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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few concluding thoughts

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

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

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

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


My Most Memorable Meals of 2018

By Darren Delmore

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

Michael Warring

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

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McPhee's Grill

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

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Hitching Post

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

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Kitchen Door

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

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The Wine Gallery

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

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Bar Bianco 

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

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Alter

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

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Longboat Key Club

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

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Chez Delmore 

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

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Buy More Wine (and Fewer Wines)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Footnotes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where could this have gone wrong? 

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few concluding thoughts:

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

Footnote

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

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

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

Paso Robles Wine Festival Cru 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Consumers don't really understand the difference between Organic and Biodynamic

Neil, Jordan, Gustavo and I spent last weekend representing Tablas Creek at the International Biodynamic Wine Conference, up in the beautiful San Francisco Presidio. San Francisco was putting on a show, with gorgeous cool, sunny spring weather, and the view of the Golden Gate Bridge out the Golden Gate Club's windows was pretty much the best conference backdrop imaginable. The audience there was passionate and eager to share what they were doing. I was grateful that the show was mostly free of the mysticism (think lunar cycles and homeopathy) that makes many people leery of Biodynamic practices.  Instead, it offered deep explorations of soil microbiomes, of the science behind the Biodynamic preparations, and of the costs and benefits of different farming practices like tilling (vs. no-till), composting (what's the right mix and what are the benefits of applying it in tea form vs. spreading solid compost), yeasts (what happens as different "native" yeast strains take lead), and pest control. It offered grand tastings for the trade and for the public.  It was an inspiring mix.

Biodynamic conference crowd

The conference also offered a few different sessions on the marketing of Biodynamic wines.  One such panel discussion featured Gwendolyn Osborn, wine.com's Director of Education and Content. They recently added a Biodynamic landing page (wine.com/biodynamic) for all the wines that they sell made from Demeter-certified vineyards.  It’s great for the category to see such an influential retailer provide this focus.  And people (at least some people) are asking about Biodynamic wines.  In the archives they have from the hundreds of thousands of chats between their sales consultants and their customers, roughly a thousand contained the term "biodynamic". (By contrast, according to Gwendolyn, "organic" appeared about five times as often).

At the same time, the examples she shared suggested that wine.com’s customers, at least, don’t really distinguish biodynamic from organic. Most of the examples she showed that asked about biodynamic did so in a “biodynamic or organic” phrasing (as in, "I'd like to buy a Sauvignon Blanc around $20, and I'd prefer it be biodynamic or organic"). This is interesting to me in part because my elevator pitch introduces biodynamics in a very different way from organics. In fact, in many ways they are opposite approaches to sustainability.

Let me explain. Organics is, essentially, a list of things that you can’t do. Certification for organic status requires verification that you do not use the chemical herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers that together have come to define modern industrial farming. As such, the practice of organics is preoccupied with the effort to find organic replacements for the prohibited chemicals you can’t use. Think organic fertilizer. Or the pursuit to make an organic Round-Up. In both cases, you're still controlling the application of fertility, and the systemic removal of weeds and pests; you're just doing it in less toxic, less chemical ways. That's a great first step, which we should be applauding.

A quick semi-aside: the sustainability certification movement came in for some pretty heavy criticism at this conference as in many cases offering little more than greenwashing.  While I'm of the opinion that we should celebrate anyone's move toward greater sustainability -- whether that's moving from conventional farming to sustainable, or from sustainable to organic -- I think there's a lot of truth to one presenter's comparison of the average sustainability certification as cutting back from 20 cigarettes a day to 10, in that you're still applying chemicals and poisons:

Biodynamics, by contrast, is the effort to make a farm unit into a self-regulating ecosystem. It prescribes the conscious building of living soils through culturing biodiversity and adding preps that contain micro-nutrients. Together these encourage the growth of healthy microbiomes and (thereby) farm units. Yes, the elimination of chemicals is a prerequisite, but it’s not the goal. Instead, it’s a necessary step in the creation of a self-regulating environment. And that healthy environment, which is resilient in the face of pest or weed pressures, is biodynamics’ reward.

In our work at Tablas Creek, the self-contained farm unit appeals to us because we are dedicated believers in doing everything we can to express our property's terroir: the character of place that shows through in a wine. Each thing that we otherwise have to bring in from the outside that we can instead create internally through a natural process brings us one step closer to that ideal of expressing whatever terroir we have in our land. And that’s why biodynamics has so much appeal for us: on the one hand, we're building a healthy vineyard that will hopefully live longer, send roots down deeper, and be more self-regulating. On the other hand, the fruit -- and, assuming we do our jobs in the cellar, the wine -- will be as distinctive as possible, with its Tablas Creek personality shining out. 

That's a win for us. And for our customers. And for our neighbors and the community we're a part of.


Giving Robert Haas the Send-off He Deserved

This Sunday, we hosted a celebration of my dad's life here at the vineyard. We tried to make it an event my dad would have enjoyed: good food and wine, not too formal, a chance for people to tell stories in different ways, either to speak to the whole audience, to reminisce in smaller groups, or to record a video with Nathan, our Shepherd/Videographer.  About 350 people came, from as far away as France and Vermont, wine folks from all over California, and a great representation of the local wine community.  The mood was one of appreciation, not sadness, which I thought was great.  Yes, we are all sad to lose him, but at almost 91 he had a great and long life, achieved so many goals that he had, and laid the foundation for many others to succeed after him.

RZH IG Collage

I will forever be grateful to everyone who helped put this event together.  There were many, but a few principal ones were Neil Collins, who did a masterful job organizing leading the storytelling; Chef Jeff Scott, who put together a great array of foods for the gathering including my dad's favorite East Coast oysters and Tablas Creek lamb; my brother-in-law Tom Hutten, who assembled a selection of music from my dad's favorite artists and eras, Nathan Stuart, who spent his day filming reminiscences and the breaks taking photos; the many volunteers from the Paso Robles wine community, who manned the food and wine stations so that the team here could participate fully in the event; and finally Kyle Wommack, Wonder Woman and master event coordinator, who pulled together all the pieces of this complicated event -- of a sort we'd never hosted before -- and allowed the family to focus on the guests who came and on what we wanted to say.

LRG_DSC05201

It has also been a pleasure to see the tributes that appeared in the national and international press since he passed away.  If you haven't read these, and you have a half hour to spare, there are some wonderful stories in each of these pieces. My sincere thanks go out to all these writers, who gave him the tributes his long career deserved. In the order in which the stories were published:

A theme that came out again and again both in the articles that were written and in the tributes that people gave on Sunday was that my dad was a builder: someone who didn't just come up with ideas (though he did that, for sure) but oversaw the creation of structures that were set up to succeed long-term.  The impacts of that foundation-building were in full evidence at the party, with people there to remember his work not just at Tablas Creek, but as an importer, as an advocate for the Paso Robles wine community, and as a patron of the arts.  I thought it might be interesting for me to share the speech I wrote for the occasion.  I didn't end up giving it verbatim, but this was, more or less, what I said to the group.

Welcome, everyone. I had an anxiety dream a few days ago where there were only about 40 people here and I had to slink up to the podium and announce that we were going to start, I guessed, since it didn’t look like anyone else was coming.  I am so honored to see all of you here, and to have heard from so many of you – and so many people who couldn’t be here today – about how my dad had touched your lives. It’s been one of the really nice things in what has been a difficult month.

I remember, when Meghan and I were thinking about moving out here almost 20 years ago, that getting the chance to work with my dad while he was still actively involved in Tablas Creek was my main motivation in making the move when we did. If I’d waited a few years, and something had happened to him, I would have regretted that forever. But I wasn’t sure exactly what it was that he did that had made him successful. After having the pleasure of working with him for 15 years, I think it boiled down to three things:

  • First, he generated more ideas per amount of time spent at work than anyone else I’ve ever worked with. This wasn’t always easy – there were times when it drove us all nuts, because he would have a new good idea while we were still trying to implement the last one – but what a great foundation for any business.
  • Second, he was willing to lead by example. Whether this was going out well into his 80s and carrying a wine bag up and down the New York subway stairs showing Tablas Creek, or being the first to stand up and put in money to get the 11 new Paso Robles AVAs off the ground, or in creating the winery partners program to support the Foundation for the Performing Arts Center, on whose board he served into his 90s, if the cause was something he believed in, he was willing to put his own time, effort, and money into making sure that cause succeeded.
  • Third, he believed in people. One of the hallmarks of all the companies he founded was that people stayed and made a career there. He did this by giving the people he hired the authority to make the right decisions in their area of expertise, by allocating them the resources they needed, and by providing them vision without micro-managing the details. There are people here today from Vineyard Brands who remember me coming home from little league games and walking through the sales meeting dinners that he and my mom were hosting, in uniform. A dozen of them made the trip out here, many of whom are still there 30 years later, running the company that he founded.

My dad also had a pretty clear sense of what mattered, and what didn’t. I remember once, getting a semi-critical review in a class I took in high school, that said (with the implication that my judgments were perhaps less nuanced than they should be) that I had “little use for fools”. He read it and said, “well, I’m not sure there is much use for fools. I wouldn’t worry about it.”

But in the end, what I’m going to hold on to most about my dad was his essential optimism. He started this vineyard when he was already in his early 60s. He did it in a way that guaranteed that we wouldn’t see any wine for a decade. And for him, none of that mattered. It was an interesting and worthwhile thing to do.  He was confident that he could figure out the pieces he didn’t yet know.  The fact that we would be making wine from grapes that most Americans didn’t know and couldn’t pronounce, and that we would be blending these grapes into wines that didn’t really have a category in the marketplace, were just details that could be overcome by perseverance and force of will. That perseverance and force of will hadn’t ever let him down.  And they wouldn’t here either.

All kids, I think, grow up thinking that what they grow up with is normal.  Your dad is “Dad”. He does the things he does because that’s the way the world works.  I will forever be grateful that I got the chance to work with my dad as an adult, and see him through the eyes of the people he worked with and inspired.  And I believe that the reason he was successful in business was the same as why he was a great dad and a great friend.  You always knew where you stood.  You always knew that if you needed his support, you’d have it.  And you knew that when he said something, he meant it. 

I have one story I’d like to end with.  I remember, not long after we moved out here, walking out into the middle of the vineyard here with my dad.  Most of the vines here were still young.  He was in his mid-70s.  He stopped for a moment and waved generally toward the vineyard and said, “you know, I didn’t build this for me.  I’m not going to be around when it’s at maturity.  I didn’t even really build it for you.  But it should be amazing for your kids.”

Thank you all for coming today.  I am really looking forward to hearing your stories.  It’s been an honor to spend as much time inside my dad’s life as I have these last two decades.  Thank you all for being a part of it.

JH speaking at RZH memorial

Finally, one observation that really drove home to me what a lasting impact my dad had on not just the communities in which he lived, but on the people who he brought into the businesses he started.  At the event, there were some 65 people who had worked for him either at Vineyard Brands or at Tablas Creek.  By my rough calculations, those 65 people had combined for about 1000 years of tenure in his businesses.  And that, I think, is the legacy of which he would have been proudest.


A Horizontal Retrospective: Tasting Every Wine from 2008 at Age 10

In 2014 we began the tradition of looking back each year at the vintage from ten years before.  Part of this is simple interest in seeing how a wide range of our wines -- many of which we don't taste regularly -- have evolved, but we also have a specific purpose: choosing ten or so of the most compelling and interesting wines from this vintage to show at the public retrospective tasting we're holding on February 11th.  Ten years is enough time that the wines have become something different and started to pick up some secondary and tertiary flavors, but not so long that whites are generally over the hill. In fact, each year that we've done this we've been surprised by at least one wine that we expected to be in decline showing up as a highlight.  The lineup:

2008 Retrospective

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 2008 vintage:

The 2008 vintage was our second consecutive drought year, with yields further reduced by spring frosts. Berries and clusters were small, leading to excellent concentration. Ripening over the summer was gradual and harvest about a week later than normal. Crop sizes were similar to 2007 and about 20% lower than usual. The low yields and gradual ripening resulted in white wines with good intensity, lower than normal alcohols and an appealing gentle minerality and red wines that were unusually fresh and approachable despite appealing lushness.

I was interested in the extent to which we'd still see what we'd noted when the vintage was younger.  Would the wines (red and white) show the elegance that we thought we might find? Would this vintage marked by elegance (sandwiched between two of our most powerful vintages) have retained the stuffing to make them compelling a decade later?  And were there any lessons we might take for the wines we're making now?

In 2008, we made 17 different wines: 8 whites, 1 rosé, and 8 reds. My notes on the wines, with notes on their closures, are below (SC=screwcap; C=cork). Each wine is also linked to its technical information on our Web site, if you'd like to see a breakdown of the winemaking or the tasting notes at bottling (well, except for the Pinot Noir, which we only made one barrel of and never made a Web page; if you have questions about that, leave them in the comments and I'll do my best to answer).  I was joined for the tasting by our cellar team (Neil Collins, Chelsea Franchi, Craig Hamm, and Brad Ely) as well as by our National Sales Manager Darren Delmore.

  • 2008 Vermentino (SC): A combination of bright and more aged notes on the nose: petrol, peppermint, grilled grapefruit, lime leaf, lemongrass, and wet rocks. The mouth shows nice acids, clean and younger than the nose, with citrus pith and a nice briny finish. It's in a nice place: like a dry riesling with a little age on it.
  • 2008 Antithesis Chardonnay (C): A deeper golden color. The nose is like that of a sweet wine: caramel and butter pecan and a little minty lift. The mouth is round, and, by contrast, dry. Tons of texture. Flavors of candied orange peel and nectarine, with a pithy bitterness like peach pit coming out on the finish. A touch low in acid, particularly compared to the wines before and after in the lineup. A perfectly admirable showing for this wine, but drink up if you've got any.
  • 2008 Picpoul Blanc (SC): A lifted nose: monty, watermelon rind, barely ripe honeydew, and wet rocks.  This filled out with time in the glass and turned into lemon meringue.  Pretty fascinating.  The mouth is fun: quite rich, with pineapple flavors and a creamy texture that remind me why I always think Picpoul evokes pina colada. A nice limestoney character comes out on the long, clear finish.  Still vibrantly alive, and one of my favorites of the tasting.
  • 2008 Grenache Blanc (SC, and in fact our first experiment with the Stelvin "Lux" that we now use for all our screwcaps): A quieter nose than the first 3 wines: preserved lemon, white pepper, and a little crushed chalky rock. The mouth is initially all about sweet fruit (lychee and candied grapefruit, for me), then the acids take over, and then a little tannic bite that's absolutely characteristic of Grenache Blanc plays back and forth with ripe pear and a spicy juniper character on the long finish.
  • 2008 Cotes de Tablas Blanc (SC; 42% Viognier, 26% Roussanne, 21% Marsanne, 11% Grenache Blanc): A sweetly spicy nose, more floral than the first four wines, with honey, wild herbs, anise, and jasmine. The mouth is very nicely balanced between sweet attack (I thought peach syrup), good acids, and a little Grenache Blanc pithy bite on the back end. The long finish showed candied orange peel, honeysuckle, and marzipan. It's in a good spot, long after we would have thought.
  • 2008 Bergeron (C): Made from 100% Roussanne, harvested a little earlier from cooler blocks around the vineyard. A cool nose of green pear, honeysuckle, and cantaloupe. The mouth is all about texture: smooth flavors of watermelon and lemon custard, with a soft minerality pervading everything. Still quite Roussanne, in its way, though it's medium-bodied and lively. A little hazelnut and lemon drop comes out on the long finish, but the persistent impression is of its cool, smooth texture. 12.8% alcohol.  We're offering this now as an extra taste in our tasting room, if you're curious.
  • 2008 Roussanne (C): A deeper gold color.  An explosive nose: butterscotch, grilled pear, and a yeasty pastry note: pear tart, anyone? The mouth is gorgeous: luscious, rich, caramel and vanilla, and nuts, but dry. A long powerful finish with apricot and baking spices and a little sweet oak. Really impressive, if you like white wines with power and density. 14.2% alcohol.
  • 2008 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (C; 65% Roussanne, 30% Grenache Blanc, 5% Picpoul Blanc): An appealing nose, less powerful than the Roussanne but more complex: key lime pie, honey roasted peanuts, baked apple and a cool green bay leaf herbiness. The mouth shows sweet Roussanne fruit on the attack, pear, honey, and brioche. Then Grenache Blanc's anise lift and pithy bite keep order. Then a long, soft finish with flavors of kiwi and sweet spice, and a little salty minerality which I credited to Picpoul.  A few signs of age, but the wine is in a very nice place.
  • 2008 Rosé (SC; 58% Mourvedre, 32% Grenache, 10% Counoise): A pretty deep amber-pink color. A beguiling nose of candied fruit and baking spices that I thought was like fruitcake and Chelsea compared to "walking through a candy shop". The first of several descriptors that were more like a craft cocktail than a wine: singed orange. The mouth is nice: tart cranberry, cherry soda, grenadine, and campari. A nice texture, with a little tannic bite. Still an interesting wine, but we all remembered this as being insanely good on release, and while this was interesting, it would be a shame to have missed that.
  • 2008 Pinot Noir (C): Our second-ever Pinot, from a few rows of vines in our nursery we were using to produce budwood to plant at my dad's property for our Full Circle Pinot. Quite dark for a Pinot. A deep, ripe nose of root beer and figs and black cherry, with a little pine needle savoriness. The mouth is quite rich: chocolate-covered cherry, cola, dates, and sweet baking spices. Not particularly expressive of Pinot -- and to me less interesting than the Full Circle, which comes from a cooler spot -- but a nice rich red wine.
  • 2008 Cotes de Tablas (SC; 42% Grenache, 21% Syrah, 20% Counoise, 7% Mourvedre): After several years of bottling under both cork and screwcap, we only bottled under screwcap in 2008. This was terrific: a nose of roasted meat, plum, raspberry, black pepper, and graham cracker. The mouth was vibrant, with beautiful lifted red fruit: cherry and red plum. There are nice dusty tannins. Still young, lively, and without any real signatures of age, and anyone who has some of this is in for a treat. 
  • 2008 Grenache (C): A nice medium-intensity Grenache nose: cherry cola, cocoa powder, and pepper. Like a flourless chocolate cake with raspberry syrup. A powerful mouth, with supple but significant tannins, great cherry fruit, and nice balance. A long finish with sweet spices and ripe fruit. In an excellent place, and carrying its 15.5% alcohol well. Neil commented "that's a wow for me". One of our favorites of the tasting.
  • 2008 Mourvedre (C): A fun contrast to the Grenache, with a nose more structured and savory: meaty, eucalyptus and garrigue around currant and chocolate. The mouth is medium weight, with more currant fruit and still some pretty big, dusty tannins.  It was a nice example of why Mourvedre and Grenache make such good partners: Mourvedre's austerity is opened up by Grenache's exuberance, while at the same time taming Grenache's tendency toward booziness.
  • 2008 Syrah (C): A different color palette than the Grenache and Mourvedre: all black on the nose, like blackberry, black olive, iodine, black pepper, and baker's chocolate. The mouth shows cool-climate syrah's austerity, with a minty, minerally, meaty darkness, tannins that are still just starting to resolve, and a mouth-filling character that suggests some additional time in bottle will be rewarded. Our best guess: wait another 5 years for peak.
  • 2008 Tannat (C): Also very dark: pine forest, soy, and dark chocolate. The mouth is comparatively friendly, with a sweet attack of milk chocolate, nice grapey purple fruit, a little violet floral lift, and tangy acidity that keeps everything lively. Then lots (lots!) of tannins come out on the finish, with a raspberry preserves note.  Fun to taste, at this stage more appealing, I thought, than the Syrah, but clearly capable of going another decade or more.
  • 2008 Esprit de Beaucastel (C; 38% Mourvedre, 30% Grenache, 26% Syrah, 6% Counoise): Lovely on the nose, tending more toward red than black, but with aspects of each: red currant, new leather, baking spices, balsamic glaze, and a minty garrigue-like savoriness. The mouth is luscious: strawberry preserves, milk chocolate, rare steak, tangy acidity, and really nice, persistent tannins. Elegant and in a good place, with plenty more development to come.
  • 2008 Panoplie (C; 54% Mourvedre, 29% Grenache, 17% Syrah): A nose of density and power: balsamic cherry glaze, meat drippings, and wild herbs, with more of Mourvedre's characteristic restraint than Grenache's exuberance. The palate was more luscious: dark red fruit, chocolate, raspberry preserves, dried cranberry, and big but ripe tannins. Very long. A little dustiness that comes out on the finish and the still-thick texture suggests that there are more layers to emerge with additional time in bottle.  Still, a very nice showing for the Panoplie, and an impressive wine.

A few concluding thoughts

I was very happy, overall, with how the wines showed.  I didn't have as clear an impression of 2008 in my mind as I did for the vintages surrounding it, perhaps because the character of the wines wasn't as dominated by the vintage signature as it was in, say, 2007, but also perhaps because the year was overshadowed by the massively powerful vintages on either side. That said, the wines were nearly all in good shape at age 10, and the year's elegance meant that there were more wines that I would want to drink at this stage than I found in 2007. The whites, in particular, were as a group the most impressive we've found in our five-year history of horizontal retrospectives, and presaged, I think, a shift toward the more elegant style that we prefer today.

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 all our 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.

This tasting was yet another data point for me suggesting that Syrah really needs time, and yet its value in a blend.  This 2008 Syrah was still, I thought, too young, but the structure and austerity of the Syrah component gave the Esprit red and Panoplie a feeling of balance and restraint that were really valuable. We choose to harvest our estate Syrah at ripeness levels where it has good structural elements, because that's where it's most valuable when blended with Grenache and Syrah.  That's likely a few weeks earlier than we would if we were focusing on the wine as a varietal bottling, and I'm OK with the tradeoff of having to wait a few extra years for our varietal Syrahs to come around.

Finally, we chose ten pretty exciting wines for what should be a great February 11th Horizontal Tasting: Picpoul Blanc, Roussanne, Esprit Blanc, Cotes de Tablas Grenache, Mourvedre, Syrah, Esprit, Panoplie, and Tannat. There are still some seats available; I hope many of you will join us!


A Vertical Tasting of Every Vintage of Esprit de Beaucastel and Esprit de Tablas, 2000-2015

Some of the best days at the winery are the days when we open up back vintages of a specific wine, for the dual purposes of better understanding how it ages over time and better advising our fans which vintages to open if they're looking for peak drinking1. Somehow, the last time we'd done this with our flagship Esprit de Tablas/Beaucastel wines was December of 2014. So, it was with significant anticipation that we assembled each vintage of Esprit we've made, from our first (2000) to the 2015 that is going into bottle this week:

Esprit Vertical June 2017

An additional goal of this particular tasting was to choose a selection of Esprits to show at a public retrospective tasting. Fifteen wines would have been too many, but we figure we can pick a representative sample that will give guests a great sense of how the wine develops in bottle, as well as how the vintage affects the wine's composition and flavor profile.  If this sounds like fun, we'll be hosting that tasting on August 27th.  Details are here.

I thought it would be fun to share my notes on each wine. I have linked each vintage to that wine's page on our Web site, if you'd like to see production details or what the tasting notes were at bottling. Note that we didn't make an Esprit red in the frost-impacted 2001 vintage.

  • Esprit de Beaucastel 2000: A meaty, leathery, minty and smoky nose, very appealing, with dark red currant fruit lurking behind. On the palate, consistent with the nose: deep and meaty, with tobacco leaf and dark chocolate savoriness, and lots of texture. Chewy, with enough tannins still to suggest it's nowhere near at the end of its life. This is the best showing I can remember for this wine, and notably improved from that tasting in 2014.
  • Esprit de Beaucastel 2002: Smells younger and also more powerful than the 2000; menthol and crushed rock and brambles and meat drippings. The mouth is still quite tannic but also shows sweeter fruit than 2000: milk chocolate, plum skin, juniper, and black cherry, with a finish that turns spicy, tangy and floral among grippy tannins. Still on its way up, we thought. We're looking forward to trying it again in a few more years.
  • Esprit de Beaucastel 2003: An incredibly inviting nose, my favorite of the tasting: toffee and leather and milk chocolate and malt and black cherry. The mouth shows a mix of sweet dark fruit (plum jam, chocolate-covered cherry, figs), nice acids keeping things fresh, and a little minty lift on the finish. The wine is a little less dense than either 2000 or 2002, with tannins that are fully resolved, and I can't imagine this getting any better. Drink up.
  • Esprit de Beaucastel 2004: On the nose, showing density reminiscent of the 2002: menthol, roasted meat, sage, anise, and red currant. The mouth shows a mix of sweet fruit and big tannins: milk chocolate, dates, and candied orange peel, and a chalky, powdered sugar texture to the tannins that becomes more pronounced on the licorice-laced finish. I get a little alcohol sweetness on that finish, a pastis-like character, that seems heightened by some still substantial tannins. A big wine, with life left.
  • Esprit de Beaucastel 2005: A very meaty nose, gamy, with tobacco leaf and mint, and pine forest undergrowth. Savory, not fruity. On the palate, all that savoriness is leavened by dark red fruit, tangy acids, and bold but integrated tannins. The finish shows plum skin, black cherry, and an iron-like minerality alongside bold but integrated tannins. Neil's comment was that it was great now but would be even better in 10 years. I thought it on a similar path as the 2000.
  • Esprit de Beaucastel 2006: Smells less dense and more integrated/evolved (and more refined) than the earlier wines: cassis and mint and cherry candy and malt and meat drippings, with a pretty rose petal note coming out with air. On the palate, beautiful sweet red fruit, but great acids too: rose hips and ripe plums. A minty eucalyptus note comes out on the finish. Beautiful texture: just the right amount of tannin for the fruit, young and supple, and in a great place.
  • Esprit de Beaucastel 2007: A meaty, minty, dense nose: like a leg of lamb roasting with garlic and juniper, with notes of baker's chocolate and crushed rock. On the palate, more dark chocolate, creme de cassis, rich and mouth-coating, with chalky tannins that will help this go out another decade at least. It tastes like a special occasion. What a pleasure to have this wine out of its closed phase and firing on all cylinders, though it's still a little youthfully thick and blocky. It has plenty of complexity and richness to gain elegance without losing its fruit.
  • Esprit de Beaucastel 2008: This vintage is in the unenviable position of being squeezed between two blockbusters, but it showed nicely, if quieter than its brethren: a nose of mint and marinating meat and rosemary and soy. The mouth is gently delicious: raspberry and mint chocolate and clean, piney brambles. Seemed very Grenache dominated, with strawberry preserves and baking spices coming out on the finish. Not a dramatic wine, but a very pretty one.
  • Esprit de Beaucastel 2009: Bold on the nose, spicy and minty with garrigue and raspberry liqueur. The palate is still quite tannic, with plum skin, crushed rock minerality, and both red and black licorice flavors. The wine is showing very youthfully both in its relatively high toned fruit and its tannic structure. I'm looking forward to seeing what it's like when it turns the corner into maturity; my guess is that it will deepen in tone.
  • Esprit de Beaucastel 2010: A very different nose than the last several, clearly reflective of the cool 2010 vintage: soy and sage, but not much fruit. The palate is almost Nordic in its tone: elderberry and crushed rock and charcuterie and wild herbs. The texture shows nice chalky minerality, and the tannins are modest. I feel like this is still quieted by being in a closed phase, and will get more expressive in the next year or so, but there were several around the table who gave it votes as their favorites. Note that this doesn't mean either of us is wrong.
  • Esprit de Tablas 2011: Love this nose of spicy juniper and blackberry, with deeper notes of chanterelles that I'm guessing will turn meaty with a few more years. On the palate, nice poise and cool dark fruit, but lighter in body than the nose suggested to me. The finish is nicely balanced but shorter than I remember it, with chalky tannins and some lingering dark fruit. I suspect this is entering its closed phase, and will likely become less expressive over the next 6-12 months before reopening sometime next year.
  • Esprit de Tablas 2012: An appealingly brambly nose with both red and black components: soy and spice and plum and menthol and new leather. On the palate, mostly red: tart cherry, red licorice, sweet baking spices. Medium weight, some youthful tannins, good acids.  A baby, still.
  • Esprit de Tablas 2013: Dark on the nose, more like 2010/2011 than 2008/2009/2012, with soy and eucalyptus predominating. Not hugely giving. The mouth is tangy with blackberry fruit and baker's chocolate, black licorice, and good acids. Structural elements come out on the finish, with a spiciness to the tannins that Chelsea pegged as "Mexican hot chocolate". Still very, very young.
  • Esprit de Tablas 2014: So youthful on the nose: like cherry pie (both the fruit and the buttery crust), red licorice, and sweet spice. Beautiful on the palate, with red currant, rhubarb compote, and big, chewy tannins that show the wine's youth. Pure and primary right now, but with an exciting future ahead of it.
  • Esprit de Tablas 2015: At the time that we tasted it, this was about 2 weeks from bottling. A really appealing nose of blackberries in a pine forest. Deep. On the palate, beautiful dark fruit, tobacco leaf, black plum, and soy marinade.  Great structure and weight on the palate, with a finish showing black raspberry, black licorice, and lingering tannins. I am very excited to start showing this to people this fall.

I asked people around the table to offer a few of their favorites, and the wines that got votes included the 2000, 2003, 2006, 2010, and 2015, with the 2003 pretty universally among everyone's top picks.  There were other wines (notably 2005, 2007, and 2014) that got lots of positive comments for their structure and their potential, and which I think will end up in the next round's top picks.

We ended up choosing the following vintages for August's public tasting: 2000, 2003, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2014, 2015.

A few concluding thoughts:

  • These wines really do reward patience. If we have consistently underestimated the wines' ability (and need) to age, I'm sure that most of our customers have. Look at a wine like the 2000: three years ago, I commented that it was the best showing for that wine I'd ever seen. This year's was better yet. Nearly every one of the older wines was better now than it was at the last tasting in 2014. This long aging curve wouldn't be a surprise for Mourvedre-heavy Chateauneuf, and I think we need to be recasting our expectations along those lines.
  • The degree to which the wines showed primarily red fruit vs. primarily black fruit was -- somewhat to my surprise -- not exclusively tied to the relative proportions of Grenache and Syrah.  Sure, some of the wines that show more red fruit than black (like 2006, 2008, and 2014) did have high percentages of Grenache. But others (like 2003 and 2012) didn't. And the cool 2010 and 2011 vintages both show mostly black fruit, despite their high percentage of Grenache. Variety matters, but vintage matters at least as much.
  • The tasting reaffirmed my belief that the 2014 and 2015 vintages are the best back-to-back showing we've had in some time, probably since 06 and 07. Both 2014 and 2015 Esprit de Tablas wines were beautiful examples of how this blend can have power without excess weight, fruit without sappiness, and structure without hardness. Both offer lots of pleasure now, but will age into something remarkable. And each shows its vintage's signature in an expressive way: the warm 2014's generous juiciness, and 2015's alternating cool and hot months in its tension and complexity.
  • Those of you coming out for the tasting in August are in for a treat.

Footnote

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