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Our Most Memorable Wines of 2023

As I have done the last few years, I asked our team to share a wine or two that stuck with them from all the ones they'd tried in 2023, and why. This is always one of my favorite blogs to put together. I love seeing the breadth of wine interests of the Tablas Creek team. More than that, I love seeing what inspired them. If you don't work at a winery, you might expect that those of us who do spend most of our time drinking our own wines, but in my experience, that's far from the case. Most people who find a career in wine do so because they find it fascinating, and that interest doesn't go away just because they've landed at a particular winery, even a winery that they love. And most people who work at wineries look at exploring other wines as an enjoyable form of continuing education.

This year, I tried to be more conscious of fostering that continuing education by opening some of the treasures left from my dad's cellar with our team. It was gratifying to see that some of those made people's year-end lists. But what stood out, as usual, was the degree to which the memorableness of a wine was tied to the occasion for which and the company with whom it was opened. As Neil said so well in his submission last year, it is "with food, company and occasion that great bottles become truly memorable ones."   

Here's everyone's submission, in their own words and only very lightly edited, in alphabetical order (except mine, which is at the end, with some concluding thoughts):

Charlie Chester, Senior Assistant Tasting Room Manager
Mine is not about just one wine; it was an experience.

Every year, an email from Jason marks a special occasion at Tablas—Francois and Cesar Perrin are in town to participate in the blending of the Esprit. I'm always excited when that Monday morning email arrives: "Gather the tasting room team; Cesar and Francois brought some wine they want to share." This time, it led to a midweek tasting featuring six vintages each of Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape Blanc and Chateau de Beaucastel Vieilles Vignes Roussanne. (The 2009 vintage of this was my favorite of the tasting.) So, on an ordinary Wednesday at 8:00 am, our tasting room team gathered for a session that was something to remember.

No formalities, just pouring and sipping. The Perrins, a dynamic father-son duo, brought in the good stuff, and we delved into twelve wines with zero fuss. These are the moments that remind me I work at a special place. It's not about unraveling complex tasting notes; it's about enjoying the laid-back journey through the evolution of these wines. More than just wine, it's team time that turns a regular Wednesday into a spontaneous celebration. Here's to those unexpected moments that become the most memorable sips of the year!

Most Memorable Wines of 2023 - Charlie

Neil Collins, Executive Winemaker
I am going to go with winery of the year as I believe it is a property that deserves some recognition. Marci and I were lucky enough to take a short backpack trip up the Loire valley. I made it a point to go and visit Domaine Grosbois outside of Chinon. The entire visit was a treat: farming in the best possible way and producing wines that I loved across the board. An absolute treat!!! If I was pushed to pick one it would be the Gabare. But I’ll take any of the lineup!!

Most Memorable Wines of 2023 - Neil

Ian Consoli, Director of Marketing
2023 was full of incredible wine experiences. Thanks to Jason opening up his father's cellar, I had some of the oldest wine I have ever tried. While those wines land on my list of best wines of 2023, I thought I would focus on the wines I will remember the year for: Barbaresco and Barolo. I was fortunate to spend a couple of weeks in the Piedmont region, where I received an education from vintners and wine shop owners. Two of those bottles were some of the most sought-after in Barolo. Vigna Rionda has established itself as one of the top sites of Barolo's new Grand Crus system. I tried a Vigna Rionda from the site's largest producer, Massolino, and the smallest producer, Guido Porro. Both of these wines were exceptional, serious drinking wines. The Guido was opened the day prior and the way it opened up was more floral than one might expect from a young Barolo. I left the region wholly sold on Nebbiolo, and I am already looking forward to my next glass.

Most Memorable Wines of 2023 - Ian

Darren Delmore, National Sales Manager
My most memorable wines of the year were served side by side with a good friend and a surreal appetizer, just before Christmas. 2018 Domaine Weinbach Cuvée Theo Riesling and 2017 Vincent Dauvissat Chablis paired with “Deep Fried Baby Crabs” at Goshi’s SLO. Dauvissat was in green apple, lemon oil and crushed oyster shell mode, righteously mid-weighted on the palate, whereas the Weinbach was as gingery as the slices themselves, with passion fruit, honey and lime, balanced acidity and a hint of sweetness: simply built for sushi. The crabs were, well, something that would’ve floored Salvador Dali and just what the menu said they were.

Most Memorable Wines of 2023 - Darren

Dusty Hannah, Tasting Room
I would not be surprised if my first two wines are not on anybody else's list because they were shared to the tasting room team at Tablas Creek, by Jason Haas, during one of our meetings. Perks of the job. Thanks Jason!

There is nothing like trying an old wine and these definitely did not disappoint! I can't help but think about all the facets that went into these and all the time that they were sitting in the bottle just to get to my glass. Incredible. This champagne was sent to me as part of my wine education. There was no way I was just going to try it by myself and when I let my buddy have some, he liked it so much he poured it for his pickup party! Although I have had these bottles many times before I shared these two with my parents for Christmas dinner. Paired beautifully with a ribeye. I'm lucky to have had these plenty of times, like I said, but they are very memorable to me. The 2017 still goes down as my all-time favorite wine at Tablas Creek. Happy New Year!

Ray King, Tasting Room
My most memorable wines of the year have been the gifts at various events over the past few weeks. Aged and beautiful. 

1) Chateau Pavie, Saint Emilion, 1970
2) Clos du Val, Cabernet Sauvignon, 1978
4) Tablas Creek Vineyard, Founders’ Reserve, 2001
5) Tablas Creek Vineyard, Panoplie, 2003
6) Tablas Creek Vineyard, Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc, 2010

Most Memorable Wines of 2023 - Ray

Jordan Lonborg, Viticulturist
My most memorable bottle of 2023 was a Desire Lines Shake Ridge Syrah. What made this bottle so memorable was the fact that the great Ann Kraemer, Owner and Vineyard Manager of Shake Ridge Vineyard, opened that bottle for both Neil Collins and myself as we overlooked her property, ate a beautiful dinner, and talked shop about the past, present, and future of grape farming. It was an unforgettable evening with a couple legends. 

Erin Mason, Regenerative Specialist
It was an occasion that brought me to my most memorable bottles of 2023. Just before the start of harvest, I celebrated the fourth anniversary of the Tribute to Grace tasting room opening with the winemaker and team. I’m lucky to be part of two amazing wine families in California—both Tablas Creek and Grace. Angela Osborne, the winemaker and Grenache devotee, has made it a tradition at major celebrations to do a semi-blind tasting of two wines. Only partially blind because we know it’s going to be Grenache… we know one is going to be a Tribute to Grace… and, typically, one Chateauneuf-de-Pape from Chateau Rayas—always the same vintage. This year, we were lucky enough to taste the 2011 Santa Barbara Highlands Grace alongside Rayas. I’ve never described a wine as “transformative,” but this was my second time tasting Rayas and there is truly nothing like it. Also exciting because of the comparisons made between 2011 to 2023 growing seasons in CA. If the Santa Barbara Highlands was any indication, we all have something amazing to look forward to from 2023. Bonne année!

Most Memorable Wines of 2023 - Erin

Monica O'Connor, Direct Sales Manager
My most memorable wine of 2023 was the Domaine Matrot Meursault-Blagny 1er Cru 2019.

This wine was so perfectly balanced, I just savored each sip. The mouth was full of preserved lemon, with soft mineral, subtle hazelnut and a whisper of anise and bright chervil. What made it extra special too is that I visited Beaune over the summer and cycled through Meursault!

We enjoyed the wine on Christmas Eve with a creamy polenta and mushroom dish. It was exquisite!

...And As for Me
I was lucky enough to have my wine of the year -- the stunning 1990 Chave Hermitage -- twice in 2023. The first time was for my birthday in June, at home, with just Meghan and Sebastian as Eli was away spending a month working with the Perrins. I then opened it a second time as part of a collection I brought to supply my table at the amazing Paso Purpose event that raised nearly $2,000,000 to support must! charities in August. It takes a special wine to shine at both an intimate dinner and a bustling outdoor function with hundreds of people. And this was the sort of event where everywhere you looked there was something extraordinary being opened. But Paso Robles, you have to remember, is a relatively young wine region. The wineries who started must! charities were all founded this century, and they're all of my generation. So while there were amazing wines on every table, the 1990 Chave still stood out. It was fully mature, quintessentially Syrah with its chocolate and pancetta flavors, but with all the rough edges smoothed away by time. Instead there were lingering flavors of cedar, dried flowers, and loamy earth. Just a treat, and an amazing opportunity to think about how cool it is that we can drink a wine made from the same place by the same family for 16 generations.

Most Memorable Wines of 2023 - Jason

A few concluding thoughts:
I did my best to link each wine to a page with information about it, should you want to research details. But I don't think replicating a specific wine is necessarily the right goal. If there's one thing that I've learned from writing these end-of-year appreciations for a decade now, it's that it really is the confluence of wine and occasion that makes for the most memorable experiences. Wine, after all, is the ultimate social beverage. The size of a bottle means it's something that you share with others. The fact that wine is ephemeral, that each bottle is a reflection of particular grapes grown in a particular place in a particular vintage, means that each one is different and also a unique reflection of time and place. Add in the human element, where the winemaker or winemakers are taking (or not taking) actions based on what they see, smell, and taste, and you have what is in essence a time capsule that comes with the added benefit of helping you enjoy a meal and bring insight into the flavors it contains. What a perfect starting point for a meaningful evening.

I also noticed the extent to which many of people's most memorable wines were older. It is for sure a challenge to cellar wines. It requires resources: space, patience, and the ability to buy wine in enough quantity that you can enjoy some in its youth while still having enough to open later. And there's always the risk that by the time you open your bottle it might be corked, or you might have missed its peak. But reading these memories highlights that the rewards can be marvelous. One hack: it's often surprisingly affordable to buy older wines online. Sites like Wine Searcher put older vintages at your fingertips in a way that would otherwise require major investment. For example, a few minutes' search found me this 30-year old bottle of Beaucastel for $109

I wish you all memorable food and wine experiences in 2024, and even more than that, the opportunity to share them with people you love.


Darren Delmore's Most Memorable Meals of 2023

By Darren Delmore

As my 2023 National Sales travels for Tablas Creek swirled into a smooth finish, I noticed my phone's photo collection featured as much food as family. Miraculously, my waist line remained the same at the close of the year, but it did entail adding yoga to my repertoire to pull that off. Here's a round up of some of my most memorable dishes and meals of the year.  

Gjelina, Venice, CA

My 10 year old son and I did a mid-summer trip to LA, and besides a visit to Hollywood Forever Cemetery and some tennis in Echo Park, we mostly ate our way through my favorite food spots. Every cuisine on the planet is available in the city of angels, from food trucks to fast casual to prix-fixe, and on the last night we braved the crowd at Gjelina and snuck into a communal table straight away, where chef Travis Lett's "Braised Sweet Corn with Fresno Chile" dish, dressed with cilantro, briny feta, and lime, was warm-weather perfection, as was the sun gold tomato, burrata and squash blossom pizza.  


Gjelina 1
Gjelina 2

Joseph's Culinary Pub, Santa Fe, NM

This Santa Fe gem has the most lamb options I've ever seen on a menu, and the best lamb tartare in the world. When I'm out representing Tablas Creek at the Santa Fe Wine and Chile Fiesta every September, you can find me here on two of the three nights in town, at the dark, friendly little bar, dipping some glistening, salted, house fried tortilla chips into the tender, raw lamb puck topped with a cured egg yolk and parsley emulsion. I recommend pairing this with wine manager Starr Bowers' Rhone focused list, or a bowl of green chile-spiced beef bone broth. You'll leave like a well fed, culinary vampire.

Joseph's Tartare

The Waverly, Cardiff, CA

I'm not one to get excited about salads, having been raised in the iceberg ages of lettuce, but the Caesar salad at The Waverly in North County San Diego has changed all of that. Fresh, textural Romaine with a garlicky Baja Caesar glaze, shrimp if you want to add it, but what you don't see buried inside here are the infamous, lovingly deep fried, cheese filled crouton blocks. During happy hour you can just order the croutons! To deep dive, watch this clip of chef Brian Redzikowski in action, or just cut to the two minute mark to have him blow the very notion of a "crouton" out of this galaxy. And that's my glass of Patelin de Tablas Rosé, poured on tap from kegs here since 2019. 

The Waverly

Chez Bacchus, Long Beach, CA

We get asked to do a lot of wine dinners on the road, and the most successful ones tend to be when the chef tastes the wines first, then plans the menu accordingly. Such was the case at the Tablas Creek wine dinner I hosted in June at this new restaurant in Long Beach. The amuse alone of Sushi grade ahi, with a chunk of avocado, crowned with tobiko red Caviar and served with Esprit de Tablas Blanc, was practically worth the price of admission.    

Long Beach 1

Gemma, Dallas, TX

I'm pretty sure the Rabbit Pappardelle at Gemma has made it onto this list before. One of our first Tablas Creek keg accounts in the lone star state continues to be an industry hot spot, open later than most fine dining establishments, with killer service and a beautiful long bar to comfortably consume a solo meal. Though the menu has plenty on offer, I stick to this classic dish every time. Fluffy housemade pasta, braised juicy slabs of rabbit, pancetta, Swiss chard, pecorino and thyme, wisely paired with a glass of Patelin de Tablas Rouge.

Gemma

Easy Bistro, Chattanooga, TN

If you'd told me I'd end up in Chattanooga and fall in love with a gluten free pasta made out of squash, I would've said you've lost your mind. Easy Bistro got interested in Regenerative Farming a few years ago and sought our wines out in Tennessee. I did a Covid-era Zoom presentation with their entire team in late 2020. This fall, in person, I grabbed a bar seat in front of their large wood oven and enjoyed this guanciale-enriched twist on a carbonara with some Patelin Blanc, and left feeling light as a feather. 

Easy Bistro
Ember, Arroyo Grande, CA

Ember continues to blow SLO county minds with their wood fired cuisine. When in season, the local Halibut pictured here, puts the bounty of Central Coast waters and farms on show. We were shocked to hear of Ember selling, but apparently the staff is staying on and the new owners are big fans with plans to keep things blazing. Congratulations to Brian and Harmony Collins for believing in their backyard and bringing Chez Panisse-style fare to our palates.  

Ember

Burger She Wrote, Los Feliz, CA

Best Burger of The Year (and restaurant name) goes to these guys. They don't serve wine, but just marvel in the majesty of this one for a second or two. If they opened a Paso Robles outpost, I'd surely be on heart medication. 

Burger She Wrote
Grater Goods at an AirBnB, Jacksonville, FL

Oftentimes the most memorable meals don't happen in a restaurant. In early October, between working Georgia and Florida, my good friends Mike and Brianna from Charleston went in on a Jacksonville Beach AirBnb with me in hopes of scoring some surf. As the autumn time Atlantic ocean is unpredictable, the chances of getting good waves in a three day window was risky. I popped into this great cheese shop in Jacksonville en route to the rental, filling up an exotic sack of cheeses, all from Georgia's Sweet Grass Dairy. This photo is the afterglow of surfing epic, warm water waves for three hours on that Saturday afternoon, in spite of bull sharks all around us, celebrating our luck, timing, and friendship. We complemented this golden platter with a bottle of Vincent Girardin 2020 Le Cailleret Chassagne Montrachet

Grater Goods FL

I hope this inspires you to go out to eat and support your favorite restaurant before the year's end. Or, if geography is in your favor, maybe seeking one of these specific spots out. I'm already getting a tad hungry for 2024, so I'm going to go now. Happy feasting! 


Wine, health, and the fool's gold of "zero risk"

Over the last year, there has been a steady drumbeat of anti-alcohol messaging percolating out into newspapers and magazines around the world. This messaging is due in large part to a coordinated campaign led by the World Health Organization (WHO), who published a news release in January titled No level of alcohol consumption is safe for our health and last week proposed that governments worldwide double their taxes on alcohol to drive down consumption. This is an important change from their last major initiative from 2010, which was designed to reduce the harmful use of alcohol

The negative health effects of the abuse of alcohol are well documented. But the data on light to moderate consumption of alcohol, and particularly wine, is much more equivocal. Low levels of alcohol consumption appear to have modest protective effect on cardiovascular disease and diabetes, and a small negative effect on certain cancers, most notably throat, breast, and colorectal cancer. There is a great article by Felicity Carter in Meininger's International that dives into the data. She points out that the same massive data set on which the WHO based its new recommendations was later analyzed by the Journal of the American College of Cardiology (JACC), which came to five main conclusions:

  • Regular moderate alcohol consumption protects against fatal and nonfatal CVD and all-cause mortality, both in healthy adults and in CVD patients.
  • The dose-effect relationship is characterized by a J-shaped curve.
  • For light-to-moderate levels of alcohol consumption, the risks of some cancers (breast, colorectal, oral) are relatively small and should be considered in the context of each individual global risk.
  • Lifelong alcohol abstainers should not start drinking for health reasons only, but should be encouraged to adopt healthy lifestyles (regular physical activity, no smoking, weight control, and dietary habits such as the Mediterranean diet).
  • Excessive or irregular (binge) alcohol use is detrimental to human organs and function and is a major public health and social problem.

I'll share the JACC's image of the J-shaped curve, which puts in graphical form the idea that the extremes (total abstention and high consumption) are both higher-risk than low-to-moderate consumption:

JACC J-shaped curve

This all matters because these sorts of stories drive consumer behavior. A recent Gallup poll showed sharp increases in the percentage of Americans who believe that moderate drinking is harmful:

2023 Gallup poll on alcohol perception
The increase in the perception that moderate alcohol consumption is bad for health was driven largely by younger Americans (age 18-34). This suggests there's good reason for the worry in the wine world that Millennials and Gen-Z may not pick up the baton in wine consumption as Boomers and Gen-X start to age out of their prime wine purchasing years. Not only is wine competing with other forms of alcohol -- not to mention cannabis, which was seen in the Gallup poll as less harmful -- but the changes in perception are driving the rise in movements like Dry January and sober-curious

If the data around moderate alcohol use and mortality is -- at worst -- equivocal, wine seems likely to be comparatively less harmful and more helpful than beer and spirits. After all, it's made from fruit (rather than grain or sugar), it includes heart-healthy compounds like resveratrol and other polyphenols, it's been linked to long lifespans in places like Gers, France, the home of Tannat, and it's more likely to be consumed with a meal instead of on its own, which slows the absorption of alcohol in the blood and seems likely to also have positive interactive effects as a part of the Mediterranean diet.

So why is the WHO taking such a strong stance against alcohol, collateral damage be damned? I'm sure it's hard for an organization tasked with optimizing health outcomes to roll out a nuanced policy on a product that is capable of causing such harm when misused. If they did, it would probably look something like this summary from the Harvard School of Public Health. It would look at whether you were by family history more predisposed toward cardiovascular disease or cancer. It would look at your age and drinking history. It would make recommendations on how you drink as well as how much.

Back to the WHO's press release. In one key paragraph, they say "To identify a “safe” level of alcohol consumption, valid scientific evidence would need to demonstrate that at and below a certain level, there is no risk of illness or injury associated with alcohol consumption." Whatever you think of their analysis of the data (and I think they're setting an impossible standard of evidence) my bigger question is this... is our decision tree about what to do supposed to be driven by zero risk? I do things every day that have non-zero risk. So do you. Some of the things I've done in the last week include driving (risk of accidents), road biking (risk of crash), hiking (risk of injury), and attending sporting events (risk of contagion). Our goal in life shouldn't be to eliminate risk. It should be to properly evaluate it and weigh that risk against any potential benefits.

Maybe the WHO has concluded that a broad-based attack on all alcohol is the only way to get at the problem drinkers and the personal and societal harm they cause. And it's important that we as a society and an industry wrestle with that challenge. But none of that changes the overall picture for the individual consumer. Moderate alcohol consumption is unlikely to either significantly increase or decrease your health outcomes. I'm suspecting that if you're reading this blog, you've already decided that it increases your pleasure.

Consider yourself a risk taker.


Did tasting room sales ever fall off that cliff? No, but tasting room traffic is still hard to analyze because of pandemic echoes.

Back in April, in response to alarming headlines showing tasting room traffic down 22% statewide, I wrote a blog suggesting people wait to get a little deeper into the year before making sweeping judgments about the health of the tasting room economy. After all, the first quarter of this year had some of the most tourist-unfriendly weather in our history. I summarized the conditions in that blog:

There weren't many days that weren't rainy, and even those days weren't conducive to relaxing outside. March saw 20 days with measurable rainfall and an average high temperature of 56.9°F. There was only one weekend day with highs above 60°F and no rain. Combine that with headlines in every major California newspaper about extratropical cyclonesatmospheric riverslevee breaches, and evacuation orders, and it's no surprise that people decided to hunker down at home rather than braving the highways in search of wine experiences. It's frankly a wonder our tasting room traffic held up as well as it did.

And tasting room traffic did normalize starting in April. The second quarter was still down a bit, but the last two quarters have been more or less flat with 2022, and two of the last three months have seen increased traffic:

Tasting Room Traffic by Month  2023

It's important to remember that when you're looking at year-over-year numbers your results can be skewed either by what happened this year or by what happened last year. I was reminded of that phenomenon recently as I pulled together my 2023 harvest recap. It showed that our red production this year was up 34%, while our white production was up 55%. That seems like a remarkably good year, especially for whites, right? Maybe not. Our overall yields were right at our long-term averages, while our whites were actually below average. The improvement looks so dramatic because last year's numbers were so low.

So, what happened with tasting room traffic in 2022? It was great the first half of the year. I remember sitting with our Tasting Room Manager John Morris and remarking that we'd never seen a run like the one that we saw between mid-2021 and mid-2022. Every month was setting records, our tastings were booking up weeks in advance, and we were starting to think that we'd unlocked a new reality post-pandemic, where people's increased work flexibility and their discovery of the importance of work-life balance meant that regular visits to wine country were going to continue indefinitely.

That conversation sounds silly now. What we were seeing was a longer-than-expected period of exuberance after lockdowns ended and vaccines offered the promise of reemergence without undue risk. People took the vacations that they'd delayed for a year or more. Fueled by their newfound savings thanks to a year of restricted activity and major infusions of government relief checks, people were able to spend more freely on their leisure activities. And yet many people weren't ready to jump on a plane or a cruise ship and head overseas. The net result was a perfect storm encouraging wine country tourism in a place like Paso Robles.

But that perfect storm didn't last. Inflation started to take a toll on consumers' buying power as pandemic relief funds were drawing to a close. Employers started to require that their workers come back into the office more often. At the same time, those with the means to do so went on their long-delayed international trips and cruises. So visits to places like Paso Robles were squeezed on both ends: the budget-conscious consumer was cutting back at the same time as the highest-end vacationers were gone overseas. The relative weakness of most other global economies and the strength of the US dollar meant that visiting California was an expensive proposition for international tourists, so we weren't able to make up the lost business there (not that Paso Robles is a major international destination anyway). 

By mid-2022, wineries were seeing fewer customers, and those who visited were arriving with less buying power. At the same time, online ordering was seeing continued declines toward pre-pandemic levels. These trends were obscured in stories about 2022 because the first half of the year was so good and low yields in 2021 meant that wineries like us didn't have any extra wine to sell anyway. But as the trends continued into 2023 and were exacerbated by the wettest, stormiest winter in three decades, people started to notice. Sales fell sharply, and as I said in my April blog: it's a wonder they weren't down more.

The way this has played out was previewed in the Instagram Live conversation I had with Rob McMillan back in May. Rob is head of the Silicon Valley Bank wine division and the publisher of the bank's annual "State of the Wine Industry" report. In our conversation (embedded below) he downplayed the worries about the beginning to 2023 as still a residual echo of the Covid pandemic. He shared that he thought it might be another year or two before we knew what the "new normal" was, and before year-over-year data was reliable again.

So what does it mean that the last five months have been more or less flat with 2022? It's less positive than you might think. I know that I don't feel a lot better about our results the last quarter (flat compared to a down period) than I did about the results in the first quarter (down from a great period). But I do think that we're nearing the end of the travel impacts of the post-pandemic world. Airline ticket prices have been trending down the last few months. Cruise lines are offering deals to try to fill up their cabins. In the short term, these offer more competition to a trip to California wine country. But in the long run, they're a sign that we're getting back to a more normal tourist environment.

This isn't to say that there aren't long-term threats to wine country tourism on the horizon. I'm keeping an eye on issues like the changing demographics of wine consumers, the high cost of wine country visits, and revised guidelines from the WHO promoting total abstinence from alcohol. But those will play out in future years.

Meanwhile, the year-over-year data is going to be wonky for at least another six months. Remember that when you see announcements about how tasting room traffic is up sharply in early 2024. That's not news; it's an echo of a data anomaly the previous year, which itself was at least in part one last ripple effect of the Covid pandemic.