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What a difference a few weeks makes: From hot to cool as we wait for a delayed harvest

If you didn't know how beautiful a fog bank can be, you haven't spent a summer in Paso Robles.  Yesterday, I returned to the vineyard after a weekend in San Francisco to find that I'd somehow brought back the weather with me.  The daytime high was just 77°F. The night before dropped down to 43°F. And there was a big, beautiful fog bank sitting over the Santa Lucia Mountains to our west:

Fog bank August 2018

Now this weather pattern isn't shocking for us, even in the middle of the summer. Although we get plenty of hot days, we normally see a pattern that builds in heat, tops out over 100°F for a few days, then breaks and we see cooler weather with days topping out in the upper 70s or lower 80s for a few days before it starts to build.

But it was shocking in that this summer, we hadn't seen the breaks hardly at all.  In fact, between July 5th and August 19th -- a stretch of six and a half weeks --  the lowest high temperature that we saw was 87°, and the lowest low temperature we saw was 53°. We had 22 days top 100°F. Our average high was 98.8° and our average low 57.6°. 

Happily, things have changed over the last ten days.  Every one of the days since August 20th would have been the lowest high and the lowest low in the previous 6-week stretch. We averaged a high of 83.3° and a low of 48.5°. And the long-term forecast calls for continued moderate weather.  The vineyard appears grateful for the respite; the vines look a lot less stressed to me than they did a couple of weeks back.

In some ways, this year reminds me of 2015, where we had alternating cold and hot months all the way from budbreak in April to the close of harvest in October.  Although the periods have lasted longer this year, we are seeing the same cold-hot-cold pattern.  I'm hoping that yields aren't as scarce as they were in 2015, when we were deep in the throes of our drought and also saw cold, windy weather during the May flowering period that reduced crop loads on our early grapes by as much as 70%, but it's certain that they'll be down from our 2017 levels.  How much is still to be determined.  But in character, the 2015s were outstanding, so if that's our baseline, I'm not unhappy.

Because we've largely avoided the temperatures where grapevines photosynthesize optimally (between 85°F and 95°F) we're still trending behind on our harvest. We're thinking it might begin slowly at the end of next week.  And we're OK with that.  In my trek around the vineyard, I tasted berries from Grenache, Grenache Blanc, Tannat, and Roussanne, and none of them were anywhere near ripe.  In fact, most were still only partway through veraison, a month after I wrote about it.  A few photos will demonstrate.  First, Tannat, where you can see the characteristic blue-black berries intermixed with pink and even green berries at the top of the cluster:

Tannat cluster August 2018

Next, Grenache Blanc. It's harder to see veraison in white grapes, but you can see some berries with a yellow tint, while others toward the center of the cluster are still more green:

Grenache Blanc cluster August 2018

And finally Roussanne, which is still resolutely green, not showing any of the characteristic russet coloring that gives the grape its name:

Roussanne cluster August 2018

It's worth recapitulating how much later we are than other recent years. Four of the last five years, we'd already started picking off our estate as of August 28th, and the fifth (2017) we were just two days from beginning and had already received some Viognier for the Patelin Blanc.  This year? Not so much. We've gone from weather that was too cool to ripen grapes fast to weather that was too hot to gapes ripen fast right back to cool weather, with virtually no transition either time.  We're out sampling all our Patelin vineyards, but nothing is imminent. The cellar team has been scrubbing equipment from top to bottom, and everything is sparkling clean. We've installed some new mini-foudres for our white program. The table is set... we're just waiting for the guests to arrive.

Clean cellar with new foudres August 2018

Checking in on the 2009 Esprit de Beaucastel

I have a confession to make.  I know that winemakers and winery proprietors are supposed to love all their creations, but I'm afraid that the 2009 vintage was never a favorite of mine.  Products of the third year of drought, further concentrated by some of the most damaging spring frosts we've ever seen, and then given yet more power by a hot, sunny summer, our wines from 2009 have generally come across to me as more massive than nuanced, with whites that tended to feel heavy and reds that were so bound up by their tannins that they masked the more subtle expressions of soil and varietal.

It's not as though these wines didn't have fans. The 2009 Esprit got a raft of 92-96 point ratings, the 2009 Esprit Blanc's ratings ranged from 91-94, and the 2009 Cotes de Tablas even made it into the Wine Spectator's Top 100 Wines of 2011.  But they were never the wines that I reached for when I wanted something to drink with a meal.  However, time has a way of resolving this particular issue -- what you might call muscle-bound-ness -- with red wines, and when I saw a few bottles stashed in my parents' cellar in Vermont on a recent trip, I decided to bring one up and open it with dinner.


The transformation that I felt had begun two years ago -- when we chose the 2009 to go out to our Collector's Edition Wine Club members -- has continued, and the wine was singing.  My notes:

A rich nose of Worcestershire, marinating meat, bay, cloves, and plum compote. Mouth-filling with flavors of chocolate syrup, licorice, tangy dark spice, meat drippings, and soy. The tannins are still potent on the finish, keeping control over flavors of cola, licorice, and sweet spice. A lingering impression of meatiness focused by salty minerality is lovely. Just coming into its own, with a long life ahead of it.

I really shouldn't be surprised that this wine has blossomed. After all, it had all the elements for a wine that shows best with some age: plenty of tannin and concentration, solid acidity, and rich texture. What it didn't have in its youth was elegance: the translucency of flavor that shows off the soils as well as the fruit, the spices as well as the structure.  It does now, and anyone who's got some in their cellars is in for a treat.

Tasting the Wines in the Fall 2018 VINsider Club Shipments

Each spring and fall, we send out a selection of six wines to the members of our VINsider Wine Club.  In many cases, these are wines that only go out to our club.  In others, the club gets a first look at wines that may see a later national release. Before each shipment, we reintroduce ourselves to these wines (which, in some cases, we may not have tasted since before bottling) by opening the full lineup and writing the notes that will be included with the club shipments. Today, I sat down with our winemakers Neil Collins and Chelsea Franchi and we dove into this fall's collection. For what we found, read on.

Neil and Chelsea with Fall 2018 VINsider wines

We base the fall shipments around the newest releases of the Esprit de Tablas and Esprit de Tablas Blanc, and this fall's shipment is no exception. In addition, this year we reached back into our library to include not just the newest 2016 Esprit de Tablas, but also a bottle of the 2014 Esprit de Tablas that has been showing so well recently.  I'm excited to hear the feedback that we get.  

The classic shipment includes six different wines:

Fall 2018 Classic (Mixed)


  • Production Notes: Like all our white grapes, 2017 saw above-average yields for Grenache Blanc. But that doesn't mean the fruit lacked for intensity, with long hang times and a high leaf-area-to-fruit-weight ratio thanks to the exceptional vigor produced by our near-record rainfall in the winter of 2016-17. For the varietal Grenache Blanc, we chose lots that were fermented in stainless steel (for brightness) and foudre (for roundness), blended them in April 2018 and bottled the finished wine in July 2018.
  • Tasting Notes: A classic Grenache Blanc nose of mineral, grapefruit pith, sarsaparilla, and sweet herbs. On the palate, flavors of preserved lemon, yuzu, and tarragon provide a balance of weight and brightness, while the grape's rich texture is counterbalanced by its characteristic acids and a little pithy bite that builds on the finish, leaving a final impression of fresh citrus. Drink now and over the next few years.
  • Production: 1325 cases.
  • List Price: $30 VINsider Price: $24


  • Production Notes: Viognier, always the lead grape in our Cotes Blanc, was a poster child for the vineyard's health in 2017, with canes twice as long as usual and yields above 3 tons per acre for the first time since 2012. In character, the Viognier (44%) was powerful and pithy, and we balanced its weight with quite a bit of both Marsanne (24%) for elegance and Grenache Blanc (20%) for acids. 12% Roussanne rounds out the blend and provides structure. The selected lots were blended in April 2018, and the wine was bottled in June 2018.
  • Tasting Notes: A rich, spicy nose of peach pit, Asian spices, vanilla bean, and baked earth. The mouth is very Viognier: peaches and melon and lots of richness, although the bright Grenache Blanc acids highlight an appealing citrus pith element on the finish and the lingering impression is of mineral and freshness. Drink now and for at least the next five years.
  • Production: 1800 cases.
  • List Price: $30 VINsider Price: $24


  • Production Notes: The classic 2016 vintage was a tremendous one for Roussanne, and we ended our blending trials tied for the most Roussanne we'd ever used in the Esprit Blanc (75%, fermented and aged in a mix of small newer barrels and neutral foudres). 18% Grenache Blanc and 7% Picpoul Blanc provide citrusy acidity and saline freshness. As we have done since 2012, we returned the blend to foudre after it was assembled in April 2017 and aged it through the subsequent harvest before bottling it in December 2017 and letting it rest an additional 9 months in bottle before release.
  • Tasting Notes: Powerfully Roussanne on the nose, with notes of beeswax, lychee, white pepper, Asian pear, white flowers, and a little cedary spice. The mouth is rich and powerful, with flavor descriptors that make it sound sweet although it is absolutely dry: lemon pound cake, pear skin, honeysuckle, and sweet oak. The wine's rich texture is in full evidence on the long finish, while the citrus character from Grenache Blanc and a little saline minerality from Picpoul keep things feeling fresh. A powerful Esprit Blanc that is still unwinding after 9 months in bottle.  We expect this to go out two decades, gaining additional nuttiness and complexity over the years.
  • Production: 2070 cases
  • List Price: $45 VINsider Price: $36


  • Production Notes: Our ninth En Gobelet, a non-traditional blend all from head-trained, dry-farmed blocks, and mostly from the 12-acre block we call Scruffy Hill, planted in 2005 and 2006 to be a self-sufficient field blend. These lots tend to show more elegance and minerality than our closer-spaced irrigated blocks, although in 2016 the wine shows noteworthy power and density as well. We chose a blend of 39% Mourvedre, 30% Grenache, 20% Syrah, 8% Counoise and 3% Tannat. As usual, the small addition of head-trained Tannat proved valuable for its chalky tannins and deep flavors. The wine was blended in June of 2017, aged in foudre and bottled in April 2018.
  • Tasting Notes: An opulent nose, but with a cool undertone: currants and baking spices undercut by pine forest and mint. On the palate, black raspberry, plum skin, baker's chocolate, and rare steak are all emphasized by a salty mineral note. Vibrant and expressive on the finish, with notes of red licorice and chewy tannins that promise decades ahead. A wine that is by turns dark, and rich, and cool. Drink now or any time over the next two decades or longer.
  • Production: 925 cases
  • List Price: $50 VINsider Price: $40


  • Production Notes: Among strong competition in 2016, Syrah was the standout red variety, and although the Esprit is based as always on the red fruit and meatiness of Mourvedre (46%), we ended up using our most-ever Syrah (31%) for dark fruit, powerful structure, and chalky minerality, and relatively low percentages of Grenache (18%) for juiciness and acidity, and Counoise (5%) for briary spice. The wine's components were fermented separately, then selected for Esprit, blended in June 2017 and aged a year in foudre before bottling in July 2018.
  • Tasting Notes: A deep nose, marked equally in my opinion by Mourvedre and Syrah: mocha and currant reduction, chalky minerality and spicy eucalyptus. The mouth is dense yet not heavy, with flavors of sugarplum and rare steak, a reverberating red/black licorice note, and tremendous texture. The long finish, with lingering flavors of wood smoke, roasted meat, plum skin and crushed rock, hints at more rewards to come with cellar aging. Really an amazing showing for this wine given its recent bottling; we recommend that you drink either between now and 2021 or again starting in 2024 any time over the subsequent two decades.
  • Production: 3225 cases
  • List Price: $60 VINsider Price: $48


  • Production Notes: In our blending trials in 2014, we made the decision to highlight the year's natural lushness with the fruit and freshness of Grenache rather than try to rein it in with the structure of Syrah or the restraint of Counoise. So, to our typical contribution of Mourvedre (40%) we added our most-ever Grenache (35%) and relatively small portions of Syrah (20%) and Counoise (5%). The wine's components were fermented separately, then selected for the Esprit, blended in June 2015 and aged a year in foudre before bottling in June 2016. In the two-plus years since its bottling, the wine has blossomed, with tremendous richness yet plenty of mineral and structure to maintain balance. It still has many years ahead of it.
  • Tasting Notes: The nose has elements that are fruity, spicy, and meaty: plums, crushed rock, and rosemary-rubbed leg of lamb. The mouth is tangy, showing both Mourvedre's red fruit and the characteristic Grenache acids that keep Rhone blends vibrant: red plum, roasted meat, semi-sweet chocolate, and plenty of ripe tannins. There's nice salty minerality that comes out on the finish, along with a sweet cola note and meat drippings. Lovely. It's should make for good drinking for the next year or two, then likely shut down for a few years before reopening in 2021 or 2022 and drinking well for another two decades or longer.
  • Production: 3800 cases
  • List Price: $65 VINsider Price: $52

Two additional wines joined the Cotes de Tablas Blanc, Grenache Blanc, and 2 bottles of Esprit de Tablas Blanc in the white-only shipment:

Fall 2018 White Only


  • Production Notes: The 2017 Picpoul Blanc is our tenth bottling of this traditional Southern Rhône white grape, used in Châteauneuf du Pape as a blending component, and best known from the crisp light green wines of the Pinet region in the Languedoc. On its own, it shows the vibrant acids for which it is valued, balanced by a tropical lushness from the generous Paso Robles climate.  We ferment it in a mix of stainless steel and neutral barrels, and use the majority of our production for our Esprit de Tablas Blanc, while reserving a small quantity for this varietal bottling.  The Picpoul lots were selected in March 2018, and bottled in June 2018.
  • Tasting Notes: A vibrant nose of grilled pineapple, sea spray, and cream soda. The mouth is really quite luscious, which will be surprising for people who only know Picpoul from France, with flavors of candied lemon, sweet spices, and a chalky limestone mineral character. The finish then turns brighter again, with more fresh pineapple, tangy acidity, and a little pithy bite. Drink now and over the next few years.
  • Production: 510 cases
  • List Price: $30 VINsider Price: $24


  • Production Notes: The productive, consistently high quality 2017 vintage allowed us to produce our first Marsanne since 2014. Known more from the northern Rhone than the area around Chateauneuf du Pape, Marsanne reaches its peak in Hermitage, where it is renowned for making some of the world's most ageworthy white wines. Just our fifth varietal bottling of Marsanne, selected from two particularly compelling lots, blended in April 2018 and bottled in July 2018.
  • Tasting Notes: An inviting nose of chamomile tea, almond blossom, honeydew melon, and jasmine. The palate is soft and round, yet not heavy, with flavors of melon and fresh honey and sea spray, with a little pithy bite. The finish brings out notes of clementine orange and briny minerality. It's so appealing now that I'm guessing a lot of it will get drunk young, but it should evolve in an interesting way for a decade at least.
  • Production: 460 cases
  • List Price: $35 VINsider Price: $28

Three additional reds joined the En Gobelet and the two Esprit de Tablas vintages in the red-only shipment:

Fall 2018 Red Only


  • Production Notes: After no varietal Counoise between 2011 and 2013, this is the third consecutive year we've been able to make one. It was fermented in stainless steel, aged in neutral barrels, and bottled -- under screwcap, to preserve its brightness -- in February of 2018. Valued as a blending grape in France because of its spiciness, its fresh acidity, and its low alcohol, it's rarely seen on its own. But we love being able to share one, and deploy it much like a Cru Beaujolais: slightly chilled, with charcuterie or as an aperitif.  
  • Tasting Notes: A crystal garnet color that belies its depths of flavor. On the nose, brambly tangy purple fruit predominates, with complicating aromas of meatiness and pepper  spice. A similar balance between sweet and savory is found on the palate: salted strawberry, mineral, elderberry and mint, over a light- to medium-bodied frame with bright cranberry flavors and a garrigue-like spice emerging on the finish. A pretty and intriguing wine, and endlessly flexible with food. Enjoy it any time in the next six to eight years.
  • Production: 500 cases
  • List Price: $35 VINsider Price: $28


  • Production Notes: Grenache yields recovered to more normal levels after a punishingly scarce 2015 vintage, and the relatively high percentage of Syrah we chose for the 2016 Esprit left us enough top-notch Grenache to produce our first varietal bottling since 2013. We ferment Grenache in a mix of stainless steel and 1500-gallon wooden upright casks, and chose lots for this varietal bottling that emphasized Grenache's freshness and avoided riper lots that tend to show the high alcohol Grenache can be known for. The lots were blended in June 2017, and aged in neutral 1200-gallon oak foudres until bottling in February of 2018.
  • Tasting Notes: A friendly, appealing nose of wild strawberry, cumin, and cherry liqueur. The mouth is medium-bodied, and shows bright cherry fruit deepened by a Chinese five  spice element and kept fresh by chalky minerality and refreshing acidity. That character carries through the finish, with a little dusting of tannins playing with the red fruit and spice notes. This does not seem like a long-aging wine to me, but it's so tasty now that I'm guessing much of it will be drunk soon. If you prefer to wait, I'm sure the wine will age nicely for at least the next six-to-eight years, and likely longer.
  • Production: 925 cases
  • List Price: $40 VINsider Price: $32


  • Production Notes: 2016 is the seventh vintage of our Full Circle Pinot Noir, grown on the small vineyard outside the Haas family's home in Templeton, in the cool (for Paso) Templeton Gap AVA. Its name reflects Robert Haas's career: from a start introducing America to the greatness of Burgundy, through decades focusing on grapes from the Rhone, he's now growing Pinot at home. The grapes were fermented in one-ton microfermenters, half de-stemmed and half with stems for a more savory profile, punched down twice daily by hand. After pressing, the wine was moved into year-old Marcel Cadet 60-gallon barrels, for a hint of oak.  The wine stayed on its lees, stirred occasionally, for 10 months, before being blended and bottled in July 2017.  We've aged the wine in bottle for an additional year since then.
  • Tasting Notes: A nose of cherry cola, black tea, cocoa butter and sweet spice. The mouth is medium-weight, with red cherry and baking chocolate, a little thyme-like herbiness from the stem inclusion, and a lightly tannic finish with sarsaparilla spice and a lingering cherry skin note. Drink now and over the next decade.
  • Production: 440 cases
  • List Price: $45 VINsider Price: $36

The tasting was a great way to hone in on the character of our two most recent vintages.  2017 is luscious and powerful, with the health of the vineyard coming through clearly in the expressiveness of the wines. 2016 is somewhat more old world in character, with depth and complexity to all the flavors and a persistent spiciness. I can't wait to get these wines in our club members' hands and find out what they think.

If you're a wine club member, you should make your reservation for our shipment tasting party, where we open all the wines in the most recent club shipment for VINsiders to try. This fall's party will be on Sunday, October 7th.  If you're not a wine club member, and you've read all this way, then why not join us while there's still a chance to get this fall shipment? Details and how to join are at

Yes, July really was hot. But veraison still arrived late. What gives?

A month ago, I felt like I was tempting fate when I characterized the 2018 summer as "benign". Well, so much for benign. July was the hottest month we've ever seen here at Tablas Creek, with an average high temperature of 96.5 and an average overall temperature of 76.5.  Fourteen days topped 100, and only seven -- all toward the beginning of the month -- failed to get into the 90s. In terms of degree days, July saw us accumulate 844 degree days, fully 28% more than our average of 659. That's a big increase over what is already our hottest month:

2018 summer temps through July

Given the heat and the season, it really wasn't a surprise when I got an email from Neil on Monday with a photo of Syrah undergoing veraison. Veraison marks the point where a grape stops accumulating mass and starts accumulating sugar. More visibly, red grapes start their color change from green to purple, while white grapes take on more of a yellow tint. Both red and white grapes start to soften. [For more about what's happening chemically, check out this veraison post from the archives.] A few photos of Syrah clusters will give you a sense of what things look like now:

Veraison 2018 syrah 2


Veraison 2018 syrah 3

It's worth remembering that most of the vineyard is still totally green.  Syrah is the first red grape to enter veraison, and I couldn't find even a hint of color on any of the others. And, that photo was from the top of our tallest hill, which is always more advanced than areas lower down both because they started earlier since their last frost was later, and because they're under more stress due to scarcity of water. But we know that once we see Syrah, the other grapes follow along in fairly short order.

One of veraison's principal values to a winery is as a marker: this landmark comes roughly six weeks before the onset of harvest, and gives us our best estimate for when harvest will begin.  But, of course, six weeks is a rough average, and can be influenced by the weather that we get in the interim, as well as by the amount of fruit the vines are carrying.  For example, in 2014 our earliest-ever veraison (noted on July 9th) was mitigated by a very cool August, and we started harvest 45 days later, on August 23rd. By contrast, 2016's first veraison was noted on July 13th, and combined with a very warm August to produce our earliest-ever beginning to harvest, just 36 days later. The last dozen years are compiled in the chart below, with each year linked to my blog post about that year's veraison:

Year First Veraison Noted Harvest Begins # of Days
2007 July 20 August 28 39
2008 July 23 September 3 42
2009 July 20 September 1 43
2010 July 30 September 16 49
2011 August 5 September 20 47
2012 July 25 September 5 42
2013 July 17 August 26 40
2014 July 9 August 23 45
2015 July 18 August 26 39
2016 July 13 August 18 36
2017 July 20 August 30 40
2018 July 29 ? ?

Using the range of durations between first veraison and first harvest (36 to 49 days) we can have good confidence that we'll begin picking sometime between September 3rd and September 16th. I'm guessing we start toward the early end of that range, given the warmth of the summer so far and the relatively moderate crop levels we've been estimating.

Given the heat in July, it's worth addressing why the vineyard hasn't caught up more from the roughly two weeks late it was after flowering. I'd point the finger at two culprits. First, we did catch up a bit; I'd estimate that we're more like 10 days behind than the two weeks we were in early July.  And second, grapevines photosynthesize optimally at temperatures between 30 and 35 Celsius (86 and 95 Fahrenheit). Two-thirds of our days in July got above 95 degrees, which means that the grapevines actually slowed down photosynthesis in the heat of the day as they closed the pores on their leaves to reduce dehydration.

What's next for the vineyard? We'll watch the different grapes go through veraison. Syrah will be followed by Mourvedre, then Grenache soon, and finally Counoise. In the cellar, we'll be getting the last of the year's bottling done so there's space in barrels and tanks for the coming crush, and starting the process of pulling out and cleaning all the tanks, barrels, and equipment we'll be using once harvest begins. Everyone will be storing up on sleep.

And now we know -- roughly at least -- how much time we have  left before everything shifts into harvest mode. Stay tuned.