Vintage Hollywood

I have recently been finding myself contrasting two recent vintages primarily in terms of their personalities, rather than (or at least, in addition to) their flavors.  Our 2011 vintage produced wines that are tense, wound-up, powerful and brooding, that make you make an effort to get to know them.  The wines from our 2012 vintage are sunny, open, friendly, and easy to like without being simplistic.  Yes, these are notably anthropomorphic descriptions, and I have described each without mentioning anything about sweetness, acidity, flavors or texture.  And yet, don't you have a sense of what the two vintages' wines are likely to taste like?

That got me thinking of which movie stars might correspond to those two vintages, and once I got myself started, I couldn't stop.  So, I present to you the last ten vintages, with a female and male movie star who will help you get to know them, and a little explanation as to why. Images courtesy Wikipedia.

Star Banner.fw

  • 2004: "We didn't know they had it in them".  The 2004 vintage struck us at the time as likely to produce friendly, appealing wines without perhaps the structure and depth to age into elegance.  We were wrong, and the vintage has had remarkable staying power and has become something we didn't think it would be.
    • Female star: Mila Kunis, because when you saw her in That 70's Show, did you think she would be an A-list talent, as well as one of the most genuinely funny interview subjects in Hollywood?  Me neither.
    • Male star: Matthew McConaughey. Wooderson didn't seem likely to graduate to Dallas Buyers Club.
  • 2005: "Came through a few rough patches".  2005 wines were big and brawny when they were young, obviously with potential, but they shut down hard in middle-age and got downright difficult, to the point that we actually had to delay including the 2005 Esprit de Beaucastel in our Collector's Edition Wine Club because it wasn't ready.  But now?  They're the wines I pick when I want to impress.
    • Female star: Drew Barrymore, who as a teenager didn't seem likely to mature into the funny, self-possessed star she is now.
    • Male star: Robert Downey Jr., whose transformation from talented tabloid regular to master of multiple genres has been remarkable to see.  Did you realize he's the most valuable movie star in Hollywood, and has been for two years running?
  • 2006: "The overachiever".  A little like 2004, except that the wines seemed more solid and less friendly at the start, likely to be respected and admired but unlikely to be loved.  Then they steadily put on substance while rounding off rough edges, until they were stars in their own rights.  It happened so gradually we were actually surprised when our 2006 Esprit de Beaucastel became our first wine to make the Wine Spectator's annual "Top 100" list.
    • Female star: Amy Adams, who seemed destined for typecast roles as the funny sidekick but who has pushed her boundaries until she's one of the most marketable women in Hollywood.
    • Male star: John C. Reilly, the consummate character actor who parlayed strong work in a steady stream of sidekick roles in great indie films into juicy lead roles in blockbusters like Chicago and Gangs of New York.
  • 2007: "The star".  Big, glossy, powerful, clearly A-list material, our most impressive vintage suggests the classic Hollywood star, at the height of his or her powers, who can play any role successfully.  Yet, you never forget you're watching a star conscious of his or her own power.  No one would describe the 2007 vintage as "cozy".
    • Female star: Catherine Zeta-Jones.  A-list lead.  Talented singer.  One of the most beautiful women of her generation.  Would I be terrified to meet her?  Absolutely.
    • Male star: George Clooney.  Ridiculously talented, funny, self-deprecating and successful in a number of different roles, but you never forget you're watching a movie star.  That's what 2007 is like.
  • 2008: "The quiet pro".  This vintage, sandwiched between the showier 2007 and 2009 vintages, was excellent in its own right, but didn't demand a lot of attention.  It's like the star you're always happy to see in a movie, but whose name probably isn't on the marquee.  Yet at the end, you're glad to have spent the time with them.
    • Female star: Julianne Moore: classy, elegant, always appealing, and often in roles that show off her acting rather than her beauty.  Always an asset to a cast.
    • Male star: Jake Gyllenhaal: ditto.  Can lead a major production, but it doesn't seem to happen as often as it could.
  • 2009: "The dark side".  Powerful, tightly wound, the 2009 vintage is like 2007 with some added menace: an a-list star willing to go without makeup in pursuit of a meaty role.  We're expecting the 2009's, which are a bit forbidding and tannic now, to unwind only gradually, but to reward patience handsomely.
    • Female star: Angelina Jolie, the classic female action hero, whose depth is promised and only gradually revealed. A powerful presence, alluring and intimidating in equal measure.
    • Male star: Daniel Craig, whose take on James Bond is darker than previous iterations, played straight rather than with a wink, still plenty suave while adding more muscle and an introspective streak. A Bond who doesn't let you inside.
  • 2010: "Classic elegance". The comparatively stress-free 2010 vintage, a wet year coming after three years of drought, produced wines that have to me always come across as effortlessly appealing, not notable for their power but beautifully delineated and in perfect balance, like a movie star who ages gracefully.
    • Female star: Gwyneth Paltrow, charming in whatever role she takes on, from the big screen to the kitchen, but seemingly most at home playing a version of herself.
    • Male star: Denzel Washington, whose quiet confidence and air of class allows him to imbue humanity into characters who in other hands would be straightforward villains or saccharine heroes. Watch Training Day and Remember the Titans and marvel that he starred in these back-to-back.
  • 2011: "A little intimidating". 2011 turned up the volume on 2010, gaining intensity from a spring frost and retaining bright acids from our second consecutive cold year.  All the wines have a brooding darkness and the promise of great depth. At the same time, they require a certain investment on your part as their consumer to meet them on their terms. They're not interested in pleasing the crowds.
    • Female star: Halle Berry, who could have settled into a comfortable role as model and actress playing beautiful people, but seemed to search out troubled characters that were impossible to pigeonhole.
    • Male star: Hugh Jackman, who inhabits Wolverine's character comfortably: funny and sociable in short, bitter bursts, but ultimately inward-focused and intense.
  • 2012: "Pleased to meet you". In dramatic contrast to 2011, 2012 comes to greet you with a smile. This isn't to say that there's not depth behind this happy facade, but the first impression I have with all the wines from 2012 is that they're charming, with generous fruit, engaging and enticing.
    • Female star: Reese Witherspoon, recent arrest notwithstanding, plays characters with an easy smile who you want to root for and for whom joy seems a regular emotion.
    • Male star: Tom Hanks, whose wide range never seems to include dour or unappealing characters.  Of course, if you were casting for an unappealing character, would you cast Tom Hanks?  Exactly.
  • 2013: "The prodigy". In our as-yet-limited experience of the 2013 vintage, it seems to combine the appeal of 2012 with the depth and intrigue of 2011.  We're not sure where it's going yet, but we know it's going to be fun to follow and get to know.
    • Female star: Jennifer Lawrence, whose range at age 23 is already staggering, and whose career arc is likely to be meteoric.
    • Male star: Leonardo DiCaprio, circa 1997.  There isn't really a current equivalent to the promise that a 22-year-old Leonardo DiCaprio showed, already nominated for an Oscar (at age 19) for his role in What's Eating Gilbert Grape and within a few months of becoming the biggest star in the highest-grossing movie ever.

I'm sure any list like this is going to create controversy, and would love to know your nominations for the characteristics of our different vintages.  Or maybe I'm totally off base and you've only made it this far because you're wondering if I've lost my mind.  In any case, let me know what you think in the comments.

New Marsanne and Grenache Blanc releases: data points on the unique 2011 vintage

With several of our white wines getting scarce in the tasting room, this week we decided that we would release two new varietal white wines: the 2011 Marsanne and the 2011 Grenache Blanc.  So, we opened them early in the week to write up the tasting notes for the Web site.  I was blown away by the power and vibrancy of both wines, and am coming to the conclusion that at least for whites, 2011 is a truly special vintage at Tablas Creek.  The combination of richness and high acidity is literally unprecedented in our experience.

A little background.  The 2011 vintage was marked by two factors.  First, we saw one of our most devastating spring frosts in our history in April, which reduced our yields by an estimated 40%.  Typically, a low-yielding vintage produces wines with noteworthy power and concentration, but also tends to produce sweet, low-acid grapes at harvest-time. Examples in our history include 2002, 2007 and 2009: ageworthy vintages with great lushness that balance their power with relatively pronounced tannins.  Enter the second defining characteristic of 2011: it was cold.  Really cold.  Either our coldest or second-coldest vintage (to 2010) ever, depending on which measurements you choose.  Typically, cold vintages produce wines with long hangtimes, low sugar levels at harvest, noteworthy minerality and great elegance.  2010 was this sort of vintage.  So, what happens when you combine low yields and cold temperatures?  Apparently, good things.  All the 2011 whites have a mouth-filling breadth that is only highlighted by their vibrant acidities.  The fruit is more apparent on the nose and on the palate than in 2010, but they still finish clean, with a powerful saline minerality. And they're some of the lowest-alcohol wines we've made. The two new wines, with my notes below:

2011 GB and M

  • 2011 Grenache Blanc: An intensely creamy, mineral nose that also includes sweeter flavors like pear and anise.  In the mouth its initial impression of sweet fruit (strawberry, quince and green apple) is followed by vibrant acids, then turning sweeter again on the finish, suggesting preserved lemon and anise  and leaving a lingering impression of saline minerality. Drink now and for the next two to three years. 13.3% alcohol, our lowest Grenache Blanc ever.
  • 2011 Marsanne: Aromas of peaches and cream, honey, and citrus blossom, with rich yet surprisingly bright flavors of pineapple, mango, and creamy minerality, a rich yet clean texture and long finish with tropical fruit and sweet spice. Drink now and over the next five years. 13.0% alcohol, exceptionally low for a white Rhone from California.

These wines are both small production (225 and 120 cases, respectively) and neither one will see much in the way of wholesale distribution.  Thanks to the frost, there just wasn't much fruit in 2011.  But the national market has already seen the 2011 Patelin de Tablas and the 2011 Patelin de Tablas Blanc, which show a similar combination of richness and vibrancy, though the expression of minerality isn't quite as apparent in our non-estate wines.  Perhaps the best early example has been the 2011 Rosé, which has been perhaps our favorite vintage of this wine ever.

The best news?  We're only at the beginning of the release cycle for our 2011's.  The next couple of years should be fun.

Assembling Our 2011 Vintage Blends: Done. And Wow!

By Robert Haas

Thursday of last week we completed our decision-making process for the blending of our estate red wines: Panoplie, Esprit, En Gobelet, and Côtes de Tablas. This vintage we’ll also be making a varietal Mourvèdre.  We also found time to make the final decision on the Esprit Blanc, which had given us trouble in our white blending trials in March. Now that the proportions and lots have been selected, the wines will be assembled and the reds put into our 1200-gallon oak foudres for ageing until bottling in 2013.   The Esprit Blanc will go back into foudre as well until it is bottled before harvest.

Neil, Ryan, Chelsea, Jason and I form the core of the selection jury.  We like also to include a visiting Perrin, and when he’s in town, National Sales Manager Tommy Oldre as well.  Our general practice is to taste all the varietal lots first, blind, so we don’t know which vineyard block or which cellar lot each comes from: just what the variety is.  We give each lot a grade.  It’s not a complex grading system; the grades are 1, 2 and 3.  1 identifies wines with richness, elegance and balance, typically lots destined for, or at least of a quality suitable for, the Esprits.  Lots with a 2 rating are ones that we like, but which seem less balanced or less intense than those with a 1 rating.  These typically form the Côtes de Tablas and our varietal wines.  3’s are lots that are showing less well.  If the problem, such as oxidation or reduction, is correctable in the cellar, or incomplete fermentation, we revisit the tasting later in the cycle.  The  “3” grade serves as a flag for the cellar crew that something needs some attention, and typically, over time, the 3’s resolve themselves into 1’s or 2’s. The components:


The next stage is selecting for lots that we feel should be declassified out of our estate wines into our Patelin de Tablas and Patelin de Tablas Blanc.  These lots tend to be friendly and pretty, but less intense and showing less character of place than we like to see in our estate bottling.  This year it was very difficult to “select out” any of the varietal lots, and the 2011 Patelin wines reflect this: each has less than 5% Tablas Creek fruit in its final blend.

After this process (which we completed last month) we work from the top down, starting with the Panoplie.  In our tastings of the different lots, we discuss the character of the best lots, trying to identify those that seem somehow “above and beyond” the high quality we choose for the Esprits.  Then we taste a handful of possible blends for the Panoplie, reflecting different percentages of the different varieties of a suitable quality.  We taste these blends blind, not knowing which blend has which percentages, so that we’re free from our own biases.  Knowing only that a blend is one of 4 possible Panoplie blends keeps us all honest. 

We don’t move on until we reach consensus.  These trials are not a democracy, where if 4 of the 6 people around the table prefer one blend, but the other 2 believe a different one is the best, the 4 win by default.  We talk it out, coming back to the blends with new ideas until we reach agreement.  This process can take several days, and in fact with the Esprit Blanc we decided that the wines themselves needed a little more time in barrel before we felt comfortable making the right choices, so we kicked the final decision down the road in March (when we blended most of the whites). We finalized the wine last week.

In the end, we chose what for us is a classic Panoplie blend: 60% Mourvèdre, 30% Grenache, and 10% Syrah.  Then we moved on to the Esprit, leaving out the lots that were now destined for Panoplie.  So each round went, eliminating from each succeeding round the wines that had been chosen for the higher tiers.  When we had decided on the Esprit (40% Mourvèdre, 30% Grenache, 20% Syrah, 10% Counoise) and En Gobelet (33% Mourvèdre, 31% Grenache, 20% Syrah, 16% Tannat) we took stock of what we had left and realized that due to the low crop levels, particularly on Grenache and Syrah, we weren’t going to be able to produce varietal red wines other than Mourvèdre.  This made the blending of the Côtes de Tablas fairly straightforward: we knew the rest of the Grenache, Syrah and Counoise were going in, and needed to decide just on the right amount of Mourvèdre.  We tasted three different potential Côtes de Tablas blends, with differing Mourvèdre quantities, and settled on a blend of 49% Grenache, 28% Syrah, 15% Mourvèdre, and 8% Counoise. That left us 800 cases of a varietal Mourvèdre.

All this was done in three days, Tuesday-Thursday.  This is the first time I can remember that we reached consensus on each of the red blends on our first time around.  The quality was uniformly high, even as we reached the third and fourth tiers down, which made it easier: we just had to focus on what profile we liked best for each wine.

It was not obvious last fall that 2011 would be such a high quality year.  Much of the west coast suffered from unusually cold, foggy weather, and there were some early rains that began in late September.  This all on top of April frosts.  But we’d had a good sense since early December, when François Perrin visited.  Having heard of all the challenges of the 2011 vintage in California, he was anxious to taste through the vintage in the cellar.  It was early to taste.  We had just finished the harvest on November 9th.  Many of the wines were not even through their primary (sugar) fermentations, not to mention the malolactic fermentations, which often occur later in the cycle.

However, we plowed ahead, starting with the whites.  And with each lot that we tasted François became more excited.  “This is going to be a truly great white vintage,” he commented.  “Even this early I can see that the wines have great structure, fine aromatics, good intensity, saline minerality, individual personality, and lush fruit.  Can the reds be as good?”

Reds are less “tasteable” than whites in the early stages of their development, but experienced tasters can get a good idea of their overall style and quality even six or seven weeks after the harvest, as was the case here.  And with each lot we tasted, François expressed optimism for the 2011 reds.  They were showing concentration, richness, intensity and elegance.  As our blending sessions showed, the optimism was justified.  The wines are uniformly terrific.

What accounts for the extraordinary wines of 2011?  Several things combined to make it an exceptional vintage:

  • We started out with good moisture in the ground after two years of wet winters, so the vines were healthy and we did not need to irrigate.
  • The frosts we suffered on April 8th and 9th reduced our yields to a miniscule 2.15 tons per acre.  But the damage was not uniform; while our Viognier and Grenache and much of our Syrah was decimated, Mourvèdre and Roussanne (our two most important varieties) were largely spared damage.  These low yields provided excellent concentration.
  • We had a very cool growing season, so that all of the grape varieties had a longer than usual hang time even though the vines were carrying a smaller crop.  The result was balanced wines with excellent acidities, particularly important and unusual in a year with such great concentration.
  • Although it was cold, Paso Robles’ geography spared us from the persistent fog that plagued many California wine regions more open to the Pacific.  We avoided the issues with mildew and rot that many other regions saw.
  • The harvest rains turned out to be less than had been forecast, and significantly less than in many North Coast regions, which allowed us to wait for ripeness in this cool year without suffering through bunch rot, and a week of good weather in early November brought in several high quality lots we’d effectively written off two weeks earlier.

What next?  The wines will be blended and put to rest in the foudres you can see from the tasting room.  They’ll sit there ageing quietly through the coming harvest, and then be bottled next summer before the 2013 harvest.  We hope that 2012 will provide equally great raw materials as 2011.

Harvest 2011 Recap and Assessment: Yields Down 15% vs. Normal and Quality High

Harvest 2011 finished on November 9th with a flurry of activity, including at one point 62 different bins of grapes scattered around the winery and on the crushpad, waiting to be destemmed.  My favorite part of the photo (blow it up to see it) is the bemused look on Ryan's and Chelsea's faces as they survey the sea of grapes:


Much of this fruit was unexpected, though no less welcome for it.  With most of our estate harvested and wet, frosty weather looming November 4th-6th, we figured that we'd be lucky to get anything additional in.  But lucky we were.  The rains amounted to little more than half an inch, and frosts that affected most of Paso Robles (for once) missed us.  So with sunny weather resuming on the 7th we scurried to finish harvesting our own property.  And some of the later-ripening Patelin vineyards escaped sufficiently to contribute as well.  All together, we finished harvest with 100 different lots, 70 from our own vineyard and 30 from various other vineyards for Patelin and Patelin Blanc.

Yields in 2011 were low, though thanks to this late flurry of grapes not as low as we'd feared.  Over the entire 105 producing acres, we harvested 243 tons, or 2.3 tons per acre.  That's down significantly (about 34%) compared to 2010, but probably more like down 15%-20% compared to a normal year.

Compared to 2010, every variety except Roussanne was down.  But 2010 was not a normal vintage; it was one of our most plentiful vintages, even if its 3.5 tons per acre were still modest by most standards.  An idea of a more normal vintage might come by averaging high-yielding 2010 and low-yielding 2009.  Compared to this theoretical "normal" vintage, we saw significant declines in Syrah, Grenache, Viognier, Grenache Blanc, and Picpoul Blanc.  We saw essentially average yields in Mourvedre, Counoise, Tannat, Marsanne and Vermentino.  And we saw an increase in Roussanne.  The degree to which this correlates to which varieties were out at the time of our April frosts should perhaps be unsurprising.  All the low-yielding varieties except Picpoul were out.  And all the normal-yielding varieties except Marsanne weren't.  Roussanne, the only grape to show an increase, is both late-sprouting and notoriously frost-resistant.  For our principal varietals, our yields were (in tons):

Grape2011 Yields
2010 Yields 2009 Yields % vs. Avg.
Viognier  6.5 22.5 12.2 -62.5%
Marsanne  9.0 13.2
Grenache Blanc  17.1 34.8
Picpoul Blanc  4.7 9.4
Vermentino  11.9 19.1
 43.2 33.9
Total Whites  92.4 132.9
Grenache  42.1 71.1
Syrah  23.3 47.7
Mourvedre  52.9 69.3
Tannat  9.8 14.5
Counoise  11.7 16.8
Total Reds  139.8 219.4
Total  232.2 352.3

Our average sugars at harvest continued their gradual decline.  This is, we believe, partly due to the cool vintage (2011, like 2010, was one of the coolest on record in Paso Robles) but also due to the continuing capability of older vines to deliver fully ripe flavors at lower sugar levels.  Our average Brix at harvest since 2007:

2007: 24.42 avg. Brix
2008: 23.87 avg. Brix
2009: 23.42 avg. Brix
2010: 22.68 avg. Brix
2011: 22.39 avg. Brix

Delving deeper into the sugar levels, the average sugars at harvest of our principal varieties this year were:

Counoise: 22.5
Grenache Noir: 24.4
Grenache Blanc: 21.8
Marsanne: 21.1
Mourvèdre: 22.8
Picpoul Blanc: 20.7
Roussanne: 20.9
Syrah: 22.6
Tannat: 21.9
Vermentino: 21.0
Viognier: 22.3

The harvest was shorter than most.  We began on September 20th and finished on November 9th, a span of 51 days.  By contrast, 2010 harvest took 59 days, 2009 took 64 days, 2008 took 58 days and 2007 took 66 days.  Our longest harvest ever, 2004, took a whopping 89 days.

The quality of the fruit looks terrific.  The whites are generally bright and expressive, with beautiful acidities thanks to the late, cool spring and the unusual lack of heat spikes during the growing season.  The reds are deep in color and wonderfully aromatic.  But that's not to say it wasn't stressful.  Winemaker Ryan Hebert says "I think the quality is going to be great, but it's going to be different than anything we've ever seen before.  It's paid off that we've had to learn to be comfortable with ripeness at lower sugars, so this year didn't scare us too much."

Winemakers generally are critical judges of quality at this stage.  That the cellar team is as excited as they are -- with the memories of the year's challenges still fresh -- bodes well for vintage 2011.

The sun sets on the 2011 Harvest, light in yields but intense in character

Sunset with mourvedre

OK, I guess I didn't mean that literally, though that was the last two bins of our estate Mourvedre coming in from the vineyard under the setting sun and rising moon yesterday evening.  But our last grapes are coming in today, both off our estate (where we're picking down in our nursery block and generally cleaning up "last pick" fruit from any sections that had anything left) and for our Patelin (where we have Mourvedre and Grenache from a handful of cool, late-ripening sites arriving throughout the day).

Over the last two weeks, the bigger picture of the 2011 harvest has come into focus.  We're going to be light in quantity, probably in the neighborhood of 225 tons of estate fruit.  Most varieties are down between 40% and 50% compared to last year, and between 20% and 30% compared to normal.  Quality looks excellent, with dark colors in the reds and remarkable intensity with surprising freshness In both reds and whites. 

This overall picture, of course, is both messier and more interesting when you look in more detail.  Some varieties (most notably Viognier) are almost nonexistent in the cellar.  Roussanne will actually have more tonnage this year than in 2010.  Of our key reds, Mourvedre did best in terms of yields (down about 30%) while Syrah was hardest-hit (down about 55%).  Still, things could have been much worse.  2010 was an unusually bountiful vintage, and yields down 45% are still going to be OK.  We've spoken to some neighbors whose crops are down 75% or more.  And what we're seeing looks great, with very thick skins and beautiful balance of sugars, flavors and acids.  It's hard to show just how deep the colors are on the red wines, but this photo of Mourvedre in a bin gives you a sense.  Mourvedre is normally a mid-color red grape, between the lighter pink-purple of Grenache and the deep blue-black of Syrah:


The last few weeks of harvest have been driven by the fear of two storm systems.  The second is forecast to arrive tomorrow.  The first dropped just over half an inch of rain on us between November 4th and 6th, and knowing it was coming meant that the end of October and the first few days of November were the time to push to get things in.  With most other varieties already harvested, we focused on Mourvedre.  During that time, we harvested six different Mourvedre blocks totaling about 30 tons, and also brought in 15 tons of Grenache, 5 tons of Roussanne, 3 tons of Counoise and our tiny harvest (.4 tons) of Petit Manseng. 

The change in the weather included two frosty nights and two rainy days, but the frosts (for once) were more severe elsewhere in Paso Robles than they were out at Tablas Creek, and the rainfall totals were less than had been feared.  While we were ready to sacrifice what hadn't yet been harvested, the ground sucked up the water and by Monday conditions were dry enough to resume.  Since then we've brought in another 8 tons of Mourvedre, 6 tons of Grenache and 4 tons of Roussanne.  Even more unexpected, we'll get what looks to be some great fruit, both Grenache and Mourvedre, to round out the Patelin red 2011.  I'll have a complete harvest recap with final quantities next week.

In addition to the harvesting, with an already-full cellar and more fruit coming in, we've been working hard to get finished red fermentations out of the tanks they're in, into the press and eventually into barrels so we can reuse the tanks for new fermentations.  That means lots of draining and shoveling.  Cesar Perrin demonstrates technique on the left, below.  On the right, Chelsea shows a messier -- but sometimes necessary -- method.

Cesar shovels Chelsea in tank

We're feeling fortunate to have received this mid-November reprieve.  It looks like our weather is supposed to turn definitively toward winter at the end of this week.  We're forecast for our first serious winter storm of the year, and expecting a couple of inches of rain and some decent winds on Friday.  Neil, Levi and the vineyard team have been focusing on getting cover crops seeded, compost spread, and straw put down on erosion-prone hillsides.  In this effort, the rain we got in early October is beneficial, as there is already cover crop growth.  Things are starting to look quite green out there:


Overall, we feel fortunate to have gotten in what we did, and are genuinely excited about the quality of what we have in the cellar.  Next week, we'll turn our focus back to the 2010 vintage and start the process of putting together our red blends from last year.

Meanwhile, we'll be trying to stay dry as we enjoy the last few days of autumn.

A Day in the Life of a Limousin Oak Fermenter

By Robert Haas

When you enter our new tasting room you can see our Séguin-Moreau 1600 gallon Limousin oak cuves in the background:


We really love them.  But they are much more than a mise en scène for our visitors.  They are valuable because of their flexibility.  With the flat bottom and the wide door at the base, they can be used to ferment red wines (unlike our foudres).  They have a large stainless-steel door on the top, and if we want to ferment without oxygen (as we often do for Grenache and Counoise) we can close the door.  But if we want to use them for open-top fermenting (as we typically want for Syrah and Mouvedre) we just leave the door on top.  Instant flexibility.  And they're useful during the rest of the year, too: when their covers are fitted, they act like a foudre and provide large oak ageing before bottling. 

Four of them are new this year.  We are running several fermentations through each in order to minimize the influence of new oak on our wines, so when the primary fermentations are finished we remove the wine to other storage and the berries to the press, in a process known in French as écoulage, literally translatable as "detanking".  Then we reuse the cuves for the next lot of harvest.  A photo of the écoulage, below:

Cuve ecoulage

The interiors of the cuves are fairly high-tech, and include heat-exchange piping for cooling or warming as needed.  In the two photos below you can see the floor of one just emptied and cleaned and the inside with its piping.

Cuve bottom door Cuve interior

Looking up from inside the cuve shows its open top with its safety grid:

Cuve top grid_0001

We are picking mourvèdre today. The grapes are going to fermentation in the emptied tank.  They arrive from the vineyard in half-ton bins, are taken off with a fork-lift, weighed and dumped onto our vibrator belt to be conveyed to the de-stemmer.  From there the de-stemmed berries and their natural juice go into the newly emptied cuve (below) to restart its cycle of use.  Simple, huh?

Cuve recoulage_0001

Harvest, Weeks of October 10th and 17th: Full Speed Ahead as Frosty Weather Looms

We've made an amazing amount of progress over the last couple of weeks.  The conditions have been perfect, with an average high temperature of 83 (range 72-91) and an average low temperature of 50 (range 44-55).  We've had ample sun every day.  These conditions have meant that everything is ripening steadily but not under much stress, and we can choose the ideal moment to harvest each block.

Over the two weeks, we've brought in a little over 107 tons of fruit off the Tablas Creek estate, and another 19 tons of purchased fruit for the Patelin wines.  The estate fruit includes our first pickings of Counoise (October 12th), Tannat (October 13th), and Mourvedre (October 22nd) and lots more Grenache, Syrah, and Roussanne.  We also completed our Viognier (October 13th), Marsanne (October 17th), and Grenache Blanc (October 20th) harvests which along with Vermentino makes four varieties we've finished and our first chance to look at yields compared to previous years.

By varietal, our yields have been:

Grape2011 Yields (tons)
2010 Yields (tons) 2009 Yields (tons)
Viognier 3.3 22.5 12.2
Marsanne 9.0 13.2
Grenache Blanc 21.0 34.8
Vermentino 11.9 19.1
Total Whites 45.2 89.6

We have known all summer that our Viognier was essentially wiped out by the frosts in the spring.  And the other varieties we've completed are all relatively early varieties that were impacted by the frosts.  So the fact that we're above 2009's historically low yields is a good thing.  But it's clear that we're well below what we harvested in 2010 in every grape variety except perhaps Roussanne, and that our yields overall will be closer to the roughly 200 tons that we harvested in 2009 than to the 350 tons we harvested in 2010.  As of the end of last week, we'd harvested 154 tons off the estate. We figure that at that point we were somewhere around 70% done, which puts us around 225 tons of estate fruit for the year.

The quality, though, looks amazing.  We've never seen such thick skins, and such deep colors, in the reds, and the sugar/acid/pH numbers look like they came from enology textbooks.  A few photos will give you a sense of things.  First, two photos of Grenache, one on the vine and one in a bin.  Given that Grenache is usually one of the ligher-colored red grapes, the colors we're seeing are particularly impressive.  On the left, a cluster still on the vine.  On the right, in a bin outside the winery:

Grenache_cluster  Grenache_in_bin

The grapes aren't the only thing that are showing exceptional color.  The sky has been an amazing dark blue with exceptionally low humidities.  The colors in the photo below (golden barrels, green wild roses trailing over the cream limestone rocks, and the amazing sky) are about as intense as it gets around here:


The Mourvedre is looking (and tasting) wonderful.  We've seen remarkably even ripening in this notoriously uneven grape.  Below, it shades on a sunny day last week under its canopy of leaves:


In the cellar, we've been running both red and white presses nearly every day, as the last whites come into the cellar at the same time that the earlier reds are ready to be pressed off their skins.  We'll be delving more into the cycle of grapes through the cellar in our next post, but visitors this past weekend for the Paso Robles Harvest Festival and the previous weekend for our Harvest & Winemaking Seminar (below) saw a beehive of activity: red grapes coming in, being sorted, destemmed and pumped into tanks, while other reds are being pressed off and moved to barrel and whites are being pressed whole cluster the same hour they arrive in the cellar.


For all the benign weather, we know that fall is ending.  The forecast for tonight calls for a good chance of frost, and tomorrow night is supposed to be nearly as cold.  There's not much out that could be hurt by a frost (everything is nearly ready to pick and frost only impacts a vine's leaves' ability to photosynthesize, not the grapes themselves) but it's a good reminder that we're nearing the end of the ripening season.  And the vineyard is starting to look autumnal; both Mourvedre and Syrah (the two most colorful grapes) are starting to show red and orange in their leaves. I'll leave you with one particularly fall-like Mourvedre leaf, below.  We'll be enjoying the colors as we get the last grapes in over the next week or so.


Why Paso Robles will make California's best wines in 2011

Last Thursday, as I was driving down to a couple of events in Los Angeles, I received an email (clearly addressed to a larger distribution list) from Tim Fish of the Wine Spectator. Tim was soliciting photos of inundated vineyards, rotted grape clusters or other signs of damage from the previous week's rains.  Given that the rainstorm was a relative non-issue for us (we resumed harvesting less than a week later and haven't seen any rot) I have been worrying ever since about the potential collateral damage to us from the perception that 2011 has been a poor harvest in California. It's easier for the trade to assimilate one message for a region than for them to understand a complex picture.  And for all the progress the Central Coast has made I still think that, to a large extent, what happens in Napa and Sonoma determines the perception of the quality of a vintage in California.

But California is a big place.  Paso Robles is further from Napa than Avignon (the heart of the southern Rhone) is from Beaune (the heart of Burgundy).  And while most of California has been cooler and wetter than average, there have been important regional variations in how much and when the moisture has arrived and surprising differences in how both cool and hot temperatures have been distributed.  Here are several reasons why I think that Paso Robles is uniquely positioned within California for an outstanding vintage:

  • The vines started healthy after a rainy winter.  Paso Robles is not unique in this, but droughts are one issue that we have to deal with more often than our neighbors to the north.  This year, we had the advantage of our second consecutive winter well over 30 inches of rain, and the vineyards have thrived.  Varieties like Roussanne and Mourvedre that typically look ragged at this time of year are still green and healthy.
  • Paso Robles is not a valley that opens to the Pacific.  Thank you, Santa Lucia Mountains!  The relatively deep marine layer that has been in place most of the summer has meant that many areas more open to the Pacific have been cool and damp while we were warm and sunny, shielded by our range of mountains.  The result has been remarkably consistent ripening weather; after a cool spring that lasted roughly until June 15th, the weather has been ideal.  Nearly every day since has been in the 80's or low 90's. 
  • The recent heat wave that affected southern California spared Paso.  When I was driving down last week, it was hotter (96) in Santa Barbara than it was (91) at Tablas Creek.  I'm not sure I ever remember that.  And places like the Santa Ynez and Santa Maria Valleys, Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande all saw temperatures well over 100 for several days.
  • The rain that we got two weeks ago was followed immediately by wind and sun.  We got 1.5 inches of rain early in the morning of October 5th.  I posted a video that afternoon in which you can hear the wind whipping through the vines and see the abundant sunshine.  The rain we received was actually good for the vines, who were reinvigorated by the moisture.  The same was not true in much of the North Coast, where vineyards already stressed by the cool, damp summer stayed overcast after the storm and created outbreaks of botrytis.
  • Our April frosts provided natural control over yields.  Not that I would wish a frost on anyone, but in a cool year, having less fruit on the vines makes your chances of getting that fruit ripe better.  It sounded like many North Coast producers waited a long time to decide to drop fruit in the hopes of ripening.  Starting with lower yields from the beginning gives better ripening early.

Will this year be a great one for the Paso Robles area?  I don't know.  There are some vineyards that were so badly hit by the frosts that their crops are negligible and may be out of balance.  And there were significant mildew pressures here (like in much of California) from the wet winter, the cool spring and the fact that it hardly ever got above 95 degrees.  Some vineyards we know lost large portions of their crops to mildew outbreaks.

Yet, from what we're seeing, and from the other local wineries we're talking to, the fruit that is coming into the cellars here is intense and yet balanced, with good acids, thick skins, dark color and excellent complexity.  The numbers (Brix, pH, acids) are textbook.  And the forecast for at least the next 10 days is excellent, with warm days, cool nights, and no rain on the horizon.  We're at this point expecting to harvest more or less continuously until things are done, and we don't expect any vineyard blocks to be unharvestable.

Will 2011 go down in history as a "bad" vintage for California?  I hope not.  But if it does, I feel comfortable saying that you will be able to feel safe turning to Paso Robles as an exception to that rule.

Harvest, Weeks of September 26th and October 3rd: Things Ramp Up and then Pause for Rain

After a slow start to harvest, the accumulation of warm days produced a rush at the end of September.  Between September 26th and October 4th, we harvested 112 tons of fruit, including most of what will go into our Patelin Blanc (mostly Viognier and Grenache Blanc) and perhaps half of what will go into our Patelin (mostly Syrah).  We also brought in 28 tons of estate fruit, principally Vermentino, Roussanne and Chardonnay, though also a little Syrah, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc and even Grenache Noir.  Two photos from that period will give a sense of what we were working on.  First, a photo of bins of Grenache Blanc lined up outside the winery, waiting to be pressed:


And then a photo of our destemmer, working on Syrah.  Our newest piece of equipment for this year's harvest is a vibrating conveyor to even out the flow of clusters to the destemmer.  Rather than a traditional conveyor belt, with moving parts and hinges that are almost impossible to keep clean, this is a slightly inclined stainless steel channel that vibrates, moving the clusters downhill toward the destemmer in an even flow.  It's been a remarkable success, reducing the number of clusters that have made it through the destemmer undestemmed and producing nicer-looking berries with less stem particles:


Just as it looked like all of the 2011 harvest was going to come tumbling in in a rush, the weather changed.  A storm front on Monday, October 3rd dropped a negligible amount of rain (0.08 inches) but paved the way for a larger storm on Wednesday, October 5th.  This second storm dropped 1.6 inches of rain on the vineyard, not insignificant for early October, and we haven't harvested anything significant since. 

With mid-harvest rainfall, you worry not so much about what happens with the rain as you do about what happens after.  If it stays wet and cloudy, you can have outbreaks of rot spread quickly through the vineyard.  Happily, the storm blew through quickly and by that afternoon the sun was out and the wind was blowing.  I took the below video, in which you can hear the wind whipping the vine leaves, less than 12 hours after the rain stopped:

A little rain during harvest can actually be a good thing in these conditions, as the water invigorates the vines and actually increases their ability to ripen the grapes that they hold.  But it typically puts at least a brief stop to the harvest as the grapes swell with the new water and then need at least a few days to reconcentrate.

Since the rain came a week ago, the weather has been mostly clear and dry, but not that warm, with daily highs generally in the 70's.  We've resumed testing around our own vineyard and with the vineyards with whom we're working on Patelin, and it looks like we'll resume harvesting on Thursday.  It is forecast to warm up the rest of this week, which should accelerate the process.  Meanwhile, we've been pressing off some of last week's harvest, which looks and smells great.  The photo below is Syrah in the press, wonderfully inky and minerally in the cellar:


So far, we've harvested just under 50 tons of estate fruit (about 15% of the 350 we're expecting off Tablas Creek Vineyard) and about 110 tons of purchased fruit (about 70% of the 160 tons we're expecting to contract for in total).  So our focus over the next few weeks will turn to our own vineyard.  Look for lots more Syrah, Grenache, Grenache Blanc and Roussanne over the next 10 days, any hopefully the first Mourvedre.

Harvest, Weeks of September 12th and 19th: A Quiet Beginning

As is typically the case, the 2011 harvest began quietly, with a few grapes trickling in over the first week or so before picking up steam.  The first grapes of the season arrived on Thursday, September 15th: about three tons of mostly Viognier (there was a little Roussanne mixed in) from two small vineyards in the El Pomar section of Templeton.  These will go into the 2011 Patelin de Tablas Blanc.  A photo of the first bin to reach the winery is below.  The hand belongs to Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Magnusson:


The next day saw us bring in our first red, Syrah, for the Patelin red.  This is fermenting in open-top stainless steel fermenters and in our wooden upright tanks.  A cool photo from last week through the opened top of the upright shows the Syrah bubbling away like a witch's brew.  As typically happens for us, the native yeast fermentations started right up, no problem.


The week of the 19th saw the first fruit from Tablas Creek Vineyard: about six tons of Vermentino off a beautiful parcel planted in 2007 at the western edge of the property.  Most encouraging about this picking is that we had estimated that there were about 9 bins in that section but found that there were really 12.  This and other similar results bode well for yields throughout the vineyard, which I had been worried would be at 2009 levels: below 2 tons per acre.  I'm no longer so worried about that.  The photo below shows the Vermentino, bins in the cellar in front and a press full of Vermentino behind:


The next day saw our first estate Roussanne, which looked great and allayed another fear we'd had, that with the cold spring and the late start to harvest we might be looking at an end of harvest in mid-November like last year.  But it appears that while the varieties that had sprouted before April's frosts are delayed, those that were still dormant are more or less on schedule.  That will mean that while we'll have a crazy October we're not likely to have as much fruit hanging in November as we did last year.

At the end of last week we got in our first Grenache, from La Vista Vineyard just down the street from us on Adelaida Road.  This was a very strong component of last year's Patelin, and this year's Grenache looked great:


The last two weeks have been warm, with most days topping out in the low- to mid-90s, and nights that dropped down only to the mid-50s.  This is perfect ripening weather, and it was clear at the end of last week that this week harvest was going to hit us full force.  We put in our first Saturday of the season (La Vista Syrah) and for this week we're looking at Syrah from several blocks, Pinot Noir from my dad's vineyard in Templeton, more Viognier, Vermentino and Roussanne for sure and perhaps Chardonnay, Grenache Blanc and Marsanne.  Happily, things cooled off on Sunday and Monday (highs in the 70s) so we could assess.  But with a warm day today and more warmth forecast for the rest of the week, we might see nearly 100 tons before the end of September.

We're buckled up and ready to roll.