you're considering stashing this in your cellar, my feeling is that it's got a decade ahead of it still.

2005 Esprit de Beaucastel: A richly savory nose of leather, grilled meat, dark red fruit, mint and iron. In the mouth the wine is firm and spicy, with juiciness building through the mid-palate and flavors of blackberry, garrigue, and crushed rock.  The wine is meaty, rich, and very dry, with tannins that have softened but are still substantial, though I felt them more on the attack right now than on the very long finish, which showed an appealing chalkiness and notable refinement.  This wine, like the white, would also benefit from a decant if you're drinking it now, and should be at the front end of a peak drinking window that will last 15 years or more.

Why we haven't offered red-only and white-only options for wine club members... and why we're doing it now

We're not big on change.  OK, maybe that's me.  I'm not big on change.  So the fact that we're making what amounts to our first major change to our VINsider Wine Club since we introduced it in 2002 is significant.  After several years of internal debate, we've decided to offer VINsider members not only our classic mixed shipment of wines, but also red-only and white-only options starting this fall.

I know; it shouldn't be this big a deal.  Most wineries have offered these options for years.  But I've always been reluctant, for a couple of reasons. 

  • A "show of confidence" in our whites. I think that we, more than most wineries, focus equally on our reds and whites, and that offering only a mixed-color shipments is in effect a vote of confidence in the breadth of our options, particularly the whites.
  • A reluctance to give up control.  Growing grapes in an environment like Paso Robles, with its regular cycles of drought and its frequent spring frosts, means that our own production can vary widely from vintage to vintage, and it's been great knowing that we're able to -- using a real-world example -- offer an extra red from 2010 in our fall 2012 and spring 2013 shipments shipment because our whites from 2011 were short. 
  • We already have our VINdependent Wine Club, which should fill this need. Our VINdependent Wine Club allows members total flexibility to buy whatever they want, with a minimum 6-bottle annual commitment (albeit at a somewhat lower discount). And it's been very successful.  Last year, we signed up nearly 1000 members to this club, and have roughly 2000 active members.
  • I was worried about breadth. I'm always concerned that we have a compelling selection of wines for our club members, and it's already a challenge making 11 different wines a year in 500-case quantities (11 rather than 12 because we include 2 bottles of the newest vintage of Esprit red each fall).  For red-only and white-only clubs, doubling the quantity of a shipment with 3 reds is an option (as you see below) but what do you do for a white-only shipment when your standard shipment has 4 reds and 2 whites, as we will this fall?  Including 3 bottles of each of just 2 wines didn't seem to me like a particularly exciting thing to do.

So why are we doing it now?  A couple of reasons. 

  • Listening to our customers.  Every few years we survey the VINsiders who have canceled their membership, trying to probe on how we can do better.  In general, the survey responses are gratifying; nearly all cancel because of external circumstances: they moved to a non-shipping state, or they had a personal or professional setback that required them to cut back on their discretionary purchases, or they had health issues that required a change in lifestyle.  Most of these say they look forward to rejoining when they are able, and our data supports that: of the roughly 1600 new registrations we received last year for our VINsider Wine Club, nearly 10% (137) were previous members.  But there is a consistent minority in these surveys who say that they just don't drink either whites or reds, and it was a burden for them to have to pay for the color of wines they don't enjoy.  And I get that.  I happen to love both reds and whites, and probably drink both colors more or less equally, depending on what I'm eating at the time, but I know not everyone is the same.
  • We have more variety to offer now.  We made a conscious choice in the last vintage to make a little less of our core blends, particularly the Cotes de Tablas, and a little more of our estate varietal and small-production wines, so as to have more -- and more interesting -- selections to send to our club members and to show to the visitors who come out to our tasting room.  This change gives us options we didn't have before.
  • We realized that the VINdependent Wine Club was (compared to the VINsider Club) a lot of work.  This club, which we created about 5 years ago to satisfy customers who were excited about Tablas Creek but who didn't fit, for whatever reason, into the VINsider Club, is to my knowledge the only one of its kind in California.  As long as VINdependent members buy 6 bottles at any point in the calendar year, they satisfy their annual commitment and don't receive a prepackaged shipment.  They can choose those 6 bottles however they want... some (probably the largest segment, around one-third) only buy reds, or whites.  Others just buy our flagship wines.  Others want a smaller commitment, or live in a non-shipping state but visit Paso Robles once a year, or just don't want anyone else to choose their selection.  But, as the end of the year approaches, because we don't make automatic shipments, there is always a portion (typically around 30%) of our roughly 2000 VINdependents who haven't made their annual purchase yet, and in some cases may not have purchased since early the previous year.  A lot can happen in 18 months, and we spend much of December emailing and calling them to ascertain what they'd like.  Some we're never able to get ahold of, which has made the annual cancellation rate among our VINdependents about 50% higher than that of our VINsider Club.  If we can take that red-only and white-only customers -- most of whom only signed up for the VINdependent club because we didn't have another red-only or white-only club when they visited -- and bring them into our VINsider Club, that seems compelling.  Everyone wins: members get a better discount and more convenience, while we sell a little more wine, more predictably, and retain our members at a higher rate.

Without further ado, I'm pleased to present to you our inaugural red-only and white-only shipments.  The red-only includes 2 bottles each of 2012 Esprit de Tablas, 2012 En Gobelet, and 2012 Grenache:


For the white-only, we have 2 bottles of the 2012 Esprit de Tablas Blanc, 2 bottles of the 2013 Viognier, 1 bottle of the 2013 Vermentino and 1 bottle of the 2013 Picpoul Blanc:


And, of course, our classic mix, with 2 bottles of the 2012 Esprit de Tablas, and 1 bottle each of the 2012 En Gobelet, 2012 Grenache, 2012 Esprit de Tablas Blanc, and 2013 Vermentino:


We announced this change to our VINsiders via email about two weeks ago, and it has been interesting -- and gratifying, because it suggest that most of our VINsiders are happy with the mix we're offering -- to see that the number who have switched to one of the new options has been relatively low.  In this initial period (granted, only two weeks, but we typically see most of the response to an email within that period) we've seen 83 VINsiders switch, or roughly 1.5% of our membership.  In the tasting room, however, we've seen a higher percentage take advantage of these new options: 50 of the 355 new VINsiders (14%) have elected for red-only or white-only over the initial eight-week period we've offered these options.  This discrepancy is probably not surprising; while some of the new red-only and white-only signups would probably have signed up anyway, most would likely have either opted for our VINdependent Club or not have signed up at all.

As for proportion of red-only and white-only, it's been maybe even a little more lopsided than we would have predicted, with 115 (86%) opting for red-only and 18 (14%) opting for white-only.  I'll be interested to see whether these numbers will balance out at all; my suspicion is that they will, at least slightly, given that so far 18% of the new registrants have opted for white-only, while just 11% of those who switched from our existing members did so.

Finally, a little housekeeping, for anyone reading who wants to make a change. Current VINsider Club members can select red-only or white-only options on the VINsider Update Form, and prospective new members can choose their preferred color mix when they register on the VINsider Sign-Up Form.