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January 2024

Tasting the Wines in the Spring 2024 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. Most of these (including four of the six wines in the classic shipment and most of the additional wines we added to the Red Wine Selection and White Wine Selection shipments) are made in quantities of less than 1,000 cases. In others, the club gets a first look at a wine that may see a later national release. At least a month 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 (or our last pre-bottling check-in) on 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 2024 VINsider Shipment wines

The shipments that will be going out in March include wines from the 2021, 2022, and 2023 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 wines from 2021 continue to demonstrate that this was an outstanding year across the board, from early-drinking whites to ageworthy reds. The wines all show concentration and structure, yet with purity and expressiveness. A candidate for our greatest-ever vintage.
  • Although 2022 was our hottest year ever, the wines don't taste like you'd probably expect. Instead, there's a freshness and openness to both reds and whites that gives confirmation that we were able to keep up with the year's pressures and get the grapes off the vine in good shape.
  • With only the first few wines, it's early to generalize about 2023, but the Vermentino and rosés show unusually intense flavors with great acids to balance them. This is what we'd hope we'd see from our coolest year in more than a decade, which resulted in exceptionally long hang-times.  

I'll go through the six wines in the VINsider Classic (Mixed) Shipment and then move on to the additional wines we chose to include in the Red Wine Selection and White Wine Selection shipments. I was joined for the tasting by most of our cellar team, so these notes are a compilation of our thoughts. The Classic Shipment includes six different wines:

2022 VIOGNIER

  • Production Notes: The two issues that affected our white production in 2022 (a spring frost in one block and the heat wave that hit the first week of September) both largely left the Viognier unscathed. We don't plant any Viognier in the low-lying section that got frosted, and the season had been warm enough that the early-ripening Viognier was already mostly picked by the time it hit. That left us with both reasonable production and excellent vibrancy in Viognier, and we loved the varietal bottling we made, which balances the grape's classic stone fruit and honey flavors with brighter-than-usual acids. The Viognier lots were whole cluster pressed and fermented in a mix of 600-gallon foudres and stainless steel, then the chosen lots blended in April 2023 and bottled in June. 
  • Tasting Notes: A charming nose of honeysuckle and Haribo peach. The palate is long, pure, and textured, with more stone fruit and a tarragon-like note of sweet green herbs. Rich texture is balanced by some structural weight and unusually good acids for Viognier. Drink now and for at least the next five years.
  • Production: 706 cases.
  • List Price: $45 VINsider Price: $36

2023 PATELIN DE TABLAS ROSÉ

  • Production Notes: We're excited to share both our rosés with VINsiders this shipment. The Provencal-style, Grenache-based Patelin de Tablas Rosé is as always led by Grenache (71% this year), which provides both bright fruit and refreshing acidity, while as usual rich, floral Mourvedre (20%) comprises the second-largest portion. Vermentino (a traditional component of many Provencal rosés under its French name Rolle) makes up 8%, with 1% of spicy, electric Counoise to round out the blend. 90% of the fruit was direct-pressed upon arrival at the winery, with the balance destemmed and let soak for a single work day, then pressed off after about 12 hours. The components were blended and fermented in stainless steel until bottling in January 2024.
  • Tasting Notes: A pretty peach color, a touch deeper than most recent vintages. On the nose, vibrant aromatics of fresh nectarine, wild strawberry, and jasmine. The mouth is rich with fruit but dry and bright, with flavors of strawberry tart and salted watermelon, vibrant acids, and a mouth-watering finish with notes of yellow raspberry and rose petals. Drink over the next 18 months.
  • Production: 5247 cases
  • List Price: $28 VINsider Price: $22.40

2023 DIANTHUS

  • Production Notes: Better yields on reds allowed us to make a more normal amout of Dianthus in 2023. Named after a family of flowering plants with deep pink blooms, Dianthus is always led by Mourvedre (51% this year), for rich texture and watermelon and plum fruit, with Grenache (38%) for bright strawberry fruit and refreshing acidity and Counoise (8%) for spice and cherry fruit. 3% Cinsaut rounds out the blend with more brambly fruit and sweet spice. The fruit spent 24 hours on the skins, less than usual because of the year's deep colors, and then it completed its fermentation in stainless steel before bottling in January 2024.
  • Tasting Notes: A lovely deep peach color. On the nose, a powerful combination of blood orange and juniper, spiced plum and smoky minerality. The mouth is rich with raspberry and rhubarb fruit, creamy texture, and a vibrant line of acidity that leaves a lingering impression of plum skin, rose petals, and briny sea spray. A rosé to convert people who don't think pink wines can be serious. Drink before the end of 2025.
  • Production: 1396 cases
  • List Price: $40 VINsider Price: $32

2021 LE COMPLICE

  • Production Notes: The sixth vintage of our blend that celebrates the kinship between whole cluster Syrah (59%) 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 a higher percentage than usual of Grenache (32%) for mid-palate richness in this structured, powerful year, as well as our first-ever harvest of Muscardin (1%) which seems similar to Terret in character. The wine was blended in June of 2022 and aged in foudre until its bottling in April 2023.
  • Tasting Notes: A gorgeous nose of sugarplum and gumdrop, sweet tobacco, pine forest, and dark chocolate. The mouth is vibrant, with flavors of cocoa powder, a tangy fruit note like red apple skin, an iron-like mineral note absolutely classic for Syrah, and a wild sage herbiness adding complexity. The finish goes back to sweeter notes of cola, baking spice, and (it is Syrah, after all) rendered pork fat. An unusually approachable Le Complice at this stage, without sacrificing any of its complexity. Drink over the next two decades.
  • Production: 882 cases
  • List Price: $60 VINsider Price: $48

2021 TANNAT

  • Production Notes: Our twentieth 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 2023 and has been aging the last 10 months waiting for its release. 
  • Tasting Notes: An appealing nose of raspberry candy, violets, cassis, teriyaki, and blueberry pie. The mouth is mostly red-fruited at this stage, with flavors of plum and currant, a nice saline mineral note, and a note that was both woodsy and mineral that Amanda described as pencil shavings. Tannat's signature combination of chewy tannins and bright acids keeping things fresh. Pair with rich foods now or age for up to two decades if you're looking for a more refined experience.
  • Production: 732 cases
  • List Price: $50 VINsider Price: $40

2021 PANOPLIE

  • 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 2022. Mourvedre, as always, represents the largest percentage (54%) of Panoplie. Roughly equal parts Grenache (24%, for sweet spice and vibrancy) and Syrah (22%, for black fruit, density, and tannic richness) complete the blend. The wine was bottled in July 2023.
  • Tasting Notes: A densely packed nose of pipe tobacco, red and black fruit, menthol, new leather, and sweet spice. The palate shows related flavors of fruit on the boundary of red and black: currant and black raspberry, with chalky minerality and chewy tannins that suggest lots more will be revealed with time. The long finish has notes of cherry compote, chaparral, and black licorice. Hold for six months if you can, and then enjoy over the next two decades, perhaps longer.
  • Production: 822 cases
  • List Price: $105 VINsider Price: $84

Three additional wines (2023 Vermentino, 2022 Patelin de Tablas Blanc, and 2022 Grenache Blanc) will join the 2022 Viognier and the two rosés in the White Wine Selection shipment:

2023 VERMENTINO

  • Production Notes: Our twenty-second 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 2024, this vintage) under screwcap. Vermentino yields in 2023 were better than 2022 but still 30% below our historical averages, and combined with long hang-times to produce remarkable intensity.
  • Tasting Notes: A classic Vermentino nose of key lime, ripe pear, citrus leaf, lemongrass, white flowers, and chalky mineral. The palate is powerful and richly textured, with flavors of salted pineapple, lemon custard, and a focused saline mineral note that lingers into the long finish, underpinning additional notes of tropical fruit and sweet green herbs. One of the most intense Vermentinos we've ever made. Drink now and over the next five years.
  • Production: 713 cases
  • List Price: $35 VINsider Price: $28

2022 PATELIN DE TABLAS BLANC

  • Production Notes: Patelin is French slang for "neighborhood" and the Patelin de Tablas Blanc is our white Rhone-style blend sourced from seven great neighboring Rhone vineyards: Derby, Windfall Farms, New Creations, Duas Terras, Nevarez, Creston Ridge, and Rails Nape, with a 3% addition of Tablas Creek fruit. We base the wine on the richness and acidity of Grenache Blanc (49%), with Viognier (22%) providing lush stone fruit and floral notes, Marsanne (10%) and Roussanne (4%) adding minerality and texture, and three bright grapes finishing the blend: Vermentino (10%) and Picpoul (3%), which we've never been able to source before, plus a little Bourboulenc (2%). The wine was fermented entirely in stainless steel and then bottled in screwcap in May 2023 to preserve its freshness.
  • Tasting Notes: A nose equally balanced between Grenache Blanc's mineral and citrus and Viognier's stone fruit and white flowers, with additional notes of petrichor and peppery spice. On the palate, luscious flavors of stone fruit and lemon custard lifted by persistent chalky minerality and vibrant acids. The long finish brings back notes of white grapefruit, jasmine, and a briny sea spray minerality. Drink now and over the next few years.
  • Production: 4141 cases
  • List Price: $28 VINsider Price: $22.40

2022 GRENACHE BLANC

  • Production Notes: The 2022 vintage was our third year of drought, and Grenache Blanc was also hit by our May frost, leading to our smallest harvest of the variety in two decades. We used some in the Esprit Blanc, but sacrificed the Cotes de Tablas Blanc this vintage so we'd have at least small varietal bottlings of our core grapes. For the varietal Grenache Blanc, we chose mostly lots fermented in stainless steel (for energy), with a smaller addition from foudre (for roundness). The lots were blended in May 2023 and bottled under screwcap the next month.
  • Tasting Notes: A pretty nose of peaches and cream, crushed rock, and lemongrass. The mouth has Grenache Blanc's signature mouth-filling texture and white grapefruit flavors, bright acids, chalky minerality and a little pithy bite of green apple skin tannin on the finish. Drink now and over the next few years.
  • Production: 339 cases.
  • List Price: $40 VINsider Price: $32

Three additional reds (the 2022 Cotes de Tablas and 2022 Counoise, as well as the 2021 Syrah) join the 2021 Panoplie, 2021 Le Complice, and 2021 Tannat in the Red Wine Selection shipment:

2022 COTES DE TABLAS

  • Production Notes: Grenache always plays lead in the Cotes de Tablas, and in 2022 the grape's bright fruit is on full display. We chose 44% Grenache and added 33% Syrah for darker fruit and minerality, while 19% Counoise (for vibrancy and spice) and 4% Mourvedre (for earth and complexity) complete the wine. The Cotes de Tablas was blended in June 2023 and aged in 1200-gallon neutral oak foudres until its bottling in February 2024.
  • Tasting Notes: A vibrant nose of fruitcake and fig, chocolate-dipped strawberries and sweet spice. The mouth has black cherry and wild strawberry fruit, cocoa powder, and a crunchy brightness like bursts of pomegranate seeds. The finish shows a briary, herby note over cherry cola and clove-studded orange. Grenache at its most high-toned and appealing. Enjoy any time over the next decade.
  • Production: 1160 cases
  • List Price: $40 VINsider Price: $32

2022 COUNOISE

  • Production Notes: Valued as a blending grape in France because of its spiciness, its fresh acidity, and its low alcohol, Counoise is rarely seen on its own. But we love being able to share one, and suggest you enjoy it much as you might a Cru Beaujolais: slightly chilled, with charcuterie or as an aperitif. We tend to ferment our Counoise lots in stainless steel to protect them from oxidation, and to age it in neutral oak to avoid weighing down its bright fruit flavors. The lots that we chose for our varietal Counoise were selected and blended in June 2023 and bottled in February 2024, under screwcap to preserve the wine's freshness.   
  • Tasting Notes: A lovely translucent garnet color. The nose is surprisingly powerful, showing brambly raspberry, baking spices, and a little minty top note. The mouth is pretty, with flavors of red plum juice (imagine the inside, without the skin), creamy texture, flinty minerality, and a nice, long finish of red licorice and wild herbs with some lightly dusty tannins keeping order. Enjoy it lightly chilled any time in the next four to six years.
  • Production: 380 cases
  • List Price: $40 VINsider Price: $32

2021 SYRAH

  • Production Notes: All the conditions lined up to make great Syrah in 2021, from the mild winter that preceded the growing season to the warm first half of the year to the cooler weather in August and September, and we had plenty of top-rated Syrah to both use in our blends and make up this varietal bottling. 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 2022 and aged the wine in neutral oak until bottling in April 2023.
  • Tasting Notes: A dark, quintessentially Syrah nose of iodine, black licorice, blackberry and white pepper. The mouth is classic too, with flavors of blackcurrant and cedar, iron filings and dry-aged beef. The tannins are substantial but not hard, with black fruit and mineral notes reemerging on the long finish. A lovely Syrah that should age effortlessly for two decades.
  • Production: 381 cases
  • List Price: $55 VINsider Price: $44

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 7th. Neil, Chelsea, and I will also be hosting another virtual pickup party the evening of Friday, March 29th, 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 15th and April 6th the opportunity to choose their shipment wines as their tasting flight.

If you're not a wine club member, and you've read all this way, we'd love to have you join while there's still a chance to get this spring shipment. Details and how to join are at tablascreek.com/wine_club/vinsider_club.


Thinking about the Box in Which we are Thinking Inside the Box

By Ian Consoli

I remember the day Proprietor Jason Haas came to me with the decision to allocate a portion of our 2021 Patelin de Tablas Rosé to release in the Bag in Box (BIB) format. We had addressed the idea in multiple managers' meetings, so it wasn't a surprise, but we had a quick turnaround ahead of us. On a short timeline, we picked up a standardized, cardstock, square box, printed the same label we would put on a bottle, and wrapped it over two sides of the box. While we all knew we could make a bigger statement from a design standpoint, our belief in the concept outweighed our worry about the aesthetics. We turned to the old adage of don't let perfect be the enemy of good and carried forward.

Original Tablas Creek Boxes

The launch, as you may already know, was incredibly successful. Another day I will never forget was releasing 300 3L BIBs in an email and watching the website traffic go off the charts while Jason saw the sales pinging away. We were walking back and forth between our offices with our hands on our heads in jubilant exasperation to the oft-frequented term, "bonkers!"

300 boxes filled with premium wine at $95 a piece sold in four hours without a single comment on the lack of design on the box. Yeah, bonkers.

We released 400 more, followed by the 2021 Patelin de Tablas Blanc and 2021 Patelin de Tablas red. Noting the program's success as we entered the second year of releases, we knew we wanted to expand the BIB program from our mailing list to retail shelves. As Jason highlighted in this blog, there were significant barriers to scaling the program up. We just had to figure out how to work around them.

So begins the next chapter in our premium BIB story.

Jason told the story of our boxed wine success as the keynote speaker at the 2023 DTC Wine Symposium, noting the positive reception in the DTC market and the current limitations preventing us from offering these boxes to wine shops requesting them.

Afterwards, Jake Whitman of Really Good Boxed Wine (RGBW) approached us. While we and other wineries had worked to build the reputation of premium BIBs in the DTC market, Jake and RGBW had been paving the way for a premium category of BIBs on retail shelves. He thought there might be a way for us to collaborate to solve some of the issues we addressed and work together to develop the category.

We worked with the team at Really Good Boxed Wine over the past year to expand production and design a box that would stand out on retail shelves nationwide. We are happy to introduce that box to you now, along with its benefits:

New Box Rendering compressed

Design: The previous version of our boxed wine made sense for our current customers. Our wine club and mailing list know who we are; they read our reasons for releasing the wine, know the wine is good, and see the benefits of the BIB packaging. What does it matter what the packaging says when the contents are what you want?

This is not the case when it comes to retail shelves. We needed a box that would speak for us. One of the significant benefits of a box is the real estate on which we can share information. This contrasts with a wine label, where information must be limited. We used an entire panel to summarize the key benefits of the BIB format from one of our blogs, effectively communicating with a consumer who might not know who we are or why our BIB wine is priced differently from the BIBs they are used to seeing.

Shape: RGBW noticed retailers placed their earlier boxed wine designs in, well, the boxed wine section. A $70 BIB targeting a premium consumer in a section where budget shoppers are looking at $15, $20, and $25 BIBs is not competitive. In response, their team designed a box the width of a burgundy bottle. That size allows them to fit alongside wines in bottles in the premium category where they belong. It also means it will be easier for consumers to identify high-quality wine in BIB.

Boxed wine next to a bottle

Shipping: The benefits are not all for the wholesale market. Our early trials revealed an issue with shipping multiple BIBs. An initial three-box limit proved too many, as the boxes would crush each other en route to their location, arriving in a dismal state. We then limited purchases to two boxes, shoving craft paper all around them to protect them. The presentation was as hodge-podge as it sounds.

Jake and his team developed shipping boxes specifically for this BIB design. They have grids that hold each box in place for one-packs, two-packs, and three-packs. Thanks to this change, we can now increase our limit back to three BIBs per customer!

Three-Pack shippers

Perception: We knew our original design was not a long-term solution. Premium wine in a box should feel premium, and this new box does. It is sturdy, has a clean design, and communicates our message of sustainability. We chose black ink on cardstock (similar to our case boxes) to ensure the recyclability of the packaging. This package will stand out on retail shelves and look nice in the fridge.

We plan to release about 950 boxes of the 2023 Patelin de Tablas Rosé in its newest package (Check those emails) and around 800 to retailers in California and a few other hand-selected states soon. These retailers (many of whom commented on our social media posts or responded to our emails to express interest), represent a test that, if successful, could lead to us rolling these boxes out more broadly around the country in 2025. We don't want to be the only ones talking about the benefits in sustainability, shelf-life, and space that boxes offer, and this gives us a chance to activate the network of cool independent retailers and hopefully even a few restaurants!

That national program will launch later this month, so feel free to contact us if you hope to find the boxes near you.

It only makes sense for me to conclude this blog post by thanking the team that made it all possible. The resources given freely by Jake and Michelle at Really Good Boxed Wine are on a level indicative of the most hospitable of the wine industry. With a rising tide lifts all ships mentality, they are to be admired. I strongly encourage you to find their wines near you or order online. Oh yeah, and the wine is Really Good.

New boxed wine design


This time of year, a vineyard's approach to sustainability is clear

If you've ever wondered whether the vineyards you see are farmed chemically or organically, this is the season to check here in California. In an organic vineyard (or at least, one that doesn't use herbicides) mid-winter should show a carpet of brilliant green between, under, and around the grapevine rows. Something like this, which I took out at Tablas last week:

Tablas Creek Vineyard rows

If instead what you see looks like neat stripes of green and brown, you're looking at vineyard rows where the ground has been sprayed with herbicide. It's harder to tell in the summer, because it's standard practice to remove the weeds under vine rows so they don't interfere with the free passage of wind and light among the ripening clusters. Organically farmed vineyards just do that work mechanically instead of chemically. But at this time of year, when you see a vineyard that looks like this, you know what's happening:

Non-organic vineyard rows

There's no guarantee that a vineyard that isn't using herbicides is farming organically. Plenty of vineyards have moved away from glyphosate and other systemic herbicides but continue to use (or at least hold out the option of using) chemical pesticide or fungicide. But I'm not aware of any vineyards for which the opposite is true. Weed control is the easiest piece of moving to organic viticulture in a place like Paso Robles. If they're not doing that, the chances of them controlling insects or fungal pressures non-chemically is in my experience pretty remote.

As for the wineries who have moved away from glyphosate, even if they're still not ready to certify, good for them! I see lots of evidence that we've made progress in the last decade. It used to be, as I drove out Vineyard Drive toward Tablas Creek each day, that nearly every vineyard I'd drive by would have bare ground under the grapevine rows, even in February when the hillsides are vibrant green. Now, it's more like half. That's a sea change in approach. And it's driven by a growth in understanding in the role of soil in farming. Soil, after all, is more than the grains of mineral and organic matter that make up what we call dirt. One of the most fascinating talks I attended at the recent Tasting Climate Change conference was by Marc-André Selosse PhD, Professor at Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris. He pointed out that in a single gram of healthy soil there are one million bacteria, thousands of species of fungi, hundreds of amoebas, and tens of millions of virus. These microbes are turning rocks and minerals into nutrient building blocks while fungi are doing the same thing with organic matter. Insects and worms are digesting and mixing the layers. All this allows soil to integrate organic matter from surface plants, resulting in soils that have their own healthy ecosystem. Eliminating the plant layer at the surface strips the soil of the building blocks of fertility, decimates the microbial and fungal populations in the soil, and allows for its compaction, further reducing its ability to absorb and retain water. 

I have hope that we'll see more change coming soon to California. The recent announcement by Napa Green, probably California's most influential sustainability certification, that they'll require vineyards to move away from glyphosate if they want to maintain their sustainability certification, has made a major splash in industry groups. Of course, you're probably wondering if a winery that's been using glyphosate should ever have been able to claim certified sustainable status. And that's a fair point. I've made it myself. But that highlights how widespread its use has been, that in order to get wineries into their programs and then move them little by little to more sustainable practices, every one of the 20+ sustainability certifications in California has until now allowed the use of glyphosate.

Will wineries move to other non-glyphosate herbicides? Perhaps. It's still cheaper to spray with herbicide than it is to remove weeds mechanically each year. But that difference is small in a place like Paso Robles, where the rain stops in April or May and once you remove weeds they don't typically regrow. I am hopeful that other certifications will follow Napa Green's lead, and require that their certified sustainable vineyards will be required to take this first step away from chemical farming. And that this step will lead to more wineries moving toward holistic systems like Biodynamic and Regenerative Organic Certified.

Will they? Each February, you'll have a chance to check in and update your report card. Just look for the brown stripes of dirt.


The most recent atmospheric river was great news for Paso Robles wine country

That last California storm was a doozy. Los Angeles got nearly an entire year's worth of rainfall in one day. The mountains outside Santa Barbara received enough rain that water levels at Lake Cachuma rose more than 5 feet and are now at the spillway. The Sierra Nevada stations recorded more than five feet of snow. We even had two tornadoes touch down here in San Luis Obispo county, the first time tornadoes have been recorded here since 2004. Thankfully, California was well prepared for these storms, and loss of life and property appears to have been pretty low.

Here in Paso Robles, we were north of the areas most affected by the storm. But still, it was wet, wild, and windy, with about 2.5" falling on Sunday and another inch over the next few days. I posted this video on Sunday, taken out our back deck. Turn the sound on to hear the wind:

To keep our people safe and potential customers off the road, we closed our tasting room Sunday. Still, Neil braved the storm to see how things looked and sent some photos and videos. The vineyard was holding up great. Most of the three inches of rain we received had soaked in, with only a little flowing down the new drainage channel we built this winter:

Drainage channel draining

The capacity of these calcareous soils to absorb water is amazing. And particularly at this time of year, with the cover crops so well established, we hardly ever worry about erosion. But it's still a substantial test to get three inches of rain in a day, or six inches in five days. Working in our favor is the fact that, unlike last January, when we got 20 inches of rain in three weeks on top of already-saturated soils, what we're seeing this year is well within historical norms. In fact, you can barely distinguish the average from the actual rainfall in our monthly rainfall graph:

Rainfall 2023-24 vs Avg through February

Even the roads held up well, thanks to the matting of straw, reeds, and rushes that we placed over them earlier this winter:

Matting on roads

Overall, we're at 111% of normal rainfall to date, mostly because February is only about one-third done and it's typically our second-wettest month. There's every reason to expect more rainfall before the calendar turns to March. But the next week looks sunny, which will be lovely, as it gives time for the soils to draw that water down to deeper layers and is prime growing season for the cover crops. Already, it's so green it practically hurts your eyes:

Oak Tree and Green Vineyard

The sheep are loving all the new grass, particularly after having been on dry feed for a week in our barn while the storm blew through. At this point, we'll likely be able to leave them out in the vineyard in future storms, since the root systems are well enough established that we're no longer particularly worried about soil compaction.

Sheep on Scruffy Hill

I'll leave you with one last photo, which showcases the ingenuity of our vineyard team. We choose to put our compost pile in one of the lowest sections of the vineyard, where water drains in periods of heavy rain. In the late fall, we arrange our compost piles perpendicular to the flow of that water so that water is infused with the nutrients as it flows through: a sort of compost tea on a grand scale. Then, we dug a series of catchment basins downstream from the compost piles. This slows the flow of the water and encourages it to soak in rather than running off. Finally, once those basins start to fill up, we pump the nutrient and microbe-infused water out and spray it onto our nearby vineyard blocks between rainstorms. This shares all the goodness that's in the compost piles across many acres of the property.

Spraying compost tea from retention basins

So, if you were reading headlines about the storms and wondering about how the vineyards in Paso Robles were faring, you don't need to worry. Things are looking great. 


The quest for sustainability: wine's "yes, and" moment

In improv comedy, there's an important concept called "yes, and". In essence, it means that you're taking what your team has done previously and building on it. This is important in improv because it's unscripted: you don't know what's going to come before, but it's your job to keep up and build the momentum. The website of the famous Chicago-based comedy group Second City has a great summary of its importance in the improv world:

A large part of improv is that you are always there for your scene partner or partners, and, in turn, they are always there for you. This is the goal of “Yes, And”! By saying yes to your scene partner, you create something much more entertaining. If you start a scene by saying that you are an alien, and your scene partner completely commits to also being an alien, being abducted by an alien, etc., both of you know you can count on the other person. On the other hand, if you start by saying you are a puppy, but your scene partner says “Wait, I thought you were a cat!”, the scene is compromised. Not only do you feel less confident, but also the audience is less entertained.

As the same page points out, "yes, and" has applications in real life as well, to the point that it's become a business school staple. I was reminded of the concept's relevance twice recently. The first time was when I shared on my various social channels my excitement at the news of Karen MacNeil's announcement that she was no longer going to accept wine packaged in heavy bottles for review. The responses fell along the lines that you would probably predict. The significant majority (about 80%, by my rough count) cheered the decision as an important step for a writer using her platform to nudge a tradition-loving industry in a positive direction. I got a few responses from the right wing fringe (maybe 5%) complaining that this was nothing more than virtue signaling and that things like carbon footprint and climate change were a hoax. But I also got some responses that while this was positive, it was of secondary importance to other environmental issues in grapegrowing, winemaking, or wine marketing. A few of the issues mentioned in these comments were pesticide use, the carbon footprint of wine tourism, and the prevalence of single-use packaging.

Now it's possible that these weren't good-faith comments in the first place. Deflections to other problems have become a favorite tactic of the anti-environmental lobby in recent years, with the goal of muddying the discussion of any particular solution and forcing proponents to defend their proposals against one idea after another. But these responses got me thinking. 

The second occasion recently where I was reminded of the importance of "yes, and" was at last week's Tasting Climate Change Conference in Montreal. The event was inspiring. We heard from experts in viticulture, resource use, and the soil microbiome; discussed the changes that wine regions have already observed and the best projections for what things will look like in another generation; and debated the best way forward for packaging, certifications, appellations, and grape varieties. I sat on a panel with a local importer and a representative from the SAQ (the province-wide monopoly on wine and liquor sales) to discuss the role that producers, importers, and retailers can play in moving the wine community toward a more sustainable future. A core piece of what I discussed was our experiment in recent years in releasing a high-end boxed wine due in large part to its more-than-80% reduction in the carbon footprint of the package compared to four glass bottles and the capsules, corks, and labels they require.

JH Speaking at Tasting Climate Change

To begin my presentation, I wanted to establish that this experiment was not done in isolation, but instead part of a fundamental approach to how we conduct our business. Across our departments, we focus on making choices that have the fewest possible negative repercussions and the greatest possible positive impacts on our people, our land, our community, and the broader environment. I've written about most of these initiatives here on the blog, including: our longstanding commitment to organic and biodynamic farming; our move to lightweight glass; our embrace of kegs in our wholesale sales and our tasting room; our replacement of plastic water bottles with reusable canteens; our reduction in tillage; our move toward dry farming; the growth of our composting and biochar programs; and the installation of a wetland to treat our winery wastewater. One of the reasons we love the Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC) program is because it's both rigorous and comprehensive, with meaningful requirements in soil health, biodiversity, resource use, animal welfare, and farmworker fairness. I fielded as many questions about our farming approach, or our commitment to our people, as I did our packaging.

That's why, to me, the deflections about there being other pressing issues in the world of wine beyond carbon footprint ring hollow. Addressing one issue doesn't mean not addressing another. Should you be using lighter bottles? Absolutely. Your customers will appreciate it, you'll save your winery significant money, and you'll reduce your overall carbon footprint by between 10% and 20% depending on the bottle you were using previously. But should you also move from conventional to organic farming, or from organic to biodynamic or regenerative farming? Also yes. You'll feel better about not exposing your land, your people, and your neighbors to chemicals. You'll improve your soil's resilience and its ability to withstand extreme rain events, heat spikes, and drought. And you'll almost certainly make better wine. How about coming up with new ways of connecting with your customers that don't require you to fly all over the country or them to fly out to see you? Also also yes. You'll save money and realize that the initiatives that you came up with allow you to reach a much higher percentage of your current (let alone potential) customers than you were able to before. I could go on.

If you don't believe that carbon footprint matters or that businesses have a responsibility for the carryon effects of their choices, I'm not sure that any of this will matter to you. But for the rest of us, this isn't a time to think of these challenges as either-or choices. Adopt a more comprehensive approach. Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Get started, and adjust as you learn more.

Yes, and.