Paso Robles is (Still) Insanely Beautiful

In late February, with the vineyard turning greener by the day, I wrote a blog Paso Robles is Insanely Beautiful Right Now. Breaking news - it's still gorgeous. That late-February time frame marked the beginning of a period of explosive growth in the cover crops, with plenty of moisture in the ground from our massive late-January storm and steadily lengthening days. With March came warm weather, and those cover crops have been joined by bursts of color from wildflowers like the mustard below:

Green April 2021 - Tall cover crop and mustard

As if that weren't enough, the grapevines themselves have gotten into the act. Not every variety is very far out, but Grenache is putting on a show, the new leaves an electric yellow-green:

Green April 2021 - New Growth Grenache VF

Another view (Grenache again) against the darker green of the oaks is even more dramatic:

Green April 2021 - New growth Grenache C

Speaking of the oaks, the ones in the vineyard provide a great counterpoint to the geometry of the vine rows. I particularly like this one in the middle of our original Counoise block. Here are two views, the left taken from below, and the right from above:

Green April 2021 - Oak tree in Counoise from below

Green April 2021 - Oak tree and Counoise from above

These photos all make it look like it's all blue skies and sun, but when I took these out in the vineyard yesterday morning, it was 42 degrees and wet after a foggy start to the day. The block and tree in the below photo is the same as in the two previous ones, but in this one I was looking east, toward the rising sun:

Green April 2021 - New growth in Counoise

That moisture is visible too in this photo of our straw-bale tractor barn, with a new Cinsaut block in the foreground:

Green April 2021 - Straw Bale Barn

Maybe my favorite photo of the day was another one looking east, this one over our oldest Grenache block (planted in 1992) down a hill and back up on the other side to a slightly younger Grenache block (planted in 1997), new growth glowing in the sun:

Green April 2021 - New growth Grenache AV

I'll leave you with one last photo, of a long view south from the top of that Grenache block visible in the background of the previous photo. It's all on display: the rolling hills, the riot of green, and the newly-sprouted vines, all set off by the rows of dirt where we've begun to task of taming that cover crop so it doesn't compete with the vines for water:

Green April 2021 - Long View in Grenache

If you're coming for a visit in the next few weeks, you're in for a treat.


Grapevine Layering: An Age-Old Vineyard Technique, Revisited

One of the challenges of having a vineyard that is approaching middle age is the accumulated toll of vine loss. In our oldest blocks, which are approaching 30 years old, the combined impacts of gophers, trunk diseases, virus, and our stressful environment means that we've lost between 10% and 40% of the vines. And it doesn't take anything catastrophic to get to those numbers. Imagine a 2% vine mortality (one in every 50 vines) per year. After 10 years, you've lost 18% of your vines. After 20 years, you've lost 33%. And after 30 years, you've lost 45%. That's just math.

Replanting missing vines among those that have survived is usually an unsatisfactory response to this vine loss, for a couple of reasons. The roots of the vines that survive tend to encroach into the space of any missing vines, which makes it difficult to get the new vine established. And because we're trying to dry-farm our mature blocks, getting the new vines the water that they need to get established tends to work at cross-purposes to the vine training that we're doing, encouraging surface root growth from established vines, which is a waste of their resources. 

The difficulty in getting new vines established among the older vines has meant that we've lived with lower and lower vine density in our older blocks. That comes through in lower yields. Looking at the yield per acre the last few years on these varieties compared to our average in the 2000's shows the cumulative impact. Last decade, Mourvedre averaged 2.8 tons/acre. Over the last five years it's averaged 2.2. Counoise in the 2000's also averaged 2.8 tons/acre but has declined in recent years to 2.5. Syrah has declined from 3.4 tons/acre to 2.6. And even Grenache, typically the most vigorous and productive, has seen average yields decline from 4.3 tons/acre last decade to 3.9 over the last five years. 

Because of the challenge of establishing new vines among the old, we're left with the difficult choice of when to pull the plug and pull out an entire block to start fresh. If the surviving vines are struggling, or the blocks were planted to the wrong variety or on the wrong rootstock, it's worth the sacrifice to pull them out and replant. We're in that process in a few blocks. Each has its own story.

  • One was originally a Viognier block that we planted in an area that turned out to be one of our frostiest. By the time that we realized that and grafted the block over to the late-budding Mourvedre, even the vines that survived were weakened by the years of frost damage.   
  • Another was a block that had originally been planted in 1992 to California-sourced Mourvedre (Mataro) clones. We decided in 2003 because of dissatisfaction with the ripening of these clones to graft the block over to our French Mourvedre clones, but that didn't fix the issue. It might have been a rootstock incompatibility issue, or a virus problem. In the end, we decided to start fresh.
  • Finally, the third block that we pulled out included Syrah that we made the mistake of pruning during wet weather one year back in the 1990s, and we've been struggling with fungal trunk diseases ever since. We lost some vines, but even the ones that survived were weakened. Again, it seemed to make sense to start from scratch.

Layering diagramBut what to do about a block that's missing 40% of the vines, but still making some of our favorite wines? We're trying out a new technique to build vine density in a couple of these blocks. It's called layering. Really, it's an old technique, and takes advantage of the fact that grapevines have the ability to reproduce asexually. If you bury a grapevine cane, each bud has the ability to sprout roots. The connection to the parent vine helps nourish the new vine while those roots get established. Eventually, you can cut the connecting cane and the new vine will grow on its own. Wikipedia has a simple diagram of the process (right).

A few pictures of how we're doing this at Tablas Creek will help illustrate. First a photo of the block where we're trying this: an old Syrah block, planted in 1992 and 1994. You can see that we're missing a lot of vines, probably close to 40% overall:

Syrah block with layering

What we've done is to extend an extra cane, beyond what we're using for the vine to produce fruit that year, from a healthy vine, and then bury it underground and bring it back up in the position of a missing vine:

Syrah block - Layering burying

Those vines are now sprouting:

Syrah block layering new growth

Those new vines will grow, supported by the established root systems of their parent vines, for another couple of years. At that point we can choose to cut the connecting cane or leave it. This can in theory be done infinitely: one vine being layered into another, into another, and another. We've heard stories about entire acres being propagated in this way from a single starting vine. We don't plan on anything so extreme, but if we can rebuild the vine density in some of our favorite old blocks without having to pull out our old vines, that's a huge win for us. We'll be looking at the success of this effort in this Syrah block, and if it works, applying it to other blocks that might benefit. Stay tuned!

Syrah block - latering sprouting


Budbreak as a Metaphor for Life in 2021: We All Emerge from Dormancy, Slowly

This winter, record-breaking storm in January notwithstanding, has been chilly and dry. The storm systems that have made their way to us outside of that one historic one have tended to be duds, dropping just a few tenths or hundredths of an inch of rain. The cause of this, according to meteorologists, has been the return of the Ridiculously Resilient Ridge of high pressure that was a regular occurrence in our 2012-2016 drought. This long-wave weather pattern is characterized by a powerful high pressure system that sets up in the north Pacific, diverting storms that would otherwise impact California into the Pacific Northwest. The net result has been a lot of very dry months this winter:

Winter Rainfall 2020-21 vs Normal

The main difference between this year's ridge and the one in our 2012-16 drought (particularly the one that characterized the 2013-14 and 2014-15 winters) is that this year's set up further west. A high pressure system set up over or just west of California leads to dry, warm weather. But this year's was far enough west to produce a recurring pattern in which storms rotating around the ridge tended to pass just east of California, pummeling the Rocky Mountains with snow, bringing arctic weather as far south as Texas, and producing dry but cold conditions in California. A look at the number of below-freezing days this winter shows that this was one of our frostier recent seasons, with 41 below-freezing readings at our weather station so far. This number ties for our most since 2012-13, and we still have nearly two months of potentially frosty nights to go:

Winter Frost Nights 2010-2021

As recently as week-before-last, we were chased inside during our blending trials by hail, and we had nighttime temperatures drop into the 20s the morning of March 16th. But the last few days have felt different. It's been a week since our last frost night. And after nearly a month where daytime highs didn't get out of the 60s, Saturday hit 76, Sunday hit 80, and Monday hit 77. So, I wasn't surprised to see a lot of budbreak when I got out into the vineyard this morning. Viognier was the most advanced:

Budbreak 2021 - Viognier Flowerws

Budbreak, as you probably guessed from the name, is the period when the grapevine buds swell and burst into leaf. It is the first marker in the growing cycle, a point when we can compare the current season to past years. Upcoming markers will include flowering, veraison, first harvest, and last harvest. And like harvest, budbreak doesn't happen for every grape simultaneously. Early grapes like Viognier, Grenache Blanc, Grenache, and Vermentino tend to go first, followed by Syrah, Marsanne, Tannat, and Picpoul, and finally, often three weeks or more after the earliest grapes sprouted, Roussanne, Counoise, and Mourvedre. This year, it seems like lots of the grapes are going at once. I saw sprouting in Viognier, Grenache, Syrah, and even Counoise (below):

Budbreak 2021 - Counoise Spur

Budbreak 2021 is happening at an average time, historically, and at almost exactly the same time as last year. We've had some extremes in recent years; we're a month later than our record-early 2016, but two weeks earlier than our latest-ever start to the season in 2012, when we saw 57 frost nights, 21 after February 1st. Here's our information for when we first recorded significant budbreak the last dozen years:

2020: Last week of March
2019: Second half of March
2018: Second half of March
2017: Mid-March
2016: Very end of February
2015: Second week of March
2014: Mid-March
2013: First week of April
2012: Mid-April
2011: First week of April
2010: Last week of March
2009: Second week of April
2008: Last week of March

Note that it's pretty much impossible to assign a hard date for something like budbreak. After all, it's not a single vine we're talking about, it's a continuum across 125 acres of vineyard with eighteen different varieties. And even with the quick start, more than half the vineyard is still dormant. This Roussanne bud is indistinguishable from what it would have looked like in January:

Budbreak 2021 - Roussanne

Budbreak happens when it does largely due to increases in soil temperatures. Grapevines (and all deciduous plants) are waiting for the annual signals that it's safe to come out of dormancy and begin their growing season. The colder the temperatures and the more water in the soils, the longer the vines stay dormant. As winter rains ease, days lengthen, and the sun becomes more intense, those soils start to warm up, and the vines begin a race to reproduce. Evolutionarily, plants are trying to balance competing risks and benefits. Emerge too early, and they risk suffering damage to their reproductive prospects through frost. Sprout too late, and they might not have enough time to ripen their fruit, which is necessary so that animals eat it and distribute the seeds.

We worry about frost too. Before budbreak, the vines are safely dormant, and a freeze doesn't harm them. But once they sprout, the new growth is susceptible to frost damage. April frosts cost us roughly 40% of our production in both 2009 and 2011, and we don't feel truly safe until mid-May. So, we've still got more than a month to go before we can relax, and because of how evenly the vineyard appears to be coming out of dormancy, we're already likely past the point where we could safely withstand even a moderate frost. 

We'll be trying to stay one step ahead of the new growth to keep our sheep in the vineyard as long as possible. Knowing budbreak was imminent, last week was their last pass through the Grenache block below. We may only have another week or so in the late-sprouting varieties, but we'll give as many blocks as possible one last graze:

Sheep in Grenache March 2021

You might think that earlier budbreak increases the risks of frost damage. And yes, all other things being equal, having fewer nights where you have to worry about temperatures dropping below freezing is better than having more. But if you look at the two most recent frost years (2009 and 2011) both of those saw budbreak in April. Is it possible that the same conditions that keep a vineyard dormant longer in the spring raise the risks of frost damage once they finally do sprout? I think so. California weather patterns tend to be long-wave patterns, where conditions are more likely to be similar to what they are now in two weeks than to have changed entirely. Of course, it's spring, which is the most unpredictable season here. We'll see.

Looking forward, we should be OK for this week, with warm, dry weather in the forecast. Next week it looks like it might be wet. It's often in the aftermath of spring storm systems that frost risk builds. So, while we would love more rain, we'll be on high alert after. Fingers crossed, please.

Meanwhile, we'll enjoy the rapid changes in the vineyard, and the hopefulness of new growth. It feels metaphorical this year. We've all spent the last year in various forms of dormancy, trying to keep sheltered and safe. With the hopefulness of declining Covid case rates in California, expanding supply of and access to vaccines, and good government support as businesses reopen, I feel like we're all coming out of hibernation. I have high hopes for this year. Please join me in welcoming the 2021 vintage.

Budbreak 2021 - Grenache


A Sigh of Relief from the Blending Table as the 2020 Whites Are Strong and Unaffected by Smoke

Last week, six of us spent most of the week around our blending table working to turn the 39 different lots we made from our white grapes in 2020 into the blends and varietal bottlings we'll be releasing to you in coming months. For the second year in a row, this was a reduced group compared to normal, with the challenges of international travel dictating that we sit down without a Perrin in attendance, and the Tablas Creek participants reduced to a core six (Neil, Chelsea, Craig, Austin, Amanda, and me) in the interest of maintaining distance around the table. It was further complicated by the fact that we had a couple of storm fronts blow through Paso Robles, chasing us indoors after the first day and (with all our open windows and doors) leading to papers blowing around and everyone breaking out their collection of padded coats and beanies. But at least we knew that fresh air was circulating!

This blending session was particularly interesting because it was our first time sitting down in a comprehensive way and evaluating what came out of the challenges of the 2020 vintage. When I wrote up my 2020 harvest recap, I felt pretty sure that we hadn't seen any smoke taint, or taken any serious harm from the twin heat spikes that broke records as the grapes were ripening. Still, there's only so much that you can tell in harvest's immediate aftermath, when the wines are still sweet and the cellar full of fermentation aromas. So, as we sat down together, we all felt that the stakes were higher than they might be in a more normal vintage. I'm pleased to report that after four days immersed in these wines, I feel confident that 2020 will take its place proudly in our recent string of strong vintages.

If you're unfamiliar with how we do our blending, you might find it interesting to read this blog by Chelsea that she wrote a few years ago.

Our first step, on Monday, was to taste each variety in flights, give each lot a grade, and start assessing the character of the year. Our grading system is simple; a "1" grade means the lot has the richness, elegance, and balance to be worthy of consideration for Esprit Blanc. A "2" grade means we like it, but it doesn't seem like Esprit, for whatever reason. It may be pretty, but without the concentration for a reserve-level wine. It might be so powerful we feel it won't blend well. Or it might just be out of the style we want for the Esprit, such as with too much new oak. A "3" grade means the lot has issues that need attention. It might be oxidized or reduced. It might still be fermenting and in a place that makes it hard to evaluate confidently. Or it might just not have the substance for us to be confident we'll want to use it. Most "3" lots resolve into 2's or 1's with some attention. If they don't, they end up getting sold off and they don't see the inside of a Tablas Creek bottle. A snapshot of my notes:

Blending Notes - 2020 Whites

My quick thoughts on each variety are below. For context, in a normal year, for every 10 lots we might see 3-4 "1" grades, 5-6 "2" grades and 1 "3" grade. When we think a lot is right on the cusp between two grades, we can note that with a slash (1/2, or 2/3). As you'll see, lots of good grades this year. In rough harvest order:

  • Viognier (6 lots): A really outstanding Viognier vintage, with classic luscious flavors and aromas and better-than usual acidity and minerality. Since we don't use Viognier in Esprit Blanc, a "1" grade just means that it's as good and expressive as Viognier gets, with freshness to balance its plentiful fruit and body. Two "1" lots, two 1/2 lots, and two 2's.
  • Marsanne (3 lots): A strong Marsanne showing, with all three lots showing Marsanne’s classic honeydew and chalky mineral charm. One "2", one "1/2", and our favorite lot (a "1" grade) with a little extra mouthfeel and tropicality that will be the core of our varietal Marsanne.
  • Picardan (1 lot): Perhaps not at the level of the 2019 Picardan (my favorite in our short history) but still very nice: a tropical nose reminiscent of Viognier, but with a clean, pure palate expression and bright acids. The finish was a little short, so I gave it a 1/2.
  • Bourboulenc (2 lots): The second harvest for our newest grape. Last year's was a crazy orange color when it came out of the press, and although it dropped clear and lightened up, it retained a golden tinge to it. So we experimented with a couple of different pick dates this year, and were rewarded by both of them being a more typical color. The two lots were different, with the earlier pick showing a lush nose but a lean, bright palate, while the later pick showed a quieter nose but a creamier, lusher palate. I gave both lots "2" grades, though (as you'll see) we ended up using some in Esprit Blanc.
  • Clairette Blanche (1 lot): We only had 180 gallons of this, our scarcest white grape, and it was lovely: pretty green wheatgrass aromas and a vibrant lemony palate with salty minerality. I gave it a 1.
  • Grenache Blanc (9 lots): OK, now we got to the wines that we had in quantity. Grenache Blanc is often tough to evaluate in this first tasting because it's always the last to finish fermentation. And this year we had a lot of it: over 7,000 gallons. I found the quality very high overall, but with more diversity than in most of the other grapes: four "1" grades with brightness, lushness, and minerality, a 1/2 that was classic but a little leaner, a "2" that was nicely saline but didn't show much fruit, two 2/3 lots, each promising but also worrying, both in the final stages of fermentation and showing a little weirdness, and an "incomplete" that was still sweet enough to be impossible for me to assign a grade. I think these last three lots will all turn into something good, but they weren't there yet. Patience.
  • Picpoul Blanc (3 lots): Outstanding for Picpoul, with all three lots showing both power and brightness. Two 1's that I thought would be perfect for Esprit and a 1/2 that was beautifully fresh and lively and which will be the core of our varietal Picpoul this year.
  • Roussanne (10 lots): These were the hardest for me to evaluate, perhaps because a squall blew through as we were tasting and forced us to run indoors as hail fell on our patio. I only found two lots that were clear "1" grades for me. But four lots got "1/2" grades. The reasons varied. One was lovely but still sweet. Another two had great texture but were (for me) a little worryingly low in acid. The fourth was oak-dominated, clearly too much on its own, but likely valuable in a blend. Then there were three "2" lots, all honeyed and lush, with pure Roussanne flavors, but soft and without the length or persistence we want for Esprit. Finally, there was one 2/3 lot that was atypical for Roussanne, pineapply and bright but relatively light in body. We decided to declassify that to Patelin Blanc, where it will fit in nicely.

We finished Monday by brainstorming ideas for the Esprit Blanc. The shortage of obvious Esprit-caliber Roussanne, and the relative softness of the lots in the next tier, suggested that we try some Esprit Blanc blends with less Roussanne and more of the higher-acid grapes than usual. But whether that should mean more Grenache Blanc, more Picpoul, or more of the obscure whites than usual we didn't know. That's what our blending trials are for!

Tuesday morning, we started on our blending work by tasting three possible Esprit de Tablas Blanc blends. One, which none of us preferred, hewed closer to our "traditional" blend, with none of the obscure grapes and a roughly 60/30/10 balance of Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, and Picpoul. Better was a blend that decreased the Roussanne to make room for more Picpoul and some Clairette and Picardan. But the consensus favorite included our highest percentage of Picpoul Blanc (14%) since 2015 and made room for significant quantities of all three obscure whites. That means that the 2020 Esprit Blanc will for the first time contain all six approved white Chateauneuf-du-Pape grapes. That's exciting! It also will have a quantity of Roussanne that ties for our lowest-ever, at just 45%. But still, the finished wine had texture, lushness, complexity, and minerality, and plenty enough acidity to keep everything lively. The final blend: 45% Roussanne, 28% Grenache Blanc, 14% Picpoul Blanc, 5% Bourboulenc, 4% Picardan, and 4% Clairette Blanche. A note to lovers of this wine: because of the relative scarcity of top Roussanne, we made a few hundred cases less of this than we have in recent years. Consider yourselves forewarned that it may go fast.

Next we tackled the Cotes Blanc. Viognier always takes the lead, but we weren't sure whether we wanted Marsanne's elegance or Grenache Blanc's density and acid in the primary support role. So, we decided to try one blend with more Grenache Blanc and less Marsanne, one with more Marsanne and less Grenache Blanc, and one where set them to roughly equal levels but added a little more Viognier. Tasting the wines, we settled on the blend heaviest in Grenache Blanc, which seemed to focus Viognier's aromatics while also providing a vibrant, fresh, juicy palate. Final blend: 38% Viognier, 32% Grenache Blanc, 22% Marsanne, and 8% Roussanne.

In making the quantity of Esprit Blanc and Cotes Blanc we wanted, the only grape that we'd used all of was Clairette Blanche. Looking at the quantities of the varietals that this left us, everything seemed fine except that because of the generosity of the vintage and the smaller quantity of Esprit Blanc and Cotes Blanc we made, we were on track to make about 1500 cases of our varietal Grenache Blanc. Given that this isn't a wine we sell much of in wholesale, to keep our supply reasonable we decided to declassify an additional 800 gallons into our 2020 Patelin Blanc. Combined with the relatively large Roussanne declassification, this means that our 2020 Patelin Blanc will be fully one-quarter Tablas Creek fruit. This works out well; we had been conservative in the tonnage of grapes we'd contracted for, worried that the pandemic-induced closures of restaurants would mean we'd end up long on supply. Thanks to a very nice score from Wine Spectator for the 2019 Patelin Blanc, that turned out not to be the case, and having some more of this wine will be good. Plus, those estate lots are only going to make the 2020 Patelin Blanc that much better.

With our blends decided, our final step was to taste them alongside the seven varietal wines that we'll be bottling from 2020. Our principal concerns here are to make sure that the varietal wines are differentiated from the blends that lead with the same grape (so, our Esprit Blanc is different from Roussanne, our Cotes Blanc different from the Viognier, etc) and to make sure that the blends fall into the appropriate places in our hierarchy. My brief notes on each wine, with the rough quantity we'll be bottling this summer:

  • 2020 Bourboulenc (180 cases): Medium gold. A nose of caramel apple and marzipan, lifted by a bright lemongrass note. On the palate, bright with preserved lemon and chamomile flavors and a little pithy note on the long finish.
  • 2020 Picardan (70 cases): A tropical but lively nose of lychee and passionfruit. A similar palate with mango and sweet spice, cleaning up to a chalky mineral note on the finish.
  • 2020 Picpoul Blanc (250 cases): A nose of fresh pineapple. That pineapple note continues onto the palate, with a richer texture than most picpouls. Long and creamy on the finish with a wet rock mineral note.
  • 2020 Grenache Blanc (1040 cases): Super appealing on the nose: lemon meringue and butterscotch and sea spray. Sweet citrus fruit (lemon drop?) and cream soda on the finish. Still a bit more sugar to ferment but super promising.
  • 2020 Viognier (660 cases): Classic young Viognier nose of Haribo peach. The mouth is leaner than the nose suggests: nectarine, white flowers, and a little pithy bite. Should be really appealing with a lift rare in the grape.
  • 2020 Marsanne (350 cases): A nose of peppered melon rind and apricot pit, absolutely classic for young Marsanne. The mouth is clean and spare, gentle kiwi and sarsaparilla, with a chalky mineral finish.
  • 2020 Roussanne (940 cases): Honeydew melon and jasmine on the nose. Mouth-filling and creamy on the palate, with flavors of beeswax and white tea. More textural than flavorful right now. We're going to put it back in some newer barrels for the next six months.
  • 2020 Patelin de Tablas Blanc (2500 cases): Nose of lemongrass, ginger, and green apple, with a little meaty charcuterie note adding depth. The palate starts with bright apricot and quince flavors, then softens into a sweeter peachy note. Serious and complex for Patelin Blanc, and a worthy successor to the 2019.
  • 2020 Cotes de Tablas Blanc (1230 cases): A nose of nectarine and mandarin, seemingly signed equally by Viognier and Grenache Blanc. A sweet/tart contrast on the palate, with lime and ripe peach. A little coconut-like creamy texture comes out on the finish.
  • 2020 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (1960 cases): Despite its relatively low Roussanne component, very Roussanne on the nose: beeswax and honeysuckle, lemon bar and graham cracker. The mouth is luscious and textured, with citrus blossom honey and vanilla bean, then cleaning up on the finish to honeycrisp apple and saline mineral.

A few concluding thoughts:

  • The power of blending really came through to me in this process. As I said above, I wasn't particularly convinced by the Roussanne lots, as a whole. But the Esprit Blanc turned out to be terrific. The luxury of being able to reduce the quantity of our lead grape and bolster the wine with the texture and acid of Grenache Blanc and Picpoul and the complexity of the three "minor" varieties allowed us to do something we could never have done just using Roussanne lots. There are times when adding other components actually make the wine taste more like the lead grape. This was one of those times. 
  • The 2020 vintage gave us lots of texture and flavor at very low alcohols. The overall potential alcohols of all the Rhone whites as a unit was just 12.52%. Grapes like Marsanne and Roussanne were even lower at 11.5% and 12.4% respectively. I think that this was one area where we saw an impact of the stressfulness of the vintage. Those late-summer heat spikes did a number on the acid levels of all the grapes. Those with normally higher acids (like Picpoul, or Grenache Blanc) had enough to withstand that. But Marsanne and Roussanne are naturally lower acid anyway, and we just couldn't leave them on the vines long enough to get to the sugar levels that we're used to without our acids falling to unacceptable levels. That said, I felt like the finished wines had plenty of texture, and enough acidity. The alcohol numbers on the labels, though, may be eye-openingly low. 
  • It's early to know what vintage 2020 will end up reminding us of. But in recent years, it seems like 2015 might provide a pretty good comparison. In that year too, stressful conditions (the peak of our 2012-2016 drought) led to Roussanne lots with low acids and low alcohols. Our solution was similar: reduce Roussanne in the Esprit Blanc to make room for more of the Grenache Blanc and (especially) Picpoul Blanc. Going back to read my notes from the 2015 white blending I see a lot of similar threads. If the wines turn out like that, I'll be excited... 2015 is one of my favorite recent vintages. 

Of course, we've still got a ways to go. There are lots that need some time to finish fermenting, and everything needs to be racked, blended, and let settle and integrate. But as a first detailed look into a year that dropped a number of new hurdles in our way, it's incredibly encouraging. I now feel confident saying that the wines from 2020 will give us something we want to remember from a year most of us would prefer to forget.

Blending Bottles - 2020 Whites


Other Wines We Love: Edmunds St. John 1993 Durell Vineyard Syrah

The next in an occasional series of our non-Tablas Creek wine discoveries.

We are fortunate that so many of the founding fathers of the American Rhone movement are still not just active but making some of their best-ever wines. I've written about how much I admire what Bob Lindquist is doing now. Randall Grahm may have sold his interest in Bonny Doon, but he's still involved there and also developing one of the most ambitious and fascinating vineyards in California at his Popelouchum estate. Bill Easton is making dynamite Syrahs and Rhone blends at his Domaine de la Terre Rouge that demonstrate the potential for Rhones in the Sierra Foothills. Same with Adam Tolmach at The Ojai Vineyard in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. Gary Eberle won the Wine Enthusiast "American Legend" Wine Star Award in 2020 and can still be found (or could, pre-Covid) dishing out barbecue to guests at his tasting room on weekends.

And from his unlikely urban location in Berkeley, Steve Edmunds just keeps doing his thing at Edmunds St. John. Since 1986 he's made wines, mostly Rhones, from vineyards located from Sonoma to Paso Robles and all over the Sierra Foothills. His wines are a little like the man behind them: understated and thoughtful, reserved but expressive. His wines are lovely young, with freshness and balance. But give them some years and they become something even more profound. Steve's motto is "la terre parle" (the earth speaks) and it's rare in California to find the earth speaking as clearly as it does in an older Edmunds St. John wine.

On Friday, we opened a bottle of Edmunds St. John 1993 Durell Vineyard Syrah. I don't actually know how I came into possession of this wine, although I'm guessing it might have been from Steve himself when he came to visit for our 30th Anniversary party back in 2019. It was one of three older bottles, all from the early 1990's, that were sitting in my wine fridge inviting me to dive in.

We paired the wine with some delicious steaks that we served with a homemade Provencal herb butter from an Ina Garten recipe, the year's first asparagus, and one of our favorite potato recipes, a simple but delicious Barbara Kafka preparation of them roasted with garlic and rosemary. The meal was one of the best we've cooked this year. The steaks were juicy and flavorful, enhanced by the umami flavors of the anchovies, capers, and lemon zest in the butter. The asparagus was tender and sweet. The potatoes were crunchy and gently piney, the garlic sweet and aromatic squeezed onto good local bread. A snapshot I got at the meal's outset:

Edmunds St John bottle

And the wine? It was amazing. Mature but still very much alive as it approaches three decades old. My quick notes were "a nose of iodine, soy marinade, flinty mineral, and meat drippings, still well-delineated and fresh. The mouth shows black licorice and Worcestershire sauce, black plum and dark chocolate-covered cherries. Most of the tannins have resolved, but the wine is still fresh. Long and expressive on the mocha and black cherry finish.

Syrah can be a challenge young, often so tannic and muscle-bound that it impresses rather than charms. But a great Syrah turns that muscle into an attribute, allowing the grape's signature black fruit to unwind slowly, all underpinned by a mineral note that depending on the soils can be chalky or flinty or saline. Through this wine, and these decades, it really did happen. The earth spoke.

Beautifully done, Steve.


Prohibition's legacy and the marginalization of organic wine

Introduction
Prohibition may have ended nearly 90 years ago, but its legacies remain, often hidden, in the way that wine and other alcoholic beverages are marketed and sold in America. I've written about the unintended consequences of the 21st Amendment which repealed Prohibition and as a side effect carved out an exception to the Commerce Clause that has made every step forward in the fight for direct shipping a battle between actors in the winery, wholesale, and retail spheres. Another effect is that because there is an express prohibition in the federal standards from any statement that might "suggest a relationship between the consumption of alcohol, wine, or any substance found within the wine, and health benefits or effects on health" a winery can't talk in advertising or on their website about the studies that show links between red wine and heart health.

Understanding the NOP Standards
One consequence of Prohibition's legacy is in how wine is treated by the National Organic Program (NOP) standards. The organic labeling standards, as written for most products, contain four levels of organic purity. In descending order:

  • 100% Organic
    • All ingredients, processing aids, and facility must be certified organic
    • Can use the organic seal 
  • Organic
    • All agricultural ingredients must be certified organic, but up to 5% of non-organic, non-agricultural ingredients are allowed
    • Can use the organic seal
  • Made with Organic
    • At least 70% of ingredients must be certified organic
    • Must state the ingredients that are organic ("made with organic apples")
    • Cannot include USDA organic seal anywhere or represent finished product as organic
  • Specific Organic Ingredients
    • For use of organic ingredients in a non-organic product. Does not need to be certified.
    • Organic can only be used in ingredients list and not on front panel
    • Cannot use the organic seal or state organic anywhere other than the ingredients list.

How Wine Is Treated Differently: Cue Strom Thurmond
Wine is a pretty easy product to measure, as it's typically more than 99% grapes and winemaking additions (yeasts, nutrients for that yeast, acid, and an amount of sulfur measured in parts per million) are minor in volume. More natural-leaning wineries like us don't add yeast or nutrients at all. And yet, the organic regulations put a unique hurdle in front of wine: "Any use of added sulfites means that the wine is only eligible for the 'made with' labeling category and may not use the USDA organic seal." Because we add sulfites in the winemaking process, the highest tier that we can qualify for is the "Made with Organic" tier.

Pause for record scratch here. What?

Before I go further, I want to acknowledge that there are people with serious sulfite allergies and sensitivities. I have found various government estimates that between 0.2% and 1% of Americans have sulfite sensitivities to one degree or another. That's not an insignificant number, although most sensitivities are mild. The most serious sulfite allergies can cause asthma or even in rare cases anaphylaxis, although these reactions are extremely rare. It is in theory for those people that wines have to carry a "contains sulfites" declaration on their label. Whether this declaration (which has led a lot of people to attribute to sulfites unrelated symptoms such as the "red wine headache") is wise is the topic for another blog. In any case the presence of sulfites already has to be declared. But sulfites, in and of themselves, are not inorganic... except according to the NOP standards, when they're used in wine. 

Why turns out to be a legacy of prohibition. In an article for the Tribune Newspapers, Bill St. John recounts the influence of then-Senator Strom Thurmond, segregationist, teetotaler and avowed opponent of alcohol, whose "crowning achievement" was a warning label on alcohol whose purpose was "not to inform but to frighten". That is how the "contains sulfites" labeling requirement ended up in the regulations of the BATF (now TTB) rather than the FDA. There are many common food products that contain higher concentrations of sulfites than wine (including dried fruit, frozen potatoes, frozen shrimp and many condiments) but none of them are required to declare a warning like this. Only alcohol.

Why the Standards Haven't Evolved
According to Geoffrey Jones and Emily Grandjean's working paper for Harvard Business Review Creating the Market for Organic Wine: Sulfites, Certification, and Green Values, the standard we have today is a result of two things: the stigmatization of sulfites in alcohol, and economic protectionism. When a coalition of wineries and organic farming advocates got together in 2012 to propose adopting the same standards used in Europe and most of the rest of the world (a 100ppm cap on sulfites for organic wines, as opposed to the 350ppm cap for "conventional" wines) a handful of wineries making sulfite-free wines, most notably Frey Vineyards, pushed back. The NOP board sided with that group.

In the conclusion to his article Reds, Whites, and Sulfites: Examining Different Organic Wine Regulation Practices in the United States and the European Union in the Northwestern Journal of International Law & Business, author Ryan Puszka points out that the health difference between the American and world standards is negligible:

"For all ecologically and nearly all health concerned purposes, the penalized winemakers produce an identical product to certified wine producers from completely organic grapes. The logical foundation of the current NOP scheme and resulting disenfranchisement, then, is substantiated by flimsy health claims about extremely marginal cases that thinly veil an economic desire to narrow competition in the market."

So, there's a coalition of anti-alcohol interests, natural wine purists, and sulfite-free wineries who have banded together to make the "Organic Wine" status hard to achieve in the United States. Why should we care? Because having the standards written as they are means that organic wine is unlikely to ever be more than a niche product. And having organic wine no more than a niche product means that grapes -- which are one of the easiest crops to farm organically -- are going to be farmed organically a lot less widely than they should be. And that should concern us all.

To understand why, it's helpful to know what sulfites are doing in winemaking. After all, sulfur is a mineral, and a perfectly legal thing to put on an organic vineyard, used for its antimicrobial and antifungal properties. On vines, it's a common tool to keep mildew from spreading. In winemaking, it discourages the action of yeasts and other bacteria. Put in too much and your wine won't ferment. But in small amounts, it allows fermentation yeasts to proceed while inhibiting the action of vinegar-causing bacteria and other spoilage processes. It also absorbs oxygen, protecting a wine from oxidation as it ages in barrel or bottle.

Implications on the Reputation of Organic Wine
As you might expect from my list of sulfur's properties, many of the early organic-labeled sulfite-free wines were unstable and short-lived. The ones that were shelf-stable tended to have been highly fined and filtered and otherwise processed in a way that tended to make them unexciting. And those early impressions of organic wines have lingered in the marketplace. To this day, wineries like us dread being put on the "organic wine" shelf, because fine wine drinkers tend to avoid it, assuming it's aimed at people for whom the organic seal is more important than the wine quality.

The "made with organic grapes" option might seem like an equally good substitute, but it hasn't gotten much traction either. I'd speculate that this is for three reasons. First, there's that lingering doubt because of the many flawed or mediocre organic wines about whether organic grapes is actually a good thing. Second, the NOP clearly intends that the classification be a lesser one that implies that there are things in there that are not organic, and maybe not even grapes. Think "Pasta Sauce, made with Organic Tomatoes". The implication is clear that there are things in there that aren't organic, and aren't tomatoes. Third, you can't use the organic seal. As it was intended to be, the seal is the shorthand for certified organic. You can put extra words on your label, but there are always lots of words. The seal stands out.

Why We Should Care: Less Organically Farmed Land
If there's not a great reason to put yourself into the organic classification you're eligible for, wineries would be excused for not bothering to go through the work and expense of certifying themselves organic. And that's what's happened: according to Jones and Grandjean, in 2017 organic acreage represented only 2% of vineyard land in California, and had actually declined 10% since 2013.

To be sure, some of the prime grape acres have let their organic certification lapse but have adopted Biodynamic certification, which requires the same elimination of chemicals in the vineyard but allows a limited (under 100ppm) addition of sulfites in the winery. Biodynamics, which also incorporates elements of biodiversity and soil microbial health, has garnered a reputation as a farming method adopted by some of the world's greatest vineyards. Of course it also comes with elements that speak of cosmic energies and cycles of the moon, which tends to limit its audience a bit.

Many other vineyards are being farmed organically but not certified. I talk to vintners all the time who have chosen that path. And of course sustainability certification have proliferated. But I don't think that either of these are ideal outcomes. Someone who does not have to be audited for a certification is more likely to hedge, and it's difficult to know how many of these vineyards would actually be able to pass an organic certification. Verification matters. And as for sustainability certifications, they do a good job on breadth, asking wineries to look at things that neither organics nor Biodynamics addresses, like renewable energy, water use reduction, or wildlife passthroughs. But, by and large, sustainability certifications fall short on rigor. Most allow the use of Roundup and many chemical pesticides. You can make a legitimate critique that many are little more than greenwashing.  

In any case, it is a failure of the national organic standards that they have left air in the room for these other approaches to proliferate. Ryan Puszka's conclusion on this is scathing:

"Furthermore, the no-added sulfite NOP standards disincentivizes U.S. and European winemakers from attaining organic certification, as they may not deem the “made with organic grape” certification worthwhile in light of the high costs associated with certification. Moreover, this confusing system renders wine labels even more indecipherable than they already are, requiring customers to know the different international standards of “organic” and “made with organic . . . “. The net result is consumer confusion and economic inefficiency. All of these issues undermine the legitimacy of national organics programs."

What Comes Next
For us, the failures of the existing certifications are another reason we're excited to embrace Regenerative Organic Certification. There is a carve-out in the TTB's application of the NOP standards that a wine that farms their grapes organically, produces the wine in an organic-certified facility, and uses less than the international standard (100ppm) of sulfites can't use the NOP seal but can use the seal of their certifier. The good folks at CCOF have a useful document explaining the rules, which contains the below image:

CCOF Made with Organic Grapes

The Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC) logo will be treated similarly. Thankfully, ROC is following the international organic (and Biodynamic) standard and allowing ROC labeling on wines that are made from Regenerative Organic Certified grapes, produced in an organic certified facility, and use no more than 100ppm of sulfites.

So, while you won't see a USDA Organic seal on a bottle of Tablas Creek any time soon, we're hopeful that starting in 2021 you'll see the ROC logo on our bottles. And together we can help put one last legacy of Strom Thurmond to bed. 


Paso Robles is Insanely Beautiful Right Now

I took a walk yesterday across Las Tablas Creek and up the section of our property that we're calling Jewel Ridge, named after a great old vineyard dog who we buried there. This is the parcel that we bought a decade ago, knowing that we wouldn't need it for five years at least, because land this good, contiguous with our property, doesn't come on the market according to your schedule. So, we bought it, and have spent the last decade building up the soils, using it as a convenient staging zone for our flock when they can't be in the vineyard, and slowly mapping out the new blocks. A quick panoramic from the top, looking west, will give you an overview:

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You can see how green things are getting after the foot of rain we received in late January. This view, looking under one of the walnut trees that we kept (the whole property was a dry-farmed walnut orchard when we bought it) shows it even more clearly. The stakes you see are for us to plant later this winter.

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The ridgetop has spectacular views on three sides, and also looks to us like some of the best vineyard land in the area. We've already planted some Mourvedre and Grenache. The whole property will be head-trained and dry-farmed, following the model that we've loved so much on our Scruffy Hill parcel.

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Almost the entire property is steep, with slopes as much as 30%. That's a bit of a challenge for farming, but nothing we haven't figured out already. This view of the east-facing slope of Jewel Ridge is representative. 

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The highlight of the property is a west-facing natural amphitheater. I took the panoramic photo I shared first looking straight west over that bowl, but because of the panoramic distortion it's hard to see the land's curves. This shot of Sadie halfway down the slope maybe shows it more clearly:

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Another perspective, looking south across the top of the bowl, gives you a different slice. You can see some of the vines we planted last year, tied to the stakes in the middle ground. We hope to get our first small crop off this parcel in 2023.

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As I was walking back, I caught this photo of the moon rising over the west slope of Jewel Ridge. The colors at this time of year (deep blue sky, occasional puffy white clouds, cream-colored rocks, dark brown vines, and bright yellow-green cover crop) is my favorite. 

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One of the appeals of the property to us was the lake that the previous owner's father created in the 1950s by damming up Las Tablas Creek. In the long term, we're exploring how we might use this water to frost protect more of the property. In the short term, it's a lovely spot, with ducks swimming on the surface: 

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Finally, maybe my favorite shot of the day, looking up from the creekbed toward our established vineyard, Sadie posing pastorally:

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We're excited that we've been able to start welcoming guests back to our tasting patio in the last month. If you're planning a trip to Paso Robles in the coming weeks, you're in for a treat.


Tasting the Wines in the Spring 2021 VINsider Wine Club shipments

Each spring and fall, we send out a selection of six wines to the members of our VINsider Wine Club.  In many cases, these are wines that only go out to our club. In others, the club gets a first look at a wine that may see a later national release.  About six weeks before the club shipments will be sent out, we open them all to write the tasting and production notes that will be included in the club shipments. In many cases, this tasting is our first post-bottling reintroduction to wines that we'll come to know intimately in coming months and years. I always think it's fun to give followers of the blog a first look at these notes.

The shipments that will be going out in March include wines from the 2018, 2019, and 2020 vintages. Tasting three vintages together is a great way to get a handle on their relative personalities, and typically my first chance to do a personality assessment on the newest vintage, which we haven't even started blending trials on yet. My quick thoughts, after the tasting, are these:

  • 2018 is noteworthy for its vibrancy. It's a vintage where we knew the whites would be great, with lovely freshness and minerality. We're coming to realize that this profile is just as valuable for the reds, emphasizing the purity of the fruit and producing elegant, balanced wines with beautiful varietal expressiveness.
  • The 2019s show a lovely combination of density and balance, with concentration reminiscent of a year like 2014 or 2017, but slightly higher acids and more overt minerality than either. It's a vintage that offers something for everyone, and seems likely to go down as one of our best-ever years.
  • Finally, 2020, as much as one can tell from tasting two wines, seems to turn up the textural volume even a little on 2019, but without sacrificing either freshness or varietal purity.

I'll start with the classic mixed shipment, and then move on to the additional wines available in the red wine selection and white wine selection shipments. I was joined for the tasting by most of our cellar team: Senior Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi, Assistant Winemaker Craig Hamm, and Cellar Assistants Austin Collins and Amanda Weaver.

Spring 2021 Shipment Tasting Group

The classic shipment includes six different wines:

2020 VERMENTINO

  • Production Notes: Our nineteenth bottling of this traditional Mediterranean varietal, known principally in Sardinia, Corsica, and Northern Italy. It is also grown in the Mediterranean parts of France (particularly Côtes de Provence) where it is known as Rolle. The Vermentino grape produces wines that are bright, clean, and crisp, with distinctive citrus character and refreshing acidity. To emphasize this freshness, we ferment and age Vermentino in stainless steel, and bottled in January, under screwcap.
  • Tasting Notes: An absolutely classic Vermentino nose of lime zest and the ocean, with sweeter notes of honeydew and white flowers underneath. The palate shows a somewhat richer texture than normal at this very young stage, with flavors of lemon drop and key lime pie, and briny sea spray minerality. A sweet, tangy lemongrass note lingers on the long, textured finish. Drink now and over the next few years.
  • Production: 1350 cases.

2019 ROUSSANNE

  • Production Notes: Roussanne yields recovered from the exceptionally low levels we saw in 2018, and the 1300 cases we made as a varietal wine was double what we were able to make the year before. But the larger quantity didn't mean that the Roussanne was any less intense; to the contrary, it's some of the best, most classic Roussanne we've seen. We chose lots for our varietal bottling that came roughly 55% from foudre, 35% from neutral oak puncheons, and 10% in small new barriques. The selected lots were blended in April 2020 then aged in foudre through the subsequent harvest before bottling this past December.
  • Tasting Notes: A powerful nose of lacquered wood, new honey, brioche, and pear skin, instantly recognizable as Roussanne. The palate is broad and textured, with flavors of honeycomb and vanilla custard, pineapple core and a slight tropicality like a salted mango. A little sweet oak comes out on the long finish, with a mandarin pith note keeping the classic flavors of honey and pear fresh. The wine has only been in bottle for a few months, but it's already drinking well. Drink in the next 3 or 4 years for a more luscious, fruit-driven experience, or hold it for 8-15 years for a flavor profile of caramel, wet rocks, and hazelnut.
  • Production: 1300 cases

2020 DIANTHUS

  • Production Notes: For our Dianthus rosé, whose name was chosen for a family of plants with deep-pink flowers, we aim for a style between that of Tavel (deeper pink, based on Grenache) and Bandol (less skin contact, based on Mourvedre). This year's blend is 48% Mourvèdre, 37% Grenache and 15% Counoise, bled off or pressed off after 24-36 hours on the skins. Because of the relatively early finish to the 2020 harvest, we were able to get the wine fermented (all in stainless steel) and ready for bottling in late January. This is a deeply colored, flavorful rosé, ideal with complex, powerful foods.
  • Tasting Notes: A lovely orange-pink color. The nose shows powerful wild strawberry, mint, and pink peppercorn aromas. The palate shows lush texture, tangy yellow plum, and a powerful rose petal florality characteristic of Mourvedre rosés. It's luscious but also vibrant, with a hint of plum skin tannin keeping control over a finish with intense flavors of yellow raspberries, sweet herbs, and rose hips. A rosé to convert people who think that pink wines can't be serious.  Drink before the end of 2022.
  • Production: 1270 cases

2018 TANNAT

  • Production Notes: Our seventeenth bottling of this traditional varietal from South-West France, known principally in the Pyrenees foothills appellation of Madiran, but originally native to the Basque region. Tannat typically has intense fruit, spice, and tannins that produce wines capable of long aging. As we do many years, we blended in our small harvest of Cabernet Sauvignon, making the wine is 97% Tannat and 3% Cabernet. We aged it in one foudre and a mix of new and older smaller barrels for nearly 2 years before bottling it in April 2020, and then aged it another 10 months in bottle before release. 
  • Tasting Notes: On the nose, black cherry, wood smoke, Worcestershire sauce, sweet licorice and brambly spice. The mouth is dense and savory, with flavors of black licorice and eucalyptus, blackberry, black tea, and dark chocolate truffle. A lovely saline mineral note comes out on the finish with plum skin tannins and cedary spice. Relatively elegant and approachable for a Tannat at this stage. A wine to drink any time over the next two decades.
  • Production: 1280 cases

2018 LE COMPLICE

  • Production Notes: Just the third vintage of our newest red blend, which celebrates the kinship between Syrah (60%) and the wildly interesting grape Terret Noir (15%). Although Syrah is dark and Terret light, both share wild herby black spice, and Terret's high acids bolster Syrah's tendency toward stolidity. Le Complice means, roughly, "partner in crime". We added some Grenache (25%) for mid-palate fleshiness. The wine was blended in June of 2019, aged in foudre, bottled in April 2020, and has been aging in our cellars since.
  • Tasting Notes: A savory, herby dark nose of black pepper, pancetta, sweet tobacco, and sandalwood. On the palate, more vibrant than the nose suggests at this stage, with tangy black raspberry, smoky black tea, bitter chocolate, and a cranberry-like crunchiness that is refreshing and appealing. Good acids and youthful tannins suggest that the wine will drink well for two decades or more.
  • Production: 830 cases

2018 PANOPLIE

  • Production Notes: As always, Panoplie is selected from lots chosen in the cellar for their richness, concentration and balance, always giving pride of place to Mourvedre's lovely dark red fruit and distinctive combination of loam, earthiness, and meat. Each lot was fermented individually before being selected, blended and moved to foudre to age in July 2019. Although Mourvedre as always represents by far the largest percentage (64%) of Panoplie, in this relatively elegant, high-toned vintage, we preferred a relatively high percentage of Syrah (24%) for black fruit, density, and tannic richness and less Grenache (12%) for sweet spice and vibrancy. The wine was bottled in July 2020 and has been aging in our cellars since then.
  • Tasting Notes: A deep, lovely Beaucastel-like nose of dark red currant fruit, sweet Middle Eastern spices, pomegranate reduction, and a graphite-like minerality. The mouth is luscious but still vibrant, with flavors of dark cherry, blood orange, and chocolate cake with raspberry reduction. The wine has rich texture, with loamy earth, clove spice, and baker's chocolate. The finish lasted a full minute, reverberating between red and black licorice, with sweet spice lingering at the end. A delicious wine with a long life ahead; we predict two decades of life, easily.
  • Production: 850 cases

There are three additional wines (2019 Viognier, 2019 Marsanne, and the 2016 Esprit de Tablas Blanc) as well the 2020 Vermentino and two bottles of 2019 Roussanne in the white wine selection:

2019 MARSANNE

  • Production Notes: Marsanne is best known from the northern Rhone, particularly the famed appellation of Hermitage, where it produces wines of legendary elegance and ageworthiness. The 2019 vintage, for whatever reason, produced our most textured, Hermitage-like Marsanne ever, another indication that it was a tremendous vintage overall. We fermented it in the new 600-gallon foudres for a balance of richness and a little sweet oak, then chose the lots for our varietal bottling, returned it to large wood for a few more months, and bottled it in June 2020.
  • Tasting Notes: An intense Marsanne nose of Charentais melon,, sweet straw, lemongrass and citrus blossom. On the palate, sweet tropical fruit that reminded me of lychee and ripe kiwi. The finish showed white flowers and tropical honey, solid acidity, and lingering tropical fruit. I think this is the best Marsanne we've ever made, with the texture, fruit, and acidity all up a notch from what we normally see. It's so appealing now that I'm guessing a lot of it will get drunk young, but it should evolve in an interesting way for a decade at least.
  • Production: 340 cases

2019 VIOGNIER

  • Production Notes: Viognier, known more from the northern Rhone than the area around Chateauneuf du Pape, tends to thrive in cooler years. So, you might think that the intensity from the relatively warm 2019 vintage would have made Viognier unpleasantly heavy or floral. You would be wrong. Instead, the cool first half of the growing season appears to have emphasized its freshness, and with the grape's characteristic stone fruit and white flowers balanced by an unusual (for Viognier) citrus zest flavor and better-than-usual acids. As usual, we pressed our Viognier grapes whole cluster at harvest and fermented the juice in stainless steel, then selected lots for our varietal bottling in April 2020 and bottled in June 2020 in screwcap, to preserve its brightness.
  • Tasting Notes: On the nose, new honey, jasmine, and honeydew melon, held in check by tangier aromas of nectarine and citrus leaf. The mouth shows flavors of white peach and keffir lime, with a lively finish of coconut, chalky minerality, and a hint of citrus zest. Drink now and over the next five years.
  • Production: 480 cases

2016 ESPRIT DE TABLAS BLANC

  • Production Notes: We love Roussanne (and the Roussanne-based Esprit Blanc) with a few years in bottle to let the grape's classic honey flavors to deepen to show more crème brulée and nuttiness, and so stashed a few pallets of our 2016 Esprit Blanc on release for our White Wine Selection club members. The classic 2016 vintage was a tremendous one for Roussanne, and we ended our blending trials tied for the most Roussanne we'd ever used in the Esprit Blanc (75%, fermented and aged in a mix of small newer barrels and neutral foudres). 18% Grenache Blanc and 7% Picpoul Blanc provide citrusy acidity and saline freshness. We returned the blend to foudre after it was assembled in April 2017 and aged it through the subsequent harvest before bottling it in December 2017. It has been aging in bottle since then.
  • Tasting Notes: A classic Esprit Blanc nose of poached pear and honeysuckle, vanilla custard and chalky minerality. The flavors are starting to deepen to crème caramel, lemon meringue, baked apple, and just the first hint of hazelnut complexity. The wine's rich texture is kept in check with a hint of tannin likely from the Grenache Blanc, leaving a finish of honey, saline minerality, and sweet spice. Still young and powerful, but on its way to a future of nuttiness and minerality. Drink over the next few years, or cellar for a wonderful and different experience for up to two decades.
  • Production: 2070 cases

Two additional reds (the 2019 Counoise and 2019 Grenache) join the 2018 Panoplie, 2018 Le Complice, and two bottles of 2018 Tannat in the red wine selection:

2019 COUNOISE

  • Production Notes: Valued as a blending grape in France because of its spiciness, its fresh acidity, and its low alcohol, Counoise is rarely seen on its own. But we love being able to share one, and suggest you enjoy it much as you might a Cru Beaujolais: slightly chilled, with charcuterie or as an aperitif. We tend to ferment our Counoise lots in stainless steel to protect it from oxidation, and to age it in neutral oak to avoid weighing down its bright fruit flavors. The lots that we chose for our varietal Counoise were selected and blended in June 2020 and bottled in February 2021, under screwcap to preserve its freshness.   
  • Tasting Notes: Darker than many vintages of Counoise, the wine shows a nose of cranberry and clove-studded orange, spicy and lifted. The mouth is lively with flavors of raspberry and cherry, a sweet wintergreen note, and bright acids that smooth out into a spicy wild strawberry and red licorice finish. A pretty and intriguing wine that should be endlessly flexible with food. Enjoy it any time in the next six to eight years.
  • Production: 460 cases

2019 GRENACHE

  • Production Notes: Grenache yields were down sharply in 2019 as the grape suffered losses from shatter (incomplete fertilization) from cool, windy weather at flowering. But the Grenache that we received was lovely: intensely fruity but also more structured than it is in many vintages, with good acids and plenty of tannin. For our varietal bottling we as usual chose lots that emphasized Grenache's freshness and avoided riper lots that tend toward higher alcohols. The lots were blended in June 2020 and aged in neutral oak until its bottling in February 2021.
  • Tasting Notes: A wild, brambly nose showing raspberry liqueur, potpourri, and a sweet, exotic Chinese five spice note. The mouth shows cassis and fresh cherry, lively acids, and a finish of wild strawberries with notes of sweet red licorice, minty eucalyptus, and star anise. If you prefer your reds crunchy and vibrant, don't feel bad about opening it young. If you prefer to wait for more subtle flavors, drink any time in the next six-to-ten years.
  • Production: 455 cases

If you're a wine club member, you should make your plans to join us for our virtual pickup party. In these times of Covid, we aren't able to safely hold our normal shipment tasting at the winery, but Neil and I will lead people through a live tasting through the shipment the evening of Friday, April 16th. We'll have Chef Jeff Scott join us to share recipes. And we're even planning to offer packs of the six classic shipment wines rebottled into 187ml bottles so you can open the wines and taste along with us. We'll have details on our VINsider News & Updates page.

If you're not a wine club member, and you've read all this way, then why not join up, while there's still a chance to get this spring shipment? Details and how to join are at tablascreek.com/wine_club/vinsider_club

Spring 2021 Shipment Tasting Wines


Revisiting the 2001 Roussanne and the Beginning of the Tablas Creek Varietal Program

2001 Roussanne on Patio

The original model for Tablas Creek was that we were going to make one red wine and one white wine, with the thought that when the vineyard had matured, we might make a reserve-level white and red as well. We named our first wines Tablas Creek Blanc and Tablas Creek Rouge.

Within a few years, we'd come to the conclusion that this simple model was a mistake, for two reasons. First, it didn't give the market much help in figuring out what the wines were. Sure, the Rouge was red. And the Blanc was white. But other than providing elementary French lessons, that didn't help a consumer trying to figure out what was in those wines, or what they would taste like. In an era where blends from California didn't yet have a category on most shelves or wine lists, that was two strikes against us at the start. Second, and more importantly, having just one red and one white didn't give us any flexibility in putting the wines together. If using everything threw off the balance between the varietals, or a lot didn't have the character we wanted, our only option was to sell off those lots. That's a painful choice to make, and although we did it from time to time, usually the blends ended up containing something close to the full production of that color from that year.

Things started to change for us in 1999. We made the decision during the blending of that vintage to pull out a couple of Grenache lots that were juicy but also quite alcoholic and tannic from our main blend, blended them with a little Syrah and Mourvedre, and called the wine "Petite Cuvée". That allowed us to shift our main red blend to be heavier on Mourvedre and feature a richer, lusher profile. We called that "Reserve Cuvée".

The next year, we added a third blend from three remarkable barrels, called it Panoplie, and renamed the two blends we'd made the year before. Petite Cuvée became Cotes de Tablas, referencing the usually Grenache-based wines of Cotes du Rhone, while the Reserve Cuvée became Esprit de Beaucastel, connecting its Mourvedre-driven profile with that of Beaucastel and making our connection with our partners more explicit. And with the 2001 vintage, we applied that same model to the whites, making our first vintage of Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc. We were able to be selective with the Esprit tier, make better wines than before, and get recognition for that from press and collectors. We were able to sell the Cotes tier at a price that restaurants could pour by the glass, and get exposure to new customers. As I wrote last year in my reflections on our 30th anniversary, these changes were a big part of helping us get ourselves established in the marketplace. But as anyone who has counted the 25+ wines that we now make each year will realize, that's not the end of the story.

It turned out that each year there were some lots that were so evocative of an individual grape that it seemed a shame to blend that character away. The first time we acted on this nagging feeling was 2001, when my dad identified two Roussanne barrels while tasting through the cellar in advance of that year's blending. He made the executive decision that we should bottle them alone and we'd be able to figure out how to sell them. It was, after all, only 50 cases. And it turned out that with the opening of our tasting room in 2002, it was valuable having something that was not available in distribution for the people who made the trek out to see us, and even more valuable having a varietal bottling of this grape that was still new to most of our visitors, so they could start to wrap their heads around it. The label has my dad's typically dense, complete description of the selection process on its back:

TCV_2001_Roussanne_RGB_Full
And the wine itself has always been compelling. I have a vivid memory of a dinner I hosted in 2004 or 2005 where, when this 2001 Roussanne was opened on the other side of the room, the whole gathering stopped what they were doing and looked over because the room had filled with the aroma of honeysuckle. But it had been years since I opened one, and so I pulled a bottle out of our library yesterday to check in, and invited our winemaking team to join me. It was amazing.

2001 Roussanne on Limestone Rock

My tasting notes from yesterday:

A lovely gold color in the glass, still tinged with Roussanne's typical hint of green. The nose shows sugar cookies and lemon curd, warm honeycomb and cinnamon stick. On the palate, dense and lush with flavors of spun sugar and candied ginger. Someone around the table called it "liquid flan". And as sweet as all those descriptors make it sound, it was dry, with just enough acid to keep it fresh without taking away from the wine's lushness. The finish had notes of graham cracker, dried straw, and vanilla custard. Neil called it "an exceptional moment for an exceptional bottle".

With this wine as the starting point, we added new varietals most vintages in the 2000's, each time when we found lots that evoked the grape particularly vividly. Syrah, Counoise, Tannat, Grenache Blanc, and Vermentino debuted in 2002. Mourvedre, Viognier, and Picpoul saw their first vintages in 2003. Grenache came on in 2006, and Marsanne completed the list of our original imports in 2010. Once we started getting the obscure Chateauneuf du Pape grapes out of quarantine and into production in the 2010s, those made their debuts as varietal bottlings: Clairette Blanche and Terret Noir in 2013, Picardan in 2016, and Bourboulenc, Vaccarese, and Cinsaut in 2019. These wines have proven to be fascinating for us, and great tools to share the potential and diversity of the Rhone pantheon with our wine club members and other visitors to the winery.

But it all started here, in 2001, with two barrels of Roussanne. To know that two decades later that first-ever Tablas Creek varietal wine is not just still alive but a shining testament to the potential of this grape in this place is pretty darn cool.


After a Foot of Rain, the Green Comes Fast

Normally, early February is already notably green. In a typical year, we'd get our first rain in November sometime, with more every week or two through December and January. By this time, you'd expect it to look something like this photo below, taken in early February of 2019:

Green Scruffy Hill February 2019

Not so much, this year. You can see in the photos that I shared in my blog recapping last week's storm that it was almost entirely brown still in the vineyard. The roughly inch and a half of rain we'd received wasn't enough to germinate either the native seeds or the cover crop we'd planted. But with over a foot of rain last Tuesday through Friday, and mostly sunny weather since, the vineyard's transformation from brown to green is happening fast. Here are a few photos that will give you a sense. First, a shot looking up down and back up between two rows of Grenache Blanc toward the western part of the vineyard:

Crosshairs new Green

A little further west, in a head-trained Grenache block, a similar carpet is appearing:

IMG_6818
On a steeper part of the same vineyard block, you can see how we pull the Yeoman's Plow across the slope to slow the flow of water downhill and encourage absorption rather than surface flow:

Head trained vines with yeomans plow lines
A longer view of that same block shows the new green growth even more clearly:   

Crosshairs head trained new green

Despite our late start, I'm not worried that we'll miss out on a significant amount of the organic matter that the cover crops create. Even in a normal year, December and January aren't great months for cover crop growth, with their regularly below-freezing nights and short days. It's not until late February, as the days get longer and warmer, that the cover crop really gets going. But from here on out, I expect the view to change by the day. Annual plants in California are always in a hurry to take advantage of the rainy season to build root and leaf systems, create carbohydrates, and then go to seed, all before the summer's heat and dry conditions take over. The rain may have come a couple of months late, but the cover crops are going to look like they're trying to make up for lost time. And views like this last one, looking at the setting sun through our olive trees, are only going to get greener by the day.

Sunset Olive Trees and New Green

I look forward to sharing the ongoing transformation with you.