Can rosé wines age? It depends on the grapes they're made from.

Over the weekend, I saw a really nice review of our 2017 Dianthus Rosé on Kerry Winslow’s Grapelive blog. I found it interesting that Kerry, although he loved it, felt like he needed to address it being a 2017, adding the comment that it "is last years wine, but still vibrant and the maturity hasn’t slowed down this fabulous wine". I don't think you'd find a caveat like this for a white wine, and a 2017 would be considered maybe even too young to drink for most reds. But it gets at a common perception of rosés: that they need to be drunk the year that they’re released.

Is it true? There are definitely some, maybe even many, rosés for which I'd say yes. But, and this is important, like reds and whites, the grape(s) that the wine is made with matters. The dominant model for rosés is that of Provence, which is based on Grenache, always an oxidative grape, and they tend to have very pale colors from minimal time in contact with the skins. In the cellar at Tablas Creek, we are careful to keep even red Grenache away from too much oxygen. We ferment it in stainless steel or large wooden tanks, and avoid 60-gallon barriques (what you probably think of as a “normal” wine barrel) for aging. And you'd expect a rosé made from Grenache to have a shorter aging curve. Tannins act as a preservative in wine. So, if you start with Grenache, already an oxidative grape, and pull it early off the skins, which are the source of a wine’s tannins, you're likely to end up with something that’s even less resistant to oxidation. My experience with most Provence rosés (and the American rosés that are modeled off them) bears that out. The wines are at their best the summer after they’re made. The best ones are still good the next summer, but they’ve already started to fade.

But it’s equally important to remember that Provence is not the world’s (or even France’s) only rosé tradition. Bandol, arguably the source of the world’s greatest rosés, uses Mourvèdre as the lead grape. And Mourvèdre is a very different beast from Grenache. In our cellar, we do everything we can to make sure we get Mourvèdre air. We ferment it in open-top fermenters. We age it in oak, and still have to make sure to rack it fairly often so it doesn’t get reductive. Some of that comes from Mourvèdre’s skins, but not all does. And it's worth mentioning that, depending on how your rosé is made, it's going to get at least some of the tannins (and their powers of preservation) from the skins. In the case of our Dianthus, the juice spends between 24 and 36 hours on the skins, giving it a deep pink color and providing a hint of tannic bite that brings counterpoint to the wine's lush fruit.

Two roses for Nov 2019 feature

I remember learning, to my surprise, that as recently as a decade ago many Bandol estates didn’t even release their rosés until the fall after harvest, because they felt that the wines took that much time to really open up and come into their own. I don't think that happens much any more. Producers in the (dominant) Provence model compete to be first into the market in the springtime to lock up the lucrative summer rosé placements, which has created a market and consumer expectation that you want the newest, freshest rosé you can find. That means that for a tradition like Bandol, even if the wine is better in the fall, a producer is likely to make a market-driven calculation that they should release the wine early.

Although the growth of the rosé market has meant that it's more of a year-round item on wine lists, there is still definitely a rosé high season in the spring and summer, and restaurants and retailers all look to feature the newest vintage. So, there are three significant disincentives against fall releases. First, you're releasing a wine into a market that is saturated with earlier releases (many of whom are likely looking to close out any remaining inventory with deep discounts). Second, you're releasing a wine into a category that is going off season. And third, by the time the season opens back up in the springtime, you look like old inventory compared to the new crop of the next year's rosés.

But those market realities don't change the fact that the fall release tradition gets at something important about rosés made from these oxidation-resistant grapes. They improve in bottle, are likely just reaching their peak in the cooler fall and winter seasons, and can be just as good or even better the next summer. Their deeper flavors also make for better matches with the richer foods of chillier seasons.

Dianthus in the snow

That’s why seeing a review like this for this wine makes me happy. It recognizes that these rosés can improve with time in bottle, and can be great winter wines. In our tasting room, we switch in October from showcasing our Patelin Rosé (which we poured for guests in spring and summer) to our Dianthus, which we'll continue to feature through the fall and into the winter, as long as it lasts. It also helps people learn that rosés are not a uniform category, and different base grapes produce different profiles and different life paths, like with reds and whites. For all the growth of the rosé category, the idea that rosés can be diverse is still something that’s not well enough understood.


So, what makes people join a wine club, anyway?

I had a first for me a couple of weeks ago: I closed the deal on a wine club signup via Twitter:

Twitter thread club signup

This wasn't a Herculean feat; it sounds like Amber LeBeau, who writes the SpitBucket.Net blog, was interested already.  I just connected the last few dots.  But I was fascinated to read the blog that she posted the next day, about why she signed up.  After all, there are thousands of American wineries, most of whom have wine clubs, and thousands more clubs available from retailers, magazines, newspapers, and even NPR.

Now we spend a lot of our time thinking about how to make our wine club (or, more accurately, wine clubs, since we offer three different flavors) as appealing as possible.  We research how other wineries who we respect craft their club offerings.  And we try to listen (and to ask) our own customers about what they want out of a club.  Still, each customer's reason for joining a club is ultimately personal, and what may be appealing to one customer may matter only a little to another. In Amber's piece, she outlines three main factors she uses in deciding whether to sign up for a club or not:

  • How easy can I get your wines at home?
  • How many bottles am I committing myself to?
  • How likely is the style of wine going to change?

Happily, we fared well on all three factors. While some of our core wines are available in Amber's hometown of Seattle, we make more than a dozen wines each year that don't make it into distribution, many of which are exclusively available to wine club members.  We think of our wine club as an introduction to our wines, not a means to move large quantities, and so typically send out twelve different bottles per year, six in the spring and six in the fall.  And we are family-owned, with so much continuity in our philosophy and winemaking team that we've had the same winemaker for more than two decades. So, we passed. (Thank you, Amber!)

Still, because of this conversation and the blog that resulted, I've spent more time than usual recently thinking about what makes for a great wine club.  I thought I'd put my thoughts down here, and encourage you to chime in in the comments if you think there are things I've under- or over-emphasized, or that I've missed entirely.

  • Wines that you love, consistently. This is, I think, the core of it all. If a winery makes wines that you love across the board the chances of you loving what they choose to send you is a lot greater than if you like a few wines a lot and others less.
  • Wines you otherwise can't get. I think it's important that there be wines that are made especially for club members (or, at least, set aside exclusively for club members). When we started, and our wine club was small, this was easy. Now, we have to plan for it, and make wines that we know are going to be dedicated to our members.  This can be lots of fun. [Read, if you haven't, our blog from last spring about making a new wine around Terret Noir for our club members.]
  • Savings. Now, maybe if your wine is otherwise unavailable (i.e. all sold on allocation) this isn't a key.  Getting the wine at all is the important thing.  But for most wineries, you don't have to be a member to get their wine.  Making sure that club members get good prices on what they buy is really important.  There's not much that will make a member into an ex-member faster than seeing your wine sold cheaper than they can get it at a nearby store.
  • Special treatment. I think "club" is the key word here.  You want to know that when you visit a place where you're a member, you'll be treated like an insider.  There's not one specific way in which this has to be done.  But knowing that you'll get more than the basic experience everyone else gets is important.
  • Flexibility & convenience. I've lumped these two things together, because while they're probably not positive decision factors, they can definitely be deal-breakers. A shipment every two months? Probably not a convenience if you have to be home to sign for the packages. A single set configuration which can't be adjusted depending on your likes? Probably ditto (though less so if you really love all the wines). And any particular wine in quantity? Probably less appealing than a variety.
  • Fun other opportunities to connect. Whether this includes member-only days at the winery, excursions (hey, how about a Rhone River cruise?), or just making the point of sending out information and invitations to club members when you're doing an event in their neck of the woods, opportunities to connect outside the tasting room can be lots of fun for everyone.

We are always honored when someone joins one of our wine clubs. It's a meaningful gesture of faith in what we do that a customer will give us their credit card and say, in essence, we trust you to pick some wines we'll love. We want always to make sure that we're worthy of that trust, and are proud that our wine club members stay members for more than three times the industry average. If you have things that you particularly value in a club membership that I haven't mentioned, or another way you look at value, please share it in the comments.

And, once more, to any members out there, thank you.


San Luis Obispo County: the Little County that Could

This week, the San Luis Obispo Tribune posted a nice article pointing out the terrific representation of San Luis Obispo County in the two most influential year-end "Top 100" lists published by the Wine Spectator and by the Wine Enthusiast.  The Wine Spectator included seven local wines in their Top 100, while the Wine Enthusiast added three more in their Top 100.  Let's stop and think about this for a moment.  That's 10 of the 200 wines represented in the two lists from our little county, or 5%.  And even better that most of the wines listed were toward the tops of the lists. Already pretty satisfying, right? It's actually even better than that.

Tablas Creek Long View 2014

How much wine does San Luis Obispo County make, compared to the rest of the state, country, and world?  In 2016, San Luis Obispo County ranked seventh in the state of California by bearing acreage according to the USDA:

  • San Joaquin: 68,210
  • Sonoma: 58,007
  • Monterey: 44,095
  • Napa: 43,589
  • Fresno: 37,831
  • Madera: 32,763
  • San Luis Obispo: 31,480

Overall, our county represents 6.8% of the 459,629 bearing acres in the state of California.  So, 5% doesn't seem like that great a representation.1  But of course, not all the wines in the two "Top 100" lists are from California. In fact, just 39 of the 200 wines in the two lists (17 in Wine Enthusiast and 22 in Wine Spectator) are from California.  So, that's 25.6% of the state's "Top 100" representatives that come from SLO County.  Not bad.

Perhaps you'd prefer to look at what percentage of American wine our little county represents?  Opening up the list to wines from Washington, Oregon, and New York adds an additional 22 wines.  That reduces SLO County's percentage from 25.6% to 16.4%, still well above the 3.45% of the country's total production that San Luis Obispo County represents.2

Or perhaps you're prefer to look internationally.  In 2015, the United States produced 10.48% of the world's wine.  So, San Luis Obispo County produced 0.36% of the world's wine: just one out of every 277 bottles made.  That means that in the two "Top 100" lists, the 5% that SLO County represents is overperforming by something like 14 times, measured as our percentage of world production. 

However you choose to measure it, we punched way above our weight class in 2017.

You go, San Luis Obispo County.

Footnotes:
1. It's actually a little better than it sounds, since although SLO County represents 6.8% of California's acres, it represents something less than that of its production. That's because coastal regions like ours generally produce many fewer tons per acre than counties in the Central Valley.  Figuring out by how much is a little tricky, since production isn't tracked by county, only by Grape District.  In the California Grape Crush Report for 2016, District 8, which includes San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, and Ventura Counties, produced 224,584 tons.  If SLO County represents the same 67% of tonnage that it represents of the district's bearing acreage, which seems reasonable, it would produce 150,471 tons, or about 3.7% of the state's 4,031,000 total tons produced.

2. This calculation required a bit of cross-referencing, since grape acreage statistics in states outside California, Washington, Oregon, and Texas are hard to come by.  I used instead the tons estimate I calculated in the above footnote, and calculated the percentage of total national production based on the Wine Institute's data that California represents roughly 85% of the United States' total national production.


Should a Vermentino ever get 98 points?

Yesterday, we posted to our Twitter feed a great review that our 2016 Vermentino received from the trade publication BevX:

I then had a brief exchange on Twitter with Sean Ludford, who runs BevX:

This got me thinking.  What is it about certain grapes or styles that allows them to be great?  I wondered how many Vermentinos had received 90+ scores from larger publications, so I looked in the Wine Spectator's database. They've scored 430 Vermentinos over the years. Of those, 17 have received 90+ scores, including just two 91s and one 92.  That's less than 4% of the Vermentinos reviewed (which, presumably, are the better ones) that received an "outstanding" or "classic" score.

Thinking about other grapes that fit a similar profile (bright, crisp, generally best drunk young) I looked up Picpoul. Of the 60 that they tasted, only one (from our neighbors here in Paso Robles, Adelaida Cellars) got a 90.  That's 1.7%.

Going more into the mainstream, Chardonnay returns 25,485 results in the Wine Spectator database.  Of these, 5,206 have received 90+ ratings (20.4%).   Sauvignon Blanc returns 10,706 results, with 935 (8.7%) receiving 90+ scores. Pinot Grigio returns 2,204 results, but only 82 90+ scores (3.7%).

Rhone whites as a whole score well.  Take Roussanne, for example.  Of the 456 Roussannes reviewed by the Wine Spectator over the years, 70 (15.4%) received 90+ ratings, with our 2014 Roussanne being one of three that topped the list at 93 points. Viognier has 362 90+ wines out of 2,404 (15.1%).  Marsanne has 33 90+ scores out of 269 wines (12.3%). And Grenache Blanc, which only returns 212 results, has 24 90+ scores, four of them ours (11.3%). Only Picpoul is an outlier here.

So, what does it mean that 20+% of Chardonnays can be "outstanding" or "classic", 11-15% of most of the Rhone whites, but only 4% of Vermentinos?  I think there are a few factors at play.

  • Ageworthiness. I do think that reviewers put a premium on wines that can be aged into something greater than they were in their youth. This makes some sense to me. A truly great wine should be interesting over time, and assume different personalities. Just as a great book is something that you want to return to at different stages of your life, and from which you can gather different insights depending on your own life experiences. Vermentino, as beautiful as it can be, is not a wine that we think improves with time in bottle.
  • Richness. There also seems to be a correlation between a wine's body and high scores.  Most Rhone whites (with the possible exception of Grenache Blanc) show a lot of body. And even Grenache Blanc can have plenty of body; it's just balanced by high acids.  But grapes that are lighter in body, like Picpoul or Pinot Grigio (or Vermentino) tend not to be treated the same way.  Sauvignon Blanc, which can be made richer but is typically bright and lean, falls somewhere in between.  If we were able to taste the styles of the highest-rated wines in the category, I would guess that they'd tend toward the richer side of the grape's spectrum. Here is a case where I think there's room to debate. Is there a place for rich wines? Of course. But I know that I value refreshment in wine as much as I do power. And yes, great wines should offer at least some of both.
  • Oak. What else distinguishes white wines with more body from those with less? The more substantial wines are more likely to have been fermented in oak, and to have a higher percentage of that oak be new. Does this mean that a category that typically isn't made with oak has to be oaked to get high scores? I hope not. You're starting to see this with some luxury rosé cuvées, most visibly Chateau d'Esclans, whose top-of-the-line Garrus rosé, aged in new and one-year-old French oak, has on its Web page a litany of reviews calling it the "best rosé in the world". But is the wine better, or is it the oak that tells people they should value it more? I think it's at least partly the latter. I tasted Garrus along the other three tiers from Chateau d'Esclans, and I preferred the freshness of the less expensive wines to the creamy oakiness of the elite levels, not least because the oak to me worked against the freshness and charm that I look for in rosés. That said, the richer style clearly has its adherents. A grape like Vermentino is not likely to be put into new barrels, and thank heavens for that. But the sweet spice and weight that new oak brings to a wine is at least a part of what cues reviewers to identify wines as elite.
  • Provenance. Looking at the scores, the percentage of high scores is correlated with the percentage of each wine that is made in California. Now, before I dive into this potential land mine, let me make it clear that I do not believe that California wines are held to a different (lower) standard, that the Wine Spectator is biased in favor of California, or that all California wines are better than wines from the Old World.  That said, I do believe that California winemakers have taken a new look at many grapes which in the Old World were made in a certain way by tradition.  Take Picpoul:
    • In France, the Picpouls (mostly from the Pinet region, in Languedoc) are generally produced plentifully, harvested early with modest sugars, fermented fast and bottled young to showcase the wines' bright acids.  And they are all so cheap (generally under $10 retail) that there is little opportunity or incentive to innovate.
    • At Tablas Creek, we farm the same grape at lower yields, in a climate with colder nights, and those combine to produce wines with just as much acidity, but more concentration and texture than the French versions.
    • It's noteworthy that just 9 of the 70 Picpouls are from California, and yet most of the ones that received the high scores were. Same with Vermentino: just 9 of the 430 reviews are for California wines (6 of these are ours).
    • Are the wines principally different because of climate? Sure, in part. But I think it's at least as much in the freedom that we have from tradition, and the higher price point of most California wines, that has encouraged and rewarded a new approach to these formerly unfashionable grapes.
    • The wines with longer histories in California have more reviews but tell the same story; thirty of Roussanne's seventy 90+ scores come from California.

Ultimately, the ceiling score for wines is determined by the accumulated reputation of a category over the years.  And I don't think this is a bad thing, or that all grapes are created equal. Cabernet, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir command the world's highest prices and the lion's share of many magazines' top scores because the market has decided that their best examples are worth the high prices they command. Is there an extent to which this is tradition? Sure. But these are great grapes, which have proved their value and reputation over generations. There is a reason why I reach for a Chardonnay a lot more often than I do for a Pinot Grigio, and I don't want to suggest that the same percentage of every grapes should receive 90+ scores.

That said, remember that loving unfashionable grapes is a tremendous opportunity to enjoy a category's great examples on the cheap.  What the best Chardonnays from Montrachet or Cabernets from Napa Valley will set you back can be measured in hundreds or thousands of dollars.  This 98-point Vermentino?  $27, and less since June is the month it is our featured wine.

In the end, I find it refreshing to think that a grape can be celebrated for being outstanding in its own right and not bump up against some glass ceiling of worthiness. Is there really no such thing as a "classic" Vermentino"? Maybe not, if the definition of a classic is one that will stand the test of time; I know I'm going to try to drink all my 2016 Vermentino before the 2017 is even picked. But I hope there is the opportunity to identify a wine that is outstanding at a moment in time, even if (especially if) it's now the best it will ever be.  And as Sean Ludford said in his last tweet, "excellence is excellence".  Amen to that.


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.

On being a kid-friendly winery

I was pleased to see us mentioned in Mother Magazine's Paso Robles Guide, published online today. I was even more pleased to see Paso Robles recognized:

Mother Magazine Paso Robles

We moved out to Paso Robles in part because we were ready to start a family, and we haven't been disappointed.  From the great downtown park to a terrific library system, the different children's museums to an active youth sports community, it's been a great place to raise our two boys.  But I think that the kid-friendliness of the food and wine community has been noteworthy as well.  It's been fun to see the enthusiasm of the servers in the restaurants we visit, taking the kids seriously as they learn how to navigate their way around a real menu. And the bartenders we ask to make up fun kids' cocktails. We've never felt like we attract dirty looks by bringing the kids into the many great restaurants here, and for that we're grateful.

So it's really nothing more than paying it forward to do what we can to help make parents who visit Tablas Creek with kids feel welcome.  And, having been a parent in the shoes, so to speak, of our visitors, it's easy to remember how grateful even simple accommodations made us feel.  What do we do?  It's not rocket science.

  • Offer an activity for kids while parents taste. In our case, we have a kid-sized coloring table in the corner of our tasting room, with pictures of grapes and vines that they can color.  Heck, you don't even need to be a kid to use it, though if you're more than about 5'2" your knees may complain.  But giving parents the chance to focus on your wine instead of corralling a bored kid who otherwise is underfoot is good for your customers, your bottom line, and your sanity.
  • Offer events for families to do together.  Clearly, many or most of the events you're going to offer as a winery are going to be focused on wine drinking (or pairing, or making) and won't be appropriate to kids.  But much of what a winery does is agriculture, and it's important and typically fun to get kids involved in how things are grown and made.  We use animals as a part of our biodynamic program, and have created events to bring families out to meet the animals and learn their role in a healthy vineyard.
  • Be inclusive where you can.  We take as many people as are interested out on tours to see the vineyard, our grapevine nursery, and the winery.  All of this is interesting to kids, in my experience.  Have them taste different grapes and see if they can describe what makes them different.  Explain why you plant, or graft, or farm the way you do.  It costs nothing, builds goodwill, and gets kids involved in important conversations.
  • Be involved in your community.  The work that we do here is only one way that we interact with our customers.  Many of them live in our community, and most of them visit.  We have made it a point to get involved in the community activities that enrich the life experiences of kids who grow up here, from creating a partnership with the Performing Arts Center, to donating wine to raise funds for art in schools at the Paso Arts Fest, to creating a program with must! charities to support the Boys' & Girls' Club here in Paso and a local expansion of the Big Brothers Big Sisters program.  There are so many ways to make a difference... and many of the most compelling focus on kids.

It's really not the case where in making your winery family-friendly you have to choose to somehow make it less adult-friendly.  In general, thinking of the needs of kids who may be (unwillingly) accompanying their parents when they come out to visit you is going to make for a better experience for not only their parents, but also the kid-free customers who might otherwise be caught in the crossfire.

And if you can create an experience that involves an alpaca, some donkeys and a whole passel of sheep, so much the better.

Levi at meet the animals
Former Viticulturist Levi Glenn at our "Meet the Animals" family event a few summers ago


Outtakes from my Decanter "My Paso Robles" article

Earlier this year, I was flattered to be asked by Decanter Magazine to write an insider's guide to Paso Robles for inclusion in their annual California supplement.  My goal was not to recommend wineries, but instead to give potential visitors an idea of some of the other gems of the area: things to do that you might not know about, or that might not appear in a guide book.  What fun.  The article was published last month:

Decanter_my_paso

Unfortunately, it isn't available online.  So, I wanted to share it here.  This also gives me the opportunity to provide some additional details on my recommendations that weren't able to fit into the magazine due to space constraints.  So, here goes:

My Paso Robles

I was sitting in our downtown park last summer on a warm Thursday evening, listening to a local band play and watching my kids thread their way through the crowd with their friends, when I realized that this is what people look for when they come to wine country, and more than that, what we were looking for when we moved out fourteen years ago from a city life to join my family in working on our Tablas Creek project. We were drinking local rosé out of plastic tumblers, sitting with two other winemaking families on blankets, and eating caprese sandwiches from tomatoes we’d gotten at our local farmer’s market that week. And it’s not just that concert series. Paso is like that: few pretensions, still country, but with an appealing overlay of cultural opportunities brought by the wine community over the last three decades.

Justin Baldwin, the founder of the pioneering Justin Winery, is fond of saying that when he arrived in Paso Robles in 1983, the best meal in town was the tuna melt at the bowling alley. When I first started spending time out here in 1995, it wasn't quite that bleak, but still, when you wanted a great meal, or interesting shopping, you went over to the coast, or down to San Luis Obispo. No more. Our little town, which locals just call "Paso" (population, about 30,000), is now home to a remarkable collection of restaurants, hotels, and shops, driven by the dramatic growth of our local wine community, from 17 wineries when we started Tablas Creek in 1989 to some 260 today.

Local agriculture means more than wineries. The area has a long history of ranching, and the ample (for California) natural rainfall west of town made it a historical centre of both grain and nut production. Several local olive ranches are producing some of California's best olive oils. Just 20 miles away, the coast offers fishing, kayaking and surfing, a milder climate in which citrus and avocado orchards thrive, and Hearst Castle, the most visited state park in California.

In Paso, you have a vibrant mix of three communities, which interact in interesting and rewarding ways. You have the old ranching community, many of whose members have in recent decades dedicated a portion of their ranches to vineyards. Cowboy hats here are not worn ironically. You have the wine community, which has attracted a mix of new graduates, young families, and second career refugees into the area from (mostly) other parts of California, bringing a more urban, multicultural aesthetic. And you have a vibrant Hispanic community, both first and second generation, with taquerias and mercados, some of which play it straight and some of which incorporate influences from California and beyond.

Whatever you do, plan to stay for at least a few days. We're not near any major cities (or airports, for that matter, although the one-gate San Luis Obispo airport makes for a convenient arrival point) and the pace here isn't one where you should try to do it all in a day or two. Slow down, limit your winery visits to 3 or 4 per day, and take in some other attractions. And then plan to come back.

  • Stay at Hotel Cheval. When this 16-room boutique hotel opened in 2007 it brought a whole new level of luxury and professionalism to lodging in Paso Robles. It's still the town's classiest spot to stay, with live music evenings in their great bar (the Pony Club) and the benefit of being just half a block from the downtown park: an easy walk to (and more importantly back from) the town's restaurants.
  • Visit the Abalone Farm in Cayucos. San Luis Obispo County's agriculture isn't all wine. Ranching is big here too, as are strawberries, citrus, and avocados. Abalone fishing has a long local history, but decades of overharvesting from which wild populations are only beginning to recover means that if you want to try local abalone you should come here, just up from the kelp forests of Cayucos, to one of just three licensed fisheries in the state. You have to call and make an appointment, but a visit is a fascinating look at the five-year journey this mollusk makes from spawn to plate.
  • Shop like a local at General Store Paso Robles and Studios on the Park. Less than a block apart from each other are my two favorite places in town to shop. Studios on the Park is a cooperative work space and gallery for a dozen local painters, sculptors, and printmakers. It even offers classes if you're feeling creative. The General Store is the place to go for anything Paso Robles-themed, as well as a curated selection of cookbooks, housewares, and picnic items. I'd go even more often if my wife Meghan hadn't already bought everything there.
  • Play a round of disc golf at Castoro Cellars. I played Ultimate Frisbee competitively for two decades. Disc golf is more my speed now, and the Udsen brothers Max and Luke built a course that takes players through the gorgeous hillside vineyards of their family's winery.
  • Try the cider at Bristol’s Cider House. Made by our winemaker Neil Collins in homage to his Bristol, England roots, the line of Bristol's Ciders is available to taste at his Atascadero cider house. The ciders are creative and delicious, and the themed food nights (curry Thursdays, anyone?) are great fun.
  • Eat a plate of al pastor tacos at Los Robles Café (no Web site; 805.239.8525). Don't be put off by the bare-bones exterior, a few blocks north of the park on Spring Street. This is the kind of place you think should be everywhere in California: a great, inexpensive local taqueria, where they're equally comfortable taking your order in Spanish or English.
  • Go to the railroad station for the best sushi in town at Goshi (no Web site; 805.227.4860), and know that half the tables there will be winemakers out with their families, refreshing their palates with beer, sake, and amazingly fresh fish.
  • Go for cocktails and appetizers around the square, hitting Artisan, Villa Creek, Thomas Hill Organics and La Cosecha. Everything is within a few blocks, so rather than spend all night at one restaurant, try several. At each stop, try an appetizer and a drink. If you're wined out, sip cocktails made from local craft spirits, like Alex and Monica Villicana's re:find distillery.
  • Order the cauliflower at The Hatch or the French onion soup at Bistro Laurent. New classic, or old? Chef Laurent Grangien was the first to open a fine restaurant in Paso Robles back in 1997. His onion soup has been a staple on the menu ever since, and is a requirement for my boys if we've been out shopping. Meanwhile, the Hatch, started by Maggie Cameron and Eric Connolly just in 2014, is Paso's newest culinary hotspot, with southern-inflected sharable plates and particularly delectable cauliflower with their version of hot dip.
  • On a summer Thursday, bring a blanket, a picnic (try 15degrees C in Templeton), a bottle of local rosé, and join the rest of the community for one of the concerts in the park.  Fun for all ages.

So, that's my Paso. What are the can't miss stops in yours?


A Wonderful Article on Robert Haas's Remarkable Career and Legacy

My dad generally avoids the spotlight. So it was particularly nice to read a wonderful article on his career that was published this week by Warren Johnston in the Valley News, a daily newspaper serving the portion of the Connecticut River Valley where he and my mom spend their summers. 

Most readers of the Tablas Creek blog likely know him from his impact on the world of Rhone grape varieties, both from his long history representing Beaucastel and the other wines made by the Perrin Family, and from his work with the Perrins in bringing Tablas Creek Vineyard into existence. That work -- and particularly the decision to make available the high quality Rhone clones that we imported into the United States -- was influential enough to earn him a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2014 from the Rhone Rangers

This article focused equally on other aspects of his career, particularly his time with Vineyard Brands when he ran one of America's most influential wine import companies out of a converted barn in a Vermont town of 2700 residents.  We still have this poster hanging in our tasting room:

Robert Haas Selections poster

His career in wine has spanned nearly seven decades, and has included stints in nearly every aspect of the industry.  A few highlights:

  • As a retailer, he worked with his father at M. Lehmann in Manhattan to offer the first-ever futures offering on Bordeaux.
  • As a broker, he represented some of the top estates in Burgundy and Bordeaux, like Domaine Gouges, Mongeard-Mugneret, Domaine Ponsot, Chateau Lafite and Chateau Petrus.
  • As an importer, he built a company in Vineyard Brands that added dynamic brands like La Vieille Ferme and Marques de Caceres to his venerable list of estate producers. This balance of estate wines and larger brands (unique at its time) gave the company the diversified range of products that allowed it to thrive across different economic cycles.
  • When he was ready to retire and invest in Tablas Creek, rather than sell the company, he was one of the first American small businessmen to use an employee stock ownership plan to turn the company over to its employees. Today the company continues to thrive, with much of the senior leadership hired two and even three decades ago by him.
  • An early advocate of California, he represented wineries like Kistler, Joseph Phelps, Chappellet, Spring Mountain, and Clos du Val in the 1970s, and helped launch Sonoma-Cutrer in the 1980s.
  • He co-founded Winebow with Leonardo Locascio and Peter Matt in 1980, to provide Vineyard Brands with a high quality wholesaler in New York. Winebow has grown to be an influential importer as well as a distribution powerhouse.
  • His work in founding the Tablas Creek nursery -- and his decision not to keep the clones we'd imported proprietary -- has allowed California's Rhone movement to blossom in a way otherwise impossible.  More than 600 vineyards and wineries around the United States use Tablas Creek cuttings.
  • He's even growing grapevines at his house in Templeton to make our Full Circle Pinot Noir.

In writing that list, I was struck by the extent to which the things he creates (or helps create) outlive his involvement with them. That's a testament to his determination in putting companies on a firm foundation, as well as his judgment in choosing people to work with and, when necessary, to succeed him.

One of my great pleasures in working here at Tablas Creek has been to get to see my dad through the eyes of the many people he has influenced.  Yesterday's article was a good reminder for me that as he gets ready to enter his tenth decade, his influence is as enduring as ever.


Tablas Creek is a 2016 Wine Blog Awards Finalist

WBA_logoI was excited to learn today that we are a finalist for the 2016 Wine Blog Awards. These awards, created in 2007 by the tireless Tom Wark to honor the growing number and quality of wine bloggers, have been awarded each year since.

This is the tenth year of the awards, and the eighth year where we've been a finalist. Our consistency is the accomplishment I'm proudest of. Blogging can be a slog at times. There is a start-up period where no one much is reading what you're saying. And then, after a few years in a seasonal, cyclical endeavor, it becomes a struggle to feel like you aren't just repeating yourself. In order to keep the blog feeling fresh and relevant, I've tried to bring new voices into the mix, and this past year, we've added two new series, both of which I think add fresh perspectives: the Eat Drink Tablas series featuring food & wine pairings by Suphada Rom, and the Q & A with Tablas series, where Lauren Phelps interviews some of the key members of our team.

Like last year, our category is "Best Winery/Industry Blog". There is one other returning blog from last year's finalists (last year's winning Berry Bros. & Rudd blog, from the venerable UK retailer). The other finalists are all new to the awards, though I was excited to see a personal local favorite (the Wine Lohr blog, from J. Lohr, which should win for its name alone). The other three entries are new to me, and I look forward to getting to know them over the next few days.  And, of course, ours is just one category; there are seven categories in all.  Getting to know the other finalists' work [click here] is always my favorite part of the whole process.  I hope that you will as well.  If, after doing so, you'd care to vote for us, we'd be honored.  The winner will be determined half by the voting of the judges, and half by the votes of the public.  Voting ends June 13th.

I like to celebrate these nominations by looking back at some memorable posts from the last year.  Here are ten of my favorites of the 62 entries we've posted in the last year, with a little about why each has stuck with me:

  • The Early Years of Tablas Creek. Last summer, I received a treasure trove of photographs from Dick Hoenisch, our original nursery and vineyard manager who has since moved on to a career in academia.  These photographs, from when we bought the property in 1989 through the original construction of our winery building in 1997, were like a time capsule that I think anyone who only knows us as a mature winery will find fascinating.
  • On the Rhone: a Post-Cruise Appreciation. My dad helped lead the Tablas Creek Rhone River cruise last August.  When he came back, he wrote up the experience vividly enough that you'll feel like you were there. The amazing photographs provided by Jeffery Clark, a wine club member on the cruise, are the icing on the cake.
  • Coming (Soon) to Fruition. I always love Chelsea Franchi's blogs because of their combination of intimacy and humor. Read this, and you'll know what it's like to anticipate (and dread) the onset of the harvest season. 
  • What's Next for the New Paso Robles AVAs. I was invited late last year to present at a continuing education law seminar, focused on the AVA approval process and prospects for the 11 Paso Robles sub-AVAs. It gave me a chance to look forward at what the future might look like. What these new AVAs mean (and should mean) in the marketplace is a fascinating question, and I enjoyed delving into it in some depth.
  • Customer Service Lessons from an Overcrowded Restaurant. I think this is one anyone can relate to: a favorite place that's just not on its game one night. But in the age of Yelp, the consequences to that place can be lasting. Hopefully, I helped someone, somewhere, avoid this.
  • A 60 Year Career in a Bottle of Delaporte Sancerre. A second piece by my dad, reflecting on opening a bottle of wine he'd first encountered (many vintages earlier) on his first buying trip to France. Even more fun: that same day, the original proprietor's great-grandson had presented the estate's newest wines to Vineyard Brands, the company he founded.
  • Braised Short Ribs: A Cold-Weather Pairing Fit for Rain or Snow. I could have picked any of Suphada's Eat Drink Tablas entries, but this was maybe my favorite: seasonal and delicious, with her super photographs illustrating every stage of the recipe.
  • Why the Future May Look a Lot Like the Crazy 2015 Vintage. This came out of my being invited to give the keynote address to a viticulture conference held here in Paso Robles. The opportunity to go back and look at what made 2015 so unusual was, I think, both instructive and unsettling.
  • The Swarm, the Hive, and Tablas Creek Honey. Viticulturist Jordan Lonborg's first blog was a knockout, taking you inside the quest to catch a wild swarm of bees. The photographs that accompanied the piece were equally amazing.
  • Grenache Blanc's Moment in the Sun. Some blogs take work to write. This was one that sprang onto the keyboard almost fully formed, thanks to conversations I'd had in recent weeks with both the Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast. Love seeing the attention for this grape that we introduced into California more than two decades ago.

Thank you for coming on this journey with me and with us: 660 posts in all since we began the blog in November of 2005. As we pass our ten year mark, it's gratifying to know that we're still going strong. And if you're still reading, but haven't checked out the other finalists, go do that now. Wine blogs, at their best, plunge you into the inner workings of a world that is still too often shrouded in mystique. Dive in.


Grenache Blanc's Moment in the Sun

A decade ago, there was a flurry of interest around Syrah.  A few years ago, it was Grenache.  This spring, it seems to be Grenache Blanc's moment in the spotlight.  In February, within a week of each other, I got phone calls from the Wine Spectator's MaryAnn Worobiec and the Wine Enthusiast's Matt Kettmann, each looking for insight into this grape that had impressed them in recent blind tastings.  The results of these conversations were published recently. [The Wine Spectator article is available behind their paywall, and the Wine Enthusiast article is free access.]

Grenache blanc rows in May

Why Grenache Blanc, and why now?  I've got a few theories.  

Grenache Blanc has an unusual and appealing combination of bright acids and full body.  
There are a few other grapes that can hit this, in the right climates (Riesling in a cold environment, or Chardonnay in a cool one, are two) but most white grapes exist somewhere on the continuum between bright and lean on one end, and rich and soft on the other.  Grenache Blanc, like its red-skinned cousin1, is a grape that typically comes in at high sugars (providing glycerine and richness) and high acids (providing freshness).  Take a look at its numbers from 2014 (our last relatively normal vintage) compared to our other white grapes:

Grape Avg. pH Avg. ° Brix
Viognier 3.51 20.8°
Marsanne 3.82 19.2°
Grenache Blanc 3.33 22.9°
Picpoul Blanc 3.17 22.0°
Roussanne 3.83 21.0°

The pH differences between Grenache Blanc and the Roussanne / Marsanne / Viognier trio is even more significant than the above chart likely suggests.  The pH scale is a logarithmic scale (so, a solution with a pH of 3 has ten times the acid concentration as one with a pH of 4, and one hundred times the acid concentration of one with a pH of 5, etc).  This means that Grenache Blanc, with a pH of 3.33, has 50.7% more acid ions than Viognier (pH 3.51), 214.4% more acid ions than Marsanne (pH 3.82), and 217.3% more acid ions than Roussanne (pH 3.83).  It's no wonder that even a small addition of a higher acid grape like this can have a major impact on the taste of a finished blend.2

And yet, with many high-acid grapes, you run the risk of thinning out the mouthfeel of a wine.  Not Grenache Blanc.  You can see from the above chart that even though its acids are high, it also has the highest average sugar content at harvest.

Grenache Blanc's ideal climate matches California's well.
For many of the world's most popular white grapes -- I'm thinking Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc here -- California is a challenging climate because of its sun and its warmth.  These grapes reach their peaks in relatively cool parts of France, and so in California, growers are searching for sites that have significant marine influence, or fog, or extreme altitude, because otherwise they end up picking in August and making wines without much complexity.  There just aren't that many spots like this in California, particularly not after you realize that most of these climates are also highly desirable as places to live.  Grenache Blanc is originally from Spain, whose warm, sunny climate far better approximates most of California's than does that of Burgundy, or of the Loire.  There are far more places where Grenache Blanc is likely to do well. So, whether you're looking in Paso Robles, in Santa Ynez, in Dry Creek, or in El Dorado, you're going to find people doing a good job with Grenache Blanc.  

Grenache Blanc is productive and relatively easy to grow.  
There are grapes that we feel like we fight with each year, either in yields or in keeping it balanced.  Viognier is famously low-yielding.  Roussanne and Marsanne (and Viognier, for that matter) pose challenges in keeping acidity levels while you wait for ripeness.  Viognier and Roussanne are both susceptible to drought-induced stress symptoms.  But Grenache Blanc is pretty easygoing.  Its yields are naturally higher than our other white grapes; over the last 10 years, it has averaged a healthy 4.2 tons/acre here, better than Marsanne (3.7 tons/acre), Picpoul (3.4 tons/acre), Roussanne (2.8 tons/acre), or Viognier (2.4 tons/acre).  This means that people can produce Grenache Blanc at a reasonable price, which translates into more affordable wines and more opportunities to get it in front of potential new customers.

Grenache Blanc blends well, but it's also good on its own.  
We originally planned to use our Grenache Blanc as a complement to our Roussanne and our Viognier, as is typically done in the Rhone.  And we still use Grenache Blanc as a supporting player in our Esprit de Tablas Blanc (behind Roussanne) and Cotes de Tablas Blanc (behind Viognier), as well as in a starring role in our Patelin de Tablas Blanc (along with Viognier, Roussanne, and Marsanne).  In a blend, it adds brightness, rich mouthfeel, sweet anise spice, and green apple fruit, all flavors that are easy to like and easy to incorporate.  But it has exceeded our expectations as a varietal wine.  We first bottled our Grenache Blanc in 2002, and we haven't missed a vintage since.  Part of the reason why is that, at least at first, it was new to many people, and having it on its own was a great educational tool.  But the more time we spent with it, the more we came to appreciate that it's a worthy and appealing grape on its own, textural and rich, bright and lively, with sweet spices on the attack and a dry finish.

Grenache Blanc ready for harvest

So, it's little surprise to me that in the last decade, Grenache Blanc plantings in California have grown from 101 acres to 333 acres, an increase of 229%.3  And based on all the reasons it's done well in recent years, as well as the new attention the wine press has been giving it, I fully expect this growth to continue.  It couldn't happen to a more deserving grape.

Footnotes

1 There is also a pink-skinned variant (Grenache Gris). For a longer dive into Grenache Blanc's history, characteristics, and family relations, check out this blog from 2010.

2 You might note that Picpoul shares most of the characteristics of Grenache Blanc.  It's one reason that if I had to lay bets on which Rhone white would be the next to be "discovered", Picpoul would be my answer.

3 Over that same 10-year period, Roussanne acreage has increased 96% to 347 acres, Marsanne acreage 90% to 131 acres, and Viognier acreage 34% to 2969 acres. Picpoul isn't sufficiently planted to be included in the California Grape Acreage Reports, which require 50+ acres to escape the category of "other".