What We're Drinking with Thanksgiving 2019

I am a fan of Thanksgiving. It's a holiday that's mostly about eating, drinking, and family. It's still relatively uncommercialized. And it's about giving thanks, which I feel like puts a celebration into the right perspective.

Thanksgiving meals can be motley, usually involving a range of flavors and sweetnesses, and a group of participants whose interest in wine is likely to not all be acute. So I think it's good that most of the criticism I read about Thanksgiving wine pairing suggests first that you not stress too much about it, and second that you offer guests a range of choices. I was reminded recently of the 2016 piece on W. Blake Gray's blog where he set up a simple 5-question quiz to answer the question "is this wine good for Thanksgiving". I'm sure I haven't gone through every possible combination, but I've never gotten any answer other than "yes". And that's an approach it's hard to argue with.

There are wines that I tend to steer clear of, like wines that are powerfully tannic (which tend to come off even more so when they're paired with some of the sweeter Thanksgiving dishes), and wines that are high in alcohol (which tend to be fatiguing by the end of what is often a marathon of eating and drinking). But that still leaves you plenty of options. With a traditional turkey dinner, I tend to steer people toward richer whites and rosés, and fruitier reds relatively light in oak and tannin. There are a lot of Tablas Creek wines that fit these broad criteria, so if you want to stay in the family, you could try anything from Marsanne (one of my absolute favorites right now) and Esprit Blanc to Dianthus Rosé to Counoise or Cotes de Tablas. Richer red meat preparations open up a world of Mourvedre-based reds young or old, from Esprit de Tablas to Panoplie to En Gobelet, which just (say it out loud) sounds like something you should be drinking at this time of year.  

To give you a sense of this diversity, I thought it would be fun to ask a broad cross-section of our team what they were planning on drinking this year. Their responses are below, in their own words, in alphabetical order.

Thanksgiving Pairings

Janelle Bartholomew, Wine Club Assistant
This Thanksgiving will be spent with just my little family of five in our quaint town of Templeton. I truly enjoy cooking so I plan to spend my day in the kitchen creating memories with my kids while they help me make the feast. There will be Charlie Brown and the Macy’s parade on the TV for the kids - music playing while we enjoy bubbles and appetizers. For dinner this year, it was a toss-up between Domaine Weinbach Riesling and Tablas Creek Counoise. Given the possibility of rain (yay!!) on Thursday, I opted for a red wine. The Counoise fruit and spice notes pair perfectly with all things Thanksgiving.  I hope everyone has a wonderful day filled with love, laughter, and lots of good food. Cheers!

Neil Collins, Executive Winemaker
Well the Thanksgiving table, what to drink? There will of course be some Bristols Cider. This year we will have some Ojai Vineyards Roussanne which I just picked at the tasting room and is delicious. Also we will be opening a nice Beaujolais Nouveau from Domaine Dupeuble Pere et Fils. I think it will be a nice occasion for a Story Of Soil Grenache. Perhaps a nice Calvados to round it all off.

Ian Consoli, Marketing Coordinator
I like to balance guarantees with experiments in my Thanksgiving wine selections. This year the guarantee is The Bonny Doon Vin Gris de Cigare Rosé. The tart red fruit of Grenache focused roses tend to pair well with the meal every year. My Tablas bottle is a bit of an experiment recommended by a local Somm. During a recent tasting he noted the Viognier focus and balancing Grenache Blanc of our 2017 Cotes de Tablas Blanc would pair nicely with the flavorful feast that fills aThanksgiving table. I’m looking forward to finding out. In a red I shoot for a fruit forward wine. This year I am looking at a Pinot from Alain Gras in Burgundy and an Old Vine Cinsaut from South Africa. There’s only 4-6 people at our table so I’ve been told I can only choose one of the reds. Wish me luck. Happy feasting!

Evelyne Fodor, Tasting Room Lead
My friends Andrea and Michael Dewit are hosting Thanksgiving dinner at their new home this year. The wines I chose are as much about pairing with the traditional meal as to a nod to them. 

The first is a 2017 Sattlerhof Gamlitz Sauvignon Blanc from Sudsteiermark, Austria, the town where Andrea grew up. I found it at K&L where an eager staff told me it is light and has good acidity. He assured me it will pair beautifully with the fresh, crunchy endives salad I am bringing. Andrea will appreciate it immensely.

The second is a 2003 Côte-Rôtie from Domaine Patrick Jasmin. My brother gave me the bottle several years ago when I was visiting him in my hometown Lyon. Interestingly, the patriarch, Robert Jasmin was a friend of my dad. Our host Michael previously owned a vineyard (Domaine Maillet) in Vaison-La-Romaine, knows very well the region and is a true connoisseur of Côte-Rôtie. My brother described it as a wine in full maturity, with gentle tannin and moderate acidity. Not the least, a moderate alcohol level. No doubt it will be a great match with the spiciest part of the turkey. I can’t wait to see Michael taking the first sip of it.

Chelsea Franchi, Senior Assistant Winemaker
My husband’s family is from Orange County, which is around four hours away, and my mom lives in the Sierra Foothills, which is approximately five hours away. This means for the holidays, we normally spend a decent amount of time in the car. This year, however, my family is coming to us! I am feeling incredibly grateful and as such, have taken the time to plan for wines that they will love as a small thank you for the long haul they’re making to spend time with us. We’ll be making our traditional prime rib for Thursday night, so our final wine will need a little more heft and structure than we would be for the more traditional turkey feast.  We’ll go through a progressive wine list, starting with light and fruity and making our way up the structure scale. To kick things off while cooking in the kitchen, I typically like to have something with bubbles. It looks like it may be a chilly, rainy afternoon, so instead of the usual bottle of white or rosé sparklers, we’ll have a bottle of Barbolini Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro. It’s bubbly, fruity, and incredibly fun to drink. For dinner, we’ll have dueling glasses of red – one glass that’s a little dancier on the palate and one with a little more heft and weight. Jolie Laide’s 2016 North Coast Syrah will be our wine on the leaner end of the spectrum to pair with the non-meat dishes. For the prime rib, we’ll have a bottle of The Royal Nonesuch Farm 2017 Red. I’m unbelievably excited about opening and enjoying each of these wines, but even more excited to share them with some of the people I love most in the world.

Craig Hamm, Assistant Winemaker
We are going to be doing a potluck at my family’s house so my duties are the wines. There will be a sparkling rosé made with some friends, a fully garagiste special: my first vintage of wine, the Paysan Rosé of zinfandel. Then to some white Esprit Blanc, which always goes well at Thanksgiving with the richness it brings. I will also be bringing something I purchased from a great tasting at Kukkula: Vaalea, a blend of Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, and Viognier. For the reds we will have a Niner Cabernet Franc, Tablas Creek Counoise, and also the Tannat. I hope everyone has a good time with family and friends. Cheers.

Jordan Lonborg, Viticulturist
Thanksgiving is the best day of the year. Friends, family, food, WINE, and whiskey. I am pulling the trigger this year and opening a magnum of 2013 Esprit de Tablas to share with my Mendocino family branch. On our journey north, this being Alma’s (our 5 month old daughter) first visit to the NorCal coast, we figure we’d expose her to some of the gems Route 128 and Anderson Valley has to offer. Our planned stops for Pinot (and hopefully a few Rhônes) will be Navarro, Husch Vineyards, Toulouse, and lastly, for the bubbles, Roederer... The night will end, or begin, with a bottle of Blanton’s Whiskey!!! Big things to come out of Tablas Creek Vineyard this year! We will keep you all posted! I am truly thankful to be a part of this team! ¡Viva Tablas Creek Vineyard! 

John Morris, Tasting Room Manager
The thing is, this Thanksgiving I still don’t know what wine we’ll be serving.  This is directly and irrefutably related to the fact that we don’t yet know what we’ll be serving for dinner.  I know, I know, its Tuesday.  We’re going back and forth between a traditional Thanksgiving spread and something more to my liking, like say, lamb chops, or my wife’s amazing Thai cuisine (which is her traditional Thanksgiving dinner). It will be a game time decision, made while grocery shopping Wednesday morning.  So I thought I’d pass along some general guidelines that I follow for Thanksgiving. Frankly, you could skip this and check out Eric Asimov’s always excellent Thanksgiving column, which features better writing and the suggestions of a savvy group of wine professionals, as the message is pretty similar. 

  1. Keep it light.  Wines with low alcohol, tannin and oak work better with a traditional Thanksgiving feast. 
  2. Keep it simple.  It kills me to see Uncle Lush knock back an expensive and complex wine like he’s taking a shot of cheap tequila. Unless you’re hosting an avid wine crowd, save yourself some stress and money and look for modest bottlings that follow rule #1.
  3. Rose always works. 

If you’re looking for suggestions from Tablas Creek, the Esprit de Tablas Blanc is always spot on with the savory flavors of this holiday, and elevates this meal to something more. For a budget white, the Patelin de Tablas Blanc would be terrific.  For reds I like the Counoise, Grenache, or Cotes de Tablas.  Just don’t forget the Rosé.  Happy Thanksgiving!

Gustavo Prieto, Tasting Room, Cellar, and Vineyard
These year we’ll have a mix of guests, meaning there will be wine drinkers and beer drinkers, so it will be more of a challenge to choose the wines but one thing for sure it will be bubbles to start with. I’m thinking an Amirault cremant from the Loire and for the dinner table a bottle that I always choose for Thanksgiving, an older vintage of Tablas Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc, probably a 2005 and for reds a 2017 Tablas Counoise and also from the Loire a 2013 Patient Cottat, Le Grand Caillou, Pinot Noir

Randy Thurman, Facilities & IT
Kirk and Sweeney rum, Port from a winery in Greenfield, and probably English Ales Black Prince Porter and some English Ales Fat Lip. Maybe some English Ales Big Sur Ale as well and might have some fish and chips from their pub on the weekend. My father in law will probably have several bottles of TCV wines open as he has saved a few from his last shipment. My father in law is waiting for the 24 hour apple cider brined rotisserie smothered in herb butter stuffed with veggies and cooked over peach wood turkey on a rotisserie add on for our Weber kettle grills and I use the drippings from the turkey to make the gravy for the mashed potatoes.

Amanda Weaver, Cellar Assistant
This Thanksgiving I will be traveling down home with a couple options in my car. I usually go for something to pair with the main dish, TURKEY!!! However, my mom has gone the way of veganism so I’ll have to get a bit more creative with my selections. I’m thinking a couple whites, like Delaporte Sancerre Monts Damnés and Paix Sur Terre Ugni Blanc. Both bring a lot to the table with lovely acidity and lots of texture, they are both pleasurable to drink on their own but can also accompany a meal. As far as reds for the occasion, I like to keep things light seeing as the meal typically brings everyone to the edge of bursting their buttons. Domaine Dupeuble Beaujolais Nouveau 2019 is a great light, pleasantly fruity, and easy on the wallet wine to pair with what will probably be a vegetable-heavy meal.

And as for me...
Typically, my choice is to open the largest bottle I have to hand at Thanksgiving gatherings. There's usually a story behind a big bottle, and the randomness of "just open it" adds a certain amount of pleasurable discovery to the gathering, as well as the festivity that large bottles bring per force.

The largest bottle I have is a 3-liter of 2005 Robert Mondavi Napa Cabernet, acquired at some silent auction this year (a consequence of attending fundraisers in wine country!). I'm sure that would be amazing. But I'm not feeling like I want to commit four bottles of the same wine to a meal where there will only be eight adults. This is a smaller gathering than some recent ones in our history. If I don't open the big bottle, I may go with a magnum of 2000 Talley Rincon Pinot Noir that I've been saving for the right occasion. I also ordered a case of one of my favorite Beaujolais producers, the 2018 Clos de la Roilette Fleurie, with Thanksgiving in mind.

Whichever way we go, I'm sure that it will be preceded by some Dianthus, and we'll likely break out some whites for those who'd prefer that with their turkey, maybe the 2018 Picardan for something mineral and refreshing. For me, it's an important consideration that none of these wines will demand to be the center of attention: they will be dining companions with which you can have a conversation, to tell (and help you tell) stories around the table. After all, that's what it's all about.

Wherever you are, we wish you a happy, healthy Thanksgiving, and that you be surrounded by good food and great company.


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.


Buy More Wine (and Fewer Wines)

Last weekend, we hosted our annual en primeur tasting for our wine club members. This is part of a program with roots back to 1954, when my dad offered the customers of his father's Manhattan wine shop M. Lehmann the opportunity to purchase futures on the great Bordeaux vintage of 1952. His father never thought consumers would pay for wine before they could get it, but my dad sold out the entire 3000 case allocation in three weeks and transformed the way that Bordeaux wines were sold in America. I recently uncovered the old pamphlet, with gorgeous hand-colored lithographs printed in Paris and sent to my dad's best customers in Manhattan. It's a remarkable time capsule, from an era where a case of first-growth Bordeaux would only set you back some $37. For larger images, click on the pictures below:

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At Tablas Creek, we offer futures on our two top red wines from each vintage, Esprit de Tablas and Panoplie.  We do this in largely the same way, year after year, as is fitting for a program that looks back nearly seven decades. We send out an invitation to purchase at a futures-only savings to our club members, as well as the opportunity to come to one of two sessions where we debut these new wines. Guests try the wines on their own and with a hearty dish that can stand up to the wines' youth, while Neil and I spend the sessions doing our best to put the newest vintage into context with other recent vintages, and share our best guesses as to how the wines will evolve over time. That was our day this past Saturday.

Here's where things get interesting. Because, while we can and do try to draw parallels with other years, no two vintages are the same. For example, my closest comparison for the 2017 wines is 2005: a year, like 2017, where we saw a multi-year drought cycle end with a bang, and where the resulting vintage was both high quality and plentiful, the vines' expression of their health in a warm, generous year. But, of course, the vineyard is older now than it was in 2005, with the oldest vines pushing 25 years and a much higher percentage of head-trained, dry-farmed acreage. The raw materials are not the same. And the young 2017 reds manage to be both densely packed and approachable, thick with primary fruit and yet savory, with hints of the complexity that they'll develop over the decades. They clearly have a long and fascinating life ahead of them.1

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I was asked at both sessions what I thought the drinking windows would be on the wines that we were tasting, and I did my best. I think that both of these wines have two windows, one 3-6 years after vintage where the wine has lost its youthful blockiness but remains young, juicy, and exuberant, and another (after a 1-3 year closed period that I liken to a wine's teenage years) 8-20 or more years after vintage where it has softened, developed more secondary and tertiary flavors of meat, leather, and truffle, when the wines' tannins have softened, when it's mature, graceful, and elegant.

But really, the most fun for me is getting to know a wine at different stages of its life. And this led me to share with the guests one of my revelations I've tried to act on over recent years. I realized I needed to buy more wine, but fewer wines. Most of us don't have unlimited resources and unlimited space. We have to prioritize. And with wine -- or at least my favorite wines, which I think will age well -- this means buying enough to be able to open at different phases of its life, and hopefully still to have some left to enjoy when I think it just can't get any better. I don't think this is feasible with fewer than six bottles, and it's a lot easier with a case.

So, that's my practical wine advice for the year. Buy more wine, but fewer wines. And then get ready to enjoy the journey that the wines you love will take you on. I don't remember seeing any 1952's left in my dad's Vermont cellar. But he definitely went heavy on the vintages he loved: 1964 and 1970 for Bordeaux, 1978 and 1985 for Burgundy, 1981 and 1989 for Chateauneuf du Pape. When we're back there over the New Year's holiday, we'll all be thanking my dad for his foresight.

Footnotes:

  1. If you missed this Monday's order deadline for futures on the 2017's, we'll be accepting orders through this weekend. You can find ordering information here.

A Rebuttal: Drink what you like. And celebrate wine's diversity.

It's rare enough that the mass media writes about wine that I was pleased to see an opinion piece on wine in this Sunday's New York Times, called "Ignore the Snobs, Drink the Cheap, Delicious Wine".  In the piece, author Bianca Bosker begins with a visit to Treasury Wine Estates. One of the world's largest wine companies, Treasury is best known for owning flagship brands like Penfold's, Stag's Leap, Lindeman's, Beringer, and Chateau St. Jean, but those are just a few of the wines they make. Between all their brands, according to their Web site, they sold over 30 million cases of wine in 2015. Ms. Bosker is impressed enough by their wine creation process (which she describes as "created from the consumer backwards") that it encourages her to rethink the place of wines that are, like those she saw, more engineered in a lab than grown in a vineyard.  If you haven't read it, go do it now. OK, welcome back.  

Stock photo - wines in lab
Copyright: freeprod / 123RF Stock Photo

I don't at all disagree with the idea that people should drink what tastes good to them. I think it's great that the wines that are being made for the masses are better than they were a generation ago. I do hear, again and again, that the chance of finding a truly flawed wine is the lowest it has ever been. That's all good. It's a noble goal to make people feel better about drinking the wines they like, and to dispel the intimidation factor from wine. But while this is just an excerpt from what will surely be a more nuanced book, I fear that her central conclusion is wrong, and wrong in a way that will discourage, rather than encourage, the creation of a new generation of wine lovers. 

Let's address the cringe-inducing op-ed title first. I hate that wine knowledge is -- so often -- conflated with snobbery by the general media. The sommeliers I know are eager to share that knowledge, genuinely enthusiastic about wine, accepting that people have different tastes, and explicit that their goal should be to unite their customers with wines they'll love. That said, from my experience with publishers, I'm guessing it was the Times's editors who chose that title and not the author, so I'll leave that there. The second half of the title ("Drink the Cheap, Delicious Wine") seems like something that no one should object to.

And yet... the challenge is, of course, who gets to define delicious, and what that means for the wines that result. I love finding great wines that are steals for their quality, often from overlooked grapes or lesser known regions.1 The process of experimentation and discovery with these sorts of wines tends to lead people to understanding: these less heralded wines are often quite different from one another, and people may well learn that they love the freshness of Gamay but hate the herbal character of Cabernet Franc. Or vice versa. So, as consumers experiment, the diversity of what they taste also helps them better define what they like.

But rather than use modern techniques to create homages to the best simple village wines that a novice drinker might have enjoyed a generation ago, it seems from the author's descriptions that what she found were caricatures of expensive wines. Perhaps this is unsurprising. The production techniques that many elite wineries use for their highest-end wines are expensive: think very low production, to produce intensity; late harvests, to produce luscious flavors; aggressive sorting, to ensure that only the highest quality grapes begin fermentation; and new oak barrels, to provide sweet spices. These together result in wines that tend toward being rich and dense, with sweet fruit, low acid, and soft tannins. That's clearly a flavor profile with its adherents, even if it's not particularly mine.

It doesn't seem like it particularly is the author's taste, either. She describes the wines as "rich, syrupy and heavy", which sounds like a nice thing to pour over your pancakes, but maybe not to accompany your rib eye. Or maybe it does, to you. But even if so, all this reliability comes at a cost.

The rub is that, in a crowded marketplace, these focus-group-engineered wines necessarily displace wines of more interest and more diversity. The process by which focus-group wines are made means that they taste much the same, whatever their varietal makeup or their appellation of origin. Maybe this is OK, if these sorts of wines act as a gateway, getting people on a path that leads (eventually) to wines of more character and diversity. The author (and the Treasury spokesperson she interviews) asserts that. But I'm not sure. While any one of these wines may have a greater chance of appealing to any individual consumer, it seems to me that their sameness -- and the fact that these wines are the (often overwhelming) majority of what's on the shelves in supermarkets -- limits their ability, as a group, to connect with a range of potential wine lovers with different tastes.2

Wine can be a challenging thing. Many consumers who love wine are still intimidated by the arcane (and often foreign) names of places and grapes, the mysteries of fermentation and aging, and the often high prices that come alongside some famous names. But what is the solution to this? Is it to celebrate the elimination of wine's complexities, where wine all follows a specific taste formula designed to please the maximum number of novice drinkers? That seems a shame. Think of food. Is there a place for a Big Mac in American dining? Sure. But does it matter that food can be more than that, or that there are social implications of settling for what's mass-produced for focus groups? Also yes.

And should people aspire to drink better than "root beer with a splash of Hershey’s syrup and vodka," as the author described the wines she tasted in the lab? I don't think that's too much to ask, and I reject the idea that a sommelier (or winemaker) who is trying to lead people along a path to something more meaningful (even if it's more challenging) is somehow doing their customers a disservice.

Footnotes:

  1. So does every wine writer I read, from Robert Parker to Eric Asimov, who like very different sorts of wines. We try to make wines that fit into this basic criteria with our Patelin de Tablas line.
  2. It also seems to me a shame that you also lose what makes wine unique among beverages: that it is a window into the grape(s) that it came from, the place in which it's grown, and the people who made it. But maybe that's just me being romantic.

How to Serve Your Wines at the Proper Temperature

[Editor's Note: This is a version of an article that appeared as part of the Paso Uncorked educational series coordinated by the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance.  If you haven't checked out the other articles in the series, they are highly recommended.]

ServingTempIf I'm in a restaurant and ask for an ice bucket, you're much more likely to see a bottle of red on the table (and a surprised server) than you are to see a white.  And I'm likely to wave away the proffered ice bucket with most of my whites, with the possible exception of something sparkling. An ice bucket for my red wine? And a white let to sit on the table and warm up?  Absolutely.

The basics

You’ve probably heard the recommendation that white wines should be served chilled, and reds at room temperature.  Both recommendations can get you into trouble.  And it should be no surprise.  Serve a wine too cold and its flavors are muted, its texture thinned, and its aromatics deadened.  Serve one too warm and it tastes heavy and alcoholic. But never fear; it’s not that hard to get it right.

The details on whites

White wines should be served somewhere between cool and cold, depending on the wine.  Something more like cool (think 55°- 60°F) is appropriate for white wines that are the richest and the most complex.  Within that category – which includes powerfully built whites like Chardonnay, Semillon, Gewurtztraminer and Pinot Gris, as well as most of the Rhone whites – you’re probably best off at cellar temperature.  Wines with higher acidity and lighter body – think Sauvignon Blanc, Gruner Veltliner, Albarino, or most dry rosés – are generally best a bit colder (say, 50°).  But here too, remember that “a bit colder” shouldn’t mean “straight out of the fridge”.  A white wine that’s too cold will typically show very little other than a sake-like neutrality and some acidity when it’s served at 40°.

The details on reds

For reds, you often hear the recommendation that red wines should be served at "room temperature". That's all well and good, but whose room are we speaking about?  A beach house in Santa Monica?  An air-conditioned Manhattan apartment?  A Scottish castle?  What may have been normal room temperature (say, 65 degrees) fifty years ago in the United Kingdom, whence many of these wine maxims originate, is likely ten degrees cooler than your average American house.  And many restaurants are warmer still, heated by the massed diners and the kitchen burners.  Most high-end restaurants are now (happily) keeping their wines in a temperature-controlled cellar, but I still see too many restaurants with wines in bins or on racks on the walls, and even the ones with good cellars aren't likely using them for their by-the-glass wines.

Red wines aren't the same, either, as they were decades ago when the "room temperature" recommendation gained popularity.  Most red wines are riper, denser, and higher in alcohol than they were a generation ago, and while these wines can have a lovely richness when they're served cool, warmer temperatures emphasize their more unpleasant aspects, making them seem overweight, alcoholic, and sweet.

For most red wines, cellar temperature (around 60°) will do you well.  Some lighter reds can even be delightful chilled even a little further (think Beaujolais).  Just make sure that these wines are fruit-dominant.  Wines with more body, oak and texture need to be a touch warmer to show properly, but actually have a narrower optimal range, as they can quickly turn heavy above about 75°.

A modest proposal

Thankfully, it's not that hard to make sure your wines are served at the right temperature. A typical wine cellar is kept in the upper 50s or lower 60s.  That's a great starting point for both reds and whites.  (And, as a point of reference, our partners at Beaucastel recommend that you serve all their wines, red and whites, at roughly 60 degrees.) If you're serving a sparkling, sweeter or lighter-bodied white, or a rosé, stick the bottle in the fridge for half an hour before you're going to open it, and figure you'll serve it around 50 degrees, and it will warm up a bit in the glass.  If you're serving a red, take it out of that same cellar maybe a half an hour before you open it, or less if your room is warm and the wine will warm up significantly in the glass.  But starting with the red wine too warm doesn't leave you many good options, as it's unlikely to cool off once it's poured.

The fine tuning

Once you have the wine in your glass, you haven’t lost all control.  If the wine is a little cold, cup the bowl of the wine glass in your hands and swirl gently, and you can raise the wine a critical few degrees in less than a minute.  (Glass is a great conductor of temperature, and a lousy insulator).  For the same reason, if the wine is on the warm side, make sure to keep your fingers on the stem rather than the bowl.  And as a last resort, if it’s just too warm to enjoy, don’t feel too bad about dropping an ice cube in your glass, swirling it for a few seconds, and then removing it.  You won’t have diluted the wine much, and you can drop the temperature several degrees in a few seconds.  Of course, you’d do better to get the temperature right before hand, which is why you shouldn’t be shy about requesting that ice bucket. Even if the wine in question is red.


Worried about preserving an opened bottle? Just stay cool.

Over recent weeks, I've received several questions from people wondering how to best preserve a partial bottle of wine for future consumption.  Typically, they're wondering if they should invest in a system that replaces the air in the bottle with an inert gas, or in a vacuum system that removes the air from the bottle entirely.  They tend to be surprised when I suggest that they just cork the bottle up and put it in their fridge.

Wine in fridgeTo begin, it's helpful to know what is happening to a wine once a bottle is opened and air begins to have access to the liquid inside. With the introduction of oxygen to the wine's surface, a complex series of chemical reactions begins, typically first with oxygen combining with phenols (flavor components) to form hydrogen peroxide, and then with the hydrogen peroxide interacting with ethanol (the alcohol in wine) to form acetaldehyde. Acetaldehyde has a cidery aroma and a curious, flat texture.  For examples of the flavors, look to intentionally oxidized wines like sherry and madeira: the taste that distinguishes these beverages from traditional wine is their the elevated level of acetaldehyde.

[If you'd like a more thorough explanation of oxidation's causes and effects, I highly recommend Jamie Goode's 2008 piece for Somm Journal: Wine Flaws: Oxidation.]

Many wines benefit from exposure to oxygen, within reason.  This is particularly true with young red wines, which receive a high level of reductive compounds from the skins of grapes.  Adding some oxygen to these wines, either by decanting a wine or just by letting it sit in a glass after having been poured, will often liberate flavor compounds that are at first tied up by the reductive elements.  But eventually, all those reductive compounds are combined with oxygen, and even a young red wine will begin to oxidize and show the acetaldyhde in sherried, flat flavors.  And older red wines, and most white wines, have much lower tolerances for oxygen before beginning to show symptoms.

How long after opening do you have before a wine becomes unpleasantly oxidized?  For the most delicate older wines, which have likely already absorbed significant levels of oxygen through the slow breathing of their corks over decades, it may only be a few hours.  Most younger wines will give you several hours safely, and some robust red wines will last happily for a few days.  But eventually, all of them will start to show oxidation's undesirable effects.

Key to knowing how to slow down these symptoms is recognizing that oxidation is a chemical reaction.  Like most chemical reactions, the rate of oxidation is temperature-dependent.  Combine oxygen and wine at 70° (think room temperature) and oxidation happens relatively quickly.  Put them together at 40° and you slow the process dramatically.  And this is why the most effective way of slowing the process of oxidation once a wine has been exposed to oxygen is to chill it down.  Yes, it's as simple as putting the reclosed bottle in the fridge.  When you're ready to drink it, the next day or later in the week, if it's a red or a richer white, just take it out 20 minutes or so before you want to pour it and let it warm up a bit.

Note that you're not buying an indefinite amount of time by chilling down an opened bottle; cooler temperatures slow down the chemical reactions but don't stop them.  But if you get a week of drinkability rather than a day, as has been my general experience, you've made real progress.

Will the various systems that exchange the air in a partly-empty bottle for an inert gas (typically argon or nitrogen) help?  If the gas is being inserted into the bottle as the wine is removed (as in a typical wine in keg system, or with the Coravin) absolutely.  But if, like most at-home wine preservation kits, the inert gas is applied only after the bottle is partly emptied, they likely only help at the margins.  You're most likely to get benefit from these sorts of systems if you pour the wine out fairly swiftly and then replace the air in the bottle with that inert gas.  But it's often not practical to do that when a bottle is being passed around a table over the course of a meal.  Each time the wine is poured, oxygen is absorbed by the wine as it is sloshed around the emptying bottle, and after several pours, there's enough oxygen dissolved in the wine that the process of oxidation will continue even if there's a layer of inert gas applied to the surface.

Similarly, the vacuum pumps that remove oxygen from a bottle don't eliminate the oxygen that has already dissolved in the wine, and they have the added complication that they do cause the wine to respire carbon dioxide, which is typically in solution in wine as a by-product of fermentation.  This CO2 provides acidity in the wine, and removing it can make a wine taste as flat as oxidation would have.

One great technique, if you know or suspect you'll only finish half a bottle, is to have an empty half-bottle available, which you fill and cork (or screwcap!) right when you open your original bottle.  Because that wine has had only minimal exposure to oxygen and can't absorb any more because of the bottle's seal, you can typically preserve it for a week or more safely.  But it does take some planning.  If you find yourself with a partial bottle at the end of a leisurely dinner, don't stress.  Just reclose the wine bottle, and stick it in the fridge.


Can I get an ice bucket for my red?

If I'm in a restaurant and ask for an ice bucket, you're much more likely to see a bottle of red on the table (and a surprised server) than you are to see a white.  And I'm likely to wave away the proffered ice bucket with most of my whites, with the possible exception of something sparkling. An ice bucket for my red wine? And a white let to sit on the table and warm up?  Absolutely.

Red bottle in ice bucket

Some of my thoughts on this were brought into focus by an interesting conversation I had with Richard Dean, the Sommelier at San Francisco's Campton Place, as we were finishing up a wonderful wine dinner last week. He had featured several Tablas Creek wines, all of them paired expertly, and served -- not a given -- at exactly the right temperature to offer maximum enjoyment. I complimented him on this, and Richard (who has been pouring our 2011 Patelin de Tablas Blanc by the glass for several months) remarked that a regular customer of Tablas Creek had commented to him that the wine showed best when it had warmed up a bit.  Richard wasn't a stranger to this phenomenon, but moved the wine from the refrigerator where they store most of their whites to the cellar where they store their reds, and was amazed to see how many more compliments he started receiving on the wine. 

I was not surprised. 

Serve a wine too cold and the flavors are thinned and the aromatics deadened.  Serve one too warm and it tastes heavy and alcoholic. And serving temperature matters most to the white wines that are richest and most complex.  Within that category -- which includes powerfully built whites like Chardonnay, Semillon, Gewurtztraminer and Pinot Gris, as well as most of the Rhone whites -- the wines that have the highest acidity hold up best to being served very cold, while those that tend to be broader and richer, and lower in acid, can show very little other than a sake-like creaminess when they're served straight out of the fridge.

We've noticed this in our own blending trials. Roussanne, which at cellar temperature is the richest and most complex white we make, shuts down dramatically when it's served right out of the fridge. And it does have an impact out in the market; I've noticed wildly divergent notes on CellarTracker about our Roussanne that I think are directly attributable to people tasting it at different temperatures.  Grenache Blanc, in contrast, shows quite nicely at low temperatures, in part because of its higher acidity and more traditional fruit flavors. One benefit of blending Grenache Blanc and Picpoul Blanc into Roussanne -- as we do in our Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc -- is that the blended wine shows much better than a straight Roussanne would at the cold temperatures at which it is often served in restaurants.  I still think it's important to serve the wine warmer, or at least let it warm up in your glass, but it gives us a fighting chance.

For reds, you often hear the recommendation that red wines should be served at "room temperature". That's all well and good, but whose room are we speaking about?  A beach house in Santa Monica?  An air-conditioned Manhattan apartment?  A Scottish castle?  What may have been normal room temperature (say, 65 degrees) fifty years ago in the United Kingdom, whence many of these wine maxims originate, is likely ten degrees cooler than your average American house.  And many restaurants are warmer still, heated by the massed diners and the kitchen burners.  Most high-end restaurants are now (happily) keeping their wines in a temperature-controlled cellar, but I still see too many restaurants with wines in bins or on racks on the walls, and even the ones with good cellars aren't likely using them for their by-the-glass wines.

Red wines aren't the same, either, as they were decades ago when the "room temperature" recommendation gained popularity.  Most red wines are riper, denser, and higher in alcohol than they were a generation ago, and while these wines can have a lovely richness when they're served cool, warmer temperatures emphasize their more unpleasant aspects, making them seem overweight, alcoholic, and sweet.

Thankfully, it's not that hard to make sure your wines are served at the right temperature. A typical wine cellar is kept in the upper 50s or lower 60s.  That's a great starting point for both reds and whites.  (And, as a point of reference, at Beaucastel they recommend that you serve all their wines, red and whites, at roughly 60 degrees.) If you're serving a sparkling, sweeter or lighter-bodied white, or a rosé, stick the bottle in the fridge for half an hour before you're going to open it, and figure you'll serve it around 50 degrees, and it will warm up a bit in the glass.  If you're serving a red, take it out of that same cellar maybe a half an hour before you open it, or less if your room is warm and the wine will warm up significantly in the glass.  But starting with the red wine too warm doesn't leave you many good options, as it's unlikely to cool off once it's poured.

But if you get an over-warm red wine when you're eating out, don't be shy about requesting that ice bucket. Hey, it's better than asking for an ice cube, right?


When wine tasting, step away from the carafe

I spent most of the last week on the road, making stops in New York, Portland, and Seattle.  At each stop, I found myself confronted with tasters whose first action upon reaching my table was to pour water into their tasting glasses so as to rinse out whatever was in the their glass and start "fresh".  I've always hated this practice, since at best, you dilute the wine, and at worst you change its flavors, often dramatically, with chlorine or other minerals that were in the water.  So when I got back to the vineyard this week I asked Winemaker Ryan Hebert if he could figure out how much the residual water left in a glass after a rinse actually dilutes the wine you pour in.  It's more than you'd think.

Carafe-no

To answer the question, Ryan mimicked what we typically see at tastings: where a taster pours water into a glass, swirls it around a bit, and then dumps it, holding it upside down for about a second.  That's pretty much normal; some people are more rigorous and shake their glass to the extent that I worry the stem will snap, while others don't even empty the water fully.  Then, he measured the difference in the wine's alcohol levels with and without the water.  What he found was that in a one-ounce pour, the alcohol level is reduced by 6.9% thanks to the water in the glass.  That means that to your ounce (29.6 ml) of wine you've added 2.1 ml of water, diluting a wine that is 13.5% alcohol nearly a full percent to 12.6% and weakening all the other flavors similarly.  Calculated another way, we would get the same effect by pouring roughly eleven gallons of water into each ton of grapes.

Do you think that this impacts the taste?  You bet.  And it impacts the texture more, thinning out a wine and shortening its finish.  This all happens even with distilled water, which is free of mineral content.  Using mineral water, filtered water, or tap water can have even more unpredictable effects.  We tried the same experiment with filtered water and found that the high mineral content dropped the amount of malic acid in our sample (the 2011 Picpoul Blanc) from 0.21 grams per liter to 0.08 grams per liter, presumably because the acids in the wine bonded with the basic particles in the mineral-rich water.  And I've seen people rinse with water that was so chlorinated that I can't imagine the wine tasting remotely like it was intended.

So, what should you do at a wine tasting?  First, don't feel that you need to rinse at all, unless you're trying to get an unusually strong flavor out of your glass, or you're moving back from red to white.  Remember that most wine tastes -- and is structured, from a chemical standpoint -- a lot more like most other wines than it does like water, so the little bit of Chardonnay you have in your glass is going to impact your next taste of Syrah much less than an equivalent amount of water would.  And if necessary, try to rinse your glass out with a little of the wine that you'll be putting into it next.  It doesn't take much, and the winery representative who's pouring the wine will likely be pleased that you care enough to taste the wine properly.  You'll make your pourer even happier if you make it clear in advance that you'd like a rinse... it's always sad when you present a full pour of a scarce wine just to see the taster swirl it around, dump it out, and hold their empty glass back out at you.


How (and Why) to Decant a Wine

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

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

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

Decanting2_1

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

Decanting_1

Then, pull the cork:

Decanting_2

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

Decanting_3

Pouring slower now, part way through the second decanter:

Decanting_4

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

Decanting_5

Done:

Decanting_6

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

Decanting_7

Cheers!

Decanting2_2


What's that in my wine: tartrate crystals

A few weeks ago, we received the following email from a customer (edited to protect identity):

A couple of days ago we sampled a split of [Esprit de] Beaucastel Blanc at ... in ..., CA.  We enjoyed the wine until the moment we poured the remains of the bottle, and a glob fell into my glass, with a noticeable plunk.  The substance can best be described as several, 1 inch-long fuzzy-looking strands.  I have seen crystalline material and sediment in wine, but nothing like what plopped into my glass.  Needless to say, the restaurant did not hesitate to strike the cost of the wine from our tab.
 
I am just curious to learn what that substance could be.

Not the most pleasant of emails to receive.  And I'm sure that to the customer who wrote, the surprise at the end of the bottle colored his experience of the wine he'd been enjoying.  I was surprised, though, that the restaurant didn't have an explanation of what he'd encountered, because it's one of the most common things that can happen to a wine.  He'd encountered tartrate crystals that had precipitated out of a wine and settled into the bottle.

Tartaric acid is one of the three main acids found in wine grapes, and along with malic acid and citric acid provides the tartness in both grapes and wine.  Wine grapes are notably acidic; at harvest, their pH is typically between 3.25 and 3.5 at Tablas Creek.  While much or all of the malic acid is transformed to the softer-tasting lactic acid in the fermentation process, tartaric acid is relatively stable and is therefore responsible for the maintenance of a finished wine's pH and its resistance to various kinds of spoilage.  Still, much of the tartaric acid settles out of a wine during fermentation and aging as a part of the lees.

Tartaric acid's solubility is temperature-dependent.  So, when wine is chilled down, some of the tartaric acid drops out of solution as fine white powder or crystals and does not under normal conditions dissolve again.  For red wines, which are rarely subjected to cold temperatures and which may anyway be expected to throw a sediment over time as suspended color particles fall out of the wine, this is rarely a problem.  But for white wines, which are often refrigerated for days or weeks, and in which consumers aren't expecting to see any sediment, the tartrate crystals can be alarming.  We hear occasionally from customers who've seen these crystals wondering if they are shards of glass.  These crystals -- sometimes called, a bit romantically, "wine diamonds" -- are not glass, and are harmless.  In fact, they are largely potassium bitartrate, whose common name is cream of tartar and which can likely be found in your spice cupboard.  Nearly all commercial cream of tartar is harvested from wineries.

Most mass-produced wines are routinely stabilized in various ways, typically through sterile filtration (to eliminate any chance of refermentation in bottle), heat stabilization (for proteins that can cause a haze in a wine if it's exposed to high temperatures) and cold stabilization (for tartrate crystals).  The cold stabilization process typically involves chilling a tank of wine down around freezing for several days shortly before bottling.  This extended chill causes tartaric acid to drop out of solution in tank, and the resulting tartrate levels are then low enough that no more is likely to precipitate out in a customer's refrigerator or a restaurant's wine room.  Of course, like most interventions, cold stabilization has other less desirable consequences, and a lower concentration of tartaric acid in the resulting wine changes the wine's flavors somewhat and can impact its long-term ageability.

IMG00196-20110512-2145 How a wine is stored impacts whether a customer even notices tartrates in bottle.  If a cork-finished wine is stored upside-down, any tartrate crystals typically adhere to the cork and are removed with the cork when the wine is opened.  However, if a wine is stored upright, any tartrates that form are likely to be visible, and the last glass (like the one at right) will show the evidence.  And tartrates won't adhere to screwcaps, so no matter how a screwcap-finished wine is stored any tartrates will be visible in the bottle.

Coldstabilization At Tablas Creek, we prefer not to cold-stabilize the whites that we hope will have the longest aging curve.  These wines -- principally the Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc, Roussanne and Antithesis Chardonnay -- are also wines that we typically finish in cork.  It should not be surprising to see these wines throw tartrate crystals over time.  Of course, if they're stored upside-down, you may never notice unless you look at the underside of the cork carefully.  Our whites that we intend for earlier consumption, and our Rose -- all of which which are typically finished in screwcap -- do receive a light cold stabilization, like the one pictured to the right.  We would prefer not to have the tartrate crystals floating around in these bottlings, though it could still happen if a bottle is put in a cold refrigerator for a long period.

So, back to our initial customer.  What do I think happened?  I think that the restaurant likely stored the half-bottle upright in their white wine refrigerator for several weeks or longer, plenty of time for the tartrate crystals to settle out.  And neither the customer nor the waiter had seen enough minimally-processed wines to know that what they had encountered was normal.

IMG00191-20110512-2144