My wine warmed up in transit. Is it still OK?

Like most wineries, with our tasting room closed the last two months we've seen a surge in phone and e-commerce wine orders. Some of these customers are regulars in ordering wine, but we know that for a lot of them, this is a new thing. For the first six weeks of the quarantine, we benefited from mostly cool weather around the country, but the last two weeks have warmed up and we've begun our annual weather watch to make sure that our shipments to you go out and arrive when the weather is as cool as possible.

Unfortunately, summer is coming, and there will soon be swathes of the country that will be hot for months. Does this mean you can't order wine? And while it always ships out cool, if it does warm up in transit, is it damaged? I've received a handful of questions about this in the past couple of weeks, and, following my own advice from 13 years ago, it seems like that means it's a good subject for a blog.

First, it's important to know what is happening when a wine warms up, what the warning signs are that your wine might be affected, and if so, what your options are. I'll take those in turn.

What happens chemically as wine warms up
The short answer is not much... unless oxygen gets into the bottle. And then, look out. In general, a wine bottle is a sealed environment, and unless that seal is compromised (see below) the difference between what goes on chemically at 55°F and 90°F is pretty minimal. Long-term, the storage of wine at higher temperatures is likely to age a wine more quickly, as the slow, gradual chemical processes that break down a wine's tannic structure and fruit, while producing deeper, earthier flavors speed up like most temperature-sensitive chemical reactions. But wine often gets up in the 80°F-90°F range during fermentation without negative effects, and over the course of a few hours, unless it gets really hot, your concerns shouldn't be the chemistry as much as the physics. Read on.

What happens physically as wine warms up
Wine is a liquid, typically about 85% water, 13% ethanol, and 2% all the other things that give it color and flavor. That means that physically, it acts more or less like water. And water, like most substances, expands as it gets warm. Unlike most substances, it also expands when it gets really cold (below 4°C) and expands significantly when it freezes (as everyone knows if they've forgotten a bottle of wine in the freezer and had it break). The graph below (from Wikipedia, by Klaus-Dieter Keller) shows the density of water at various temperatures.

2560px-Density_of_ice_and_water_(en).svg

Of relevance for your wine in transit (hopefully) is what's going on between normal storage temperature (say, 55°F/13°C) and what might happen if a package were riding around on a hot day and got up to 95°F/35°C. You can see that the density of water would change, on a sliding scale, from about .999 kg/m3 to about .994 kg/m3. That may not sound like much, but it results in an increase in volume of about half a percent. That changes 750ml of wine to 753.75ml. Since the head space (the space that's filled with air between the cork and the liquid) is typically between 4ml and 7ml, the expansion of the liquid would pressurize that air. Although air is quite compressible, eventually it will seek to escape, and there's only one way out of a bottle: past the cork, either by pushing the cork out the neck of the bottle, or by squeezing wine (or air) between the cork and the bottle. Neither is good news, because in either case the cork's seal has been compromised.

Know the warning signs for overheated wine
There are two things to look for. Either will let you know you have a problem. The first is to see if you can find evidence of any wine that has escaped past the cork. Typically, that will leave a sticky residue on the outside of the neck of the bottle. You may also be able to smell the wine. Once this has happened, the trail of wine on the outside of the cork provides a pathway for oxygen that's outside the bottle to make its way into the bottle at a rate far faster than in an uncompromised seal. Once oxidation starts, the clock is ticking. It's usually not hard to miss, though white wines can be a little less conspicuous:

Leaker Bottle

No seeping wine? That's good. The next thing to check is to see whether the expansion of the liquid has pushed the cork up into the capsule. That's not as bad as seepage, but it's not good. Typically it does weaken the seal of the cork, and often wine has seeped up around the cork even if it hasn't made its way all the way outside the bottle. Plus, if the air in the bottle gets pushed out past the cork by expanding wine, once the liquid cools, its contraction creates a vacuum inside the bottle, which tends to suck air back in past the cork. That introduces new oxygen (not good) and further compromises the seal (also not good). In the below photo, the foreground cork has pushed enough to make me suspicious, while the one in the background is clearly concave:

Pushed Cork

What to do next
If your wine arrives with signs of heat damage (pushed corks or leaking wine) snap a photo and let whoever sent it to you know as soon as you can. Most wineries and wine shops will replace it, no questions asked. Then stash the wines in your fridge and plan to consume the bottles in the next few days. Even if the oxidation process has begun, it's a temperature-sensitive reaction and will be slowed by cooler temperatures (this is why it's always smart to put an opened but unfinished bottle in the fridge to preserve it). And unless it was hot for a long time, the wine will probably be fine to drink in the short term (like a week or two). But at this point, it's not a candidate for aging.

If your wine arrives warm but you don't see any signs of seepage or pushed cork, you're probably OK. Get that wine cooled down as soon as you can, because the seeping could be happening invisibly, and the sooner you reduce the wine's volume the better. When you eventually do open it, the thing to look for is notes of oxidation. This article on Wine Folly does a great job of describing the symptoms: browning of red wines or darkening of whites, and aromas more like sherry or nuts. If you find that, don't feel bad about requesting a replacement. Even without visible symptoms, if a cork's seal is compromised and has been leaking oxygen for months or years, the wine had no shot.


A Wine-Themed Pandemic Reading List

By Ian Consoli

Part of my role as the marketing coordinator for Tablas Creek is to stay connected with people in every department. With the recent stay-at-home order and our transition to working from home, I am missing that role and the conversations that come with it.

As I thought back through those conversations I recalled a common thread: a whole heck-of-a-lot of us love to read.  Whether it’s the latest book that we’ve picked up, a recent article, or a blog, if you’re a reader you’ll understand how exciting it is to say, “I’m reading so-and-so right now,” and inevitably someone in the room says, “I’ve read that book, it’s amazing!”

With that in mind, I reached out to our team to gather a wine-themed reading list. It seems like the whole Tablas Creek community could use a good book or seven right now, to complement the binging of Netflix and the rehearsing of TikTok dances (don’t ask) we're all doing. And maybe by the next time you visit us in our tasting room, after this whole thing is over, you’ll bring up the wine book you’re reading and the person on the other side of the bar will say, “Hey, I’ve read that book. It’s amazing!”

Enjoy the recommendations from the members of our Tablas Team in alphabetical order, in their own words. Anything look familiar? We’d love to hear your thoughts. Something missing on this list? Please share it with us in the comments.

Tablas Creek Bookshelf

Neil Collins, Winemaker

First book that comes to mind is Adventures on the Wine Route by Kermit Lynch, I read this book very early in my career and found it very inspiring in fact I still do.

The other book that I would recommend is Devil in the Kitchen by Chef Marco Pierre White. Although this is actually not a wine book rather a book by a chef, I find the lengths to which he went in pursuit of perfection very inspiring. He is also out of crazy!

Sandi Crewe, Wine Educator:

He said Beer She said Wine by Marnie Old and Sam Calagione

It is about “beverage options from more than one angle.” Sam is a brewer and owner of Dogfish Head (which sold to Boston Beer Company last year). Marnie is a sommelier, author and wine educator.

My son and I became seriously interested in the beer and wine worlds at about the same time. As he became a professional brewer and more passionate about beer, it made me cognizant of the similarities with wine. I wanted to share his passion and the book helped me to better speak his new language. On the other hand, he attended a few of my wine classes. Now we share beer and wine tastings whenever we can find the time. I particularly enjoyed the beer and wine food pairing information presented.

I recommend the book because it is a great source for beer and wine lovers alike. It gives very basic information on flavors and styles of beer and wine. Best of all, I feel closer to my son because of our common ground.

Darren Delmore, National Sales Manager

Wines of the Rhone Valley by Robert Mayberry

I somehow savored this dusty tome like a divorcée on a Provence-bound train reading "Eat Pray Love". This circa-1987 book got me through the later stages of my broken foot in January and into the first part of this other crisis. Anyone interested in how the Rhone Valley was set up and governed, or its personalities and history of the grape varietals, will find this book more than alive today. The winemakers give away most of their secrets, and the section on Tavel alone had me buying a couple cases from Domaine de la Mordoree on presale. The author's jazzy, matter-of-fact take on good and bad bottles and vintages reveals a true wine enthusiast who was well trusted by the profiled vignerons. In between the Cornas and Crozes Hermitage chapters an old, unsmoked cigarette fell out of the pages, which I contemplated lighting alongside a bottle of Domaine des Alexandrins.

Meghan Dunn, Publications

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

Perhaps only tangentially related to wine, but I recommend A Discovery of Witches (and the rest of the All Souls trilogy), by Deborah Harkness. It defies easy categorization, but combines fantasy, historical fiction, and romance -- witches and vampires unite to trace a missing alchemical manuscript through history. The main character is a vampire who is extremely knowledgeable about wine, and there are evocative passages about wine pairings and historic vintages, all described by a super-human taster with centuries of experience. It's great escapist fiction! (Harkness is a history professor at USC who published an award-winning wine blog for several years, so she knows her stuff!)

Chelsea Franchi, Senior Assistant Winemaker

The Quick Read (with solid, useful information):

The New Wine Rules by Jon Bonné

This book is completely without pretense and a fun, easy, fast read (it’s a thin book) but it’s chock full of great, easy-to-digest information.  I wouldn’t necessarily say this book is for a wine professional, though I wouldn’t say it isn’t; sometimes it’s good to be reminded of certain things!  For someone looking to increase their wine drinking confidence, this is a well-written collection that will make you (even more) excited about your next glass of wine.

The Historical Account That Reads Like Fiction:

The Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting that Revolutionized Wine by George M. Taber

This is an exciting, hopeful story about the (then) young-guns of California wine and how they opened the eyes to the rest of the world that California (and, as an extension, other parts of the world) can produce world-class wines.  It’s a true story, but it has everything that a fiction lover like myself could want: character development, recognizable locations (not just Napa, but specific wineries that are now household names) and drama.

The “There Is A Lot Going On In The World And I Just Want to Read Something That Will Make Me Smile”: French Lessons:

Adventures with Knife, Fork and Corkscrew by Peter Mayle

This is not a wine book.  This is one man’s stories from his time spent living in France (if the name sounded familiar, he’s the author of A Year in Provence) and the hedonistic and delightful experiences that follow.  Each chapter is a different story, so it’s technically possible to read a little bit and then walk away – though I couldn’t put it down.  I especially loved the chapters devoted to the Bordeaux Marathon, the black truffle Catholic Mass, and the Michelin Guide.  If you’re looking to read something that will keep a grin on your face, this is my pick.  Unfortunately, it will definitely give you some wanderlust.

Jason Haas, Partner and General Manager

Billionaire's Vinegar by Benjamin Wallace.

The true story of the unraveling of a complicated con, set in motion with the 1987 auctioning at Christie's of what were purported to be bottles of 1787 Chateau Lafite owned by Thomas Jefferson and discovered in a sealed Paris cellar. The book reads like a mystery novel, and takes you inside the world of collectors, auction houses, and the shadowy figures that keep both supplied with ever more incredible discoveries. Of course, it becomes clear, if it's too good to be true, it's probably not.

Proof by Dick Francis.

OK, this is a mystery, not a wine book. But I've been looking for escape in my reading in recent weeks. Dick Francis is my favorite mystery writer. His novels usually revolve around the world of English horse racing, but for this book he chose a main character whose occupation is the owner of a neighborhood wine shop, and a plot that involves a fraud of replacing famous wines and whiskeys with cheap, generic plonk. The glimpses into the world of European wine are spot on, the description of blind tasting and the difference between adequate and great wine explained well, and the storytelling and prose have the crystal clarity the author is famous for. Appropriate for an author who is supposed to have said that he could give a confident character description of anyone after a five minutes look at their wine cellar.

Haydee McMickle, Wine Educator

Red, White and Drunk All Over: A wine Soaked Journey from Grape to Glass by Natalie MacLean, 2007

12 years ago this was a refreshing alternative to dry information. It assuaged my inner voice of awkwardness and insecurity as it pertains to wine and the culture. I found the poetic quirkiness curiously enjoyable.

MacLean, a sommelier, takes a journey from vineyard to cellar to retail shop, restaurant and dining room, she also travels with her insecurities. Imagine her tasting with Aubert de Villaine, the proprietor of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.

This is a fun book, nothing stuffy here yet you pick up a few tidbits.

This is in the category of summer beach read. It’s funny and approachable. The jacket says it all, it reads “...this bodice-ripping wine book.”

John Morris, Tasting Room Manager

There’s nothing like giving a shout out to one of our own, and recommending a book that’s a lot of fun at the same time. Slave to the Vine: Confessions of a Vagabond Cellarhand, by Tablas Creek National Sales Manager Darren Delmore.

Darren invites us along on a rollicking trek of a wonderfully chaotic crush.  I love how the real story of harvest is told: dirty, wet, exhausting yet exhilarating.  Darren has a deft comic touch, and the writing gets better and more engaging as the book unfolds.  I look forward to follow-up, Lucky Country: Confessions of a Vagabond Cellarhand.

Monica O’Connor, Direct Sales Manager

Real Wine by Patrick Matthews

It’s about history and natural wine making, and Bob Haas is mentioned I believe on the very first page!

Gustavo Prieto, Tasting Room Lead and Head of Biodynamic Practices

The Botanist and the Vintner by Christy Campbell,

This book is about the history of phylloxera in France. It covers how and when it was  brought from the US to France, all the efforts people took at the time to try to understand what was happening to their vineyards, and the experiments they first used to try to control the problem. All leading up to how they finally were able to discover the solution with the use of rootstocks. It’s interesting that phylloxera started right next door to Chateauneuf It’s a great read and a great story.

Another great book that I use all the time and is a great source for anything wine related is The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson. I think this was the first wine book that I ever owned.

Deborah Sowerby, Wine Educator

American Rhone by Patrick Comiskey

Mr. Comiskey did a fantastic job of tracing back to the roots movement of the Rhone varieties and their hosts. To start he shares the genesis relating to the three leading red varieties, an emphasis on Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre and how (up to the point of release of the book) the other Châteauneuf-du-Pape varieties were received. He shares with us the cast of characters (with historic photographs) that played a role in introducing us, the American public, to these hallowed grapes. He shares with us their belief, vision, tenacity and fortitude to bring these varieties to the U.S. through avenues of transportation in one’s suitcase or the path and patience through quarantine. As well as the work devoted to propagation, and years invested in the annual harvest and making of these Rhône varieties, resulting in the fine wines we enjoy today all thanks to the Rhône Rangers and those that followed.

My favorite photo's: Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, Robert Haas and Jean-Pierre Perrin, our old friends John Alban, Mat Garretson and Gary Eberle and the group pictures of the gathering of French and American producers at the International Colloquium event held in 1991 organized by Robert Haas. Historic.

My favorite chapter: 15 - Tablas Creek the Validator (of course).

Nathan Stuart, Shepherd

The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil

MacNeil keeps you interested and is constantly recommending pairings and cuisine from each region to go with the wine of the area. Still to this day when I open a bottle of white from the Loire Valley or a Syrah from Hermitage I go back to the images and stories from her book.

At a time like this when travel is impossible this book will let you explore the world from your living room and leave you with a great foundational understanding of the world of wine.

I recommend this book if you’re new to the world of wine. She does an amazing job of drawing you in and taking you to the major wine regions of the world.

Jim and Debbie Van Haun, Wine Educator and Accountant Respectively

The Global Encyclopedia of Wine by Peter Forrestal

This was a great resource for us when we bought our Alicante Bouschet 10-acre vineyard back in late 1998.

The history of growing grapes & wine making around the world is fascinating. Alicante was replaced with several of the Rhône varietals in France & Spain and that is exactly what we eventually did. Alicante was very popular during prohibition because of its dark juice.

This book is a great source of information.

Ian Consoli, Marketing Coordinator

So what am I reading?

Natural Wine: An introduction to organic and biodynamic wines made naturally by Isabelle Legeron

This book clearly lays out the natural wine making process, identifies icons in the industry, and helps you find natural wine producers throughout the world.

I purchased Natural Wine early on in my wine career from a local biodynamic estate and I am so glad I did. While the focus is obviously on natural wine, the really lasting knowledge I gained from the book was insight into the wine making process. It was the first time the whole process clicked for me. I gained a high level of respect for low-intervention winemakers.

I recommend it to anyone who wants to know more about winemaking or wants to know more about natural wine. Reading this book literally changed my palate.

Conclusion…

Of the 20 books listed above (including my own) I was shocked to learn that I’ve only read five of them. On top of that, I assumed there would be many people selecting the same favorites; however, there was only one instance of this (Billionaire’s Vinegar) and it was listed along with a second recommendation in both cases. We also had multiple more recommendations that were left out. Perhaps we’ll save those for another post.

Until then, happy reading!


A last look back at the winter of 2019-20

This week, it finally feels like we've made the pivot from spring to summer. After several weeks of cool, wet weather, which delayed the spread of budbreak and encouraged an explosion of cover crop growth, this week it's sunny and warm. It's hit 82, 87, and 90 the last three days, quadrupling our total number of 80+ days in 2020. We're supposed to see another week or more of temperatures in the mid-to-upper 80s, and there's no rain on the horizon.

Fruit trees in bloom

With that backdrop, I thought it would be a good time to look back on our most recent winter and see how it compares to other recent years. First, a look at rainfall by month:

Winter Rainfall Graph 2019-20 vs Average

You can see our late beginning to the rainy season (that November rainfall didn't start until the 26th), the wet December, a record-dry January and February, and the relatively wet last two months. Overall, with only limited prospects for additional precipitation, we're at 16.97" of rain for the winter, 71% of our 24-year average. That's lower than we'd like to see, of course, but with a wet winter last year, it's OK, and better than 10 of those 24 years:

Rainfall by Winter 1996-2020

In terms of temperature, we saw 30 below-freezing nights, with our first at the end of October and our last just two weeks ago, on April 7th. Over the last decade, we've averaged 34.5 below-freezing nights, so overall, this year was pretty normal. (If you're curious, our frostiest recent winter was 2011-12, with 57 below-freezing nights, and our least frosty was 2014-15, with just 13.) Our frostiest month was January, which, as you can see below, isn't always the case. Many years, it's too wet in January for it to drop below freezing. Compared to the rest of the last decade:

Below Freezing Nights 2019-20 vs Avg
My sense that March and April were cooler than normal is reflected in the graph above, as well as in the fact that our average high temperatures in March (59.8°F) and April (65.5°F) were colder than the average highs in January (60°F) and February (68.3°F). I don't remember ever seeing that before!

The net result is a vineyard that's in excellent shape to attack the growing season with vigor. The cover crops are lush and deep, and Nathan is starting to cut and bale the sections that the flock couldn't get into in the last six or so weeks. You can see the height of the cover crops dramatically in the vineyard blocks where we've mowed every-other row, to give better air drainage and protect the new growth from frost:

Mowed vs not

So far, we've seen zero frost damage even from our couple of early-April below-freezing nights, as they affected only the lowest-lying areas, none of which had yet sprouted. The below Grenache block is in one of those lower areas, and it is healthy, vigorous, and doing its best to make up for lost time:  

New Growth - Grenache

This is one of my favorite times of year in the vineyard. Everything is still green, new growth is exploding out of the gnarled vine trunks, and the vineyard's patterns are starting to come into focus as we begin the long process of turning the cover crops under so they can decompose and provide nutrients to the vines' roots. It's going to be an even longer process than usual this year. The section in the valley in the below photo is Tannat that we turned under in late February, hoping to get a jump on the weeding process. It's already regrown. 

Long View - Tablas Creek lots of cover crop

For scale, here's me in the Pinot Noir vineyard at my mom's house that is the source of the Tablas Creek Full Circle Pinot Noir. Not pictured: Sadie, who like the vines isn't tall enough to be visible in the high grass:

JCH in high grass

Overall, it's hard not to be optimistic. Wildflowers are everywhere, and the vineyard looks healthy and beautiful as we begin turning the cover crops under. If it's a little shaggier than normal for late April, well, it's not alone. We're all a bit overdue for a haircut.


Why we're going to be a better business after this Coronavirus shutdown

Last week, I made a small appearance in Eric Asimov's excellent assessment of how the various disruptions caused by the Coronavirus are impacting American wine producers. If you haven't read For American Wine Producers, Fear, Uncertainty and Hope go read it now. OK, welcome back.

New_York_Times_Jason_Haas_Apr10_2020
Jim Wilson/The New York Times

The article included a photo (right) from Eric’s last visit to Tablas Creek, in the depths of the 2012-2016 drought. The 2015 article that resulted noted that at Tablas Creek, "the vineyard has managed to thrive despite the drought." And that's true. We had a string of excellent harvests as the drought really took hold, with each of 2014, 2015 and 2016 producing memorable wines across three different vintage signatures.

Re-reading the article today, I don't think I emphasized to Eric enough that we made it through that drought not principally because of our location (though we do get more rain here than much of the Central Coast, thanks to our location at altitude, in the Santa Lucia foothills, and relatively close to the Pacific) but because of a series of extraordinary actions we took to reduce our demand for water.

These included rethinking how we planted new vineyard (much more widely spaced) so that we could set them up for success dry-farmed. It included new, deeper-rooting rootstocks. It included micro-emitters for frost protection. And it included investing in cover crops and a much larger animal flock. The flock and cover crop together increase our soil’s carbon content, which allows it to hold more moisture. In Paso Robles, we don’t have a water table at root-available depth, and it doesn’t rain for six months every year. The soil is our reservoir, if we allow it to be. [For a deep dive into how our farming changed during the drought, check out my 3-part series Dry Farming in California's Drought.]

Why mention this now? While the outside shock is different, we’re in the middle of another shock right now that is forcing us to rethink how we operate. Coronavirus is a demand shock rather than a supply shock like a drought, but we’re having to reinvent ourselves as a business the way we did as a farm last decade.

Without many of the ways we’ve always interacted with customers (tasting room, events, festivals) we’re investing in new technology. The first things we rolled out utilize the live interactive capabilities of our social media platforms. I've been hosting Instagram Live broadcasts every Wednesday at noon PDT, inviting a guest to dive into the world of Tablas Creek. Neil has started hosting weekly tastings on Facebook Live, also with a guest, of two wines each Friday at 5pm PDT. Our tasting room has launched virtual Zoom tastings, where customers can choose a pre-made pack of half-bottles, order wines they want to open and discuss, or just taste through wines they have on hand, led by one of our senior tasting room team members. We've ramped up our investment in video; we've been adding a deep-dive into a recently released wine to our Chelsea and the Shepherd series each week, and now have a YouTube channel to collect them all.

What do all of these initiatives have in common? We're meeting customers where they are, instead of asking them to come to us. We didn't really have a choice; with our tasting room and restaurants closed, and events canceled both here at the winery and around the country, the typical avenues through which we'd interact with our customers are unavailable. But I'm convinced that many or most of these new initiatives will remain valuable enough to keep doing them even once we can reopen our tasting room, resume pouring at festivals and reschedule those restaurant wine dinners that we'd planned to host this spring. After all, we’d discussed doing, or even made starts on, many of these new initiatives before the arrival of Coronavirus, but this crisis made us attack these new programs with urgency.

All of these new initiatives have in common that they are location-independent. Of course, when you're stuck in your house, it doesn't really matter whether Tablas Creek is 30 miles away or 3000. But I'm convinced that the lessons we're learning will allow us to better connect with customers near and far. Even our local customers weren’t making weekly trips to visit us. What's more, the majority of our current customers and an even larger share of our potential customers don't live an easy drive from Paso Robles. In the periodic surveys we do to former wine club members, we always see responses that they weren't able to take advantage of the events we offered because of their distance from Paso Robles. We think of limitations like that as constant, but they're really not. We weren't utilizing the tools we had to offer opportunities to learn about and become more connected to what we're doing. But we are now.

Jason on video chat with Sadie

After the drought ended, we realized that the new things we’d learned to do in the vineyard led to healthier vines, better fruit, and wines with more character even when they weren’t existentially necessary. I don’t think it’s coincidence that 2017-2019 is maybe our best-ever run.

I think we're going to see something similar here. Just as we emerged from the drought better farmers, so too will we come out of this crisis a stronger business and industry.


We're not about to reopen. Which means it's the right time to think about what that will look like.

Wherever you are and whatever you do for work, I hope you’re weathering the current storm OK. Here, even though as an agricultural enterprise we've been able to continue our farming and cellar work, we've had to begin reinventing how we work as a business. I feel good about the things we've added, including Instagram and Facebook live weekly broadcasts, virtual tastings over Zoom, and an increased investment in sharing what's happening here over video. We even have our own YouTube channel now.

New Tasting Room - EmptyAgricultural businesses are classified as essential, because we’re working with perishable products that often have only one harvest a year, and are the building blocks of the food and drink supply chain. But unless we want to risk infecting our workers and our customers, that status doesn't give us leave to operate as though the business environment were normal. When we were blending at Tablas Creek week-before-last, we made several changes to do what we could to minimize the risks that if one of us were infected but asymptomatic we might transmit the virus. I talked about some of those in last week's blog. With six people distributed around our big conference table, we all had plenty of space. We all pulled and washed our own glasses and dump buckets. The sample bottles were wiped down before they were poured, and only one person picked up and poured each bottle. We kept doors and windows open so there was air moving in the room. We'd all been quarantining at home the previous two weeks, and everyone was healthy. As we've started physically blending the wines, we've limited our cellar team to two people at a time.

Even as we're reevaluating how we can safely operate under current conditions, I've spent a lot of the enforced downtime thinking about how and under what conditions we and other hospitality-facing businesses will be able to reopen. At some point, the shelter at home Coronavirus restrictions will be lifted. I've come to the conclusion that it's very unlikely that we'll go back to pre-Covid status quo.

I'm clearly not the only one thinking about this. As discussions ramp up on lifting local and national restrictions, some of the heavyweights of the American business community are weighing in. The American Enterprise Institute, which you'd think would come down on the side of restarting the economy sooner than later, laid out some pretty rigorous preconditions in their report on how the economy might reopen:

"...when a state reports a sustained reduction in cases for at least 14 days (i.e., one incubation period); and local hospitals are safely able to treat all patients requiring hospitalization without resorting to crisis standards of care; and the capacity exists in the state to test all people with COVID-19 symptoms, along with state capacity to conduct active monitoring of all confirmed cases and their contacts."  

Similarly, JPMorgan Chase's Jamie Dimon, in the annual letter to his shareholders he published last week, predicted a complex series of events that would need to take place before the American economy could start to get back to normal, and ongoing restrictions once it does:

"It is hoped that the number of new COVID-19 cases will decrease soon and – coupled with greatly enhanced medical capabilities (more beds, proper equipment where it is needed, adequate testing) – the healthcare system is equipped to take care of all Americans, both minimizing their suffering and maximizing their chance of living. Once this occurs, people can carefully start going back to work, of course with proper social distancing, vigilant hygiene, proper testing and other precautions."

We won't be the only (or first) economy to figure out how to safely relax the restrictions that have allowed us to slow the spread of Covid-19. An article in the New York Times examined how a few European countries are going about restarting their economies. From their conclusion: “The gradual acceleration of economic activity is accompanied by strict new rules requiring people to cover their nose and mouth in shops and on public transport — and many more months of strict social distancing.

So, what will a winery tasting room look like once we can reopen, whenever that is? It won't, I don't think, look like it did over the last two decades. We will almost certainly face restrictions to the activities we can conduct, and even if we don't, we will need to operate responsibly. I'm thinking it may resemble the brief period after social distancing measures were announced but before all tasting rooms had to close. Restaurants removed tables. Our tasting room moved to tasting-by-reservation so we could keep six feet between groups. Everyone started cleaning and disinfecting much more rigorously.

This is the time, before we're faced with the imminent arrival of customers, when we should all be thinking about we can reopen safely. How many customers will we safely be able to welcome at a time? What sorts of events will we be able to hold? What will we need to do to make sure that our team is safe? I don't know, but am trying to plan for it. Assuming we'll just go back to status quo ante isn't smart.

This great article by Thomas Pueyo called "The Hammer and the Dance" was widely shared last month. We're all working on the hammer now. But there will be a longer period of the dance, where we've reopened but are constantly mitigating risks. Now seems like a good time for us all to start thinking about what that will look like, and examining the pieces of our business that will likely have to change.

I look forward to figuring this all out, as a community.


Report from the distanced blending table: 2019 is a vintage of remarkable power and texture

Last week, six of us emerged after two weeks at home to put together the white wines from the 2019 vintage. This was a smaller group than normal, a blending with no Perrin in attendance and the Tablas Creek participants reduced to a core six (Neil, Chelsea, Craig, Austin, Jordy, and me) in the interest of maintaining social distance. Still, it was a relief for all of us to have some social contact and I know it felt great for me to get out of crisis management mode and immerse myself in the familiar intellectual challenge of taking the 37 different white lots we had at the end of the 2019 harvest and turning them into Esprit de Tablas Blanc, Cotes de Tablas Blanc, and a collection of varietal wines.

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

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

2019 white blending notes

My quick thoughts on each variety are below. For context, in a normal year, for every 10 lots we might see 3-4 "1" grades, 5-6 "2" grades and 1 "3" grade. As you'll see, lots of good grades this year. 

  • Roussanne (12 lots): Some of the best Roussanne lots I can remember in my 18 years doing this. Overall, powerful and concentrated, but not overripe or alcoholic, with better-than-usual acids. Oodles of Roussanne character, across a range of different barrel treatments and vineyard blocks. My grades: five 1’s, a 1/2 that I loved but thought might be too oaky for Esprit, three 2’s, two 2/3 lots that in a weaker year probably would have been solid 2's, and one 3 that will be declassified.
  • Grenache Blanc (7 lots): Some really nice Grenache Blanc, but a little out of the Grenache Blanc mainstream, tending more toward power than brightness. A lot of intermediate grades from me, as I wasn't sure that these powerful, textured Grenache Blanc lots would be needed in Esprit Blanc this year, with Roussanne so powerful and textured on its own. My scores: two 1’s, three 1/2 grades, one 2, and one 2/3.
  • Viognier (7 lots): Like the first two grapes, plenty of power. Since we don't use Viognier in Esprit Blanc, a "1" grade just means that it's as good and expressive as Viognier gets, with freshness to balance its plentiful fruit and body. One "1", two 1/2 lots, three 2's, and one 3 that will be declassified.
  • Picpoul Blanc (4 lots): A great Picpoul vintage, with every lot showing both power and brightness. Two 1's that I thought would be perfect for Esprit, a 1/2 that I wasn't sure whether would be best on its own or in a blend, and one beautifully fresh and lively 2 that was maybe my favorite to drink on its own and which will be the core of our varietal Picpoul this year.
  • Marsanne (3 lots): A terrific showing for this grape, with all three lots showing Marsanne’s classic honeydew and chalky mineral charm, a little extra concentration beyond what we're used to seeing in this famously restrained grape, and better acids that usual too. One 1, one 1/2, and one 2. This will be a great Cotes Blanc component, and plenty worthy as a varietal wine too.
  • Clairette Blanche (1 lot): We only had 180 gallons of this, our scarcest white grape, but it was pretty: lovely salty minerality, with lemon pith and citrus leaf flavors. Clearly capable of contributing to the Esprit Blanc, but also excellent on its own. I gave it a 1/2. See below for how this played out.
  • Picardan (1 lot): Not quite as scarce as Clairette, at 384 gallons, and for me the best Picardan we've had to work with in the four years we've had it in production. Pure, spicy, and rich, with great acids. A "1" for me.
  • Bourboulenc (1 lot): The first harvest for our newest grape. It's been a crazy orange color since it came out of the press, and even as it dropped clear, it's still got that caramel tinge to it. The nose too was a little caramely, with orange pith and a textured, phenolic character. I gave it a "2" because it didn't seem like Esprit Blanc material, but it will be a fun varietal wine that we're excited to introduce to you later in 2020.
  • 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 roughly 100 g/L residual sugar, it felt closer to Vin de Paille than the off-dry profile we prefer, masking the electric acids that make Petit Manseng so fascinating. We decided to let it continue to ferment, until it gets to our 50-60 g/L target.

We finished Wednesday by brainstorming ideas for the Esprit Blanc and Cotes Blanc. The relative shortage of higher-toned Grenache Blanc suggested that we try some Esprit blends with more Picpoul and less Grenache Blanc than usual. As for Cotes Blanc, Viognier always takes the lead, but we weren't sure whether we wanted Marsanne's elegance or Grenache Blanc's density and acid to play second fiddle. So, we decided to try one blend with more Grenache Blanc and less Marsanne, one with more Marsanne and less Grenache Blanc, and one where we increased both to nearly as much as we had Viognier. 

Thursday morning, we started on our blending work by tasting possible Esprit de Tablas Blanc blends. In our first round, the consensus favorite was a blend with 60% Roussanne, 20% Grenache Blanc (on the low side for us), 14% Picpoul Blanc (on the high side for us), and 3% each of Picardan and Clairette Blanche. A blend with 25% Grenache Blanc and just 10% Picpoul felt too monolithic, a little heavy, which I suspected would happen given the Grenache Blanc lots we had to add to get to 25%. And the blend where we increased the Roussanne percentage to 75% felt flat, which in retrospect shouldn't have been surprising as to get to that quantity we'd exhausted the consensus "1" Roussanne lots and had to start pulling from lots that received more "2" grades.

We were happy with the result, but not quite done with Esprit Blanc. Given the small Clairette harvest, if we used 3% in Esprit Blanc that would mean we wouldn't have any left over for a varietal bottling. Before we made that determination, we wanted to make sure that the addition of the Clairette made for a meaningful improvement in the Esprit Blanc. If it did, great. That's our primary goal: make the best Esprit we can, and why it gets first dibs on everything. But we wanted to see. So, we decided to taste our favorite against a similar wine that removed the Clairette in favor of more Roussanne. Lo and behold, we all preferred the wine without the Clairette as a little longer, a little more intense, and beautifully pure. Even better! We get a great Esprit Blanc, and a small Clairette Blanche bottling. Final blend: 63% Roussanne, 20% Grenache Blanc, 14% Picpoul Blanc, 3% Picardan.

Next we tackled the Cotes Blanc. Tasting the wines, it was clear that the solution with more Marsanne and less Grenache Blanc was superior to the others, and we were blown away with how much we liked the resulting wine. It's got the power of a Roussanne-heavy Cotes Blanc vintage like 2011 or 2015, but with more Viognier generosity and sweeter fruit. Just a beautiful wine, and one we're excited to share with you all. Final blend: 44% Viognier, 29% Marsanne, 19% Grenache Blanc, and 8% Roussanne.

We had managed to make our two estate blends without using up any of our grapes completely. So, the final step was to taste those two blends alongside the Patelin Blanc and the eight (yes, eight) varietal wines that this left us. Our principal concerns here are to make sure that the varietal wines are differentiated from the blends that lead with the same grape (so, our Esprit Blanc is different from Roussanne, our Cotes Blanc different from the Viognier, etc) and to make sure that the blends fall into the appropriate places in our hierarchy. My brief notes on each wine, with the rough quantity we'll be bottling this summer:

  • 2019 Picpoul Blanc (250 cases): A nose of pineapple upside-down cake. Lovely in the mouth with flavors of fresh pineapple and green herbs. Saline. Long. Great texture.
  • 2019 Grenache Blanc (900 cases): Color is gold, darker than usual for Grenache Blanc. Nose is burnt sugar and citrus peel. The mouth shows lots of texture, preserved lemon flavors, and great acids. Salty. Long.
  • 2019 Marsanne (325 cases): Pretty honeysuckle nose. Mouth is soft, mineral, peaches and cream, with a little honeydew. Nice acidity (for Marsanne) on the finish.
  • 2019 Patelin de Tablas Blanc (2200 cases): Nose of Haribo peaches and lemongrass, nice. The mouth is softish for Patelin Blanc, more Viognier than Grenache Blanc right now, medium weight with apricots and gentle acids on finish.
  • 2019 Viognier (400 cases): Intensely peach on the nose, freshened with mint and a sweet almond brittle note. The mouth shows rich texture, more peaches, creamsicle, and marmalade. Good acids and length, with a welcome pithy bite providing balance on the finish.
  • 2019 Cotes de Tablas Blanc (1500 cases): Straw, dried apricot, and lemon zest on the nose. The mouth is terrific, balanced between a fruitier peaches & cream note and a yeastier shortbread note. Nice acids and length on the finish.
  • 2019 Roussanne (1300 cases): Honeycomb and cedar on the nose. Mouth is very Roussanne: honey and bay and Indian spices, lots of texture, dry and long on the finish.
  • 2019 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (2200 cases): A sweeter tone to the nose than the Roussanne, sweet oak and jasmine. The palate is lovely: refined green pear fruit, creamy texture, and long, long, long.
  • 2019 Bourboulenc (125 cases): Orange in color and flavors. The nose is shy, a little cola sweetness. The mouth is zesty with a little pithy bite and flavors of orange peel and Seville oranges. Bright acids on the long finish.
  • 2019 Clairette Blanche (75 cases): A nose of clean mineral, sea spray, and lemongrass. The mouth is similar, but with more texture than the nose promises, flavors of watermelon rind, white gummy bear, and a clean finish.
  • 2019 Picardan (75 cases): A richer nose than Clairette, spicy, minty sarsaparilla. The mouth is gorgeous, both bright and rich with flavors of quince, yellow apple, and sweet spice. A little citrus flower note comes out on the yeasty finish. Chelsea described it as "like a really good Champagne you've let go flat".  

A few concluding thoughts:

  • The 2019 vintage seems to have a well defined character already. The 2018 vintage was a terrific year for white wines because of its brightness. Whites like Patelin Blanc, Vermentino, Grenache Blanc, and Picpoul Blanc were all electric. 2019, by contrast, seems great for the denser, more powerful whites, and particularly good for Roussanne. It will be fascinating to see these wines as they get cleaned up and prepped for bottling. This process tends to brighten up wines, and I'm hopeful that they'll keep their texture and richness while getting a little more translucency. If that happens, I think we'll have 2019 in the conversation for the best whites we've ever made.
  • Of all the varieties, I was least convinced by Grenache Blanc. We felt like we had overcropped Grenache Blanc a little in 2018, and so reduced its yield by around a third in 2019. Tasting these wines, I'm not sure that the decision was a good one. We got more texture and power than I can remember tasting in our Grenache Blancs, but I'm not sure that this was a positive tradeoff for less vibrancy. To what extent was it vintage, and to what extent yields? I don't think we know. But we're going to try to figure this out.
  • The process of working together while still maintaining distancing was educational. With six people spaced around our big conference table, we all had plenty of space. We all pulled and washed our own glasses and dump buckets. The sample bottles were wiped down before they were poured, and only one person picked up and poured each bottle. We kept doors and windows open so there was air moving in the room. We'd all been quarantining at home the previous two weeks, and everyone was healthy. Even though wineries are agricultural businesses and therefore considered essential, that doesn't mean we're operating as though the business environment were normal. And as we start physically blending the wines over the coming weeks, we'll be limiting our cellar team to two people at a time, and making sure they're able to maintain their distance. It will mean a slower process, but we'll get it done.

This week, most of us will go back to sheltering at home. But we'll do so knowing that we've hit one of the milestones of the winemaking year. And that the wines we make have the potential to be memorable. That will be one of the positive memories I'll have of Quarantine 2020.

2019 white blends post-blending


Budbreak 2020: The World May Be Crazy, but the Vineyard is Right on Time

This winter has very much been one of phases. November was chilly but almost entirely dry, which got us into dormancy early but put us a bit behind in cover crop growth. December was very wet, with 6.66 inches of rain and 13 days with measurable precipitation. January and February stayed chilly (18 below-freezing nights) but saw very little precipitation. The sun and the saturated soil from our wet December produced a vineyard that grew greener by the day, but since wet soils hold temperature better than dry ones, raised the specter of very early bud break if we didn't get more rain soon. But then March turned wet and remained cold, dropping soil temperatures and keeping the vineyard in stasis for longer than I thought possible. The rainfall-by-month graph for the winter so far shows the whipsaw nature of what we've seen:

Winter 2019-20 Rainfall by Month

The vineyard's long period of dormancy is ending. The proliferation of California poppies are an indicator that the lengthening days and the warm sun will begin to wake up the vines:

Poppies and Dormant Vines March 2020

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. We only have budbreak in Viognier, the two Grenaches, and (bizarrely) the very top of one Mourvedre block. The below photo is Grenache:

Budbreak in Grenache 2020 Square

This year is later than many years last 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:

2019: Late March
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

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. And even where it's begun, with the exception of the earliest Grenache blocks, all there is to see is swollen buds like the one below, from the Haas Vineyard Pinot Noir:

Swollen Bud March 2020

It will be at least another few weeks before we see sprouting in late-emerging grapes like Counoise or Roussanne, or in low-lying areas. This Mourvedre block is one of many that show no signs of sprouting yet:

Dormant Head Trained Mourvedre March 2020

Why does budbreak happen when it does? It's mostly a question of soil temperatures. Grapevines (and all deciduous plants) are spurred 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 (i.e. ripen their fruit so animals eat it and distribute the seeds) while staying dormant long enough to avoid suffering damage to their reproductive prospects through frost.

Frost is on our minds. Before budbreak, the vines are safely dormant, and a freeze doesn't harm them. But once they sprout, the new growth is susceptible to frost damage. April frosts cost us roughly 40% of our production in both 2009 and 2011, and we don't feel truly safe until mid-May. So, we've still got more than a month to go before we can relax, and 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. 

You might think that earlier budbreaks increase your risks of frost. And yes, all other things being equal, having fewer nights where you have to worry about temperatures dropping below freezing is better than having more. But if you look at the two most recent frost years (2009 and 2011) both of those saw budbreak in April. Is it possible that the same conditions that keep a vineyard dormant longer in the spring raise the risks of frost damage once they finally do sprout? I think so. California weather patterns tend to be long-wave patterns, where conditions are more likely to be similar to what they are now in two weeks than to have changed entirely. That's unlike, say, Vermont, where I grew up, where it always seemed to me that each week's weather could just as easily have been generated by a random weather generator.

That said, looking at the long-term forecast offers some hope. We're supposed to get one more chilly late-winter storm next weekend, but it doesn't seem likely to be cold enough to damage the tops of our hills, and it doesn't seem like we will have progressed far enough for anything else to have sprouted. After that, we're expecting drier weather as the storm track shifts north. 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 2020 vintage.

Budbreak in Grenache with Owl Box


A Walk through the Vineyard, Poised between Winter and Spring

Even as we have implemented major changes to the business side of what we do, the vineyard continues its march through the seasons. The grapevines don't know that there's a shelter at home order. The cover crops aren't interested in quarantine details. Instead, they're paying attention to signals like soil temperature and hours of sun as their systems make the annual determination as to whether it's time to come out of dormancy yet.

We've finished the winter pruning work we needed to do, and we have six weeks or so before we're far enough into the growing season to need a large crew working on anything (the next big push will be shoot thinning). So, if we had to pick a time when it doesn't hurt us much to cut back on vineyard work and wait this out, this is a pretty good one.

I took a walk through the vineyard on Thursday to get a sense of where things were. After our nearly-entirely-dry January and February (just one storm, 1.11 inches total rainfall) it's clear that the rain we've received so far in March (4.16" across 13 different days) has made a significant difference. The ground is saturated. The cover crops have doubled in size. And the generally cool daytime temperatures (just 5 days this month that made it out of the low-60s, and only one in the last two weeks) and chilly nights (four have dropped below freezing) have delayed budbreak to a more-or-less normal time frame. Although it can't be long now, in my walk I didn't see anything that had pushed buds, even at the very tops of the hills and the very earliest varieties like Vermentino, Viognier, and Grenache Blanc.

What did I see? The wildflower season just beginning, with wild mustard the most precocious:

Dormant Grenache with wildflowers

I took one shot (through our deer fence) of the sign pointing to our tasting room if you were to approach the vineyard on Adelaida Road from the north. If you are used to seeing Paso Robles in summertime when everything is golden and in sharp relief, the softer springtime contours can be surprising.

Tablas Creek sign with wildflowers

The dormant gray vines (Vermentino here) make for a great contrast this time of year with the green cover crop and the early wildflowers:

Pruned Vermentino with wildflowers 2

The day, like most of last week, saw a shower pass through. You can see the clouds hanging over the vineyard in this shot, looking down over our oldest Counoise block:

Cover crop in Counoise

And finally, a shot looking up from more or less the middle of the vineyard over one of our Grenache blocks, a study in green, blue, and white:

Looking up Grenache block with clouds

If you'd like something more immersive than the still photos, I took a 20-second video in the middle of the vineyard too. I highly recommend turning on your volume.

Although we're not able to welcome you here in person right now, I'll look forward to sharing what the vineyard looks like more regularly over coming weeks. That way, you can follow along. And if there are things you particularly want to see or know more about, please leave a comment. Meanwhile, stay safe out there.


How to Help Your Favorite Wineries Survive the Coronavirus Pandemic

It's been a tough last week, on a lot of levels. Like most Americans, we've personally been adjusting to social distancing, school, and activity closures, while reevaluating our own life patterns and checking in with family members to make sure everyone is in a good place. On a business level, we've been worrying about how best to make sure we're operating in a way that is responsible while still hopefully continuing to operate, both to be able to support the great team we have working here and to be available to provide wine to our thousands of customers. We switched briefly over last weekend to tastings by-appointment-only to ensure proper distancing, and then closed our tasting room entirely this week in accordance with Governor Newsome's new directives and our own obligations (and desires) to do everything we can to slow the spread of the virus. 

Tasting Room Closed for Coronavirus

We're just one of hundreds of wineries in Paso Robles, and thousands of wineries in California, who've been navigating this new crisis. I know it's hit plenty of other industries hard. Restaurants are on the front lines. Tour companies, hotels, neighborhood shops... really the whole tourism infrastructure has been disrupted or shut down indefinitely. At the same time, the outpouring of phone calls, texts, and emails I've gotten from people has been really heartwarming. One thing so many of them have asked is "how can we help?" I've been answering everyone individually, but thought it might be timely and helpful to expand these into a blog.  

Order Wine From Us
OK, this is probably pretty self-explanatory. Wineries are seeing two of their primary revenue streams disrupted right now. Tasting room sales, the lifeblood of the majority of California wineries, are going to zero. And wholesale sales are going to be seriously impacted too, as restaurants are forced to close or toward takeout. But from what I'm hearing, people are still definitely buying wine. Who wants to be stuck at home with leisure time to plan and cook meals for several weeks without the wine to accompany them? Wine shops and grocery stores have been reporting sharply increased sales in recent weeks, and that's great. These sales do help wineries, and help keep the distribution channel functioning. But if you are able to buy directly from the wineries you patronize, that's a lot better for them. If you had to cancel a trip to wine country, consider joining a wine club or two with the money you aren't spending on hotels and travel.

Support Restaurants Who Are Staying Open by Ordering Takeout
Restaurants are the hardest-hit businesses in these socially distanced times. Some are closing entirely. But others are pivoting to offering their menu for takeout. This list includes big name restaurants that made news for doing so, like Canlis in Seattle, Spago in Beverly Hills, and Balthazar in New York. But it also includes local favorites here in Paso (each linked to their announcements or carryout menu) like The Hatch, Il Cortile, Thomas Hill Organics, BL Brasserie, and La Cosecha. Will there be enough local business to make up for all the lost visitors to the area? Almost certainly not. But we can all do our part. Many jurisdictions have also announced a new easing of rules and allowed restaurants to sell wine to go. As wine programs are typically a big piece of a restaurant's profitability, ordering wine with your gourmet to-go meal can have several benefits. It keeps restaurants going, which benefits the entire community, and it helps wineries by reducing the loss to their wholesale sales. Plus, we all want these restaurants to be open when we're out the other side of the crisis, for lots of reasons.  

Share Your Experiences and Recommendations
One of the most important things that we lose when we close our tasting rooms and cancel our events is the chance to reach new customers who don't yet know that they'd love us. You can help bridge that gap by sharing on social media the wines that you're opening at home. There's a ton of research that shows that peer-to-peer recommendations are the most trusted in this day and age. In an environment where most wineries will struggle to get in front of potential new customers, just sharing a photo of a bottle you opened and loved can mean a lot. And talking about wine encourages engagement and other people talking about wine. There's a lot of story to wine, generally more than there is to other alcoholic beverages, because wines have an association to place, and to year, that beer and liquor generally don't. Thousands of these stories would normally be told every week in tasting rooms around the state and country. Instead, start one of your own, tag your favorite winery, and see where it takes you.

Stay in Touch
I've sent two emails to our entire mailing list (37,000-plus) in the last five days, sharing the changes that we've been making here at Tablas Creek. I can't tell you how much it means that so many people have taken the time to reply to say some variation of "hang in there". I honestly wasn't expecting that, though I probably should have. We know that we're losing many of the easy ways that we have to share what's going on here and help our customers feel connected to our work, and so will be moving toward more digital ways of communication. When you see these, if you felt like participating and interacting, we'd love to know what you think. A virtual tasting? Let's try it. A live-streamed report from the blending table? We'll see. An Instagram Live vineyard walk? You bet. We're all going to be learning how to preserve social ties through a period when face-to-face contact is restricted. Wineries are no different. 

Buy Gift Cards
While most wineries are keeping their shipping departments open, not all are. And not everyone is in a place to take delivery of wine right now. Restaurants and local shops are in even tougher positions. Buying gift cards right now, and redeeming them when the crisis is over, is a way of helping these small, local businesses survive a period of zero foot traffic. 

Self-Isolate
Mostly, though, the best thing that you can do for us is to take these restrictions seriously so that we can get through to the other side of this without major breakdowns of our health care system and our economy. If you have the choice, please be serious and conscientious about your isolating and your virus spread mitigation. I'm not going to repeat the whole list that begins with washing your hands a lot and not spending time around other people if you're sick. But it's all true, and the extent to which we all make the changes we're told are important will make a meaningful difference not just in the societal response to this pandemic, but to how fast we can all safely get back to our raising a glass... together.


Introducing a New Idea: Seasonal Pour Wine Kegs

Readers of this blog know that I'm a fan of offering wine in keg. There are lots of reasons. It's great for the customer because every one of the roughly 130 glasses in a 19.5L keg is as fresh as the first (unlike wines served by-the-glass from bottle, where the last pours are often oxidized). It's great for the restaurant and wine bars that serve it because there's no wasted wine from ends of bottles, and no empty bottles to deal with. It's great for wineries because they're not paying for the bottles, capsules, corks, and labels. And it's great for the environment because the packaging that would otherwise be created for short-term storage of wine, and then (ideally) recycled never gets created in the first place. We were proud indeed in 2018 to get a "Keggy" Award from our kegging partner Free Flow Wines for having kegged enough wine over the years to eliminate 100,000 bottles from being created, shipped, and destroyed again: 

Keggy award in the cellarYes, that mini-keg is the Keggy award. No, there was never any wine in it.

For the last decade, we've had the same lineup of wines available in keg, and we've worked hard to keep these wines -- our Patelin de Tablas red, white, and rosé -- in stock year-round. As those three wines form the core of what of ours gets poured by the glass in restaurants around the country, that makes sense to us. And the growth has been impressive, from just a few hundred kegs (still replacing thousands of bottles) in the early years to the roughly 1000 kegs we sold in 2019. We're planning to continue that program, and look forward to seeing it grow.

At the same time, we felt that we could be doing more with our keg program. While the majority of accounts still are using keg wines as their principal by-the-glass options, by-the-glass programs themselves have changed over the last decade. Printing costs used to be higher, reprinting wine lists used to be rarer, and accounts prioritized wines that they knew would still be available in three, six, or nine months. While there are still plenty of restaurants who value stability, more and more treat their by-the-glass lists as a treasure hunt, reprinting on an office laserwriter whenever necessary, or (more and more) just erasing a chalkboard and writing in something new. Far from it being a disincentive that only a few cases of something cool are available, it's become a selling point in many restaurants and wine bars.

The same impetus has spilled over into the world of keg wines. Accounts looking to change up their lists regularly have been reaching out to us and other wineries asking if we'd do custom kegging for them, small-production things that aren't available elsewhere. That's not really feasible for anything other than local accounts, and it's not ideal for the wines, as a single barrel produces roughly twelve kegs, most accounts don't want twelve kegs for programs like this, and what to do with remnant wine at less-than-barrel quantities is a real challenge. We don't just have wine sitting around waiting for someone to ask us to keg it up. Some wineries do, I know, but that's not us. But we have a new idea we're excited about. We've decided to do three small-batch keggings this year, each in 45-65 keg quantities. These will go up to the warehouse we share with our national marketing partners Vineyard Brands, and be available for any of our distributors to order. When they run out, we'll be ready with something else.

What, you ask, will we start with? Vermentino! Vermentino has always been a grape that we've felt would do well in keg because of its freshness and how well it drinks young. We actually did a custom Vermentino kegging several years ago, and it was delicious and well-received (at least until the restaurant we did it for changed wine directors, the new director took the program in a totally different direction, and we had to scramble to find new homes for the kegs we made). We kept 250 gallons out of our recent Vermentino bottling, and sent it up to our partners at Free Flow, who filled 47 kegs. The first 25 kegs are in stock in California, with the balance waiting to go out to some other key markets.

2019 Vermentino in tank

What's coming next? Counoise, we think. Of all our reds, Counoise seems best suited to kegging because of its light body and refreshingly bright flavors. We only had 250 gallons of Counoise after blending the 2018 vintage, and we're planning to put it all in keg sometime in May.

After that, we'll see. We need to get through blending this year before we know what will suggest itself. But I'd love to do another obscure white in early fall, maybe something like Clairette Blanche or Picardan.

We're excited about this new program. If you run a wine-on-tap program and are interested, grab them while they exist. And if you see one in your favorite restaurant or wine bar, order a glass and let us know what you think. Just don't get mad at us if the next time you go back, something else is available. After all, when they're gone, they're gone. And that's a big part of the fun.