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May 2022

The Vineyard at the Summer Solstice: Bursting with Vigor and at Peak Green

One of the benefits of the last two pandemic years is that I'm spending more time in the vineyard than I was before. Some of that is because I'm rarely out of town, but it's equally because our Covid experience has really driven home to me the value of bringing the experience of the vineyard to people wherever they are. That has led to some of my favorite content, like the #grapespotlight deep-dives we did on Instagram and on Facebook last year, and the related #grapeminute YouTube video series we're working on now. But this blog remains the best avenue I have to share the seasonal changes whose rhythms determine the landscape that surrounds us and the vintage character that we'll come to know in coming months and years.

Late May and early June doesn't see big changes in look or feel, but the grapevines are developing quickly. The vine leaves are at peak lushness and greenness, and the berries are growing by the day. A month ago, we were in the middle of flowering. Now the berries on the most advanced grapes like Viognier, Syrah, and Grenache (below) are pea-sized and growing fast:

Solstice 2022 - Grenache berries

A photo of Syrah gives a sense of just how bushy and exuberant the vines are right now. The principal work now in the vineyard is shoot-thinning, opening up the canopy to light and air and keeping mildew pressures (which usually peak around this time of year) under control:

Solstice 2022 - Syrah Block

If you're expecting bare dirt between the vineyard rows, the view above might look messy. But reducing tillage is one tenet of regenerative farming, and we've been increasingly replacing disking or spading the surface with mowing and mulching the cover crop. This should have a positive impact on both the sprouting of next year's cover crop and the microbial health in the soil, all while reducing carbon emissions and the potential for erosion. The Vermentino block below is another good example (as well as a great illustration of the vineyard's vigor):

Solstice 2022 - Vermentino block

I took a swing through the sections most damaged by our May frost, and was encouraged to see that the vines had re-sprouted leaves. We won't get crop off of these blocks, but the canopy growth should be enough to allow them to store up energy and come back strong next year:

Solstice 2022 - Frost Recovery

Also encouraging was the condition of the new blocks that we planted last year. I was worried that the young vines in these low-lying blocks were killed by the frost, but most of them, including the Counoise vines below, did manage to re-sprout. We'll still see some vine mortality, but less than I originally thought:

Solstice 2022 - New Counoise block

Not every grape is as advanced as the Grenache in the first photo. But everything is making good progress. For example, even Roussanne (left) and Mourvedre (right), neither of which will likely come in until mid-October, are both showing nice clusters of little berries:

Solstice 2022 - Roussanne berriesSolstice 2022 - Mourvedre berries

Although we're still two months or more away from harvesting any grapes, many of the fruit trees that we have interplanted in the vineyard are getting closer to their own harvests. The main goal of these trees is to support the different species of insects and microorganisms they attract, but we're also looking forward to the fruit that will land in the winery this fall. For whatever reason, this year's cherry season has been disappointing, and the stone fruit (peaches, apricots, and nectarines) aren't carrying much fruit. But the apples and quinces are loaded: 

Solstice 2022 - Quince

The fruit trees aren't the only things we've planted in our quest for biodiversity. Last year we planted several insectaries, with flowering plants that attract bees and other beneficial insects. Those were just getting started a year ago, but are thriving now:

Solstice 2022 - Insectaries

I'll leave you with a photo I particularly love, of a dry-farmed Grenache block with vines whose health is unmistakable. That exuberance is everywhere in the vineyard right now. The noteworthy vine health, good fruit set, and larger clusters combine to suggest that even with the losses from the frost, we're likely to see a more plentiful harvest than we saw in 2021. And that's fueling some pretty noteworthy exuberance on our part, too.

Solstice 2022 - Grenache vine


The ROC Logo - Coming Soon to a Label (and Shelf) Near You

This week, we bottled seven varietal whites from the 2021 vintage. These included some of our stalwart varietal bottlings (Viognier, Picpoul, and Grenache Blanc), some rare grapes where our varietal bottling is one of the only ones in the world (Bourboulenc, Picardan, and Clairette Blanche), and one blend, our Cotes de Tablas Blanc. We'll be releasing them one or two at a time over the next few months, so if you're on our mailing list, be sure to keep an eye on your emails. The septet:

2021 Whites - Front View

I am super excited to have these wines in bottle, both because it was clear to me in this year's bending trials that 2021 has a chance to be a truly memorable vintage, and because we've been so short on white wines that many people's favorites are sold out on our website and we had to suspend our white wine tasting flight for a while until last month's bottling of the Patelin de Tablas Blanc gave us the bare minimum. So the wines will be incredibly welcome, especially as some of our early-in-the-year white wine releases like Vermentino and Roussanne start to get scarce.

But that's not the reason I'm writing a blog about them. I'm doing that because they're the first wines we've bottled to carry the twin logos of CCOF Organic Certified and Regenerative Organic Certified™ (ROC™):

2021 Whites - Back View

We've written a lot here, directly and indirectly, about why we're so excited about the Regenerative Organic Certified program. If you haven't yet read Viticulturist Jordan Lonborg's piece Introducing Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC): Farming Like the World Depends on It go do that now. But it boils down to the fact that we think that the ROC program provides a framework for how agriculture can be a part of the solution to big-picture societal problems like resource scarcity, climate change, biodiversity loss, and inequality. It's a game changer, with a broader focus than organic (though with the same government-enforced rigor), less tied up in mysticism than Biodynamics (though many of the soil health protocols of ROC come from Biodynamics), and much more rigorous than sustainability certifications (which typically permit at least the limited use of chemicals like RoundUp).

ROC's combination of rigor and breadth is why we think that for the first time it's worth jumping through the hoops to put a seal on our labels. Although we've been farming organically since our inception, and been certified since 2003, we never before put an organic seal on our bottles, mostly because in order to use the NOP seal you can't add any sulfur in winemaking, which makes fermentations prone to volatility and reduces the wine's ability to age. Yes, there's an exception where you can say "made with organic grapes" but that's never felt particularly satisfying; if you want the deep dive, I talk about why in some detail on the blog here and here. And although we've been farming Biodyamically since 2010 and got our certification in 2016, we've never put a Biodynamic seal on our bottles, mostly because of the restrictions on winemaking, most notably the prohibition of any acid additions, which can be necessary to ensure proper fermentation and bottle aging in a warm climate like Paso Robles.

But ROC feels different enough from anything that's come before that we decided this was a certification worth displaying. So we've been spending the last few months figuring out how to navigate a process that involves approvals from the ROA (who runs the ROC program), CCOF (our organic certifier), and the TTB (which oversees federal label approvals). Because the ROC program is so new, and because the NOP standards treat alcohol differently than other foodstuffs, we've been breaking new ground. And it turned out that because the ROC logo contains the word "organic" written out, we needed also to include the seal of our organic certifier and the text "Made with organically grown grapes certified organic by CCOF" to be compliant. I'm not sure I would have wanted to do that without the ROC logo, but I'm totally fine with them both in conjunction. The final result: 

ROC and CCOF Logos on 2021 Cotes Blanc

Many of these first seven wines are only going to be sold at the winery. But the 2021 Cotes de Tablas Blanc will start to go out to wholesalers as soon as next week. So there's a chance you could see it on a shelf, or on a table at a restaurant, as soon as this summer. And it's just the beginning. As the rest of our estate wines from 2021 get bottled, they too will carry these two seals. We're hoping that they spark interest and start conversations. Wine label real estate is precious space; you only have a relatively few square inches to tell people what you and your wine are all about. We're proud to dedicate a piece of that space to this effort.


Into the black: tasting every Tablas Creek Syrah, 2002-2021

There are two ways that we try to work systematically through the collection of wines in our library. At the beginning of each year, we taste every wine we made ten years earlier. These horizontal retrospectives give us an in-depth look at a particular year, and a check-in with how our full range of wines is doing with a decade in bottle. I wrote up the results from our 2012 retrospective tasting back in January. And then each summer we conduct a comprehensive vertical tasting of a single wine, where we open every vintage we've ever made and use that to assess how the wine ages and if we want to adjust our approach in any way. This also serves as a pre-tasting for a public event in August at which we share the highlights.

In looking at which wines we'd done recent vertical tastings of, I was surprised to learn that we'd never done a deep dive into our varietal Syrah. Some of that can be explained, I think, by the fact that we don't make one every year. A wine you don't have aging in the cellar isn't as top-of-mind as one that you're tasting in its youth and wondering how it might evolve. But it's still an oversight, since Syrah is a famously ageworthy grape and one that we often note in our 10-year retrospective tastings is still youthful at a decade in bottle. So, it was with anticipation that our cellar team and I joined together and opened every vintage of Syrah, from our first-ever 2002 to the 2021 that we blended recently. Note that there are several gaps in the chronology, as Syrah's early sprouting makes it susceptible to low yields in frost vintages (like 2009 and 2011) and its dark color and reliable density means that there are years where it all gets snapped up in our blends to give them more seriousness (like 2012, 2015, 2016, and 2018):

Syrah vertical tasting Jun 2022

Joining me for this tasting were Winemaker Neil Collins, Senior Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi, Assistant Winemaker Craig Hamm, Cellar Assistant Amanda Weaver, and Director of Marketing Ian Consoli. My notes on the wines are below. I've linked each wine to its page on our website if you want detailed technical information, professional reviews, or our tasting notes from when the wines were first released. I can't remember why we never made a web page for the 2002, but if you have questions about it let me know in the comments and I'll answer as best I can.

  • 2002 Syrah: The nose and the bricking of the color at the edge of the glass both show some signs of age, with aromas of meat drippings, mint, and aged balsamic at the fore. With a little time, the fruit (in the guise of chocolate-covered cherry) comes out. The palate is more youthful, with flavors of black plum, baker's chocolate, and foresty earth, still-substantial tannins, and good acids. There's a dustiness to the tannins that betrays the wine's age, but overall it's still in a position to go out another decade. A great start to the tasting.
  • 2003 Syrah: A softer, more inviting nose, with aromas of nutmeg, black raspberry, leather, flint, and juniper spice. Quite pretty on the palate, with flavors of leather, gingerbread, olive tapenade, and and soy marinade. The finish was brooding, with umami teriyaki flavors and nice acids keeping things fresh, though the tannins were mostly resolved. Felt like it was toward the end of its peak drinking, with the fruit elements perhaps not likely to last much longer.
  • 2004 Syrah: An immediately appealing nose of red and black licorice, cassis, leather, menthol, and a meaty, earthy note. The palate showed lovely sweet blueberry fruit, semi-sweet chocolate, and chalky tannins, plush and long. A nice lightly salty mineral note came out on the finish. One of our consensus favorites from the tasting, and absolutely at its peak.
  • 2005 Syrah: A slightly wilder nose than the 2004, with aromas of aged meat, leather, soy, and minty eucalyptus spice, like a hike in the high Sierra. The mouth is similar, but with a nice dark-red-fruited element too, currant or a raspberry reduction. Lovely texture, with some tannin left and good acids on the finish that left lingering notes of chaparral and chocolate powder. Another favorite, and also seemingly right at peak. 
  • 2006 Syrah: A nose that was more impressive than appealing: iron filings, teriyaki, and crushed mint, with some black raspberry coming out with air. The palate is plush upon entry, with notes of chocolate-covered cherry, marzipan, and mocha, then big tannins come out to take over, highlighted by solid acidity. It felt to us maybe not quite at peak yet, with the acids highlighting the tannins in a slightly unflattering way.
  • 2007 Syrah: More youthful on the nose than the wines that preceded it, but in an immensely appealing way: black fruit and brambles and pepper spice, with a meaty venison note that made Neil comment, "Now that's a glorious nose". The palate is mouth-coating, with blackberry and black licorice notes and chalky tannins. As good as this was, it still had the structure and balance to age, and would be amazing right now with a rosemary-crusted leg of lamb.
  • 2008 Syrah: A quieter nose in comparison to the 2007 (which was admittedly a tough act to follow), with Provencal herbs and wild strawberry notes, and a little cherry compote character in which we thought we detected a touch of oxidation. The palate was pretty but undramatic, with dried red fruits and sarsaparilla notes, nice texture, and a little saline minerality on the finish. We weren't sure if this wine, from a good-not-great vintage, was nearing the end of its life or if it's in a phase it would come out of. I'd lean toward the latter.
  • 2010 Syrah: A strange nose at first that we variously described as horseradish, hops, and sun-dried tomatoes. That blew off to show aromas of soy, aged meat, pepper spice, and grape candy. The palate was a little more traditional but still something of an outlier, with flavors of bruised plum, bittersweet chocolate, cola, and sweet spice. There's still some tannic grip. This wine, from our coolest-ever vintage with very long hang time, was always likely to be different from its neighbors. If I had to guess, I'd think that it is going through a phase and will come out the other side into something fascinating. But I'd hold off on opening one for now.
  • 2013 Syrah: A lovely dark nose of cola and minty black fruit, with additional notes of anise, roasted walnuts, and lavender florality. The palate has medium body, nicely poised between fruity and savory elements. Chalky tannins come out on the end highlighting flavors of plum skin and menthol.
  • 2014 Syrah: Dark but inviting on the nose, with notes of blackberry, eucalyptus, anise, and candied violets. The palate shows lively tangy black raspberry fruit, with lovely texture and chalky tannins. The finish shows notes of chocolate and a graphite-like minerality. This is still young but shows tremendous potential, and was our favorite of the "middle-aged" wines in the lineup.
  • 2017 Syrah. Notably different on the nose with a green peppercorn note jumping out of the glass from the higher percentage of whole-cluster fermentation we did in 2017. Under that, aromas of soy marinade, black olive, and high-toned pomegranate fruit. The palate shows flavors of dried strawberries, new leather, and a little cedary oak. The finish is gentle and composed, with the lower acidity you also get from whole cluster fermentation. I thought this was fascinating more than actively pleasurable, and am happy we dialed back the stem percentages in more recent vintages. 
  • 2019 Syrah: A more classic nose of black cherry, anise, crushed peppermint, and violets. The palate is tangy with flavors of plum skin and baker's chocolate, chalky tannins, and lingering texture. Youthful but impressive and delicious. There's just a hint of the green peppercorn stem character in this wine, and I liked the balance we struck.
  • 2020 Syrah: Just bottled last week, and it felt a little beaten up by the process, with the aromatic and flavor elements appearing one by one rather than integrated and layered. The nose shows notes of sugarplum and vanilla, menthol and sweet tobacco. The palate was plush, with black fruit and spice, and a little sweet oak coming out on the finish, along with substantial chalky tannins. This will be fun to watch come together in coming months; our plan is tentatively to give it five months in bottle and to release it in November.
  • 2021 Syrah: Although we've made the blending decisions and know which lots will be going into our 2021 Syrah, it hasn't been blended yet. That's a project we'll tackle after next week's bottling. So Chelsea pulled a composite sample of this wine. It's worth noting that we always like the actual blend more than the composite. But that said, it was impressive: meaty, with blueberry and chocolate on the nose, and a little briary wildness. The mouth is structured, quite tannic at this stage, but also plush with flavors of black fig, black olive, crushed rock, and a little meatiness like Spanish chorizo. All the pieces of a blockbuster. It will be a pleasure to watch where this goes. 

A few concluding thoughts:

  • Syrah's aging curve is perhaps the longest of any of the wines we make. I am proud of how most of our wines age. That includes our Mourvedre-based reds, our Roussanne-based whites, and varietals like Tannat. But these Syrahs were still eye-opening. There were wines more than fifteen years out (I'm looking at you, 2006) that felt like they could still use another few years. And wines nearly a decade old already (hey there, 2014) that still felt like they could have been new releases. That's not to say you should never open a young Syrah. I don't think anyone opening a 2014, or 2017, or 2019 is going to be disappointed with what they find, between the ample black fruit, the rich texture, and the minerality and spice. Just pair it with something substantial enough to play off, like the rosemary-crusted leg of lamb we were all dreaming about during the tasting. But if you want a wine you can reliably age a couple of decades, I don't know that there's a wine we make I'd recommend more.
  • The overall quality of the wines was exceptionally high. I asked everyone around the table to pick four favorites, and the wines that got votes were 2002 (1), 2004 (4), 2005 (4), 2007 (3), 2013 (1), 2014 (3), 2017 (4), and 2019 (4). That's eight of the fourteen vintages that got a "favorite" vote, across a range of different sorts of growing seasons, different vine ages, and different cellar treatments. It's just a tremendous grape.
  • We need to plant more Syrah. See the previous point. But it was also a bummer not having Syrah from vintages like 2016 and 2018 to taste. If you go back and look at the blogs I posted sharing our experience around the blending table those years (2016 here, and 2018 here) both times I remarked on just how impressive the Syrah lots were. I have vivid memories from 2016 about looking around the table and commenting that we were going to make the best varietal Syrah we'd ever made. It didn't turn out that way; the Syrah lots were so impressive that blends like Esprit and Panoplie snapped up most of the quantity in our blind tasting trials, and we weren't left with enough to bottle varietally. We have an acre or so that we planted last year, and we'll get additional tonnage off some of our oldest blocks thanks to the success we've had with layering canes to fill in holes from missing vines, but I'm now thinking that's not enough and we should plan for a few more acres on Jewel Ridge. 
  • Don't forget the vintage chart. We update this chart several times a year based on the results of tastings like these, wines we open in the normal course of life, and feedback we get from customers and fans. It's there whenever you want it.
  • Sound fun? Join us on August 14th! We will be hosting a version of this event that is open to the public, and Neil and I will be leading the discussion and sharing insights into how the wines came to be the way they are. The vintages we chose to share are 2002, 2004, 2005, 2007, 2014, 2017, 2019, and 2020. You can read more about the event, and get your tickets, here.

Flowering and Fruit Set Provide Reasons for Optimism After a Challenging Beginning to 2022

At the beginning of the growing season, no news is usually good news. If you avoid frost, and avoid cold or wet or windy weather during flowering, you can expect to see fruit set (when the berries start to form) roughly two months after budbreak. And in the sections of the vineyard where we avoided frost, that's what we're seeing. This Syrah vine is a good example:

Fruit Set 2022 - Syrah

2022, however, has not been a news-free spring. I wrote a couple of weeks ago about our frosts. And though most of the vineyard avoided dropping below freezing, it got cold everywhere, which has lesser but still important impacts on the vines' ability to fertilize the flowers and turn them into grapes.

Flowering and fruit set mark the rough quarter-pole of the growing season. There's a lot more year to come than in the rear-view mirror, but it's still a point at which you can start to make comparisons to other vintages. Doing so highlights the extent to which 2022 has so far been an outlier, at least compared to the past decade. Some of the data points we measure are growing degree days (a rough number of hours that are warm enough for the grapevines to photosynthesize), the number of days that top 90°F, the number of days that don't get out of the 60s, and the number of frost nights where temperatures bottomed out at or below 32 at our weather station. The first 53 days of the growing season (April 1st - May 23st), through the third weekend of May which we usually take as the unofficial end of frost season, provide a good marker. Here's how 2022 compares to past years:

Year Degree Days Days > 90°F Days < 70°F Nights ≤ 32°F
2012 496 5 15 3
2013 615 9 12 1
2014 553 5 16 0
2015 378 0 26 0
2016 494 2 14 0
2017 517 6 17 0
2018 454 0 21 1
2019 410 0 25 0
2020 500 2 20 2
2021 499 2 13 2
Average 2012-2021 491.6 3.1 17.9 0.9
2022 554 6 13 3

You can see that 2022 has been a bit warmer than average overall, but the devil is in the details (and the frost nights). We had two of our 90+ days in early April, which meant that things were far enough out that the April 12th and 13th frost nights had more impact than they might have in a cooler year. And the other frost night on May 10th was so late that everything was out far enough to take some significant damage, and the four chilly, windy days that preceded it, none of which got into the 70s, were in a position to impact flowering in our early varieties. 

During flowering, you hope for consistent, sunny weather, with only limited wind and no rain. Cold, wet, or windy 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. So it wasn't a shock that when I explored our Grenache blocks I found evidence of shatter:

Fruit Set 2022 - Grenache

Is this a catastrophe? No. A little shatter in Grenache can actually be a good thing, because it opens up the clusters and means we don't have to do as much fruit thinning on this famously productive grape. And that seems to be the degree we're seeing, with impacts in the 20%-50% range. It's additional good news is that I couldn't find any evidence of shatter in anything else.

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 we saw flowering begin the second week of May, we're likely to be enjoying the intoxicating scent of bloom for another couple of weeks. Our late-sprouting varieties like Roussanne are still in peak flowering:

Flowering 2022 - Roussanne

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. 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, weeks after the early grapes, Roussanne, Counoise, and Mourvedre bring up the rear. We might not know where everything is going. But for our early grapes, like the Viognier below, things are well on their way.

Fruit Set 2022 - Viognier