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December 2018

Paso Robles is Absurdly Beautiful Right Now

Last week, we got four more inches of rain over three days, bringing our January total to 8.66 inches and our winter total to 14 inches.  We're slightly ahead of where we'd expect to be at this time of year, and what's better, it's come in surges, with sunny interludes in between that allow the ground to dry out a bit and the cover crop to grow. The net result is a landscape that is as far away from summer's stark golden brown as it's possible to imagine:

Looking down past solar panels to nursery area

I've been sharing these photos bit by bit over our Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter accounts, and they've been racking up some of the highest numbers of likes I can remember, so they seem to have touched a chord, particularly with the northeastern two-thirds of the country seeing polar weather right now.

I thought it would be nice to collect some of my favorites in one place. In no particular order, starting with a look down over the low-lying area we call Nipple Flat, showing both the undulating lines of the winter vineyard and the fog that's been settling in our valleys each night:

Looking down Nipple Flat

The moisture in the air that transforms the winter landscape can be hard to imagine if you've only visited in summer, but as I've written before, our winter climate is as much rain forest as our summer is desert:

Top of New Hill

The battle waged daily between the fog lifting off the saturated ground and the sun rising makes for a landscape that changes by the minute each morning:

Row 9

That rising sun makes for some great drama in photographs, like this one of one of our 39 owl boxes, most occupied now with nesting barn owls:

Owl box and rising sun
By the time most of our visitors arrive, that fog has largely burned off, and the dramatic green of the grass and blue of the sky are the lasting impressions: 

Solar panels and Mount Mourvedre

We know that summer is the typical season when most guests visit Paso Robles Wine Country. But winter is my favorite season here. I hope that I've done it justice.


A "Horizontal" Tasting: Looking Back at the 2009 Vintage at Age 10

In 2014 we began the tradition of looking back each year at the vintage from ten years before.  Part of this is simple interest in seeing how a wide range of our wines -- many of which we don't taste regularly -- have evolved, but we also have a specific purpose: choosing nine of the most compelling and interesting wines from this vintage to show at the public retrospective tasting we're holding on February 10th.  Ten years is enough time that the wines have become something different and started to pick up some secondary and tertiary flavors, but not so long that whites are generally over the hill. In fact, each year that we've done this we've been surprised by at least one white that we expected to be in decline showing up as a highlight.  The lineup:

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A while back, as part of a look back at each of our vintages for our then-new Web site, I wrote this about the 2009 vintage:

The 2009 vintage was our third consecutive drought year, with yields further reduced by serious April frosts. Berries and clusters were small, with excellent concentration. Ripening over the summer was gradual and our harvest largely complete except for about half our Mourvedre at the time of a major rainstorm on October 13th. Crop sizes were 15% smaller than 2008 and 30% lower than usual. The low yields and gradual ripening resulted in white wines with an appealing combination of richness and depth, and red wines with an great lushness, rich texture and relatively low acid but wonderful chalky tannins.

I was interested in the extent to which we'd still see what we'd noted when the vintage was younger.  Would the wines (red and white) show the same powerful structure that they did upon release? Would the whites have had enough freshness to be compelling a decade later?  And were there any lessons we might take for the wines we're making now?

In 2009, we made 15 different wines: 7 whites, 1 rosé, and 7 reds. This is a smaller number than most other vintages of that decade, reduced by the fact that so many grapes were scarce that year. Of the white Rhone varieties, our only varietal wines were Grenache Blanc and Roussanne (plus a second Roussanne bottling, under our Bergeron label). On the red side, our only Rhone varietal red was Grenache, making 2009 the only vintage since 2003 where we weren't able to bottle a 100% Mourvedre.

Although we made 15 wines, there were only 14 available in our library to taste today. Unfortunately (and none of us can remember how) there is none of our rosé left in our library. I can't remember another time where we didn't have even one bottle left to taste at the 10-year mark. And it's not like this disappeared recently; the last bottle was pulled out of the library early in 2011. Perhaps with the vintage's scarcity we reached into the library to fill a last few orders?  I wish I remembered. In any case, if any of you have any of our 2009 Rosé at home and want to share one with us, you'd have our undying gratitude and a spot in this or any future retrospective tasting of your choice.

My notes on the fourteen wines we did taste are below. I've noted their closures (SC=screwcap; C=cork) as well. Each wine is also linked to its technical information on our Web site, if you'd like to see a breakdown of the winemaking or the tasting notes at bottling (well, except for the Pinot Noir, which we only made one barrel of and never made a Web page for; if you have questions about that, leave them in the comments and I'll do my best to answer).  I was joined for the tasting by our cellar team (Neil Collins, Chelsea Franchi, Craig Hamm, Amanda Weaver, and Austin Collins) as well as by our National Sales Manager Darren Delmore.

  • 2009 Vermentino (SC): At first sniff the petrol/rubber cement character I tend to get in older screwcapped whites, but this blew off pretty quickly and rocky, briny, youthful notes emerged. With even a little more time in the glass, they were joined by aromas of orange blossom, lemon custard, and grapefruit pith. On the palate, key lime juice, passion fruit, white grapefruit, and more salty brininess. Surprisingly luscious, with a pretty sweet/salty lime note lingering on the finish. Really impressive, once it got past that initial note, and a good reminder to decant old screwcapped whites.
  • 2009 Grenache Blanc (SC): A lovely golden color. The nose showed marzipan, butterscotch, and a rising bread yeastiness. In the mouth, gentle on attack, with flavors of preserved lemon, wet rocks, and a little sweet spice, with acids building over time and finishing with a pithy tannic note we often find in Grenache Blanc. Not as youthful or dramatic as the Vermentino, though perfectly sound still. Drink up if you've got any.
  • 2009 Cotes de Tablas Blanc (SC; 45% Viognier, 28% Roussanne, 20% Marsanne, 7% Grenache Blanc): A nose like beer, with a green hoppy note that reminded Chelsea of lemongrass. With time, some honeysuckle and dried apricot emerged. The mouth had nice texture, very Rhone-like, with impressions of peaches and cream, ginger and straw, and a little burst of sour apple on the finish that we thought might come from the Grenache Blanc. Like the Grenache Blanc, it's on the elderly side, but still sound.
  • 2009 Bergeron (SC): Made from 100% Roussanne, harvested a little earlier from cooler blocks around the vineyard. A lovely nose of minty spruce and cedar, with caramel and baked apple behind. The mouth was similarly appealing, with caramel apple, chalky minerality, and a nice pithy marmalade note on the finish. It was a pleasure to taste, but also seemed like it would be a great dinner wine.
  • 2009 Roussanne (C): A deeper gold color.  Smells a little like a sour beer, with the yeasty character vying with a little sarsaparilla that I think came from some new oak. The mouth too has that same sour crabapple character, more to us like cider than wine, with flavors of Granny Smith apple, sour cherry, and pork fat, on top of Roussanne's signature rich texture. A strange showing for this wine. Not sure if it's in a stage, or if it's on its way downhill.
  • 2009 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (C; 62% Roussanne, 26% Grenache Blanc, 12% Picpoul Blanc): An appealing nose like an entire apple pie, complete with baked apples, nutmeg spice, and rich yeasty crust. Also aromas of honeycomb and sea spray. The mouth showed great texture: very rich, but with nice building acids that balanced the weight, flavors of baked pear, beeswax, spiced nuts, and a nice briny character that came out on the finish. Fully mature and beautiful.
  • 2009 Antithesis Chardonnay (C): One of our last Chardonnay bottlings, from a vintage where production was devastated by the frosts. The nose showed tarragon, buttered popcorn, lemongrass and green tomato, while the mouth was plush yet with a nice lemony note, like a beurre blanc, with a coconut creaminess and a little creamsicle-like orange character on the finish. It tasted to me like it was picked a touch on the early side, and a good reminder that when you're growing a grape that's not an ideal fit for your climate there are times when you don't have a great choice: wait until ripeness and live with extra alcohol and too much weight, or pick early and end up with some green character. In cooler years, I loved our Antithesis, but warmer years like 2009 are more common in Paso Robles, and a big part of why we decided to end the experiment a few years later.
  • 2009 Pinot Noir (C): Our third-ever Pinot, from a few rows of vines in our nursery we were using to produce budwood to plant at my dad's property for our Full Circle Pinot. Our most successful, I think, of the four vintages we made of this wine: a nice minty, cherry and tobacco nose. The mouth shows an appealing lean power: cherry skin and baker's chocolate, menthol and green herbs, Chinese five spice and cloves. A little luxardo cherry character on the finish. Admirable and fun.
  • 2009 Cotes de Tablas (C; 43% Grenache, 24% Syrah, 18% Counoise, 15% Mourvedre): Our only Cotes de Tablas to make the Wine Spectator's "Top 100". A really nice showing for this wine, dark and spicy on the nose, more black in tone than I expect from our Cotes, with blackberry, juniper, pepper, leather, and iron. The mouth is really impressive, with classic but concentrated Grenache flavors of milk chocolate, raspberry, currant and cigar box, nice balance, and a powdered sugar character we loved to the tannins. The finish showed roasted meats and plenty of tannin. Still at peak, and likely to go a while longer. 
  • 2009 Grenache (C): A powerful nose, tangy with cherry liqueur, pine sap, garrigue, and licorice. A touch of alcohol shows too. The mouth is quite tannic, yet with nice fruit intensity: redcurrant, wild strawberry, leather, black pepper, and autumn leaves. A little one-dimensional right now, and not as appealing as the Cotes de Tablas, with its Syrah-added black notes and Counoise's brambliness.
  • 2009 En Gobelet (C; 56% Mourvedre, 23% Tannat, 21% Grenache): Quite a contrast to the Grenache, with a nose more savory than fruity: lacquered wood, teriyaki, black licorice, cedar, and a little plum skin. The mouth is friendlier than the nose suggests, with blackberry and juniper flavors, smoked meat, pepper, bittersweet chocolate, and blackcurrant all giving relief to the still-substantial tannins. Just our second En Gobelet, and all still from the low-lying areas we planted initially as our first head-trained, dry-farmed blocks.
  • 2009 Esprit de Beaucastel (C; 40% Mourvedre, 28% Syrah, 27% Grenache, 5% Counoise): The complete package on the nose, evenly balanced between red and black fruit, with added appeal from notes of meat drippings, chocolate, and junipery spice. The mouth is gorgeous: powerful plum and currant fruit, tons of texture, and little hints of sweet spices, dark chocolate, and candied orange peel. A great combination of savory and sweet, at peak drinking but with plenty left in the tank. Neil commented that it was "just what an Esprit should be".
  • 2009 Panoplie (C; 65% Mourvedre, 26% Grenache, 9% Syrah): Less generous on the nose than the Esprit, with red licorice, teriyaki, bay, and Chinese five spice. The mouth is powerful, with tangy red fruit, cherry skin, and then a wall of tannins locks things down and clips the finish a bit. The texture and the mid-palate were highlights, but I think this is still emerging from a closed phase and will be a lot better in a year or two.
  • 2009 Tannat (C): Tannat's classic blue-black color. A cool nose of black licorice, sarsaparilla, elderberry, and a little violet potpourri lift. The mouth is lovely, with tangy chocolate and plum, still big tannins, and a little welcome sweet oak. Classic and reliable, without being as hard as Tannat can be when young. A pleasure, just entering peak drinking.

A few concluding thoughts

As I suspected at the time, this was a very strong red vintage, and a somewhat weaker white vintage, although there were still treasures to be found among the whites. The Bergeron, I thought, was particularly good, and a fun surprise. On the red side, it's clear that time has been kind to the powerful tannins that characterize the 2009 vintage, with the bigger reds still showing plenty of structure and yet the flavors having emerged. I confessed in a blog from last summer that 2009 was never a favorite vintage of mine, but that what I didn't love in its youth -- a certain muscle-bound tannic weight -- has made wines with remarkable staying power.

Unlike the other vintages around it, I don't have a comparable recent vintage for 2009. The similarly low-yielding 2015 vintage has a lot more in character with more elegant years like 2006 and 2010 than with 2009, and we're picking less ripe, overall, now. That doesn't break my heart; I love the openness of the texture of the wines that we're making now. But when we do get another similarly concentrated vintage as 2009, I know I'm going to try to have the patience to do the same thing, and bury the wines in the back of my wine fridge for a decade. 

It's worth noting that nearly all of the wines improved in the glass, and I thought that most of them would have benefited from a quick decant. A lot of people don't think of decanting older whites, but I think it's often a good idea, and particularly so with wines that have been under screwcap. There's a clipped character that most older screwcapped whites have that dissipates with a few minutes of air. It happens anyway in the glass, but a decant would have been welcome.

Finally, we chose nine pretty exciting wines for what should be a great February 10th Horizontal Tasting: Vermentino, Bergeron, Esprit Blanc, Pinot Noir, Cotes de Tablas, En Gobelet, Esprit, Panoplie, and Tannat. There are still some seats available; I hope many of you will join us!


Checking in on Mourvedre, young and old

For the last three winters, Meghan and I have brought our boys to Vermont, to spend a week in the house in which I grew up playing with my sister's family, and to experience some real winter. This has meant lots of time sledding (or, in this relatively snow-free year, chilly forest walks), lots of time around a board game or a jigsaw puzzle, and of course lots of time around the dinner (or lunch, or breakfast) table. Our family is notorious for not wanting to get up from one meal without knowing with confidence what the next one will be, and when.

One of the pleasures of this house (and, for that matter, this family) is getting to explore the wine cellar that my dad stocked over the course of his six-decade career. Often that means older Burgundies, Bordeaux, or Rhones, but one of the most fun explorations we did this year was of two vintages of Mourvedre, which we opened with a simple but delicious dinner of pasta with homemade Bolognese, simmered for several hours the day before by my sister Rebecca.

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Mourvedre is known for its ageworthiness. But one thing that I've always appreciated about it is that even in its youth it's not usually forbidding or difficult. Its tannins tend to be more chewy than hard, it's got plenty of red fruit, and it has a lovely loamy earthiness, like new leather and pine needles, even when it's young, that just gets more pronounced as the wine ages.

The two vintages that I chose are similar in some ways. Both were overshadowed by blockbuster vintages that followed, and we have underestimated how good the red wines from both 2006 and 2013 really were, with later vertical tastings (like the one we did of Cotes de Tablas just last month) showcasing how well each was showing now. But each vintage is also representative of the era in which we produced it, with 2006 in the middle of a run of vintages where we were pushing for a bit more ripeness than we have in recent years, and 2013 in the shadow of the cool 2010 and 2011 vintages where we were more comfortable picking earlier, and lower sugar levels. And the alcohol on the labels of both wines reflect this, with the 2006 at 14.5%, while the 2013 came in at 13.5%.

Both wines were lovely. My notes on each (brief, since I was taking them in the middle of dinner conversation):

  • 2006 Mourvedre: Chocolatey and generous, with candied raspberry and plum, a little mushroomy earthiness vying with sugarplum and roasted meats on the palate, and a finish of milk chocolate and forest undergrowth. A touch of heat on the finish.
  • 2013 Mourvedre: Savory in contrast to the 2006, showing more darkness on the nose: pepper spice, soy, and roasted meats, with flavors of blackberry, pine forest, and meat drippings, and a lingering graphite-like minerality on the finish.

The opinions around the family table were interesting: most people preferred the 2006 at first taste, for its lusciousness and generosity. That chocolatey character was pretty irresistible, the tannins soft, and the fruit red and unmistakable. But as the meal wound on, I (and most of the rest of the table) kept coming back to the 2013, which seemed to evolve and open up more over the course of the meal, and whose savoriness offered a nice contrasting tone and whose umami-like minerality seemed to play more confidently with the Bolognese.

Of course, the point of pouring two vintages isn't particularly to declare a winner. Both wines were delicious, and I can't imagine anyone opening either of them being disappointed. But the meal was a good affirmation for me of the direction our wines have taken in recent years, still showing plenty of fruit and Paso Robles' characteristic generous sunshine, but preserving more savoriness and minerality to provide balance, contrast, and lift.

I hope that you opened something wonderful over the holidays, and that your new year is full of great food, interesting wines, and outstanding company to enjoy with both.