Tasting Every Vintage of our Flagship Red, 1997 Rouge to 2017 Esprit de Tablas

As regular readers of the blog have probably gathered, we're spending much of this year looking back as we celebrate our 30th anniversary. As a part of this celebration, in advance of the 30th Anniversary Party we hosted here a few weeks back, we decided to open every vintage of our flagship red wines, from our very first Tablas Creek Rouge in 1997 to the 2017 Esprit de Tablas that is still sitting in foudre waiting to be bottled later this summer. While we're opening older vintages of Esprit fairly regularly, we only go through a systematic tasting every couple of years1. So, it would have been a special occasion for us anyway. But because we had Jean-Pierre Perrin in town, we thought it would be great to invite some other local regional Rhone Rangers winemakers to join us. In the end, about 18 of us, evenly split between Tablas folks and those we'd invited to join, sat down on a Friday afternoon to taste 21 different wines. The tasting mat tells the story:

Rretrospective Tasting Mat

I thought it would be fun to share my notes on each wine. I was spending a lot of time coordinating the discussion, so some of my notes are a bit telegraphic, but I hope that you will still get a sense of the differences. I have also linked each vintage to that wine's page on our Web site, if you'd like to see production details or what the tasting notes were at bottling.

  • 1997 Rouge: A nose that is minty and spicy, still quite fresh. On the palate, bright acids, earth, and still some solid tannins. I'd never have guessed that this wine was 20 years old, or made from grapevines that were just three to five years old. 
  • 1998 Rouge: Older and quieter on the nose than the 1997. The mouth has a cool elegance and nice leathery earth. A little simple perhaps, but still totally viable. From one of our coolest-ever vintages, where we didn't start harvesting until October.
  • 1999 Reserve Cuvee: Dramatic on the nose, dark mocha and meat drippings. On the palate, still quite intense, with coffee, red berry fruit, and big tannins. A long finish. Still vibrant and youthful. I remember selling this wine when it was young, and it was a bit of a tannic monster. Those tannins have served it well in the intervening two decades.
  • 2000 Esprit de Beaucastel: A lovely meaty nose with eucalyptus, licorice, red currant and chocolate. Similar flavors on the palate, with a velvety texture and a long finish. Right at its peak, we thought. We've consistently underestimated this wine's aging potential, and each time we open a bottle we like it more.
  • 2001 Founders Reserve: From lots we'd set aside for Esprit and Panoplie that we blended for the wine club after deciding not to make either wine in the frost-depleted 2001 vintage. On the nose, more savory than fruity, dark eucalyptus and black pepper. A touch of alcohol showed. The mouth is vibrant, with great acids, mid-weight texture, and a long finish. A little rustic compared to the wines around it, but intense and fun to taste.
  • 2002 Esprit de Beaucastel: Dark and chocolaty on the nose, with black fruit and balsamic notes. The mouth is similar, with cocoa powder, black cherry, luscious texture, and a long finish. My favorite of the older vintages.
  • 2003 Esprit de Beaucastel: Round on the nose and lightly meaty, with a sweet cola character that I've always loved in this wine. On the palate, lively, with milk chocolate and tangy currant fruit. Really nice but I thought a touch less outstanding than we thought in our last tasting in 2017. Drink up.
  • 2004 Esprit de Beaucastel: A spicy balsamic nose nicely balanced between fruity and savory elements. On the palate too I found it right on point, with no element sticking out, but less dramatic than the vintages before and after. Still fresh. 
  • 2005 Esprit de Beaucastel: Leaps out of the glass with a meaty, smoky nose, deep and inviting. On the palate, spruce forest and meat drippings, black licorice and dark red fruit. Dramatic and long on the finish. A consensus favorite, and right in the middle of what looks likely to be a long peak.
  • 2006 Esprit de Beaucastel: A lovely wine that paled a little after the 2005, with a nose that is lightly meaty, with both black and red currant notes. On the palate, it feels fully mature and resolved, with a nice sweet clove/cumin spice notes, and nice freshness on the finish.
  • 2007 Esprit de Beaucastel: A dense, inky animal nose, with iodine and cherry skin coming out with time. On the palate, luscious and densely tannic, with a creamy texture and a dark cherry cola note vying with the tannins on the finish. Still young and on its way up, and definitely helped by time in the glass. Decant if you're drinking now, or hold.
  • 2008 Esprit de Beaucastel: Very different from the previous vintage, much more marked by Grenache's openness and red fruit. A high toned red berry nose, with a palate that is open and lifted and medium-bodied. This had a lovely translucency and freshness that made it a favorite for many of us of the 10-15 year old range.
  • 2009 Esprit de Beaucastel: Sort of split the difference between the two previous vintages, with a dense eucalyptus and cola nose, with pepper spice notes. Plush but still tannic on the palate, with red raspberry fruit and some dusty tannins that are a reminder of its youth. Lots there, and still fleshing out.
  • 2010 Esprit de Beaucastel: A pretty nose, with leather and spicy boysenberry. On the palate, nicely mid-weight on entry, but good tangy purple fruit and these nice tannins with the texture of powdered sugar. In a good place, and reminiscent of the 1998, from a similarly cool vintage.
  • 2011 Esprit de Tablas: Like the 2010, with the volume turned up slightly. A creamy cherry candy nose, with Syrah's dark foresty character a bit toward the forefront. Savory and textured on the palate, with black cherry coming out on the finish. More open than my last tasting of this wine, which suggests it's on its way out of its closed phase.
  • 2012 Esprit de Tablas: A high toned nose, almost all red fruit at this stage. Candied strawberry on the nose, then red plum on the palate, with a tangy marinade note that I've always found in the 2012. Medium weight. Still fleshing out and deepening; I'm very interested to see where this goes during and after its closed phase.
  • 2013 Esprit de Tablas: A darker nose than 2012, with a spicy Mexican chocolate character. The mouth is savory with black raspberry and black cherry fruit, new leather, soy marinade, and some youthful tannins. Seems more on a black fruit 2010/2011 trajectory than a red fruit 2008/2009/2012 one.
  • 2014 Esprit de Tablas: I wrote pure multiple times on this one: a nose like "pure wild strawberry" and the "mouth too, with crystalline purity". Nice texture, generously red fruited. We've been thinking of the 2014 vintage as something like 2007, but tasting this wine it was instead more like 2009.
  • 2015 Esprit de Tablas: A nose of spiced red fruit, like pomegranate molasses. The mouth is pure and deep, purple fruit and spicy herbs, a little leathery soy note provides savory counterpoint. Long and expressive. My favorite of our recent vintages.
  • 2016 Esprit de Tablas: A dense, savory nose, bigger and denser than the 2015, yet still expressive. Blackberry or black plum, pepper spice, chewy tannins, and a long finish. A hint of meatiness like a rosemary-rubbed leg of lamb. Should be incredible to watch evolve. A consensus favorite of our younger wines. 
  • 2017 Esprit de Tablas: A nose like black cherry and smoke, with a concentrated juiciness that despite its power doesn't come across as sweet. Elderberry and new leather. Long. I am excited to show off this wine, which seems to me too be the closest thing we've blended to the 2005 in the years since.

I asked people around the table to offer a few of their favorites, and 14 of the 21 wines got at least one vote. Those with four or more included the 2000, 2005, 2008, 2009, 2011, 2014, and 2016, with the 2005 and the 2016 sharing the top total. 

A few concluding thoughts:

  • What a pleasure to taste with the combined hundreds of vintages of experience in that room. A few (including Jean-Pierre Perrin, and Jordan Fiorentini of Epoch Estate Wines) had to leave before we thought of taking the photograph, but what a room of winemaking talent to share the experience with:
Rretrospective Tasting Guests
From left: John Alban, Alban Vineyards; John Munch, Le Cuvier Winery; Jason Haas; Kirk Gafill, Nepenthe; Aengus Wagner, Nepenthe; Steve Edmunds, Edmunds St. John; Steve Beckmen, Beckmen Vineyards; Neil Collins
  • I was really pleased that the favorite wines stretched from the beginning of the sequence to the end, and included warm years and cool, low-production years and plentiful ones, and blends that included unusually high percentages of Mourvedre (2005, 2015), of Grenache (2008, 2014), and of Syrah (2009, 2016). I thought that the older wines showed great staying power, while the younger wines were open and felt already well mannered. John Munch from Le Cuvier commented, in his typically pithy style, "the older wines didn't taste old, and the younger wines didn't taste young".
  • The longevity of the wines from even our very early vintages gives me a ton of optimism about how our current wines will age. Look at a wine like the 2000: for a decade, we've been commenting at every tasting that it's the best showing we've seen yet. Our oldest vines then were 8 years old, with the majority of the vineyard between 3 and 5. This long aging curve wouldn't be a surprise for Mourvedre-heavy Chateauneuf, but I think we've consistently underestimated how well our own wines age. Hopefully, events like this help recast our expectations.
  • It is always fascinating the extent to which the wines are alive, and do move around over time. Last time we held a tasting like this, in 2017, our favorites included 2000, 2003, 2006, 2010, and 2015. All of those showed well at this tasting, but only the 2000 was among our top-5 vote-getters this time. 
  • At the same time, the tasting supported by contention that the run we're on now is the best we've ever seen. If you tally the votes in 3-year increments, the top range was 2014-2016 (15 votes), followed closely by 2008-2010 (13 votes) and 2003-2005 (11 votes). If I had to make a gross generalization, in our early years (say, up until 2007), we were making wines that had robust power but were a little rustic and needed age to come into balance. And they mostly have. In our middle years (say, 2008-2013) we were working to build elegance into the wines, trusting that they would deepen with time in bottle. And they mostly have. What we're getting now, with its combination of power and purity, is what we've been aiming at all along, and I think that watching them age will be fascinating.

Flagship red vertical

Footnote

  1. We update a vintage chart at least quarterly with the results of these tastings.

What I would have said if I'd given a speech at our 30th Anniversary Party

On Friday night, we hosted an industry party to celebrate our 30th anniversary. It was a wonderful evening, with about 350 friends and colleagues, beautiful weather (we got lucky), great food by Chef Jeff Scott, music by the Mark Adams Band, and masterful coordination by Faith Wells. I'll share a few photos, all taken by the talented Heather Daenitz (see more of her work at www.craftandcluster.com). We brought in some chairs and couches, and converted our parking lot to space to sit, mingle, and browse the memorabilia we'd pulled together.

Seating group on parking lot

Expanding to the parking lot spread the event out, making sure that no area felt cramped, and gave the event two focuses: the food, near our dry-laid limestone wall, and the wine tables, on our patio.

Tablas Creek 30th Anniversary Party - Food and Solar Panels

We decided to open every wine we're currently making, as well as several selections out of our library. We figured if not then, when?

Tablas Creek 30th Anniversary Party - Wines

Chef Jeff's menu focused on things that were raised or harvested here at Tablas Creek, including lamb, pork, honey, olive oil, eggs, pea tendrils, and herbs. The egg strata, made from 16 dozen of our eggs and flavored with our olive oil, was one of my favorites: 

Tablas Creek 30th Anniversary Party - Egg Strata

One of my favorite things that Faith suggested we do was to put together photo walls, each representing a decade of our history. This gave us an excuse to go through our massive photo archives and try to pull out pictures that showed how things had changed.

Tablas Creek 30th Anniversary Party - Photo Wall 3

In the end, though, the event was, as most events are, really about the people who came. We had winemakers from around California, almost the whole current Tablas Creek team and many of the former employees who helped bring us where we are, local restaurateurs and hoteliers, members of the community organizations and charities we support, and even local government officials. Jean-Pierre Perrin (below, left) made the trip from France, and I know it was fun for people who had only heard his name to get to meet the man so responsible for the creation of this enterprise.

Tablas Creek 30th Anniversary Party - JPP & Michel

The Paso Robles wine community is remarkable for the extent to which it really is a community, made up of people who live here and are involved in the broader local community, from schools to restaurants to youth sports and charities. Getting a large group like this together isn't so much an industry party as it is a gathering of friends. And I couldn't shake the feeling all day that this was like a wedding, with old and new friends arriving from far away, and people stopping me again and again to say, warmly, "congratulations".

It was this aspect of Paso Robles that I'd been intending to highlight in the brief remarks I had planned to give to the group. But I decided in the middle of the event that doing so would have interrupted the event's momentum and turned something that felt like an organic gathering into something more staged and self-centered. And that was the last thing I wanted to do, so I just let the evening take its course. 

That said, looking at the photos makes me feel that much more confident in what I had planned to say. The event wasn't the right moment. But I thought I'd share them now. I didn't write it out, but these are, more or less, the remarks I'd planned to share:

Thank you all for being here. It's hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that it's been 30 years since my dad, as well as Francois and Jean-Pierre Perrin (who is with us here tonight) celebrated the purchase of the property with a lunch from KFC on the section of the vineyard that we know call Scruffy Hill. And not just because all the great restaurant folks here this evening are a case in point that the Paso Robles culinary scene has come a long way from those days.
I wrote a blog a couple of weeks ago about 10 things that we got right (and wrong) at the beginning of our project. [Note: that blog can be found here.] Things we got wrong, like that we were only going to make one red and one white wine each year, or that we didn't need a tasting room. And things we got right, like that the climate and soils in this place was going to be great for these varieties, and that if we planted the right grapes, whites could thrive here. But the biggest piece of our success isn't something that we got right or wrong; it's really neither of those things. It wasn't on our radar at all. In my opinion, the biggest thing that has allowed this crazy project to succeed is the wine community that we joined here in Paso Robles. It is this community that has become a destination for wine lovers and for some of the most talented winemakers in the country. It is this community that has embraced Rhone varieties, and blends, both of which were major leaps into the unknown for an American winery 30 years ago. And it's this community which has welcomed us, interlopers from France and Vermont, to be a part of its vibrantly experimental mix.
I often think, when I reflect on the anniversary, that 30 years old is the age at which, in France, they finally start taking a vineyard seriously. I am proud of what we've accomplished, but even more excited about what we're working on now. Thank you for your support over the first generation of Tablas Creek. I look forward to celebrating many future milestones with you.

The idea that for all we've done, we're just getting started, was the inspiration for the party favor we sent people home with: a baby grapevine from our nursery. We may have been here for a generation. But it's really still just the beginning.

Tablas Creek 30th Anniversary Party - Vines

So, if you came, thank you for helping us celebrate. If you couldn't come, thank you for helping us make it 30 years. We couldn't have done it without you.


30 Years of Tablas Creek: 10 Things We Got Right (and Wrong)

I find it hard to wrap my head around this fact, but this year marks 30 years since my dad, along with Jean-Pierre and Francois Perrin, bought this property and began the process of launching what would become Tablas Creek Vineyard. To celebrate, they stopped at Kentucky Fried Chicken (this was before it became KFC) and took their purchases as a picnic lunch onto the section of the vineyard we now call Scruffy Hill to talk about what would come next. I don't have a photo of that lunch, but I do have one of the ceremonial planting of the first vine, from 1992:

Bob Haas & Jean Pierre Perrin planting first Tablas vine 1992

1989 was a different time, and not just because not-yet-called-KFC was the best option in town for lunch. Paso Robles itself had just 16 bonded wineries. None of them were producing Rhone varieties. The entire California Rhone movement had only about a dozen members. And yet the founding partners had enough confidence in their decision to embark on the long, slow, expensive process of importing grapevines, launching a grapevine nursery, planting an estate vineyard from scratch, building a winery, and creating a business plan to turn this into something self-sustaining.

I was thinking recently about how much of a leap into the unknown this was, and decided to look back on which of those early assumptions turned out to be right, and which we had to change or scrap. I'll take them in turn.

Wrong #1: Paso Robles is hot and dry, and therefore red wine country
This is a misconception that persists to this day among plenty of consumers, and (if it's not sacrilegious to say) an even higher percentage of sommeliers and the wine trade. But it's hard to be too critical of them when we made the same mistake. Our original plan was to focus on a model like Beaucastel's. There, the Perrins make about 90% red wines, and many Chateauneuf du Pape estates don't make any white at all. And yes, Paso Robles is hot and dry, during the day, in the summer.  But it's cold at night, with an exceptionally high diurnal shift, and winters are cold and quite wet. The net result is that our average temperature is lower than Beaucastel's, and the first major change to our vineyard plans was to plant 20 more acres of white grapes. Now, our mix is about 50% red, 35% white, and 15% rosé. 

Right #1: Obscure grapes can be great here
In our initial planting decisions, we decided to bring in the grapes you would have expected (think Mourvedre, Grenache, Syrah, or Viognier) but also some that had never before been used in America, like Grenache Blanc and Counoise. We thought that they would provide nice complexity, and our goal was to begin with the Beaucastel model (in which both of these grapes appear) and then adjust as our experiences dictated. It turns out that we liked them enough that not only are they important players in the blends that we make, but we even bottle them solo many years. This meant a relatively quick decision to bring in Picpoul Blanc in 2000, and to eventually import the full collection of Chateauneuf du Pape grapes in 2003. If you've been enjoying new grapes like Picardan, or Terret Noir, or Clairette Blanche, you have this early decision to thank.

Wrong #2: We're going to make just one red wine and one white wine
This is a decision we realized we needed to revisit pretty quickly. As early as 1999, we decided that in order to make the best wine we could from a vintage, we needed to be able to declassify lots into a second wine (which at that point we called "Petite Cuvee"). Having this declassified wine also gave us some cool opportunities in restaurants, which could pour this "second" wine by the glass, exposing us to new customers. And the wine, which we soon rechristened "Cotes de Tablas", proved to be more than just a place to put our second-best lots. Many of the characteristics that caused us to declassify a particular lot (pretty but not as intense, less structured and perhaps less ageworthy, good fruit but maybe less tannin) make a wine that's perfect to enjoy in its relative youth. Although we've been surprised by the ability of these wines to age, having something that people could open and appreciate while our more tannic flagship wines were aging in the cellar proved invaluable.

And we didn't stop there. We realized within another few years that there were lots that were either too dominant to be great in a blend, or so varietally characteristic that it was a shame to blend them away. Opening a tasting room and starting a wine club in 2002 (more on this below) meant that we had recurring educational opportunities where having, say, a varietal Mourvedre, was really valuable. At the time, many fans of Rhone grapes had never tasted even the main ones (outside of Syrah) on their own. Having a rotating collection of varietal bottlings beginning in 2002 not only gave us great options for our wine club shipments, but I think helped an entire generation of Rhone lovers wrap their heads around this diverse and heterogeneous category.

Right #2: Importing new vine material would be worth the costs
Nearly the first decision we had to make was whether we would work with the existing Rhone varieties that were already in California or whether we would bring in our own. And it's not as though this decision was without consequence. Importing grapevines through the USDA's mandated 3-year quarantine set us back (after propagation) five years, and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. But it also came with some potentially huge benefits: the opportunity to select our clones for high quality, the chance to work with the full complement of Rhone grapes, and eventually the privilege of supplying other wineries with high quality clones. I remain convinced that for all the different impacts Tablas Creek has had, it is this proliferation of clonal material that will go down as our most important.

Wrong #3: Vineyard and winery experience is enough to run a nursery
With fifteen years' distance blunting the anxiety, it's easy to forget just how steep the learning curve was for us in the nursery business. But I know that when I moved out here in 2002, it was the perennially money-losing nursery that was the source of most of our headaches. The nursery business is difficult for three reasons, particularly for a startup. First, it's technically tricky. Expertise in grapegrowing is only tangentially relevant to things like grafting and rooting, or dealing with nursery pests. This is made more challenging by the fact that the same things that make this place good for quality wine grapes (that it forces vines to struggle) made all the nursery challenges worse. Second, it's subject to supply shocks that are largely outside of your control. If you get a spring frost, or a summer drought, you'll produce smaller vine material, get a lower percentage of successful grafts, and produce fewer vines. I know that in our first few years we often had to go back to our customers and cut back their orders because of production challenges. And third, on the demand side, it's incredibly cyclical and prone to boom and bust. Because it takes three to four years for a new vine to get into into production, you tend to have cycles of sky-high demand for scarce grapes followed by periods where everyone has the same new varieties in production, which causes demand for new vines to collapse. We lost quite a lot of money overall on our nursery operations before realizing the right response was to outsource. Our partnership since 2004 with NovaVine has been such an improvement, in so many ways.

Right #3: Organic viticulture works
The Perrins have been innovators in organic viticulture since Jacques Perrin implemented it in the 1960s. By the time we were starting Tablas Creek, it was taken as a given that we'd farm the same way, partly out of a desire to avoid exposing ourselves, our colleagues, and our neighbors to toxins, but more because we felt that this was a fundamental precondition for producing wines that expressed their place. At the time, there wasn't a single vineyard in Paso Robles being farmed organically, and the studied opinion of the major California viticulture universities was that doing so was pointless and difficult. It has been wonderful to see a higher and higher percentage of our local grapegrowers come around to our perspective, and to see the excitement locally and around California as we push past organics into the more holistic approach of Biodynamics. But that idea -- that organic farming is key to producing wines with a sense of place -- is as fundamental to our process today as it was in the beginning.  

Wrong #4: Tasting Room? Wine Club? Who needs 'em!
At the beginning, our idea was that we would be in the production business, not the marketing and sales business.  Our contact with the market would be once a year, when we would call up Vineyard Brands and let them know that the new vintage was ready. They would buy it all, take care of the nitty gritty of selling it, and our next contact with the market would be a year later, when we would call them up again and let them know they could pick up the next vintage. This proved to be a lot more difficult than we'd initially imagined. We were making wines without an established category, from grapes that most customers didn't know and couldn't pronounce, in a place they hadn't heard of, and blending them into wines with French names that didn't mean anything to them. By 2002, inventory had started to build up and we had to radically rethink our marketing program. The two new key pieces were starting a wine club (first shipment: August 2002, to about 75 members) and opening our tasting room on Labor Day weekend that same fall.

The opportunities provided by both these outlets have fundamentally transformed the business of Tablas Creek, giving us direct contact with our customers, an audience for small-production experimental lots, a higher-margin sales channel through which we can offer our members good discounts and still do better than we would selling wholesale, and (most importantly, in my opinion) a growing army of advocates out in the marketplace who have visited here, gotten to see, smell, and touch the place, and take home a memory of our story and our wines. I don't think it's a coincidence that our wholesale sales grew dramatically over the first five years that our tasting room was open, or that each time a new state opens to direct shipping our wholesale sales improve there. Still, we would never have predicted at the outset that nearly 60% of the bottles that we'd sell in our 30th year would go directly from us to the customer who would ultimately cellar and (or) drink it.

Right #4: Building (and keeping) the right team is key
Long tenure was a feature of his hires throughout my dad's career. I still see people at Vineyard Brands sales meetings who remember me coming home from little league games in uniform, 35 years ago. And I'm really proud of how long the key members of the Tablas Creek team have been here. That includes David Maduena, our Vineyard Manager, who is on year 28 here at Tablas Creek. Denise Chouinard, our Controller, worked for my dad at Vineyard Brands and moved out here to take over our back office 23 years ago. Neil Collins will oversee his 22nd vintage as Winemaker here this year. Nicole Getty has overseen our wine club, hospitality, and events for 15 years, while and Eileen Harms has run our accounting desk for the same duration. This will be 14 years at Tablas Creek for Senior Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi and 13 for Tasting Room Manager John Morris. 

I say all this not because longevity on its own is the point, but because of what it means to keep talented and ambitious people on your team. It means that they feel they're a part of something meaningful. That they're given the opportunity and resources to innovate and keep growing. And that you don't have to reinvent the wheel every few years. 

Wrong #5: People will buy it because Beaucastel 
Much of our challenge in the early years was self-inflicted: we hadn't done the work to create a consumer base for Tablas Creek, so when the wines got onto shelves or wine lists, they tended to gather dust. We assumed that if we made great wines, somehow the news would get out to the people who always clamored for Beaucastel (coming off a Wine Spectator #1 Wine of the Year honor in 1991), and the sales would take care of themselves. That turned out to be wildly optimistic. While our association with Beaucastel helped get the wines onto the shelves and lists, the boost it provided in sales wasn't enough to overcome the wines' unfamiliar names and lack of category, and the winery's own nonexistent track record. In the end we had to do the hard work of brand building: telling the story to one person at a time in our tasting room, to ambassadors in the trade, and to the masses (such as it was) through press coverage.

One caveat: a key piece of this turnaround was our decision in 2000 to bestow the name "Esprit de Beaucastel" on our top white and red blend. Unlike the names "Rouge", "Blanc", "Reserve Cuvee", and "Clos Blanc", having Beaucastel on the front label instead of in the back story was one of the early keys in reminding consumers who might have some vague awareness that the Perrins were involved in a California project that this, Tablas Creek, was that project. So, the Beaucastel name did matter... but people needed a more explicit reminder.

Right #5: Fundamentally, this place is great for these grapes
Ultimately, we got right the most important question, and Paso Robles has turned out to be a terrific place in which to have founded a Rhone project. The evidence for this is everywhere you look in Paso. It has become the epicenter of California's Rhone movement, with more than 80% of wineries here producing at least one Rhone wine. It became the home to Hospice du Rhone, the world's premier Rhone-focused wine festival, for which high profile Rhone producers from France, Australia, Spain, South Africa, Washington, and all over California convene every other spring for three days of seminars, tastings, dinners, and revelry. And the range of Rhone grapes that do well here is exceptionally broad. You can taste some of the state's greatest examples of Syrah, of Grenache, of Mourvedre, of Roussanne, of Viognier, and of Grenache Blanc all here in Paso. In this, it even surpasses the Rhone. You aren't generally going to taste world class Syrah or Viognier from the southern Rhone; it's too warm there. And Grenache, Mourvedre, and Roussanne all struggle to ripen in the northern Rhone. But the cold nights and the calcareous soils found in Paso Robles provide freshness and minerality to balance the lush fruit from our long growing season and 320 days of sun. Rhone producers here have enormous flexibility in how long they leave the grapes on the vines, which allows them to be successful in a wide range of styles.

And I haven't even mentioned yet the happy accident (which I'm pretty sure my dad and the Perrins didn't consider in 1989) that Paso Robles has proven to be an incredibly supportive, collegial community, which has embraced its identity as a Rhone hub and turned enthusiastically to the business of improving its practices, marketing its wares, and becoming a leader in sustainability.

Conclusion: The next 30 Years
Ultimately, what makes me so excited about where we are is that we've had the opportunity to work through our startup issues, and to make the adjustments we thought Paso Robles dictated, without having to compromise on our fundamental ideas. We're still making (mostly) Rhone blends from our organic (and now Biodynamic) estate vineyard, wines that have one foot stylistically in the Old World and one in the New World. And we're doing it all with grapevines that are only now getting to the age where the French would start to really consider them at their peak.

Buckle up, kids. The next 30 years is going to be amazing.

Unnamed


Are the gloomy messages about the state of the wine industry warranted? I say not for wineries like us.

I've spent much of the last two weeks at wine industry symposia: first the Direct to Consumer Wine Symposium in Concord, CA, and then the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium another hour north in Sacramento. I spoke on panels at both, at the first on measuring ROI on winery events, and at the second on technical and market challenges and opportunities for rosés. But I also took advantage of being there already -- and the free passes that come with being a speaker -- to sit in on some of the other sessions. Both events began with "state of the industry" reports, with quite different outlooks.

DTC Wine Symposium SessionPhoto courtesy DTC Wine Symposium

The core message I took home from the DTC Symposium was mostly positive: that direct-to-consumer wine sales continue to grow at a healthy rate, with shipping totals topping $3 billion for the first time in 2018, and growth coming broadly across wineries of all sizes.  What's more, the tools that wineries have to capture, analyze, and fulfill these consumer-direct sales have never been better.  The take-home message from Unified was less positive, with worries about declining sales at restaurants and supermarkets, grape market oversupply, demographic challenges for wineries as their prime customer base (mostly Baby Boomers) ages, and challenges connecting with Millennials through traditional wine marketing. These have spawned some much-discussed articles (within the wine community, anyway) containing lots of hand-wringing about what the future might bring to California wine. A couple (click-bait titles notwithstanding) will give you a sense of the worries:

In a second piece, on his own blog (Millennials are talking but the wine industry isn't listening) Blake Gray identifies some of the barriers that may be keeping Millennials from gravitating toward wine, at least at this point in their lives: the industry's resistance to transparency in labeling, its steadfast promotion of just a small handful of grape varieties, and an inability (or unwillingness) on behalf of wineries to engage with the Millennial consumer. I'd add a few others, including the often high price of premium wines and winery experiences, which puts them outside the reach of many cash-strapped Millennials, the marketing of wine as elite (which often crosses the line and comes across as elitist, to an audience that prizes authenticity), and the dominance of shelf space in the wholesale and grocery markets by a handful of large wine companies, when what every study of Millennials indicates they want is 1) a closer relationship with real people behind the products they consume, and 2) confidence that those products are produced in a way that matches their values.

So, which is it? Are wineries in good shape, or are there dark clouds on the horizon? As is usual with complicated questions, it depends on where you're looking, and over what time frame.

Let's look at the negatives first. Some of the largest wine companies (including Bronco, Gallo, and Constellation Brands, all of whose sales skew toward lower-priced wine in chain retail) saw sales decline last year. Many traditional fine dining restaurants have closed or rebranded as consumer trends have shifted toward more casual experiences. Nielsen data showed that overall wine retail sales declined slightly (0.5%) by volume last year, at least in the 70% of retailers that participate in the Nielsen data collection.1 The combination of distributor consolidation and winery proliferation have made it harder for most small-to-medium wineries to sell through the wholesale channel. And tasting room visitation was down in many established regions in 2018, including Napa and Sonoma, even as tourism was up.2 So, if you are a small-to-medium winery who wants to sell their production through wholesale, a large winery whose sales skew toward the lower end of the retail spectrum, or a winery in an established region whose customer acquisition mostly happens in your tasting room, you likely have cause to worry.

On the positive side, winery direct-to-consumer shipped sales grew again in 2018, by about 12%, to more than $3 billion, a figure nearly triple what it was just in 2011.3 Wineries can now ship to 90% of the US population, with the right permits. The average price of a bottle of wine sold increased both in three-tier retail and in direct-to-consumer last year. Although tasting room visits are down in many areas, our experience is that people are spending longer when they do visit, are more interested than ever in learning the story and the practices behind the wines, and are happy to spend more: our average sale per visitor was up 8% last year. The price ranges of wine that saw sales declines were the under-$10 bottles (at which, I think it's fair to say, California does not excel) while all higher price points saw sales growth. And most importantly, total winery sales, when you take direct-to-consumer into account, grew 4% in 2018. That means that the pie continues to grow, and it seems like it's primed to continue to grow in the segments that most impact wineries of our general size (small to medium) and profile (producing wines between $25 and $60, with DTC providing the majority but not the totality of our revenue).

Some of what I see as more equivocal data has been painted in the most negative light. There are some demographic trends that wineries need to plan for. Wine's largest audience, for the last two decades, has been Baby Boomers, and with the average Boomer reaching retirement age -- the time at which, historically, cohorts start spending less on wine -- they will need younger generations to step in. And GenXers, of which I am a proud member, have been doing so. Will Millennials, who are a larger cohort than GenX, step up when it is their turn? It remains to be seen. But I think that the doom and gloom about them is pretty overblown. The median age of a Millennial is 30, but the Millennials at the peak of the demographic bubble are just 24. Were many Baby Boomers drinking wine at age 30, let alone 24? No. How about GenX? Not much. Millennials are drinking more wine than preceding generations were at the same age, which should be a positive enough trend. But I think the news is better than that, at least for wineries like us. They are also much more likely to drink craft beer or craft cocktails, to be interested in the source and making of the foods and drinks they consume, to have grown up in a wine-drinking household, and to be open to trying wines from new grapes and new growing areas.

Are many Millennials hamstrung by the poor job market when they entered the work force and saddled with student debt? Absolutely. But even if they never attain the buying power of earlier generations, it seems to me that the sorts of wines that Millennials are likely to embrace are the sorts of wines that wineries like Tablas Creek would like them to embrace: smaller family run wineries, from organically farmed vineyards, incorporating grapes that may be outside the mainstream but are good fits for their growing locations, and wines that offer value, at whatever price point.

Does that sound like a gloomy future? Not to me.

Footnotes:

  • 1. Note that there are some important retailers whose data is not included, most notably Costco, and that the Nielsen data also does not include winery DTC sales.
  • 2. All these data points are from (and beautifully explained in) the 2019 SVB Wine Report, the industry's gold standard for data collection and analysis. 
  • 3. This data point and the ones that follow come from the 2019 ShipCompliant Direct to Consumer Wine Shipping Report

A "Horizontal" Tasting: Looking Back at the 2009 Vintage at Age 10

In 2014 we began the tradition of looking back each year at the vintage from ten years before.  Part of this is simple interest in seeing how a wide range of our wines -- many of which we don't taste regularly -- have evolved, but we also have a specific purpose: choosing nine of the most compelling and interesting wines from this vintage to show at the public retrospective tasting we're holding on February 10th.  Ten years is enough time that the wines have become something different and started to pick up some secondary and tertiary flavors, but not so long that whites are generally over the hill. In fact, each year that we've done this we've been surprised by at least one white that we expected to be in decline showing up as a highlight.  The lineup:

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A while back, as part of a look back at each of our vintages for our then-new Web site, I wrote this about the 2009 vintage:

The 2009 vintage was our third consecutive drought year, with yields further reduced by serious April frosts. Berries and clusters were small, with excellent concentration. Ripening over the summer was gradual and our harvest largely complete except for about half our Mourvedre at the time of a major rainstorm on October 13th. Crop sizes were 15% smaller than 2008 and 30% lower than usual. The low yields and gradual ripening resulted in white wines with an appealing combination of richness and depth, and red wines with an great lushness, rich texture and relatively low acid but wonderful chalky tannins.

I was interested in the extent to which we'd still see what we'd noted when the vintage was younger.  Would the wines (red and white) show the same powerful structure that they did upon release? Would the whites have had enough freshness to be compelling a decade later?  And were there any lessons we might take for the wines we're making now?

In 2009, we made 15 different wines: 7 whites, 1 rosé, and 7 reds. This is a smaller number than most other vintages of that decade, reduced by the fact that so many grapes were scarce that year. Of the white Rhone varieties, our only varietal wines were Grenache Blanc and Roussanne (plus a second Roussanne bottling, under our Bergeron label). On the red side, our only Rhone varietal red was Grenache, making 2009 the only vintage since 2003 where we weren't able to bottle a 100% Mourvedre.

Although we made 15 wines, there were only 14 available in our library to taste today. Unfortunately (and none of us can remember how) there is none of our rosé left in our library. I can't remember another time where we didn't have even one bottle left to taste at the 10-year mark. And it's not like this disappeared recently; the last bottle was pulled out of the library early in 2011. Perhaps with the vintage's scarcity we reached into the library to fill a last few orders?  I wish I remembered. In any case, if any of you have any of our 2009 Rosé at home and want to share one with us, you'd have our undying gratitude and a spot in this or any future retrospective tasting of your choice.

My notes on the fourteen wines we did taste are below. I've noted their closures (SC=screwcap; C=cork) as well. Each wine is also linked to its technical information on our Web site, if you'd like to see a breakdown of the winemaking or the tasting notes at bottling (well, except for the Pinot Noir, which we only made one barrel of and never made a Web page for; if you have questions about that, leave them in the comments and I'll do my best to answer).  I was joined for the tasting by our cellar team (Neil Collins, Chelsea Franchi, Craig Hamm, Amanda Weaver, and Austin Collins) as well as by our National Sales Manager Darren Delmore.

  • 2009 Vermentino (SC): At first sniff the petrol/rubber cement character I tend to get in older screwcapped whites, but this blew off pretty quickly and rocky, briny, youthful notes emerged. With even a little more time in the glass, they were joined by aromas of orange blossom, lemon custard, and grapefruit pith. On the palate, key lime juice, passion fruit, white grapefruit, and more salty brininess. Surprisingly luscious, with a pretty sweet/salty lime note lingering on the finish. Really impressive, once it got past that initial note, and a good reminder to decant old screwcapped whites.
  • 2009 Grenache Blanc (SC): A lovely golden color. The nose showed marzipan, butterscotch, and a rising bread yeastiness. In the mouth, gentle on attack, with flavors of preserved lemon, wet rocks, and a little sweet spice, with acids building over time and finishing with a pithy tannic note we often find in Grenache Blanc. Not as youthful or dramatic as the Vermentino, though perfectly sound still. Drink up if you've got any.
  • 2009 Cotes de Tablas Blanc (SC; 45% Viognier, 28% Roussanne, 20% Marsanne, 7% Grenache Blanc): A nose like beer, with a green hoppy note that reminded Chelsea of lemongrass. With time, some honeysuckle and dried apricot emerged. The mouth had nice texture, very Rhone-like, with impressions of peaches and cream, ginger and straw, and a little burst of sour apple on the finish that we thought might come from the Grenache Blanc. Like the Grenache Blanc, it's on the elderly side, but still sound.
  • 2009 Bergeron (SC): Made from 100% Roussanne, harvested a little earlier from cooler blocks around the vineyard. A lovely nose of minty spruce and cedar, with caramel and baked apple behind. The mouth was similarly appealing, with caramel apple, chalky minerality, and a nice pithy marmalade note on the finish. It was a pleasure to taste, but also seemed like it would be a great dinner wine.
  • 2009 Roussanne (C): A deeper gold color.  Smells a little like a sour beer, with the yeasty character vying with a little sarsaparilla that I think came from some new oak. The mouth too has that same sour crabapple character, more to us like cider than wine, with flavors of Granny Smith apple, sour cherry, and pork fat, on top of Roussanne's signature rich texture. A strange showing for this wine. Not sure if it's in a stage, or if it's on its way downhill.
  • 2009 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (C; 62% Roussanne, 26% Grenache Blanc, 12% Picpoul Blanc): An appealing nose like an entire apple pie, complete with baked apples, nutmeg spice, and rich yeasty crust. Also aromas of honeycomb and sea spray. The mouth showed great texture: very rich, but with nice building acids that balanced the weight, flavors of baked pear, beeswax, spiced nuts, and a nice briny character that came out on the finish. Fully mature and beautiful.
  • 2009 Antithesis Chardonnay (C): One of our last Chardonnay bottlings, from a vintage where production was devastated by the frosts. The nose showed tarragon, buttered popcorn, lemongrass and green tomato, while the mouth was plush yet with a nice lemony note, like a beurre blanc, with a coconut creaminess and a little creamsicle-like orange character on the finish. It tasted to me like it was picked a touch on the early side, and a good reminder that when you're growing a grape that's not an ideal fit for your climate there are times when you don't have a great choice: wait until ripeness and live with extra alcohol and too much weight, or pick early and end up with some green character. In cooler years, I loved our Antithesis, but warmer years like 2009 are more common in Paso Robles, and a big part of why we decided to end the experiment a few years later.
  • 2009 Pinot Noir (C): Our third-ever Pinot, from a few rows of vines in our nursery we were using to produce budwood to plant at my dad's property for our Full Circle Pinot. Our most successful, I think, of the four vintages we made of this wine: a nice minty, cherry and tobacco nose. The mouth shows an appealing lean power: cherry skin and baker's chocolate, menthol and green herbs, Chinese five spice and cloves. A little luxardo cherry character on the finish. Admirable and fun.
  • 2009 Cotes de Tablas (C; 43% Grenache, 24% Syrah, 18% Counoise, 15% Mourvedre): Our only Cotes de Tablas to make the Wine Spectator's "Top 100". A really nice showing for this wine, dark and spicy on the nose, more black in tone than I expect from our Cotes, with blackberry, juniper, pepper, leather, and iron. The mouth is really impressive, with classic but concentrated Grenache flavors of milk chocolate, raspberry, currant and cigar box, nice balance, and a powdered sugar character we loved to the tannins. The finish showed roasted meats and plenty of tannin. Still at peak, and likely to go a while longer. 
  • 2009 Grenache (C): A powerful nose, tangy with cherry liqueur, pine sap, garrigue, and licorice. A touch of alcohol shows too. The mouth is quite tannic, yet with nice fruit intensity: redcurrant, wild strawberry, leather, black pepper, and autumn leaves. A little one-dimensional right now, and not as appealing as the Cotes de Tablas, with its Syrah-added black notes and Counoise's brambliness.
  • 2009 En Gobelet (C; 56% Mourvedre, 23% Tannat, 21% Grenache): Quite a contrast to the Grenache, with a nose more savory than fruity: lacquered wood, teriyaki, black licorice, cedar, and a little plum skin. The mouth is friendlier than the nose suggests, with blackberry and juniper flavors, smoked meat, pepper, bittersweet chocolate, and blackcurrant all giving relief to the still-substantial tannins. Just our second En Gobelet, and all still from the low-lying areas we planted initially as our first head-trained, dry-farmed blocks.
  • 2009 Esprit de Beaucastel (C; 40% Mourvedre, 28% Syrah, 27% Grenache, 5% Counoise): The complete package on the nose, evenly balanced between red and black fruit, with added appeal from notes of meat drippings, chocolate, and junipery spice. The mouth is gorgeous: powerful plum and currant fruit, tons of texture, and little hints of sweet spices, dark chocolate, and candied orange peel. A great combination of savory and sweet, at peak drinking but with plenty left in the tank. Neil commented that it was "just what an Esprit should be".
  • 2009 Panoplie (C; 65% Mourvedre, 26% Grenache, 9% Syrah): Less generous on the nose than the Esprit, with red licorice, teriyaki, bay, and Chinese five spice. The mouth is powerful, with tangy red fruit, cherry skin, and then a wall of tannins locks things down and clips the finish a bit. The texture and the mid-palate were highlights, but I think this is still emerging from a closed phase and will be a lot better in a year or two.
  • 2009 Tannat (C): Tannat's classic blue-black color. A cool nose of black licorice, sarsaparilla, elderberry, and a little violet potpourri lift. The mouth is lovely, with tangy chocolate and plum, still big tannins, and a little welcome sweet oak. Classic and reliable, without being as hard as Tannat can be when young. A pleasure, just entering peak drinking.

A few concluding thoughts

As I suspected at the time, this was a very strong red vintage, and a somewhat weaker white vintage, although there were still treasures to be found among the whites. The Bergeron, I thought, was particularly good, and a fun surprise. On the red side, it's clear that time has been kind to the powerful tannins that characterize the 2009 vintage, with the bigger reds still showing plenty of structure and yet the flavors having emerged. I confessed in a blog from last summer that 2009 was never a favorite vintage of mine, but that what I didn't love in its youth -- a certain muscle-bound tannic weight -- has made wines with remarkable staying power.

Unlike the other vintages around it, I don't have a comparable recent vintage for 2009. The similarly low-yielding 2015 vintage has a lot more in character with more elegant years like 2006 and 2010 than with 2009, and we're picking less ripe, overall, now. That doesn't break my heart; I love the openness of the texture of the wines that we're making now. But when we do get another similarly concentrated vintage as 2009, I know I'm going to try to have the patience to do the same thing, and bury the wines in the back of my wine fridge for a decade. 

It's worth noting that nearly all of the wines improved in the glass, and I thought that most of them would have benefited from a quick decant. A lot of people don't think of decanting older whites, but I think it's often a good idea, and particularly so with wines that have been under screwcap. There's a clipped character that most older screwcapped whites have that dissipates with a few minutes of air. It happens anyway in the glass, but a decant would have been welcome.

Finally, we chose nine pretty exciting wines for what should be a great February 10th Horizontal Tasting: Vermentino, Bergeron, Esprit Blanc, Pinot Noir, Cotes de Tablas, En Gobelet, Esprit, Panoplie, and Tannat. There are still some seats available; I hope many of you will join us!


My Most Memorable Meals of 2018

By Darren Delmore

One of the greatest physical threats of being the National Sales Manager for Tablas Creek is accelerated weight gain from all the killer food being whipped up at restaurants around the country that serve our wines. Here's a shortlist of my heavenly highlights of 2018, which were many. Now, off to find the nearest cool sculpting place, or at least the hotel's treadmill! 

Michael Warring

In what may have once been a donut store on the eastern outskirts of Vallejo now quietly houses a dynamic husband-and-wife duo serving artistry on a plate, many courses at a time, for a steal. The word isn't entirely out yet, though the culinary cognoscenti that visit Napa Valley are known to Uber out here for one of two seatings a night. Michael and his wife Ali do everything, including washing dishes, and it's a real open performance. Ali is a fan of Tablas Creek whites and the evening I was there served an older vintage of our Grenache Blanc because she loved the petrol notes that arise with some bottle age. This truffle ravioli dish brought me deep into he wet, salty earth, only to come to when the made-before-your-eyes marshmallow ice cream closed out the evening.

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McPhee's Grill

My family lives a block away in Templeton from this Paso Robles institution. Ian McPhee, along with Laurent Grangien, were the OG wine country chefs for our aspiring wine region, and I think both chefs have improved with some time in the cellar. During the Hospice du Rhone wine festival in April, my old boss at Two Hands wines in Australia and the winemaker from Staglin wanted to have dinner and share some bottles, so I immediately booked a table and McPhee's did not disappoint. From baby back ribs, grass fed steaks, wood fired flatbreads and more, the locally-sourced fare went gorgeously down the hatch with the velvety match up of 2005 Tablas Creek Panoplie and 2005 Hommage a Jacques Perrin, among other bottled beauties.

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Hitching Post

I serendipitously stopped by this classic in Buellton on the way back from the Ojai Wine Festival, and lo and behold got sandwiched by the legends themselves Frank Ostini and Gray Hartley. It'd been a while since I'd grabbed a seat at the notorious bar from the film Sideways, which keeps the old school Central Coast steakhouse vibe alive, complete with relish trays. They serve Tablas Creek Vermentino by the glass, along with the complete lineup of Hitching Post Pinot Noir, and I followed Gray's lead with ordering some grilled quail and a small grass fed flat iron steak. The oak-grilled aromas and flavors keeping the barroom -- which that night housed a mix of Cal Trans dudes, a bachelorette party, and other tourists posing out for a selfie or two -- classy.

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Kitchen Door

In the bustling Oxbow Public Market in downtown Napa, Chef Todd Humphries continues to turn out wood fired Asian fusion comfort food, and often has Tablas Creek on tap! With only a half hour to burn here in the spring, I ordered (for a second time) the smoked salmon rillettes and crostini. Have a look at the buttery fat layer at the surface, the perfect foil for the bright acidity of Patelin de Tablas Rosé.

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The Wine Gallery

A Tablas Creek wine dinner in the balmy heat of the summer while a south swell is raging along the beaches of Laguna? Sign me up. Chef Rick Guzman and owner/sommelier Chris Olsen hosted the sold out five-wine feast, beginning with a wood fired Crab melt and closing out the night lingering over a heritage pork and bean skillet that they matched with multiple vintages of Esprit de Tablas Rouge. We're coming back for more in 2019!

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Bar Bianco 

Hailing from a pizzeria family myself, it's incredible what is happening with pizza across the US! And it seems the wines being offered at pizzerias are slowly getting elevated to match the farm-to-table crusty cuisine being churned out city to city. In Arizona, the most talked about chef and restaurateur is arguably Chris Bianco, with his Pizzeria Bianco establishments, Tratto, and now Bar Bianco and its monthly wine dinner series focusing on organic vineyards around the world. I asked to have Tablas Creek be a part of the series way back in 2017, and with some perseverance, we combined forces in October and I got to nerd out with a signed copy of his infamous cookbook. Going hyper seasonal, we started with an Antipasto of Okra, Roasted Gold Peppers, Turnip, Sopressata, and Manchego, and concluded with a Braised Beef Shoulder, pickled winter squash and sweet onion German Potato Salad paired with 2014 Esprit de Tablas Rouge. Chris gave a heartfelt toast about community, how the power of good food and sharing a table can connect us all.

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Alter

It's ironic that exactly where my rental car was heavily burglarized three years ago now resides a Michelin-star worthy hotspot called Alter. The Wynwood district in Miami is overflowing in beautiful graffiti art, new wave galleries, coffee roasters, and incredible places to eat and drink. It used to certainly be the Patelin of Florida. We hosted a Tablas Creek wine dinner here in November, five courses designed by Chef Brad Kilgore, with each expanding the imagination factor, but the duck breast and Cotes de Tablas Rouge 2016 blew the whole crowd out of their seats.

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Longboat Key Club

Off the shimmery shores of Sarasota, Florida, there's an annual celebration of wine and Stone Crab known as Bacchus on the Beach. Our Vineyard Brands contact Freddy Matson and Bob Weil of Longboat Key Club put on a mesmerizing memorial dinner to Robert Haas on the powdery white sands, with an endless array of crustaceans and cuvees from both Tablas Creek and Chateau de Beaucastel. I've conducted dinners comparing the California and French bottling, but this was the first time we did all older vintages of Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc and Chateau de Beaucastel. The whites were stunning, spanning from 2005 to 2011, and a lot of VINsiders who turned out raved about the quality of the older whites and how they often don't think to age them. I stumbled away believing there may not be any finer white grape in the world to pair with buttery fresh crab than Roussanne.

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Chez Delmore 

After consuming all this brilliance, and as the nights dip into the 30's around Paso Robles, I've learned that the most memorable meals can often be crafted in your own home, shared by loved ones. I'm no chef, but I've been making a fairly wicked French Onion soup from the cookbook of Daniel Boulud for years. Our farmer's market down the street has all the ingredients for this simple but patience-driven dish, and I've always admired that Chef Boulud's wine recommendation for his soup, once it's pulled out of the broiler with melted Comte cheese and the salty, broth-soaked crust below, is Roussanne, and an older one if you can find it. I think I know some people. Happy Holidays!

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Buy More Wine (and Fewer Wines)

Last weekend, we hosted our annual en primeur tasting for our wine club members. This is part of a program with roots back to 1954, when my dad offered the customers of his father's Manhattan wine shop M. Lehmann the opportunity to purchase futures on the great Bordeaux vintage of 1952. His father never thought consumers would pay for wine before they could get it, but my dad sold out the entire 3000 case allocation in three weeks and transformed the way that Bordeaux wines were sold in America. I recently uncovered the old pamphlet, with gorgeous hand-colored lithographs printed in Paris and sent to my dad's best customers in Manhattan. It's a remarkable time capsule, from an era where a case of first-growth Bordeaux would only set you back some $37. For larger images, click on the pictures below:

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At Tablas Creek, we offer futures on our two top red wines from each vintage, Esprit de Tablas and Panoplie.  We do this in largely the same way, year after year, as is fitting for a program that looks back nearly seven decades. We send out an invitation to purchase at a futures-only savings to our club members, as well as the opportunity to come to one of two sessions where we debut these new wines. Guests try the wines on their own and with a hearty dish that can stand up to the wines' youth, while Neil and I spend the sessions doing our best to put the newest vintage into context with other recent vintages, and share our best guesses as to how the wines will evolve over time. That was our day this past Saturday.

Here's where things get interesting. Because, while we can and do try to draw parallels with other years, no two vintages are the same. For example, my closest comparison for the 2017 wines is 2005: a year, like 2017, where we saw a multi-year drought cycle end with a bang, and where the resulting vintage was both high quality and plentiful, the vines' expression of their health in a warm, generous year. But, of course, the vineyard is older now than it was in 2005, with the oldest vines pushing 25 years and a much higher percentage of head-trained, dry-farmed acreage. The raw materials are not the same. And the young 2017 reds manage to be both densely packed and approachable, thick with primary fruit and yet savory, with hints of the complexity that they'll develop over the decades. They clearly have a long and fascinating life ahead of them.1

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I was asked at both sessions what I thought the drinking windows would be on the wines that we were tasting, and I did my best. I think that both of these wines have two windows, one 3-6 years after vintage where the wine has lost its youthful blockiness but remains young, juicy, and exuberant, and another (after a 1-3 year closed period that I liken to a wine's teenage years) 8-20 or more years after vintage where it has softened, developed more secondary and tertiary flavors of meat, leather, and truffle, when the wines' tannins have softened, when it's mature, graceful, and elegant.

But really, the most fun for me is getting to know a wine at different stages of its life. And this led me to share with the guests one of my revelations I've tried to act on over recent years. I realized I needed to buy more wine, but fewer wines. Most of us don't have unlimited resources and unlimited space. We have to prioritize. And with wine -- or at least my favorite wines, which I think will age well -- this means buying enough to be able to open at different phases of its life, and hopefully still to have some left to enjoy when I think it just can't get any better. I don't think this is feasible with fewer than six bottles, and it's a lot easier with a case.

So, that's my practical wine advice for the year. Buy more wine, but fewer wines. And then get ready to enjoy the journey that the wines you love will take you on. I don't remember seeing any 1952's left in my dad's Vermont cellar. But he definitely went heavy on the vintages he loved: 1964 and 1970 for Bordeaux, 1978 and 1985 for Burgundy, 1981 and 1989 for Chateauneuf du Pape. When we're back there over the New Year's holiday, we'll all be thanking my dad for his foresight.

Footnotes:

  1. If you missed this Monday's order deadline for futures on the 2017's, we'll be accepting orders through this weekend. You can find ordering information here.

When the 3-tier system works as it's supposed to, it's a beautiful thing.

Every summer, I spend a couple of weeks in Vermont.  I'm from there, and my mom still spends summers in the house I grew up in.  My sister and her family are 50 yards away.  And I get a chance to remind my California kids that there are places where it's green in the summer and water flows.  It's a lovely tradition, and I always find it regenerative.

Up until a few years ago, my dad, who like my mom traveled back east for the summer season, would always schedule a couple of consumer events near their Vermont home, and since his health began to decline a few years ago I've tried to continue the tradition.  I did one of these a couple of weeks back at the small shop Meditrina Wine & Cheese, in my hometown of Chester, VT. Now, this isn't a shop that moves dozens of cases of Tablas Creek each year.  But they consistently have a few of our wines on their shelves, their owner Amy Anderson is knowledgeable and passionate, and she's supported Tablas Creek for years. And, as the only legitimate wine shop in town, it was and is a regular destination for the family when we're in town. Amy I discussed doing a tasting together when I was in town last summer, and worked out the details this spring.

Meditrina Tasting 3

About 40 people attended the Wednesday evening tasting, pretty evenly split between people who heard about it from the email I sent out, people who heard about it from the email that Meditrina sent out, and people who were wandering by and stopped in because they saw the (modest) crowd. In the end, Meditrina sold a couple of cases of wine, a few new people learned about Tablas Creek, our Vermont mailing list members were grateful that we did an event (and let them know about it) on the other side of the country, and we helped solidify some relationships.  It's the kind of event that is a basic building block the world over for marketing a family winery.

I do dozens of events a year around the country, typically a mix of restaurant wine dinners, festivals, and in-store tastings.  Why was this one so gratifying?  Well, everything worked as it should, and no one just took advantage of the efforts to make a little easy money. Those efforts began with the promotion of the event. Both we and the shop did our parts in promoting the tasting; it's been on our Web site since the spring, both we and Meditrina sent out emails to our local mailing list members the week of the tasting, and Meditrina posted about it on their Facebook page. 

Meditrina Tasting 2

The good work continued with the logistics and delivery. When the wines that Amy ordered didn't arrive as they were supposed to on the distributor's delivery truck, it looked like we might not be able to pull off the event. But Anton Vicar, the wine specialist for our VT distributor Baker Distributing, jumped into action. He made a special run to the warehouse so that we had wines to sell at the event, bringing them himself as the event was starting. And he hung out at the event after, socializing, making sure things were running smoothly, and interacting with the guests.

And Amy completed the trifecta by putting together an event that rewarded the people who came. The tasting was free. She invested in a nice platter of local cheeses and meats for some nibbles. And she offered great prices on the wines we were showing that evening, so people could feel good about taking wine home with them that night.

Where could this have gone wrong? 

  • The wine shop could have taken the extra business and not done the outreach to help share the winery's story. Or they could not support the wines year-round. (They did, and do.) Or they could have offered the wines at full markup and just taken advantage of the people we brought in. (They didn't.)
  • The distributor could have just said "sorry", asked that the wine shop take orders, and delivered the wine later in the week. Meditrina would have done so, but it'd have been extra work, and inconvenient for the guests, some of whom drove nearly an hour. (Thank you, Anton.)
  • The guests could have used the free tasting as a chance to try some free wine, not bought anything, and maybe ordered it later. But they didn't. They came with enthusiasm and good questions, and supported the shop that did the work of putting on this nice event.
  • Or we, as a winery, could have not promoted the event, and just taken the extra orders that came of it.  I hear all the time when I do events with accounts that the last winery they "partnered" with didn't do anything to ensure the event's success, and didn't turn out their own customers. (This drives me nuts. We always send out news about the events we do to our mailing list members, who are generally grateful. Why wouldn't you do this?)

In the end, everyone benefits.  The wine shop gets some new customers and some extra sales.  The winery gets some new customers, some extra sales, and the gratitude of some mailing list members.  The distributor gets some extra sales and the gratitude of both an account and a supplier.  And the customers get to try some wines they otherwise wouldn't have tried, and a chance to interact with a winery principal 3000 miles from home.

Meditrina Tasting 1

I know that there are times when I complain about the wholesale market in my blog posts.  And it can be frustrating, for all the reasons I explained above.  But this was a great example of how it can work for everyone, and why wholesale distribution should be a benefit to a winery's direct sales, and vice versa.

PS Thanks to my talented sister Rebecca Haas for taking the photos that evening.


Into the Heart of Darkness: Tasting every Tablas Creek Tannat 2002-2017

Each year, we pick a wine we've been making for a while and open up all that wine's vintages, for the dual purposes of better understanding how it ages over time and better advising our fans which vintages to open if they're looking for peak drinking1. This year, we decided to look at Tannat, which is a grape renowned for its ageworthiness that somehow, we'd never opened systematically. So, it was with significant anticipation that we assembled each vintage of Tannat we've made, from our first (2002) to the newly-blended 2017:

Tannat vertical

An additional goal of this particular tasting was to choose a selection of the Tannats to show at a public retrospective tasting. Sixteen wines is too many, but we figure we can pick a representative sample that will give guests a great sense of how the wine develops in bottle, as well as how the vintage affects the wine's composition and flavor profile.  If this sounds like fun, we'll be hosting that tasting on August 19th.  Details are here.

Whether you're thinking of coming or not, I thought it would be fun to share my notes on each wine. I have linked each vintage to that wine's page on our Web site, if you'd like to see production details or what the tasting notes were at bottling.

  • Tannat 2002: On the nose, inviting, with eucalyptus, black cherry, chocolate and mint. The mouth is similar, still quite rich and tannic, with a little cedary oak coming out on the finish. So fresh, and still absolutely in its prime. A treat.
  • Tannat 2003: Smells a little more mature: leather and soy marinade, as well as mint and dark chocolate. The mouth was still quite tannic, elevated by Tannat's signature acids, with flavors of cream soda, chocolate truffle and raspberry liqueur. The finish was my least favorite part of the wine, a touch on the pruney side. 
  • Tannat 2004: Some wildness on the nose, very savory: aged balsamic, tobacco, dried strawberry, and green herbs. The mouth is generous, spicy, and richly tannic, with an earthy mulchy note playing back and forth with black cherry liqueur.
  • Tannat 2005: A lovely meaty chocolate-cherry nose, with meat drippings. Like a Burgundy from an impossibly powerful vintage. The mouth is comparatively gentle, with beautiful currant/plum/black cherry juiciness, with additional flavors of mint and hoisin.  Less overtly tannic than the first three wines, and a real pleasure. My favorite of the older Tannats.
  • Tannat 2006: A slightly oxidative note on the nose, on top of milk chocolate and baking spices. The mouth leads with sweet cherry fruit, given savory complexity by a pine forest note. Medium-weight (less than the four wines before) but nice tannin and acid on the finish, with higher toned flavors of chocolate-covered cranberry lingering.
  • Tannat 2007: Fresh on the nose: minty eucalyptus, cherry cola, and pork fat. Rich and figgy in the mouth, powerfully tannic, but with a sweet edge. It came across to me as a touch alcoholic at this stage, with a finish of chocolate-covered raspberry cordial.
  • Tannat 2008: Immediately different than the previous wines, more translucent on pouring. The nose is older, a touch raisiny, less spicy. The mouth too is quieter, with leather and golden raisin, and less tannin and verve. Not sure if this is a stage, or just a weaker Tannat vintage.
  • Tannat 2009: A blockbuster nose: soy, mineral, tobacco and potpourri.  On the palate, all black descriptors: black plum, black tea, and black licorice, rich and concentrated, with both juiciness and gaminess coming out appealingly on the finish.  Impressive.
  • Tannat 2010: The cool 2010 vintage produced a different, more elegant expression of Tannat: graphite, white pepper, lilac, pork fat, and molasses on the nose. Rich but not aggressive on the palate, with fresh cherry flavors, chewy mouth-coating tannins, and that pancetta-like note returning on the finish.
  • Tannat 2011: Spicy fruit jumps out of the glass: cranberry, eucalyptus, and cocoa powder. Bright on the palate, almost pomegranate-like in its vibrancy and tannic bite, roasted leg of pork and chocolate-cherry. Falls a little short on the finish, with a little raisiny note coming out. We thought this might be better in a few years.
  • Tannat 2012: Again, something different: more red fruit than black, with cedary oak and star anise spices. The mouth shows vibrant acids, then cherry skin, then tannic on the finish.  Still very young.
  • Tannat 2013: Spicy and powerfully savory on the nose: iron shavings, juniper, and fall leaves. The mouth is nicely balanced and more generous than the nose suggests, with cocoa butter, blueberry, and more minty spice. Nicely complete, with excellent finesse.
  • Tannat 2014: Electric and spicy, with za'atar and meat reduction, violets and strawberry on the nose. The mouth is similarly vibrant, with echoes of red cranberry fruit and a long, tangy, saline finish.
  • Tannat 2015: A darker nose, of black licorice, spicy eucalyptus, and a meaty note like a rosemary-rubbed leg of lamb. The mouth is dense and plush, yet lifted by a welcome bitter note that we alternately identified as blood orange and aperol. Really cool, and drinking great right now.
  • Tannat 2016: Just bottled 6 weeks ago, the nose still seemed quiet from the recent bottling: violets and black olive, but obviously more to come. The mouth is nice: dark chocolate, black plum, licorice, and plenty of tannin. Lots to show here, but much more to come. Will be released later this year. Patience.
  • Tannat 2017: Newly blended and living (for now) half in wooden upright tank and half in small barrels while we wait to free up foudre space. Smells like a baby: grape jelly, meaty, still youthfully thick like raspberry pie.  Lots of fermentation aromas.  Tons of potential, but a long way from bottling yet. 

I asked people around the table to offer a few of their favorites, and the wines that got votes included the 2002, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2014, and 2015, with the 2005, 2009, and 2015 pretty universally among everyone's top picks.

We ended up choosing the following vintages for August's public tasting: 2002, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016.

A few concluding thoughts:

  • Tannat definitely has a strong personality.  We were commenting at about wine five that we were running out of ways to say chocolate, mint, and black cherry. That's not to say there weren't vintage variations; there definitely were. But unlike, say, Syrah, which is something of a chameleon depending on where it's grown, I think Tannat's personality is pretty well set, wherever it grows, both in flavors and in its full-bodied, richly tannic texture.
  • Tannat really does age gracefully. The oldest wines didn't taste at all elderly, and some (like that 2002) were almost impossibly fresh, with tannic structure, acids and density that suggested another few decades weren't out of the question. Now Tannat is famous for its ageworthiness, but it's still nice to have confirmation that this fact holds true here in Paso Robles too.
  • That said, I was surprised by how vibrant the younger wines showed. I tend to bury my Tannat bottles in the back of my wine fridge and assume I shouldn't even crack one open for a decade.  The 2013, 2014, and 2015 were all showing beautifully. I think that's one of the benefits of growing this grape here in Paso Robles: you have plenty of sun to ripen the grapes, and so there is fruit to balance the grape's tannins. But just as important, there is acidity from the cool nights and the calcareous soils that keep the wines fresh. If there was one surprise for me, it was the vibrancy of the wines.
  • The meatiness in Tannat is different than what we find in Mourvedre or Syrah. Mourvedre tends to remind me of the drippings from beef roasts. Syrah brings to mind smoky bacon. Tannat's meatiness was more fatty pork, but not bacon-smoky, more like pancetta or roast leg of pork. 
  • For all its meatiness, maybe the most fun thing about Tannat was the floral note that the younger wines showed. I've often found violets in new Tannat releases, which is a fun surprise, like a bodybuilder in a tutu. As the wines age, the floral tones deepen, becoming dried roses and eventually (in the 2009) potpourri. 
  • Those of you coming out for the tasting in August are in for a treat.

Footnote

  1. We update a vintage chart at least quarterly with the results of these tastings.

Rethinking the Role of Wine Festivals in the Age of Yelp and Instagram

Last month, we participated in the Paso Robles Wine Festival, as we do every year. This year was particularly nice, with gorgeous weather and a great vibe at both Friday evening's Reserve Event and Saturday afternoon's Grand Tasting in the downtown park. If you came to see us over the weekend, thanks. We hope you had a great time. We sure did.

Paso Robles Wine Festival Cru 2018

Every year, we debate how much to invest in activities at the winery. This year, we decided to go (relatively) big.  On Sunday, we brought in Chef Jeff Scott and he made gyros from lamb we raised on the property. We also had Chris Beland come in and play music. Our patio was full much of Sunday, and everyone had a great time. All that said, our traffic was modest on Sunday (124 people) which continued a 5-year trend of downward Sunday traffic. It's been declining about 10% a year for a while now. And even our Saturday traffic (209, up a bit from last year) wasn't really an increase over a normal May week.

Friday, on the other hand, was our busiest in recent years, with 105 people. But overall, our weekend traffic (438) was right about at our average for the last 5 years, only slightly busier than a normal May weekend, and actually less busy than Wine Festival Weekend was in the mid-2000's.  Years ago, the Paso Robles Wine Festival weekend was a major source of revenue for the member wineries.  You poured wine in the park on Saturday.  On Sunday, you opened your gates (often to a line of cars) on Sunday morning and saw as many people that one day as you might in a low-season month. So, given the potential payoff, wineries pulled out all the stops in trying to get a high percentage of the park attendees out to the wineries, with food, music, seminars, and special open houses.  Given that it's now not that different from any other weekend, does it makes sense to do the same?  It's not like the decision to provide food and music were free.

We think yes, for two reasons. First, our success with the customers we saw was great. We had our highest weekend sales in the last 5 years, and our second-best number of wine club signups. That's a win. But given that most of those came Friday and Saturday, I'm not sure how much to attribute to our events.  Second (and to my mind, more importantly), what we were doing was investing in the long-term success of the Paso Robles wine region. A regional wine event without the enthusiastic participation of its wineries isn't really that special to the people who attend.

Years of post-event surveys have told us that roughly 50% of the attendees of the Paso Robles Wine Festival are making their first visit to Paso Robles Wine Country. I feel like our most important job is making them fall in love with the place, so they return.  Whether we sell them much wine this time around or not, festivals are part of the marketing of our region, and that investment is a long-term play. We should both pour cool wines in the park and do our part to make sure that attendees have a great selection of things to do the next day. After all, the festival in the park only happens one weekend a year, and is put on in the hope that the attendees will then return, spend multiple days visiting wineries, and make visits here a recurring part of their lives.

I think that longer perspective can get lost if you look just at the post-event traffic numbers. The growing numbers of people who visit Friday and Saturday are likely at least in part the result of good work at past festivals, where attendees fell in love with Paso Robles wine country.  The Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance has done a great job, I think, in making the event more full-fledged in recent years, incorporating the many great restaurants of Paso Robles more and more, adding a reserve tasting, great seminars, etc.

I don't think that the higher average spend per customer we've seen in our tasting room on Wine Fest weekend (double what it was in 2011, triple what we saw in the mid-2000's) is a coincidence. And, more importantly, neither is the growth of our non-festival weekends. In 2003 (the earliest year for which I have good data) we sold about $9,000 in wine on the Sunday of Wine Festival to about 300 guests, part of a $12,500 week that was nearly double our $6,900 average non-festival sales week that year.  This year, on Wine Festival Sunday we also sold about $9,000 in wine. But it was to 124 visitors, and part of a $41,000 tasting room week that was only 13% better than our average week this year ($36,000).

And consumer trends only reinforce how important it is getting new people into the pipeline of your region or your brand.  A study published by Eventbrite showed that the majority of attendees of food and wine festivals are sharing photos of the event on social media. Peer to peer recommendations are the most trusted form of advocacy.  And a positive experience that is echoed on an online review site like Yelp has positive impacts on not only future customers' buying decisions, but on things as apparently removed as your search engine rankings.

So, for us, it's an easy decision. We will keep investing in the success of our community, and trust that these seeds we plant will sprout in the form of return visits and sales. And we're grateful we're a part of a community in Paso Robles where we're just one of many wineries who've made the same choice.