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The Adelaida District's Limestone Layers Laid Bare

On Friday, Winemaker Neil Collins poked his head into the office we share, looking excited, and said, "Hey, you got a minute?" I did, and we hopped into the ATV and Neil piloted us south across the creek and along the south side of the reservoir the property's previous owner made back in the 1950s. He stopped near the dam, and we headed out on foot. What he had found was remarkable: that Las Tablas Creek had become an exhibit for the local geology.

This has been a banner year for Las Tablas Creek. After three years where it barely ran, the series of storms that we got in late December and early January got it flowing fast:

A week later, after another storm had dumped six more inches of rain in about 24 hours, it burst its banks and flowed over Adelaida Road just outside the winery, producing impressive enough footage that it made it onto several national networks as an illustration of the widespread California flooding:

All that water flowing down the creek and into (and out of) the reservoir changed the landscape in in visible ways. In the creekbed it's clear how high the water came because everywhere below that line it scoured away the topsoil and exposed the limestone layers underneath:

Creekbed with Sadie

At the far end of the lake is a spillway through which the water flows once it has filled the reservoir. It's a remarkable illustration of the local geology. Most of the calcareous soils that underly the Adelaida District are soft, as much clay as rock, which has given rise to the (incorrect) theory that none of it is limestone1. While it's a good thing that we don't have solid limestone underneath us, as limestone is too hard for vines' roots to break up or break through, there are bands of limestone that run throughout the region. The previous owner made use of one of these layers in the creation of the spillway, which follows the slanting descent of the layer from dam-level down to the original creekbed. Here are two views: on the left from above the spillway in late January, and on the right from below last week:

Spillway from top Spillway from below

In both photos, though most clearly from below, you can see the many layers of softer rock that the water has eaten away over the years, while staying above the harder limestone layer. 

A side-stream that flowed into the creek showed another good example of the mix of harder and softer calcareous layers, and the step-like pattern that is repeated in creekbeds throughout the region:

Limestone and softer layers cross-section

While the softer layers crumble and decompose, the harder limestone bits stay in the topsoil. Most wineries remove them before planting anything, as otherwise they chew up tractors at an alarming rate. The rocks that are removed are the raw materials for the walls you see at Tablas Creek and around the Adelaida District:

Sadie camouflaged against stone wall

All this rock is sitting there year-round, just a few feet below the surface. Thanks to the rain we've received (and continue to receive) this winter it's easier to see than ever. 


  1. If you're interested into a deep-dive into the chemistry and geology of the calcareous soils out here, check out my 2020 blog Why Calcareous Soils Matter for Vineyards and Wine Grapes.

Petitioning the TTB to recognize Muscardin: the 14th and final Chateauneuf du Pape grape in the Beaucastel Collection

This week we are filing a petition to recognize Muscardin for use as a grape variety name on wine labels in the United States. The petition, ready to go out today, includes a letter of support from the Assistant Director of Foundation Plant Services, excerpts from four esteemed reference books on wine, the grape's Wikipedia entry, the original 1936 declaration and the current statute that regulate the Chateauneuf-du-Pape appellation, the entry in Pierre Galet's seminal ampelography Cépages et Vignobles de France with its translation, and even the Beaucastel poster that includes lithographs of the thirteen grape varieties. I hope it's comprehensive enough:

Muscardin Petition

Why, you might ask, do we need to petition to use a grape name on our label? It's because all alcohol labels need to be approved before use by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), a division of the Department of the Treasury, and if you use a grape variety name on your label, that (or those) need to be grapes that the TTB recognizes. The regulation setting up this framework was adopted in 1996 by the BATF (the precursor to the TTB), with a clearly stated purpose:

These regulations are intended to provide specific and accurate labeling of grape wines labeled with grape variety names. They are intended to prevent consumer deception by eliminating misnamed grape variety names, and by eliminating the use of many synonyms for prime grape names. They are expected to aid in the identification of grape wines by consumers and to make labels easier to understand through the use of more meaningful labeling terms. Finally, ATF believes these regulations will enable consumers to be better informed about wines and the grape varieties used to produce them. 

That 1996 regulation included a list of 251 recognized grape names, 20 grandfathered synonyms (such as Shiraz for Syrah, Fumé Blanc for Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Grigio for Pinot Gris), and 61 grape synonyms whose use was to be phased out within a few years. It also included a mechanism by which any interested party could petition to have the list of grape names amended to add new varieties as they were imported or developed. The criteria for approval are clearly laid out:

  1. Any interested person may petition the Director for the approval of a grape variety name. The petition may be in the form of a letter and should provide evidence of the following—
    1. acceptance of the new grape variety,
    2. the validity of the name for identifying the grape variety,
    3. that the variety is used or will be used in winemaking, and
    4. that the variety is grown and used in the United States.
  2. For the approval of names of new grape varieties, documentation submitted with the petition to establish the items in paragraph (a) of this section may include—
    1. reference to the publication of the name of the variety in a scientific or professional journal of horticulture or a published report by a professional, scientific or winegrowers’ organization,
    2. reference to a plant patent, if so patented, and
    3. information pertaining to the commercial potential of the variety, such as the acreage planted and its location or market studies.

This will not be the first petition we have submitted. Back in 2001, my dad petitioned for the recognition of Grenache Blanc, Counoise, and Picpoul Blanc. In 2012, he sent in petitions for four more: Bourboulenc, Picardan, Vaccarese, and Terret Noir. All those were approved, along with 89 others, and are now on the list of the 347 grapes allowed on American wine labels. With this Muscardin petition, we're hoping to make it 348. 

Muscardin's journey to this point has been a long and challenging one. The field cuttings we took from Beaucastel of the seven grapes we imported in 2003 were all found to have virus, and while Terret Noir and Clairette Blanche were released in 2009 after one round of virus cleanup, it took Picardan (released in 2012) two rounds, Bourboulenc, Vaccarese, and Cinsaut (released in 2015) three rounds, and Muscardin four separate rounds of cleanup by the experts at the Foundation Plant Services station at UC Davis. This meant that we didn't get vines to propagate until 2018, and the first buds weren't available to graft until 2019. We grafted five surplus rows of Grenache Blanc over to Muscardin that summer, and got our first small crop -- enough to make just 30 gallons, or one half-barrel -- in 2021. That wine was pale but spicy and red-fruited, with a minty/herby/juniper note, good acids, and nice saltiness on the finish. It was appealing enough that we felt it should go into our Le Complice. It became a part of the blend in June of 2022 and has been sitting in foudre since then. Now that we're getting ready to bottle and label it, the grape needs to be approved.

What do we expect to get from Muscardin? It's more of a hope than an expectation. Muscardin is rare enough in France that there's not a lot of literature on it. When I wrote the Muscardin entry in my Grapes of the Rhone Valley blog series, it turned out that there wasn't a lot of information available, perhaps unsurprising given that Muscardin's total footprint was less than 50 acres worldwide. It was first recognized in 1895, and was included in the list of approved Chateauneuf-du-Pape grapes when the appellation was established in 1936. The best explanation of its value that we've been able to turn up is a great quote from Baron Le Roi of Chateau Fortia that John Livingstone-Learmonth recounts in his 1992 book The Wines of the Rhone: "You know, we would be better off here if we replaced the Cinsault with the Muscardin. The Muscardin doesn't produce a lot, makes wine of low degree and spreads out over the soil, preventing tractors from passing freely between the vines, all of which combine to put people off it. But I believe that it gives a freshness on the palate and helps the wine to achieve elegance." From the one vintage under our belts, that use -- to provide freshness and elegance -- seems like one worth more exploration. 

It's always been our goal to plant and vinify all sixteen grape varieties in the Beaucastel vineyard. This includes the thirteen "traditional" Châteauneuf-du Pape grapes, plus Viognier and Marsanne (allowed in Cotes du Rhone and found in the Coudoulet de Beaucastel section of the property) and Grenache Blanc (covered under the "Grenache" entry but not counted in the tally of thirteen). Now that we're able to take this last step with Muscardin, a foundational goal of my dad's is finally within reach. Hey, it's only taken 34 years.

13 Cepages Poster

Winter's color show, playing now on daily rotation

Most visitors come to wine country in the season when the Golden State feels appropriately named. Between May and November, hillsides are yellow-brown, broken by the deep green of oaks and the slightly lighter green of grapevines. The sky is a pure, medium blue. It's a beautiful color palette in its own right, with remarkable consistency from the fact that moisture in those months is extremely rare. 

This is not that season. After three very wet weeks to kick off the year, we've had nearly a month of sun. The hillsides are a brilliant yellow-green from new growth. There's still so much water everywhere that it's seeping out in impromptu springs and flowing through usually-dry gullies. And in the mornings, it's settling into surface fog. That fog produces something rare in California: the feeling of enclosed spaces. The landscape more than few dozen yards away becomes shrouded and indistinct. It feels quieter. Then, as that fog lifts in the warmth of the morning sun, you get transitional moments of sunlit foreground and puffy white middle distance. Finally, by mid-morning, the fog is gone, the green of the new grasses brilliantly set off against the deep brown trees and grapevine trunks, and the sky a deep azure blue. It's a remarkable transformation, and it's happening daily right now. In this blog, I'll take you through what one of those days feels like, starting in the fog and finishing in the sun. 

Oak tree on hilltop in fog

It's not all vineyards here; the photo above is of an oak near my house. There are still old walnut orchards too, shaggy with lichen:

Walnut in lifting fog

The transitional moments are my favorites. First, a shot in the forest, rays of sun illuminating the moisture:

Shafts of light in the forest

And then one overlooking some head-trained vineyards, newly pruned, with a river of fog less than a hundred yards away:

Fog flowing across head-trained vineyard

By mid-morning the sun is warm, the grasses fully lit, and the sky deepening except right at the horizon line. That's a lot of very happy sheep.  

Crosshairs block so green with sheep

One more view of the sheep, looking up the rows instead of across, shows off the block's geometry:

Sheep on hillside horizontal

The blue sky deepens for the next few hours, and the contrasting blues, greens, and browns are amazing:

Head-trained Mourvedre and blue sky

Finally, one more photo focusing on the sky. If you're visiting in the next few months, you're in for a treat.

Head-trained Mourvedre and blue sky 2

Tasting the Wines in the Spring 2023 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 six 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 reintroduction to wines that we'll come to know intimately in coming months and years. I always think it's fun to give followers of the blog a first look at these notes. The wines:

Spring 2023 VINsider shipment wines

The shipments that will be going out in March include wines from the 2020, 2021, and 2022 vintages. Tasting three vintages together is a great way to get a handle on their relative personalities, and typically my first chance to do a personality assessment on the newest vintage, which we haven't even started blending trials on yet. My quick thoughts, after the tasting, are these:

  • The challenging year of 2020 keeps surprising us. Far from the simple, juicy wines you might expect from such a hot year, as we get to late releases of our most ageworthy reds it's the structural scaffolding and deep spice of these more tannic reds that stands out. 
  • This tasting only confirmed my opinion that 2021 will go down as one of our best vintages ever, with a combination of mouth-filling texture, intense flavors, and great focus. Even better, it seems to be equally strong for reds and whites.
  • With only a couple of wines, it's early to generalize about 2022, but the Vermentino and Dianthus show creamy textures and luscious fruit without sacrificing brightness. It's a promising start. 

I'll go through the six wines in the VINsider Classic (Mixed) Shipment, and then move on to the additional wines that we chose to include in the Red Wine Selection and White Wine Selection shipments. I was joined for the tasting by Executive Winemaker Neil Collins and Senior Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi, so these notes are a compilation of our thoughts. Maybe you can tell that we were excited with what we'd tasted...

Jason Neil Chelsea tasting spring 2023 VINsider shipment wines

The Classic Shipment includes six different wines:


  • Production Notes: Viognier is always the lead grape in our Cotes Blanc, and we balance Viognier's lushness with the elegance of Marsanne and the brightness of Grenache Blanc. In the outstanding 2021 vintage, when all the grapes had good focus and freshness, we chose a somewhat higher percentage of Viognier (44%) than in most recent years, and added Grenache Blanc (32%) for brightness and pithy bite, Marsanne (14%) for elegance, and Roussanne (10%) to round out the blend and provide structure. The selected lots were blended in May 2022, and the wine was bottled in June 2022.
  • Tasting Notes: A lovely Rhonish nose, very aromatic, of jasmine, clementine pith, ripe peach, petrichor, and sweet green herbs. The mouth shows both richness and brightness, with flavors of nectarine and mint, rich texture, and a persistent wet stone minerality. The wine's acids come out on the long, clean finish, leaving flavors of mango and creamy minerality. Drink now and for at least the next five years.
  • Production: 1215 cases.
  • List Price: $35 VINsider Price: $28


  • Production Notes: Although our yields on our whites were very low in 2022, yields on reds rebounded a bit, which allowed us to increase our production of Dianthus slightly. Named after a family of flowering plants with deep pink blooms, Dianthus is always led by Mourvedre (45% this year), for rich texture and watermelon and plum fruit, with Grenache (38%) for bright strawberry fruit and refreshing acidity and Counoise (16%) for spice and cherry fruit. I'm not sure we can isolate what the 1% Cinsaut adds, but we're excited to have it and look forward to incorporating more in future years. The fruit spent 24-36 hours on the skins, giving it a deeper color and more texture than many rosés, and then it completed its fermentation in stainless steel before bottling in January 2023.
  • Tasting Notes: A lovely deep peach color. On the nose, complex aromatics of strawberry hard candy, newly cut grass, watermelon rind and sweet mint. The mouth is both lush and vibrant, with flavors of red cherry, pepper spice, and chalky minerals. But it was the texture that we found most noteworthy, mouth-filling and serious, with a saline edge and a lingering finish with salted watermelon and yellow rose petal notes. A rosé to convert people who don't think pink wines can be serious. Drink before the end of 2024.
  • Production: 860 cases
  • List Price: $40 VINsider Price: $32


  • Production Notes: Our Patelin de Tablas, blended from a selection of local vineyards planted to our clones, is always based on the dark fruit and mineral notes of Syrah (43%) with additions of Grenache (28%) for generosity and openness, Mourvedre (23%) for texture and meatiness, and Counoise (6%) for spice and vibrancy. The lovely 2021 vintage produced one of our favorite Patelins ever, with immediate juicy appeal and the structure to age over the medium term. It was blended in May of 2022 and bottled in August of that same year, and has been resting in bottle at the winery since.
  • Tasting Notes: A nose of licorice, both red and black, new leather, black cherry, pomegranate reduction, and black pepper. The mouth is bright with cranberry fruit and a chaparral-style wild herbiness, and deeper flavors of baking spices, sweet tobacco, and plum skin. The finish is deep and long, with chalky tannins that suggest there's more to be revealed with time in bottle. Drink now and over the next decade.
  • Production: 3568 cases
  • List Price: $28 VINsider Price: $22.40


  • Production Notes: Our nineteenth bottling of this traditional grape from South-West France, famous for its intense fruit, spice, and tannins that produce wines capable of long aging. Tannat is known principally in the Pyrenees foothills appellation of Madiran, but originally native to the Basque region. We ferment Tannat in open-top fermenters to keep it exposed to oxygen and start the softening process, then move it to neutral oak foudre where it ages for nearly 2 years. It was bottled in April 2022 and has been aging the last 10 months waiting for its release. 
  • Tasting Notes: An exuberant nose of teriyaki spice and plum, leather and Tannat's signature wild lupine florality. On the palate, richly tannic with flavors of black cherry and charcuterie, grilled meat and chaparral spice. The finish is loaded with dark red fruit, sweet anise spice, and chalky tannins. A serious wine to pair with rich foods now or age for up to two decades if you're looking for a more refined experience.
  • Production: 963 cases
  • List Price: $45 VINsider Price: $36


  • Production Notes: The fifth vintage of our newest red blend, which celebrates the kinship between whole cluster Syrah (77%) and the wildly interesting grape Terret Noir (8%). Le Complice means, roughly, "partner in crime". 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 (15%) for mid-palate richness. The wine was blended in June of 2021 and aged in foudre until its bottling in December 2022.
  • Tasting Notes: A classic savory Syrah nose of rare steak, black olive, green peppercorn, and chalky minerals. The mouth is more of the same, with notes of carne asada, dried herbs, blackberry fruit, and a little minty lift. The finish shows more crushed rock minerality with a grilled berry note and plenty of tannic richness. Still youthfully tight; give this six months if you can, then drink over the next two decades.
  • Production: 900 cases
  • List Price: $55 VINsider Price: $44


  • Production Notes: Panoplie is selected from the top 3% of the year's lots, chosen for their richness, concentration and balance, giving pride of place to Mourvedre's lovely dark red fruit and distinctive combination of loam, earthiness, and meat. Each lot was fermented individually before being selected, blended and moved to foudre to age in July 2021. Mourvedre, as always, represents the largest percentage (59%) of Panoplie. In this year when Syrah was particularly compelling, we included more of it in the blend than usual (28%, for black fruit, density, and tannic richness) and just two lots of our most expressive Grenache (13%, for sweet spice and vibrancy). The wine was bottled in July 2022.
  • Tasting Notes: A deep nose of cassis and spruce forest, warm spices like clove and star anise, with a dry-aged umami meaty note lurking underneath. The palate shows ripe plum, melted chocolate, licorice root, and plenty of chalky tannins. The finish is balanced between sweeter blueberry flavors and more savory chaparral spice, with creamy texture and a finish laced with cocoa powder and redcurrant notes. This is appealing now, but should also develop additional layers of meatiness and loamy earth with time. Enjoy over the next two decades, perhaps longer.
  • Production: 807 cases
  • List Price: $105 VINsider Price: $84

Four additional wines (2022 Vermentino, 2021 Marsanne, a library release of the 2013 Roussanne, and 2 bottles of the 2021 Roussanne) will join the 2021 Cotes de Tablas Blanc in the White Wine Selection shipment:


  • Production Notes: Our twenty-first bottling of this traditional Mediterranean variety, 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 bottle it young (January 2023, this vintage) under screwcap. Vermentino yields in 2022 were painfully low (off by half compared to most recent years) but the fruit we got was lovely.
  • Tasting Notes: A classic Vermentino nose of all parts of a lime, from blossom to leaf to pith to juice, deepened by an herby lemon verbena note and briny sea spray minerality. The palate is fresh and juicy yet with a surprisingly creamy texture for the usually lighter-bodied Vermentino, with flavors of key lime, lemon custard, and sweet green herbs. The finish shows more saline minerality with yellow grapefruit and chamomile notes. Tastes like summer at the beach, or like what a gin and tonic wishes it could be. Drink now and over the next few years.
  • Production: 575 cases
  • List Price: $35 VINsider Price: $28


  • Production Notes: Marsanne is best known from the northern Rhone, particularly the famed appellation of Hermitage, where it produces wines of legendary elegance and ageworthiness. The 2021 vintage produced some of our favorite Marsanne ever, which we fermented in 600-gallon foudres to emphasize its texture and give it a hint of oak. Because we thought it so classic and pretty, we reserved a little more than usual for a varietal expression at blending in March of 2022. The wine was bottled that June.
  • Tasting Notes: A vibrant nose of lychee, wildflower honey, white tea, and lemongrass. The mouth is soft and lovely with flavors of white peach and honeydew melon, chamomile and Meyer lemon pith. The finish is clean and long, with fresh pear and clean straw notes, and a little pithy bite. So appealing now that I'm guessing a lot of it will get drunk young, but it should evolve in an interesting way for a decade at least.
  • Production: 254 cases
  • List Price: $40 VINsider Price: $32


  • Production Notes: Roussanne yields continued their downward trend in 2021, reduced by the lack of rainfall and the accumulated stress of growing in Paso Robles. But the Roussanne lots that we got were uniformly outstanding. Our varietal bottling came roughly 55% from foudre, 35% from neutral oak puncheons, and 10% in small new barriques. The selected lots were blended in April 2022 then aged in foudre through the subsequent harvest before bottling this past December.
  • Tasting Notes: A spicy nose of honeysuckle and baked apple, honeycomb and cinnamon. On the palate, poached pear and clove notes, chalky minerals, rich texture, and a lingering lanolin note that is quintessentially Roussanne. The finish shows waxy texture and lingering flavors of Meyer lemon pith, saline minerality, and a little hint of sweet oak. Drink in the next 3 or 4 years for a pure expression of Roussanne's honey and pear flavors, or hold it for 8-15 years for a flavor profile of caramel, wet rocks, and hazelnut.
  • Production: 517 cases
  • List Price: $45 VINsider Price: $36


  • Production Notes: The 2013 vintage, which featured lively fruit and outstanding balance, was one where we felt we might get something exceptional if we were to stash some of our Roussanne for a few years. And we did! Bottled in February 2015 and aged in our cellar ever since, the 2013 Roussanne shows what we love about this unusually ageworthy white grape at around a decade old. Still fresh, the honey notes have caramelized and the expression is one of lushness. If you've never tried aged Roussanne you're in for a treat. 
  • Tasting Notes: A pretty mature Roussanne nose of creme brulee and marzipan. ripe pear and sweet straw. On the palate, vanilla custard, apple pie, tarragon, and a little pithy sweet quince note like membrillo paste. Luscious and nearly decadent, just held in check on the finish by a little pithy bite. Drink now and over the next few years.
  • Production: 700 cases
  • Library Price: $65 VINsider Price: $52

Two additional reds (the 2021 Cotes de Tablas and 2020 Syrah) join the 2020 Panoplie, 2020 Le Complice, 2020 Tannat, and 2021 Patelin de Tablas in the Red Wine Selection shipment:


  • Production Notes: Grenache always plays lead in the Cotes de Tablas, and in the outstanding Grenache year of 2021 it represents an above-average 47% of the blend. 30% Syrah adds darker fruit and minerality, while 15% Counoise (for vibrancy and spice) and 8% Mourvedre (for earth and complexity) complete the wine. The Cotes de Tablas was blended in June 2022 and aged in 1200-gallon neutral oak foudres until its bottling in February 2023.
  • Tasting Notes: An immediately appealing nose of sugarplum and wild strawberry, herbes de Provence and charcuterie. The mouth shows notes of milk chocolate and red cherry, deepened with olive tapenade and sweet green herbs. Some youthful Grenache tannins come out on the long, juicy finish. This will only have been in bottle for a month or so by the time you receive this wine, so give it a few months if you possibly can, and then enjoy any time over the next decade.
  • Production: 1125 cases
  • List Price: $40 VINsider Price: $32

2020 SYRAH

  • Production Notes: Syrah was one of the standouts in our blending trials of the 2020 reds, and it was exciting that we were able to make a varietal bottling in decent quantity as well as using it in all our key blends. We ferment our Syrah in open-top fermenters, punched down twice daily, then move it to barrel to complete fermentation. For our varietal bottling we selected a mix of lots from newer and older oak, then blended them in June 2021 and aged the wine together in one 1200-gallon oak foudre until bottling in April 2022.
  • Tasting Notes: An inviting nose of black licorice and black raspberry, dark chocolate and dried herbs. On the palate, blackcurrant fruit, mocha notes and mouth-filling tannins, absolutely characteristic of what we love about Syrah, with enough plum skin brightness to keep the wine fresh. The finish shows notes of grilled blackberry and an iron-like mineral note with plenty of tannin to keep this going for two decades or more.
  • Production: 474 cases
  • List Price: $50 VINsider Price: $40

If you're a wine club member, we've got a few different ways you can try these wines. We are hosting a live in-person pickup party here at the winery on Sunday, April 2nd. Neil, Chelsea, and I will also be hosting another virtual pickup party the evening of Friday, March 24th, with the opportunity to order 187ml tasting kits from us so you can taste along. And we'll again be offering club members who visit between March 17th and April 9th the opportunity to choose their shipment wines as their tasting flight. All the details are up on our VINsider News & Updates page.

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

What's the most useless glass bottle? One that never leaves the winery.

Last week, I walked out of my office on my way to the mezzanine level of our cellar, on which we keep a few cases of each of our bottled-but-not-yet-released wines. I was looking for samples of our 2022 Patelin de Tablas Rosé, 2022 Dianthus, and 2022 Vermentino, to write tasting notes for our website in anticipation of the wines' release announcements. 

[Pause for a moment. Hooray for new wines! We've never been as scarce on wine as these past couple of months. I am always excited for the release of our rosés, but it's all the more exciting this year. If you've been looking disconsolately at our online shop as I have, wishing most of the wines didn't say "sold out", the cavalry is, at long last, on its way.]

I got about halfway to the mezzanine before I realized I didn't have to open a bottle. I took a right turn into our tasting room, walked up to the new tap system we installed last month, and poured myself tastes of each of the three wines out of keg. No bottle necessary.

Taps in the tasting room

We're long-time advocates for wine in keg. I wrote back in 2010 on the blog about how much potential the format had, but how frustrating it was that the industry hadn't settled on a standard for keg size and connection yet. By 2013 things had evolved enough that I could celebrate the launch of a national keg program for our Patelin de Tablas, Patelin de Tablas Blanc, and Patelin de Tablas Rosé. And in 2020 we expanded that with small batches of kegs of some of the wines normally only available in our tasting room. Why we're excited boils down to three main reasons:

  • Freshness: The wine that is poured out of a keg is replaced by an inert gas, which means that what remains in the keg isn't exposed to oxygen. A bottle, on the other hand, starts oxidizing as soon as it is opened. Roughly half the glasses of wine I order at restaurants show some signs of oxidation... but not if they're served from keg.
  • Less Waste: Restaurants expect to dump out the unused ends of most opened bottles at the end of each night, and the rest of any bottle that's been open multiple days. This adds up; restaurants I've spoken to estimate they may waste 25% or more of their glass pours this way. Keg wines are good down to their last pour.
  • Sustainability: The bottles, capsules, corks and labels that help preserve, identify and market a wine between barrel and glass are temporary enclosures, that will be discarded when the bottle is consumed. That's a lot of resources tied up in something whose only purpose is to be used and (hopefully) recycled or (more often) thrown away. Kegs eliminate all this wasted packaging. When they're empty, they get returned to be washed and reused. Free Flow Wines, our partner in our national kegging program, recently shared the results of a study showing that reusable stainless steel kegs offer a 76% savings in carbon footprint vs. packaging the same wine in bottles. 

In 2022, our distributors sold roughly 640 of our kegs to restaurants and wine bars around the country. Earlier this week we shared a photo of our new tap handles on social media, and got a lot of excited customer responses and a few inquiries from accounts interested in pouring the wines on tap. Perfect.

If you're a regular reader of the blog, you will know that we've been working to be more selective about our use of glass wine bottles. If not, you might be wondering why we're looking for alternatives, given that it's a package with thousands of years of history, made from a product that should be endlessly recyclable, and still the best vessel for long-term aging. Here's a quick summary. Because glass is energy-intensive to mine and mold -- and heavy and fragile to ship -- it accounts for more than half the carbon footprint of the average California winery. It's also bulky. You can reduce glass's packaging footprint by about 20% by moving to lightweight glass, which we did in 2010, but that's still 350% of the footprint of a lighter-weight package like bag-in-box. We've been experimenting with that, and while I think it's a step in the right direction for some wines, it's still a single-use package, requires the creation of some plastic, and isn't great for storage much longer than six months. The glass bottle would be less problematic if it were recycled reliably (it's not; the glass recycling rate in the United States is a dismal 31%) and could become a preferred solution again if we could figure out some sort of wash-and-reuse system along the lines of what soda producers do in Latin America. There are smart people working on this, but the logistical hurdles are daunting and it still seems a long way off. So while we don't expect to move our ageworthy wines out of glass bottle, we've been looking for ways to help at the margins.  

Kegs, filled through our partnership with Free Flow, accounted for 12% of the total volume of wine that we sold wholesale last year, and meant that more than 16,000 wine bottles, capsules, and corks/capsules/screwcaps, plus the cardboard needed for more than 1,300 cases, never needed to be created. That's not negligible. But what about our tasting room? We welcomed more than 28,000 guests for tastings last year, and we sell about the same amount of wine there as we do in wholesale. Those guests got six or seven tastes of wine each. Do the math on that and that's a bottle of wine for every four tasting room guests, or enough wine just for guest samples to fill 7,000 bottles. Add in that we taste each bottle when we open it to make sure it's sound, that we use the same bottles to pour by-the-glass wines in our tasting room, that we often discard the ends of bottles rather than hold them overnight for the next day, and that, to ensure that guests get only fresh wine, rarely-poured wines get sent home with our tasting room team after a few days even if they're mostly full, and you end up with a significantly larger number: the nearly 13,000 bottles that we signed out of inventory as tasting room samples in 2022.

Let that sink in a bit. We used more than 1,000 cases of wine just to pour tasting room samples. Some of those pours were of older wines, where their time in bottle would make a difference in how they showed, but nearly 70% of what we sampled out was used within a year of when it was bottled. That's ~9,000 bottles that were sourced, shipped to us, filled, closed, labeled, opened, poured, and recycled within a year. 

So I'm pleased to announce that we've sourced kegs, filling and cleaning machines for the cellar, and a modular dispensing system for the tasting room. At each bottling, we'll be setting aside a portion of each wine, putting it in keg. Last week's batch:

Kegs of Patelin Rose for Tasting Room

The initial reviews we've been getting from our tasting room guests have been enthusiastic. So, when you next come to taste with us, know that many of the samples we'll share with you will come out of our own kegs. As each keg is emptied, we'll wash and sterilize it, and then reuse it for a future wine. A photo of the setup, in use this morning:

Pouring from Tap in the Tasting Room

We're not expecting to ever get to 100% wine service from keg in our tasting room, and that's fine. We always want to be able to offer wines with bottle age for tasting and sale, and while kegs are outstanding at preserving wine, after a year or so we would expect that the wine from keg would taste different than the same wine from bottle. We'll be trying some small-scale experiments this year to confirm or modify those assumptions. But if we can shift two-thirds or more of our tasting room sampling and glass pours from glass to reusable keg, that's a win. A win for our guests, who don't have to worry about oxidation in their samples. A win for us, since we're estimating we'll go through something like one-third less wine, and we don't have to worry about those pours coming from corked, oxidized, or otherwise flawed wines. And a win for the planet, as thousands of glass bottles and all the associated packaging no longer have a reason to be created.

After all, if glass is a problematic container for the industry at large (don't just take my word for it; the mainstream press has noticed) it seems downright crazy to use it for such temporary storage.