Aspen-inspired reflections on what it means to be a sustainable winery

This past weekend I flew to Aspen to participate for my first time in the Aspen Food & Wine Classic. It was my first work flight since January of 2020 and the only out-of-state visit and only wine festival I have planned this year. I've been cautious in this ongoing pandemic both what I commit Tablas Creek to and what I choose to participate in myself. But this seemed like an opportunity I couldn't pass up.

I'd been invited by Food & Wine's Executive Wine Editor Ray Isle1 to join him on a panel with the title "Wines for a Healthy Planet". It was a chance to talk through the many permutations of sustainable, organic, Biodynamic, Regenerative Organic, natural, and more, in front of as high a profile audience as any in the world of wine. We've been a part of (or at least adjacent to) most of those categories over the years, and I had a chance to have a real conversation with Ray about what it means to be a responsible winery in this day and age. And yet because of the many different ways in which the wines Ray chose advance the goal of a healthier planet, the discussion went places that I hadn't expected, and I come back to California with some new inspirations on how we might continue to evolve our farming and our operations. I wanted to share those thoughts while they're fresh in my mind, and encourage any readers to share other innovative ways that have come across their radar that might go beyond a farming certification.

Jason Haas and Ray Isle at Aspen Food & Wine 2021

I'll follow Ray's lead and share the eight wines in the lineup, in the order in which we tasted them, with some thoughts on how each advances the discussion.

  • 2019 Frog’s Leap Rossi Reserve Sauvignon Blanc. John Williams, Proprietor and Winemaker at Frog's Leap in Napa Valley, is an inspiration of mine, famous for his early adoption of organic farming, his no-nonsense approach to what really matters in Biodynamics, and his embrace of dry farming. He's been outspoken about how all three are how he's made wines of soul and balance in an era when most of his neighbors were chasing power unapologetically. As a pioneering advocate for natural ways of making wine, John's Sauvignon Blanc was a great way to start. [Note, if you haven't read John's lovely piece "Thinking Like a Vine" you should.]
  • 2019 Tablas Creek Esprit de Tablas Blanc. I got to debut our newest vintage of Esprit Blanc next. I've spoken plenty about our own approach to farming and to building a responsible business, but focused in my remarks at the seminar to explaining the significance of the Regenerative Organic Certification that we received last year. More on this in a bit.
  • 2016 Pyramid Valley Field of Fire Chardonnay. New Zealand has been a world leader in sustainable farming practices, with 96% of its acreage included in its nationwide sustainability program. Pyramid Valley takes that one step further by implementing Biodynamics, producing this brilliant Chardonnay from their limest0ne-rich site in North Canterbury. You could taste in the vivacity of the wine the health of the vines and their expressiveness of their soils. 
  • 2019 J Bouchon Pais Salvaje. OK, here things got weird and even more fun. Pais (known in America as Mission) is an ancient grape variety, likely Spanish in origin, that was brought to the New World by Spanish missionaries to produce sacramental wine five centuries ago. It has largely lost favor in recent decades as new varietals arrived here, but this wine was unique in my experience. Made from wild grapevines more than a century old, seeded (presumably) by birds and growing as a wild grapevine would, climbing trees in a riverbed in southern Chile, these vines have never been cultivated, irrigated, pruned, or otherwise intervened with. They're picked by workers on tall ladders leaned against the trees. Their website has a photo. Truly a wine made without impacts on its environment! The wine itself was bright and spicy, showing its 50% carbonic fermentation, rustic and refreshing. 
  • 2018 Cullen Red Moon Red. From the Margaret River region in Australia, Cullen has been organic since 1998 and Biodynamic since 2003. Beyond that, they're the first winery I know of to be certified as carbon-neutral, achieved both by reductions in their own footprint (the glass bottle they use is the lightest I've ever felt) and through the funding of reforestation programs and a biodiversity corridor project. The wine, a blend of Malbec and Petit Verdot, was minty, spicy, and light on its feet, about as far away from the jammy stereotype of Australia as it's possible to get.   
  • 2018 Tenuta di Valgiano Palistorte Rosso. Made in Tuscany from a blend of Sangiovese, Merlot, and Syrah, like many of the other wines the Tenuta di Valgiano was organically and Biodynamically grown. But unusually, it was made from a vineyard entirely surrounded by forest, isolated from other vines that might have been treated in a more industrial way. The idea of chemical drift isn't one that gets talked about much in grapegrowing, the wine gave Ray a chance to share stories of other vineyards that saw their border rows of vines defoliated by herbicide sprays.
  • 2016 Torres Grans Muralles. The Torres family of wineries, stretching from Spain to Chile to Sonoma, is one of the world's largest family-run producers. They're also leaders in sustainability, particularly in their work co-founding International Wineries for Climate Action (IWCA), whose participants commit to reducing their carbon footprint 50% by 2030 and 100% by 2050. This wine shows another piece of their commitment to how wineries can have positive impacts on their communities, sourced from ancient vineyards in the Spain's Conca de Barberà region discovered as a part of a conservation effort Familia Torres began in the 1980s, in which they placed ads in small-town newspapers looking for farmers with plots of old, overgrown grapevines. This led to the discovery of two heritage varieties (Garró and Querol) which combine with Garnacha, Cariñena, and Monastrell to produce this unique wine.
  • 2017 Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon. We finished with a classic. Spottswoode was one of first wineries in Napa Valley to begin farming organic in 1985 and has been certified since 1992. They're now Biodynamic certified as well, a B Corp (the first, winery, I believe, to achieve this), and participants in programs like 1% for the Planet and IWCA. Their "One Earth" list of initiatives is an inspiring example of how a winery can make a positive impact in multiple ways. But just as important is the example they set. Far from environmental sensitivity being something for the fringes of wine, all these efforts help them make a superlative version of America's most famous and popular grape.

I asked Ray for how he chose this diverse collection of wines. His reply emphasizes that while farming is important, it's not just about that:

“I did this seminar because I wanted to highlight how wineries around the world—literally in every wine region—have become more and more invested in agricultural and winemaking practices that are good for the environment, rather than potentially detrimental. Whether that’s through organic viticulture, regenerative agriculture, biodynamics, or climate-conscious programs for reducing a wineries’ carbon, water or energy footprints, there’s a global shift in wine right now towards this sensibility. I feel like the producers I chose—Spottswoode, Pyramid Valley, Frog’s Leap, Tenuta di Valgiano and others, including of course Tablas Creek—are at the forefront of these efforts. Plus, they all make excellent wine; that’s pretty vital, too.”

I come away from this experience convinced that the biggest sustainability challenge for the generation of wineries that, like us, have adopted organic or Biodynamic farming in the last few decades is going to be to improve our business practices. We will of course continue to invest in our farming. I'm proud that Tablas Creek is helping lead the way on some of these initiatives, specifically the work that we've done to achieve Regenerative Organic Certified status. But as I wrote when I published the results of a carbon footprint self-audit in May, the challenges of improving packaging and energy use and water conservation will loom large over the wine community in coming years.

After being a part of this seminar, I have a bunch more ideas running around in my head. Thanks, Ray.

Footnote:

  1. If you'd like to get to know Ray a little (and you should) he was my guest in one of my Instagram Live conversations this summer. Our archived conversation can be found here.

Looking back at the cold, frost-reduced 2011 vintage with a decade's perspective

2011 was a year unlike any that we'd seen before, and it seems unlikely that we'll see another like it any time soon. It was the second consecutive cold vintage, cooler than any we'd seen since 1998, and much colder than anything we've seen since 2012. It began with devastating frosts on consecutive nights that April 8th and 9th, reducing yields of early-sprouting varieties dramatically. Grenache was off 41%. Syrah and Grenache Blanc were both down 51%. Viognier was down a devastating 71%. Our late-ripening grapes were less affected, but even Mourvedre saw crops reduced 24%. Only Roussanne, always the most frost-resistant grape in the vineyard, saw increased yields over 2010, and our total yields off the estate were down 34%.

The year's challenges didn't end after the frost. Persistent onshore flow meant that we had many more foggy mornings than we're used to, cooler temperatures, and delayed ripening. A heat spike in August was one of our most severe to date, and many vineyards around California, who had pulled leaves because of mildew pressures and worries about slow ripening, saw significant sunburn. Early rain the first week of October came while most of the harvest was still on the vine, and many vineyards saw an explosion of rot. And the frost-delayed beginning to the growing season and the unusually cool summer weather combined to produce one of our latest-ever finishes to harvest, on November 8th, which allowed two more rainstorms to pass through before we were done.

Still, in the end we felt fortunate. We harvested fruit with intense flavors (from the low yields and long ripening cycle) and bright acids (from the cool year). As of mid-October, we were less than one-third complete with harvest, but we were able to harvest everything that was out. Unlike most of Northern California, when the rainstorms passed through Paso they were followed by dry, breezy weather, which meant we didn't have significant fungal issues. And because of our relatively high investment in late-sprouting, late-ripening grapes, we saw lower frost losses than many of our neighbors. I was feeling optimistic enough toward the end of harvest that I wrote a blog with the headline Why Paso Robles Will Make California's Best Wines in 2011.

Still, our options when it came to blending were significantly constrained. We ended up not making many of the wines that we were used to. No varietal Grenache, or Syrah, or Counoise, or Viognier. No dessert wines. Unusual blends of the Cotes de Tablas wines given the scarcity of some of the lead grapes. But we felt at the time that the wines we were making from that year would end up being very ageworthy. The red wines all showed a dark, brooding character that suggested they would age slowly, opening up with time to reveal extra layers of fruit, earth, and spice. The white wines all showed remarkable texture and pronounced salinity. And we've loved the expressiveness of the 2011 vintage in the recent vertical tastings we've done. So it was with great anticipation that we opened all our 2011 wines yesterday. The lineup:

Horizontal Tasting of 2011

My notes on the wines are below. I've noted their closures (SC=screwcap; C=cork) and, for the blends, their varietal breakdown. Each wine is also linked to its technical information on our Web site, if you'd like to see winemaking details or the tasting notes at bottling. 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 Marketing Coordinator Ian Consoli.

  • 2011 Vermentino (SC): The nose initially showed all of Vermentino's mineral notes (flint, oyster shell) but with just a little time the citrus leaf and grapefruit pith character emerged. On the palate, very young tasting and bright, with preserved lemon flavors, bright acids, plenty of stony minerality, and briny sea spray notes on the finish. Still youthful and bright, though it's a good reminder to let older screwcapped whites breathe a bit before judging them.
  • 2011 Picpoul Blanc (C): None of us were quite sure why we bottled this under cork, when the other aromatic whites were all screwcapped and Picpoul Blanc had been screwcapped the year before. The wine showed a deeper golden color than any of the other whites we opened. On the nose, sweet aromas of toasted marshmallow, creme caramel, chamomile, and wheat kernels. The mouth was viscous and rich, with flavors of lemon meringue, creamy texture, and a long finish of Asian pear and lemongrass. I think we all wished this had been finished in screwcap too, as it would have shown more of the brightness we love about Picpoul.
  • 2011 Grenache Blanc (SC): A nose of peppered citrus and chalky minerality that reminded me of a Chablis with a decade in bottle. On the mouth, the initial impression was a sweet one of spun sugar, then bright acids took over, then rich texture and a pithy bite on the finish helping keep the sweet lychee flavors fresh. Pretty, youthful, and in an excellent place. A terrific showing for this grape that's known to oxidize young.
  • 2011 Patelin de Tablas Blanc (SC; 45% Grenache Blanc, 34% Viognier, 18% Roussanne, 3% Marsanne): Our second-ever Patelin Blanc showed very well, with a nose of pineapple skin, apple, and crunchy nectarine. On the palate, sweet fruit, good acids, and surprisingly rich texture, with lemon curd and flan flavors and a fruity, vibrant finish with apple fruit leather and mandarin orange notes. Seems to strike a great balance between Viognier's fleshiness and Grenache Blanc's tension. Really pretty.
  • 2011 Cotes de Tablas Blanc (SC; 27% Viognier, 26% Grenache Blanc, 25% Marsanne, 22% Roussanne): An unusual Cotes de Tablas because we had so little Viognier, and therefore decided to leave the Viognier on the skins during fermentation to extract maximum character from the grape. The nose showed sweeter dried peach, white gummy bear and cream soda notes, but also a salty sea spray character. The mouth was spectacular. Rich texture, a pronounced saline note like high quality salted butter, and fruit flavors of dried mango and orange creamsicle. A little skin texture kept things from being too weighty. A highlight for me, and many of us.
  • 2011 Marsanne (SC): Our second-ever varietal Marsanne. A nose like the sea that we all came up with different ways of describing, from kelp forest to sea spray to miso. A little hint of quince... almost sweet but not quite. On the palate, more generous than the nose suggested, with a creamy minerality, egg custard and beeswax notes, and a hint of butterscotch. A little nuttiness (blanched almond) cane out on the long finish. Pretty and elegant.
  • 2011 Roussanne (C): A weird showing for this wine. The color was medium gold, and showed a slight haze. The flavors were a little more reminiscent of a sour beer or cider than typical Roussanne honey and nuts, with coriander, yuzu, and wheaty notes. A hint of retsina-like pine sap and some sweet oak came out on the finish. I'm still hopeful that a little more time in bottle will help this assume a more recognizable form, but for now, it's more interesting than pleasurable.
  • 2011 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (C; 64% Roussanne, 26% Grenache Blanc, 10% Picpoul Blanc): Very Roussanne on the nose, with aromas of pear, pineapple, candied ginger and graham cracker. The mouth is lovely and mouth-watering, with fresh pineapple and sarsaparilla flavors and rich texture that brightens up on the finish leaving lingering notes of roasted nuts and clove. At peak maturity but with plenty left in the tank.
  • 2011 Antithesis Chardonnay (C): Our last Chardonnay bottling, from a vintage that seemed like it should have played to the cool-loving grape's strengths. A creamy nose of marshmallow and sweet oak. The palate showed lots of glycerine texture, and flavors of baked apple and caramel. The finish came off to me a bit sweet-tasting, with notes of chamomile and white tea. Not particularly evocative of Chardonnay to me, and felt a little overripe. Drink up if you've got any left.
  • 2011 Rosé (SC; 58% Mourvedre, 30% Grenache, 12% Counoise): Still a nice deep pink-orange in the glass. The nose isn't recognizably a rosé nose, or even terribly wine-like at this point. Reminded us of a Negroni, with a spicy wintery nose of mulling spices. The mouth shows sweetness on the attack with candied strawberry flavors and a bitter tinge on the finish like Campari. No one would have intentionally kept this wine this long, but it's at least still interesting. 
  • 2011 Full Circle (C): Our second Full Circle Pinot Noir from my dad's property in the Templeton Gap, and not our favorite showing, to the point that we opened a second bottle because we thought the first might have been oxidized. But the second bottle was the same: a nose of coffee grounds and cocoa hulls, a little oxidized and pruney. The mouth is in a nicer place, showing dark chocolate-covered cherries, saddle leather, and a little seed tannin perhaps from whole cluster fermentations. The finish showed a figgy note. This seems like it could have been impacted by the heat spike, or perhaps we just picked it a little too ripe.
  • 2011 Tannat (C): A cool herby eucalyptus note over sweet/bitter aromas that we variously described as dark chocolate, molasses, and black cherry cola. On the palate, still youthful: unsweetened chocolate and juniper forest, still quite tannic, with a nice smoky black raspberry note coming out on the finish. If you have some of this, I'd recommend you stash it at the back of your cellar for another couple of years.
  • 2011 Patelin de Tablas (SC; 52% Syrah, 29% Grenache, 18% Mourvedre, 1% Counoise): This wine has always carried a touch of a reductive character from the cool vintage and the high percentage of Syrah, and it still does, with a gunpowdery minerality over iron, black cherry, and meat drippings. Neil compared it to a Loire Cabernet Franc. The mouth is in a nice place, with a sweet minty chocolate note, savory baking spices, and nicely resolved tannins. I'm sure most of this has long been drunk, but if you find a bottle you're in for a treat. We sold this for $20 at the time. 
  • 2011 Cotes de Tablas (C; 49% Grenache, 28% Syrah, 15% Mourvedre, 8% Counoise): The nose is beautiful, very red fruited in contrast to the darkness of the previous two wines, with notes of cherry and sweet herbs. The mouth is juicy and lively, with beautiful raspberry and sweet tobacco notes. There are still some tannins that keep the juicy finish from being overly sweet. A consensus favorite and absolutely at peak. 
  • 2011 Mourvedre (C): A lovely mature nose of dried cranberry, leather, sweet cola and potpourri. The mouth is fully resolved too with milk chocolate-covered cherries, soft tannins, and a little soy umami note. A hint of oxidation started to come out with a few minutes in the glass, suggesting that while this is very pretty, the clock is ticking. Might be a year or two past peak. Drink up if you've got any.
  • 2011 En Gobelet (C; 29% Mourvedre, 27% Grenache, 26% Tannat, 18% Syrah): With so much Tannat, relatively little Grenache, and no Counoise, it was probably unsurprising that the En Gobelet was so dominated by dark notes and still youthfully tight. The nose was brooding and iron-like, with the other grapes seeming subservient to Tannat. With time, a little minty dark chocolate did come out. On the palate, luscious and mouth-coating like a traditional Black Forest cake made with cherry liqueur. The tannins are still massive, and this wine feels a ways still from its peak.
  • 2011 Esprit de Tablas (C; 40% Mourvedre, 30% Grenache, 20% Syrah, 10% Counoise): Initially reserved on the nose, with savory Worcestershire and roasted meat coming out with time. On the palate, in a very nice place, with semi-sweet chocolate, rose petals, and soy marinade flavors and some powdered-sugar tannins maintaining order. The long finish shows all the components of a flourless chocolate cake, with a meaty, salty lingering note. At peak, or nearly so, with plenty of life left.
  • 2011 Panoplie (C; 60% Mourvedre, 30% Grenache, 10% Syrah): A powerhouse on the nose, with aromas of sugar plums, Worcestershire sauce, loam, and a little minty lift. On the palate, soft and generous, with sweet Mexican chocolate and fresh blackberry, and meat dripping flavors, and well integrated tannins that glide into a generous finish of baker's chocolate, rose petals, and black tea. At peak, with lots more to come.
  • 2011 Petit Manseng (C): Our second bottling of this classic southwest French grape known for maintaining great acids as it reaches high (and occasionally extremely high) sugar levels, which we make each year in an off-dry style. The nose showed lychee, pineapple, green herbs and petrol, reminiscent of an aged demi-sec Chenin Blanc. The palate was like a lemon bar with powdered sugar, sweet but still bracingly tart, with a long finish of mango and caramel. Fun, unique, and still youthful. 

A few concluding thoughts

2011 is a vintage we're unlikely to ever see the likes of again. In the last decade, the impacts of climate change on California have become much more pronounced, and 2011 was already an unusually cold vintage. I'm not sad about that; this was a tough year for grapegrowers around the state, even though I was pleased with how we handled the year's challenges. In this tasting, the wines were a little more uneven than in a truly great year, with a few reds unexpectedly showing signs of age. I'm not sure whether that is a function of the uneven and sometimes very low yields, the heat spike, or the fact that we still had in the back of our heads the ripeness levels we were used to seeing in the 2005-2009 era, and perhaps left some of the grapes on the vine longer than we would have now. It could be a combination. Still, the best wines were really strong, and the whites overall outstanding.

It was not easy selling the 2011 in the market when they were first released. It was clear that the wines had potential, but the character was darker, denser, and more brooding than the blockbuster, juicy 2009's or the elegant, open-knit 2010's. I feel like I spent a lot of time contextualizing the vintage, explaining why Paso Robles shouldn't be painted with the same brush as Napa/Sonoma in this difficult vintage, and hoping people could look beyond the brooding present to what the wines promised to become. I was only partially successful, and it wasn't until we were ready to release the 2012 reds that the 2011's really started to open up. Oh, well. It meant that we stashed a higher-than-normal quantity of our top wines, and have been able to portion them out to people in recent years. There are worse problems to have.

I asked the team to vote for their favorites, and the wines that received multiple nominations cut across the spectrum that we make: Vermentino, Grenache Blanc, Cotes de Tablas Blanc, Esprit de Tablas Blanc, Patelin de Tablas, Cotes de Tablas, Mourvedre, and Panoplie. That both Cotes de Tablas wines showed so well is a continuation of what we've seen time and again at these tastings. Although we think of the Cotes wines as ones to drink while we wait for the Esprits to mature, at a decade out both show consistently well. I should remember that and lay more down.

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.

In uneven vintages, the benefits of blending are even more evident. We made less of both Esprit de Tablas and Esprit de Tablas Blanc in 2011 than we did in 2010. Some of that was because there was less wine to work with, and if we'd made an equal amount of Esprit and Esprit Blanc we wouldn't have had many other wines. But more of that was our commitment to only blending the very top lots into the Esprits. And that quality really showed through in the Esprit Blanc, Esprit, and Panoplie. I think we can be proud of the process that produced those wines.

In a normal year, this tasting would be the prelude for a public event at which we would share the highlights of this tasting with wine club members and other guests. Ten years is a great duration to show the rewards of cellaring; it's 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. That's not an option this year, or at least not right now. If things continue to improve, I'm tentatively thinking of hosting our 2011 horizontal tasting this November. Fingers crossed.


Which of the many Covid-19 changes to the wine industry will prove enduring?

Usually, at this time of year, I'm locking in the plans for the market visits I'll be making for the busy fall selling season. When I travel, I typically spend my days riding around with distributor reps calling on restaurant and retail accounts to show them our new releases, and my evenings hosting in-store tastings and winemaker dinners to help those same accounts tell the Tablas Creek story to their customers. But I won't be visiting any out-of-state markets the rest of 2020. That's for sure, and I think the first half of 2021 is likely to be more of the same.

Instead, I've been scheduling Zoom meetings and arranging for sample deliveries to wholesale accounts, working on a national strategy to organize virtual tastings around the releases of the 2018 Esprit de Tablas and Esprit de Tablas Blanc, trying to figure out what sorts of trade visits to Tablas Creek we can safely host, and finalizing details with my guest for Wednesday's Instagram Live broadcast.

Jason on video chat with Sadie

I think it's safe to say that this pandemic will be a generation-defining event, in the way that 9-11 was, or the Vietnam War. Covid has spurred changes large and small to nearly everyone's personal and work lives. I've been thinking a lot about which of the changes that we're making to our business will be things that will endure even after the pandemic is in the rear-view mirror, and which will fade away as we get back to normal life. Here are my current thoughts.

Things that seem like they will endure

  • Virtual trade tastings. These sorts of tastings have been (in my opinion) exceptionally effective. We've figured out how to rebottle wines into sample bottles and get those samples to the restaurant and retail buyers (and media) in a relatively cost-effective way. Then, over Zoom, we can present the wines, have a conversation, show photos, answer (and ask) questions, and generally be interactive. Compare this to the closest thing in the before world: a trade lunch or trade seminar. People have to physically get to your location, you always get tons of cancellations, it's expensive, and it's inflexible. What you lose from being online is negligible, but what you gain is massive. People can be anywhere. There are no commute costs and no one cancels because they're stuck in traffic. You can add people up to the last minute, and you can even record the events for people who couldn't join you to watch later.    
  • An increased focus on reaching consumers online with live events. At Tablas Creek, Neil and I both started doing live broadcasts weekly at the beginning of the pandemic, him on Facebook and me on Instagram. They've both been sufficiently compelling that although we've moved to an ever-other-week schedule, we're planning on keeping them going indefinitely. I've written about how one of the things this pandemic has done is encourage us (and other wineries) to meet consumers where they are, rather than force them to come to us. This is a great way to do this, at very low cost, and they're archived and posted on our social media channels for people to revisit at their leisure. 
  • Shift toward e-commerce and delivery. Our baseline of weekly phone and internet orders during the pandemic was roughly three and a half times what it was last year. That's a huge increase. I know that some of it was an unsustainable surge in people stocking up, and some of it was that everyone was at home cooking instead of out at restaurants (and so they needed to buy wine to go with those meals). But that's a lot of customers who now know how to use the online tools who didn't before, and I think it's extremely unlikely that the baseline will go down to where it was before. I've read in other industries that the pandemic spurred five years of changes in behavior in a few months. That sounds right to me, at least for this metric.
  • Tastings by appointment at wineries. We've always been proud that you didn't need an appointment to taste at Tablas Creek, and felt that allowing someone who is recommended to visit to make a spur-of-the-moment decision to do so was central to our mission to spread the word on the Rhone Rangers category. But we realized that there was no way that we could control our flow of tasters (which then allows us to maintain distancing and ensure a good experience for those who come) without appointments. So, we implemented them. The results have been quite positive. The average sale per customer has gone up about 13%, as have wine club conversions, and we haven't lost much traffic, because when visitors see that Saturday is sold out, they've been booking Friday or Sunday visits instead. That means we can give everyone better experiences, and we've seen the results in sales and club signups. I can easily imagine not wanting to go back.
  • Fewer wine cruises. We've hosted wonderful cruises that brought people to Beaucastel and around French, Spanish, and Italian wine regions each odd-numbered year since 2013. And we were far from the only ones. By the past few years, it seemed like every winery, wine region, and wine association was sponsoring a wine cruise somewhere. I don't think they will go away, but I do think that we'll see fewer of them, as I think it will take a long time for people's tolerance for close quarters and enclosed spaces to return to where it was pre-Covid.
  • Wine and drinks to-go from restaurants. One of the relief measures that most states passed in the immediate aftermath of shut-down orders was to allow restaurants to sell beer, wine, and cocktails for takeout with their food. And it's been wonderful, with really no negative impacts on anyone that I can think of. While a few places might re-enact restrictions on this business, I think most of them will stay in place, not least because restaurants are likely to be struggling with reduced capacity or outside dining only for quite a long time. By the time things get back to normal, I just can't see state governments choosing to punish restaurants by taking away this revenue source. 

Things that likely won't endure

  • The end of wine festivals. There just aren't going to be wine festivals, at least not as we know them, until there's a Covid vaccine. Sure, events will move online. (Along those lines, if you want to experience the famously exclusive Aspen Food & Wine Classic, you can do so online for free. One of our wines is even included in a seminar!) But I don't think that this spells the end of wine festivals, because the online experience is so far removed from what you get if you go to an event and can choose from hundreds of wines from dozens of wineries, and sample tastes from scores of restaurants. That doesn't translate online very well, and as soon as people feel safe in crowds, I expect these sorts of events to come roaring back.
  • Virtual consumer tastings. We pivoted to offer virtual wine tastings during the three months when our tasting room was closed. And we enjoyed them, and got lots of positive feedback. But as things have moved toward reopening, we've seen demand fall pretty sharply. In April, we sold 58 of our virtual tasting packs per week. In May, that declined to 23 per week. In June, it fell to 8 per week. Some of that was other wineries jumping into that same space. But a lot of it was, I think, Zoom fatigue, and the fact that sitting in front of a computer is a pale reflection of a winery visit, no matter how engaging a winery tries to make it. We're going to plan to continue to offer virtual tastings, but I don't expect the demand to be huge. The sorts of virtual events that I do think will endure are those that offer experiences that aren't a knockoff of what you can get at a winery, like panel discussions including far-flung members of the wine community, and offering deep insights into regions, grapes, or techniques. 
  • Cheap wine shipping. There were a ton of pressures, both short- and long-term, for wineries to offer free or discounted shipping during the first round of stay-at-home orders. And we did, offering $10 flat-rate shipping for more than three months. It seemed the least we could do to help people sheltering at home, and we were worried that the closure of restaurants would mean that a big outlet for our wines would disappear, leaving us with lots of extra inventory. As it turned out, we did lose most of that restaurant business, but the growth in direct sales mostly made up for it, though at the cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars in shipping subsidies. Boutique wineries can generally not easily replicate Amazon and other e-commerce giants' infrastructure of having warehouses around the country, and therefore being able to offer fast, cheap ground shipping. Many wines are made in tiny quantities, and the logistical challenges of splitting, say, 70 total cases of inventory of our newly-released 2019 Picardan among multiple warehouses and our tasting room are really thorny. Because wine is perishable, two-day shipping or faster is pretty much non-negotiable. And because wine bottles are heavy, air shipping is expensive. Even with the better rates that our fulfillment center can negotiate because of their volume, it's around $100 for us to send a case of wine to the east coast, and not much less to go to Texas or the Midwest. That's a lot of cost to eat if you're offering free or steeply discounted shipping, particularly if your wines aren't $50 or more per bottle. Essentially, nothing has changed since this Twitter thread I shared in February. All together, this means that I don't think that most wineries will be able to keep up free or nearly-free shipping indefinitely:   

So, I'm curious. What did I miss? Any big wine industry changes that you're seeing that you think are here to stay? Or that will be relegated to the dustbin of history as soon as we have a Covid vaccine? Please share in the comments.


We're not about to reopen. Which means it's the right time to think about what that will look like.

Wherever you are and whatever you do for work, I hope you’re weathering the current storm OK. Here, even though as an agricultural enterprise we've been able to continue our farming and cellar work, we've had to begin reinventing how we work as a business. I feel good about the things we've added, including Instagram and Facebook live weekly broadcasts, virtual tastings over Zoom, and an increased investment in sharing what's happening here over video. We even have our own YouTube channel now.

New Tasting Room - EmptyAgricultural businesses are classified as essential, because we’re working with perishable products that often have only one harvest a year, and are the building blocks of the food and drink supply chain. But unless we want to risk infecting our workers and our customers, that status doesn't give us leave to operate as though the business environment were normal. When we were blending at Tablas Creek week-before-last, we made several changes to do what we could to minimize the risks that if one of us were infected but asymptomatic we might transmit the virus. I talked about some of those in last week's blog. With six people distributed around our big conference table, we all had plenty of space. We all pulled and washed our own glasses and dump buckets. The sample bottles were wiped down before they were poured, and only one person picked up and poured each bottle. We kept doors and windows open so there was air moving in the room. We'd all been quarantining at home the previous two weeks, and everyone was healthy. As we've started physically blending the wines, we've limited our cellar team to two people at a time.

Even as we're reevaluating how we can safely operate under current conditions, I've spent a lot of the enforced downtime thinking about how and under what conditions we and other hospitality-facing businesses will be able to reopen. At some point, the shelter at home Coronavirus restrictions will be lifted. I've come to the conclusion that it's very unlikely that we'll go back to pre-Covid status quo.

I'm clearly not the only one thinking about this. As discussions ramp up on lifting local and national restrictions, some of the heavyweights of the American business community are weighing in. The American Enterprise Institute, which you'd think would come down on the side of restarting the economy sooner than later, laid out some pretty rigorous preconditions in their report on how the economy might reopen:

"...when a state reports a sustained reduction in cases for at least 14 days (i.e., one incubation period); and local hospitals are safely able to treat all patients requiring hospitalization without resorting to crisis standards of care; and the capacity exists in the state to test all people with COVID-19 symptoms, along with state capacity to conduct active monitoring of all confirmed cases and their contacts."  

Similarly, JPMorgan Chase's Jamie Dimon, in the annual letter to his shareholders he published last week, predicted a complex series of events that would need to take place before the American economy could start to get back to normal, and ongoing restrictions once it does:

"It is hoped that the number of new COVID-19 cases will decrease soon and – coupled with greatly enhanced medical capabilities (more beds, proper equipment where it is needed, adequate testing) – the healthcare system is equipped to take care of all Americans, both minimizing their suffering and maximizing their chance of living. Once this occurs, people can carefully start going back to work, of course with proper social distancing, vigilant hygiene, proper testing and other precautions."

We won't be the only (or first) economy to figure out how to safely relax the restrictions that have allowed us to slow the spread of Covid-19. An article in the New York Times examined how a few European countries are going about restarting their economies. From their conclusion: “The gradual acceleration of economic activity is accompanied by strict new rules requiring people to cover their nose and mouth in shops and on public transport — and many more months of strict social distancing.

So, what will a winery tasting room look like once we can reopen, whenever that is? It won't, I don't think, look like it did over the last two decades. We will almost certainly face restrictions to the activities we can conduct, and even if we don't, we will need to operate responsibly. I'm thinking it may resemble the brief period after social distancing measures were announced but before all tasting rooms had to close. Restaurants removed tables. Our tasting room moved to tasting-by-reservation so we could keep six feet between groups. Everyone started cleaning and disinfecting much more rigorously.

This is the time, before we're faced with the imminent arrival of customers, when we should all be thinking about we can reopen safely. How many customers will we safely be able to welcome at a time? What sorts of events will we be able to hold? What will we need to do to make sure that our team is safe? I don't know, but am trying to plan for it. Assuming we'll just go back to status quo ante isn't smart.

This great article by Thomas Pueyo called "The Hammer and the Dance" was widely shared last month. We're all working on the hammer now. But there will be a longer period of the dance, where we've reopened but are constantly mitigating risks. Now seems like a good time for us all to start thinking about what that will look like, and examining the pieces of our business that will likely have to change.

I look forward to figuring this all out, as a community.


Congratulations to Winemaker Neil Collins, Paso Robles Wine Industry Person of the Year for 2019!

At the end of January, nearly 30 of the Tablas Creek team joined some 200 members of the Paso Robles wine community to celebrate our long-time winemaker Neil Collins, who was voted by his peers the 2019 Paso Robles Wine Country Person of the Year. You can read the official announcement from the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance. 

Tablas Creek Winemaker Neil Collins - Landscape

With one exception -- the 1997 vintage, during which Neil was working at Beaucastel -- Neil has had a hand in every vintage of Tablas Creek. We first met him in 1994, when he was Assistant Winemaker at Adelaida Cellars, where we rented space to make our first few vintages of practice wine. By the time we'd gotten our French clones into production and built our winery in 1997, we'd become so impressed with Neil's work that we offered him our winemaking position and the opportunity to spend a year working at Beaucastel. We're honored that he's been here ever since. 

Along the way, Neil created two other businesses here in the Paso Robles area, and this award recognized these contributions at least as much as his winemaking at Tablas Creek. He started the Lone Madrone label with his wife Marci and his sister Jackie in 1996, through which he has championed dry-farmed vineyards on Paso's West side while focusing on heritage grapes like Zinfandel and Chenin Blanc, along with (of course) Rhones and the occasional parcel that was too good to turn down. Nebbiolo, anyone? And as if that wasn't enough on his plate, for the last decade he's been leading a Central Coast cider renaissance through his Bristol's Cider label and the Bristol's Cider House in Atascadero.

When my dad and Jean-Pierre and Francois Perrin started Tablas Creek, they felt pretty confident in their abilities to grow, make wine out of, and sell Rhone grape varieties. (As it turned out, that assumption was probably a little optimistic, but what great adventure ever gets started without a little unwarranted optimism... and anyway, that's a story for another day.) What they found in Neil, in addition to a man with relentless curiosity and legitimate hands-on winemaking chops, was someone who was steeped in Paso Robles. Although he's not a native, he spent his whole winemaking career here, from its early days with Ken Volk at Wild Horse through his extended stint with John Munch at Adelaida. I know that it meant a lot for him to have Ken, who gave him his first job in wine, be the one who presented his award at the Gala. I videoed the presentation speech:

You might well ask how he's able to run what is in essence three separate businesses while still holding down a full-time job here at Tablas Creek. That's part of what makes Neil special. He has a great ability to get things rolling, empower the people who work for him, and then keep tabs on the status of the many projects he's working on without having to (or, just as importantly, feeling like he has to) do everything himself. But it's not that he's content with the status quo. Far from it. His relentless experimentation is one of the things that has allowed Tablas Creek to grow and thrive the way it has under his watch. And it's one of the reasons why his lieutenants here at Tablas Creek tend to stay for the long term. I asked Senior Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi, who's been here more than a decade herself, to share her thoughts on Neil, and I loved what she told me: "One of the things I love most about working with Neil is watching him build community and having the chance to be part of it. You see it in his close-knit family for sure, but it extends well beyond that. His groups of friends and colleagues, the family he's built in the Tablas Creek cellar team, his employees from Lone Madrone and Bristols - it's a true delight to be near someone who cares deeply about the humans around him."

I think you'll get a good sense of why people want to work with and for Neil from his acceptance speech:

It's an honor to call Neil a colleague and a friend, and I couldn't be more excited that he received this recognition. 


Looking back with a decade's perspective on the 2010 vintage: a year of firsts

2010 was, in my opinion, the first vintage to show what we consider the "modern" character of Tablas Creek. The cool year meant that we picked with lower sugars and higher acids than we had most years before then. We debuted six wines, including the Patelin de Tablas and Patelin de Tablas Blanc, as well as our Full Circle Pinot Noir. And the range of wines included nearly every varietal we grow, and one (Cabernet) we mostly don't. So it was with great anticipation that we opened all our 2010 wines on Friday.

This is the seventh year that we've kicked off January with a "horizontal" tasting of the vintage from ten years before. (Horizontal refers to the practice of opening a range of wines from a single vintage, as compared to vertical, which would mean opening the same wine from a range of vintages.) Part of this is simple interest in seeing how our wines -- many of which we don't taste regularly -- have evolved, but we also have a specific purpose: choosing ten of the most compelling and interesting wines from this vintage to show at the public retrospective tasting we're holding on February 9th.  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, this year, the white wines were some of the highlights. The lineup:

Lineup of all Tablas Creek wines from 2010

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 2010 vintage:

The 2010 vintage saw healthy rainfall after three years of drought. The ample early-season groundwater and a lack of spring frosts produced a good fruit set. A very cool summer delayed ripening by roughly three weeks, with harvest not beginning until mid-September and still less than half complete in mid-October. Warm, sunny weather between mid-October and mid-November allowed the later-ripening varieties to reach full maturity. The long hangtime and cool temperatures combined to produce fruit with intense flavors at low alcohol levels. White whites display bright acids, good concentration and intense saline minerality.  Red wines show dark colors, spicy aromatics and granular tannins.

2010 saw our largest lineup to date: 26 wines in all, including six wines we were making for the first time, and a couple of others that we hadn't made in a few years. That's all thanks to the plentiful vintage, which allowed us to make some varietal wines that in other years would have been all needed for our blends. In the tasting we had 9 dry whites, 1 rosé, 13 dry reds, and 3 sweet wines. That's a lot more than 2009, when we were only able to make 15.

My notes on the wines are below. I've noted their closures (SC=screwcap; C=cork) and, for the blends, their varietal breakdown. Each wine is also linked to its technical information on our Web site, if you'd like to see winemaking details or the tasting notes at bottling. I was joined for the tasting by most of our cellar team (Neil Collins, Craig Hamm, Amanda Weaver, and Austin Collins) as well as by Viticulturist Jordan Lonborg, Tasting Room Manager John Morris, and Marketing Coordinator Ian Consoli.

  • 2010 Vermentino (SC): At first sniff the a little of the petrol/rubber cement character I tend to get in older screwcapped whites, but this blew off pretty quickly and rocky, briny, preserved lime notes emerged. The palate was gorgeous, fresh, with good acids, a little salty, with Vermentino's classic citrus pith bitterness giving balance to the fruit. Neil said it was "still a great, vibrant wine" and we all agreed.
  • 2010 Picpoul Blanc (SC): A distinctively Picpoul nose of dried pineapple, green herbs, tangerine, and an umami-like minerality that Amanda identified as nori (the seaweed wrapper around sushi rolls). On the palate, rich texture and a little caramel richness hint at its age, but with perfect balance for that weight and good acids it still felt very fresh and lively. Just a beautiful showing for this wine at a decade.
  • 2010 Grenache Blanc (SC): A nose of lemon and straw with a slightly volatile note that reminded me of Pledge. On the palate, a little older and less vibrant than Vermentino or Picpoul, with a little gentle ginger, some nuttiness, clean but a little neutral. A touch of alcohol showed on the finish. Still in solid shape, respectable for this wine that's known to oxidize young.
  • 2010 Marsanne (SC): Our first-ever varietal Marsanne. A spicy nose of mango and mandarin. The mouth is classic and gentle, with Marsanne's mineral, sarsaparilla, and buttered popcorn flavors. The low acidity and medium body give it a quiet character. I'm guessing that anyone who kept a bottle of this would be pleased with how it's evolved, but it's not (and never was) a dramatic wine.
  • 2010 Roussanne (C): After tasting four wines in screw cap, we all noted that we could taste the cork, even though the wine wasn't corky. Higher-toned than many vintages of our Roussanne, more medium- than full-bodied, it was refreshingly light on its feet, with green pear and graham cracker flavors and a little sweet oak. Reminded me in its restrained style quite a bit of our 2017 (more than more exuberant vintages like 2009, 2012, or 2014). Pretty.
  • 2010 Patelin de Tablas Blanc (SC; 50% Grenache Blanc, 33% Viognier, 10% Roussanne, 7% Marsanne): Our first-ever Patelin Blanc showed great, with pretty pineapple, preserved lemon, green herbs and wet rock aromas, a zesty yet rich palate with flavors of creme brûlée, kiwi, and lime zest, and a long finish that was at once tropical and bright. Just a great showing for a wine we assumed most people would drink in the first 24 months.
  • 2010 Cotes de Tablas Blanc (SC; 54% Viognier, 30% Grenache Blanc, 8% Roussanne, 8% Marsanne): A quieter nose than the Patelin Blanc, rich but reticent, with a little mintiness and some mild honey notes. The palate was more compelling, nicely viscous, with Viognier's rich texture and honeysuckle and guava notes. The finish was long, with good weight and honeydew and citrus pith notes. Still in good shape.
  • 2010 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (C; 60% Roussanne, 35% Grenache Blanc, 5% Picpoul Blanc): A knockout nose, with aromas of vanilla custard, sweet baking spices, lychee, honeycomb, and baked apple. Equally beautiful on the palate, like salted caramel but not sweet, with more apple notes and rich texture. Long, clean, generous and elegant. A great showing for one of our favorite-ever Esprit Blancs, at peak maturity but with plenty left in the tank.
  • 2010 Antithesis Chardonnay (C): Our next-to-last Chardonnay bottling, from a vintage whose cool character played well to the grape's strengths. On the nose, lots of sweet descriptors: cookies and cream ice cream, werther's caramel, cumquat, and anise. On the palate, still in a nice place, with candied orange peel flavors and a chalky texture that was fun to taste in a relatively low-acid wine. Drink up if you've got any left.
  • 2010 Rosé (SC; 59% Mourvedre, 30% Grenache, 11% Counoise): At this age, its nose showed more meaty than fruity, with a slight medicinal note our only complaint. On the palate, a little welcome bitterness like Campari, with cola and cherry flavors and saline notes coming out on the finish. Not really a rosé at this point, but if you thought of it as a light red wine, it could make for a really interesting pairing wine. 
  • 2010 Pinot Noir (C): Our fourth (and last) Pinot from the 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. The nose was grape with cola and milk chocolate notes, showing just a touch of oxidation. On the palate still quite tannic, a bit too much for our tastes, though the licorice and potpourri flavors were nice. A luxardo cherry character on the finish. Compared to the Full Circle that debuted that same year, less elegant and less fresh, and a good reminder of how different the Adelaida District and Templeton Gap AVAs are for this famously terroir-reflective grape.
  • 2010 Full Circle (C): Our first Full Circle Pinot Noir from my dad's property in the Templeton Gap. A more elegant nose than the estate Pinot, with chutney and dark chocolate, and a little well-integrated oak. On the palate, a good ringer for a middle-aged Burgundy, with cherry and gently meaty flavors, medium body, and a little minty lift. Some nice oak comes back out on the finish. Still in a great place, and probably still improving.
  • 2010 Counoise (C): A wow nose, youthful, spicy, and brambly, with raspberry, black cherry, and charcuterie notes. The mouth is velvety, with plum, chocolate and elderberry flavors and an appealing umami iodine note on the finish. Just a total pleasure, all the more remarkable for a grape that's not known to make wines for aging. 
  • 2010 Grenache (C): A sweet ganache milk chocolate nose, with a little alcohol showing through. The mouth isn't initially powerful, but the flavors of red cherry and cola are followed by some big tannins that felt to me a little out of place with the rest of the wine. Not sure if this is in a stage it will come out of (I suspect so) or if it's past its prime. 
  • 2010 Mourvedre (C): A lovely mature meaty nose of blackcurrant, leather, and soy marinade, with a little minty note lurking behind. The mouth is dark fruit and juniper, dark chocolate and sweet spices. Right at its peak, we thought, with enough chewy tannins to keep aging, but those tannins cloaked in fruit. Gorgeous.  
  • 2010 Syrah (C): The first time my wife Meghan tasted Syrah out of barrel, she described it as "butter in a butcher shop", which described this wine's nose perfectly. Additional aromas of soy, black pepper, and chaparral reinforce the darkness and wildness of the wine. The mouth is absolutely classic for Syrah, with blackberry fruit, chalky minerality, and still-substantial tannins. This is going to be great, but at age 10 is still a baby. Patience. 
  • 2010 Patelin de Tablas (SC; 39% Syrah, 36% Grenache, 22% Mourvedre, 3% Counoise): Perhaps not fair to taste this right after our estate Syrah, but it showed well, with aromas of pepper steak and a little mature earthiness. The mouth is medium-bodied and fully mature, with the Mourvedre showing through in its red fruit character and meat dripping character. Some tannins with Grenache's signature powdered sugar texture round out the wine. 
  • 2010 Cotes de Tablas (C; 46% Grenache, 39% Syrah, 10% Mourvedre, 5% Counoise): A nose of charcuterie, with a meaty saucisson sec character with smoked paprika and green peppercorn. Then, under that all, elderberry. The palate is more generous than the nose suggests, with licorice and black raspberry. The finish shows some tannic grip, with Worcestershire sauce and sweet Grenache fruit lingering. At peak, but no hurry. 
  • 2010 Esprit de Beaucastel (C; 45% Mourvedre, 30% Grenache, 21% Syrah, 4% Counoise): A mature Mourvedre-driven nose of red licorice, baking spices, cassis, and cocoa powder. The mouth was beautiful, salty, meaty, with its ten years of age showing in a nice way, the earthy flavors deepening to a truffly note. Mature and savory, with tannins resolved and perfectly integrated, and a long finish. I'm not sure that this will prove to be one of our longer-lived Esprits (I'd guess not, based on this tasting) but it's drinking great now.
  • 2010 Panoplie (C; 60% Mourvedre, 30% Grenache, 10% Syrah): Fresh and spicy on the nose, brambly, with deep red fruit and licorice. Youthful, with a nice minerality showing. On the palate, bright and absolutely on point, with menthol, juniper, and ripe plum flavors, and perfect tannin balance. Neil said, "give it another 10" and while it can clearly go out that long, it's also delicious now.
  • 2010 En Gobelet (C; 37% Grenache, 28% Mourvedre, 13% Syrah, 12% Counoise, 10% Tannat): Our first En Gobelet to take a majority of its production from our "Scruffy Hill" block, and so the first to include Syrah and Counoise. Spicy and a little dusty on the nose, with baker's chocolate, sweet tobacco, and menthol notes. Quite young still on the palate, with lots of nice dark chocolate and black cherry fruit and some still-substantial tannins that clip its expressiveness a bit. Seems to be still coming out of a closed phase, and likely to be better in another year or two, and to go out another decade or more.
  • 2010 Tannat (C): A notably different nose, clearly not Rhone. More cigar box and eucalyptus, with dark chocolate and Tannat's signature potpourri floral note. On the palate, more of the same, with bittersweet chocolate and tobacco and chalk minerality. Lots of tannin. Similar in many ways to the Syrah, still a baby at age 10.
  • 2010 Cabernet (C): We'd grown Cabernet for a decade at this point, just a few rows which were always thrown into the Tannat at harvest. In 2010 we got a larger crop and made 4 barrels on its own, and when it came to blending time couldn't bear to blend it away. So, we made 100 cases of this, and it's still electrically recognizable as Cabernet: spicy eucalyptus and sweet tobacco and blackcurrant aromas, dark fruit and chalky texture, and a little welcome lift from the limestone on the finish that marks it as not-from-Napa. I think we're going to show this at the tasting, because it's so distinctive and fun.
  • 2010 Petit Manseng (C): Our first bottling of this classic southwest French grape known for maintaining great acids as it reaches high (and occasionally extremely high) sugar levels, which we've made each year since 2010 in an off-dry style. The nose was a little weird, with a plasticky note that we variously identified as "new carpet" and "airplane", on top of pineapple, almond, and a grassy herbal note. On the palate, gorgeous, with fresh pineapple and fruit cup flavors, lots of acidity, and a little tannic bite that cuts the residual sweetness. Fun and unique. 
  • 2010 Vin de Paille "Quintessence" (C): Our 100% Roussanne dessert wine made from grapes dried on straw in our greenhouses. Absolutely luscious from first sniff, with aromas of creme brûlée and candied orange peel. The flavors were like an apple tart with caramel glaze, including the sweet pastry note that implies. Very rich texture, and just enough acidity to keep it from being cloying. The finish with caramel and marmalade notes went on forever.
  • 2010 Vin de Paille "Sacrérouge" (C): Our 100% Mourvedre dessert wine made from grapes dried on straw in our greenhouses. Unlike the Quintessence, the nose isn't particularly sweet, more forest floor, roast meat, eucalyptus, and dried wild strawberry. The palate is sweet but balanced by Mourvedre's chewy tannins, with salty brown sugar and sugarplum flavors and a chocolatey note on the finish. Still fresh and nice.

A few concluding thoughts

2010, with its combination of healthy yields, cool temperatures, and extended growing season, was unique in our previous experience, and tasting these wines was a different experience than the retrospective tastings we’ve done the last several years. Compared to 2007, 2008, and 2009, the freshness that came with this cool year was noteworthy at age ten, in the reds but particularly in the whites. We often think of ageworthiness coming from a wine's sheer volume, but this vintage did a great job of making the case that it's really balance that is the most important factor.

With the perspective of hindsight, the quality of our two main grapes (Mourvedre and Roussanne) really stands out. In that way, it's a lot like 2017, which is surprising given that 2010 was such a cool year and 2017 quite warm. But yields were about the same, and for whatever reason, it seemed like the same grapes (all the way down to varieties like Counoise and Picpoul) really excelled. It will be interesting to see whether we still think the same thing when we have a little more perspective on 2017. I really don't think that we have an older comp to 2010, as we were making bigger, somewhat riper wines in the rest of the 2000s, so where the wines go from here will be fascinating to see.

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're going to have a great February 9th Horizontal Tasting. We'll taste the two Esprits, and the Panoplie, for sure. I'm leaning toward including Picpoul, Roussanne, Full Circle, Counoise, Mourvedre, Cabernet and Vin de Paille "Quintessence" as well, but want to compare my notes with the rest of the team, so that may shift around a little. Whatever the selection, I think it's going to be a treat. If you haven't reserved your seat, you should do so soon.


An Interview with Wine Speak Co-Founders Chuck Furuya, MS and Amanda Wittstrom-Higgins

We are blessed in the Paso Robles area with a remarkable number of world-class wine events. In addition to the three annual events put on by the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance, we've been the home to Hospice du Rhone for two decades. WiVi has in the past five years become the state's second-largest trade show. And in the last three years, we've seen another amazing event come to our region. Wine Speak is a bit of a different take on a wine event, equal parts industry education and public showcase, celebration of the region and invitation to the world.

With the 2020 event just one week away, I had the chance to sit down with the event's two founders. Amanda Wittstrom-Higgins is VP of Operations at Ancient Peaks Winery, as well as co-founder of Dream Big Darling, a nonprofit dedicated to fostering the success of women in the wine and spirits industry. She recently appeared on the cover of Wine Enthusiast's "40 Under 40" issue. Master Sommelier Chuck Furuya was just the tenth American to pass the Master Sommelier exam, in 1988. He is a partner in and wine director for D.K. Restaurant Group, is a former Chairman of Education for the American Chapter of the Court of Master Sommeliers, and writes a monthly wine column for the Honolulu Star Advertiser. 

Winespeak9

How did the two of you come to work together on this?

  • Amanda: In 2017 we were having a conversation about hospitality and the advancement of offering world class service.  Chuck is a big fan of Paso Robles (and many other places) so I asked if during one of his upcoming visits he could dedicate some time to sharing his wisdom with our local wine community.  Hawaii is after all a culture built on hospitality and tourism.  I would never imagine that this one small conversation could lead to so many incredible opportunities for our industry and community.
  • Chuck: From my point of view, I recall Amanda asking me to come to a talk/training on wines for a few people. I then asked can we do more? She said like what? I don't think she realized what she was getting herself into. From that came Wine Speak!

What was the genesis of the idea behind Wine Speak?

  • Amanda: The idea was and still is to elevate our entire wine community by collaborating and sharing.  There is great power in joining forces and teaching the next generation.  We want to see the industry grow and flourish and to create a stage for producers and personalities who have something tremendous to
  • Chuck: Since I had been working with Amanda on a couple of projects previously, I kind of along the way understood that she would be key to the unfolding of the Paso Appellation. She has an innate gift of charm and is very articulate and really good at problem solving. I also think she has a lot of integrity and is very honest. In Hawaii, if it was not 12 chefs on all the islands, Hawaii regional cuisine never would've happened in my opinion   Because it was 12 chefs, it created synergy, camaraderie…… It really was a movement. That is what changed Hawaii culinarily. I believe in each wine region of the world needs a band of like minded winemakers that can create change.  Take for example, the gang of four in Morgon, Beaujolais. So with that in mind, Amanda would be the foundation in Paso, and I would look to source and invite winemakers/professionals from various parts of the New World -- both inside & outside expertise -- looking to share, talk story and learn. This would also bring new faces to the Paso Robles wine region to experience the climate, the soils, the wines and most importantly the people. 

For you, what was the highlight of years 1 and 2?

  • Amanda: The highlight of year one was developing the confidence in our concept and seeing the profound need in our community.  Year two was magnificent, we partnered with a new non profit, Dream Big Darling, and offered scholarships to up and coming sommelier’s from around the country.  These young people have become ambassadors for not so many producers they met over the course of the experience.  Watching them light up and discover something new was magnificent.
  • Chuck: For me, year one -- it was seeing Justin Smith of Saxum hanging out for two or three days with Adam Tolmach of Ojai. Two different growing regions, two different generations and two different winemaking approaches getting to know each other, hanging out and talking story. I thought that was magic and it made me proud. For year two -- it was watching an assistant winemaker taste the 2015 Faury Condrieu and seeing that candid sense of wonderment on his face as he switched and switched the wine in his mouth. Seeing the lightbulb go on was something that really affected me.

What new things are in store for 2020?

  • Amanda: 2020 offers a more global perspective and we are excited to host producers from Spain, France and Argentina.  We also enriched our “Grand Tasting” event to include producers from around the globe.  We wanted to make sure that all events were dynamic for our local wine community.  Being from a rural area, many people drink wines they make. However, in order to really stretch and grow we need to expose ourselves to new concepts and ways of thinking.
  • Chuck: First of all, this is the first year that we will be including people from faraway places such as Spain, Argentina and France. It was previously New World-centric. We believe this will add new dimension to insights, the questions, and discussions. Secondly, rather than having panels of two or three all of the time on specifically three of the panels we look to do mano a mano -- specifically with three wine Yodas: Bruce Neyers, long time master Madeline Triffon, and Lionel Faury from Cote Rotie. These three may not be commonplace names which many are familiar with. But for me they are three of the most incredible wine minds I have run across in my 40+ years of doing wines. For example, Madeline was the sixth American to pass the master sommelier examination. She was the first American woman. She was the second woman in the world. I believe that is saying a lot and will hopefully inspire young professionals that attend, whether they are female or male. She is the consummate professional and rose to the top of her field despite all of the challenges. She doesn't typically do on stage interviews like this, but I think we all agree it is an important time for industry to have some of the long-timers with wisdom come and share their thoughts insights and experiences, so that we can all remember what the craft is.

What makes Wine Speak unique as a wine event?

  • Amanda: Wine Speak sets itself apart from other wine events in a number of ways.  For one, it's small, there is enormous access to speakers, panelists and guest interaction.  In addition there aren’t many other events that are engaging; winemakers, distributors, growers, and trade.  We bring several parts of the industry together for a time of learning, and not just about one segment of the business.
  • Chuck: Back in the 1970s, I remember tasting a wine from Cote Rotie and wondering how the heck can man and God create a wine that's beyond grapes, oak barrels or winemaking? And if that is true, why can't we do this in the New World? I believe that through sharing insights, wisdom and experiences we can make a difference. So for the first year we had two Syrah panels. One was entitled "New World Syrah" and featured Bruce Neyers, Andy Peay (Sonoma Coast), Serge Carlei from Australia and Greg Harrington MS from Washington state. And the other was entitled "Central Coast Syrah" featuring Justin Smith (Paso Robles), Matt Dees (Jonata, Ballard Canyon) & Adam Tolmach (Ojai, Santa Maria Valley). It offered quite a scope of what Syrah can be. Year two featured Bob Lindquist of Qupe, Pax Mahle of Pax/Windgap Wines and Jason Drew of Drew Wines (Mendocino Ridge). For 2020, we are taking a whole new approach to Syrah and featuring Lionel Faury from the Rhône Valley of France. So that is a eleven very different perspectives on what the Syrah grape variety can be from eleven very well respected winemakers and from very different places!

If there was one thing that you hope people get out of coming to the event, what would it be?

  • Amanda: New ideas and friendships.  In life, ideas and friends are the most valuable assets.
  • Chuck: A few years back, when I was inducted to the Hawaii Restaurant Association Hall of Fame, it made me think of all of the people who have touched my life to allowing me to be where I am today. In almost all of the cases, they showed me a box. Then they said, "Chuck, look inside the box". After that they then asked imagine the possibilities. That is what I'm hoping Wine Speak can offer. To make people think differently. How can we effect change. How can we nurture sharing, camaraderie and collaboration so that we can move forward and make a difference.

Do you have dreams for future Wine Speak events?

  • Amanda: It’s hard to think about that right now.  As long as there is a need we hope to continue to bring forth an event that helps move our industry forward.
  • Chuck: Right now, we are focused on getting this one up and running in the next two weeks. Every year, we typically wait a couple of months before deciding if we are going to do another. Having said that, of course I have already have some ideas.

Chuck, what was your “a ha” moment that got you excited about Paso Robles?

  • It was a 1988 Cabernet-based red I tasted in San Francisco at a tasting. To me the wine had much more than fruit. It had an underlying minerality that was captivating. I knew then that I had to go see the vineyard.

Amanda, what’s the coolest thing that’s happened to you as a result of being named to (or on the cover of) Wine Enthusiast’s “Top 40 under 40” list?

  • Being named as 40 under 40 and making the cover was really special to me.  It’s incredible that the publication noticed our collective work and choose to highlight it, I am forever grateful and humbled by my team and community which makes it all possible.  I’m blessed to be 4th generation in the Paso Robles region and cattle rancher, I’m glad to carry the spirit of our history with my rope and boots in the picture.

What’s your favorite under-the-radar fact about Paso Robles or the Central Coast?

  • Amanda: The spirit of rugged terrain, a story of the land and people that is still being written, and a community that stands together. 
  • Chuck: The soils AND the people/community!

Acacia_productions-wine_speak-2019-0665-2

Although many of the seminars are sold out, there are still tickets available to the Wines of the World Grand Tasting and some of the industry events. If you haven't checked out this event, you really owe it to yourself to do so. If you attend, I'll see you there, since I'll be speaking on one of the panels this year, as well as pouring wines at the Grand Tasting!


2019's Most Memorable Meals

By Darren Delmore

After a year on the road selling Tablas Creek to many of America's coolest restaurants, it's time to sift through the photos of the most memorable feasts I've faced and my bloodwork analysis from the local laboratory. The bar for well orchestrated and flavorful cuisine continues to be lifted no matter which part of the US you're in, but I must confess I did not work the Dakotas in 2019.  Some of the restaurants I featured in last year's post were worthy of a return, but I wanted to highlight some new tasty terrain. As much as I love the extravagant plate I'm also a fan of casual simplicity, and thanks to the array of wines we produce, there's a bottle for everything in that spectrum, be it a boot-scooting steakhouse, ramen bar, or raw oysters at home. Warning: this will cause both hunger and thirst.  

Mamanoko, San Francisco IMG_1451

Remember when most American sushi restaurants had the most generic wine offerings (and massive corkage fees)? In San Francisco, this Marina-district gem has been flowing through Patelin de Tablas Rouge and some bright minerally European whites on their glass list for a refreshing change of pace. Our California distributor Regal introduced me to Mamanoko early in 2019, and the least I could do was open a bottle of Esprit de Tablas Blanc 2014 for the group to go with fresh simple sushi courses and crunchy rolls like these, as well as lightly seared albacore tataki. I looked around the crowded dining room and most tables were having wine instead of sake. (Warning: the chocolate chip cookie dough roll on the dessert menu was the best dessert I've ever encountered). 

Cotogna, San Francisco IMG_1502Holy Ravioli! Use the base of the wine glass in the upper right of the frame to size this monster up. Part of the Quince group, which has featured our wines on their Biblical wine list for years, their North Beach sister kitchen is churning out some classic and fun comfort food like this. I could've used this ravioli as a pillow halfway through it. 

ETTO Pastificio, Paso Robles

IMG_1555

Speaking of ravioli... Not only do I represent our wines, I work alongside our spirited shepherd Nathan Stuart to sell our biodynamic lamb to chefs, including the boutique pasta maker Etto in Paso Robles Tin City neighborhood. On social media I saw that Etto was handcrafting a limited batch of Lamb and Mint raviolis, so I rushed down and picked up one of the last bags in stock. Intended to feed four of us, my five year old daughter and I crushed the entire bag standing in the kitchen, just while tasting to see if they were ready or not! They needed nothing more than a drizzle of olive oil and a pinch of salt. 

Humboldt County Wine Guild IMG_1672

A platter of just plucked and shucked Kumamoto Oysters was how the Humboldt County Wine Guild welcomed me to their Monday night blind tasting group in April. There was a back up cooler that got devoured too, mostly while paired with Vermentino and Patelin de Tablas Blanc. Simple, saline and perfect.

Bibi Ji, Santa Barbara  IMG_1341

In February we joined the owners of Ember in Arroyo Grande for dinner at Bibi Ji in downtown Santa Barbara. With a cool India-meets-Santa Barbara menu and a wine bar aesthetic, we lucked into an older Grand Cru Alsatian Riesling for a relative steal, to pair with their notorious Uni Fried Rice.

Prince's Hot Chicken, Nashvillle TN

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My friends and family know that I can't do spice. So when our Nashville Vineyard Brands rep Melissa Wilkinson and I were killing time before an incredible ten course Tablas Creek wine dinner at Tailor Nashville, she drove me to Prince's Hot Chicken for lunch, which was profiled in a wild New Yorker article this year. Going with the flow so to speak, I asked Mel which option to go with. There was no spice, mild, spicy, or hot, and rumor has it the next level off menu spice option required a note from your doctor (for real) to even order. This pictured here was mild, and the flavor was so radical, so perfect in salt, heat and all things red, that I soldiered through it in awe, respect, and disbelief that I was even digesting such a thing.  

Amuse, Ashland, OR

AmuseI ended my year of travel in beautiful Ashland, Oregon, home to many of the vines we sold out of our nursery. Southern Oregon has done an incredible job growing Rhone varietals, and at this dinner at Amuse many local winemakers and industry turned up in gratitude for what Tablas Creek has provided to their wine country. We had sent an entire lamb up the week before to chef Erik Brown for the event, and this particular dish, listed as "Charcoal Grilled Tablas Creek Lamb Sausage, Kohlrabi-Tabouleh and Spiced Yogurt" was the digestible highlight of my year. Paired with Patelin de Tablas Rouge, it vanished within a minute's time. 

Hungrily looking forward to what 2020 will bring. Happy New Year!


Back from the Rhone Valley and Our Mediterranean Cruise

[Editor's Note: With this blog, we're pleased to introduce a new author. Assistant Winemaker Craig Hamm has been a vital part of the Tablas Creek team since 2013. He grew up in Templeton, CA, on the Muscat vineyard his father owned. He recently returned from leading the 2019 Tablas Creek cruise, along with Winemaker Neil Collins.]

By Craig Hamm. Photos by Craig Hamm and Annika Sousa.

In June, our Winemaker Neil Collins, his wife Marci, my wife Annika and I shared the truly amazing experience of visiting the southern Rhone and cruising the Mediterranean. Now that a little time has passed and we've begun preparing for the upcoming harvest, I am reflecting back on the trip.

The first part of my trip began before the cruise, and even before the pre-cruise visit which brought guests to Beaucastel. Neil wanted to give me a couple of days to explore the many projects of Famille Perrin, so we arrived in France a few days early. Cesar Perrin met us at the hotel and we headed to Beaucastel. Upon approaching the Chateau we stopped on the side of an overpass looking at a road that split the Beaucastel estate in two. On one side, Chateauneuf du Pape. On the other side, Cotes du Rhone, whose grapes form the Coudoulet de Beaucastel. There were no fences to protect from deer or to delineate boundaries. Cesar pointed out several small cypress trees used as markers for the property line. Not like the Central Coast!

Beaucastel

There were tractors running through this rocky soil known as “galets”. I'd seen seen pictures of the vineyards in Chateauneuf, and I knew there were going to be some rocks but in person these things were tough to walk on. I imagine the days of working this land would really strengthen one's ankles.

And yet, a continent away, there were reminders of home. We were able to see bloom taking place on the Grenache vines and remember that same smell that we had just left in Paso Robles, and we stopped to pay our respects to the rows of mother vines from which our vineyard material is derived.

Mother mourvedre

Driving up to the Chateau was an exciting moment. Cesar opened up two grand doors and walked us downstairs to a quiet and dark cellar, lined with red brick floors and large oak casks. As we wound through the cellar, Neil would point to things he remembered using during his stint at Beaucastel in 1997, like sulfuring the bank of concrete tanks we passed, smooth with tiles on the inside. Deeper in the cellar, where the bottles age, we meet up with Cesar's brother Charles and a small group of tasters from Bordeaux. We tasted through different decades of whites and reds then sat together for a family style meal. It was just a hint at the start of what would become a wine lover’s ideal getaway.

After lunch, we visited Le Grand Prebois, the main cellar for the wines of Famille Perrin. This cellar was a mixture of a Gothic Cathedral and Chateau de Beaucastel:

Grand Prebois

After a short visit, we headed off to the village of Gigondas, at the foot of the Dentelles de Montmirail ridges. Past the village, up a track traversing a steep mountainside covered with terraced old vines, we found ourselves at the top looking over the entire Rhone Valley. It was patchwork of different shades of green from oaks, pine, and of course grapevines. Walking the vines we were shown some of the spots so precarious that they have to plow the vineyards by horse. Back down the hillside we met back up with the same group we had tasted with earlier that day to enjoy some freshly made pizza along with a selection of 1975, 1985, 1995, 2000, 2005, and 2015 Chateau de Beaucastel whites. Yes, white wines can age. Several other amazing bottles were opened at the table that night, but none as special as a 1974 Chateau de Beaucastel -- the last vintage that family patriarch Jacques Perrin made from start to finish. That's Cesar (left) and Charles (right), with Neil and the vertical of Beaucastel Blanc.

Cesar Charles and Neil

The whirlwind of the first day left me speechless but also grateful for the Perrin family’s hospitality. Day two began with similar intensity with a tour of vineyards, this time led by Claude Gouan (Beaucastel's long-time Oenologist, recently retired, below left, with Neil). First stop was atop a small hill in the parking lot of an old church, with a panoramic view of the Cotes du Rhone, the vineyards a collage of small parcels, each with its own slight difference in row orientation, growth, or age. It was wild to see so many vines with such age. Using passing cars on the road as markers for the property outlines was a fun challenge in itself.

Claude and neil in Vinsobres

We clambered back into the oversized passenger van that we'd been using and headed north to Vinsobres. Since the van was too big to fit into some of the village's tiny streets, we parked outside the ancient town walls and walked in for lunch. Vinsobres was one of the most fragrant places on the trip with flowering vines and small parcels of lavender fields and wild red poppy flowers dotting the landscape. The soil types ranged from sandy to heavy limestone that mirrors our most western block on the Tablas Creek property. On this site we were able to see 80 year old Grenache vines, still producing great canopies and clusters. Claude turned onto a dusty dirt road with lavender and oak trees neatly lined up. I asked his reason for this in my attempt at broken French, and he replied simply “truffe” -- French for truffles.

Continuing our whirlwind tour of Rhone regions, we crossed the Rhone river and stopped in at Domaine des Carabiners to taste their Lirac and Tavel wines. The fifth-generation producer, Fabien Leperchois, who is married to Claude's daughter Anaïs, achieved organic certification in 1997, and Demeter biodynamic certification in the vineyard as well as the cellar in 2009. The fact that they farm Biodynamically on a similar acreage to Tablas Creek got Neil fired up to see how they set up preparations and the equipment they used. Fabien joined us, we all piled back in the van, and headed to the road (below) that separates Lirac and Tavel.

Lirac and tavel

Fabian pointed out that the rocky soil contains the same stones from the Rhone River, and Claude tossed me a small “galet” as a souvenir. We tasted their wine on an overlook, above the vineyards in the area. We continued our tour to the little town square of Tavel, where there is an ancient Roman washing station that leads into small personal gardens that are fed by aqueducts, where we tasted a couple more Tavel biodynamic wines. We finished the night around a big family table outside the Gouan family home nestled amongst the vines of Beaucastel for dinner along with more wine.

Group at Tavel

Our own tour complete, the next morning we headed south to Avignon to meet up with the team of Tablas Creek cruise participants for the wine dinner that kicked off the cruise festivities. From this point we were following the cruise itinerary like all the guests, beginning the next morning with a group tour of the Chateau de Beaucastel vineyard, cellar and library. We got to taste several of the vintages of white and red Beaucastel in the library. There is nothing more you could ask for than sipping Chateauneuf du Pape in the cellar of one of the region's most storied estates. From there we whisked up to Gigondas for a wine paired lunch at Clos des Tourelles with Charles Perrin.

Clos des Tourelles Meal

We had a nice walk about the village, then back to the bus and to our next destination Aix-en-Provence, where we checked in to the hotel and had the opportunity to take a guided walk into town, ending at a beautiful Gothic church. When we settled in for the night, we'd earned our good night's sleep.

The next morning, we continued south toward Monaco, where the cruise ship waited for us, stopping on the way at Chateau Font du Broc, a beautiful winery in Provence to taste some Vermentino and of course rosé, enjoy a delicious lunch, and admire the views of vines running down towards the valley and an expansive horse paddock.

Chateau Font du Broc

This was my first time on a cruise. It was wild to see this 10-story ship that we would call home for the next week.

Ship

On embarkment in the evening we got to enjoy some Tablas Creek on our terrace with the lights of Monaco, its sailboats and yachts as our backdrop. Truly a great way to see the city off.

Patelin rouge monaco

When we awoke the next morning, we were in Italy. Portofino is a picturesque little fishing port that looked to me a movie set, with everything just perfectly placed and lit up by the bright blue sea.

Portofino

Next stop was Corsica, the Mediterranean island that is a part of France, but with a culture that owes nearly as much to Italy. We were the first American group to visit Domaine San Micheli, owned by the gracious Phélip family. The visit was a family affair, with the grandson opening the wines as the grandmother and grandfather poured the wines, alongside the winemaker.  We went through a little geography of the region and continued to try wines from all over the island in a wine-education-style lunch.

Lunch in the shade

Next, on to Sardinia, the larger island south of Corsica that belongs to Italy. In Sardinia Annika and I walked through a church that had been built on ancient Roman baths that were later discovered during renovations. We also walked around the Bastione Saint Remy for the expansive views:

Bastione San Remy

The cruise ship made its next stop on the southern Italian island of Sicily, before turning west toward Spain. In Trapani we had a great day swimming in the Mediterranean to rest our feet, which had covered a lot of cobblestoned kilometers over the last week. The water was clear and shallow for hundreds of yards. Side note: watch out for jellyfish. I got stung.

The beach in Trapani

The next day we spent at sea, making the long trip from Sicily to the Spanish coast. This was the occasion of our winemaker(s) dinner, where we poured magnums of Esprit and Esprit Blanc with the main course. But it wasn't the only on-board wine activity. We had a couple of wine receptions, and Neil and I hosted a seminar where we broke down the blending process, tasting all the components and the final blend. And, of course, wine at dinners. There was plenty of wine on this trip, even on days we weren't visiting wineries.

Blending seminar

Finally, we arrived in Spain, the last of the four countries we'd visit on this trip, and where we'd spend the longest. In Almeria (below left), we got to visit a Moorish castle. In Cartagena (below right), we ate enough tapas to feed a small army.

Moorish castle 2

Pork legs

But this being a wine cruise, we continued our education too. At Bodega Mustiguillo, in the Utiel‐Requena region, we dove into Bobal, a grape long thought to be good only for bulk wine that is being rediscovered as a quality wine making grape, used for rosé sparkling and several different blended wines. It was an interesting wine and reminded me of Tannat, in that the goal was to not have the tannins overpower the fruit. We got to try one from 95 plus year old vines. A cool learning experience for me, and a reminder that there are tons of grapes with the ability to make fun and delicious wines.

Our last day excursion was on the Spanish island of Mallorca, to tour a couple more wineries. They were a great contrast, with Bodega Ribas the oldest family owned winery in Spain and Mesquida Mora an up and coming producer, and biodynamic. The wines were amazing.

Lunch At mora

As good as the wines were on the whole trip, my take home from the cruise was that the company was even better. I started out not knowing a large majority of the guests but in the end after bus rides and shared dinner tables, beaches and of course evenings in Horizons Bar I felt like we were all family. I now know people who champion Tablas Creek from Virginia, Florida, Texas and all sorts of other places. For myself, as a first trip to Europe this is one for the books. Thank you to everyone that made this possible.


We open every vintage of Panoplie, from our first-ever 2000 to the newly-blended 2018

This year, we've been looking for various ways to celebrate our 30th Anniversary. Just a couple of months ago, we opened every vintage of our flagship red, from 1997 Rouge to 2017 Esprit de Tablas. It was fascinating. But for our summer vertical tasting (in which we pick a different wine each year and open a range of vintages to show how it's evolving) we thought it would be appropriate to turn our attention for the first time to Panoplie. For those who don't know it, Panoplie is our elite red wine modeled after the Beaucastel Hommage a Jacques Perrin, with a very high percentage of Mourvedre and an extremely limited production.  Because it's not a wine that we put into distribution -- it goes exclusively to our wine club members each spring -- it's our chance to make as spectacular a wine as we can, without worrying about having to make it in quantity. Members have the opportunity to purchase 2 or 3 more bottles maximum after each shipment. Even so, it rarely lasts long. Because of the wine's scarcity and the fact we don't distribute it, I don't open Panoplie very often. That made Friday's lineup of 18 wines all that much more special:

Panoplie Vertical Jun 2019

I invited some of our other key people (Chelsea Franchi, Senior Assistant Winemaker; Austin Collins, Cellar Assistant; John Morris, Tasting Room Manager; Monica O'Connor, Direct Sales Manager; and Ian Consoli, Marketing Coordinator) to join me. While the principal goal was to choose eight representative (and spectacular) wines to share with the guests who are coming for the July 21st Vertical Tasting, I thought it would be fun to share my notes from all the wines, as well as some thoughts about the wine, how it evolves, and how our thinking about it has changed over the years. The wines didn't disappoint, but I'll save the rest of my conclusions until the end.

A few notes on the wines, and the names. Note that we didn't produce a Panoplie in the frost-impacted 2001 vintage. And we've moved the wine's name around a couple of times. In 2004, the Perrins pointed out to us that it was a little awkward that there was a wine in our hierarchy above the "Esprit de Beaucastel", so we renamed the Panoplie "Esprit de Beaucastel 'Panoplie'" starting that year. It wasn't ideal, and I can't tell you how many times we had people complain that they opened a Panoplie when they didn't mean to, or that they couldn't tell them apart in their wine racks. So, when we rebranded our flagship wine to Esprit de Tablas with the 2011 vintage, we reverted back to the simpler "Panoplie" again. Finally, if you want detailed technical information or to see the tasting notes we wrote shortly after bottling, each wine is linked to its profile page on our Web site:

  • 2000 Panoplie (55% Mourvedre, 30% Syrah, 15% Grenache): A nose of menthol, pine forest floor, juniper, meat, and plum. John called it "very wild boar-ish". On the palate, showing some signs of age in its leathery notes, but still quite rich with dark cherry fruit, chewy tannins, and full body. I'm not sure this was as good as it was the last time we tried it in 2016, but still an admirable performance for our first and oldest Panoplie, made from vines no more than 8 years old.
  • 2002 Panoplie (80% Mourvedre, 13% Grenache, 7% Counoise): Dark, savory, and meaty on the nose, like a leg of lamb marinating in soy and rosemary. On the palate, more youthful than the 2000, with red cranberry and currant fruit, a sweet Chinese five spice note, and some muscular tannins. The finish turned savory again.  In a nice place, and while there's no hurry, it seems wise to drink this if you've been saving it.
  • 2003 Panoplie (69% Mourvedre, 21% Grenache, 7% Syrah, 3% Counoise): Mint chocolate, meat drippings, and sweet tobacco on the appealing nose. On the palate, lovely red currant fruit and a sweet chocolate truffle note. Lovely acids and just enough tannic bite to keep it fresh. The long finish offers luxardo cherries and a rose petal floral note we loved. Our favorite of the older vintages, and just in a beautiful place.
  • 2004 Esprit de Beaucastel "Panoplie" (69% Mourvedre, 21% Grenache, 10% Syrah): The nose is complex but also a touch older than the previous wines, with mature notes of cocoa powder, menthol, teriyaki, and prune.  The mouth shows sweet figgy flavors and is quite tannic, with a little raisiny note alongside the chocolate on the finish that I didn't love. This was an era where we were trying to build more perception of sweet fruit into this wine, and looking back with 15 years of perspective, I think we pushed a little too far on ripeness, at the expense of freshness.
  • 2005 Esprit de Beaucastel "Panoplie" (70% Mourvedre, 25% Grenache, 5% Syrah): Sweet fruit on the nose, but in a fresher, more integrated way than the 2004. The mouth is lovely, rich and luscious: chocolate-covered strawberries, big tannins that feel in keeping with the wine's other attributes, and notes of baker's chocolate and violets on the finish. An unapologetically dense, lush wine, but unlike the 2004, I thought it worked. Should be great for quite a while longer, too.
  • 2006 Esprit de Beaucastel "Panoplie" (68% Mourvedre, 27% Grenache, 5% Syrah): The nose was all savory, and may have suffered a bit compared to the 2005: marinating meat, bone marrow, juniper, bay leaf, and soy. With air, a little maraschino cherry and dark chocolate appeared. On the palate, by contrast, the sweet fruit takes center stage, with sugar plum, cassis, and chocolate-covered cherries the dominant notes before the wine's tannins reassert control on the finish. But still, my lasting impression was one of opulence. 
  • 2007 Esprit de Beaucastel "Panoplie" (60% Mourvedre, 30% Grenache, 10% Syrah): A savory Old World nose with chaparral, meat, and spice. Monica commented that it "smells like a food, not a drink". And we agreed; we spent a while deciding which holiday is smelled most like before coming down on Christmas dinner. The mouth is very complex, with dark leather, substantial dusty tannins, a sweet Chinese five spice note, and more herby thyme/bay notes coming out on the finish. More than any other wine in the lineup, this kept evolving as it sat in the glass, and we feel like it's going to go through a number of different stages in what's going to be a long future life.
  • 2008 Esprit de Beaucastel "Panoplie" (54% Mourvedre, 29% Grenache, 17% Syrah): There was a noteworthy break between 2007 and 2008, with the 2007 and older wines all feeling bigger, riper, and fully mature, while the 2008 felt much closer to what we're doing now, more fresh and delineated. The nose showed spearmint, red plum, bay leaf and new leather. The palate had milk chocolate, chamomile, cherry, and redcurrant fruit. The finish showed sweet clove and candied orange peel, red licorice, anise, and fresh black fig. A real pleasure, and my favorite of the "middle aged" wines.
  • 2009 Esprit de Beaucastel "Panoplie" (65% Mourvedre, 26% Grenache, 9% Syrah): A very aromatic nose of anise, leather, mint, figs, and an orange liqueur note we eventually named as triple sec. On the palate, more composed, and in fact we felt it was still unwinding: plums and cedar, a little black licorice, an some substantial tannins. A tangy note comes out on the finish, with flavors of roasted meats flinty minerality. This may still be emerging from its closed phase and seems likely only to get better over the next decade.
  • 2010 Esprit de Beaucastel "Panoplie" (60% Mourvedre, 30% Grenache, 10% Syrah): Different and notably quieter on the nose than the previous wines, though still appealing: loamy earth, cardamom, braised meat and ginger. On the palate, more generous, with flavors of blackberry, black raspberry, teriyaki, bay, and a meaty little caramel smokiness on the finish that Austin called as jamon.
  • 2011 Panoplie (60% Mourvedre, 30% Grenache, 10% Syrah): On the nose similar to but more giving than the 2010, with a slightly redder tint to the cola, red licorice, crushed rock, and fresh prosciutto-wrapped figs. In the mouth, plum and sarsaparilla, loam and roasted root vegetables in which we identified roasted beets and parsnips. It's possible that we were getting hungry by this point in the tasting.
  • 2012 Panoplie (70% Mourvedre, 20% Grenache, 10% Syrah): High-toned spicy fruit on the nose, with cherry cola, juniper, bergamot, and a complex note that reminded me of angostura bitters. In the mouth, more spicy red fruit flavors of wild strawberries, green peppercorn, and yellow raspberry. Cool, minty, and tangy on the finish. Chelsea described the wine's Nordic character well: "like a high altitude meadow". A bit uncharacteristic for the Panoplie, without some of the bass notes we tend to look for, but complex and refreshing.
  • 2013 Panoplie (75% Mourvedre, 15% Grenache, 10% Syrah): A lovely expressive dark fruited nose, with teriyaki, black licorice, bay, and a meaty roast pork character. The mouth is lush and silky and delicious, powerful and complex without any sense of overripeness: wild mushrooms, black plum, chalky mineral, and licorice. Still very much on its way up, and a consensus favorite among its cohort.
  • 2014 Panoplie (65% Mourvedre, 28% Grenache, 7% Syrah): A spicy red fruit nose more like the 2012 than the 2013, seemingly marked by the higher Grenache percentage: red plum, pine forest, new leather and clove. On the palate Grenache's characteristic tangy red fruit character, surprisingly complex and mature for only being five years old. Salted plums and baking spices give way to a lingering smoky note.
  • 2015 Panoplie (71% Mourvedre, 24% Grenache, 5% Syrah; from foudre): A very evocative youthful Mourvedre nose: thyme and oregano on top of mineral-laced red fruit. On the palate, concentrated salted watermelon, yellow raspberry, with firm tannins that promise a long future, and a finish of mint and blueberries. Like many of our 2015 reds, it feels powerful without any sense of extra weight. Still deepening and opening up, and should be great in another year or two.
  • 2016 Panoplie (66% Mourvedre, 25% Syrah, 9% Grenache): More powerful and plush (and darker) on the nose than the 2014 or 2015, perhaps driven by the higher Syrah content, with rich brambly plum skin, minty dark chocolate and crushed rock aromas. The mouth is textured and complex, perfectly balanced between sweet and savory notes, with a meaty, spicy jerky note. Significant, lingering tannins frame a finish with black licorice and an iron-like minerality. Our favorite of the youngest vintages, recently sent out to VINsider Wine Club members this spring.
  • 2017 Panoplie (69% Mourvedre, 17% Grenache, 14% Syrah; pulled from foudre, where it has been aging for the last year): Mostly dark on the nose for me, with black currant, black licorice, and black pepper slowly softening to show an appealing cocoa butter and crushed rock note. On the palate, very fruity, with sweet plum and blackberry fruit on the attack, then substantial tannins to restore order, then tangy teriyaki and iron mineral notes come out on the finish. This will be bottled in about a month, then held in bottle before it's sent to VINsiders next spring. 
  • 2018 Panoplie (64% Mourvedre, 24% Syrah, 12% Grenache; newly blended just last week): Smells so young and primary, like grape essence, but undercut by a little dark chaparral spiciness. The mouth is thick with young fruit, still more grape than anything else, and still because of its recent blending cloudy and settling out. It's about to go into foudre, where it will rest for the next year-plus. A baby, but with tons of fascinating potential.

A few concluding thoughts:

  • It seems like we're settling in on ideal drinking windows for Panoplie. With nearly 20 vintages under our belts, and some of our oldest wines starting to feel like they've peaked, I feel more confident than I ever have in suggesting that wine lovers drink Panoplie either in the 3-6 year window (before the wine shuts down) or in the 9-15 year window (once it reopens). It's not that the wines will fall apart after age 15; I think that many of them will provide fascinating drinking for a decade more, but it's hard for me to imagine those older wines being any better than they are now.
  • All the wines were excellent.  I asked the six people around the table for their votes on some favorites, and fourteen of the eighteen wines received at least one vote.  The highest vote-getters were 2016 and 2013, which both got votes from all 6 of us. 2007 and 2003 received 4 votes each, while 2008 and 2012 received 3 votes each. But I'm confident that even the wines which didn't receive any favorite votes in this tasting (2000, 2004, 2010, and 2015) would make for exceptional drinking if you open one.
  • Flavors evolve, but favorites stay favorite. Looking back at our last Panoplie vertical from 2016 some favorites that we noted were 2003, 2005, 2008, 2011, and 2013. All five of those received multiple favorite votes this time too.
  • Nothing seemed like it was in a "closed" phase. Unlike in our last tasting, there weren't any vintages that I was confident were in their closed phase. It seemed like 2009 was still unspooling, but it was far from closed. 2010 might have been a little quiet, but it too was still delicious. And neither 2011 nor 2012, which we'd think would be next in line, seemed diminished at all. But if you're worried, check our vintage chart periodically.
  • Don't be afraid of young Panoplie.  I know that when we let people know that these wines can age for decades it often scares them away from opening one young.  But the young wines in this flight were almost all drinking beautifully, and anyone who opens a vintage like 2013 or 2016 in coming months is in for a real treat.
  • Those of you coming for our July 21st Panoplie tasting are in for a treat. We've decided to show eight vintages: 2000, 2003, 2007, 2008, 2011, 2013, 2016 and 2017.