Celebrating "The New California Wine" with an old California wine

By Robert Haas

The New California Wine, by San Francisco Chronicle Wine Editor Jon Bonné and subtitled A guide to the Producers and Wines Behind a Revolution in Taste, is an ode to wineries that are producing wines of place, whether single varieties or blends, often working with organic or biodynamic vineyards; wines that are of moderate alcohol levels and speak to their origin.  It is a reminder that there is a growing wave of journalists, sommeliers and wine lovers pushing back against what Jon terms “big flavor wine.” Big flavor wines are, in Jon’s parlance, generally highly extracted, high alcohol, low acid, often oaky and slightly sweet on the palate.  Many of them have a cult following. 

NewCaliforniaWine

I welcome Jon’s suggestions and enjoyed reading his book.  I will search out several of the producers he introduced me to.  But in reading the book I kept thinking that what Jon terms a revolution is really a move back to a classic norm.

The advent of boutique wineries such as Joseph Heitz, Freemark Abbey, Chappellet, Joseph Phelps, Clos du Val, Stags Leap, Spring Mountain, and even Robert Mondavi, among others, in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s brought California, and particularly the Napa Valley, to the international wine community's attention.  Their wines were from specific vineyards, mostly their own, farmed for moderate yields, made in classic style and dimensions.  They took their lead from Beaulieu and Inglenook, estate producers before World War II, and looked toward France for inspiration.  Their wines were mostly in the 12.5% alcohol range. 

From back in the days when my company, Vineyard Brands, represented them, I still have Cabernets from Spring Mountain, Clos du Val and Chappellet from the 1970s, and some Pine Ridge from the 1980s.  They have aged beautifully.   Their tannins have softened and they are elegantly balanced with plenty of red and black fruit.  I recently opened a bottle of Chappellet 1974 Cabernet (12.7% alcohol) and was struck by its mature dark color with no oxidation.  It was powerful and densely structured, even still a little reticent with its blueberry fruit.  I had the feeling that it had reached a plateau of maturity (at 40 years old!) and would be enjoyable for some time to come.

Chappelet74_3

The “big flavor” wines are really a phenomenon of the last 20 years. As such, they are actually the new kids on the block.  Will they continue to dominate the paradigm or are they just a blip on the long-term chart of wine consumption?  I welcome the debate, and look forward to seeing whether a majority of vintners will continue to take advantage of the brilliant California climate to harvest ripe, high brix, low pH grapes and focus on lushness and power, or whether more will farm their vineyards to produce phenologically ripe grapes at lower Brix and make wines that focus more on terroir and elegance. Of course, there will be more than one "answer" to this question.

If I’m in harmony with the old standards, I know that the riper styles have their own passionate advocates as well.  But Jon’s book is a reflection of a conversation that it is important that the California winemaking community have. This discussion includes advocates of elegance -- both the newer producers he highlights and some established ones such as Calera and Ridge -- and those more exuberant producers, many of whose wines I see also preserving tremendous concentration while moving gradually away from excessive ripeness and new oak.  Perhaps this is California’s true strength: that winemakers with well-placed vineyards can, according to their beliefs, make compelling wines across the spectrum of ripeness.  In either case, greater diversity in the styles of California wine and the innovation fostered by the conversation itself will make the community stronger.  What do you think?


Tablas Esprit and Beaucastel Châteauneuf: Takes Two to Tango

By Darren Delmore

As the National Sales Manager for Tablas Creek vineyard, my travels keep leading me to circumstances where I’m asked to compare Esprit de Beaucastel to Chateâu de Beaucastel. “So which wine is better?” I’ve heard many times over, as if there’s a clear right or wrong answer to such an open-ended question. I’ve narrowed down the climate-soil-varietal-diurnal-historical pontification to the simplest response of “It’s all in the timing.” What you want out of the wine you want to drink and, most importantly when, are the real questions here.

A few recent examples follow. In Anacortes, Washington at a Tablas Creek tasting at Compass Wines, their best customer arrived on crutches wielding a bottle of 2006 Chateâu de Beaucastel and plopped it right down on the counter before he even introduced himself.

Compass
Compass Wines' legend and his 2006 Beaucastel offering.

At a Tablas Creek dinner at 32 East in Delray Beach, Florida that I hosted with Vineyard Brands’ south Florida manager Taylor Case, the owner paired off Tablas Creek and Chateâu de Beaucastel in a consumable course-by-course tango - blanc to blanc and rouge to rouge.

Tablasvsbeau
The show in Delray Beach at 32 East.

Some attendees of the collector persuasion snuck in some older vintages of the Beaucastel Chateâuneuf and were passing them around beneath the tabletops. Tablas Creek, as it always does in my experience, held its own very well, thank you very much, though we didn’t have any older Tablas Creek to put up against the surprise Beaucastel library wines. The 2010 Cotes de Tablas Blanc was the talk of the tables, accentuated by a great wild mushroom crostini pairing. The contrasts between the estates’ top two red 2010’s, served side-by-side with the braised short rib and polenta main course, was fascinating. Taylor and I were blown away by this flight: the wines smelled nearly identical. Further swirling revealed just a touch more open fruitiness in the Tablas Creek, but not much. Onto the taste and the identities became clear. For me, what differentiated this young vintage of Chateâu de Beaucastel from Esprit de Beaucastel (and to a degree, differentiates Chateâuneuf-du-Pape from American Rhone blends) is a mid-palate gravelly richness that attaches to the sides of your mouth as if a soil-glazed galet was tossed onto your tongue. I could taste why so many collect this wine and normally keep it out of sight for 5 to 10 years before it softens up enough for stellar drinking. It was my first opportunity to taste each, and having read that the vintage brought eerily similar growing conditions to both the southern Rhône and Paso Robles, it was wholly fulfilling. Though both Tablas and Beaucastel benefit from time in the cellar, the brighter fruit and higher acidity of the Esprit gave it an accessibility that led patrons, that night, to attack it like white, touristy ankles by an angry mob of Biscayne bull sharks. And the bottles of the amazing 1994 Beaucastel Rouge that were secretly making the rounds were a convincing testament to the rewards of patience.

Lineupfl
 The lineup in Florida.

One of my favorite comparisons of the two estates occurred last week in Santa Fe, New Mexico at the awesome wine bar and restaurant Arroyo Vino. At the end of a day visiting restaurant accounts in Taos, I brought the remainder of the 2010 Esprit de Beaucastel bottle to Arroyo Vino’s owner Brian Bargsten. I’d first met Brian last fall at the Santa Fe Wine and Chile festival when his business was simply a high-end wine store at the foot of a luxury community just outside of town. Brian has since expanded Arroyo Vino with a beautiful, modern dining room and bar and hired chef Mark Connell, whose resume boasts stints at Salt (in Cambridge, MA) and the French Laundry (in Yountville, CA) to oversee the kitchen. After eyeballing the impressive collection of bottles for sale in the retail area, I found a seat at the bar next to a lone diner mid-way through a bottle of Bethel Heights Pinot Noir. The dining room was packed for a Wednesday night. I spoke with Brian for a bit and pulled out the Esprit. He introduced me to Larry – the man beside me – and told him the story of Tablas Creek and the Perrin family.

“They picked Paso Robles?” Larry protested, surprised that one of his favorite southern Rhône producers had set up shop in what he had always assumed to be a hot area known for “high alcohol, jammy Zinfandel.” This fired Brian up to talk about limestone-rich west-side vineyard sites, say “Larry, want to compare the two?” and disappear to fetch a 2010 Chateâu de Beaucastel off the rack. A couple other servers hovered around the bar as Brian returned, cutting off the foil swiftly and talking about Chateâuneuf-du-Pape when I noticed it was in fact the Côtes du Rhône 2010 Coudoulet de Beaucastel that he was driving the corkscrew into. “That’s the Coudoulet, Brian,” I said, seconds too late.

“What, that’s not the one?” Larry asked.

“No but it’s good,” I added. “The Coudoulet is their vineyard just outside of the AOC of Chateâuneuf-du-Pape.”

“Oh,” Brian paused mid-twist. “Well, guess we’ll do a flight of all three.” Sure enough he went over and grabbed the correct bottle and asked one of the servers to line up three glasses for each of us. Brian poured the wines in order: Coudoulet de Beaucastel, Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel, and Chateâu de Beaucastel.

Perrin Flight
Left to right: 2010 Coudoulet, 2010 Esprit, and 2010 Chateâu Beaucastel.

Larry pointed out that aside from Oregon Pinot Noir, he only drank and collected European wine. He was one of Brian’s biggest customers, a bona fide Burgundy lover and buyer of first-growth Bordeaux allocations, and familiar with only a couple of producers in the Rhône. It was as much a moment for Brian as it was for Larry to see how close California could get to real Chateâuneuf-du-Pape.

The Coudoulet was in amazing shape, with a juicy unison of savory herbs and reddish fruit, and a refreshing, snappy palate and long finish. The Tablas Creek was showing a warmer, more lifted aromatic profile of Mourvédre, with black olives, raspberries, baking spices, and foresty notes and a finish filled with graceful, plush tannins. The Chateâu de Beaucastel was the biggest wine of the flight, with a brooding nose of black licorice, roasted meats and rain soaked city streets, before a powerful sip unfolded into a gravelly, mineral-rich, thick dark wave of density that required a bit of my rabbit agnolotti dish to soak up some of its youth. I was more of a wine fan than a wine salesman at that counter, mesmerized by the diversity of these three related wines from two continents, and it wasn’t until much later when Brian leaned over and asked me, “are you selling this tonight?” that I came back around to reality.

“That Esprit is good, man,” he added. 


When Terroir Was a Dirty Word

By Robert Haas

Take a look at this picture of the half-bottle of 2010 Meursault from Thierry and Pascale Matrot that my wife, Barbara and I opened for lunch on our little back patio yesterday.  We enjoyed lunch outdoors because the temperature at noon was 68 degrees, 20 degrees cooler than Monday!

RZH Meursault 2010

Who, only 49 years ago, in Burgundy, would ever have imagined that fine Burgundy wines would be finished in other than cork?  Not me, for sure.  Nor would have Thierry Matrot’s father Pierre or grandfather Joseph.  Matrot’s importer Vineyard Brands tells me that sales in the U.S. have soared since the wine was introduced in screw cap closure. 

The screw cap reads,“Noblesse du Terroir”. Terroir, the difficult-to-translate RZH Jancis 2French noun, has come to mean the cumulative impact on a finished wine of the soil and climate (and some say human) specifics of where the wine's grapes were grown. Wines with terroir are much sought-after and admired by today's growers, wineries and wine writers and critics, and consumers.  The Oxford Companion to Wine, published in 1994 and edited by Jancis Robinson (excerpted right) introduces the subject in four full columns, starting with the displayed paragraphs.  In Robinson's definition, terroir is noble, the underpinning of appellation controlée system and central to the philosophy of wine in the Old World.

Now take a look at the seven-line entry of Frank Schoonmaker, America’s foremost wine expert and author in 1964, about terroir.  His association, rather than the "somewhereness" the wine exhibits, is more of a taste of dirt, neither elegant nor elevated. Look at his description of gout de terroir: "somewhat unpleasant, common, persistent”:

RZH Schoon 2

Why this sea change?  I believe that it has been driven by the influence of new grape plantings in the New World, and particularly in California.  In the old world and particularly France, with thousands of years’ experience, the legislated Appellations Controllées designated the great “terroirs”. But even in the Old World, greatness was traditionally associated with particular vineyards and came only gradually in the second half of the twentieth century to be associated with the environmental conditions that gave those vineyards their specific character.

In California, modern planting and marketing history only dates back to 1933, the end of prohibition.  Early-on, California wines were field blends named after French appellations such as Claret, Burgundy, Chablis, etc., though the wines in the bottle had little or nothing to do with the wines (or even the grapes) traditional in these regions.  As the industry became more sophisticated, higher quality vintners -- led most influentially by Robert Mondavi -- adopted varietal names such as Cabernet-Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Merlot to differentiate themselves from the mostly ordinary field blends. But while varietal labeling offered clarity, more was needed to identify quality wines.  Did they come from growing areas well suited to the grapes in the wine?  Thus began the American Viticultural Area (AVA) designations, and central to the AVA's raison d'etre is the concept that each appellation shares similarities in their soils and climate that gives the wines that are grown there a shared character. 

Of course, the AVA system is based on the models used in France, Italy, Spain, Germany and elsewhere in the traditional wine-growing regions of Europe.  But unlike Old World appellations, American AVA's are not restricted to specific grapes.  It may not be traditional to grow Tempranillo in Napa or Cabernet in Santa Maria, but you're welcome to do so.  The AVA just specifies where the grapes are grown, and it's up to you to make your case for the quality of the end product.  And central to the growing significance of terroir has been wineries' efforts to support their claims to quality by geographic designation.  After all, while Cabernet-Sauvignon could be grown anywhere, there are places where it's better suited than others.  Good “Terroir” implied not just a good place to grow grapes, but a good place to grow specific grapes, resulting in an appealing character of place in the wines produced there. 

Screwcaps share some of this history.  They were first developed in the late 1960's by a French company, popularized by wineries in the New World (Australia and New Zealand deserve most of the credit here) and now have reached sufficient acceptance that they're even being used for noble French terroirs like Meursault. 

Cheers to good ideas, wherever they originate.


Our most memorable wines of 2012

As we move forward into the new year, I asked some of our key team members to reflect a bit on what wines stuck with them from 2012.  Some chose Tablas Creek, but most did not (and those who did all chose different wines!).  The wines they chose are every bit as eclectic as you might expect, but are, equally as you might expect, great reflections of the amazing team we have here.  They are presented to you in alphabetical order, in the original words of each person, except I'm saving my comments for last.

Neil Collins, Executive Winemaker and Vineyard Manager
As someone who spends far too much time indulging in wines both fine and not so much this is generally a tough question. However not so this time around. Whilst on the east coast attending a charity event as the Tablas Creek guy behind the table, I took the opportunity to visit the Haas family home in Vermont. Splendid place. Now Robert Haas is not known for pouring the not-so-much ones anyway, but on this occasion, WOW. An absolutely perfect rack of lamb on my plate, the wine served was a perfectly cellared 1978 Clos de la Roche out of magnum. As I sniffed the glass I was taken aback with its subtle beauty, I glanced at Bob who with a glimmer of a grin merely raised an eyebrow in agreement, a rare one. The wine was stunning, with the lamb even better! Had I not already been seated I may well have fallen to my knees. I am a lucky boy!!

A slightly more attainable bottle was a Madeleine Cabernet Franc, my favorite non-Loire Cabernet Franc to date. CHEERS NEIL

Darren Delmore, National Sales Manager
My most memorable wine of 2012: 2008 Ramey Chardonnay Hyde Vineyard, Carneros, California.The Hyde Vineyard, in my opinion, is the best Chardonnay vineyard in America, and winemakers working with this site, like Whitethorn, HdV, Patz and Hall, and Ramey, have stories of harvesting Chardonnay at sky-high sugar levels, supernaturally low PH’s, and significant natural acidity levels. The matching of varietal to site is spot on here. Place, time, occasion and food are all key factors in determining an impressionable wine, and the Ramey ticked all the boxes. This was my first Father’s Day, even though my son was in the womb, and on a golden late afternoon on a ridgetop in Anderson Valley, I matched this weighty, citrusy, barrel-fermented beauty with a local abalone that was bigger than my face.

Best of 2012 - ramey

Chelsea Franchi, Assistant Winemaker
When prompted to talk about my most memorable wine of 2012, I have a feeling I will deviate from my peers in terms of criteria for my finalists.  While I did have some lovely wines this past year, for me, the most truly memorable wines are those that are shared with my favorite people in the world.  Sometimes that means the wine is a special bottle from a well-respected producer, a bottle that has been saved in the back of the collection waiting for the perfect occasion, or sometimes, it can be a bottle picked up from Trader Joe’s the day of the party and enjoyed with fabulous company. 

That being said, I’ll choose my wine this year based on the company it was enjoyed with and, I suppose, the way in which it was presented.  My family always enjoys a bottle of bubbles on Christmas morning and this year, we made it all the more memorable by sabering the bottle with a ski.  Why a ski?  Well, why not?  I certainly do not encourage this kind of behavior, but I will say it was exceptionally fun (and my skis are in dire need of a tune anyway, so I wasn’t particularly worried about the edges).   Tell me that doesn’t look fun.  And memorable?  Quite.

Best of 2012 - chelsea

Nicole Getty, Wine Club and Hospitality Director
I did not consume very much wine in 2012, as I was pregnant for most of the year, and even on special occasions, it was not appealing to me. However, a few days after my son was born, we celebrated with what I had been craving- a margarita with extra salt! Oh, and lots of salty chips and salsa! I plan on digging out some of my bottles of wine from my wine fridge in 2013 (including of course Tablas Creek and Beaucastel that I’ve tucked away).

Levi Glenn, Viticulturist
2011 Domaine de L'Idylle Mondeuse Noir (Vin de Savoie): Not a blockbuster is the traditional sense, this wine wins with charm, not brawn. It lies somewhere on the spectrum between Cru Beaujolais and St. Joseph, and is grown high in the French Alps. Aromatically it just jumps out of the glass with its bright macerated cherries, but as it opens up intense fresh ground pepper aromas starts to dominate while a warm stony minerality lurks below. Its light ruby color mirrors its impression on the palate. In the mouth the wine is lively and light on its feet. A nice punch of acidity hits you on the back end, and entices you to take another sip. A great example of a wine that is intense without  being heavy, and true food wine. Pair with a traditional Raclette meal.

Runner-up: 2010 Chateau de St. Cosme Gigondas: From my favorite appellation in any country or continent, this wine shows the cool side of Grenache. This AOC is higher in elevation than most in the southern Rhone, and while it doesn’t have quite the worldwide recognition of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, the best Gigondas wines can be equally as good. They have plenty of concentration in most vintages, but they usually more acidity than CdP, and tend to exhibit more rustic tannin structure. Villa Creek Restaurant in Paso Robles is pouring it, but get it while you can, because this wine just received the No. 2 spot on Wine Spectators Top 100 for 2012. 

Robert Haas, Founder
I have been privileged to taste and drink many stunning older wines in my 63 years in the wine trade: Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rhône back to 1870, Napa Cabernets of the '70s and '80s, and some remarkable Champagnes in the days when the special cuvées were made in the hundreds of cases rather than the tens of thousands.  This year I particularly delighted in two great 1981’s:  A Vosne-Romanée Orveaux of Mongeard and a Beaucastel.  I wrote blogs about them: A Summer Dinner in Vermont and A Truffly Duet.  

Two other wines struck me as outstanding this year, both from Tablas Creek.  One was on the young side, yet seemed in absolute perfect balance: the 2007 Panoplie.  It was surprisingly seamless from nose to finish and delightfully savory.  You can read about it in our blog, We Celebrate the Holidays with a Vertical Tasting of Panoplie.  The other was the 2011 Esprit tasted from one of the foudres after I returned from Vermont.  Its complexity, fruit and spices, all singing out in harmony, despite the fact that it was still nine months away from bottling, blew me away.  What a great release it is going to be later this year!

Sylvia Montague, Assistant Tasting Room Manager
I "think pink" a good amount of the time, not just when the temps begin to rise.  This year I was able to secure a case of the Robert Sinskey 2011 Vin Gris of Pinot Noir (after only being able to purchase one bottle of the 2010 while on a visit there in April of 2011) and have been enjoying them throughout the summer and fall.  It is dry, crisp, aromatic, nicely structured and above all, elegant.  The wine has great texture, a beautiful salmon color and pairs very well with a variety of foods.  To me it is, indeed, summer in a glass. The only dilemma is when to enjoy the one bottle remaining in my cellar…

John Morris, Tasting Room Manager
My life has changed a quite a bit in the last few years.  Formerly a life-long bachelor, I married two summers ago and became an instant step-father to three.  This has brought a new sense of purpose to my life, but as you might imagine, has shifted my priorities considerably.  Seeking out the pleasures of food and wine has taken a back seat to new shoes, dance and cello lessons, a bottomless refrigerator, and rather lengthy Christmas lists.  Meanwhile, my cellar has shrunk to a few precious bottles I cling to with hope.

However, at the risk of seeming a homer, I have my work to look forward to, and the pleasure of tasting Tablas Creek wine every day.  We recently bid farewell to the last bottle of 2009 Esprit de Beaucastel, my favorite vintage to date.  We dread the end of the 2010 Côtes de Tablas, which we all pretend not to see coming.  The 2011 Roussanne, released in the latest wine club shipment, is a revelation.  But the wine that has moved me the most is the 2010 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc:  Waxy and honeyed, floral and savory, minerally and refined with a long, sophisticated finish, it’s the embodiment of what a white Rhône wine should be. 

Deanna Ryan, Tasting Room Team Lead
I would have to say the 2009 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc for its fantastic balance of richness and acidity that never fails to satisfy, with or without food.  Also, the 2010 Counoise for its flirtatious gentility. I found it to be the ideal wine to reward oneself with at the end of a long workday.  Of course the 2010 Mourvedre is another strong contender due to its subtle layering of flavors and gentle tannins. Cheers!

Jason Haas, Partner and General Manager
As for me, I've found my most memorable wines this year to be signposts on the development of Tablas Creek.  There are three that stood out.  The first was the amazing discovery that Cesar Perrin and I made on the incomparable wine list at Bern's in Tampa, FL.  On a night when I tasted my first birth-year wines (1973 wasn't a year that many people felt like keeping around) and some incredible old Riojas and Burgundies, our indelible memory would be a 1966 Pierre Perrin Chateauneuf du Pape -- the first-ever Haas-Perrin collaboration, that neither of us knew existed.  The wine itself was elderly.  But the discovery of its significance was a revelation.

Best of 2012 - perrin

Moving forward in time, the family dinner my dad blogged about last week, where he opened a mystery vintage of Beaucastel to find a remarkable bottle of 1981, was probably my favorite meal of the year. Like the classic dish it was paired with, the 1981 Beaucastel didn't shout at you.  It didn't elbow the meal's other components out of its way.  But it sang, on its own and with the food, mellow yet still utterly sure of itself.  I didn't want to get up from the table.

But if I had to pick one wine that I keep coming back to from last year, it was (as it has been each time I've had the pleasure to drink it) the 1989 Beaucastel that Cesar Perrin poured for us in a farewell vertical before he completed his year-long stint at Tablas Creek in April.  That 1989 was perfectly poised between fruit and earth, between richness and freshness, between youth and maturity, and for all its meatiness and juiciness tasted indelibly like the rocks in which it grew.

May your 2013 be equally as full of good food, great wines, and memorable company with whom to share them.


Poulet demi-deuil and Beaucastel: A truffly duet

By Robert Haas

The end of fall and beginning of winter is the season that we enjoyed wonderful black truffle dishes during our travels to visit vineyard proprietors in France.  Alas, although we have learned to produce fine wines in California, we have not been able to do black truffles yet.

So, when the yearly truffle yearning comes along, we sometimes yield to the temptation of buying imported French truffles on line.  We do scrambled eggs with truffles (yum), as served at Beaucastel or chez Perrin, and last night, with our California family, a poulet demi-deuil (literally “chicken in half-mourning” for the dark color given to the chicken’s skin by the slices of truffle nestled underneath. Once appropriately dressed, the chicken is poached in chicken stock).  It is a dish y which we were stunned at first exposure at La Mère Brazier, just outside Lyon, many long falls ago.

What wine to serve with the poulet?  I had recently discovered an old bottle of Château de Beaucastel originally from my Vermont cellar, transported to California in the ‘90s, label damaged and vintage unknown, and wondered when to serve it.  The answer became obvious last night.  I knew that we would discover the vintage on the cork.  It turned out to be 1981: a great vintage at Beaucastel although dodgy almost everywhere else in France.

Beaucastel 1981 cork

The wine was absolutely perfect: mature yet no hint of oxidation, truffly in itself, echoing the dish, velvety, rich, leathery, with dark red fruits and a long finish.  Thirty-one years old and fully mature, in beautiful balance. What a nice memorable evening with food, family and a great wine!


A Summer Dinner in Vermont

By Robert Haas

One of summer’s greatest challenges for the Vermont gardener is keeping up with the zucchini production.  So we need to find recipes in order to benefit from our garden and, of course, wines to accompany them.  Here is an old standby recipe inspired by The Victory Garden Cookbook, by Marian Morash, published in New York in 1982 by Alfred A. Knopf.  Mr. Knopf, a customer of mine at M. Lehmann, was a great lover of good wine and food, and a frequent publisher of works by knowledgeable food and wine writers.

2 eggs
2 cups grated zucchini
2 ears local corn, scraped off the cob
¼ cup flour
1 Tb melted butter
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup coarsely grated VT cheddar cheese
2 Tb oil for frying 

  • Grate the squash on the coarse side of a box grater, put into a colander and salt to drain of excess liquid.  
  • Slice the corn off the cob and scrape off the milky residue with the back of a knife. 
  • After about 20 minutes, gently squeeze the liquid out of the squash with your hands, and continue with the recipe.
  • Beat the eggs and combine with all remaining ingredients except the oil.
  • Heat a well-seasoned iron or non-stick pan or a griddle and add the oil.
  • Spoon the batter with a ladle into the hot oil and fry until crisp on both sides.  Smaller fritters are easier to turn.  
  • Drain on paper towels and serve hot.

For the wine, ironically I discovered one from about the same vintage as the book: a 1981 premier crû Burgundy: Vosne-Romanée Orveaux of Jean Mongeard, tucked away in the cellar.

Orveaux 1981

I brought it up expecting a gentle, elegant wine, albeit from a disregarded vintage.  Wrong!  The wine was rich and full-bodied, redolent of ripe sun-dried cherries, with a velvety palate and ripe tannins: unexpectedly intense, and at a perfect age, with a touch of that now unfashionable “barnyard" character which I learned to appreciate.  It went beautifully with the fritters.  I had put away several cases of 1981's from Mongeard and Ponsot in my Vineyard Brands days because both vignerons had beautifully farmed a vintage with heavy spring frosts, frequent storms during June and July and damaging hail in August.  However, they saved their harvest of a tiny crop by careful navigation during a difficult September.  The trade and the press wrote it off: “A vintage to forget.”  I’m glad that I didn’t.  And best of all, I still have some of the wines in the cellar.


In defense of expensive rosé

A few years ago, I was out to dinner at Villa Creek with friends.  Dining at Villa Creek is always a treat because not only is the food terrific, but owner Cris Cherry and GM Erick Cadena always put together a great and reasonably priced wine list that showcases not only the best of local wines but also a terrific selection from around the world, particularly from the regions that border the Mediterranean and specialize in the same grape varieties that we (and Villa Creek Cellars) focus on.  I ended up picking a classic: a bottle of Domaine Tempier Rosé, for which, if I remember right, I paid something like $70.

This experience came back to me thanks to a recent comment on our Facebook page, after we had posted a link to an article in our local paper in which wine columnist Laurie Daniel named our 2011 Rosé the "Wine of the Week".  The commenter said, "It's great but bring the price down. It's more than Tavel."  Now our Rosé is not a cheap one; our suggested retail is $27 per bottle.  But the comment begs two questions.  First, why shouldn't our Rosé cost more than a Tavel?  And second, what is it about rosés that means that they should be cheap, anyway?

I'll address the first question briefly; I'm more interested in the second.  Tavel is a wonderful appellation in the southern Rhone (more or less due west of Avignon and southwest from Chateauneuf-du-Pape) which makes some of the world's best rosés.  The appellation is exclusive to rosé, and the wines from Tavel have been among the world's most recognized examples of pink wine for centuries.  But, for all that, it is a Grenache-dominated appellation, with an average yield, according to the Tavel AOC, of roughly 2.8 tons/acre (42 hl/hectare).  So, our Tablas Creek rosé, made from a mix of Mourvedre, Grenache and Counoise at a yield of 2.4 tons/acre in 2011, doesn't seem out of line, particularly given that Mourvedre and Counoise are more difficult to grow than Grenache.  And we farm the Rosé organically, entirely from estate fruit, which most Tavel producers don't.  But does the quality measure up? Independent reviews suggest it does. The Wine Spectator has rated 48 Tavels since the 2009 vintage. Of these, 8 have received 90+ point ratings. They have reviewed our Rosé in the last three vintages, giving us an 88, an 89 and (just this week) a 90 point rating.  I don't say any of this to suggest that our wine is better than the average Tavel (though I think it is) but instead just to illustrate that whether you're measuring by cost of production or quality we belong.  After that, it's up to each of you to decide what warrants you opening your pocketbook. But the idea that the original home of a particular variety should always command a higher price than those same grapes translated elsewhere in the world strikes me as silly.  Drink what you like and which you believe delivers value.

The second question, of why rosé should be cheap, is more interesting. Understanding why requires a brief diversion into winemaking techniques, so bear with me. Many red grapes are harvested with less intensity than a winemaker might want. Since most of the character of a red wine comes from the skins of the grapes, a winemaker can choose to concentrate his or her red wine by removing some of the free-run juice during fermentation and leaving less juice to be concentrated by the full quantity of skins. Just as a teabag in a small teapot will produce more intense tea than the same teabag in a large teapot, a given volume of skins in less juice will produce more intense wine than the same volume of skins in more juice. This technique is called saignée (the French word for "bleeding"). The winemaker then has the choice of pouring the juice that has been removed down the drain, or fermenting it dry and making a rosé out of it. Are these rosés any good? They can be, but often are not. Typically, the reason that the winemaker was bleeding off the juice to start with was that the raw materials were not sufficiently concentrated, which means that the bled-off juice is often uninteresting. What is more, these grapes were picked at optimal ripeness for the red wine for which they were intended: typically riper and with lower acidity than would be desirable in a rosé.

For a winery making a rosé like the one above, any revenue from the reclaimed juice is a bonus.  And often these rosés are dirt cheap. In France, many are available for a few euros a bottle, and there are respectable bottles that make it into the United States for $5-$7.

While these sorts of rosés make up the majority of the world's production, they are far from the only kind made.  There are regions like Tavel where red wines are not allowed, and where any grape that is grown is selected and vinified specifically for rosé, typically pressed off after a day or two and fermented dry away from the skins.  And there are regions like Bandol, where the rosé is sufficiently renowned that a significant portion of the wine is made intentionally as rosé, often picked sooner than the grapes for the reds and requiring a sacrifice of potential red production to produce.  This second reason is one that we've always found compelling.  Far from needing to concentrate most of our red lots, we struggle to find lots that won't be harmed by extra concentration, and base our Rosé on a vineyard block that we harvest specifically for our rosé program.  Each bottle of our Rosé that we make is one less bottle of red wine.

Still, there are two good reasons that argue against very high price tags for rosés.  One is based on cost of production, the other on ageability.  Rosés tend to be relatively inexpensive to produce because they typically don't see any new oak (which is expensive) and they come to market quickly and so don't take up much space in the cellar or accumulate many winemaking costs.  And as, in general, the highest price tags in the world of wine are reserved for the most ageable wines, rosés, which are mostly to be drunk young, don't get a collector's premium.

But why is this any different than, say, an aromatic white like Sauvignon Blanc?  Essentially, it boils down to fashion.  Rosés are just now becoming fashionable, internationally.  Top Bandol brands like Domaines Ott and Domaine Tempier have seen enough demand worldwide that their prices have risen in the last few years from mid-$20s to around $40.  And you're starting to see a few rosé-producing wineries releasing luxury cuvées, most notably Chateau d'Esclans whose top-of-the-line Garrus rosé, aged in new French oak and limited to 6 barrels per year, carries a price tag of around $100.  In a rosé-themed tasting last summer (the always worthwhile RAP tasting in San Francisco) I got to taste four different tiers from Chateau d'Esclans, and preferred the freshness of the less expensive wines to the creamy oakiness of the elite levels, but that richer style clearly has its adherents as well.

So, why did I order the Tempier Rosé from Villa Creek that night?  How often can you find the best example, anywhere in the world, in an important category for $70 on a wine list or $40 on a shelf?  When I do, I feel like it's a shame to turn it down for a mid-range example of a more exalted category.  As for the Tempier, boy, was it good.  And that is my defense of expensive rosé: that even the most expensive examples are relatively inexpensive in the world of fine wines.  Because the category is still not particularly fashionable, you can get some of the world's most compelling wines for relative peanuts.  And then, unlike the big red or oaky white you might have been considering instead, you can go ahead and drink it with those very same peanuts.


A great dinner, an amazing restaurant, and a wine that marks the beginning of Tablas Creek

Last weekend Cesar Perrin and I were honored to host the keynote dinner at the Bern's Winefest.  Hosted by Bern's Steak House in Tampa, Florida, the festival included dinners, seminars, and a grand tasting.  So far, nothing unique about this.  The dinner that we hosted was excellent, five courses and eight wines, including side-by-side flights of Tablas Creek and Beaucastel, library vintages from both wineries (1996 Beaucastel and 2004 Esprit de Beaucastel, and the remarkable 2000 Hommage a Jacques Perrin).  Terrific, but still not unique.  It was a wine dinner, masterfully prepared and expertly paired, with a selection of wines going back a decade and a half.  At Bern's, that's routine.

If you're unfamiliar with Bern's, it's Mecca for wine lovers.  Opened in 1956 by Bern Laxer and run today by his son David, the restaurant boasts a wine cellar of nearly a million bottles, much of which was purchased by Bern on his annual trips to France and has never been inventoried.  The working cellar of over 100,000 bottles is staggering in its own right, and the wine list (183 pages in the 62nd Edition) is legendary.  It includes big names from Burgundy and Bordeaux, but it's more than trophies.  It encompasses the deepest collections of old wines from California, Spain, Australia and the Rhone Valley that I've ever seen.  And the sommeliers there keep finding more.  When Bern's shipments of wines would arrive from France, the entire Bern's staff would be called on to grab a hand-truck and help move the new arrivals the two blocks from the end of the rail line to the warehouse across the street from the restaurant.  Thousands of cases would be packed into the warehouse, with the only master plan in Bern's head.  To this day, the sommeliers treat a visit to the warehouse like a treasure hunt, and estimate that there are 200,000 bottles, most from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, not on any inventory list. These discoveries keep the list from getting picked over, as there is a steady supply of treasures to uncover.

Even more remarkable, the restaurant does not mark wines up based on how long they've held the inventory.  So browsing through the list will uncover any number of unbelievable values.  I could choose between a half-dozen California wines from 1973 (my birth year) including names like Parducci, Louis Martini, Souverain, Franciscan, and Trentadue for between $45 and $70.  Had I been born a year earlier, I could have chosen a magnum of 1972 Inglenook Cabernet, an icon from one of the greatest vintages in Napa Valley, for $129.  A year later and I could have had a 1974 Ridge Zinfandel for $72.70.  The list goes on and on.

Knowing that the winemaker dinner would have a set menu, with wines that we knew, Freddy Matson (the Vineyard Brands manager for Florida's Gulf Coast) made a reservation for Cesar and me the night before our wine dinner.  When we arrived, we put ourselves in Sommelier Brad Dixon's hands, and enjoyed an amazing string of wines, beginning with a 1954 Rioja, continuing with great Burgundies from 1978 and 1961, and including not one but two different wines from 1973, both from Souverain of Alexander Valley: one a Zinfandel and one a Pinot Noir.  It was one of the great epicurean experiences of my life.

On the wine list, Cesar and I noted a curiosity: half-bottles of 1966 Pierre Perrin Chateauneuf du Pape.  Pierre Perrin was Cesar's great-grandfather, Jacques Perrin's father, but there are other branches of the Perrin family in Chateauneuf and -- until the Hommage a Jacques Perrin debuted in 1989 -- we weren't aware of the Perrin name appearing on a Beaucastel label.  When we asked Brad about the wine, he didn't know anything about its story, but brought us a bottle:

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More than the Perrin name, the Leeds Imports strip label identified it as a wine of interest.  My grandfather created Leeds Imports because New York law at the time prohibited retailers (he owned M. Lehmann) from also acting as importer/distributor.  In the late 1960s my dad was the buyer for the wines that Leeds imported, both to sell at M. Lehmann and to offer to distributors in other states.  We decided we needed to find out more. From the restaurant, Cesar texted his father a picture of the bottle. Francois hadn't heard of the wine (of course, he was thirteen during the 1966 vintage).  I emailed my father but didn't hear back.  So Brad gave us each a bottle and asked us to let him know what we discovered.

The next day, I spoke to my dad and got the scoop.  In the late 1960's, my dad had decided that the American market was ready for wines from some regions outside the traditional bastions of Burgundy and Bordeaux.  So he was visiting appellations that he thought were making high quality wine and looking either to find new suppliers or quality wine in bulk that he could then have bottled and out of which he could create a brand.  He visited Beaucastel with a broker in 1967 and found that while Jacques Perrin wouldn't sell him Beaucastel (their American importer at the time wasn't selling much wine, but had an exclusive agreement) he was able to convince Jacques to let him taste through the lots and assemble his own cuvee for bottling.  This is that wine: made by Jacques Perrin, chosen by my dad in Beaucastel's cellars, bottled under a semi-anonymous label in Bordeaux, and imported into the United States.  My dad thinks that there were perhaps 300 cases produced total.  I'm not sure if any is left anywhere other than at Bern's, but I tend to doubt it.

There were no subsequent vintages of Pierre Perrin Chateauneuf du Pape.  The American importer got wind of the wine and asked Jacques not to do it again.  But my dad's interest in Beaucastel was sparked; he kept visiting and in 1970 convinced Jacques to give him the American import agency.

So, there it is: the beginning of the Haas-Perrin partnership that would become Tablas Creek.  Just a great discovery, during an amazing night of food and wine, at a restaurant unlike any other in the world.  If you haven't been to Bern's, you owe it to yourself to go.  You never know what you'll find, but you know you'll find something you couldn't have found anywhere else.


A farewell treat: Cesar Perrin presents a Chateau de Beaucastel vertical

We've had the pleasure of hosting Cesar Perrin here at Tablas Creek for the last year.  Cesar is Francois Perrin's youngest son, a few years out of enology school in France, and proceeding through a series of apprenticeships at notable wineries around the world while being groomed to eventually take the reins at Beaucastel.  During his stay he has helped in the cellar during harvest, in the vineyards during our integration of our grazing herd, and at events around the country.

Last week was his last full week here, and he took the opportunity to say thank you by leading the cellar and management teams here through a vertical tasting of eight different vintages of Beaucastel.  The vintages selected were a combination of wines that the winery had available and those that members of the team had managed to accumulate over the years, so there are some notable vintages like 1998 and 2001 that weren't available.  But this is not necessarily a bad thing.  The list focused on the wines in the roughly 20-25 year old range, which is historically a sweet spot for these famously long-lived wines.  There were also two young examples (2005 and 2007) from great recent vintages, still showing the power and polish of youth.  The one wine in what might be termed middle age (the 1999) was from a vintage that was a bit overlooked in the great Chateauneuf-du-Pape run between 1998 and 2001, and showed better than we were expecting, with some of the younger, fruitier characteristics balanced by welcome secondary balsamic and mushroom characters.

Overall, the tasting was a treat, showcasing the remarkable personality and ageworthiness of the estate's wines.  The lineup, lined up and ready to go:

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My tasting notes, starting with the youngest wine:

  • 2007 Beaucastel: A very rich, minty and herby nose, with aromas of rosemary and roasted meat.  The mouth is rich and dense but not yet very giving, with power more than nuance right now.  I found this less expressive than I did when I tasted it last, where a powerful undercurrent of iron-like minerality framed the lush fruit in a way not evident at this tasting.  Stock this away for a long while yet.
  • 2005 Beaucastel: A nose less dense than the '07, more spicy, though overall on the same continuum, with juniper and chocolate/cherry and a slightly foresty wildness.  The mouth was rich and nicely tannic, with red apple skin, licorice and menthol flavors and a little noticeable oak.  There was a nice coolness and balance on the finish, with granular tannins and cherry skin acidity.  I found this more drinkable now than the '07, with a wonderful future ahead of it.
  • 1999 Beaucastel: From a vintage, according to Cesar, with an unusually high percentage of Mourvedre.  On the nose rare steak and pepper, bright, with a note reminiscent of aged balsamic.  In the mouth clean and long, fruity and spicy with good acids coming out on the finish.  There was an appealing forest floor character that Neil called "mushroomy... in a good way".
  • 1993 Beaucastel: From a cold vintage where much of the later-ripening Mourvedre and Grenache didn't get ripe, so a notably high percentage of Syrah for Beaucastel.  A perceptibly older nose of leather, thyme and juniper.  The nose is so dry that the little burst of sweet fruit on the palate is both surprising and welcome.  Cesar declared that he's a big fan of this "lesser" vintage for drinking now.
  • 1992 Beaucastel: Another cold vintage, with some rain during harvest.  The nose is a little denser and showing younger than the '93, with cedar, cocoa and leather predominant.  The mouth is nicely constructed, with flavors of pencil shavings and cherry skin.  There is a little nice saltiness on the finish.  Not sure if I'd have identified this as Chateauneuf tasting it blind... very Burgundian.
  • 1990 Beaucastel: The nose is rich, with plum and some game meat, juniper, allspice and clove.  Wow.  The flavors are still intense, like marinating meat, with a distinctive Worcestershire Sauce flavor that was unlike any other wine in the tasting.  Spicy red fruit and cocoa powder on the finish.  According to Cesar, this was another vintage with an unusually high percentage of Mourvedre, and it showed in the red fruit/chocolate/meat character.
  • 1989 Beaucastel: Rich, mature and spicy, but smells higher-toned than the 1990, a little fresher and more open.  Aromas are cola and herbs and meat and balsamic, with a nutty almond-like character I kept coming back to.  The mouth was just spectacular, rich, with nice cola and spice high tones, pure, clear and notably mineral in the mid-palate, and then herby with sweet spices on the finish.  A great Grenache vintage, according to Cesar, and my favorite wine of the tasting.  An outstanding vintage of a superb wine, at its peak.  Just a treat.
  • 1988 Beaucastel: A classic year, according to Cesar, overlooked in the excitement for 1989 and 1990, but very good in its own right.  The nose shows a little older, with charcoal, pepper and caramel notes.  The palate is sweeter than the nose suggests, with cola and tart cherry flavors.  Still quite powerful, with tannins that could even use another few years.

Two more photos from the tasting, on the left Cesar pouring for my dad, and on the right the 1990 and 1989, two of the tasting's highlights:

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A few concluding notes.  First, the quality of even the lesser vintages is a testament to the work that Francois Perrin and the rest of the Beaucastel team do.  I think that this is the best measure of the quality of a winemaker: not what he or she does with the great vintages, but his or her results from the vintages that present challenges.  I know how great a winemaker Francois is, and I still came away impressed.

I also came away reconfirming my conviction in the value of blending.  Each vintage can then reflect what was great that year, without having to incorporate elements that were less impressive.  And each vintage also shows more individual personality.  That recognition of personality -- that each wine expressed something unique about its vintage -- was my most lasting impression from what was a truly wonderful tasting.


How (and Why) to Decant a Wine

One question we get fairly often is whether to decant one of our wines.  My typical answer is that most of our wines will benefit from some air when young, though it's more important for some wines than others.  And a few of our older red wines have started to show some sediment.  Decanting these wines is highly recommended, as even if you stand a bottle up in advance, pouring the wine around the table will re-mix any sediment.  We've started marking on our online vintage chart wines that particularly benefit from decanting.

The examples above illustrate the two different sorts of wines that you might want to decant. The first is what I'm usually asked about: young wines whose powerful structure can be softened, and whose subtler aromatic elements encouraged, by some exposure to air.  It's not actually that important how you decant this sort of wine.  Often, the more the wine splashes around, the better.  But for the second sort of wine -- an older red wine which has accumulated some sediment over time and which you'd like to be able to enjoy without having to strain it through your teeth -- technique is important.

Over the holidays, the Haas clan gathered in Vermont, and we enjoyed many wonderful wines.  Perhaps the highlight was a magnum of the 1989 Hommage a Jacques Perrin that we drank on New Year's Day with a dinner of truffled roast chicken and a gratin of potato and fennel.  The wine was rich and luxurious, powerful with dark red fruit, licorice, and earth.  It was still quite youthful, but had already accumulated significant sediment.  We'd have decanted it even if it were a 750ml bottle, but as magnums are awkward to pour at the table due to their heft, decanting the bottle into two 750ml decanters made the logistics of serving the wine easier.  Robert Haas demonstrates how it was done, step by step.  My sister Rebecca took most of the photos; you can see more of her great photography on her blog Campestral.  The scene, with the bottle having been stood upright two days before:

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To start the process, remove the capsule completely so you can see through the neck of the bottle, and light a candle (a small flashlight works, too, but is less focused and less romantic) to shine through the neck so you can tell when the wine flow starts to include sediment:

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Then, pull the cork:

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Pour out the bottle carefully and gradually, in one smooth motion, with the goal of creating as little turbulence as possible.  The beginning, with the first decanter partly full and the second decanter at the ready:

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Pouring slower now, part way through the second decanter:

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If you've poured smoothly enough, the sediment should have collected in the shoulder of the bottle, and you can pour out almost all the liquid without getting any grit.  You can actually see the sediment still in the bottle:

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Done:

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We put the bottle on the table so it could enjoy the dinner too, and so we could read the label if we had any questions:

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Cheers!

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