30 Years of Tablas Creek: 10 Things We Got Right (and Wrong)

I find it hard to wrap my head around this fact, but this year marks 30 years since my dad, along with Jean-Pierre and Francois Perrin, bought this property and began the process of launching what would become Tablas Creek Vineyard. To celebrate, they stopped at Kentucky Fried Chicken (this was before it became KFC) and took their purchases as a picnic lunch onto the section of the vineyard we now call Scruffy Hill to talk about what would come next. I don't have a photo of that lunch, but I do have one of the ceremonial planting of the first vine, from 1992:

Bob Haas & Jean Pierre Perrin planting first Tablas vine 1992

1989 was a different time, and not just because not-yet-called-KFC was the best option in town for lunch. Paso Robles itself had just 16 bonded wineries. None of them were producing Rhone varieties. The entire California Rhone movement had only about a dozen members. And yet the founding partners had enough confidence in their decision to embark on the long, slow, expensive process of importing grapevines, launching a grapevine nursery, planting an estate vineyard from scratch, building a winery, and creating a business plan to turn this into something self-sustaining.

I was thinking recently about how much of a leap into the unknown this was, and decided to look back on which of those early assumptions turned out to be right, and which we had to change or scrap. I'll take them in turn.

Wrong #1: Paso Robles is hot and dry, and therefore red wine country
This is a misconception that persists to this day among plenty of consumers, and (if it's not sacrilegious to say) an even higher percentage of sommeliers and the wine trade. But it's hard to be too critical of them when we made the same mistake. Our original plan was to focus on a model like Beaucastel's. There, the Perrins make about 90% red wines, and many Chateauneuf du Pape estates don't make any white at all. And yes, Paso Robles is hot and dry, during the day, in the summer.  But it's cold at night, with an exceptionally high diurnal shift, and winters are cold and quite wet. The net result is that our average temperature is lower than Beaucastel's, and the first major change to our vineyard plans was to plant 20 more acres of white grapes. Now, our mix is about 50% red, 35% white, and 15% rosé. 

Right #1: Obscure grapes can be great here
In our initial planting decisions, we decided to bring in the grapes you would have expected (think Mourvedre, Grenache, Syrah, or Viognier) but also some that had never before been used in America, like Grenache Blanc and Counoise. We thought that they would provide nice complexity, and our goal was to begin with the Beaucastel model (in which both of these grapes appear) and then adjust as our experiences dictated. It turns out that we liked them enough that not only are they important players in the blends that we make, but we even bottle them solo many years. This meant a relatively quick decision to bring in Picpoul Blanc in 2000, and to eventually import the full collection of Chateauneuf du Pape grapes in 2003. If you've been enjoying new grapes like Picardan, or Terret Noir, or Clairette Blanche, you have this early decision to thank.

Wrong #2: We're going to make just one red wine and one white wine
This is a decision we realized we needed to revisit pretty quickly. As early as 1999, we decided that in order to make the best wine we could from a vintage, we needed to be able to declassify lots into a second wine (which at that point we called "Petite Cuvee"). Having this declassified wine also gave us some cool opportunities in restaurants, which could pour this "second" wine by the glass, exposing us to new customers. And the wine, which we soon rechristened "Cotes de Tablas", proved to be more than just a place to put our second-best lots. Many of the characteristics that caused us to declassify a particular lot (pretty but not as intense, less structured and perhaps less ageworthy, good fruit but maybe less tannin) make a wine that's perfect to enjoy in its relative youth. Although we've been surprised by the ability of these wines to age, having something that people could open and appreciate while our more tannic flagship wines were aging in the cellar proved invaluable.

And we didn't stop there. We realized within another few years that there were lots that were either too dominant to be great in a blend, or so varietally characteristic that it was a shame to blend them away. Opening a tasting room and starting a wine club in 2002 (more on this below) meant that we had recurring educational opportunities where having, say, a varietal Mourvedre, was really valuable. At the time, many fans of Rhone grapes had never tasted even the main ones (outside of Syrah) on their own. Having a rotating collection of varietal bottlings beginning in 2002 not only gave us great options for our wine club shipments, but I think helped an entire generation of Rhone lovers wrap their heads around this diverse and heterogeneous category.

Right #2: Importing new vine material would be worth the costs
Nearly the first decision we had to make was whether we would work with the existing Rhone varieties that were already in California or whether we would bring in our own. And it's not as though this decision was without consequence. Importing grapevines through the USDA's mandated 3-year quarantine set us back (after propagation) five years, and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. But it also came with some potentially huge benefits: the opportunity to select our clones for high quality, the chance to work with the full complement of Rhone grapes, and eventually the privilege of supplying other wineries with high quality clones. I remain convinced that for all the different impacts Tablas Creek has had, it is this proliferation of clonal material that will go down as our most important.

Wrong #3: Vineyard and winery experience is enough to run a nursery
With fifteen years' distance blunting the anxiety, it's easy to forget just how steep the learning curve was for us in the nursery business. But I know that when I moved out here in 2002, it was the perennially money-losing nursery that was the source of most of our headaches. The nursery business is difficult for three reasons, particularly for a startup. First, it's technically tricky. Expertise in grapegrowing is only tangentially relevant to things like grafting and rooting, or dealing with nursery pests. This is made more challenging by the fact that the same things that make this place good for quality wine grapes (that it forces vines to struggle) made all the nursery challenges worse. Second, it's subject to supply shocks that are largely outside of your control. If you get a spring frost, or a summer drought, you'll produce smaller vine material, get a lower percentage of successful grafts, and produce fewer vines. I know that in our first few years we often had to go back to our customers and cut back their orders because of production challenges. And third, on the demand side, it's incredibly cyclical and prone to boom and bust. Because it takes three to four years for a new vine to get into into production, you tend to have cycles of sky-high demand for scarce grapes followed by periods where everyone has the same new varieties in production, which causes demand for new vines to collapse. We lost quite a lot of money overall on our nursery operations before realizing the right response was to outsource. Our partnership since 2004 with NovaVine has been such an improvement, in so many ways.

Right #3: Organic viticulture works
The Perrins have been innovators in organic viticulture since Jacques Perrin implemented it in the 1960s. By the time we were starting Tablas Creek, it was taken as a given that we'd farm the same way, partly out of a desire to avoid exposing ourselves, our colleagues, and our neighbors to toxins, but more because we felt that this was a fundamental precondition for producing wines that expressed their place. At the time, there wasn't a single vineyard in Paso Robles being farmed organically, and the studied opinion of the major California viticulture universities was that doing so was pointless and difficult. It has been wonderful to see a higher and higher percentage of our local grapegrowers come around to our perspective, and to see the excitement locally and around California as we push past organics into the more holistic approach of Biodynamics. But that idea -- that organic farming is key to producing wines with a sense of place -- is as fundamental to our process today as it was in the beginning.  

Wrong #4: Tasting Room? Wine Club? Who needs 'em!
At the beginning, our idea was that we would be in the production business, not the marketing and sales business.  Our contact with the market would be once a year, when we would call up Vineyard Brands and let them know that the new vintage was ready. They would buy it all, take care of the nitty gritty of selling it, and our next contact with the market would be a year later, when we would call them up again and let them know they could pick up the next vintage. This proved to be a lot more difficult than we'd initially imagined. We were making wines without an established category, from grapes that most customers didn't know and couldn't pronounce, in a place they hadn't heard of, and blending them into wines with French names that didn't mean anything to them. By 2002, inventory had started to build up and we had to radically rethink our marketing program. The two new key pieces were starting a wine club (first shipment: August 2002, to about 75 members) and opening our tasting room on Labor Day weekend that same fall.

The opportunities provided by both these outlets have fundamentally transformed the business of Tablas Creek, giving us direct contact with our customers, an audience for small-production experimental lots, a higher-margin sales channel through which we can offer our members good discounts and still do better than we would selling wholesale, and (most importantly, in my opinion) a growing army of advocates out in the marketplace who have visited here, gotten to see, smell, and touch the place, and take home a memory of our story and our wines. I don't think it's a coincidence that our wholesale sales grew dramatically over the first five years that our tasting room was open, or that each time a new state opens to direct shipping our wholesale sales improve there. Still, we would never have predicted at the outset that nearly 60% of the bottles that we'd sell in our 30th year would go directly from us to the customer who would ultimately cellar and (or) drink it.

Right #4: Building (and keeping) the right team is key
Long tenure was a feature of his hires throughout my dad's career. I still see people at Vineyard Brands sales meetings who remember me coming home from little league games in uniform, 35 years ago. And I'm really proud of how long the key members of the Tablas Creek team have been here. That includes David Maduena, our Vineyard Manager, who is on year 28 here at Tablas Creek. Denise Chouinard, our Controller, worked for my dad at Vineyard Brands and moved out here to take over our back office 23 years ago. Neil Collins will oversee his 22nd vintage as Winemaker here this year. Nicole Getty has overseen our wine club, hospitality, and events for 15 years, while and Eileen Harms has run our accounting desk for the same duration. This will be 14 years at Tablas Creek for Senior Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi and 13 for Tasting Room Manager John Morris. 

I say all this not because longevity on its own is the point, but because of what it means to keep talented and ambitious people on your team. It means that they feel they're a part of something meaningful. That they're given the opportunity and resources to innovate and keep growing. And that you don't have to reinvent the wheel every few years. 

Wrong #5: People will buy it because Beaucastel 
Much of our challenge in the early years was self-inflicted: we hadn't done the work to create a consumer base for Tablas Creek, so when the wines got onto shelves or wine lists, they tended to gather dust. We assumed that if we made great wines, somehow the news would get out to the people who always clamored for Beaucastel (coming off a Wine Spectator #1 Wine of the Year honor in 1991), and the sales would take care of themselves. That turned out to be wildly optimistic. While our association with Beaucastel helped get the wines onto the shelves and lists, the boost it provided in sales wasn't enough to overcome the wines' unfamiliar names and lack of category, and the winery's own nonexistent track record. In the end we had to do the hard work of brand building: telling the story to one person at a time in our tasting room, to ambassadors in the trade, and to the masses (such as it was) through press coverage.

One caveat: a key piece of this turnaround was our decision in 2000 to bestow the name "Esprit de Beaucastel" on our top white and red blend. Unlike the names "Rouge", "Blanc", "Reserve Cuvee", and "Clos Blanc", having Beaucastel on the front label instead of in the back story was one of the early keys in reminding consumers who might have some vague awareness that the Perrins were involved in a California project that this, Tablas Creek, was that project. So, the Beaucastel name did matter... but people needed a more explicit reminder.

Right #5: Fundamentally, this place is great for these grapes
Ultimately, we got right the most important question, and Paso Robles has turned out to be a terrific place in which to have founded a Rhone project. The evidence for this is everywhere you look in Paso. It has become the epicenter of California's Rhone movement, with more than 80% of wineries here producing at least one Rhone wine. It became the home to Hospice du Rhone, the world's premier Rhone-focused wine festival, for which high profile Rhone producers from France, Australia, Spain, South Africa, Washington, and all over California convene every other spring for three days of seminars, tastings, dinners, and revelry. And the range of Rhone grapes that do well here is exceptionally broad. You can taste some of the state's greatest examples of Syrah, of Grenache, of Mourvedre, of Roussanne, of Viognier, and of Grenache Blanc all here in Paso. In this, it even surpasses the Rhone. You aren't generally going to taste world class Syrah or Viognier from the southern Rhone; it's too warm there. And Grenache, Mourvedre, and Roussanne all struggle to ripen in the northern Rhone. But the cold nights and the calcareous soils found in Paso Robles provide freshness and minerality to balance the lush fruit from our long growing season and 320 days of sun. Rhone producers here have enormous flexibility in how long they leave the grapes on the vines, which allows them to be successful in a wide range of styles.

And I haven't even mentioned yet the happy accident (which I'm pretty sure my dad and the Perrins didn't consider in 1989) that Paso Robles has proven to be an incredibly supportive, collegial community, which has embraced its identity as a Rhone hub and turned enthusiastically to the business of improving its practices, marketing its wares, and becoming a leader in sustainability.

Conclusion: The next 30 Years
Ultimately, what makes me so excited about where we are is that we've had the opportunity to work through our startup issues, and to make the adjustments we thought Paso Robles dictated, without having to compromise on our fundamental ideas. We're still making (mostly) Rhone blends from our organic (and now Biodynamic) estate vineyard, wines that have one foot stylistically in the Old World and one in the New World. And we're doing it all with grapevines that are only now getting to the age where the French would start to really consider them at their peak.

Buckle up, kids. The next 30 years is going to be amazing.

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Budbreak 2019: We Celebrate a Late Beginning after a Wet, Chilly Winter

This winter has been wonderful. We've accumulated nearly 31 inches of rain, without a single storm that caused us damage, flooding, or even any notable erosion, thanks to an amazing 62 days with measurable precipitation. The green of the cover crops is mind-bending. And it's been chilly enough that the vines have been kept dormant. Our weather station at the vineyard has recorded 29 below-freezing nights, and we've had weeks at a time where the days have been cold too: we had a 39-day stretch between January 31st and March 10th where it rose into the 60s just three times, including several days that topped out in the 40s. That's unusual. But the net result has been that we've been largely free of the worries of recent years that the vines might sprout prematurely, leaving them susceptible to damage from a late frost. 

The last two weeks have felt different. Our last below-freezing night was March 14th. Since March 15th, we've seen six days reach the 70s, surpassing the total between December 1st and March 14th. The lengthening days and the warm sun have produced a wildflower bloom that's getting national media attention. And the vines have begun to wake up:

Grenache Budbreak Silhouette

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. And it really is just starting. I only saw signs of budbreak in Grenache (pictured above), Grenache Blanc, Vermentino, and Viognier (below):

Budreak in Viognier

This year is later than many years this decade, and a month later than our record-early 2016, but it's only about average for what we'd have expected historically. When we saw first budbreak the last dozen years gives a good overview:

2018: Late 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
2007: First week of April

It's important to note that the vast majority of the vineyard is still dormant. I was only able to find leaves in our earliest-sprouting grapes and only at the tops of the hills, which are warmer than the valleys, where cold air settles. It will be at least another couple of weeks before we see sprouting in late-emerging grapes like Mourvedre or Roussanne, or in low-lying areas. This Mourvedre block is one of many that show no signs of sprouting yet:

No budbreak in Mourvedre

Why does budbreak happen when it does? It's mostly a question of soil temperatures. Grapevines (and all deciduous plants) are cued by rising soil temperatures to come out of dormancy and begin their growing season. Evolutionarily, plants are trying to balance competing goals: to sprout early enough to achieve maximum carbohydrate generation from photosynthesis, while staying dormant long enough to avoid suffering damage to their reproductive prospects through frost.

Bud break varies with the winter. Because wet soils retain cold better than warm soils, winters that are both wet and cold tend to see the latest emergence from dormancy. The consistent cold and wet we received in the winter of 2018-2019 meant that despite the lengthening days, the vines' most important sensors were telling them that winter was still in effect, and sprouting would be a risk.  And, in fact, budbreak does begin our white-knuckle season, since while dormant vines can freeze without danger, 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 I'm thankful that it will be a few weeks before our later-sprouting varieties and our lower-lying (read: more frost-prone) areas are out enough to be at risk. 

But in general, if you could design a favorable winter weather pattern, it would look a lot like what we've seen recently. We'd ask for regular frosts and rain through the middle of March, and then a switch to a warm, dry pattern thereafter. While we're always grateful for rain, since frosts tend to follow in the wake of frontal passages, the precipitation you get in spring storms isn't worth the risk of frost damage. We've been fortunate that the recent storms we've received have largely been warm ones, without frost, and that the extended forecast doesn't seem to contain anything particularly threatening. But there's a long way to go.

Meanwhile, we'll enjoy the rapid changes in the vineyard, and the hope that always comes with the emergence of new buds. Please join me in welcoming the 2019 vintage.

Budbreak Closeup in Grenache


Blending the 2018 White Wines: Our First Look at the Strikingly Mineral 2018 Vintage

We spent most of last week around our conference table, making sense of the white wines from the recently concluded 2018 vintage. As usual, we started our blending week Tuesday morning by tasting, component by component, through each of the 32 lots we’d harvested this past year. Yeah, I know, tough life. Though, to be fair, these blending weeks are my favorites of the year. Not every week is this exciting.

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The first stage of blending is to look at the raw materials we have to work with, and decide whether that will constrain any of our choices. In 2018, it didn't seem like it would. Although quantities were down a bit from our near-record 2017 levels, they were still healthy:

Grape 2018 Yields (tons) 2017 Yields (tons) % Change vs. 2017
Viognier 18.2 18.9 -3.7%
Marsanne 11.8 13.8 -14.5%
Grenache Blanc 43.6 46.4 -6.0%
Picpoul Blanc 9.1 9.7 -6.2%
Roussanne 32.6 41.7 -21.8%
Total Rhone Whites 115.3 130.5 -11.6%

Being down 10-ish percent still allowed us plenty of possibilities, with the reductions in crop more likely to constrain how much of our varietal wines we could make, rather than whether we would be able to make them at all. The once concern we had was Roussanne, which always forms the basis of Esprit Blanc, and which we've made as a varietal wine every year since 2001. Still, the first stage was as usual to go through the lots, variety by variety, and get a sense of both the character and diversity present in the vintage:

We grade on a 1-3 scale, with 1's being our top grade (for a deep dive into how we do our blending, check out this blog by Chelsea from a few years ago). 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. As you'll see, lots of good grades this year. My quick thoughts on each variety:

  • Viognier (5 lots): A really good year for Viognier, with 2 of the 5 lots getting 1's from me and the others strong 2’s, marked down only because they were so dominant I wasn’t convinced that they would shine in blends. Overall, concentrated, tropical and deep, with surprisingly good acids. Of course, there were a few lots that hadn’t concluded malolactic fermentation. Those lots will soften as that finishes, unless we decide that we like them how they are.
  • Picpoul Blanc (2 lots): Not my favorite Picpoul vintage, with our largest lot getting a 2 from me because it was showing a little oxidative character and a ton of acid as it’s still going through malo. Still, plenty of salty minerality, and that nice tropicality that we’ve come to expect from the Picpoul grape.
  • Roussanne (9 lots): The barrel program here dominated my impression of these, with two lots showing beautiful (but dominant) oak, two others that were raised in foudre showing brightness and pungency and tasting very young, and five others in mixed but neutral cooperage showing solid, dense, mature Roussanne character, though with a touch lower acidity than I’d like to have seen. My grades: five 1’s (though two of those got asterisks for being oaky enough that we needed to be careful in blending), three 2’s, and one that bordered between 2 and 3 because it was so low in acid.
  • Grenache Blanc (10 lots): A pretty heterogeneous mix here, with four lots still sweet and five lots still going through malolactic. Like with the Roussanne lots, two that were fermented in foudre were noteworthy: finished with their fermentations but still very young and showing a hint of reduction, which masks their richness. The lots that were done with fermentation and malo, and had spent some time in smaller cooperage, were outstanding, which bodes well for the collection overall. My scores: four 1’s, three 2’s, one 3, and two “incomplete” grades.
  • Marsanne (3 lots): A spot-on showing for this grape, with all three showing Marsanne’s classic honeydew and chalky mineral charm. One lot added a gentle creaminess and surprisingly good (for Marsanne) acidity, and seemed a cinch to bottle on its own. The other two will be lovely Cotes de Tablas Blanc components. My grades: one 1, and two 2’s.
  • Clairette Blanche (1 lot): We only had 240 gallons of this, our scarcest white grape, but it was pretty: lovely salty minerality, and a little tropical lychee character. Plenty of acid, and still not done with malo. A 1 for me.
  • Picardan (1 lot): Newer for us than Clairette, but we have a few more rows in the ground, so the lot was larger (528 gallons). This was a tough wine for me to evaluate. There was still a touch of sugar left, and lots of malic acid, muting the nose and leaving a somewhat primary, candied sweet-tart impression on the palate. Another wine that for me got an “incomplete” grade.
  • Petit Manseng (1 lot): Not really relevant to the rest of the week’s work, since we don’t blend Petit Manseng into the other Rhone whites. Still, this was a good chance to check in on how it was doing, and decide whether we wanted to push it along fermentation to a drier profile, or to leave it with more residual sugar [If this question seems interesting to you, check out the blog from a few years back Wrapping Our Heads Around Petit Manseng]. At the roughly 70 g/L residual sugar, I thought this was lovely: luscious like key lime pie, with the same hints of pithiness and acidity that suggests.

Wednesday morning, we started on our blending work by tasting possible Esprit de Tablas Blanc blends. We always want the Esprit Blanc’s blend to be dictated by the character of the Roussanne, and in some years, that makes the choice easy. Not this year. The 2018 vintage produced both good lushness and higher acids than we’d seen the few years before, so it wasn’t obvious that we should include higher quantities of the high-acid grapes like Picpoul and Grenache Blanc. Plus, Picpoul this year didn't seem so obviously outstanding as to dictate a high percentage in the Esprit Blanc. Adding to the complexity of the challenge, some of the Roussanne lots we’d liked best were quite oaky, and while we feel that a touch of wood is appropriate on the Esprit Blanc, we don’t want it dominated by that character. So, we decided to focus on blends with moderate (60%-70%) proportions of Roussanne, but to vary the amounts of the oakier lots, and also to try blends that replaced a portion of Picpoul with Picardan and Clairette (as we did last year) and also others that didn’t (as we’d done through 2016).

As is often the case when we have lots of viable options, the Esprit Blanc blending took a while. The first flight of four options saw the table fail to come to consensus, although we did decide that we liked the lots that included some Clairette and Picardan. A second round, controlling for that and varying the amount of new oak, surprised us with the realization that even with all the oaky lots in the blend, it didn’t taste particularly oak-dominant. (Though, given that those lots only made up about 10% of the wine, that might not be surprising.) After we’d mulled on that for a while, the blend fell into place on our third trial, at 66% Roussanne, 21% Grenache Blanc, 8% Picpoul Blanc, 3% Picardan, and 2% Clairette Blanche, with most but not all of the lots in the new barrels.

Once we'd decided on the Esprit Blanc blend Wednesday, the Cotes de Tablas Blanc came together quickly on Thursday. In this fairly scarce (and low-acid) Roussanne year, it was pretty clear that there wasn’t much need for it in the Cotes Blanc. And setting aside the Marsanne lot we loved for a varietal bottling meant we knew how much Marsanne we had for Cotes Blanc. So, that meant a blending trial mostly to determine the best relative proportions of Viognier and Grenache Blanc. As is often the case with a trial with only one variable, we all came to agreement on the first round: 40% Viognier, 35% Grenache Blanc, 20% Marsanne, and 5% Roussanne. That allowed the Viognier to show nicely (the Cotes Blanc is always designed to show off this most exuberant of our grapes) but with the Grenache Blanc giving it a nice acid backbone to play off. We talked for a while to see if we could think of anything to improve the blend, but couldn’t, so we all used the rest of the morning to clear some other work off our desks.

We had managed to make our two main blends without using up any of our grapes completely. So, the final step was to taste those two blends alongside the seven (yes, seven) varietal wines that this left us. Other than Grenache Blanc (1200 cases) and Roussanne (some 700 cases) we won’t have enough of these other varietal bottlings for a full wine club shipment, but it will still be a treat to have 400 cases each of Picpoul and Viognier, 275 of Marsanne, 125 of Picardan, and even 50 cases of Clairette Blanche. At this stage, the highlights for me were the Viognier, which was absolutely classic and luscious, the Marsanne, which showed the grape's signature honey and floral notes but also had great brightness, and Clairette, which had electric minerality and a lovely lemongrass character. If you’re fans of any of these, stay tuned to emails that announce their release as we get them into bottle later this spring and summer.

A few concluding thoughts:

  • I was struggling much of the week with a nasty head cold, and there was one day where I could barely taste. Thank goodness for a strong team, and a process which meant that things could move forward even without my full faculties. My head had cleared by the end of the week, and tasting the finished blends all together was a great chance to affirm the success of the week’s work.
  • The cold 2018-2019 winter has definitely had an impact on how far along things were in their fermentation. Normally by late March, most of the lots are done with sugar fermentation and largely done with malolactic. Not this year, despite the efforts of the cellar team in bringing barrels out into the sun, moving recalcitrant lots over the lees of those fermenting actively, and generally nudging things along as much as they could. Fermentation is a temperature-sensitive chemical reaction, and this year has been cold.
  • The vintage’s signature seems to be medium body with expressive aromatics, bright acids, and striking minerality. That’s a great combo. We can’t wait to share these wines with you!

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Spring Equinox Update: Paso Robles is Still Absurdly Beautiful

About two months ago, I posted a blog Paso Robles is Absurdly Beautiful Right Now, sharing some photos I'd taken in the newly-green vineyard, ground fog wending its way around vines, solar panels, and olive trees. Fast-forward two months, and we're seeing the lovely consequences of combination of the last two weeks of sun and the nearly 30 inches of rain that we've received. The result has been a vineyard as green as I can ever remember, set off against impossibly blue skies and the dark brown of the still-dormant grapevines. To wit:

Tablas Creek Newly Pruned Vineyard Square

Although we'd had two dry weeks before today's half-inch of rain, there is water everywhere, seeping out of hillsides and running merrily in Las Tablas Creek. You can see a puddle sitting in the swale between the east-facing Vermentino vines (foreground) and the west-facing Mourvedre vines (behind the frost fans).

Tablas Creek Crosshairs Block

The vines themselves are still dormant thanks to a series of below-freezing nights, although the warmth of the sun suggests that we'll see bud-break before too long. In fact, this was the week last year when we first saw leaves. I don't expect that this year -- it has been colder, and all the water in the soil is keeping soil temperatures down -- but early April seems like a pretty safe bet. So, views like this, with a bare Counoise trunk silhouetted against the blue sky, will be short-lived:

Head-trained Counoise vine at Tablas Creek

The dormant trunks make amazing patterns in the vineyard, like the Mourvedre cordons below:

Tablas Creek Mourvedre Cordons

Still, as impressive as the green grass is, it's the sky at this time of year that always steals the show for me. Here's a view looking up toward our tallest hill, over Counoise and Grenache blocks. You can see the still-unpruned Grenache in the foreground; we wait longest to prune this, our most frost-prone grape:

Tablas Creek looking up toward highest hill

I'll leave you with one last view of the vineyard contours, looking up the same hill of Vermentino in the first two photos. The sweep of the land comes through, I hope. 

Tablas Creek Newly Pruned Vineyard Horizontal

Up next, we hope: what should be a spectacular wildflower season. The superbloom is in full swing just a little to the south of us. As the days continue to lengthen, and the sun warms, we should see an explosion of color here too. And when we do, I promise we'll share.


A Grapevine Pruning Tutorial with Viticulturist Jordan Lonborg and Vineyard Manager David Maduena

After four relatively quiet months, March is go time in the vineyard. The days start to get longer, the cover crops and wildflowers explode into growth thanks to the sun and rain, and it starts to feel like spring is just around the corner.  Of course, it's not, quite; it's still often below freezing at night, and with the cold weather we've seen this year, the grapevines shouldn't sprout for at least another few weeks. But all of a sudden you know the clock is ticking.

Normally, we'd prune starting in January. And we did get a bit of a start this year.  But it's been wet enough that there were lots of days where we couldn't get into the vineyard, and pruning in the rain is an invitation to fungal infections and trunk diseases. That means we're behind where we'd normally be. You can't prune too early, because you need to wait until the vines are dormant so that they can store up the necessary vigor in their roots. And pruning too early encourages the vines to sprout early too, and in an area prone to spring frosts -- like Paso Robles -- that's a risk.  So, rather than prune in December, we typically do the bulk of our pruning in February and March, starting with the varieties that sprout late, and which we're not too worried about freezing, like Mourvedre and Roussanne.  We try to finish with Grenache, Grenache Blanc, and Viognier, which all tend to sprout earlier, in the hopes of getting another week or ten days of dormancy out of them. 

Viticulturist Jordan Lonborg and Vineyard Manager David Maduena took 90 seconds to explain what they aim for in their pruning, and then demonstrate:

Pruning at Tablas Creek Vineyard from Shepherd's Films on Vimeo.

All this is done by hand.  We have about 115 acres that need to be pruned.  80 of these acres are trellised like the ones in the video, at roughly 1800 vines per acre.  The other 35 acres are head-trained, at much lower density, between 350 and 600 vines per acre.  That's more than 160,000 vines to prune.  At 20-25 seconds each, that's slightly more than 1,000 man-hours of work.  Figure that we typically have 8 of our full-time crew working on pruning in this season, with an hour of breaks each day makes 146 days of work... or with a crew of 8, just over 18 work days each.  That sounds about right... roughly a month of work, if the weather holds.

Why does all this matter? Pruning our vines well has several positive effects:

  • It reduces yields and improves quality.  As a rough estimate, you can figure on one cluster of grapes per bud that you leave during pruning.  Leaving six spurs each with two buds predicts roughly a dozen clusters of fruit, which should give us about the three tons per acre we feel is ideal for our setting and our style.
  • It makes for a healthier growing season.  If we space the buds correctly, we should have good vertical growth of canes and have clusters of fruit hanging below the canopy.  This configuration means that air flow through the rows should naturally minimize mildew pressure.  It will also shade the fruit from the sun at the hottest times of day, while allowing any nutrients or minerals we spray onto the vineyard to penetrate the canopy.
  • It promotes even ripening.  Different vines in any vineyard block have different base levels of vigor.  If left to their own devices, some might set a dozen clusters while others might set thirty.  Of course, the more clusters, the slower they ripen.  Getting an even cluster count helps minimize the spread between first and last fruit ripe in a block and makes the job of the picking crew much easier.
  • It sets up the vine for the following year.  Done well, pruning encourages the growth of wood in places where it will be needed in future years, filling in gaps where cordons may have died back in previous years or separating spur positions that have grown too close.
  • It saves labor later.  A good example of how much labor good pruning saves can be found by looking at a frost vintage, where the primary buds have been frozen and secondary buds left to sprout wherever the vine chooses.

We estimate that we're about 70% done with our annual pruning work. This week is supposed to be sunny, and if that holds, by the end of the week we should be largely done. And then we have another little break where we wait for budbreak and get to start worrying about frost. As I said a few years back, springtime is terrifying... but hopeful

Pruning shears at Tablas Creek


You may not be aging your Rhone whites. But if you do, here's what to expect.

As regular readers of the blog know, we keep a library of all the wines we've made.  We use this for the tastings we conduct in-house and for the public, like our 10-year retrospective every spring and our mid-summer vertical tastings. We use it to supply our Collector's Edition wine club and the Collector's Vertical Tasting we offer by reservation. And it gives us the opportunity to feature aged wines at the occasional special dinner or event out in the market.

You may not know that one of the things for which we use our library is to help restaurants who want to build a collection of back vintages of Esprit de Tablas (or Esprit de Beaucastel). We do this by offering mixed-vintage vertical packs, that include three bottles each of four different vintages. The red vertical pack is our more popular, and for the last couple of years has included the 2006, 2008, 2009, and 2010 vintages. But we also do a white vertical pack, which for the right restaurant can be even more fun, since so few customers have experience aging white wines.

Our current white vertical pack includes three bottles each of the 2005, 2007, 2008, and 2011 vintages.  I decided to open one of each of them today to check in and see how they're showing, and thought that readers of the blog might appreciate the inside look. The lineup:

Four older Esprit Blancs

My notes from the tasting are below. I have linked each wine to its page on our Web site, if you'd like to see tasting notes from when it was bottled, or any of the details of its production:

  • 2005 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (70% Roussanne, 25% Grenache Blanc, 5% Picpoul Blanc): Powerfully Roussanne on the nose with creme brulee, mint, beeswax, and a slightly dusty candied character that reminded me of Necco wafers. The mouth was fresh and lovely, rich but with a little pithy Seville orange marmalade bite, with flavors of cream sherry and marzipan, and a lovely preserved lemon acidity that came out on the finish and left a clean, lively impression. 
  • 2007 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (68% Roussanne, 22% Grenache Blanc, 10% Picpoul Blanc): A little more age evident than the 2005, with cedar, hay, and dried herbs on top of the dried pineapple and beeswax that the wine has had since its youth. More generous on the palate, with flavors of burnt sugar, fennel, and candied orange peel. There was a little resiny spice and a licorice/menthol lift on the finish. Weighty and serious, this is a wine crying out for rich food like lobster.
  • 2008 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (65% Roussanne, 30% Grenache Blanc, 5% Picpoul Blanc): Similar on the nose to the 2007, with spicy bitter oranges, lemongrass, and spun sugar. The mouth is beautifully mid-weight, with flavors of marzipan and candied lemon peel, lovely briny minerality, and a long, clean finish. That said, it showed quite a bit differently than the last time we tasted it in 2017 (when we all commented on how fruity it was). I'm not 100% sure what conclusion to draw from this, except that these wines are all alive and can change dramatically even after several years in bottle.
  • 2011 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (64% Roussanne, 26% Grenache Blanc, 10% Picpoul Blanc): Very different than the first three wines on the nose, with aromas of juniper and hops and rising dough and lemongrass, in many ways more like a sour beer than a wine. The mouth is clean and mineral-driven, with flavors of green apple and lemon and honeysuckle. The finish was my favorite part, with lingering impressions of cream soda and wet rocks, and a saline minerality. From our coolest-ever vintage, and shows it.

One conclusion: from this tasting, as well as previous vertical tastings, I think that the windows of time that we've been attributing to aging Roussanne's life stages have been too short.  I also think that the normal description of the phases we've been using ("youthful", "mature", "closed", etc) don't really do these wines justice. They change and move around, showing different characters at different stages.  If I had to identify these stages and the time frames in which you can expect them, they would be:

  • Youth (roughly 2-6 years after vintage, or right now, our 2013-2016 Esprit Blanc): Roussanne-based whites in this stage are rich, unctuous, primary, floral, and honeyed. Citrus blossom, pear, new honey, and a little salty minerality on the finish. This is an immensely appealing stage, and I understand why so many get drunk young.
  • Early maturity (roughly 7-10 years after vintage, or right now, our 2010-2012): In this phase, the wines are starting to lose some of their baby fat and picking up more savory, herby, mineral-driven character. The acids appear more prominent, and the brininess that in younger wines only shows on the finish becomes more prominent.
  • Middle age (roughly 11-14 years after vintage, or right now, our 2006-2009): Wines in this phase tend to deepen and see their tones darken, with honey character caramelizing, more butterscotch or burnt sugar notes, and the citrus blossom deepening to a candied orange peel. The wines show some oxidative notes, which can for some consumers be off-putting. But they're not oxidized (see next phase).
  • Maturity (roughly 15-20+ years after vintage, or right now, our 2001-2005): The oxidative character that these wines showed earlier drops away, and the wine becomes more medium-bodied and paler in color. The floral character re-emerges, combining with caramel and nutty notes and the wines' persistent minerality to make something magical.

If this feels daunting, I don't blame you. You can't go wrong drinking these wines young. But late last year, I shared that one of my recent wine resolutions was to buy fewer wines, but more of the ones I loved, so I could follow their evolution. And I don't think there's a better choice for a resolution like that than a Roussanne-based white like the Esprit Blanc. Of course, you have to be up for a bit of a roller-coaster ride, but following these wines is always fascinating, and you'll learn a lot. 

And finally, one take-home message. If you get one that's tasting heavy and feels on the verge of being too old, I would suggest that the right response isn't to quickly open and drink all the other bottles you've saved because their time might be nearly over. Instead, I would think that the thing to do is to write yourself a reminder to check back in another few years, and see if instead the wine is just about to take another turn on its road to whatever destination it has chosen.


Assessing the Lovely Rainy Chilly 2018-2019 Winter So Far

OK, I may have given my feelings away in the title of this blog. So far, this winter has been wonderful. We got four inches of rain in November to kick things off (a total topped only three times in the 23 years we've had our weather station going). This got the cover crop growing and began the process of incorporating the compost we'd spread around the vineyard into the soil. A chilly but sunny December ensured that the vines were fully dormant and the cover crop well established, and then our rainy January (9+ inches) and February (10+ inches and counting) brought us to where we are now: a year where as of February 25th we've already reached our annual winter rainfall average, and are about 130% of where we'd expect to be in a normal year.

Tablas Creek rainfall by month winter 2018-19

Oh, and the vineyard looks like this:

Green Tablas Creek Vineyard February 2019

For the winter, we've already reached the 25 inches that is our long-term average, thanks mostly to the last two months. And there is more rain in the forecast; if we finish the year at the same 130% of normal that we are to date, that would put us at 32.5 inches, not quite at the heights we achieved before the 1998, 2005, 2010, 2011, and 2017 vintages, but close:

Tablas Creek Rainfall by Year 1996-2019

There is water seeping out of hillsides and flowing merrily in Las Tablas Creek. The vineyard dogs have been returning from their romps exhausted and muddy:

Las Tablas Creek

You may have to be Californian (or at least to have lived here for a while, and through our recent drought) to understand how exciting the sound of running water is. Our Shepherd even made a video for those who want to savor it: 

So, on the water front, so far, so good. How about on the temperature front? Regular readers of the blog know that below-freezing nights aren't unusual in Paso Robles in the wintertime, but we've seen an unusual concentration recently. After only one frost night in November, we got four in December, five (including four consecutive nights in the mid-20s) in January, and a whopping fifteen so far in February, including the last eight. While rainy months and frosty months aren't unusual here, months that are both rainy and frosty are, because typically it only freezes when it's clear enough for radiational cooling to take place. Unusually this month, we've had cloudy nights below freezing, culminating in a rare snowy afternoon here last week:

What does all this mean for the 2019 vintage? It's early to say. But there have been years where late February already felt like spring, with our local almond trees in bloom and us starting to worry about bud break. For the grapevines, the two most important factors that they sense and which together cue them to come out of dormancy are the amount of the daytime sunlight (less this year because of all the clouds) and the soil temperature (well below average due to the constant rainfall and the cold nights and days). So, I would predict that we'll see a later beginning to the growing season than in recent years, and likely later even than last year's late-March bud-break, which was itself a bit of a throwback to the 2000's. That would be great; the benefit of a later budbreak is that we have fewer white-knuckle nights where we have to worry about frost, since by mid-May we are past that worry. If we can push budbreak back into April, so much the better.

So, while this winter has produced more Californian grumbling about the cold and rain than I remember hearing before, we'll take it. The vineyard is in great shape, and the vines still fully dormant. The persistent rain has meant an incredibly green cover crop with plenty of food for our flock. And the fast-moving weather systems have given us rainbow after rainbow. We ❤ you, winter in Paso Robles.

Rainbow over paso robles


Ian Consoli: The Prodigal Son Returns (to Marketing)

By Linnea Frazier

With this blog I am so happy to introduce Ian Consoli, our new Marketing Assistant. I will be leaving for a cellar position in New Zealand in March, but Ian has already begun transitioning into my marketing role from the tasting room and we couldn't think of a better way to familiarize the face behind the future emails than with a blog! If you've visited our tasting room over the last year, it's likely that you tasted with this man. His knowledge and impish personality will speak for itself. 

Where were you born and raised?

The township of Roblar, 8.6 miles south of Tablas Creek.

What drew you to Central California?

I wanted to come home.

Young Ian

How did you first hear about Tablas Creek?

I used to manage business and marketing objectives for a small non-profit in Los Angeles. We were coming up on a big fundraiser and I was trying to put together a big item package. One of my childhood friends (Jake Miller) worked in the tasting room at Tablas so I asked if he thought he could help. He more than helped by putting the whole package together himself with the first donation being wine and a tour from Tablas Creek.

You've been working in the tasting room until now. What will your new role here at the winery entail?

As the new marketing assistant I will be doing a lot of listening and a fair amount of talking. If you hashtag #tablascreek or tag us on your posts, I will be the voice answering any questions you have or adding context. Same if you comment on our social media content. If we have news to share, or we're coming to your neck of the woods, you'll see my name at the end of the email. I'll be working on blogs like these so you get to know our team better. Less visibly, I'll be working behind the scenes on the digital backend to help more people find Tablas Creek if they come to Paso Robles, and our content when they're searching for topics that we've researched. I'll also be coordinating our participation in events locally and around the country. To that note hopefully you'll see me at an event near you!

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What are you most excited for in your transition from Hospitality into Marketing?

Learning. It’s what hooked me on wine in the first place and marketing, like wine, is always developing. The challenge of keeping at and ahead of trends is an exciting position to be in.

Which are your other favorite wines or wineries locally or around the world?

Tablas is my favorite winery. I think if you drink the same winery’s wines every day for a year and you still love them it’s hard to argue. After that I’m pretty true to my millennial status in my obsession with organic and biodynamic wine. Ambyth in Templeton is awesome, Lo-Fi Wines in Los Alamos is exciting, Solminer in Los Olivos is intriguing. Regionally the Loire Valley has my curiosity at the moment.

If you had to pick one red and one white to drink for the next month which would you choose?

Tablas Grenache 2016

Esprit de Tablas Blanc 2012

What is one of your favorite memories here?

The first time Neil Collins talked to me.

What would people be surprised to know about you?

I sew.

Unique Spring - Ian (002)

How do you like to spend your days off?

I like surfing so if I can I get in the water. I own an aussie named Rasta (after Dave Rastovich) and enjoying every day I can with him is a priority. I really like organizing things so as lame as it sounds I spend a lot of time going to my parent’s house and organizing their garage. I’m also taking wine business classes on the side so I donate a day to that typically. And of course going wine tasting.

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How do you define success?

Success is the measurement of smiles one sees in a lifetime.


Tasting the wines in the Spring 2019 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 6 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 introduction to wines that we'll come to know intimately in coming months and years. In some cases (like this time) where the shipments contain wines that aren't yet even bottled (they will be the last week of February) it's a chance to get to know wines that are newly finished.  I always think it's fun to give followers of the blog a first look at these notes.

Spring 2019 VINsider Shipment Wines

These shipments include wines from the 2016, 2017, and 2018 vintages.  It was fascinating to taste these three vintages, all of which we think were very strong, together, and to get a sense of how they compare.  My quick thoughts, after the tasting, are that 2016 is a deep and serious vintage, not austere, but with classic old-world savory character and the structure that should allow them to age beautifully. 2017 is a blockbuster, where every wine shows the health of the vineyard from the 43 inches of rain we received after five years of drought. The wines are exuberant and intensely juicy, but not heavy, with acids that highlight the fruit. Finally, 2018 (we only tasted two wines) seems to hit a mid-point between the two previous vintages, with lush textures yet somehow -- if one can tell that from normally cheerful wines like Vermentino and Dianthus -- an additional dose of seriousness compared to the sunny, open-natured 2017s.  I'll start with the classic mixed shipment, and then move on to the red-only and white-only shipments, noting which wines will be included in each. 

The classic shipment includes six different wines:

2019 Spring Mixed Shipment V2

2018 VERMENTINO

  • Production Notes: Our seventeenth 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 will be bottling it under screwcap at the end of February.
  • Tasting Notes: A clean, spicy Vermentino nose of grapefruit peel, citrus leaf, green herbs and sea spray. Briny. The palate starts notably creamy, then Vermentino's characteristic vibrant acids come out, highlighting flavors of white grapefruit and lemongrass, with an ocean spray note that lingers on the long, zippy finish.  Drink now and over the next few years.
  • Production: 1140 cases.

2017 ROUSSANNE

  • Production Notes: Roussanne was the one grape whose yields did not recover in 2017, but the rainfall (and the healthier vines that resulted) produced serious wines with density and yet brighter acids than we see in Roussanne lots from most years. We fermented the Roussanne lots that were selected for our varietal bottling roughly 55% in foudre, 35% in neutral oak puncheons, and 10% in small new barriques. The selected lots were blended in April 2018 then aged through the subsequent harvest before bottling this past December.
  • Tasting Notes: Precise on the nose, with aromas of lacquered wood, pear skin, ginger, and sweet spices. The mouth is clean and light on its feet for Roussanne, reminiscent of Marsanne in many ways with flavors of cantaloupe and lemongrass, medium body, and a bright finish with just a hint of sweet oak. The wine has only been in bottle for a few months and we expect it to continue to flesh out and its flavors to deepen over the next year. Hold for a few months at least, then drink over the next decade or more.
  • Production: 1050 cases

2018 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 51% Mourvèdre, 39% Grenache and 10% Counoise, bled off or pressed off after 24-36 hours on the skins. The wine was fermented in stainless steel and will be bottled later in February. This is a deeply colored, flavorful rosé, ideal with complex, powerful foods.
  • Tasting Notes: An electric pink. The nose shows powerful watermelon and cherry fruit, mint, and baking spices. The mouth is vivid, with strawberry juiciness followed by vibrant acids and a tangy plum skin impression bringing both refreshing acidity and a touch of tannin to the long finish. A rosé to convert people who think that pink wines can't be serious.  Drink before the end of 2020.
  • Production: 1500 cases

2017 COTES DE TABLAS

  • Production Notes: The Cotes de Tablas is our chance to let Grenache shine, as it does in most Chateauneuf du Pape blends. Grenache had lovely weight and expressiveness in 2017, so we used a relatively high percentage (53%) to lead the wine. Syrah (25%) adds dark fruit and minerality, and keeps Grenache's fruitiness grounded.  Additions of Counoise (12%) and Mourvedre (10%) add a savory earthiness to the wine, which was blended in June 2018 and aged in foudre until its upcoming bottling later in February.
  • Tasting Notes: Powerfully Grenache on the nose: red cherry, wild strawberry, and star anise, with the Syrah providing a little tobacco-like herby savoriness that keeps the nose from coming off confected. The mouth is deep and flavorful, with flavors of black cherry, pepper spice, and milk chocolate. Nice powdery Grenache tannins come out on the finish, leaving an impression of pithy cherry skin and wild herbs. Drink now and over the next decade.
  • Production: 2135 cases

2016 LE COMPLICE

  • Production Notes: This new blend, our first in a decade, celebrates the kinship (Le Complice means, roughly, "partners in crime") between Syrah (59%) and our newest red grape, Terret Noir (19%). Although Syrah is dark and Terret light, both share wild herby black spice, and Terret's high acids bolster Syrah's tendency toward stolidity. We added some Grenache (20%) for mid-palate fleshiness, and a touch of Roussanne (2%; co-fermented with a Syrah lot we chose) came along for the ride. The wine was blended in June of 2017, aged in foudre, bottled in April 2018, and has been aging in our cellars since.
  • Tasting Notes: On the nose, like Syrah but with a dash of translucency: minty dark chocolate, spruce forest, juniper berry, and angostura bitters. The mouth is both deep and lifted, with black plum, baker's chocolate, Seville orange peel, and savory herbs. Dusty tannins come out on the finish. We don't know how this will age, but suspect it will drink well for two decades. We are excited to find out!
  • Production: 750 cases

2016 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 rich meatiness and firm structure. Each lot was fermented individually before being selected, blended and moved to foudre to age in July 2017.  Although the Mourvedre was outstanding in 2016, and our blend reflects that (66%), the real star of the vintage was Syrah,  and the 25% Syrah we added is Panoplie's highest percentage ever. 9% Grenache adds lushness, sweet spice, and vibrancy. The wine was bottled in July 2018 and has been aged in bottle in our cellars since then.
  • Tasting Notes: A deep, inviting nose of dark red currant fruit, sweet nutmeg spice, new leather, and a little animal wildness: think drippings from a leg of lamb.  The mouth is dense with black currant, loamy earth, clove spice, and powerful tannins cloaked with lush luxardo cherry fruit. A lifted rose petal floral note comes out with some air, and sweet milk chocolate notes play with red fruit on the long finish. A delicious wine with a long life ahead; we predict two decades of life, easily.
  • Production: 760 cases

There are two additional wines (as well as second bottles of the Roussanne and Vermentino) in the white-only shipment:

2019 Spring White Shipment

2017 VIOGNIER

  • Production Notes: The productive, consistently high quality 2017 vintage allowed us to produce a varietal Viognier, which has only been the case about half the time. Viognier, known more from the northern Rhone than the area around Chateauneuf du Pape, sprouts first of all our grapes, making it the most prone to frost, but was spared in 2017 and thrived throughout the growing season. It was whole cluster pressed and fermented in stainless steel, then blended and bottled in May 2018 in screwcap, to preserve its brightness. 
  • Tasting Notes: An incredibly appealing nose, classic Viognier with a little extra lift: jasmine flowers and pineapple, meringue, and mint. The mouth is flavorful but restrained, more pineapple than peaches in syrup, with a tropical lychee note, fresh nectarine, a little pithy bite that comes out on the finish and leaves a lingering impression of white flowers and chalky minerality. This should hold for a few years at least, but really, I can't imagine it being any better than it is right now.
  • Production: 300 cases

2016 PETIT MANSENG

  • Production Notes: Our seventh bottling of this traditional grape from southwest France, Petit Manseng is best known from the appellation of Jurancon, where it has made admired but not widely disseminated sweet wines for centuries. Petit Manseng achieves sufficient concentration and sugar content -- and maintains its acids sufficiently -- to make naturally sweet, balanced wines without botrytis. Harvested at 26.8° Brix and a pH of 2.99, we fermented it in barrel, and stopped its fermentation when it had about 57.8 grams/liter of sugar left and sat at an alcohol of 13.6%. 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 July, 2017.
  • Tasting Notes: An exotic nose of crystallized pineapple, briny mineral, coconut, and lemongrass. The mouth is sweet but not overly: ripe pineapple, exotic lychee tropicality, then the acids reassert control, leaving a finish of mineral and cinnamon. Drink now or age for up to another decade for a nuttier character.
  • Production: 125 cases

Three additional reds join the Panoplie, Cotes de Tablas, and Le Complice in the red-only shipment:

2019 Spring Red Shipment

2016 TANNAT

  • Production Notes: Our fifteenth 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 2018, and then aged it another 6 months in bottle before release. 
  • Tasting Notes: On the nose, expressive: boysenberry, brambly spice, black mission figs, with a menthol herbiness and Tannat's characteristic (and welcome) floral undertone that always reminds me of violets. The mouth is beautifully balanced, and more approachable than often is the case with young Tannat, chewy with flavors of black cherry, meat drippings, rosemary, baker's chocolate, a little spicy oak, and a graphite-like minerality. Tannat's tannins are quite refined, cleaning up the wine on the finish and leaving impressions of black plum skin, pepper spice, and mineral. A wine to drink any time over the next two decades.
  • Production: 770 cases

2016 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.  Mourvedre, like all our reds, saw recovered yields compared to 2015, but still only tallied a below-average 2.1 tons/acre. All our lots were fermented in large wooden tanks and moved it to neutral barrels to await blending.  For our varietal Mourvedre, we choose the friendlier, more open lots, which were blended in the spring of 2017, then aged in foudre until bottling in August of 2018.
  • Tasting Notes: A lifted, comparatively high-toned nose for Mourvedre, with aromas of leather, blood orange, garrigue, and allspice. The mouth is more classic, with Mourvedre's signature redcurrant, leather, loam, and sweet spices, medium body, and excellent balance. The finish is refreshing, with gentle, chewy tannins. Just 12% alcohol. Drink now for a brighter impression, or age for 10-15 years for deeper tones.
  • Production: 810 cases

2017 PATELIN DE TABLAS

  • Production Notes: Patelin is French slang for "neighborhood" and the Patelin de Tablas is our red Rhone-style blend sourced from seven great neighboring Rhone vineyards (plus our own). We base the wine on the spicy savoriness of Syrah (48%), with Grenache (32%) providing juiciness and freshness, and Mourvedre (16%) and Counoise (4%) earth and structure. Fermented in a mix of upright oak fermenters and stainless steel tanks and aged in wooden uprights, it was bottled in July 2018 and has been aging in bottle since.
  • Tasting Notes: A lovely nose, very Syrah, of pine forest, pancetta, blackberry, and dried herbs. The mouth is juicier than the nose suggests, with smoky blackberry, licorice root, crushed rock, and saddle leather, with chalky tannins and flavors of black cherry and freshly turned earth that come out on the finish. Delicious now, but still fleshing out, and with the substance and balance to age for up to a decade.
  • Production: 3580 cases

If you're a wine club member, you should make your reservation for our shipment tasting party, where we open all the wines in the most recent club shipment for VINsiders to try. This spring's party will be on Sunday, March 31st.  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


Are the gloomy messages about the state of the wine industry warranted? I say not for wineries like us.

I've spent much of the last two weeks at wine industry symposia: first the Direct to Consumer Wine Symposium in Concord, CA, and then the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium another hour north in Sacramento. I spoke on panels at both, at the first on measuring ROI on winery events, and at the second on technical and market challenges and opportunities for rosés. But I also took advantage of being there already -- and the free passes that come with being a speaker -- to sit in on some of the other sessions. Both events began with "state of the industry" reports, with quite different outlooks.

DTC Wine Symposium SessionPhoto courtesy DTC Wine Symposium

The core message I took home from the DTC Symposium was mostly positive: that direct-to-consumer wine sales continue to grow at a healthy rate, with shipping totals topping $3 billion for the first time in 2018, and growth coming broadly across wineries of all sizes.  What's more, the tools that wineries have to capture, analyze, and fulfill these consumer-direct sales have never been better.  The take-home message from Unified was less positive, with worries about declining sales at restaurants and supermarkets, grape market oversupply, demographic challenges for wineries as their prime customer base (mostly Baby Boomers) ages, and challenges connecting with Millennials through traditional wine marketing. These have spawned some much-discussed articles (within the wine community, anyway) containing lots of hand-wringing about what the future might bring to California wine. A couple (click-bait titles notwithstanding) will give you a sense of the worries:

In a second piece, on his own blog (Millennials are talking but the wine industry isn't listening) Blake Gray identifies some of the barriers that may be keeping Millennials from gravitating toward wine, at least at this point in their lives: the industry's resistance to transparency in labeling, its steadfast promotion of just a small handful of grape varieties, and an inability (or unwillingness) on behalf of wineries to engage with the Millennial consumer. I'd add a few others, including the often high price of premium wines and winery experiences, which puts them outside the reach of many cash-strapped Millennials, the marketing of wine as elite (which often crosses the line and comes across as elitist, to an audience that prizes authenticity), and the dominance of shelf space in the wholesale and grocery markets by a handful of large wine companies, when what every study of Millennials indicates they want is 1) a closer relationship with real people behind the products they consume, and 2) confidence that those products are produced in a way that matches their values.

So, which is it? Are wineries in good shape, or are there dark clouds on the horizon? As is usual with complicated questions, it depends on where you're looking, and over what time frame.

Let's look at the negatives first. Some of the largest wine companies (including Bronco, Gallo, and Constellation Brands, all of whose sales skew toward lower-priced wine in chain retail) saw sales decline last year. Many traditional fine dining restaurants have closed or rebranded as consumer trends have shifted toward more casual experiences. Nielsen data showed that overall wine retail sales declined slightly (0.5%) by volume last year, at least in the 70% of retailers that participate in the Nielsen data collection.1 The combination of distributor consolidation and winery proliferation have made it harder for most small-to-medium wineries to sell through the wholesale channel. And tasting room visitation was down in many established regions in 2018, including Napa and Sonoma, even as tourism was up.2 So, if you are a small-to-medium winery who wants to sell their production through wholesale, a large winery whose sales skew toward the lower end of the retail spectrum, or a winery in an established region whose customer acquisition mostly happens in your tasting room, you likely have cause to worry.

On the positive side, winery direct-to-consumer shipped sales grew again in 2018, by about 12%, to more than $3 billion, a figure nearly triple what it was just in 2011.3 Wineries can now ship to 90% of the US population, with the right permits. The average price of a bottle of wine sold increased both in three-tier retail and in direct-to-consumer last year. Although tasting room visits are down in many areas, our experience is that people are spending longer when they do visit, are more interested than ever in learning the story and the practices behind the wines, and are happy to spend more: our average sale per visitor was up 8% last year. The price ranges of wine that saw sales declines were the under-$10 bottles (at which, I think it's fair to say, California does not excel) while all higher price points saw sales growth. And most importantly, total winery sales, when you take direct-to-consumer into account, grew 4% in 2018. That means that the pie continues to grow, and it seems like it's primed to continue to grow in the segments that most impact wineries of our general size (small to medium) and profile (producing wines between $25 and $60, with DTC providing the majority but not the totality of our revenue).

Some of what I see as more equivocal data has been painted in the most negative light. There are some demographic trends that wineries need to plan for. Wine's largest audience, for the last two decades, has been Baby Boomers, and with the average Boomer reaching retirement age -- the time at which, historically, cohorts start spending less on wine -- they will need younger generations to step in. And GenXers, of which I am a proud member, have been doing so. Will Millennials, who are a larger cohort than GenX, step up when it is their turn? It remains to be seen. But I think that the doom and gloom about them is pretty overblown. The median age of a Millennial is 30, but the Millennials at the peak of the demographic bubble are just 24. Were many Baby Boomers drinking wine at age 30, let alone 24? No. How about GenX? Not much. Millennials are drinking more wine than preceding generations were at the same age, which should be a positive enough trend. But I think the news is better than that, at least for wineries like us. They are also much more likely to drink craft beer or craft cocktails, to be interested in the source and making of the foods and drinks they consume, to have grown up in a wine-drinking household, and to be open to trying wines from new grapes and new growing areas.

Are many Millennials hamstrung by the poor job market when they entered the work force and saddled with student debt? Absolutely. But even if they never attain the buying power of earlier generations, it seems to me that the sorts of wines that Millennials are likely to embrace are the sorts of wines that wineries like Tablas Creek would like them to embrace: smaller family run wineries, from organically farmed vineyards, incorporating grapes that may be outside the mainstream but are good fits for their growing locations, and wines that offer value, at whatever price point.

Does that sound like a gloomy future? Not to me.

Footnotes:

  • 1. Note that there are some important retailers whose data is not included, most notably Costco, and that the Nielsen data also does not include winery DTC sales.
  • 2. All these data points are from (and beautifully explained in) the 2019 SVB Wine Report, the industry's gold standard for data collection and analysis. 
  • 3. This data point and the ones that follow come from the 2019 ShipCompliant Direct to Consumer Wine Shipping Report