Looking back with a decade's perspective on the sunny, generous 2012 vintage

Though we didn't know it at the time, 2012 was a pivot year for us. Following two cold, wet vintages, 2012 was notably warm, and began what would turn out to be a five-year drought cycle and the first of eight dry years in ten. It also marked a significantly warmer vintage than we'd seen in the past, which turned out to be a preview of conditions we would see regularly over the next decade. Because 2011 was a frost-reduced crop, the vines went into 2012 with plenty of stored up vigor, even though rainfall was just 70% of normal. Budbreak proceeded smoothly at a normal time frame, and the growing season was routine until a major August heat spike gave us eight consecutive days over 100. Most of the vineyard shrugged this off, except for Mourvedre, where we saw significant sunburn. Although we were expecting normal to slightly above normal yields, they turned out to be plentiful in all grapes except Mourvedre, as we saw an average of 3.5 tons per acre. Harvest took place at a normal time frame, beginning the first week of September and finishing the last week of October.

When we got to blending it was a relief to have more options than in our tiny 2011 harvest, when the frost dictated largely what we could and couldn't make. But the higher-than-expected yields had some negatives too, particularly in Grenache, and there were lots that were less intense than we were looking for. Some got declassified into Patelin, which turned out to be terrific that year. Other wines required a higher percentage of Syrah than normal in order to get the color and structure that we wanted. (The vintage was something of a wakeup call for us, and we changed what we had been doing to be more hands-on in both the cellar and the vineyard starting in 2013, in order to keep from being surprised again.) And I was happy after our blending trials; our top wines were outstanding. But the vintage overall always came across to me as more friendly than impressive, sunny and juicy and open-knit, wines to drink and enjoy while other, more structured vintages evolved in the cellar.

So it was with interest that I approached the opportunity to taste through the entire lineup of wines that we made in 2012 last week. This horizontal retrospective tasting is something we do each year, looking at the complete array of wines that we made a decade earlier. We do this for a few reasons. First, it's a chance to take stock on how the wines are evolving, share those notes with our fans who may have them in their cellars, and keep our vintage chart up to date. There are wines (like the Esprits, and Panoplie) that we open fairly regularly, but others that we may not have tasted in six or seven years. Second, it's a chance to evaluate the decisions we made that year, see if they look better (or worse) in hindsight, and use that lens to see if there are any lessons to apply to what we're doing now. And third, it's a chance to put the vintage in perspective. Often, in the immediate aftermath of a harvest and even at blending, we're so close to this most recently completed year that it can be difficult to assess its character impartially. Plus, the full character of a vintage doesn't show itself until the wines have a chance to age a bit. In evaluating these 2012s, I was particularly interested to see the extent to which a decade had deepened that sunny friendliness that I remember from its youth. As you will see, in some cases it did, while in others, not so much. The lineup:

2012 Horizontal Tasting Wines

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

  • 2012 Vermentino (SC): Initially upon pouring, showed a screwcap-inflected nose of flint, which blew off to show a pithy, kaffir lime leaf note. On the palate, fresh and bright, green apple, citrus oil, salty and briny. Like a gin & tonic with extra lime. A plush mid-palate and then lots of great acid on the finish. In outstanding shape, still youthful, and a good reminder to let older screwcapped whites breathe a bit before judging them.
  • 2012 Picpoul Blanc (SC): A nose of oyster shells, pineapple skin, and blanched almond. The palate came off as rich compared to the Vermentino that preceded it, almost buttery, with flavors of limestone and white tea. The acids come back out at the end, with a finish of melon rind and wet rocks. Not that anyone would intentionally let a Picpoul age this long, but they'd have to be happy if they opened it and this was what they found.
  • 2012 Grenache Blanc (SC): A classic minerally nose that Amanda said "smells like rain". Underneath that mineral petrichor note I got some sweet anise and spicy bay. The palate showed lemon curd, rounder than we were expecting, but then firming up into a classic bite of Grenache Blanc tannins and white grapefruit pith. Finished clean and long, electric and still very much alive. A terrific showing for this grape that's known to oxidize young.
  • 2012 Viognier (SC): The nose was rich but spicy, pink peppercorn and dried apricot. The palate is fresher than the nose, like fresh apricot juice and mineral, orange blossom and Meyer lemon. Excellent acidity for a Viognier, with a finish like rose water and Middle Eastern spices. Exotic without straying into heavy or blowsy territory.
  • 2012 Roussanne (C): The first wine we tasted finished under cork, and clearly marked as such: deeper flavors of honey, peach liqueur, and spiced nuts. The palate showed lanolin, butterscotch, and preserved lemon, rich texture leavened by good acids, and then exotically spiced on the finish: ginger and graham cracker, but dry, with a little tannic bite. Delicious.
  • 2012 Patelin de Tablas Blanc (SC; 52% Grenache Blanc, 27% Viognier, 16% Roussanne, 5% Marsanne): A pale color that looked like it could have just been bottled. A nose of sea shells, peppermint, and something meaty that Neil identified as prosciutto. The palate is clean, with kaffir lime and lemongrass flavors. The finish shows notes of chamomile and wet rocks. Fresh and youthful. Like the Picpoul, we're guessing there's very little of this out there still. But if it's been stored well, it's still lovely.
  • 2012 Cotes de Tablas Blanc (SC; 34% Viognier, 30% Marsanne, 30% Grenache Blanc, 6% Roussanne): Initially the nose was closed and a little reduced, like a struck match. Then it opened to flavors of kiwi and plantain. The palate was lovely, with rich texture and flavors of brioche and peach pit, then brightening under Grenache Blanc's influence to show citrus pith and fresh peach juice. Saline and long. A treat.
  • 2012 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (C; 75% Roussanne, 20% Grenache Blanc, 5% Picpoul Blanc): So, so fresh on the nose, showing less age than the varietal Roussanne. Aromas of honeysuckle, pineapple, golden delicious apple and a little sweet oak. The palate showed honey, sweet herbs, and honeydew melon. A rich texture, but very clean. Candied orange peel and vanilla custard came out on the finish. Just beautiful, and right at peak, but with plenty of life left. John asked, "is 'wow' a flavor"?
  • 2012 Patelin de Tablas Rosé (SC; 75% Grenache, 20% Mourvedre, 5% Counoise): Our first-ever Patelin Rosé still had a pretty pale color, with a nose of watermelon rind, rose hips, and cherry skin. The palate was pretty, cherry and spicy bay leaf, then drier on the finish with cherry skin, sandalwood, and sweet spices. Maybe not a sipping wine on its own at this point, but seemed to be calling out for a charcuterie plate. No one would have intentionally kept this wine this long, but it's still sound. 
  • 2012 Dianthus (SC; 60% Mourvedre, 25% Grenache, 15% Counoise): A little rustiness in the color. The nose showed rhubarb and menthol, also showing some age. The palate is nicer, with flavors of plum and sweet tobacco, and a little Aperol-like bitterness. The finish shows strawberry fruit leather and mineral notes. Surprisingly less vibrant than the Patelin Rosé. Interesting at this stage, more than pleasurable. 
  • 2012 Full Circle (C): Our third Full Circle Pinot Noir from my dad's property in the Templeton Gap, and not our favorite showing. The nose had notes of cola and Fernet and baking chocolate and prunes. The palate was chewy, with some bittersweet chocolate, cedar, and root beer notes. Luxardo cherry came out on the finish, which was still fairly tannic. Felt like this might have been impacted by the warmth of the vintage, and that maybe we worked a little too hard on extracting flavors from it in the cellar. This was better when it was younger and had fresher fruit flavors to cloak the tannins.
  • 2012 Grenache (C): Warm and inviting on the nose, with flavors of strawberry compote, cola, and fig. The palate was soft and ripe, with flavors of milk chocolate and cherry, cedar and sweet spice. Pretty but we thought would have been better a few years ago. Drink up if you've got any.
  • 2012 Mourvedre (C): After the first two reds, both of which we thought were a little over the hill, the wine's cool vibrancy was dramatic. A nose of pine forest and loam, dark chocolate and redcurrant. The palate showed red cherry and plum, cocoa powder and juniper. The freshness just jumped out, with lively acids and still substantial tannins. The finish continued in the same vein, with leather and plum skin and Nordic spice.
  • 2012 Tannat (C): A nose that Neil described as "opaque", meaning that we kept describing it as dark rather than finding individual flavors. Eventually blackberry thicket and baker's chocolate, with both sweet (vanilla bean) and cool (menthol) spice. The palate is mouth-filling, with tobacco and chocolate flavors, a rich texture with plenty of tannin, and an undercurrent of sweet fruit like Medjool dates. Not a sipping wine but would be amazing with a spice-rubbed brisket. Probably right at peak.
  • 2012 Patelin de Tablas (SC; 53% Syrah, 27% Grenache, 18% Mourvedre, 2% Counoise): When we first poured this, showed a little matchstick-like screwcap character, but this blew off to show a lovely Grenache character of olallieberry, cinnamon, and cherry cola. The palate is bright, with raspberry and sarsaparilla notes, and tannins like powdered sugar and a texture like milk chocolate. The finish showed notes of graphite, cedar, and dried cranberry. Fun, in beautiful shape, and a screaming bargain for the $20 we sold it for at the time. 
  • 2012 Cotes de Tablas (C; 60% Grenache, 25% Syrah, 10% Counoise, 5%Mourvedre): While we usually love the Cotes de Tablas at age 10, we found this a little tired on the nose, with notes of coffee grounds, molasses, and figs. The palate is similar but a little fresher, with black cherry and orange oil notes, loamy and chocolatey. The finish shows its Grenache base with notes of anise and Chinese five spice. Probably a year or two past its peak. 
  • 2012 En Gobelet (C; 63% Grenache, 12% Mourvedre, 11% Syrah, 8% Counoise, 6% Tannat): Lively on the nose with notes of redwood forest, bittersweet chocolate, marzipan, and potpourri. The palate is lovely with sweet blackberry fruit and wood smoke, substantial tannins, and a long finish of chocolate-covered cherry and star anise. The first Grenache-led wine of the tasting that we really loved, and right at peak.
  • 2012 Esprit de Tablas (C; 40% Mourvedre, 30% Syrah, 21% Grenache, 9% Counoise): A nose of new leather and forest floor, currant and anise. On the palate, fresh and red fruit-dominated, redcurrant, cigar box, and sweet spice. The tannins are largely resolved. The finish shows flavors of licorice and cassis and sweet tobacco, deepened by a little savory Worcestershire note. This might not be one of our longest-lived Esprits, but it's drinking absolutely beautifully right now.
  • 2012 Panoplie (C; 70% Mourvedre, 20% Grenache, 10% Syrah): A vibrant nose of mint chocolate, garrigue, and pancetta that then echoes between red and black fruit. The palate is concentrated without any sense of heaviness, flavors of blackcurrant, licorice, sweet earth and black tea. The tannins are substantial but largely resolved, leaving an impression of lusciousness and refinement. At peak, but no hurry.
  • 2012 Petit Manseng (C): Our third bottling of this classic southwest French grape known for maintaining great acids as it reaches high (and occasionally extremely high) sugar levels, which we make each year in an off-dry style. We tried a sweeter style in 2012, and it wasn't our favorite, with flavors of toasted marshmallow, lychee, and vanilla. The acids come out toward the finish, but it's still sweeter than what we've made in more recent years, and we all missed the bracing acids of those more modern vintages. 
  • 2012 Vin de Paille (C; 100% Roussanne): A treat to end the day. 2012's sunny, reliable harvest weather and plentiful Roussanne vintage allowed us to make our first Vin de Paille since 2006. The nose showed notes of flan and orange marmalade. The palate was very sweet but also showed lovely acids, with flavors of candied orange and chamomile, a luscious texture, and a finish of vanilla bean and orange blossom. Like many of the wines, also right at peak.

A few concluding thoughts

This tasting confirmed my opinion that 2012 was not, by our standards, an aging vintage. Some wines that are usually peaking at around a decade (like Grenache, or Cotes de Tablas) felt already a few years past their primes. Others that tend to still be youthful a decade out (like Tannat, or En Gobelet) felt right at their peaks. It also was not our favorite vintage for Grenache, and as we got toward wines that showed higher percentages of Syrah and Mourvedre, the wines felt firmer and more structured. I think we made a good call with the Esprit that year to displace some Grenache for more Syrah, even though it meant we didn't have any Syrah left to form a varietal bottling.

That said, the whites were across the board excellent. We weren't expecting much from the first three wines, and ended up having to argue over which of them was most deserving to make its place into the public tasting we'll be holding of the highlights in March. And it wasn't just the wines under screwcap; the Roussanne and Esprit de Tablas Blanc were both wonderful. It's worth noting that nearly all of the screwcapped 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 for any wine that has been under screwcap. There's a clipped character that most older screwcapped wines have that dissipates with a few minutes of air. It happens anyway in the glass, but a decant speeds the process.

The tasting also drove home the value of our blending process. The top wines (Esprit, Esprit Blanc, and Panoplie) were all outstanding, and showed the best of the vintage without also carrying its weaknesses. To have the flexibility to reconfigure these wines when the vintage dictates is invaluable, and seeing the results a decade later was affirming. This is why we don't blend to a formula. The raw materials are different each year. I was proud of the process that produced those wines.

We have high hopes that we'll be able to hold an in-person horizontal tasting of the highlights from this tasting. We'd originally scheduled it for Sunday, February 6th, but we pushed it back a month to Sunday, March 6th in the hopes that this will let the surge in Covid Omicron cases subside. If you'd like to join us, we'll be tasting the following 10 wines: Vermentino, Roussanne, Cotes de Tablas Blanc, Esprit de Tablas Blanc, Mourvedre, Patelin de Tablas, En Gobelet, Esprit de Tablas, Panoplie, and Vin de Paille. I can't wait. For more information, or to join us, click here


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.

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  • 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.


Introducing the Dianthus Rosé

Back in 1999, we made the bold decision to add a third wine to the Tablas Creek lineup. To the Blanc (white) and Rouge (red) that we were making, we added a pink wine that we called Rosé.  It was really my mom who deserves the credit for encouraging us to make a rosé at all.  She declared that it was crazy that we were growing these grapes that make such wonderful pink wines in the south of France and not at least making a little to enjoy ourselves.  So, in that 1999 vintage we made two barrels of a rosé from a block of vines in our nursery, whose percentages (51% Mourvedre, 35% Grenache, and 14% Counoise) were the proportions of that co-harvested and co-fermented lot.  We did indeed drink much of it ourselves, but also released a few dozen cases into the local market.

12_DianthusThe next year, we were pleased to get questions from local restaurants and retail shops asking when our Rosé would be coming out. And bit by bit it developed a loyal following.  Robert Parker called it "the finest California rosé" and "amazing stuff".  We sold hundreds of cases by presale in the California market.  We built events around its release in our tasting room.  And our production grew to nearly 1500 cases in the 2010 vintage, and only declined in 2011 because we realized that with the frost-reduced crop if we made 1500 cases of Rosé we'd sacrifice too much red production.

And it wasn't just us. From such modest beginnings many other rosé-loving producers also started making and promoting small productions of dry rosés, and in a decade we saw a wonderful burgeoning of the American rosé movement. No longer are we one of America's only producers of dry rosé; at this March's Rhone Rangers Grand Tasting, rosé lovers will have some 40 different rosés to choose from.

The American rosé market is not the only thing that has gotten more complex in the fourteen years since we made our first two barrels of Rosé. Our own marketing model has grown and morphed. The names Blanc and Rouge are long gone as we have tried to make our names richer and more descriptive, and from the 2012 vintage we'll end up bottling some twenty-five different labels. One of the drivers of this increased diversity is the Patelin de Tablas project. The Patelin wines are sourced from other top Rhone vineyards in Paso Robles, many of which are planted with our own cuttings, and all of which are producing exciting fruit.  We debuted the Patelin de Tablas and Patelin de Tablas Blanc in 2010, and the wines' fresh, approachable style and $20 price found them an enthusiastic audience. 

Last spring, my brother Danny suggested that if we were to produce a Patelin de Tablas Rosé at the same price as our other Patelin wines it would find an equally receptive market.  We'd been toying with the idea anyway, because doing so gave us the chance to work in a different idiom, to make a rosé based on Grenache and with minimal skin contact, in the model of the pale salmon, ethereal Provencal rosés that have driven much of the category's newfound popularity.  I described the process we're using to make the 2012 Patelin de Tablas Rosé in a blog post last September.  It is tasting great, and will be released nationally in April.

The challenge: that with two rosés we couldn't really call one of them simply Rosé unless we wanted to immediately, and continuously, be asked "which rosé?".  So, we started to brainstorm a name that would distinguish our deeper pink -- almost fuchsia -- tones and richer flavors of our Mourvedre-based estate rosé.  Enter Dianthus. Dianthus is a genus of flowering plants known for the deep pink color of their blooms. The family includes 300 different species, including the carnation, and is colloquially referred to in the flower world as "pinks".  Voila.  So, it is our pleasure to introduce the 2012 Dianthus as the successor to our much-loved estate Rosé.  The inaugural vintage will go into bottle week-after-next and be released to our VINsider Wine Club in mid-March as part of one of my favorite shipment lineups ever.  Look for it in our tasting room, and in limited release around the country, in April.


Making Olive Oil In-House For the First Time

Our last harvest of the year is olives, which we typically pick in late November or early December.  In an ideal year, we might get some frosts before the olives are ripe, but we won't get any hard freezes, because if the olives freeze then they rot and aren't usable for oil.  Like the rest of the 2012 harvest, we got pretty much what we wanted for our olive crop, and were able to pick ripe fruit yesterday under sunny skies.

Olive branch dipped

Today, we processed the olives on site for the first time thanks to the marvelous mobile olive press from our friends Yves and Clotilde Julien of Olea Farm:

Olive mobile press yves and clotilde julien

Yves and Clotilde's press (which they've named "Mill On Wheels") includes components -- some imported from Italy and some made locally -- that wash the olives and separate them from any leaf or stem material, that crush the olives into paste, that separate the liquids from the solids, and finally that uses a centrifuge to separate the oil from the water.  I took a short video that tracks the process from the hopper full of olives through to the stream of olive oil pouring out of the centrifuge:

The oil will settle in our cellar for two months, and then be bottled: estate grown, certified organic Tablas Creek olive oil.  And it is already delicious; you could smell the rich, pungent aroma of fresh olive oil from outside the winery, even though we're processing the olives in our nursery, a few hundred yards away.  One more photo, because it's too good not to share: a single one of our Manzanilla olives, dipped in the oil made from the previous batch. Yum!

Olive dipped


Harvest 2012: The End of the Beginning

By Chelsea Franchi

And so it appears, just like that, harvest is over and it is time for a season-end wrap up.  While I wish I could tell you there was a wonderful celebration as the last cluster was ceremoniously placed in the last tank, I can't.  Because that would be a lie.  Instead, harvest finished the same way it always does, taking a quiet bow and exiting the cellar while we were all too busy to notice.  To be perfectly honest, I'm shocked anyone here would trust me to put anything in print, insofar as my brain, along with everything it controls, is very, very tired.

VintageCellar

We have processed countless clusters of fruit, pumped-over, punched-down and pulse-aired every fermenting tank of red twice a day, every day until it was ready to be shoveled out, pressed off and barreled down.  We have spent far more time at work with each other than we have spent with our significant others.  We have overplayed and worn out all of our favorite albums, playlists, and Pandora stations.  I can speak only for myself when I say that my house is a mess and I have a horrible feeling that getting back in to the gym is going to be ugly when it comes to cardio (however, I have been doing a bit of strength training in the form of shoveling fruit out of tanks).  I have gulped tepid coffee, fought off colds and ignored the fact that I REALLY need to find my way into a salon to get my roots touched up and my ends trimmed (we're being honest here, yes?)

But here's the thing: it was all worth it.  We have thousands of gallons of wine both fermenting and resting in cellar now.  Whites are beginning to get topped up, we only have two lots of reds that still need pressing off and almost every single barrel in the cellar is full.  While the color we have been seeing this year is a touch lighter than it has been the last few years, the flavors and aromatics we're dealing with are on a whole new plane.  The reds in particular (perhaps just because we are more familiar with them at this point) have been showing themselves as dynamic, full and more floral than in vintages past.  And there is a lot of it.  Blending this year should be wonderfully challenging as we have so many strong and diverse lots at our fingertips.  I'm already excited for the next step when we haven't even finished this one, and that's a pretty good feeling.

Some of the scenes that stuck in my head from this harvest:

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Draining a tank of Counoise to prepare for pressing

VintageBarrelWinemaker Ryan Hebert filling barrels

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Grenache going off to bed, so to speak

VintageFerment
Pink towels (our favorite) covering fermenting tanks of wine

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A bird's eye view of the cellar, mid harvest

WinterSticks
Lastly, what the vineyard looks like now, shut down for the coming winter

While the pre-harvest blog was quite a bit more buoyant than this one, it is a true reflection on how we operate here in the cellar.  We eagerly anticipate the next step in the process, always thrilled with what is to come.  And then, after we have worked our tails off, we're exhausted.  The singular driving force that keeps us going is always that "next thing".  And, really, what you might think of as the "end" of harvest is just the end of the beginning.  It's still early in those grapes' path to the wine you'll taste in bottle in, oh, two or three years.  So here's to the next stage in the process.  If it goes as well as the last two months, we'll all be happy.

VintageOmbre
A custom pair of lees-spattered jeans


Harvest 2012 concludes, and we couldn't be happier

We finished the 2012 harvest yesterday, with the last "clean-up" pick, where we go back through the late-ripening blocks where we left the clusters that weren't quite ready on our previous time through.  Typically, these pickings are a little ugly, with fruit not in the best condition, and there are times when they don't make it into our estate wines.  But this year, even this final pick came in looking great and with nice numbers.  This is a fitting summation of the 2012 harvest: consistently high quality from beginning to end, and across all the varieties we grow.  With the last of the year's roughly 750 red bins on the sorting table, Jake Miller, Tyler Elwell, Levi Glenn and Charlie Chester smile up over the last bin of Grenache:

Last bin of grenache 2012

The final yields look very much like those from 2010, a little higher on the whites and a little lower on the reds, much more than they resemble the frost-diminished 2011 or 2009 vintages. By varietal:

Grape 2010 Yields (tons) 2012 Yields (tons) % Change
Viognier 22.5 21.2 -5.8%
Marsanne 13.2
12.6
-4.5%
Grenache Blanc* 34.8
45.5
+30.7%
Picpoul Blanc 9.4
6.4
-31.9%
Vermentino* 19.1
22.6
+18.3%
Roussanne
33.9
46.4
+36.9%
Total Whites 132.9
154.7
+16.4%
Grenache 71.1
72.8
+2.4%
Syrah 47.7
37.1
-23.3%
Mourvedre* 69.3
57.3
-17.3%
Tannat 14.5
17.1
+17.9%
Counoise 16.8
17.5
+4.2%
Total Reds 219.4
201.8
-8.0%
Total 352.3
356.5
+1.2%
* denotes varieties with increased acreage since 2010

The yields per acre are actually a touch lower than 2010 (about 3.4 tons/acre instead of 3.5) as we brought about 6 additional acres into full production in the last two years, divided more or less evenly between Vermentino, Grenache Blanc and Mourvedre.  Looking variety by variety, two changes seem to demand some explanation.  The increase in Roussanne comes because some (maybe as much as a quarter) of our Roussanne didn't make it in the cool, damp, late 2010 vintage and was lost to rot.  That was the only variety to be so affected in 2010.  And the decline in the Mourvedre harvest this year seems to me attributable to the sunburn that afflicted Mourvedre disproportionately in the two weeks of heat in early August.  Mourvedre tends to be relatively light in canopy, and can therefore be damaged by sunburn more easily than leafier varieties.  Based on how similar other grapes were to their 2010 numbers, that suggests we lost something like 20% of our Mourvedre harvest, or roughly 12 tons, to that heat.

We target yields between 3 and 3.5 tons per acre as the sweet spot for expression of place.  Too much more than that and you compromise your intensity.  Too much less and the wines can be so dense that they express the fruit and structure more than the soil.  Of course, we take what we get; our yields in 2011 were about 2.3 tons per acre.

Sugar levels at harvest did climb a bit from the lows we saw in 2011, but are still on the lower side of what we've seen historically.  This is consistent with our belief that older vines produce full flavors at lower sugar levels than young vines do.  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
2012: 22.83 avg. Brix

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

Counoise: 22.8
Grenache Noir: 24.3
Grenache Blanc: 21.7
Marsanne: 18.7
Mourvèdre: 23.3
Picpoul Blanc: 22.6
Roussanne: 22.3
Syrah: 24.2
Tannat: 23.7
Vermentino: 20.9
Viognier: 21.3

The pH at harvest was healthy, averaging 3.65pH.  For some context, our average pH at harvest since 2007 has been:

2007: 3.67 pH
2008: 3.64 pH
2009: 3.69 pH
2010: 3.51 pH
2011: 3.50 pH
2012: 3.65 pH

In duration, the harvest was somewhat short compared to usual, taking 55 days between the beginning (September 5th) and the end (October 31st).  By contrast, 2011's harvest took 51 days, 2010 took 59 days, 2009 took 64 days, 2008 took 58 days and 2007 took 66 days.

The quality of the fruit looks tremendous, and the lots we harvested in early Sepetmber already tasting good: luscious yet with balance.  We'll learn a lot more over coming weeks as the later-ripening lots finish fermentation and start becoming tasteable, but we're happy with what we're seeing. 

For the next couple of weeks we'll enjoy the aromas of the last of our lots fermenting in the cellar, and our winemaking team of Neil Collins, Ryan Hebert and Chelsea Magnusson will be start the long process of evaluating what we've got and starting to piece together the first blends.  But that's all in the future, and for now, we'll join the cellar and vineyard team (from left, below: Tyler Elwell, Gustavo Prieto, the back of Jake Miller's head, Ryan Hebert, David Maduena, and Charlie Chester) and celebrate:

End of 2012 harvest - vineyard


Autumn Foliage, Paso Robles Style

I grew up with Vermont's riot of foliage and foliage-watchers each October.  California's trees may not burst into flame colors each autumn, but there is about a two-week window, at the end of harvest and before frost, when the grapevines do.  Different varieties show different signatures, some tending more toward yellows or browns, and others, most notably Syrah, Tannat and Mourvedre, showing orange and red.  While out getting some shots of the last day of harvest (more on that in the next post) I couldn't help but take some foliage shots.  The best of them are below.  First, a view looking over our head-trained Tannat block that shows the characteristic yellow-green rows of Grenache Blanc (left) and the more colorful oranges and reds of Syrah (right):

Foliage_0003

Closer up, the rows of Syrah in the afternoon sun really do look like they're aflame:

Foliage_0005

Even closer, you can see the different colors even within a single Syrah leaf:

Foliage_0004

Tannat leaves are different, on the browner side of red, but no less striking:

Foliage_0001

Finally, one more shot of that Grenache Blanc/Syrah hillside, this time over the characteristic pale yellow of Roussanne:

Foliage_0002

These colors are everywhere in Paso Robles wine country right now.  But with the first frost, or the first big rain, they'll be gone, so enjoy them while you can.


Harvest continues under ideal conditions, with high quality and above-average yields

The first half of October is typically our busiest stretch of harvest, and 2012 was no exception.  Between October 1st and 15th, we brought in 107 tons off of our estate and another 60 tons of purchased fruit for the Patelin de Tablas line.  That's something like 30% of our expected 550-ton total, in just two weeks.  It was routine for us to be pressing both whites (mostly Roussanne, at this stage) and reds (mostly Syrah and Grenache) then turning around the very same tanks and destemming other reds into them.  You get a sense of the complicated dance involved with the below photo, where we have Grenache in the press and Roussane bins arriving.

Pressing syrah and processing whites

At the end of September, we'd finished picking Viognier, Marsanne and Syrah off our estate, largely finished Grenache Blanc, and gotten a good start on Roussanne. By mid-October we'd finished off the Grenache Blanc, started and finished Picpoul, nearly finished Roussanne, made a lot of progress on Tannat and Grenache, and begun Counoise and Mourvedre.  We paused briefly for the rain on October 12th, which amounted to about a quarter-inch and didn't do much beyond wash some dust off the grapes, and used the couple of days of not harvesting to press off tanks and free up fermentation space in the cellar.

That challenge -- finding space to put the new fruit when most things are full of actively fermenting grapes -- has been the major issue with this harvest.  Most every lot has come in about 20% heavier than our estimates, and the relatively compressed harvest compounds the challenge.  Most red lots need ten days or so on their skins during fermentation, and so if all your fermenters are full of lots that are less than ten days from when they were picked, what do you do?  Whites are less of a challenge, just because they can go straight into barrels if need be, but reds need to go into some sort of tank.  Happily, the weather has not been hot, with the average high temperature between October 1st and 15th just 79 degrees.  Nights dropped into the 40's twelve out of the fifteen days, further keeping progress gradual, and in these benign conditions we've chosen to leave things out in the vineyard an extra day or two rather than pressing lots off a day or two early.

We've also filled our greenhouses with Roussanne and Grenache Blanc to make Vin de Paille [more on the process here].  This traditional method for making sweet wines concentrates the juice and gives the sweetness of late-harvest without the baked flavors. The newly-harvested Roussanne grapes sit on the straw below:

Vin_de_paille_2012_1

We keep pushing up our yield estimates, and are now thinking that we'll see yields around 3.5 tons per acre across our vineyard, just slightly below what we saw in 2010.  The main difference between the two vintages is that 2010 was an exceptionally cool year, while 2012 has been warmer than average.  This suggests that the character we'll see out of the fruit will be show the lusher yet structured flavors of a warm, higher-production year like 2000 or 2005 more than the minerally, more spice-driven 2006's or 2010's.

With the turn toward cooler weather in early October, it's definitely feeling like fall in the vineyard. The Syrah and Mourvedre vines are starting to turn color, and the lower angle of the sun and the warmer tones of the light are noticeably different than even a month ago. You get a sense from the below photo:

Feels like fall 2012

We're ready for things to wind down, too, and expect to be done with harvest by the end of next week. A September start date and an October end date is what is supposed to happen, but something we've only seen once since 2003.  We couldn't be happier with where we are.


When a little harvest rain is no big deal

This week saw the first truly fall-like weather of the year.  And what a relief.  We'd been picking at what felt like full speed for nearly three weeks, under terrific conditions but without a break.  In the first 10 days of October, we brought in an incredible 98 tons of fruit, and with most of our Mourvedre and Counoise and some Grenache still out on the vines have already matched last year's frost-diminished total in two-thirds the days.

More on the overall progress with the 2012 harvest is coming in a blog post early next week.  First, a recap of this week's rain, which was only about a quarter of an inch out at the vineyard, but a full inch in some areas east of town.  It was amazing how fast the storm blew in (and out).  It was sunny in the morning, then around 11am this was the view out our front door:

Rain October 2012

The rain lasted about 20 minutes, hard, and then it blew through.

Rain during harvest can be a problem. If you've had a damp summer and already have mildew or rot starting to manifest themselves in the vineyard, even a small harvest cloudburst can cause an explosion of fungal problems. Or if the rain is followed by days of humidity (especially warm, humid weather) the ever-present spores that cause rot can bloom out of control. But one advantage that we have in California (and Paso Robles in particular) is that wet weather rarely sticks around. An hour later, the same view looked like this:

Rain Cleared October 2012

The positive impacts of a little harvest rain are rarely talked about, but no less real. If you've had a warm fall and are seeing relatively high sugar levels but also higher acidity than you'd like at harvest, a bit of moisture can rehydrate the grapes and bring both sugar and acid levels into better balance. And the vines, typically highly stressed by this point, can react to a bit of water by putting a last burst of energy into ripening their crop. Nearly every year we see the same thing with the last few vineyard blocks that are lagging at the end of harvest. We get a small dose of rain and, if we follow that with a few warm, sunny days, see more ripening in those few days than we may have seen in the two previous weeks of dry weather.

And from a human perspective, having two cool, rainy days where we didn't pick, and a couple of days to follow where the grapes will be reconcentrating, gives our cellar team time to say hello to their families, get a little much-deserved sleep, and assess the progress in the field and in the cellar. That's plenty valuable in its own right.


Harvest photo of the day: Ripening Mourvedre

By the onset of October, the vines are starting to show signs of stress. This is not typically a bad thing; this stress triggers an internal mechanism that pushes a plant to ripen its fruit so it can reproduce. And the outward signs can be beautiful, including fall-like colors on the leaves.  Mourvedre is typically one of the varieties that shows stress most overtly at the end of the ripening cycle (as opposed to, say, Grenache, which stays green and growing until frost). I snapped this photo of ripening Mourvedre clusters in the head-trained vineyard block out in front of the winery this week. It's a good reminder that for all the summer-like weather we've had the past few days, the vines do know fall is coming. Meanwhile, we'll enjoy the show.

Head-pruned Mourvedre Oct 2012