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November 2018

The Greening of the Vineyard

At this time of year, the landscape in Paso Robles changes fast. Within a few days of the season's first rain, you start to see hints of green under the dry grasses from the year before. The day after your first hard freeze, the grapevines lose most of their leaves as they pass into their winter dormancy. And suddenly, instead of the autumn landscape we had less than a month back, it's starting to look like winter:

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The vineyard's annual change to winter colors doesn't always happen evenly. There are still vineyard blocks (mostly at the tops of our hills) that haven't seen a hard freeze, and which combine autumn foliage with a green undercoat:

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For whatever reason, Syrah seems to hang onto its leaves (and their pretty fall colors) longer than any other grape. Witness this panoramic, with bare Mourvedre vines on the left of one of our vineyard roads and Syrah on the right:

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The growth of the cover crop means that we've been able to reintroduce our animal herd into the vineyard. The areas they've grazed look brown, but remember that the manure they leave behind will just accelerate the growth of more cover crop later in the season. Our goal is to get the flock through every block twice between now and bud-break in April:

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We are thrilled with the early rain we've seen so far this winter. We saw our first significant storm the week before Thanksgiving, in which we picked up a little less than an inch of rain. This was followed by a more significant storm the next week, which dropped 3.12 inches over two days. That wasn't all. The next week (which brings us to last week) saw another small storm drop a half-inch, and we have another storm forecast for this coming Monday. Overall, we're at 4.85" for the winter so far, and ahead of our long-term average. Even better, it has come with sunny breaks in between, which gives the cover crop a chance to get established and reduces the threat of erosion.

I'll leave you with one more photo, maybe my favorite that I took this morning. I love the feel and look of the air in a Paso Robles winter, with moisture differentiating receding mountains and softening the sun's intensity. If you haven't visited wine country in wintertime, you're missing out.

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Buy More Wine (and Fewer Wines)

Last weekend, we hosted our annual en primeur tasting for our wine club members. This is part of a program with roots back to 1954, when my dad offered the customers of his father's Manhattan wine shop M. Lehmann the opportunity to purchase futures on the great Bordeaux vintage of 1952. His father never thought consumers would pay for wine before they could get it, but my dad sold out the entire 3000 case allocation in three weeks and transformed the way that Bordeaux wines were sold in America. I recently uncovered the old pamphlet, with gorgeous hand-colored lithographs printed in Paris and sent to my dad's best customers in Manhattan. It's a remarkable time capsule, from an era where a case of first-growth Bordeaux would only set you back some $37. For larger images, click on the pictures below:

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At Tablas Creek, we offer futures on our two top red wines from each vintage, Esprit de Tablas and Panoplie.  We do this in largely the same way, year after year, as is fitting for a program that looks back nearly seven decades. We send out an invitation to purchase at a futures-only savings to our club members, as well as the opportunity to come to one of two sessions where we debut these new wines. Guests try the wines on their own and with a hearty dish that can stand up to the wines' youth, while Neil and I spend the sessions doing our best to put the newest vintage into context with other recent vintages, and share our best guesses as to how the wines will evolve over time. That was our day this past Saturday.

Here's where things get interesting. Because, while we can and do try to draw parallels with other years, no two vintages are the same. For example, my closest comparison for the 2017 wines is 2005: a year, like 2017, where we saw a multi-year drought cycle end with a bang, and where the resulting vintage was both high quality and plentiful, the vines' expression of their health in a warm, generous year. But, of course, the vineyard is older now than it was in 2005, with the oldest vines pushing 25 years and a much higher percentage of head-trained, dry-farmed acreage. The raw materials are not the same. And the young 2017 reds manage to be both densely packed and approachable, thick with primary fruit and yet savory, with hints of the complexity that they'll develop over the decades. They clearly have a long and fascinating life ahead of them.1

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I was asked at both sessions what I thought the drinking windows would be on the wines that we were tasting, and I did my best. I think that both of these wines have two windows, one 3-6 years after vintage where the wine has lost its youthful blockiness but remains young, juicy, and exuberant, and another (after a 1-3 year closed period that I liken to a wine's teenage years) 8-20 or more years after vintage where it has softened, developed more secondary and tertiary flavors of meat, leather, and truffle, when the wines' tannins have softened, when it's mature, graceful, and elegant.

But really, the most fun for me is getting to know a wine at different stages of its life. And this led me to share with the guests one of my revelations I've tried to act on over recent years. I realized I needed to buy more wine, but fewer wines. Most of us don't have unlimited resources and unlimited space. We have to prioritize. And with wine -- or at least my favorite wines, which I think will age well -- this means buying enough to be able to open at different phases of its life, and hopefully still to have some left to enjoy when I think it just can't get any better. I don't think this is feasible with fewer than six bottles, and it's a lot easier with a case.

So, that's my practical wine advice for the year. Buy more wine, but fewer wines. And then get ready to enjoy the journey that the wines you love will take you on. I don't remember seeing any 1952's left in my dad's Vermont cellar. But he definitely went heavy on the vintages he loved: 1964 and 1970 for Bordeaux, 1978 and 1985 for Burgundy, 1981 and 1989 for Chateauneuf du Pape. When we're back there over the New Year's holiday, we'll all be thanking my dad for his foresight.

Footnotes:

  1. If you missed this Monday's order deadline for futures on the 2017's, we'll be accepting orders through this weekend. You can find ordering information here.