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Does a great vintage like 2019 make blending easier... or harder?

On Friday, after a full week of work, we finally got to sit down and taste the ten key red wines from the 2019 vintage we'd been blending since Monday. It drove home just how good the 2019 vintage is. Several of these wines will, I think, vie for the best examples we've ever made, including the Esprit de Tablas, rich and lush, with deep purple fruit and a creamy texture we only get in great years. Other standouts included Le Complice, dark, herb-laced, but with density and texture to match; Grenache, exuberantly juicy, with vibrant acids enlivening it and yet more plushness and density than we expect from this fruity grape; Syrah, the proverbial iron fist in a (black) velvet glove; and even Cotes de Tablas, spicy and fruity, mouth-filling and lush, with creamy texture and the structure to age. That's not to say that the other wines weren't also terrific, but those were the standouts to me. But for all that, it wasn't an easy blending week.

More about that in a bit. But first, let me take you through how the week played out.

2019 Red blends

Our blending process is one we've developed over the decades, built on how they work at Beaucastel. Of course, with Coronavirus mitigating against international travel, we had to make a few changes this year. But it's still the same process, of building consensus around a table of participants, starting from individual fermentation lots and moving through our hierarchy of wines.

As usual, we started our blending week Monday morning by tasting, component by component, through what we had in the cellar. Because it's too much to ask to keep your palate fresh to taste 59 separate lots of young red wines, we divided this stage up between two days. Monday saw us tackle Mourvedre, Syrah, and our one lot of Pinot Noir, while Tuesday we tasted Grenache, Counoise, Tannat, one co-fermented lot, and our oddballs: Terret Noir, Cabernet, and our two new red grapes, Vaccarese and Cinsaut. Our goal at this first stage is to identify the quality of the different lots, and get a sense of both the character and diversity present in the vintage to help give us direction in blending. Here's a quick tour of Tuesday's lineup:

We grade on a 1-3 scale, with 1's being our top grade (for a deep dive into how we do our blending, check out this blog by Chelsea from a few years back). For context, in a normal year, for every 10 lots we might see 3-4 "1" grades, 5-6 "2" grades and 1 "3" grade. This year we saw the most "1" grades and the fewest "3" grades I can remember. How I graded each variety, in the order in which we tasted them:

  • Mourvedre (14 lots): Less Mourvedre (in both quantity and number of lots) than recent years, after a short Mourvedre crop in 2019. But amazingly powerful and representative of what we love about this, our most important grape. I gave seven lots a 1 grade, and three others intermediate 1/2 grades. Even the 2 grades I gave out were pure, juicy, and classic, and will make for a tremendous varietal Mourvedre. As for the blends that are based on Mourvedre, wow.
  • Syrah (15 lots): If possible, even stronger than the Mourvedre. Of course, Syrah is the most consistent grape that we grow, but we loved the varietal purity that it showed, and its structure without any sense of hardness. Eight 1's, with five others that I gave 1/2 grades to. If you're doing the math, that leaves only two "2" lots, and no "3" lots. Great syrahs have a creamy, minerally texture equal to their black fruit and structure, and these did, in spades.
  • Pinot Noir (1 lot): From the small vineyard in the Templeton Gap that my dad decided to plant outside my parents' house back in 2007, with a mix of different clones. This year they produced a Pinot that was on point for me, lighter in body than the Rhones we tasted that day, but with plenty of flavor, classic cherry and cola notes, and just a touch of oak. Should make for a very nice 2019 Full Circle Pinot.
  • Grenache (14 lots): Typically, Grenache shows the most diversity at this stage, because it takes longest to ferment and many lots are still settling into final form. The couple of weeks that Coronavirus delayed our blending this year probably helped this more than any other. Four 1's from me, with six others getting 1/2 grades. Only four 2's and no 3's. Plenty of Grenache's signature fruit and spice, with great acids across the board. Less of the sometimes drying front-palate tannins than we sometimes see at this stage. A few lots that seemed high enough in alcohol that we needed to be careful.
  • Counoise (6 lots): A nice range of Counoise styles, from the translucent, juicy lots that remind us of Gamay to the richer, spicy, purple-fruited Counoise that we look to use in Esprit. The acids here seemed likely to come in particularly useful in this vintage where Mourvedre and Syrah were so luscious. Two 1's, two 1/2 grades, one two, and my only 2/3 of all the lots (though even this found a good home in the Cotes de Tablas later in the week).
  • Cinsaut (1 lot): Our first Cinsaut, and only two barrels. A nose of dusty grape candy, with a fresh, appealing, spicy purple-fruited palate. It didn't seem to have Esprit-level depth, but will introduce itself very nicely to the Tablas Creek audience as a varietal wine.
  • Vaccarese (1 lot): A new experience for most of us around that table, as it's our first harvest of a grape with only about 30 planted acres worldwide. It showed a lovely deep purple color, with a nose of pine forest and minty juniper. The mouth was more Loire red than Rhone-like, to me, with notes of tobacco and spice, medium body, some tannic grip, and fruit flavors playing a secondary role. As we do with new grapes, we're planning to bottle it on its own so we can wrap our own heads around it and share it with all of you. Exciting!
  • Terret Noir (1 lot): Terret was as usual zesty and bright, but felt more polished than it has in recent years, with more floral character and less aggressive tannins than we've seen the last few years. Plenty pretty enough to bottle on its own, but since we'd reduced crop levels to try to tame the tannins and had seen a mildew outbreak further depress our harvest, we didn't think we'd have enough to use in Le Complice and bottle on its own. It turns out we will... more on that below!
  • Tannat (4 lots): Massive, dense, spicy, dusty, and dark. Tannic but not overbearing. Three of the four lots showed some oak, and I preferred the one without for En Gobelet, but the remainder should make a powerful, ageworthy, chocolaty varietal Tannat.
  • Cabernet (1 lot): Typically, the few rows of Cabernet in our old nursery block go into our Tannat, but in years where we get two barrels, and it's so powerfully expressive of Cabernet that we can't bear to blend it away, we contemplate putting it in bottle. It turns out that 2019 will be the first year since 2013 that we do. A tangy, green peppercorn and eucalyptus nose, with powerful black fruit and cigar box flavors, and a lurking minerality that I absolutely loved. I'm not a big fan of the low-acid, high-tannin style that most Napa Cabernets show (and most other Cabernet regions try to mimic). But this Cabernet, with its minerality and freshness... this, I'm looking forward to drinking. 

We finished Tuesday with a round-table discussion about what we wanted to try in the blending the next few days, and decided that given the apparent strengths of all three of our main red grapes it only made sense to kick off the blending trials for both Panoplie and Esprit with three different blends, each one emphasizing one of the varietals, and see what we learned. We also noted that with our relatively small Mourvedre crop this year, we needed to set our expectations for quantity lower.

Wednesday morning, we reconvened to work out the two blends, starting with the Panoplie. As always, we tasted our options blind, not knowing what was in each glass. Panoplie is always overwhelmingly Mourvedre (typically 60% at least) and typically not much Syrah, because Syrah's dominance often proves to be too much for the character of the Mourvedre. But in this vintage, we split between a blend with roughly equal Syrah and Grenache percentages and one that had 30% Syrah, which would have been our most ever. (A third option, which was closest to our "normal" Panoplie blend, with 26% Grenache and only 8% Syrah, was no one's favorite, seeming a bit thinner by comparison.) When we get an equal split around the table between two wines, our first approach is to try to hit the mid-point between the two wines, to see if we can get everything we all liked in a single blend. It doesn't always work, but it did for this wine, so we settled on a blend of 62% Mourvedre, 22% Syrah, and 16% Grenache.

Panoplie decided, we moved on to the Esprit. Unlike with the Panoplie, we got nearly universal agreement on the first round, with a blend of 39% Mourvedre, 30% Grenache, 21% Syrah, and 10% Counoise. The relatively high percentages of Grenache and Counoise seemed to polish the deeper flavors of Syrah and Mourvedre, producing something deep, spicy, and creamy, with warm spices and a lovely loamy earthy umami character. Just outstanding. I wouldn't have predicted the high Counoise number, but this is similar to what we often find in blending our whites: that in richer, more structured years, a little higher percentage of the brighter grapes makes for a more complete wine.

Thursday, we moved on to our two small-production wine club blends, En Gobelet and Le Complice. Because of the high quality of the vintage overall, even with all the lots that we'd chosen for Esprit and Panoplie, we had quite a bit of choice on En Gobelet, made entirely from head-trained, dry-farmed blocks. And this turned out to be the most difficult decision of the week. All three of our first round options received at least one first place vote, and the two favorites were quite different, one with twice as much Grenache as Mourvedre, and the other with nearly equal parts of the two. Complicating things, neither favorite had much Tannat, and we were worried that the wine that got the most first place votes, with just 2% Tannat, might end up too similar to the Esprit. We decided to try another blend that replaced some of the Mourvedre in our favorite with enough Tannat to get to 10%. This ended up only muddying the waters, as that Tannat-heavy version got three first place votes, but also four last place votes from people who felt that the added darkness and tannin overwhelmed the terroir character that En Gobelet expresses at its best. And this time, splitting the difference didn't please anyone, as it felt less deep and dark, but still less terroir-driven than the starting point. In the end, we decided that we needed to taste the favorite from round one against Esprit to know whether we'd made the right decision.

It was a relief that, after that, Le Complice came together in one round. The wine celebrates the kinship we feel Terret Noir shows with Syrah, and particularly the Syrah lots fermented with stems or whole clusters. Both grapes share a peppery spiciness, although Syrah is very dark and Terret quite pale. Because both grapes tend toward high tannin, we've realized that we also need some Grenache, to provide flesh to the bones and spirit of Syrah and Terret. Last year, we didn't end up using all the Terret we produced, but with this year's small crop, we thought we would. Still, given how much we liked the Terret in the lot tasting, we were delighted when it was revealed that our universal favorite was 67% Syrah, 27% Grenache, and just 6% Terret... leaving half our Terret to make a varietal wine. The resulting wine was dark, smoky, and spicy, with just enough of that green peppercorn stem spice to balance the wine's ample black fruit and mineral. Just delicious, and should be fascinating to watch age.

Friday, we started early in the morning to tackle the Cotes de Tablas. Even though we'd already used about two-thirds of our lots with our higher-end wines, all three of our options were delicious. We knew we didn't have much Mourvedre left, and had some Counoise lots we knew we wanted to use as a varietal. That left us exploring options for the relative quantities of Grenache and Syrah. In the end, although we settled on a middle ground, rejecting the wine with 49% Grenache and only 26% Syrah as nice but a touch simple, while the wine with 40% Grenache and 35% Syrah was serious and structured, perhaps too much so for Cotes de Tablas. Our final blend was 44% Grenache, 30% Syrah, 17% Counoise, and 9% Mourvedre. We're making less Cotes de Tablas as we shift the focus of our middle tier (between Patelin and Esprit) in the national market toward varietal wines, but the roughly thousand cases we'll make this year will, I feel sure, be one of our best ever.

That afternoon, we sat down to taste the finalized blends alongside the four main varietal wines that we hadn't yet tried. It turned out that the En Gobelet differentiated itself from the Esprit with no trouble, showing more lift and translucency, and clearer expression of saline minerality, while the Esprit showed darker, plusher tones, and a creamier texture. So, issue solved. Sometimes all it takes is a little time, and perspective.

For our varietal wines, we identify lots during the first stage that express that grape's character the most clearly, and then try to avoid using them in the other wines. Of course, if one of our top blends needs a lot, it gets it, but there's usually enough leeway (and enough difference between what's great for Esprit and what would be great in, say, a varietal Mourvedre) that it works out. And in a year like this, it's a pleasure to see how clearly the character of both the grapes and the vintage shine through. My quick notes on the varietal wines:

  • Grenache (400 cases): Exuberantly juicy on the nose. In the mouth, our most powerful Grenache in years, yet still vibrant. Quite dark. A baby. 
  • Syrah (725 cases): Nose is dark, with black olive, black pepper, blackberry, and smoke. The mouth is plush, with the iron fist of Syrah tannins cloaked in dark fruit. After no Syrah in 2018, will be a treat to send to club members.
  • Mourvedre (300 cases): Nose of pure red fruits. The mouth is creamy, with Mourvedre's ability to walk the line between red and black raspberry fruit, a little loamy earth. Good acids and tannins. Classic.
  • Counoise (325 cases): A brambly purple-fruited nose. The mouth is zesty with more cherry fruit, refreshing acidity and medium body. Should be a crowd pleaser.

In addition to these wines, we'll have 50 cases each of varietal Terret Noir, Cinsaut, and Cabernet, 175 cases of Vaccarese, 475 cases of Full Circle Pinot, and a glorious 1250 cases of Tannat. Lots of fun things to share, for sure.

A few concluding thoughts. First, in looking for a comparable vintage to 2019, the closest one would probably be 2017, but top to bottom, 2019 had a touch more concentration and polish (though lower quantity). In particular, Grenache was stronger than it was in 2017. Maybe a vintage like 2007, which was outstanding across the board, but we were picking riper then, and this 2019 shows, for me, more minerality and less of the super-ripe character that I get now when I drink a 2007. And I like the whites from 2019 a ton -- more than I did either 2007 or 2017. Still, given that we rank these vintages pretty universally as among our top ever gives a sense of how exciting we think 2019 is. It will be fun to get to know it over the coming months and years. 

Second, a vintage this strong, with such terrific raw materials across the board, in some ways complicates the blending process, because we're having to make stylistic judgment calls in addition to quality rankings. In an average year, the limited volume of top-rated lots of our main grapes can constrain the percentage we use in Esprit. In a year like this, we could have chosen quite a bit more top-ranked Grenache, Syrah, or Mourvedre than we did, if we'd wanted. That means that we weren't just having to decide what our best lots were, and whether they fit together properly, but which stylistic direction we wanted to take the wines. And while there's almost always good agreement about what grade a lot should have, as you can tell from my description of the process, what people like best is a more sticky question. Still, in a year like this, we do have the reassuring thought (which came through as we got down to the Cotes de Tablas) that our third- and fourth-choice lots are still really, really good. So, we know that with such good raw materials it's unlikely we can go too far astray.

Finally, given that we weren't able to have a Perrin here, it's great that this vintage was so strong. We're used to having decades of experience tasting Beaucastel around our blending table. We didn't this year, although between Neil, me, Chelsea, Craig, Amanda, Austin, and Jordy, we did have more than 120 Tablas Creek blending sessions under our belts. I'm confident that when the Perrins do get to taste what we made, we will have done them proud.


Flowering 2020: A little delayed, but all the more welcome

Budbreak gave us the first sign that we were on at least a somewhat later track this year. Flowering, which I've been waiting to see for a couple of weeks now, confirms it. This suggests that we're looking at a similarly cool beginning of the growing season to what we saw in 2018 and 2019 (and different from the warmer, earlier beginnings of 2013-2017). Please join me in welcoming the first flowers of the year, a Viognier vine courtesy of Viticulturist Jordan Lonborg:

Viognier flowering 2020

If you haven't seen grapevines flowering before, you can be excused for finding it underwhelming. It's not a showy process. Still, the tiny white fuzz-like flowers that appear on the clusters are the first stage of development of the berries. From this point on, if the berries are fertilized successfully, they'll grow in size and mass until veraison, at which point they stop growing but accumulate sugar and ripen the seeds within. As with all parts of the vineyard annual cycle, there are grapes that enter (and exit) flowering earlier and later, with the early grapes being Viognier, Grenache, Grenache Blanc, and Vermentino. They are followed shortly by Marsanne and Syrah, and finally, as much as a month after the early grapes, Roussanne, Counoise, and Mourvedre bring up the rear. Flowering is the second of the four viticultural markers that we use each year as markers: notable reference points that indicate where we are compared to other years. These are, in order:

  • Budbreak (typically beginning late March or early April, and lasting three weeks or so)
  • Flowering (typically beginning mid-May, lasting a month or so)
  • Veraison (typically beginning late July or early August, lasting as much as 6 weeks)
  • Harvest (typically beginning late August or early September, lasting two months or so)

You might notice that in the above list, the duration of each stage is longer than the previous one. That's because grapes start their growing cycle at different times, and also proceed at different rates. So, harvest stretches over a longer time than veraison, which takes longer than flowering, which takes longer than budbreak. Given that today was the first day we saw any flowering, we're likely to be enjoying grape bloom until the second half of June.

During flowering, you hope for consistent, sunny weather, with only limited wind and no rain. So, the two-tenths of an inch of rain we got overnight, and the wind that we're getting today, aren't ideal. Cold or wet weather at this stage can produce incomplete fertilization, or shatter, where a cluster has a high proportion of unfertilized berries, looking snaggle-toothed and (often dramatically) reducing yields. Some varieties, most notably Grenache, are prone to shatter, while others are less so. Still, we're so early in flowering, with only Viognier showing any blooms, that what really matters is what the weather is like for the next month.

How close are the other grapes to flowering? It depends. A grape like Grenache Blanc looks like it may be a week away, or less:

Grenache Blanc flower cluster May 2020

Whereas with later grapes like Roussanne, Counoise or Mourvedre (below), the flower clusters are just forming, and likely won't bloom for the better part of a month:

Mourvedre flower cluster May 2020

I'll leave you with one more photo of the newly blooming Viognier. It may not look like much, but it's an important milestone nonetheless. Full speed ahead. 

Viognier flowering 2020 2


My wine warmed up in shipping. Is it still OK?

Like most wineries, with our tasting room closed the last two months we've seen a surge in phone and e-commerce wine orders. Some of these customers are regulars in ordering wine, but we know that for a lot of them, this is a new thing. For the first six weeks of the quarantine, we benefited from mostly cool weather around the country, but the last two weeks have warmed up and we've begun our annual weather watch to make sure that our shipments to you go out and arrive when the weather is as cool as possible.

Unfortunately, summer is coming, and there will soon be swathes of the country that will be hot for months. Does this mean you can't order wine? And while it always ships out cool, if it does warm up in transit, is it damaged? I've received a handful of questions about this in the past couple of weeks, and, following my own advice from 13 years ago, it seems like that means it's a good subject for a blog.

First, it's important to know what is happening when a wine warms up, what the warning signs are that your wine might be affected, and if so, what your options are. I'll take those in turn.

What happens chemically as wine warms up
The short answer is not much... unless oxygen gets into the bottle. And then, look out. In general, a wine bottle is a sealed environment, and unless that seal is compromised (see below) the difference between what goes on chemically at 55°F and 90°F is pretty minimal. Long-term, the storage of wine at higher temperatures is likely to age a wine more quickly, as the slow, gradual chemical processes that break down a wine's tannic structure and fruit, while producing deeper, earthier flavors speed up like most temperature-sensitive chemical reactions. But wine often gets up in the 80°F-90°F range during fermentation without negative effects, and over the course of a few hours, unless it gets really hot, your concerns shouldn't be the chemistry as much as the physics. Read on.

What happens physically as wine warms up
Wine is a liquid, typically about 85% water, 13% ethanol, and 2% all the other things that give it color and flavor. That means that physically, it acts more or less like water. And water, like most substances, expands as it gets warm. Unlike most substances, it also expands when it gets really cold (below 4°C) and expands significantly when it freezes (as everyone knows if they've forgotten a bottle of wine in the freezer and had it break). The graph below (from Wikipedia, by Klaus-Dieter Keller) shows the density of water at various temperatures.

2560px-Density_of_ice_and_water_(en).svg

Of relevance for your wine in transit (hopefully) is what's going on between normal storage temperature (say, 55°F/13°C) and what might happen if a package were riding around on a hot day and got up to 95°F/35°C. You can see that the density of water would change, on a sliding scale, from about .999 kg/m3 to about .994 kg/m3. That may not sound like much, but it results in an increase in volume of about half a percent. That changes 750ml of wine to 753.75ml. Since the head space (the space that's filled with air between the cork and the liquid) is typically between 4ml and 7ml, the expansion of the liquid would pressurize that air. Although air is quite compressible, eventually it will seek to escape, and there's only one way out of a bottle: past the cork, either by pushing the cork out the neck of the bottle, or by squeezing wine (or air) between the cork and the bottle. Neither is good news, because in either case the cork's seal has been compromised.

Know the warning signs for overheated wine
There are two things to look for. Either will let you know you have a problem. The first is to see if you can find evidence of any wine that has escaped past the cork. Typically, that will leave a sticky residue on the outside of the neck of the bottle. You may also be able to smell the wine. Once this has happened, the trail of wine on the outside of the cork provides a pathway for oxygen that's outside the bottle to make its way into the bottle at a rate far faster than in an uncompromised seal. Once oxidation starts, the clock is ticking. It's usually not hard to miss, though white wines can be a little less conspicuous:

Leaker Bottle

No seeping wine? That's good. The next thing to check is to see whether the expansion of the liquid has pushed the cork up into the capsule. That's not as bad as seepage, but it's not good. Typically it does weaken the seal of the cork, and often wine has seeped up around the cork even if it hasn't made its way all the way outside the bottle. Plus, if the air in the bottle gets pushed out past the cork by expanding wine, once the liquid cools, its contraction creates a vacuum inside the bottle, which tends to suck air back in past the cork. That introduces new oxygen (not good) and further compromises the seal (also not good). In the below photo, the foreground cork has pushed enough to make me suspicious, while the one in the background is clearly concave:

Pushed Cork

What to do next
If your wine arrives with signs of heat damage (pushed corks or leaking wine) snap a photo and let whoever sent it to you know as soon as you can. Most wineries and wine shops will replace it, no questions asked. Then stash the wines in your fridge and plan to consume the bottles in the next few days. Even if the oxidation process has begun, it's a temperature-sensitive reaction and will be slowed by cooler temperatures (this is why it's always smart to put an opened but unfinished bottle in the fridge to preserve it). And unless it was hot for a long time, the wine will probably be fine to drink in the short term (like a week or two). But at this point, it's not a candidate for aging.

If your wine arrives warm but you don't see any signs of seepage or pushed cork, you're probably OK. Get that wine cooled down as soon as you can, because the seeping could be happening invisibly, and the sooner you reduce the wine's volume the better. When you eventually do open it, the thing to look for is notes of oxidation. This article on Wine Folly does a great job of describing the symptoms: browning of red wines or darkening of whites, and aromas more like sherry or nuts. If you find that, don't feel bad about requesting a replacement. Even without visible symptoms, if a cork's seal is compromised and has been leaking oxygen for months or years, the wine had no shot.


A Wine-Themed Pandemic Reading List

By Ian Consoli

Part of my role as the marketing coordinator for Tablas Creek is to stay connected with people in every department. With the recent stay-at-home order and our transition to working from home, I am missing that role and the conversations that come with it.

As I thought back through those conversations I recalled a common thread: a whole heck-of-a-lot of us love to read.  Whether it’s the latest book that we’ve picked up, a recent article, or a blog, if you’re a reader you’ll understand how exciting it is to say, “I’m reading so-and-so right now,” and inevitably someone in the room says, “I’ve read that book, it’s amazing!”

With that in mind, I reached out to our team to gather a wine-themed reading list. It seems like the whole Tablas Creek community could use a good book or seven right now, to complement the binging of Netflix and the rehearsing of TikTok dances (don’t ask) we're all doing. And maybe by the next time you visit us in our tasting room, after this whole thing is over, you’ll bring up the wine book you’re reading and the person on the other side of the bar will say, “Hey, I’ve read that book. It’s amazing!”

Enjoy the recommendations from the members of our Tablas Team in alphabetical order, in their own words. Anything look familiar? We’d love to hear your thoughts. Something missing on this list? Please share it with us in the comments.

Tablas Creek Bookshelf

Neil Collins, Winemaker

First book that comes to mind is Adventures on the Wine Route by Kermit Lynch, I read this book very early in my career and found it very inspiring in fact I still do.

The other book that I would recommend is Devil in the Kitchen by Chef Marco Pierre White. Although this is actually not a wine book rather a book by a chef, I find the lengths to which he went in pursuit of perfection very inspiring. He is also out of crazy!

Sandi Crewe, Wine Educator:

He said Beer She said Wine by Marnie Old and Sam Calagione

It is about “beverage options from more than one angle.” Sam is a brewer and owner of Dogfish Head (which sold to Boston Beer Company last year). Marnie is a sommelier, author and wine educator.

My son and I became seriously interested in the beer and wine worlds at about the same time. As he became a professional brewer and more passionate about beer, it made me cognizant of the similarities with wine. I wanted to share his passion and the book helped me to better speak his new language. On the other hand, he attended a few of my wine classes. Now we share beer and wine tastings whenever we can find the time. I particularly enjoyed the beer and wine food pairing information presented.

I recommend the book because it is a great source for beer and wine lovers alike. It gives very basic information on flavors and styles of beer and wine. Best of all, I feel closer to my son because of our common ground.

Darren Delmore, National Sales Manager

Wines of the Rhone Valley by Robert Mayberry

I somehow savored this dusty tome like a divorcée on a Provence-bound train reading "Eat Pray Love". This circa-1987 book got me through the later stages of my broken foot in January and into the first part of this other crisis. Anyone interested in how the Rhone Valley was set up and governed, or its personalities and history of the grape varietals, will find this book more than alive today. The winemakers give away most of their secrets, and the section on Tavel alone had me buying a couple cases from Domaine de la Mordoree on presale. The author's jazzy, matter-of-fact take on good and bad bottles and vintages reveals a true wine enthusiast who was well trusted by the profiled vignerons. In between the Cornas and Crozes Hermitage chapters an old, unsmoked cigarette fell out of the pages, which I contemplated lighting alongside a bottle of Domaine des Alexandrins.

Meghan Dunn, Publications

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

Perhaps only tangentially related to wine, but I recommend A Discovery of Witches (and the rest of the All Souls trilogy), by Deborah Harkness. It defies easy categorization, but combines fantasy, historical fiction, and romance -- witches and vampires unite to trace a missing alchemical manuscript through history. The main character is a vampire who is extremely knowledgeable about wine, and there are evocative passages about wine pairings and historic vintages, all described by a super-human taster with centuries of experience. It's great escapist fiction! (Harkness is a history professor at USC who published an award-winning wine blog for several years, so she knows her stuff!)

Chelsea Franchi, Senior Assistant Winemaker

The Quick Read (with solid, useful information):

The New Wine Rules by Jon Bonné

This book is completely without pretense and a fun, easy, fast read (it’s a thin book) but it’s chock full of great, easy-to-digest information.  I wouldn’t necessarily say this book is for a wine professional, though I wouldn’t say it isn’t; sometimes it’s good to be reminded of certain things!  For someone looking to increase their wine drinking confidence, this is a well-written collection that will make you (even more) excited about your next glass of wine.

The Historical Account That Reads Like Fiction:

The Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting that Revolutionized Wine by George M. Taber

This is an exciting, hopeful story about the (then) young-guns of California wine and how they opened the eyes to the rest of the world that California (and, as an extension, other parts of the world) can produce world-class wines.  It’s a true story, but it has everything that a fiction lover like myself could want: character development, recognizable locations (not just Napa, but specific wineries that are now household names) and drama.

The “There Is A Lot Going On In The World And I Just Want to Read Something That Will Make Me Smile”: French Lessons:

Adventures with Knife, Fork and Corkscrew by Peter Mayle

This is not a wine book.  This is one man’s stories from his time spent living in France (if the name sounded familiar, he’s the author of A Year in Provence) and the hedonistic and delightful experiences that follow.  Each chapter is a different story, so it’s technically possible to read a little bit and then walk away – though I couldn’t put it down.  I especially loved the chapters devoted to the Bordeaux Marathon, the black truffle Catholic Mass, and the Michelin Guide.  If you’re looking to read something that will keep a grin on your face, this is my pick.  Unfortunately, it will definitely give you some wanderlust.

Jason Haas, Partner and General Manager

Billionaire's Vinegar by Benjamin Wallace.

The true story of the unraveling of a complicated con, set in motion with the 1987 auctioning at Christie's of what were purported to be bottles of 1787 Chateau Lafite owned by Thomas Jefferson and discovered in a sealed Paris cellar. The book reads like a mystery novel, and takes you inside the world of collectors, auction houses, and the shadowy figures that keep both supplied with ever more incredible discoveries. Of course, it becomes clear, if it's too good to be true, it's probably not.

Proof by Dick Francis.

OK, this is a mystery, not a wine book. But I've been looking for escape in my reading in recent weeks. Dick Francis is my favorite mystery writer. His novels usually revolve around the world of English horse racing, but for this book he chose a main character whose occupation is the owner of a neighborhood wine shop, and a plot that involves a fraud of replacing famous wines and whiskeys with cheap, generic plonk. The glimpses into the world of European wine are spot on, the description of blind tasting and the difference between adequate and great wine explained well, and the storytelling and prose have the crystal clarity the author is famous for. Appropriate for an author who is supposed to have said that he could give a confident character description of anyone after a five minutes look at their wine cellar.

Haydee McMickle, Wine Educator

Red, White and Drunk All Over: A wine Soaked Journey from Grape to Glass by Natalie MacLean, 2007

12 years ago this was a refreshing alternative to dry information. It assuaged my inner voice of awkwardness and insecurity as it pertains to wine and the culture. I found the poetic quirkiness curiously enjoyable.

MacLean, a sommelier, takes a journey from vineyard to cellar to retail shop, restaurant and dining room, she also travels with her insecurities. Imagine her tasting with Aubert de Villaine, the proprietor of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.

This is a fun book, nothing stuffy here yet you pick up a few tidbits.

This is in the category of summer beach read. It’s funny and approachable. The jacket says it all, it reads “...this bodice-ripping wine book.”

John Morris, Tasting Room Manager

There’s nothing like giving a shout out to one of our own, and recommending a book that’s a lot of fun at the same time. Slave to the Vine: Confessions of a Vagabond Cellarhand, by Tablas Creek National Sales Manager Darren Delmore.

Darren invites us along on a rollicking trek of a wonderfully chaotic crush.  I love how the real story of harvest is told: dirty, wet, exhausting yet exhilarating.  Darren has a deft comic touch, and the writing gets better and more engaging as the book unfolds.  I look forward to follow-up, Lucky Country: Confessions of a Vagabond Cellarhand.

Monica O’Connor, Direct Sales Manager

Real Wine by Patrick Matthews

It’s about history and natural wine making, and Bob Haas is mentioned I believe on the very first page!

Gustavo Prieto, Tasting Room Lead and Head of Biodynamic Practices

The Botanist and the Vintner by Christy Campbell,

This book is about the history of phylloxera in France. It covers how and when it was  brought from the US to France, all the efforts people took at the time to try to understand what was happening to their vineyards, and the experiments they first used to try to control the problem. All leading up to how they finally were able to discover the solution with the use of rootstocks. It’s interesting that phylloxera started right next door to Chateauneuf It’s a great read and a great story.

Another great book that I use all the time and is a great source for anything wine related is The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson. I think this was the first wine book that I ever owned.

Deborah Sowerby, Wine Educator

American Rhone by Patrick Comiskey

Mr. Comiskey did a fantastic job of tracing back to the roots movement of the Rhone varieties and their hosts. To start he shares the genesis relating to the three leading red varieties, an emphasis on Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre and how (up to the point of release of the book) the other Châteauneuf-du-Pape varieties were received. He shares with us the cast of characters (with historic photographs) that played a role in introducing us, the American public, to these hallowed grapes. He shares with us their belief, vision, tenacity and fortitude to bring these varieties to the U.S. through avenues of transportation in one’s suitcase or the path and patience through quarantine. As well as the work devoted to propagation, and years invested in the annual harvest and making of these Rhône varieties, resulting in the fine wines we enjoy today all thanks to the Rhône Rangers and those that followed.

My favorite photo's: Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, Robert Haas and Jean-Pierre Perrin, our old friends John Alban, Mat Garretson and Gary Eberle and the group pictures of the gathering of French and American producers at the International Colloquium event held in 1991 organized by Robert Haas. Historic.

My favorite chapter: 15 - Tablas Creek the Validator (of course).

Nathan Stuart, Shepherd

The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil

MacNeil keeps you interested and is constantly recommending pairings and cuisine from each region to go with the wine of the area. Still to this day when I open a bottle of white from the Loire Valley or a Syrah from Hermitage I go back to the images and stories from her book.

At a time like this when travel is impossible this book will let you explore the world from your living room and leave you with a great foundational understanding of the world of wine.

I recommend this book if you’re new to the world of wine. She does an amazing job of drawing you in and taking you to the major wine regions of the world.

Jim and Debbie Van Haun, Wine Educator and Accountant Respectively

The Global Encyclopedia of Wine by Peter Forrestal

This was a great resource for us when we bought our Alicante Bouschet 10-acre vineyard back in late 1998.

The history of growing grapes & wine making around the world is fascinating. Alicante was replaced with several of the Rhône varietals in France & Spain and that is exactly what we eventually did. Alicante was very popular during prohibition because of its dark juice.

This book is a great source of information.

Ian Consoli, Marketing Coordinator

So what am I reading?

Natural Wine: An introduction to organic and biodynamic wines made naturally by Isabelle Legeron

This book clearly lays out the natural wine making process, identifies icons in the industry, and helps you find natural wine producers throughout the world.

I purchased Natural Wine early on in my wine career from a local biodynamic estate and I am so glad I did. While the focus is obviously on natural wine, the really lasting knowledge I gained from the book was insight into the wine making process. It was the first time the whole process clicked for me. I gained a high level of respect for low-intervention winemakers.

I recommend it to anyone who wants to know more about winemaking or wants to know more about natural wine. Reading this book literally changed my palate.

Conclusion…

Of the 20 books listed above (including my own) I was shocked to learn that I’ve only read five of them. On top of that, I assumed there would be many people selecting the same favorites; however, there was only one instance of this (Billionaire’s Vinegar) and it was listed along with a second recommendation in both cases. We also had multiple more recommendations that were left out. Perhaps we’ll save those for another post.

Until then, happy reading!