A Blast from the Past and a Prototype for the Future: A Look at the 2002 Glenrose Vineyard "Las Tablas Estates" at Age 20
2001 was a traumatic vintage for us. After a relatively warm winter produced early budbreak, consecutive nights of hard freezes in late April hit hard. Yields were just 1.4 tons per acre, down by 39% despite additional acreage in production. Worse, the frost hit right as the Mourvedre was sprouting. Typically, Mourvedre, which sprouts late, dodges the spring frosts and provides a hedge against the lost production from other more precocious grapes. Not in 2001. In the end the uneven Mourvedre quality, combined with the low overall yields, dictated that we not even make an Esprit de Beaucastel. We ended up declassifying almost the entire red vintage into Cotes de Tablas, which we were selling for $22/bottle at the time. Ouch.
I moved out here to California in April of 2002, and that experience was fresh. We looked forward and foresaw a few years with both cash flow and profitability challenges thanks to the short 2001 crop. And we had no assurance this would be a one-off event. Several other local wineries told us to should expect frosts like that in our chilly inter-mountain valley every few years. So when my dad and I sat down and brainstormed how we were going to get more wine into production and protect ourselves against potential future frosts, the additional acreage that we'd planted in 1999 and 2000 didn't seem like it would be an adequate solution.
Enter Glenrose Vineyard and its proprietor Don Rose. He'd been one of the first customers of the Tablas Creek Nursery back in 1996, and planted an array of our cuttings onto his hillside property. This is about five miles east and a little bit south of Tablas Creek, on one of the ridges in the hills that separate us from the town of Paso Robles. Critically, the vineyards sit between 1700 and 2000 feet in elevation, high enough that they are usually above the frost line. And it's a stunning vineyard [see some striking photos here] with soils even more calcareous than what we have under our own vineyard, particularly after Don carved terraces into the steep hillside so it would be farmable. We reached out to Don and worked out an agreement for him to sell us some grapes for 900 cases of a wine, which would become the 2002 Las Tablas Estates "Glenrose Vineyard":
We decided that in order to have something different from our Mourvedre-based Esprit de Beaucastel and our Grenache-based Cotes de Tablas this wine should be based on Syrah. So we contracted for grapes, brought them into the cellar, and crushed, fermented, and blended the wine. It turned out to be delicious, with the darkness of the Syrah, the minerality of the chalky soils, and a distinctive violet florality. We released it in April of 2004 and it was a welcome wine for our tasting room as we worked through the shortages from our estate 2001 wines. We contracted for a second vintage in 2003, and (in smaller quantities) 2004 as well. My vision for this project at the time was to eventually develop a series of 3-5 different vineyards that had our grapevines in the ground, and have us produce a vineyard designate of each under this "Las Tablas Estates" label. But it didn't turn out that way.
So, why didn't this work? There were a few reasons:
- Production off our own vineyard rebounded. We had a productive vintage in 2002, and another one in 2003, and another in 2004. As it turned out, our next major frost wasn't until 2009. And that production grew fast. After harvesting just 85 tons off our estate in 2001, that total more than doubled to 203 tons in 2002, thanks to the combination of no frost and yet more acreage coming into production. And it went up again to 232 tons in 2003. So we had our hands full finding homes for all this new estate production, and it started to feel like a distraction establishing this side-project, with a different label and a related but different story.
- We diversified our own estate offerings. This was also the era where we were starting to offer varietal bottlings of these new-to-most-consumers Rhone grapes. I wrote about that last year after tasting our first such wine, the 2001 Roussanne. But in 2002 we added six new varietal bottlings: Grenache Blanc, Vermentino, Syrah, Counoise, and Tannat. In 2003 we added Viognier, Picpoul Blanc, and Mourvedre (as well as our first Vin de Paille). All of a sudden we had lots of other wines to talk about and slot into wine club shipments.
- We decided it would be a mistake to sell the wine in wholesale. This was an era where we had gone through a series of name and label changes as we found our footing in the market. [See this blog my dad wrote in 2011 for a few of them.] Wholesalers value continuity and familiarity. In a crowded marketplace where a distributor rep might only take out a few bottles of Tablas Creek each year, and a restaurant or retailer might only have one presented occasionally, the bar to launch a new product is high. We were worried that doing so would further confuse the market and compete with either the Cotes de Tablas, the Esprit de Beaucastel, or both. So that meant just selling the Glenrose Vineyard in the tasting room and on our website.
- The timing and pricing weren't different enough from our estate wines. Because the wine was based on Syrah, which benefits from time in barrel to soften, we couldn't really push the wine's bottling early enough to help cover the holes produced by 2001's short crop. So we ended up releasing it after our 2002 Cotes de Tablas and only slightly ahead of our 2002 Esprit de Beaucastel. If we'd had a frost in 2002, that would have been fine. But of course, we didn't. And then didn't again the next year, or the next. And as for price, we decided to sell it at $32.50, which was only slightly below the $35 price of the Esprit in that era. We realized that we hadn't left ourselves a lot of room in pricing. Cheaper than the Cotes' $22/bottle would have meant we lost money. More expensive than the Esprit would never have made sense.
As we approached the time in early 2005 when we were going to have to bottle the follow-up vintage of 2003 Glenrose Vineyard, we decided that it would be a mistake to do so. So we reached out to some of our neighbors, and ended up selling both the finished 2003 Glenrose, ready to bottle, and the just-fermented 2004 Glenrose, to a local winery. We watched with both pride and a bit of regret as it got high scores and established a brand for them that lasted several years. And the Glenrose Vineyard became a go-to sought out and celebrated by some of the region's top local Rhone producers, including Paix Sur Terre, Adelaida, Thacher, Lone Madrone, and many more.
I found a bottle of that wine (under screwcap!) in our library and opened it over the weekend. It was in beautiful shape. My tasting notes:
Still very much alive. Cherry and currant, leather and pepper, and a sarsaparilla-like sweet spice on the nose. The mouth is similar, with flavors of licorice and plum and sweet baking spices. A Worcestershire-like umami character is the best sense of the wine's two decades of age. The tannins are mostly resolved, ushering in a hint of that violet florality I've always associated with the site
I still think the basic idea is one that could work, particularly now that our biggest challenge is not enough wine, not too much. But we did take a lot of the lessons from this experience to heart when we next launched ourselves into the world of grape purchases. Five years after we pulled the plug on the Glenrose Vineyard wine, we responded to our next big frost by launching the Patelin de Tablas and Patelin de Tablas Blanc.
Like the Glenrose Vineyard, the Patelin red is based on Syrah, to distinguish it from the other main blends we make. And thanks to the screwcap experiment we did with this wine we felt confident putting even the Patelin red under that closure. But the Patelin wines have a clearer place in our hierarchy than the Las Tablas Estates did. They are our entry-level wines, which we hope restaurants will pour by the glass. We bottle them just before the subsequent harvest, which means they're less expensive to make, require less foudre space, and can be released into the market before the estate wines of the same vintage. That came in very handy in addressing frost years like 2009 and 2011. They include some Tablas Creek fruit, whose percentage can vary from very little in short crops to more significant when we have surplus estate production (as in 2010, or 2020). There are white and (since 2012) rosé versions, better matching our own vineyard's mix and the demands of the market. It shares the Tablas Creek label, allowing it to benefit from our own branding and also when people discover and love it to lead them to what else we do. And it feels appropriate that they be less expensive than our estate wines, which are after all organic, Biodynamic, and Regenerative Organic Certified.
Still, I love how things come full circle. One of the vineyards that we reached out to source that first 2010 Patelin de Tablas was Glenrose Vineyard. And there will be some Glenrose Vineyard in the 2021 Patelin. That feels right, and appropriate. I only hope that the wines hold up as well as that 2002 I opened on Saturday did.