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January 2019

Tasting the wines in the Spring 2019 VINsider Wine 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 a wine that may see a later national release.  About 6 weeks before the club shipments will be sent out, we open them all to write the tasting and production notes that will be included in the club shipments.  In many cases, this tasting is our first post-bottling introduction to wines that we'll come to know intimately in coming months and years. In some cases (like this time) where the shipments contain wines that aren't yet even bottled (they will be the last week of February) it's a chance to get to know wines that are newly finished.  I always think it's fun to give followers of the blog a first look at these notes.

Spring 2019 VINsider Shipment Wines

These shipments include wines from the 2016, 2017, and 2018 vintages.  It was fascinating to taste these three vintages, all of which we think were very strong, together, and to get a sense of how they compare.  My quick thoughts, after the tasting, are that 2016 is a deep and serious vintage, not austere, but with classic old-world savory character and the structure that should allow them to age beautifully. 2017 is a blockbuster, where every wine shows the health of the vineyard from the 43 inches of rain we received after five years of drought. The wines are exuberant and intensely juicy, but not heavy, with acids that highlight the fruit. Finally, 2018 (we only tasted two wines) seems to hit a mid-point between the two previous vintages, with lush textures yet somehow -- if one can tell that from normally cheerful wines like Vermentino and Dianthus -- an additional dose of seriousness compared to the sunny, open-natured 2017s.  I'll start with the classic mixed shipment, and then move on to the red-only and white-only shipments, noting which wines will be included in each. 

The classic shipment includes six different wines:

2019 Spring Mixed Shipment V2

2018 VERMENTINO

  • Production Notes: Our seventeenth bottling of this traditional Mediterranean varietal, known principally in Sardinia, Corsica, and Northern Italy. It is also grown in the Mediterranean parts of France (particularly Côtes de Provence) where it is known as Rolle. The Vermentino grape produces wines that are bright, clean, and crisp, with distinctive citrus character and refreshing acidity. To emphasize this freshness, we ferment and age Vermentino in stainless steel, and will be bottling it under screwcap at the end of February.
  • Tasting Notes: A clean, spicy Vermentino nose of grapefruit peel, citrus leaf, green herbs and sea spray. Briny. The palate starts notably creamy, then Vermentino's characteristic vibrant acids come out, highlighting flavors of white grapefruit, and lemongrass, with an ocean spray note that lingers on the long, zippy finish.  Drink now and over the next few years.
  • Production: 1140 cases.

2017 ROUSSANNE

  • Production Notes: Roussanne was the one grape whose yields did not recover in 2017, but the rainfall (and the healthier vines that resulted) produced serious wines with density and yet brighter acids than we see in Roussanne lots from most years. We fermented the Roussanne lots that were selected for our varietal bottling roughly 55% in foudre, 35% in neutral oak puncheons, and 10% in small new barriques. The selected lots were blended in April 2018 then aged through the subsequent harvest before bottling this past December.
  • Tasting Notes: Precise on the nose, with aromas of lacquered wood, pear skin, ginger, and sweet spices. The mouth is clean and light on its feel for Roussanne, reminiscent of Marsanne in many ways with flavors of cantaloupe and lemongrass, medium body, and a bright finish with just a hint of sweet oak. The wine has only been in bottle for a few months and we expect it to continue to flesh out and its flavors to deepen over the next year. Hold for a few months at least, then drink over the next decade or more.
  • Production: 1050 cases

2018 DIANTHUS

  • Production Notes: For our Dianthus rosé, whose name was chosen for a family of plants with deep-pink flowers, we aim for a style between that of Tavel (deeper pink, based on Grenache) and Bandol (less skin contact, based on Mourvedre). This year's blend is 51% Mourvèdre, 39% Grenache and 10% Counoise, bled off or pressed off after 24-36 hours on the skins. The wine was fermented in stainless steel and will be bottled later in February. This is a deeply colored, flavorful rosé, ideal with complex, powerful foods.
  • Tasting Notes: An electric pink. The nose shows powerful watermelon and cherry fruit, mint, and baking spices. The mouth is vivid, with strawberry juiciness followed by vibrant acids and a tangy plum skin impression bringing both refreshing acidity and a touch of tannin to the long finish. A rosé to convert people who think that pink wines can't be serious.  Drink before the end of 2020.
  • Production: 1500 cases

2017 COTES DE TABLAS

  • Production Notes: The Cotes de Tablas is our chance to let Grenache shine, as it does in most Chateauneuf du Pape blends. Grenache had lovely weight and expressiveness in 2017, so we used a relatively high percentage (53%) to lead the wine. Syrah (25%) adds dark fruit and minerality, and keeps Grenache's fruitiness grounded.  Additions of Counoise (12%) and Mourvedre (10%) add a savory earthiness to the wine, which was blended in June 2018 and aged in foudre until its upcoming bottling later in February.
  • Tasting Notes: Powerfully Grenache on the nose: red cherry, wild strawberry, and star anise, with the Syrah providing a little tobacco-like herby savoriness that keeps the nose from coming off confected. The mouth is deep and flavorful, with flavors of black cherry, pepper spice, and milk chocolate. Nice powdery Grenache tannins come out on the finish, leaving an impression of pithy cherry skin and wild herbs. Drink now and over the next decade.
  • Production: 2135 cases

2016 LE COMPLICE

  • Production Notes: This new blend, our first in a decade, celebrates the kinship (Le Complice means, roughly, "partners in crime") between Syrah (59%) and our newest red grape, Terret Noir (19%). Although Syrah is dark and Terret light, both share wild herby black spice, and Terret's high acids bolster Syrah's tendency toward stolidity. We added some Grenache (20%) for mid-palate fleshiness, and a touch of Roussanne (2%; co-fermented with a Syrah lot we chose) came along for the ride. The wine was blended in June of 2017, aged in foudre, bottled in April 2018, and has been aging in our cellars since.
  • Tasting Notes: On the nose, like Syrah but with a dash of translucency: minty dark chocolate, spruce forest, juniper berry, and angostura bitters. The mouth is both deep and lifted, with black plum, baker's chocolate, Seville orange peel, and savory herbs. Dusty tannins come out on the finish. We don't know how this will age, but suspect it will drink well for two decades. We are excited to find out!
  • Production: 750 cases

2016 PANOPLIE

  • Production Notes: As always, Panoplie is selected from lots chosen in the cellar for their richness, concentration and balance, always giving pride of place to Mourvedre's rich meatiness and firm structure. Each lot was fermented individually before being selected, blended and moved to foudre to age in July 2017.  Although the Mourvedre was outstanding in 2016, and our blend reflects that (66%), the real star of the vintage was Syrah,  and the 25% Syrah we added is Panoplie's highest percentage ever. 9% Grenache adds lushness, sweet spice, and vibrancy. The wine was bottled in July 2018 and has been aged in bottle in our cellars since then.
  • Tasting Notes: A deep, inviting nose of dark red currant fruit, sweet nutmeg spice, new leather, and a little animal wildness: think drippings from a leg of lamb.  The mouth is dense with black currant, loamy earth, clove spice, and powerful tannins cloaked with lush luxardo cherry fruit. A lifted rose petal floral note comes out with some air, and sweet milk chocolate notes play with red fruit on the long finish. A delicious wine with a long life ahead; we predict two decades of life, easily.
  • Production: 760 cases

There are two additional wines (as well as second bottles of the Roussanne and Vermentino) in the white-only shipment:

2019 Spring White Shipment

2017 VIOGNIER

  • Production Notes: The productive, consistently high quality 2017 vintage allowed us to produce a varietal Viognier, which has only been the case about half the time. Viognier, known more from the northern Rhone than the area around Chateauneuf du Pape, sprouts first of all our grapes, making it the most prone to frost, but was spared in 2017 and thrived throughout the growing season. It was whole cluster pressed and fermented in stainless steel, then blended and bottled in May 2018 in screwcap, to preserve its brightness. 
  • Tasting Notes: An incredibly appealing nose, classic Viognier with a little extra lift: jasmine flowers and pineapple, meringue, and mint. The mouth is flavorful but restrained, more pineapple than peaches in syrup, with a tropical lychee note, fresh nectarine, a little pithy bite that comes out on the finish and leaves a lingering impression of white flowers and chalky minerality. This should hold for a few years at least, but really, I can't imagine it being any better than it is right now.
  • Production: 300 cases

2016 PETIT MANSENG

  • Production Notes: Our seventh bottling of this traditional grape from southwest France, Petit Manseng is best known from the appellation of Jurancon, where it has made admired but not widely disseminated sweet wines for centuries. Petit Manseng achieves sufficient concentration and sugar content -- and maintains its acids sufficiently -- to make naturally sweet, balanced wines without botrytis. Harvested at 26.8° Brix and a pH of 2.99, we fermented it in barrel, and stopped its fermentation when it had about 57.8 grams/liter of sugar left and sat at an alcohol of 13.6%. The high acidity makes it taste much drier than the sugar reading would suggest. The wine was aged on its lees in barrel and bottled in July, 2017.
  • Tasting Notes: An exotic nose of crystallized pineapple, briny mineral, coconut, and lemongrass. The mouth is sweet but not overly: ripe pineapple, exotic lychee tropicality, then the acids reassert control, leaving a finish of mineral and cinnamon. Drink now or age for up to another decade for a nuttier character.
  • Production: 125 cases

Three additional reds join the Panoplie, Cotes de Tablas, and Le Complice in the red-only shipment:

2019 Spring Red Shipment

2016 TANNAT

  • Production Notes: Our fifteenth bottling of this traditional varietal from South-West France, known principally in the Pyrenees foothills appellation of Madiran, but originally native to the Basque region. Tannat typically has intense fruit, spice, and tannins that produce wines capable of long aging.  As we do many years, we blended in our small harvest of Cabernet Sauvignon, making the wine is 97% Tannat and 3% Cabernet.  We aged it in one foudre and a mix of new and older smaller barrels for nearly 2 years before bottling it in April 2018, and then aged it another 6 months in bottle before release. 
  • Tasting Notes: On the nose, expressive: boysenberry, brambly spice, black mission figs, with a menthol herbiness and Tannat's characteristic (and welcome) floral undertone that always reminds me of violets. The mouth is beautifully balanced, and more approachable than often is the case with young Tannat: chewy with flavors of black cherry, meat drippings, rosemary, baker's chocolate, a little spicy oak, and a graphite-like minerality. Tannat's tannins are quite refined, cleaning up the wine on the finish and leaving impressions of black plum skin, pepper spice, and mineral. A wine to drink any time over the next two decades.
  • Production: 770 cases

2016 MOURVEDRE

  • Production Notes: Mourvedre is the one red grape that we try to bottle on its own each year, because we think it is a wonderful grape that too few people know, and one we feel worthy of some proselytizing.  Mourvedre, like all our reds, saw recovered yields compared to 2015, but still only tallied a below-average 2.1 tons/acre. All our lots were fermented in large wooden tanks and moved it to neutral barrels to await blending.  For our varietal Mourvedre, we choose the friendlier, more open lots, which were blended in the spring of 2017, then aged in foudre until bottling in August of 2018.
  • Tasting Notes: A lifted, comparatively high-toned nose for Mourvedre, with aromas of leather, blood orange, garrigue, and allspice. The mouth is more classic, with Mourvedre's signature redcurrant, leather, loam, and sweet spices, medium body, and excellent balance. The finish is refreshing, with gentle, chewy tannins. Just 12% alcohol. Drink now for a brighter impression, or age for 10-15 years for deeper tones.
  • Production: 810 cases

2017 PATELIN DE TABLAS

  • Production Notes: Patelin is French slang for "neighborhood" and the Patelin de Tablas is our red Rhone-style blend sourced from seven great neighboring Rhone vineyards (plus our own). We base the wine on the spicy savoriness of Syrah (48%), with Grenache (32%) providing juiciness and freshness, and Mourvedre (16%) and Counoise (4%) earth and structure. Fermented in a mix of upright oak fermenters and stainless steel tanks and aged in wooden uprights, it was bottled in July 2018 and has been aging in bottle since.
  • Tasting Notes: A lovely nose, very Syrah, of pine forest, pancetta, blackberry, and dried herbs. The mouth is juicier than the nose suggests, with smoky blackberry, licorice root, crushed rock, and saddle leather, with chalky tannins and flavors of black cherry and freshly turned earth that come out on the finish. Delicious now, but still fleshing out, and with the substance and balance to age for up to a decade.
  • Production: 3580 cases

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 spring's party will be on Sunday, March 31st.  If you're not a wine club member, and you've read all this way, then why not join up, while there's still a chance to get this spring shipment? Details and how to join are at tablascreek.com/wine_club/vinsider_club


Are the gloomy messages about the state of the wine industry warranted? I say not for wineries like us.

I've spent much of the last two weeks at wine industry symposia: first the Direct to Consumer Wine Symposium in Concord, CA, and then the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium another hour north in Sacramento. I spoke on panels at both, at the first on measuring ROI on winery events, and at the second on technical and market challenges and opportunities for rosés. But I also took advantage of being there already -- and the free passes that come with being a speaker -- to sit in on some of the other sessions. Both events began with "state of the industry" reports, with quite different outlooks.

DTC Wine Symposium SessionPhoto courtesy DTC Wine Symposium

The core message I took home from the DTC Symposium was mostly positive: that direct-to-consumer wine sales continue to grow at a healthy rate, with shipping totals topping $3 billion for the first time in 2018, and growth coming broadly across wineries of all sizes.  What's more, the tools that wineries have to capture, analyze, and fulfill these consumer-direct sales have never been better.  The take-home message from Unified was less positive, with worries about declining sales at restaurants and supermarkets, grape market oversupply, demographic challenges for wineries as their prime customer base (mostly Baby Boomers) ages, and challenges connecting with Millennials through traditional wine marketing. These have spawned some much-discussed articles (within the wine community, anyway) containing lots of hand-wringing about what the future might bring to California wine. A couple (click-bait titles notwithstanding) will give you a sense of the worries:

In a second piece, on his own blog (Millennials are talking but the wine industry isn't listening) Blake Gray identifies some of the barriers that may be keeping Millennials from gravitating toward wine, at least at this point in their lives: the industry's resistance to transparency in labeling, its steadfast promotion of just a small handful of grape varieties, and an inability (or unwillingness) on behalf of wineries to engage with the Millennial consumer. I'd add a few others, including the often high price of premium wines and winery experiences, which puts them outside the reach of many cash-strapped Millennials, the marketing of wine as elite (which often crosses the line and comes across as elitist, to an audience that prizes authenticity), and the dominance of shelf space in the wholesale and grocery markets by a handful of large wine companies, when what every study of Millennials indicates they want is 1) a closer relationship with real people behind the products they consume, and 2) confidence that those products are produced in a way that matches their values.

So, which is it? Are wineries in good shape, or are there dark clouds on the horizon? As is usual with complicated questions, it depends on where you're looking, and over what time frame.

Let's look at the negatives first. Some of the largest wine companies (including Bronco, Gallo, and Constellation Brands, all of whose sales skew toward lower-priced wine in chain retail) saw sales decline last year. Many traditional fine dining restaurants have closed or rebranded as consumer trends have shifted toward more casual experiences. Nielsen data showed that overall wine retail sales declined slightly (0.5%) by volume last year, at least in the 70% of retailers that participate in the Nielsen data collection.1 The combination of distributor consolidation and winery proliferation have made it harder for most small-to-medium wineries to sell through the wholesale channel. And tasting room visitation was down in many established regions in 2018, including Napa and Sonoma, even as tourism was up.2 So, if you are a small-to-medium winery who wants to sell their production through wholesale, a large winery whose sales skew toward the lower end of the retail spectrum, or a winery in an established region whose customer acquisition mostly happens in your tasting room, you likely have cause to worry.

On the positive side, winery direct-to-consumer shipped sales grew again in 2018, by about 12%, to more than $3 billion, a figure nearly triple what it was just in 2011.3 Wineries can now ship to 90% of the US population, with the right permits. The average price of a bottle of wine sold increased both in three-tier retail and in direct-to-consumer last year. Although tasting room visits are down in many areas, our experience is that people are spending longer when they do visit, are more interested than ever in learning the story and the practices behind the wines, and are happy to spend more: our average sale per visitor was up 8% last year. The price ranges of wine that saw sales declines were the under-$10 bottles (at which, I think it's fair to say, California does not excel) while all higher price points saw sales growth. And most importantly, total winery sales, when you take direct-to-consumer into account, grew 4% in 2018. That means that the pie continues to grow, and it seems like it's primed to continue to grow in the segments that most impact wineries of our general size (small to medium) and profile (producing wines between $25 and $60, with DTC providing the majority but not the totality of our revenue).

Some of what I see as more equivocal data has been painted in the most negative light. There are some demographic trends that wineries need to plan for. Wine's largest audience, for the last two decades, has been Baby Boomers, and with the average Boomer reaching retirement age -- the time at which, historically, cohorts start spending less on wine -- they will need younger generations to step in. And GenXers, of which I am a proud member, have been doing so. Will Millennials, who are a larger cohort than GenX, step up when it is their turn? It remains to be seen. But I think that the doom and gloom about them is pretty overblown. The median age of a Millennial is 30, but the Millennials at the peak of the demographic bubble are just 24. Were many Baby Boomers drinking wine at age 30, let alone 24? No. How about GenX? Not much. Millennials are drinking more wine than preceding generations were at the same age, which should be a positive enough trend. But I think the news is better than that, at least for wineries like us. They are also much more likely to drink craft beer or craft cocktails, to be interested in the source and making of the foods and drinks they consume, to have grown up in a wine-drinking household, and to be open to trying wines from new grapes and new growing areas.

Are many Millennials hamstrung by the poor job market when they entered the work force and saddled with student debt? Absolutely. But even if they never attain the buying power of earlier generations, it seems to me that the sorts of wines that Millennials are likely to embrace are the sorts of wines that wineries like Tablas Creek would like them to embrace: smaller family run wineries, from organically farmed vineyards, incorporating grapes that may be outside the mainstream but are good fits for their growing locations, and wines that offer value, at whatever price point.

Does that sound like a gloomy future? Not to me.

Footnotes:

  • 1. Note that there are some important retailers whose data is not included, most notably Costco, and that the Nielsen data also does not include winery DTC sales.
  • 2. All these data points are from (and beautifully explained in) the 2019 SVB Wine Report, the industry's gold standard for data collection and analysis. 
  • 3. This data point and the ones that follow come from the 2019 ShipCompliant Direct to Consumer Wine Shipping Report