Grapes of the Rhone Valley: Vaccarèse

There's not much that's more fun for us here at Tablas Creek than getting to explore new, rare, and little-known grapes. So last year, when we harvested three grapes for the first time ever, was a bonanza for us. Two of these grapes (Bourboulenc and Cinsaut) are fairly well known in France, with Cinsaut even achieving enough success to have been brought to regions as diverse as Spain, South Africa, Australia and California. But much less is known about the last of the three new grapes, Vaccarèse. One of the rarest grapes in Chateauneuf-du-Pape appellation at just over 10 acres1, Vaccarèse accounts for just 0.3% of the appellation's acreage. There is little more outside Chateauneuf, with just 28 acres recorded in France as of 2016 and none, until we brought in ours, elsewhere in the world2. We've now picked two vintages of this grape, and while we don't know a ton yet, we're excited enough that I thought it would be fun to take a deep dive into what we have learned.

VACCARESE LithographEarly History
The grape Vaccarèse appears to have been named after the village of Vaccarès, in the Camargue region just south-west of Avignon. As Vaccarèse, it has a long history in the Rhone, with its first historical mention coming in 1538 as a grape planted in a village outside Avignon (coincidentally, in a document with one of the earliest-ever mentions of Bourboulenc too)3. As you would expect of a grape at least five centuries old, it's known by a few other names, with Camarèse (apparently named after another southern French village, Camarès) and Brun Argenté (which translates to "brown silvered" for its dark bark and silvery look of the underside of its leaves) being the two most common. Despite this long history, it does not appear to have ever been planted far from the Rhone Valley, or been a dominant grape even in its homeland.

Vaccarèse is pronounced vɒk-ɜ-rɛz. (vock-uh-rez). Even though it looks like an Italian word, the final "e" is silent. Like nearly all French words, the syllables are emphasized equally.

Vaccarèse at Tablas Creek
In our first round of grape imports, which we brought into quarantine in 1989 and were released in 1992, we focused on the main grapes at Beaucastel: Mourvedre, Syrah, Grenache, Counoise, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, and Viognier. Shortly after, we brought in Picpoul Blanc.

By 2003, we'd been sufficiently convinced that the more obscure Rhone grapes could shine here that we decided to import the complete Beaucastel collection, which meant another seven grapes. Terret Noir and Clairette Blanche were the first two to be released to us, in 2009. Picardan was next in 2012. Cinsaut, Bourboulenc, and Vaccarese were released in 2015, propagated, and then planted at Tablas in 2017. (Muscardin, the seventh and final of those grapes, was released to us in 2018 and grafted into the vineyard last year.)

We chose a small (0.66 acre) block with a west-facing slope at the far western edge of Tablas Creek for Vaccarèse, and harvested our first small crop in 2019.

Vaccarèse in the Vineyard and Cellar
There's not a ton of literature on Vaccarèse because of its scarcity, but in look and growth it seems similar to Counoise and Cinsaut, with large berries and large clusters, except that the colors of the berries are darker, more blue-black than the translucent purple of the others. It is reputed to be highly susceptible to bunch rot, which is not a problem in Paso Robles but may explain its scarcity in the Rhone.

In 2019 (our first harvest) we picked 2.61 tons of Vaccarèse at 22.4° Brix (roughly 13.8% potential alcohol), a pH of 3.50, and total acids of 4.76. The sugars were very near the median for our red grapes in 2019, while the pH was one of the lower (higher acid) readings we saw.

Vaccarese Cluster Square

In the cellar we were limited in our choices because we harvested so little, but we fermented it in a small stainless steel variable-capacity tank and then moved it to neutral barrels to complete its malolactic fermentation.

Although in the long run we're expecting Vaccarèse to become a part of our blends most years, we try to bottle new grapes on their own, so we can wrap our own heads around them and share them with our colleagues and fans. So it was exciting that in our blending trials this spring we were excited enough about the Vaccarèse that we think it will stand on its own proudly. We produced seven barrels, enough to bottle about 175 cases. The initial vintage will go into bottle late spring of 2021 and be released to wine club members later that year.

Flavors and Aromas
In his seminal Ampelographie, Pierre Galet praises Vaccarèse for "an indisputable aromatic floral originality, a very fresh and very elegant flavor, particularly interesting for moderating the alcoholic character of Grenache in the rosés of Chusclan and the red wines of Chateauneuf du Pape."4

My experience with Vaccarèse is limited to a single vintage, but that initial vintage reminded me more of a Loire-style Cabernet Franc than it did anything from the Rhone. It was a lovely deep purple color, with a nose of pine forest and minty juniper. The mouth showed notes of tobacco and spice, medium body, some tannic grip, and fruit flavors playing a secondary role. It seems like its dark color, solid acidity and its spice and herbal notes will be useful counterpoints to fruitier, paler, lower-tannin Rhone grapes like Grenache, Counoise, or Cinsaut, but we will see. As for the wine's ageworthiness? We have no idea. Stay tuned!

Footnotes (all highly recommended for those interested in further reading)

  1. Harry Karis, The Chateauneuf-du-Pape Wine Book, Kavino, 2009
  2. Kym Anderson and Signe Nelgen, Which Wine Grapes Are Grown Where, University of Adelaida Press, 2020
  3. Jancis Robinson, Wine Grapes, HarperCollins, 2012
  4. Pierre Galet, Cepages et Vignobles de France, Imprimerie Charles Dehan, 1990

The 2020 Harvest at its Midpoint: Yields, Intensity, and Pacing Much Like 2019

Sometime early last week, Neil walked into the office we share to report that we've hit the halfway point based on our projections. We're done with all our whites except Roussanne and Picpoul. Syrah and Cinsaut are all in, as is much of our Grenache. We're beginning to turn our attention to the late trio of Mourvedre, Roussanne, and Counoise. 167 tons in, I thought it would be a good time to step back and assess what we've learned so far. It seems appropriate to start with the requisite photo of bins all over the crushpad:

Crushpad Sept 2020

Another sign our harvest has hit the midpoint: we've completed the left column of our harvest chalkboard:

Harvest Chalkboard Sept 25 2020

With our early-ripening grapes complete, we have an opportunity to wrap our heads around the vintage's yields. Of the already-picked grapes, it looks like we're very close to the numbers we saw in 2019: Syrah, Viognier, Marsanne, Clairette Blanche, Picardan, Pinot Noir, and Syrah are all within 10% of their 2019 totals. We did see a little less Vermentino (down about 15%) and a little more of our new grapes that are now on their fourth leaf (Vaccarese, Bourboulenc, and Cinsaut). Overall, of the grapes we're done picking, our 2020 yields are 1.3% less than 2019. Given that 2019 finished at 3.02 tons per acre, nearly exactly at our ten-year average, and that other years right around 3 tons per acre read like a litany of our favorite-ever vintages (2003, 2007, 2014, and 2016, as well as 2019) that's encouraging.

It's even more encouraging that we've seen zero evidence of any smoke taint in the grapes we've harvested so far. That's consistent with our belief that the smoke that was here in August wasn't thick enough or around for long enough to cause damage, but it's still very good news. Our thoughts are with our neighbors in regions to our north who have been dealing with the fallout from earlier fires, and now have the Glass Fire to deal with. The photos I've seen are just heartbreaking.

The last couple of weeks have seen perfect ripening conditions, with days topping out in the upper-80s to mid-90s, and cool nights down in the 40s and 50s. It's supposed to warm up a bit this week, but nothing extreme, so it seems like we're going to roll right through the end of harvest uninterrupted. To figure out what comes next, we're sampling the remaining blocks on a near-daily basis. In the below photo, Vineyard Manager David Maduena has Roussanne and Grenache samples he's starting to crush to get a representative sample for measurement:

David sampling Roussanne and Grenache

I thought it would be fun to take a look at the main grapes that are still out in the vineyard, roughly in the order in which they're likely to arrive in the cellar. First, two photos of Grenache, which is likely to be all picked by the end of the week. I'll be sad, because it's always the most beautiful grape in the vineyard to photograph:

Grenache from Below Sept 2020

Grenache gemstones cropped

Next, Roussanne. We've made a few "cherry picks" of this notoriously uneven ripener, going in to get the ripest clusters off the healthiest vines while they still have good acids, while leaving the bulk of the fruit out for some more ripening time.

Roussanne Sept 2020
Mourvedre is likely to be our last grape picked, sometime in mid-October, but because we have so much of it planted it shows a range of ripenesses. We brought in our first Mourvedre lot last Wednesday, from a head-trained block at the extreme western edge of our property, but more of it looks like the below photo:

Mourvedre Sept 2020

We haven't harvested any Tannat, but we expect to start getting some into the cellar later this week. This photo, from a head-trained block in the middle of the vineyard, is looking terrific. It seems like all the head-trained, dry-farmed blocks are looking strong this year.

Tannat Sept 2020

Finally, Counoise. We did bring in just a little for our Dianthus rosé last week, but most of it just finished veraison and won't be in until mid-October. Perhaps you can see in this cluster why it was so prized as a table grape before the development of seedless grapes: the berries are large and juicy, with good acids:

Counoise Sept 2020

While there are still plenty of grapes out in the vineyard, there are more and more blocks that are done, like the Cinsaut vines below. Those will get another month or two of photosynthesis, to store energy for the winter.

Picked Cinsaut Sept 2020

Harvest even in a normal year can feel like it passes in a blur. You wait anxiously for its beginning. When it starts, it's often slow at first, and you're waiting for things to heat up. Then, you're in the thick of it, and suddenly you're on the downside. It seems like 2020, with its bending of time from the pandemic, has only increased this sense. At the end of this week, we'll be roughly two-thirds done, and in three weeks, likely finished. Meanwhile, we'll enjoy the sights and smells of a cellar full of grapes. We know that soon enough, we'll be washing equipment and putting things to bed for winter.


Syrah's Wild Ride in California, from Darling to Pariah... and Back

1971 California Grape Acreage Report CoverOne of the most interesting publicly-available resources on wine trends is the California Grape Acreage Report, prepared and released annually by the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service California Field Office. In it, you can find a complete data set by grape and by county going back to 1971 with what grapes were in production or newly planted, and where. It's really an amazing collection, and I've used it to write some of my favorite blogs, including all of the Grapes of the Rhone Valley series and maybe my favorite blog ever, A Tale of Two Grenaches, which uses this information to show how Grenache can be reaching new highs in quality and visibility even as overall Grenache acres have declined to a level one-fifth of what they were at their peak in 1974. (Here's what happened: about 2,000 acres of new high quality Grenache plantings went into coastal and mountain AVAs at the same time as roughy 18,000 of the 20,000 acres of bulk Grenache, no longer needed for jug wines, have been pulled out of the Central Valley.)

Syrah's story is similar, in that there are multiple trends going on at the same time, each affecting the grape's narrative. Let's take a look first at, overall, what's happened to Syrah since 1970. Essentially, there have been five eras.

1970-1988: Planting the First Few Seeds

Despite growing interest in the wines of the Rhone Valley, there really wasn't much going on with Syrah planting in California. From a base of four pre-1970 acres in the initial acreage report, there were some years where no Syrah was planted, others where a little was planted: an average of about 10 acres a year. The 24 acres planted in 1975 was the first significant addition to the state's total, planted by Gary Eberle at Estrella River Winery. This is the source of the famous Estrella Clone of Syrah, purportedly from Chapoutier cuttings, whose descendants populate most of the state's Syrah vineyards today. But by 1988 there were still just 167 acres of Syrah in total.

1989-1994: The Wave Builds

WineSpectatorRhoneRangerCoverIn the April 15th, 1989 issue of the Wine Spectator, Bonny Doon's Randall Grahm posed in Lone Ranger gear next to a horse to accompany a cover article on "The Rhone Ranger," and a category title was born. That year, California vineyard owners planted 72 acres of Syrah, more than double the largest previous yearly total. In 1990 that total jumped to 278, more than doubling the state's total to date. And the grape was off. The next five years saw an average of 213 acres of Syrah per year planted, bringing the state's total to 1308 by 1994. That put it on the map, but it was still a tiny percentage, 30th in that year's acreage report, its total eclipsed by grapes including Burger, French Colombard, Carnelian, and Alicante Bouschet. But this was the era in which Rhone wines started to get the press's attention. And it was the era where the importation of new clones (first, but not only, by us) began to open up options for the state's winemakers.

1995-2002: Explosion

Fast forward just eight years from 1994 and Syrah leapt from 30th in the state's plantings to 7th, trailing only the "big 5" grapes of Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, and Zinfandel, plus the declining but still plentiful French Colombard. Plantings averaged 2,210 acres per year, peaking at 3,515 acres in 1997. It went in everywhere, with 100+ acres in 19 different California counties. Eight counties had more than a thousand acres. Those counties could be found all over the state, and included Sonoma, all three Central Coast counties (Monterey, San Luis Obispo, and Santa Barbara), and four Central Valley counties (Fresno, Sacramento, San Joaquin, and Madera). Napa and Mendocino just missed, with 995 and 674 acres respectively. What do those counties have in common? Not much, other than that grapes are grown in all of them. And that, plus the sheer math of the number of grapes hitting the marketplace, sowed the seeds for a problem.

2003-2013: Recognition Comes, but Not Mass Market Sales

Unlike the earlier periods, it's hard to put firm dates on the beginning and end of this category, and some aspects of it remain in play today. But this period saw Syrah gain a reputation for being very hard to sell at the same time as the category got unprecedented praise from wine writers and saw the rise of the "cult" Rhone producer, many located in Paso Robles.

I feel like this era of recognition started with Robert Parker's first article on "California's Rhone Rangers", in February of 2002. In his introduction, he writes:

The noble Syrah grape has done so well so quickly in California that it is surely going to find a permanent place among California wine lovers. Remarkably adaptable, it has shown positive results in the cool hillside climates of the Sonoma Coast, the western hillsides of Paso Robles, and in exceptionally hot areas such as the valley floors of Napa, Sonoma, and Paso Robles. In both Santa Barbara and even the cooler satellite district of Santa Ynez, it has also done exceptionally well provided crop levels are modest. Syrah is capable of producing anything from a Beaujolais-like, bubble gum, fruity style of wine with light tannin, low acidity, and obvious pleasure and appeal, to more formidably concentrated, massive wines with high tannin, great intensity, and potential longevity.

Stories followed in other publications. The Wine Spectator began doing an annual review of California Rhones. More producers, and better wines, meant more high scores. Through the 2000 vintage, the Wine Spectator had given 143 California Syrahs 90+ ratings, and only one (the amazing 2000 Alban Pandora) hit 95 points. In the next decade, 1064 California Syrahs got 90+ ratings, and 69 were 95 or higher. A number of Rhone specialist wineries, most notably Alban, Saxum, and Sine Qua Non, used this recognition to build allocation-only mailing lists with long waiting lists, and dozens of other wineries, many of them our neighbors, followed the style and business model. 

But the sheer volumes of Syrah were never all going to be absorbed by a few (or even a few dozen) cult winemakers and their mailing lists. And by 2003, there was 2,360% more acreage in production than there had been a decade earlier. That increase was even more staggering in volume. In 1993 there were 1,905 tons of Syrah harvested in California. That's enough to produce about 120,000 cases of wine. In 2003, that total had grown to 110,249 tons, an increase of 5,687%. That tonnage, if all vinified into varietal bottlings, would produce nearly seven million cases of wine.

Did you notice something else interesting about that math? The tonnage grew faster than the acreage. In 1993, figuring that vineyards planted in 1991 and earlier would be in production, those 708 acres averaged 2.69 tons of fruit per acre. In 2003, and again figuring that any acreage planted 2001 or earlier would be producing, growers harvested an average of 6.60 tons of Syrah off of 16,694 acres.  

And Syrah's reputation took a hit. Inventories built up. Steve Heimoff, the Wine Enthusiast's California specialist at the time, asked What's the Problem with Syrah in 2009, where he reported hearing that selling it in the wholesale market was "like trench warfare". James Laube published a Wine Spectator article Why Isn't Syrah More Popular in 2010. Eric Asimov wrote that same year in the New York Times Is there still hope for Syrah? with the opening line: "There's a joke going around West Coast wine circles: What’s the difference between a case of syrah and a case of pneumonia? You can get rid of the pneumonia." The Rhone Rangers, doing their best to make lemons out of lemonade, turned the punch line into benefit tastings for global pneumonia prevention in New York and San Francisco, called Pneumonia's Last Syrah.

So, what caused this glut? There wasn't much new Syrah planting in this era, averaging just 250 cases per year statewide. And because some vineyards started to be pulled out or grafted over, there were only about 1,000 more Syrah acres in California vineyards in 2013 than there were a decade before. Sure, there were the challenges that Syrah is a flexible, adaptable grape and tastes different depending on where it's grown and the winemaker's preference. The entry into the American marketplace in this era of lots of cheap Australian Shiraz probably didn't help. And because it was so widely planted, it didn't have a signature region whose name was synonymous with the grape the way that Napa is with Cabernet. But those explanations all feel incomplete to me, not least because you can make many of the same critiques about a range of other successful grapes.

No, I think it came down to a simple question of math. There was so much more wine in a decade that the American Syrah market would have to have grown 50% per year, every year, compounded, to absorb all the extra production. Not even the dry rosé market, the success story of the last decade, has done that. The grape also suffered a little bad luck, in that right as Syrah seemed poised to take off in the fall of 2004, the movie Sideways came out, launching Pinot Noir sales into the stratosphere. Merlot is often mentioned as the main casualty of Pinot Noir's rise, but I think Syrah was equally a victim, as Pinot sucked all the promotional air out of the room.

The net result was that although Syrah sales rose rapidly through the 2000's, they had an impossible task to keep up with production, and inventory built up. How impossible a task? Look at the exponential math. If Syrah sales had grown by 30% per year, compounded over a decade, they would have ended up just under fourteen times what they were at the beginning of that decade. That would have absorbed just one quarter of the growth in production coming from all those new Syrah acres. Plus, it's not like there was this massive global production of Syrah that this American production could displace or be absorbed into. In 1990, there were only about 80,000 acres of Syrah worldwide, compared to 700,000 acres of Grenache, 300,000 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, or 380,000 acres of Merlot. The increases in Syrah were always going to be harder to find homes for. Really, it was never going to be possible.

California Syrah plantings and acreage by year 1970-2019

2014-2019: An Under-the-Radar Renaissance

The last half-decade or so has seen California acreage of Syrah decline by about 20%, as growers who planted it in the Syrah wave move on to the next popular grape. But Syrah is still being planted. Over the last six years, California has averaged 716 acres of Syrah pulled out, and just under 100 new acres planted, per year. As of 2019, there are 15,458 acres of Syrah in the state. Last year, those acres produced 82,846 tons of fruit. That's 5.36 tons per acre, a meaningful decline of about 20% from that 6.60 tons/acre at the tail end of the planting boom.

What is happening now is complex, and still evolving, but it appears to me that the Syrah is coming out of places it probably shouldn't be anyway. There are about 1,300 fewer acres of Syrah in the Central Valley than there were in 2013. That's almost all low quality, high production acreage. And while this evidence is mostly anecdotal, in coastal and mountain appellations, it has mostly been pulled out of the vineyards of generalists rather than Rhone specialists. The producers that we speak to who are growing their own Syrah for their own programs aren't pulling vines out. It's vineyards that are producing grapes for the open market. Are there some negative implications for less inexpensive Syrah up for grabs in the state? Sure. But I think the positives outweigh them.

I also think that the state of California Syrah has never been stronger. And who doesn't love a good comeback story? Eric Asimov wrote about A New Chapter for California Syrah last year. Matt Kettmann, who has taken over reviewing the wines of the Central Coast for Wine Enthusiast in recent years, has been at the forefront, not least because he tastes so many great Syrahs. I'll let him have the last word, from a podcast interview he recorded in 2018, which more or less mirrors my own thoughts.

The one thing I will say, though, is that Syrah, and especially cool climate Syrah is kind of a favorite wine for many winemakers, for many sommeliers, for many wine professionals. People can’t get enough of it. So as the American wine customer gets more and more educated over the years, I wouldn’t be surprised if you see them shift in that direction too.

We're not yet at "Syrah is back!" phase. But with it increasingly being planted in the right places, by people who are Rhone specialists or at least Rhone lovers, with most of the vines now getting to 20+ years old, making some of California's most highly-rated and most sought-after wines, and with some of the pressure being released by 20% less acreage in production and another decade for the market to develop, I feel like Syrah can finally get past its reputation as a failed "California's next big thing" and go back to doing what it's always done best: appealing to those of us who want meat, and spice, and wildness in our wines just as much as we want fruit and tannin. That may not be a mainstream flavor profile, but at 3.2% of the state's total acreage, that's OK. It doesn't need to be.

Harvest Syrah 2015


2020: The Year Climate Change Got Real for American Wine

As I write this, I'm staring out at a dim, yellow landscape, the indistinct sunlight filtered through a thick layer of atmospheric smoke. I have a sweatshirt on because the day has never really warmed up here in town. We had a couple of days this past week, prime ripening season in Paso Robles, where it barely made it out of the sixties. A photo, no filter applied:

Harvest Apocalypse

We're not really complaining; as apocalyptic as it looks, the air has been cool and fresh at the surface, and we got a chance to catch up on harvesting after what was a scorching hot previous weekend. And plenty is ready. Pretty much all our Syrah. The Vermentino and Marsanne. Our first lots of Grenache Blanc. The smoke has reduced actual temperatures from model forecasts by some 20 degrees, and if we'd had the mid-90s weather that was forecast for this week, it's possible that new blocks would have ripened before we could get through the backlog that the last heat wave produced.

This smoke layer, driven by the fact that six of California ten largest fires ever are currently burning, is only the most recent of a series of unprecedented things we've seen in the 2020 growing season. A week ago, we had a heat wave that crested with back-to-back-to-back days that topped out at 109, 113, and 111. The Paso Robles Airport broke its all-time high with a 117 reading. And San Luis Obispo hit 120°F, which appears to be the highest temperature ever recorded in a coastal zone anywhere in North or South America.

Last month, we saw a trio of fires in the Central Coast produce so much smoke at the surface that we closed our tasting patio for four days because the air quality was so bad. On August 20th, San Luis Obispo had the worst air quality in the world. Those fires were sparked by a surge of tropical moisture, the remnants of Tropical Storm Fausto, that moved up the California coast and produced thousands of lighting strikes on August 14th and 15th. The fires lit by those lightning strikes were fueled by another heat wave that pushed temperatures over 105°F each day between August 15th and 18th.

Paso Robles is hot in the summer. Summer days over 100°F have never been rare here. But the increased number and distribution of these days, the fact that records are falling more often, the earlier and earlier beginnings to harvest (and the shorter durations between veraison and harvest), and finally the new, tropical-influenced rainfall patterns, are new. A few data points that I look at:

  • Over our first 15 vintages, 1997-2011, we started our estate harvest in August 40% of the years. Since 2012, we have done so 78% of vintages. Similarly, in those first 15 years, there were six times we harvested into November, and another four that finished October 28th or later. Over the last 8 years, we haven't once harvested in November.
  • It's not just harvest. This year's gap between veraison and harvest was just 35 days, breaking our record of 36, set in both 2016 and 2019. Before that, the record was 39, in 2015). 2013 was the first year that we saw 40 or fewer days between veraison and harvest. So, in less than a decade, we've seen this critical ripening period shrink by 15%. Crucial growing periods are getting hotter. 
  • Our total growing season degree days, a rough measurement of the number of hours in which it's warm enough for grapevines to photosynthesize efficiently, shows that since 2000, our five warmest years have all come since 2012.

All those data points are indicative, but none of them are likely to on their own pose much of a threat to winemaking here in Paso Robles. But they feed into two phenomena that do: droughts and fires. I'll address droughts first. I wrote a 3-part blog series back in 2014 about our move toward dry farming as a part of being ready for what seems likely to be a drier future. In the research for that, I looked at EPA projections for rainfall showed that, depending on our success in reducing emissions, coastal California would see between 20% and 35% less precipitation annually by the end of the 21st Century:

Southwest-precip-change

That research has since been reinforced by studies of warming in the Pacific Ocean, which will have a complex series of consequences, including increased rainfall in places like northern Australia, the Amazon, and Southeast Asia, but less rainfall (and a later onset of the rainy season) in coastal California. This suggests that droughts, particularly the multi-year droughts like the one we saw between 2012 and 2016, will become more common.

Next, fires. It's not like California is a stranger to fires, but severe ones are definitely happening more often. I moved out here in 2002. The first time after that there was any smoke here was July 2008, when I wrote in a blog that two big fires to our north had burned some 73,000 acres in three weeks. (Note that that figure seems almost quaint now, with the horrific Creek Fire east of Fresno burning 160,000 acres in the first four days.) The second fire I noted in the blog was in 2016. Except for 2019, we've seen scary fires in California's wine country each year since then, and 2020 has already seen the most acres burned on record:

The fires are driven by a number of factors, including higher temperatures, lower humidities, poor utility maintenance, human encroachment into wildland areas, and accumulated fuel in the forests after a century of fire suppression. All of these encourage fires to be bigger, faster-growing, and more destructive than before. But what has set the worst ones off in recent years has been climate-related: either through dry winds spurring (and spreading) fires through downed power lines in periods before it has rained in California, or by tropical moisture that has sparked summer lightning.

The fires that impacted Northern California in 2017 and 2018 were produced by late-season (October and November) windstorms that spurred fires from an aging electrical grid. This is largely a governmental and regulatory failure. But while these windstorms aren't new, and don't particularly appear to be a function of climate change, thanks to climate change the time of year when these storms are common is more likely to still be summer-dry. That is why the climate change-driven later onset to the rainy season is a significant contributor to the number and severity of fires.

2020's fires in California have been different. The storms this summer that produced the first series of wildfires were driven by tropical moisture that was pulled into California. A warming climate produces more and larger tropical storms and hurricanes. 2020 has already seen so many tropical storms that I've begun to read articles about how NOAA might run out of names. The direct impacts of tropical storms and hurricanes on California are rare: minor compared to their impacts in the Atlantic or the Gulf of Mexico. But the more of these storms that form, the greater the chance that tropical moisture can end up in unexpected places. These occasionally produce enough moisture to provide some short-term fire risk reduction (such as the July 2015 storm that dropped more than two inches of rain on us) but more often produce extensive lightning with only limited moisture. These sorts of storms introduce extreme fire risk. 

The combination of warmer days, dryer (and later-beginning) winters, and more frequent incursions of summer tropical moisture has combined to produce drastically more days with very high fire risk.

So, what to do? That's the hard part. Most of the response has to come at the governmental level. Investments need to be made to modernize utilities. Forest management practices could be improved to reduce the amount of fuel that builds up. Cities, counties, and states should adopt growth plans that reduce the human/wildland interface as much as possible, both to reduce the opportunities for fires to start and to minimize the loss of life and property when they do. But ultimately, if climate change itself goes unaddressed, all these initiatives (none of which are easy or likely to come without resistance) are likely to be overwhelmed by the growth in the number of extreme fire days and fast spread of fires that do start.

Here's where regenerative agriculture comes in. One of its tenets is that agriculture has an important and necessary role in the reduction of greenhouse gases (and especially Carbon Dioxide) in the atmosphere. And plants, after all, are the best engines we have in doing so, since photosynthesis uses CO2 as one of its inputs, turning that carbon into carbohydrates. But modern farming produces more emissions than the plants it grows consume. Some of that is the fertilizer, derived mostly from petrochemicals. Some of that is the fuel for the tractors and other machinery. And some of it is the processing of the agricultural products.

Regenerative agriculture leads the way toward building carbon content in the soil, through a combination of permaculture, cover crops, reduction in tillage, and the replacement of chemical inputs with natural ones like compost or manure. Soils with more carbon content also hold more moisture, which will help California wineries weather the droughts too. We showed in the application process for our new Regenerative Organic Certification that it was possible to increase our soil's carbon content while growing grapes even in a dry climate like Paso Robles.

Regenerative farming is not just for wineries. It's what all farms, from row crops to orchards to fibers to livestock, should be moving toward. But vineyards offer some of the lowest-hanging opportunities for better farming, because wine is a value-added product with the resources to invest, and the investments tend also to make higher-quality grapes and longer-lived vines, providing return on the investments.

I can't imagine how California, Oregon, or Washington wineries can live through the 2020 vintage without worrying about how climate change might impact their future. A small silver lining could be encouraging more of that community to move toward regenerative farming. Consumers have a role to play here too. Before this year, there wasn't an available standard for moving to, measuring, and being audited for being regenerative. Now, with the launch of Regenerative Organic Certification, there is. If your favorite wineries are not farming regeneratively, you should be asking them why not. It's one of the tools we as farmers have to take some control over what is likely to be an increasingly volatile and dangerous future that might look like last week a lot more often than any of us would want. 

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Grapes of the Rhone Valley: Cinsaut (aka Cinsault)

Last year, we harvested three grapes for the first time ever. The one white among them (Bourboulenc) has already been bottled and released to our wine club members. The two reds (Cinsaut and Vaccarese) are sitting quietly in the cellar after our decision this spring to bottle this first vintage on its own. But as we get ready to pick the 2020 Cinsaut, I thought it was time to take a deep dive into what we know about it. 

CINSAUTEarly History
The precise origin of Cinsaut (often spelled Cinsault) is unknown, but it likely evolved in the south of France. It is distantly related to Picpoul, and has been planted widely enough to be known by different names in Spain (Sinsó), Italy (Grecaù and Ottavianello), South Africa (Hermitage), Australia (Black Prince), and California (Black Malvoisie). As Cinsaut, it also plays significant roles in Lebanon, Morocco, and Turkey.1

Cinsaut is pronounced sæ-soʊ. The first syllable is like the "San" in San Francisco if you just stop just before the lingual "n". The second syllable is very close to the English "so". The syllables are emphasized equally.

The roughly 51,000 acres of Cinsaut in France make it the ninth-most-planted grape there, but that is just a fraction of the more than 120,000 acres there at its peak in the 1970s. Now, while much of the production is still used in red blends, an increasingly large share of this acreage goes into the region's many rosés.

Cinsaut is the fourth-most planted red grape in the Chateauneuf-du-Pape appellation (a distant fourth, after Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre) at 205 acres, 2.6% of total acreage.2

There is a long history of Cinsaut in California, though it has never been particularly widely planted here. As early as 1867, it was listed as "deserving of planting" in Thomas Hyatt's viticulture handbook.3 In 1990, there were 90 acres in California (it was called "Black Malvoisie" in the Grape Acreage Report), all but 3 planted 1980 or earlier and all but 10 in the Central Valley. By 2019, there were 99 acres in California, split roughly equally between the Central Valley, Central Coast, North Coast, and Sierra Foothills regions.

Cinsaut at Tablas Creek
Although French grapegrowers have generally preferred Cinsaut over Counoise (to which it is often compared, because they play similar roles in Rhone blends) because it ripens earlier, the Perrins have long preferred the extra depth and brighter acids that Counoise contributes. Given our confidence that we could wait as long as we needed to ripen Counoise in Paso Robles, we chose to focus on Counoise in our original imports, back in 1989. But we always planned on eventually working with Cinsaut as well.

We included Cinsaut in our second wave of imports in 2003. It spent 9 years in quarantine at UC Davis before being released in 2012, along with Bourboulenc and Vaccarese. It took four years of propagation before we were able to plant our first quarter-acre block in 2017. The 2019 harvest was our first.

We added a second roughly half-acre head-trained block in 2019. The 0.82 acres we have accounts for 1% of California's 82 acres as of 2018.

Cinsaut in the Vineyard and Cellar
In the vineyard, Cinsaut is vigorous and productive, with large clusters of large, dark-skinned berries. It thrives in drought conditions, and ripens roughly one-third of the way through the harvest cycle. In 2019 (our first vintage) we harvested on September 26th, at 22 Brix and a pH of 3.64, both near the median for our red grapes last year.

We only have limited experience with Cinsaut in the cellar, but it is known to be prone to oxidation, so we are treating it like Counoise and fermenting it in closed stainless steel fermenters.

We made the decision to bottle our small 2019 production (two barrels, or roughly 50 cases) on its own. In the long run, we think it could be a useful contributor to many of our red blends, and a lovely addition to our rosés.

Cinsaut 1

Flavors and Aromas
Cinsaut produces wines with medium red color, spicy raspberry, violet, and black tea aromas, and flavors of tart cherry, redcurrant, and new leather. They tend to be relatively low in alcohol, with moderate to slightly above-average acidity and moderate to slightly below-average tannins. The wine's juicy acidity and low alcohol point to its appeal in blends, where it can help moderate the lower-acid, higher-alcohol, and more tannic Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre.

We are very much looking forward to experimenting with Cinsaut as a rosé grape as well. Stay tuned!

Footnotes (all highly recommended for those interested in further reading)

  1. Jancis Robinson, Wine Grapes, HarperCollins 2012
  2. Harry Karis, The Chateauneuf-du-Pape Wine Book, Kavino, 2009, p 78
  3. Patrick Comiskey, American Rhone, UC Press, 2016, p 26

Harvest 2020 Begins Slowly, After a Record-Short Interval from Veraison

Last week, we brought in our first two lots of Viognier and our first lot of Syrah. It wasn't a furious start to harvest, but it was still a beginning. The cellar smells like honeysuckle and nectarines from the Viognier, there's the energy that always comes from the beginning of the harvest season, and the harvest chalkboard is no longer a literal clean slate:

Harvest Chalkboard August 2020

[Editor's note, congratulations to Senior Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi and her husband Trevor on the arrival of their little girl Bohdi on our second day of harvest!!!]

We typically mark the beginning of harvest as the day the first fruit comes off the estate. So, in 2020 that meant the August 25th arrival of grapes from our oldest Viognier block. In my verasion post last month, I predicted a start time sometime between August 26th and September 5th. These dates are calculated by adding 36 to 48 days from our veraison date (the range we've seen over the last 15 years between first veraison and first harvest). 2020 produced an interval of just 35 days. If you've been following weather reports from California, you can probably guess why. After a moderate summer that had produced just three 100 degree days as of late July, the last month has seen ten days top the century mark and another ten top 90. Nighttime temperatures were warm too. In late July we hadn't had a single day all summer not drop into at least the 50s. Between August 15th and August 24th, we had nine of the ten nights get down only into the 60s.

Happily, the heat wave broke just as harvest was approaching, and since August 22nd we've seen an average high of 90 (with nothing higher than 95) and an average low of 55. The wildfire smoke we saw between August 19th and 22nd has cleared. And the picks we've done so far have been in ideal conditions. I love the photos that Viticulturist Jordan Lonborg took during that night pick, beginning 3am on August 25th. Here are two; you can see the rest on our Instagram feed:

Night Harvest 1 Night Harvest 2

Although we've started harvesting, it's important to remember that most of the vineyard is still some time off. The family of Rhone grapes is diverse enough that we typically figure a two-month stretch for harvest. In fact, there are some grapes that are still only in the middle of veraison (like this Counoise, below) as others are being picked:

Counoise pre-harvest 2020

Looking through our other red grapes shows the range of ripeness levels. Counoise is farthest out, likely six weeks or more, but others still have a ways to go. This Mourvedre is mostly red, but still likely won't be picked for more than a month:

Mourvedre pre-harvest 2020

Grenache is still as much pink as red, with the range of colors and jewel tones characteristic of this, our most beautiful grape. It too is at least a month out.

Grenache pre-harvest 2020

There are grapes that are getting close, most notably Syrah, already dark and starting to soften, and showing its classic conical cluster shape:

Syrah pre-harvest 2020

The other grape that is getting fairly close is Cinsaut. We're only on our second harvest, but one of the reasons why it is more planted than Counoise in France (despite that Counoise is more intense, and they serve similar roles in most blends) is that it ripens a month earlier, before or with Grenache instead of after:

Cinsaut pre-harvest 2020

Finally, Terret Noir, which looks fairly dark at this point but is still quite acidic, and on which we will wait another month or so:

Terret pre-harvest 2020

On the white side, Viognier is obviously first in line. But there are others like Vermentino, Marsanne, and Grenache Blanc (pictured below) that are getting close. Vermentino might come as soon as the end of this week, and the other two should arrive sometime in the first half of September.

Grenache Blanc pre-harvest 2020

The weather is supposed to warm up again as we get to the end of this week, but seems unlikely to reach the heights of two weeks ago. That's fine. We're ready. Meanwhile, we'll enjoy the new sights and smells of the cellar as fermentations get going. This lone upright tank (filled with our first Syrah, picked Friday) will soon have plenty of new company.

Syrah in wooden upright Aug 2020


Wineries -- and visitors -- should expect months of recurring periodic closures to tasting rooms

Yesterday, our tasting room was open all day for the first time since Thursday, August 13th. We're open again today, and conditions are lovely. Tomorrow looks pretty safe. After that, well, we'll have to see. At least the heat wave that forced us to close most of last week has moved on, but there are still big fires burning to our north, and whether we'll be able to open will depend on where that smoke goes. 

Welcome to 2020. Anyone waiting for things to go back to normal may be waiting quite a while. And I'm just not sure that wine lovers -- or wineries -- have fully realized that this uncertainty is likely to be the norm, rather than the exception, for tasting room operations over the next six months and more. For our part, I'm fully expecting that we'll have to be closed at least one day a week, on average, over the next six months. Why?

First, and most importantly, COVID, which has meant that wineries in California are restricted to outdoor service only. I agree that this is by far the safest way to open. In fact, even when we could have reopened indoors we restricted ourselves to outdoor service only, because the evidence is strong that the risk of COVID transmission is very low in distanced, outdoor settings, and higher in indoor spaces, even with distancing in place. Of course, being outside means you're at the mercy of the weather. But the virus itself is a source of uncertainty; we’ve already had a few instances locally of positive COVID cases at wineries, who have had to close for stretches to make sure their team and their spaces were safe.

It's not bad, most of the time, being outside in California. It's a big reason why people live here. And we got lucky that we had a moderate summer up until the last few weeks. But the climate that allows wine grapes to ripen is sunny and often hot. We do have some control; we installed extra shade, fans, and misters, and have found that with these measures we're able to lower the temperature roughly ten degrees. Plus, we're typically a little cooler than downtown or areas further east. And we do usually get a late afternoon breeze. But still, if it’s over 100, it’s not safe for our team or pleasant for guests. So, we close early and get people on their way before the heat of the day becomes blazing. We've had to do so eight days so far in August, including a six-day stretch between August 14th and 19th. Our average in Paso is a dozen 100+ days each summer. So expect at least a few more heat-related closures before fall.

The heat wave broke late last week. Unfortunately, we’ve got big fires throughout California, producing copious smoke. A few days ago we had the worst air quality in the world. At least with the heat, we could be open in the mornings. We typically took our last appointments at noon each day. That’s a little less than half our capacity, but it’s a lot better than nothing. But with air conditions unsafe, we couldn’t open at all August 20th, 21st, and 22nd. This dramatic satellite image shows the smoke blanketing much of California late last week:

The primary culprit for our smoke is the River Fire in Monterey County to our north, which has burned some 48,000 acres since it was started by a cluster of lightning strikes a week ago. But there are fires burning all over California right now, with other big ones in Sonoma, Napa, and Santa Cruz. And I think there’s every reason to expect these to be burning for months.

Typically, wildfires in California’s forests burn until they are put out by the onset of the rainy season in early winter. Our state’s remarkable firefighters are mostly tasked with protecting structures and making sure that the fires aren’t endangering communities. Once a big fire gets going, with the accumulated fuel from California’s winter growth and exceptionally low summer humidity, it’s just too much to ask to put a fire out. And that’s true even when there are only a few fires burning. With dozens of big ones spreading resources thin, there’s no chance.

These fires were mostly started by lightning strikes from a rare summer thunderstorm week-before-last. We seem to have dodged the potential for more dry lightning overnight. But we’ve still got months before winter rains will end our fire season. Remember all those terrible California wine country fires in 2017 and 2018? Those were in October and November. It's still August. We've got a very long way to go.

Until then? We’re expecting to make day-by-day calls, informed by the local air quality, as to whether we can open for tasters. Most other California wineries will be the same. So if you’re thinking of going wine tasting, plan to check conditions. We'll be posting updates on our website each morning. If it looks like this, we won't be open. We appreciate your flexibility and patience, and promise you wouldn't want to be tasting here anyway.

Smoky skies over Tannat

The kicker? Once fire and summer heat season are over, it will be because of rain. Gentle rain can be handled with umbrellas and heaters. A Pacific storm, with heavy rain and wind? Wineries will have to close for those too. So get used to thinking about a visit to go wine tasting as like a visit to the beach. Sure, make your plans. But also plan to check local conditions in the morning. Welcome to the new (2020) normal.


“I want to do that” – An Interview with Josie Schneider, Two-Time Tablas Creek Cellar Intern

By Ian Consoli

This upcoming harvest is sure to have a different feel to it, because 2020. And change isn’t always a bad thing. But we were excited to build a little continuity by welcoming 2018’s harvest intern Josie Schneider back to Tablas Creek in a more expanded role. Yes, she’s here for harvest, but she’ll also be helping to fill in for some of the void that will be left while Senior Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi is out on maternity leave. (Congratulations, Chelsea!)

Few of us have a direct path into wine. Josie is no exception. But from the beginning, she was driven by the simple statement, “I want to do that.”

I was fortunate enough to sit down with Josie and hear her story of growing up in Chile on an abalone farm, her experience in beekeeping, and her journey into the cellars of Paso Robles. Read on to learn more about Josie. I’m sure you’ll enjoy getting to know her a little.

Who are you?

Josie: That’s actually a really deep question to start with. I’m Josie Schneider and I am the intern for the 2020 harvest at Tablas Creek. I worked here for the 2018 harvest, did a year at a different winery, and now I'm back. I'm super excited.

Josie on a barrel

Before we dive deeper into you returning, let's get to know you a little bit more. Where did you grow up?

J: I was born in Santiago, Chile. When I was young we moved to La Serena, a little town north of Santiago, where they started an abalone farm. So I grew up on an abalone farm, helping my dad. I lived there until I was 18 and then moved to California to go to Cuesta College, transferred to Cal Poly [San Luis Obispo], and I've been on the Central Coast for seven years.

How did you go from abalone farm to wine?

J: My dad has been abalone farming for about 30 years in Chile, but I never thought I would do anything with it. So I studied parks and recreation, sports management at Cal Poly. I didn’t know if I wanted to work in that field, but I knew I really liked sports and it was a broad education. While there I had a couple of friends that worked at wineries, and my girlfriend, Megan, was an enology major at Cal poly. What they were doing looked super cool, so I was like, I want to do this.

How did you end up working your first harvest at Tablas Creek?

J: My dad and [Winemaker] Neil [Collins] went to college and lived together in Cayucos, CA. I contacted Neil and told him I wanted to work with cider or wine or any fermentation. He happened to be looking for a harvest intern for Tablas Creek so I did an interview and got the job.

It’s not too common for us to bring an intern back for a second round. How did that come about?

J: The last two years I've gone to Northern Patagonia from December to March to help my dad with his beekeeping program that he started about five years ago. At the end of the honey harvest Neil contacted me and mentioned that [Senior Assistant Winemaker] Chelsea is having a baby and they have a lot of work to do at the winery, and he offered to hire me in June. I was super stoked on the opportunity to learn what happens in the cellar before harvest. I have gotten to do a lot of bottling and kind of prepping for fruit to come in.

Do you have any special rituals during harvest to make it through the long days and the hard work?

J: I do. I wake up pretty early in the morning and make myself a tea or coffee and a big breakfast. I lay in bed for a little bit eating breakfast, drinking tea, looking at the news on my phone. It kind of wakes me up. I get to do everything that I want before I have to rush to work and get the day started. You don't know how long your day is going to be. So I like to have that little time before work to hang out and do my thing.

What is the toughest harvest you have ever participated in?

J: I would say definitely my first harvest. This is only my third so my first harvest was here. Tough in a good way, really challenging. Working harvest here, you really have to use your brain, be fast, and just get things done. Definitely a challenge; overcoming being tired all the time, working long hours, it was like this world that I had never seen before. And it was really, really a great experience.

Here you are back for round three.

J: I love it. I'm addicted.

Josie on a Forklift

What’s your ultimate goal in cellar work? Where do you want it to take you?

J: Just getting comfortable with everything that happens. Not comfortable in a way that you become stagnant, but comfortable in the sense of being sure of what you're doing. Knowing how things work and getting to know the wines better. I want to get that full cycle of like, okay, we do this when this wine is doing this or it's at this stage and really learning how to work with the wine.

If a genie said you could be head winemaker anywhere you wanted in the world, where would you pick?

J: Can I start my own? I would start a winery in Santa Cruz, Chile, one of the bigger wine regions. I would have a really cool organic, maybe biodynamic, vineyard with bees and animals on the property. It's like 40 minutes away from probably the best surf spot in Chile, [redacted]. It’s an incredible coastline with every kind of wave you would want. So being 40 minutes away from the best wave in Chile, which is saying a lot because Chile he has good waves, being able to start a winery, and making wine would be insane. A total dream.

Are there any wineries in Chile that you consider a favorite?

J: It’s kind of hard to taste there. You have to get an appointment, it's expensive, and they're all really huge wineries. I haven't really been to any small wineries. Clos Apalta is a winery that Megan and I went and toured. We went down into the caves and did a little tasting. I'm hoping this year to go tour the area and get to know Author Wineries (Vines de Autor, a category of winery that's really small, family owned and pretty underground). You really need to find them and get to know the people around the area to get a tasting. That’s the goal for this year. So put a pin on that question. When I come back next year, maybe I’ll have some names.

Best bottle of wine you ever had?

J: That's really hard. Oh my gosh. I mean, Tablas Creek is pretty good! Best bottle I had recently was the Seven Springs Chardonnay from Evening Land up in, I think it's an Oregon. Weston from Bristols [Cider] shared that bottle of wine with us. And I was loving it. It was exactly like what I want from a Chardonnay. Nice and bright and delicious.

What’s next for you?

J: Short term, my dad and I have been talking about the honey harvest in Chile. We’re starting to work on our queen rearing program. The apiaries are on an Island, and there weren’t honeybees on the island before we brought them in so we have full control over the hives. By finding our best genetics in all of our apiaries and creating good queens we won't have to buy queens and risk bringing in, disease, Varroa [a parasitic mite that infests bee colonies], or other things that can be harmful to the colony. We don't use pesticides and we want to get to a point where we don't have to treat for disease either.

Josie leaning against a press

Are you doing any bee work with our viticulturist Jordan Lonborg while you are here?

J: Yeah, we have four hives right now and we're just kind of figuring out how we want to organize them. They’re starting to fill up with honey. It's been fun to work with the top bar hives as well. You don't have a foundation so they just layer all of their wax and its super cool to see.

How are you balancing cellar work and bee work?

J: You only check the bees every 10 days and four hives takes about 30 to 45 minutes to check. So whenever we have a little extra time on a Friday or Thursday we check on them.

Would you rather:

 

Cake or pie?

Cake

Breathe under water or fly?

I’m a surfer, so breathe under water. It's just classic.

New world or Old world?

Right now? Old world.

Winemaker or a viticulturist?

Winemaker. Ideally I'd like to do both, but right now that's my main focus; so for now focus on the closer goal, which is wine making.


Introducing Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC): Farming Like the World Depends on It

By Jordan Lonborg

In February of 2019, Tablas Creek was approached by Elizabeth Whitlow (Executive Director of the Regenerative Organic Alliance) to see if we would like to take part in a pilot program of a new approach to farming called Regenerative Organic. It was clear from the organizations behind this effort, including the Rodale Institute, Patagonia, and Dr. Bronner’s, that this was going to be appealing, both inclusive of and yet more comprehensive than organic and biodynamic. I’ll let their Web site explain:

“Regenerative Organic Certified™ was established in 2017 by a group of farmers, business leaders, and experts in soil health, animal welfare, and social fairness. Collectively called the Regenerative Organic Alliance (ROA), our mission is to promote regenerative organic farming as the highest standard for agriculture around the world.”

At first, considering the fact that we are already certified organic and biodynamic, juggling a third certification was not the most exciting proposition for me. But as I began to dig through the ROC Framework and its requirements, it became clear that this was a certification that Tablas Creek Vineyard had to get behind and fully support. We accepted the invitation to be the only winery in the pilot and the ball started to roll.

Regenerative farming is a style of farming in which soil health and building that soil is the main focus. It is a term that was developed by Robert Rodale (the son of the legendary organic farmer J.I. Rodale) to “distinguish a kind of farming that goes beyond sustainable.” But as appealing as this sounds, there’s more: regenerative organic builds in requirements that participants also certify the humane treatment of any animals on the farm and that the farming crews are paid living wages, work in safe conditions, and understand their rights. Therefore, this certification incorporates three pillars; soil health, animal welfare, and social fairness.

The heart of Regenerative Organic Certified is the Soil Health Pillar. The property must be certified organic. Various regenerative farming tactics must be employed such as no-till farming (with few exceptions), cover cropping, incorporation of livestock and mob grazing (when animals are given a small area where they can completely graze that area in a short amount of time and then are moved to start the process over again), and creating habitat for pollinators and beneficial insects are a few of the recommended or required practices. Composting on-site is encouraged. Comprehensive soil tests showing that you’re maintaining or building carbon are a requirement, because one of the fundamental tenets of ROC is that farming can be and must be an agent for fighting climate change and reducing the use of nonrenewable resources. After all, their slogan is “Farm like the world depends upon it.”

Mushrooms growing on Compost pile Growth from biochar application


Because of the work we've been doing with biodynamics, there weren't many practices we needed to change or implement here. But the testing that we needed in order to show that we were building carbon content in our soils was tremendous validation that the way that we've been farming really is capturing carbon and building soils that match up well with the highest national and international standards. 

Jordy with AlpacaFor the Animal Welfare Pillar, like the Soil Health Pillar, ROC requires that livestock on the property are to be certified organic under USDA standards. The humane treatment of the livestock in all aspects of their life is a necessity. The health, nutrition, shelter (where applicable), protection, herding methods, handling methods, transport, and slaughter are all evaluated when applying to be Regenerative Organic Certified.

As is true with any pilot program, the goal is to incorporate new standards while providing feedback to help make those standards stronger and more consistent. By this measurement, the pilot program was a huge success. Both Tablas Creek and the ROA learned a great deal about which requirements within the pillars needed adjustments and which didn’t for vineyards. For example, the initial draft of the standards included an ironclad requirement for no-till farming. In the process of trying to achieve the “gold” ROC standard, we picked up a few more certifications along the way. Not only is the herd certified by CCOF, Demeter-USA, and Regenerative Organic, they are also certified by Animal Welfare Approved. I can assure you, this highly decorated flock is extremely proud of themselves at the moment and if you were to see them now you’d swear they looked a bit taller.

Flock of sheep in tall grass

What separates ROC from most other certifications is its Social Welfare Pillar. The dark side of agriculture in today’s world is how farmworkers are treated. This certification addresses that situation head on. It ensures that the farmworkers, whether employed or subcontracted, receive a living wage, that they understand their rights, and that their working conditions are clean and safe. These are just a few examples of what is incorporated in the Social Fairness Pillar.  

We also received a certification from the Equitable Food Initiative. This group ensures the social welfare of the farmworker crews on the property. We all spent a week of intensive training together. These sessions lasted all day long and consisted of physical activities, team building skills, communication skills (both with each other and management), problem solving skills, and education sessions in which they and we together explored in detail their rights as farmworkers both individually and as a group. It was an extremely powerful week.

Vineyard Crew

Not all of the third party certifications that we obtained are necessary for achieving Regenerative Organic Certified. We took these extra steps in an attempt to obtain the highest level of the certification. For anyone who is reading this post and is interested in obtaining this certification for your operation, reach out to the ROA to determine where you are on the path to ROC and what certifications you will need.

Tablas Creek Vineyard has always been extremely proud of our organic and biodynamic certifications. That said, we have never felt that the certifications were ends in and of themselves. And there are pieces of both of those protocols that we think could be improved. Anyway, we farm the way we do because we feel that it is the right thing to do for the land and the people that work here. But this certification is different. It sends a powerful message to the wine industry, consumers, and our local community. It shows them that Tablas Creek is not willing to accept anything less than the very highest standard for our soils, our animals, and the welfare of the people who work here.

We are beyond proud to be the first vineyard in the world to be Regenerative Organic Certified and we fully believe that this certification can and will be the future of farming in all forms of agriculture!!    

A big thanks to the folks at the Rodale Institute, Patagonia, and Dr. Bronner’s for spearheading this movement! Keep farming like the world depends on it!!!


Tasting the Wines in the Fall 2020 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 wines that may see a later national release. Before each shipment, we reintroduce ourselves to these wines (which, in some cases, we may not have tasted since before bottling) by opening the full lineup and writing the notes that will be included with the club shipments. Yesterday I sat down with Winemaker Neil Collins and we dove into this fall's collection. For what we found, read on:

Neil and Jason after shipment tasting

We base each year's fall shipments around the newest releases of the Esprit de Tablas and Esprit de Tablas Blanc, and this fall's shipment is no exception. But there's a lot more to this fall's shipment than these two wines. We have a couple of (we think, really terrific) varietal wines, one red and one white, and two other smaller-production blends, again one each red and white. We think it's one of the most compelling shipments we've ever put together. I'm excited to get them in our members' hands soon.  

The classic shipment includes six different wines:

Fall 2020 VINsider Classic Shipment

2019 GRENACHE BLANC

  • Production Notes: The cool-then-warm 2019 growing season pushed yields a little below average, resulting in unusually small Grenache Blanc grapes that turned out to have both exceptional brightness and rich texture. For the varietal Grenache Blanc, we chose lots that were fermented in stainless steel (for energy) and foudre (for roundness), blended them in May 2020 and bottled the finished wine under screwcap in June 2020.
  • Tasting Notes: An intense Grenache Blanc nose of lemon curd, sweet green herbs, and crushed rock. On the palate, like a lemon meringue pie with the hint of graham cracker underlying the bright, luscious lemon. The finish is lovely and long, with a little pithy Grenache Blanc tannin coming out at the end. Drink now and over the next few years.
  • Production: 860 cases.
  • List Price: $30 VINsider Price: $24

2019 COTES DE TABLAS BLANC

  • Production Notes: Viognier is always the lead grape in our Cotes Blanc, and we balance Viognier's lushness with the elegance of Marsanne and the brightness of Grenache Blanc. In 2019, the Viognier (44%) already had nice acidity, so we chose to use more Marsanne (29%) to bring elegance and minerality, and a relatively low percentage of Grenache Blanc (19%), leaving more Grenache Blanc for our varietal bottling in this relatively scarce Grenache Blanc year. 8% Roussanne rounds out the blend and provides structure. The selected lots were blended in May 2020, and the wine was bottled in June 2020.
  • Tasting Notes: An elegant nose, with Marsanne seemingly at the fore right now: nectarines, lemongrass, honeydew, and a rich, wheaty element that Neil described as clean straw. The mouth is lovely, with flavors of peach pit, tangerine, and newly-mown hay drying in the sun. Lovely acids and sweet green herbs come out on the long, balanced finish. Drink now and for at least the next five years.
  • Production: 1540 cases.
  • List Price: $30 VINsider Price: $24

2018 ESPRIT DE TABLAS BLANC

  • Production Notes: For the second year in a row we incorporated two of our newest white grapes into the Esprit Blanc blend. Of course, Roussanne (66%, fermented in a mix of oak of various sizes and ages) still takes pride of place, but the different higher-acid, more mineral varieties (21% Grenache Blanc, 8% Picpoul Blanc, 3% Picardan and 2% Clairette Blanche) all add citrusy acidity and saline freshness. As we have done since 2012, we returned the blend to foudre after it was assembled in April 2019 and aged it through the subsequent harvest before bottling it in December 2019 and letting it rest an additional 9 months in bottle before release.
  • Tasting Notes: A lifted nose of orange blossom, honeycomb, and spicy pine nut. On the palate, the signature clean, precise elegance of the 2018 vintage, with flavors of baked custard, marmalade, and saline minerality, deepened by a little sweet oak. Then lively and juicy on the finish like biting into a fresh pear, complete with the little hint of pear skin tannin. A balanced, elegant Esprit Blanc that we expect to go out two decades, gaining additional nuttiness and complexity with time in bottle.
  • Production: 2315 cases
  • List Price: $45 VINsider Price: $36

2018 GRENACHE

  • Production Notes: Grenache was one of the stars of the cool 2018 vintage, producing lots with lifted fruit, lots of peppery spice, and a little tannic bite that suggests it will produce wines that can age gracefully. 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 2019 and aged in neutral 1200-gallon oak foudres until bottling in May 2020.
  • Tasting Notes: A nose of wild strawberry, allspice, brambly briar patch, and sarsaparilla root. The palate is generous with vivid cranberry fruit and all the elements of plum pudding, from creamy richness to the tangy baked plum and the bursts of plum skin tannin. Bright acids and youthful grippy tannins provide balance to the juiciness on the finish. We suggest you wait a few months for the tannins to integrate, then drink in the next few years for a crunchy and vibrant experience or wait six to ten years for a deeper, softer profile.
  • Production: 1160 cases
  • List Price: $35 VINsider Price: $28

2018 EN GOBELET

  • Production Notes: Our eleventh En Gobelet, a non-traditional blend all from head-trained, dry-farmed blocks, and mostly from the 12-acre block we call Scruffy Hill, planted in 2005 and 2006 to be a self-sufficient field blend. These lots tend to show more elegance and minerality than our closer-spaced irrigated blocks, although in 2018 the wine shows plenty of power and density. We chose a blend of 36% Grenache, 28% Mourvedre, 27% Syrah, 6% Counoise, and 3% Tannat. In this lifted, elegant vintage, we chose our highest-ever percentage of Syrah for this blend, giving the wine heft and Syrah's signature creamy, meaty density. The wine was blended in June of 2019, aged in foudre and bottled in May 2020.
  • Tasting Notes: A explosively vibrant nose of boysenberry, blackcurrant, black pepper, and roasted meats. The mouth is juicy but firmly tannic, with flavors of cassis and black cherry, wood smoke, and cracked peppercorn. Syrah's signature creamy dark minerality comes out on the finish. Serious and built for the long term; wait six months if you can, and then drink any time over the next two decades.
  • Production: 860 cases
  • List Price: $55 VINsider Price: $44

2018 ESPRIT DE TABLAS

  • Production Notes: Although the Esprit is based as always on the red fruit and meatiness of Mourvedre (40%), in this vintage noteworthy for its lift and minerality we found that the darkness and density provided by Syrah (27%) was essential and we needed a little less of the bright spiciness of Grenache (23%). Counoise (10%) rounds out the blend with brambly notes and sweet spice. The wine's components were fermented separately, then selected for Esprit, blended in June 2019 and aged a year in foudre before bottling in July 2020.
  • Tasting Notes: A deep brooding Mourvedre nose of loamy redcurrant and roasted meats, new leather and black plum. The mouth shows spicy licorice and nutmeg lift over baked plums and Mourvedre's signature plum skin tannin maintaining balance with the wine's mouth-coating texture. The long, richly tannic finish, with lingering flavors of wood smoke, roasted meat, and crushed rock, promises more rewards to come with cellar aging. The wine was showing beautifully despite only having been in bottle one week when we tasted it; we recommend that you drink either between now and 2023 or again starting in 2026 any time over the subsequent two decades.
  • Production: 4325 cases
  • List Price: $60 VINsider Price: $48

Two additional wines joined the Cotes de Tablas Blanc, Grenache Blanc, and Esprit de Tablas Blanc in the white-only shipment (we doubled up the Esprit Blanc):

Fall 2020 VINsider White Shipment

2019 BOURBOULENC

  • Production Notes: Our first ever bottling of Bourboulenc, from our first-ever harvest of this relatively obscure Rhone white. Bourboulenc is known in France to make wines with citrus aromatics and a distinctive smoky character, with fairly good acids and relatively low alcohol. As we have no road map for this wine, never having harvested or fermented it before, we treated it gently, fermenting with our signature native yeasts in a mix of stainless steel and neutral oak barrels. It had a distinctive orange color (not that different from Roussanne) coming out of the press, and while much of that settled out in fermentation, it's still a lovely rich gold. We used our entire production in this 135-case varietal bottling, put into bottle in June 2020.
  • Tasting Notes: Medium gold color. A nose of lychee and wet rocks, lightly floral, with an unusual and appealing fresh almond note. On the palate, richly textured and softly mineral, with pineapple fruit and a little mintiness, pretty and delicate and lovely. We have no idea how this will age, but suggest you drink it over the next few years.
  • Production: 135 cases
  • List Price: $30 VINsider Price: $24

2017 PETIT MANSENG

  • Production Notes: Our eighth bottling of this traditional grape from southwest France, Petit Manseng is best known from the appellation of Jurançon, where it has made admired sweet wines for centuries that you rarely hear about in America. Petit Manseng achieves sufficient concentration and sugar content -- and maintains its acids sufficiently -- to make naturally sweet, balanced wines without botrytis. Harvested at 28° Brix and a pH of 2.99, we fermented it in barrel, and stopped its fermentation when it had about 62 grams/liter of sugar left and sat at an alcohol of 14.4%. The high acidity makes it taste much drier than the sugar reading would suggest. The wine was aged on its lees in barrel and bottled in June 2018.
  • Tasting Notes: Medium gold. An exotic nose of lemon marmalade, briny mineral, citrus leaf, and lemongrass. In the mouth, the wine is a roller-coaster, first sweet like candied orange peel, then lemon drop acids assert themselves, and finally the finish relaxes to a combination of clementine orange, sea spray minerality, and citrus blossom. A little sweeter and more intense than but reminiscent of a demi-sec Vouvray, for anyone with that as a reference point. Drink now or age for up to another decade for a nuttier character.
  • Production: 170 cases
  • List Price: $50 VINsider Price: $40

Two additional reds joined the Grenache, En Gobelet and Esprit de Tablas in the red-only shipment:

Fall 2020 VINsider Red Shipment

2018 FULL CIRCLE

  • Production Notes: 2018 is the ninth vintage of our Full Circle Pinot Noir, grown on the small vineyard outside the Haas family's home in Templeton, in the cool (for Paso) Templeton Gap AVA. Its name reflects Robert Haas's career: from a start introducing America to the greatness of Burgundy, through decades focusing on grapes from the Rhone, one of his last acts was to plant Pinot at his home and oversee our first few vintages. The grapes were fermented in one-ton microfermenters, half de-stemmed and half with stems for a more savory profile, punched down twice daily by hand. After pressing, the wine was moved into year-old Marcel Cadet 60-gallon barrels, for a hint of oak.  The wine stayed on its lees, stirred occasionally, for 10 months, before being blended and bottled in August 2019. We've aged the wine in bottle for an additional year since then.
  • Tasting Notes: A pretty nose of cherry cola, Chinese five spice, teriyaki, and black tea. The mouth is medium-bodied, soft, and generous, with raspberry fruit, a little sweet oak, and a lightly tannic finish with sarsaparilla and wild strawberry notes. Drink now and over the next decade.
  • Production: 475 cases
  • List Price: $45 VINsider Price: $36

2018 MOURVEDRE

  • Production Notes: Mourvedre is the one red grape that we try to bottle on its own each year, because we think it is a wonderful grape that too few people know, and one we feel worthy of some proselytizing. The cool 2018 vintage produced a very Old World style of Mourvedre, with loamy, meaty elements just as strong as the red-fruited notes we typically see at the fore here in Paso Robles. All our Mourvedre lots were fermented in large wooden tanks and moved to neutral barrels to await blending. The chosen lots were blended in the spring of 2019, then aged in foudre until bottling in May 2020.
  • Tasting Notes: A very Old World style of Mourvedre, with loam at the front, then pie cherries and meaty note reminiscent of a rosemary-rubbed leg of lamb. The mouth is more generously fruited than the nose suggests, with flavors of plum and redcurrant fruit, new leather, and some chewy tannins that come out on the finish and reassert a loamy, juniper forest note. It seems like time in the cellar will be well rewarded, but feel free to drink any time over the next 15 years.
  • Production: 640 cases
  • List Price: $45 VINsider Price: $36

The tasting was a great way to hone in on the character of our two most recent vintages. 2018 shows a cool climate signature with vibrant, expressive, spicy wines with elegance and the potential to age. 2019 is a blockbuster vintage, combining rich textures with lively acidity and powerful varietal characters. I can't wait to get these wines in our club members' hands and find out what they think.

If you're a wine club member, you're probably aware that we're not going to be hosting a traditional wine club pickup party because of COVID, but we've come up with a few ways to give members the chance to experience the wines. These include the option of "shipment flights" should members come for a distanced patio tasting in September and October, a virtual tasting party the evening of Friday, October 15th for which we'll be putting together tasting packs that include half-bottles of the two 2018 Esprit de Tablas wines, and the newest season of Chelsea & the Shepherd, which we'll be debuting around the time the shipment goes out. We have details on all this 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 us while there's still a chance to get this fall shipment? Details and how to join are at tablascreek.com/wine_club/vinsider_club