Darren Delmore's Most Memorable Meals of 2023

By Darren Delmore

As my 2023 National Sales travels for Tablas Creek swirled into a smooth finish, I noticed my phone's photo collection featured as much food as family. Miraculously, my waist line remained the same at the close of the year, but it did entail adding yoga to my repertoire to pull that off. Here's a round up of some of my most memorable dishes and meals of the year.  

Gjelina, Venice, CA

My 10 year old son and I did a mid-summer trip to LA, and besides a visit to Hollywood Forever Cemetery and some tennis in Echo Park, we mostly ate our way through my favorite food spots. Every cuisine on the planet is available in the city of angels, from food trucks to fast casual to prix-fixe, and on the last night we braved the crowd at Gjelina and snuck into a communal table straight away, where chef Travis Lett's "Braised Sweet Corn with Fresno Chile" dish, dressed with cilantro, briny feta, and lime, was warm-weather perfection, as was the sun gold tomato, burrata and squash blossom pizza.  


Gjelina 1
Gjelina 2

Joseph's Culinary Pub, Santa Fe, NM

This Santa Fe gem has the most lamb options I've ever seen on a menu, and the best lamb tartare in the world. When I'm out representing Tablas Creek at the Santa Fe Wine and Chile Fiesta every September, you can find me here on two of the three nights in town, at the dark, friendly little bar, dipping some glistening, salted, house fried tortilla chips into the tender, raw lamb puck topped with a cured egg yolk and parsley emulsion. I recommend pairing this with wine manager Starr Bowers' Rhone focused list, or a bowl of green chile-spiced beef bone broth. You'll leave like a well fed, culinary vampire.

Joseph's Tartare

The Waverly, Cardiff, CA

I'm not one to get excited about salads, having been raised in the iceberg ages of lettuce, but the Caesar salad at The Waverly in North County San Diego has changed all of that. Fresh, textural Romaine with a garlicky Baja Caesar glaze, shrimp if you want to add it, but what you don't see buried inside here are the infamous, lovingly deep fried, cheese filled crouton blocks. During happy hour you can just order the croutons! To deep dive, watch this clip of chef Brian Redzikowski in action, or just cut to the two minute mark to have him blow the very notion of a "crouton" out of this galaxy. And that's my glass of Patelin de Tablas Rosé, poured on tap from kegs here since 2019. 

The Waverly

Chez Bacchus, Long Beach, CA

We get asked to do a lot of wine dinners on the road, and the most successful ones tend to be when the chef tastes the wines first, then plans the menu accordingly. Such was the case at the Tablas Creek wine dinner I hosted in June at this new restaurant in Long Beach. The amuse alone of Sushi grade ahi, with a chunk of avocado, crowned with tobiko red Caviar and served with Esprit de Tablas Blanc, was practically worth the price of admission.    

Long Beach 1

Gemma, Dallas, TX

I'm pretty sure the Rabbit Pappardelle at Gemma has made it onto this list before. One of our first Tablas Creek keg accounts in the lone star state continues to be an industry hot spot, open later than most fine dining establishments, with killer service and a beautiful long bar to comfortably consume a solo meal. Though the menu has plenty on offer, I stick to this classic dish every time. Fluffy housemade pasta, braised juicy slabs of rabbit, pancetta, Swiss chard, pecorino and thyme, wisely paired with a glass of Patelin de Tablas Rouge.

Gemma

Easy Bistro, Chattanooga, TN

If you'd told me I'd end up in Chattanooga and fall in love with a gluten free pasta made out of squash, I would've said you've lost your mind. Easy Bistro got interested in Regenerative Farming a few years ago and sought our wines out in Tennessee. I did a Covid-era Zoom presentation with their entire team in late 2020. This fall, in person, I grabbed a bar seat in front of their large wood oven and enjoyed this guanciale-enriched twist on a carbonara with some Patelin Blanc, and left feeling light as a feather. 

Easy Bistro
Ember, Arroyo Grande, CA

Ember continues to blow SLO county minds with their wood fired cuisine. When in season, the local Halibut pictured here, puts the bounty of Central Coast waters and farms on show. We were shocked to hear of Ember selling, but apparently the staff is staying on and the new owners are big fans with plans to keep things blazing. Congratulations to Brian and Harmony Collins for believing in their backyard and bringing Chez Panisse-style fare to our palates.  

Ember

Burger She Wrote, Los Feliz, CA

Best Burger of The Year (and restaurant name) goes to these guys. They don't serve wine, but just marvel in the majesty of this one for a second or two. If they opened a Paso Robles outpost, I'd surely be on heart medication. 

Burger She Wrote
Grater Goods at an AirBnB, Jacksonville, FL

Oftentimes the most memorable meals don't happen in a restaurant. In early October, between working Georgia and Florida, my good friends Mike and Brianna from Charleston went in on a Jacksonville Beach AirBnb with me in hopes of scoring some surf. As the autumn time Atlantic ocean is unpredictable, the chances of getting good waves in a three day window was risky. I popped into this great cheese shop in Jacksonville en route to the rental, filling up an exotic sack of cheeses, all from Georgia's Sweet Grass Dairy. This photo is the afterglow of surfing epic, warm water waves for three hours on that Saturday afternoon, in spite of bull sharks all around us, celebrating our luck, timing, and friendship. We complemented this golden platter with a bottle of Vincent Girardin 2020 Le Cailleret Chassagne Montrachet

Grater Goods FL

I hope this inspires you to go out to eat and support your favorite restaurant before the year's end. Or, if geography is in your favor, maybe seeking one of these specific spots out. I'm already getting a tad hungry for 2024, so I'm going to go now. Happy feasting! 


That Wine Enthusiast headline about $50 average tasting fees in Paso Robles is… just not true.

Last week, the Wine Enthusiast published a piece by Matt Kettmann celebrating the recent decision by Matt Trevisan to lower his base tasting fee at Linne Calodo Cellars from $40 to $20 in order to entice newer wine drinkers to experience his wines. I applaud Matt (Trevisan)'s decision, and think it's great that Matt (Kettmann) decided to write about it. In his intro, Matt (Kettmann) says "Tasting room fees have jumped to more than $50 per person at many wineries, even reaching $100 in some cases, triggering alarm amongst tourists and industry folk alike." While I'd quibble with his characterization of there being "many" wineries in Paso with $50+ tasting fees -- I'll share the actual numbers shortly -- that's a judgment call. But then the Wine Enthusiast made a much more inflammatory claim on social media. Do you notice it?

WE Twitter Paso Robles

The authors of articles don't generally write their headlines, let alone the copy that's used to promote the articles over social media. But saying that many fees are high is a far cry from saying that the average tasting fee is that high. And (spoiler alert) this second claim just wasn't true. This information isn't hard to find or verify. According to the 179 listings on the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance winery guide, the most common tasting fees are between $20 and $29.99, with an average of $24.36. Eight wineries (4.5%) show tasting fees of $50 or more:

Tasting Fees in Paso Robles  by Number of Wineries

I became aware of the controversy through British wine writer Jamie Goode's Twitter post, which has as of this morning received 49 replies, 21 re-tweets, and 176 likes. I was sure it wasn't right, given what I see around town, and made a quick response, breaking a self-imposed Twitter hiatus to do so:

The reaction to the Wine Enthusiast's posts was predictable. There was a chorus of voices saying, essentially, "California wineries are all greedy and overpriced" while another chorus of people with connections to Paso Robles pointed out, with varying degrees of outrage, that this data didn't seem right. A few of the 49 comments to the Wine Enthusiast's Facebook post will give you a sense:

WE FB Paso Robles Comments
Finally, this morning, there was a correction posted to the Facebook post, adding "UPDATE: A previous version of this post indicated that average tasting room fees jumped to over $50 per person. This was misleading and has adjusted accordingly." No correction yet on Twitter that I can find. But to my mind, the damage has already been done. The original characterization became a lead story in the widely-distributed industry news roundup Wine Industry Insight and continues to echo around the wine ecosphere:

Wine Industry Insight Paso Robles Fees
To what extent does this color the general perception of a place like Paso Robles? It's not insignificant, I don't think. The Twitter post got something more than 34,000 views. Facebook doesn't make view counts public, but given Wine Enthusiast’s 417,000 fans and the number of comments, reactions, and shares their post got, it's probably even more. And then there's the reach of the emails, which mostly go out to people in the business and in a position to further influence consumer behavior. I suggested to the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance that they ask for a public retraction, but don't know if they will.

All this matters because it plays into a narrative that is convenient and ultimately destructive. The Lettie Teague article Who Can Afford Napa Now? Not This Wine Columnist in the Wall Street Journal last April -- to which I wrote a response on this blog -- is probably the highest-profile such piece. The temptation is to look at the most expensive options in a region and conclude that those are representative. But they are no more representative than the least expensive, such as the local example that Eberle Winery still doesn't charge a tasting fee. And wine is always susceptible to claims of elitism, given its historic association with aristocracy and the way it's often portrayed in popular culture. Perception drives customer behavior, and if people think that Paso Robles (or Napa) has gotten too expensive, they'll decide to go elsewhere. 

All this is why I think that what Matt Trevisan is doing is such a good thing. I wrote about the dilemma wineries face in my response to Lettie Teague's piece:

Do they raise their prices to keep up and risk losing their historic audience? Do they keep their prices and risk being seen as less elite than their neighbors? Or do they try to split the difference (as, if I read between the lines in the article, it seems that the lovely, historic Spottswoode Winery has done) and feel guilty about it? Unfortunately there's not a great solution once a critical mass of wineries has set dramatically higher prices for themselves.

But the same way that having a critical mass of wineries raising prices on visits puts pressure on their neighbors to do the same, having wineries publicly cutting those prices leaves room for other wineries to forge their own path. That's likely to keep visits to Paso Robles approachable, which should help set us up as an appealing destination whether you're a first-time visitor to wine country or a regular who makes several trips a year.

So, kudos to Matt. Go visit Linne Calodo. And thanks to all of you out there who stuck up for Paso Robles over the last few days.


A Regenerative Organic Certified Vineyard Tour of the North Coast

By Ian Consoli

As the vineyard that participated in the Regenerative Organic Alliance's pilot program and the first Regenerative Organic Certified® vineyard in the world, we at Tablas Creek have kept a watchful eye on the growth of wineries pursuing and achieving ROC® status (For more info on ROC, start with this blog post from our viticulturist Jordan Lonborg). Their current membership is 15 vineyards from around the world. That number includes wineries in California, Oregon, Chile, and Argentina, with 15-20 more applications from wineries in Austria, Japan, Italy, Chile, and California. I recently had an excuse to stay on the North Coast (Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino) for a week, and I thought, "What would my perfect wine trip look like?" The answer is one composed of all ROC vineyards. After looking at the ROA's directory, I found five on the North Coast (four with tasting rooms and one without), and the four with tasting rooms line up to form a perfect one or two-day wine trip.

I took notes on my experience to share it here and encourage you to take the same trip. Here they are in the order in which I visited each of the four ROC wineries, with a bonus vineyard visit at the end:

ROC Tasting Room Roadtrip

Donum Estate

Donum Estate is an absolutely stunning 200-acre estate in Carneros. The property went through two significant revolutions since its original planting in 1990. First, when it was purchased by art collectors Allan and Mei Warburg in 2008, who adorned the estate with a globally renowned sculpture collection. Secondly, when they hired Director of Winegrowing Tony Chapman in 2019, and he made the ambitious decision to pursue biodynamic and, eventually, regenerative organic agriculture. These two passions combine to make one of the most memorable vineyard experiences in the world.

Tony Chapman and Derek Holmgren at Donum Estate

Tony and Associate Winegrower Derek Holmgren were my guides when I visited Donum. These guys both worked at Tablas Creek in 2013-2014 and witnessed the start of our animal program. What they are doing at Donum is extraordinary, from composting to on-site biochar production, a beneficial insect habitat program, and multi-species grazing with sheep, chickens, and ducks. Their cover crop included insectary rows of flowers like bachelor buttons, farewell to springs, California native poppies, and yarrow to attract beneficial insects that combat mealy bugs. They create compost teas from on-site biodynamic preparations. They even have their own Huglkultur site. Combine these practical, beautiful applications of regenerative agriculture with the world's most extensive accessible private sculpture collection, and you have one of the most beautiful vineyards I have ever seen. Donum has 340 acres over four properties with 160 acres under vine in Carneros, the Russian River Valley, and Sonoma Coast, all certified ROC, with a recently purchased 52-acre estate in Anderson Valley that they plan to convert over.

Donum specializes in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, with other small plantings of Merlot and Pinot Meunier. I tried their Rose of Pinot Noir, White Barn Pinot Noir, and West Slope Pinot Noir. One Pinot showed lovely bright yet intense fruit, while the other showed an earthy, serious character. You can find their wines and book your visit on their website. Their first ROC vintage is 2023, so expect to see the seal on their wine labels over the next year or two.

Grgich Hills

Grgich Hills Vineyard at Rutherford
Grgich Hills was founded by Napa pioneer, Miljenko "Mike" Grgich, who happens to be celebrating his 100th birthday this year! Happy birthday Mike. The pioneer of California wine is also a pioneer of organic and biodynamic agriculture. Our history with Grgich goes back over a decade. It was after a visit to Grgich that Robert Haas took back in March of 2010 that we decided to pursue biodynamics. So it was no surprise to hear Grgich joined ROC earlier this year.

I visited Grgich Hills' American Canyon vineyard, one of their five ROC vineyard sites. My hosts were the Head of Regenerative Organics, Bernat Sort Costa, Marketing Director Sally Camm, and Digital Marketing Specialist Luke Jeramaz. The site is stunning. There are beneficial flower plantings all along the road. They have begun experimenting with row hedges, where they sacrifice four rows of vines to plant a beneficial flower habitat that never gets mowed. They are one of fifteen wineries participating in a bird monitoring experiment with UC Davis. Each winery has multiple birdhouses staged to attract specific native birds. The houses track habits and collects feces to determine what birds eat what bugs. They graze hens, ducks, and Guinea fowl along with their sheep. They also built permanent beehives to home bees within their vineyards.

After touring the vineyard, Luke took me to their tasting room on Highway 29 to try some wine. An incredibly friendly and inviting staff was there to greet me near their closing time. I very much appreciated the experience. I tried multiple wines from their estates with standouts like the 2019 Cabernet Sauvignon Yountville Old Vine and 2018 Zinfandel. Their wines showed why they are Napa classics that I could go back to repeatedly.

You can purchase their wines and book a visit to their tasting room on their website. They also received ROC in 2023 and will put the seal on their bottles starting with the 2023 vintage.

 Medlock Ames

Medlock Ames co-founder Ames Morrison

Medlock Ames was established in 1998 by college friends Chris Medlock James and Ames Morison. Ames grew up on his father's organic farm but was really pursuaded by the value of organic farming when he was stationed in Guatemala with the Peace Corps. He saw how unsustainable crop planting led to a need for synthetic inputs and limited farmers on what they could do. So when Ames and Chris bought their vineyard, they knew they would farm and certify organic. More recently, Ames heard individuals he admired in the wine industry talking about regenerative viticulture. Their team visited Tablas Creek shortly after we became ROC, and they jumped into the certification process. They have a tasting room in Healdsburg with more immersive experiences at their Bell Mountain Ranch location. I met with Ames and their Head of Sales Operations, Isabella Bandeira de Mello, at the Bell Ranch location.

Their property is 338 acres, of which only 44 are planted to vines, all farmed ROC, and straddles the line between Alexander Valley and Russian River Valley appellations. Their practices include on-site composting, cover crops, and grazing sheep within vine rows. I joined Ames on a tour he gave to guests thrilled by the pillars and concepts of regenerative agriculture. Ames took the time to emphasize the importance of the Social Fairness pillar in regenerative agriculture. This pillar is one we see overlooked as the term "regenerative" is used increasingly, so seeing the founder of Medlock Ames' emphasis on it was what I would expect from a Regenerative Organic Certifed brand.

The wines at Medlock Ames are absolutely fantastic. I have seen their labels multiple times and, for whatever reason, their contents haven't made their way into my glass. It almost happened on this visit as well because I spent so much time absorbing the property I had to run to my next appointment. Luckily, I stopped into the tasting room on my way out for a splash of 2019 Bell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon and 2019 Fifty Tons Cabernet Sauvignon. Both are different in character, despite being made with the same grape. Bell Mountain is almost refreshing on the palate, with bright fruit flavors and soft tannins. Fifty Tons shows more of the new oak it was aged in with a robust palate. Their flavor lingered on my palate even as I ran off to my next visit.

You can purchase their wines and book a visit on their website. I highly recommend the Bell Mountain Ranch experience.

Truett-Hurst

Truett-Hurst Winery was co-founded by the late Paul Dolan. A true pioneer in organic, biodynamic, and regenerative agriculture, his recent passing was felt deeply by many in the wine industry. Paul was instrumental in establishing the Regenerative Organic Alliance by serving on its board and recruiting Executive Director Elizabeth Whitlow to run the organization. The Truett-Hurst winery is a tangible piece of his lasting legacy in viticulture, nestled along Dry Creek. Their tasting room is beautiful, serene, and a must-see experience.

Seating at Truett Hurst

The Truett-Hurst estate underwent revitalization after they purchased the land in 2007. It had been farmed conventionally for decades, and the process of converting to organic, biodynamic, and ROC was a challenge they were happy to accept for the sake of the land and the wine. They focused on the soil, creating on-site compost from pomace and organic cow manure, cover cropping, biodynamic applications, and grazing their goats and sheep during the dormant season. They utilize their property to help with Dry Creek's restoration, which reflects their appreciation for life and the land. Their estate stands as an example for conventional farmers interested in ROC but hesitant because of the road ahead. Truett-Hurst proves that the conversion can be done, and the results are worth every effort.

In addition to what they grow on their estate, they source exclusively from organic and biodynamic vineyards. I wanted to try all of their ROC wines, so the tasting room attendant was kind enough to pour me their 2019 Estate Zinfandel, 2019 Estate Petite Sirah, and 2019 Dark Horse GPS from Paul's home vineyard in Ukiah. All were rich and delicious.

You can buy the wines and book your visit on their website. You won't see the ROC seal on their bottles anytime soon because they use a custom crush facility for making their wines. It brings up a hurdle for smaller producers who go ROC in their vineyards but don't have a wine production partner willing to certify their facility organic.

Bonterra

Bonterra Organic Estates, formerly Fetzer Vineyards, is the bonus winery on this list. They do not currently have a tasting room, but I was invited to visit their estate in Mendocino County, the old Fetzer property called The McNab Ranch. In 1985 the Fetzer family built a food and wine center on this property, and the then-CEO of Fetzer Vineyards, Paul Dolan, inspired the company to pursue organic grape growing and establish the brand Bonterra in 1993. Bonterra grew to become one of the world's largest wine producers to exclusively utilize organic grapes. Their decision to pursue ROC is huge for the certification and wine industry. With about 850 acres Regenerative Organic Certified, they have the power to make wines with the ROC seal on their labels commercially and readily available. Their Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon bearing the seal have already hit shelves nationwide. I met with their winemaker, Jeff Cichocki.

Bonterra Winemaker Jeff Cichocki

The McNab Ranch location is around 200 acres in Mendocino County. It is a beautiful place with beneficial flowers planted throughout and a creek running through the center of the property. Bonterra was an early adopter of biodynamics, and they continue to utilize biodynamic preparations and techniques. They limit their tillage, plant cover crop, and work with a local sheepherder to bring in around 3000 sheep to graze the property. Jeff showed a marked enthusiasm for ROC because of its benefits to the soil and how well consumers respond to the three pillars in the market. We were both in agreement that brands like ours still have a long way to go in communicating what makes regenerative agriculture important, but the Regenerative Organic Alliance developed a valuable platform for helping a broad range of consumers understand why regenerative agriculture matters to them.

As I mentioned above, Bonterra already released their ROC Chardonnay and Cabernet into the market. They currently sell them as a two-pack on their website for $40! Delicious and accessible, the opportunity to get great ROC-certified wines around $20 will open up the ROC world to a whole new audience of consumers.

Conclusion:

It was evident from my trip that enthusiasm for ROC is at an all-time high. We have already heard from multiple wineries in the process of going Regenerative Organic Certified. It is exciting to feel what early pioneers of organic viticulture must have felt as they educated an entire generation of wine drinkers on the importance of organic grapes. I hope you'll take the time to visit these wineries and support everything this new age of pioneers is working towards.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts in the comments!


What does it mean that Napa Valley is too pricey for the Wall Street Journal?

The article making waves in wine circles this weekend was Lettie Teague's most recent column for the Wall Street Journal: Who Can Afford Napa Now? Not This Wine Columnist. In it, she uses the opening of a $1300/night hotel and a $900 tasting package as examples of a region whose increasing focus on high-priced experiences runs the risks of alienating long-time customers and locals while also pricing out the new generation that the local industry hopes will become future Napa wine lovers. In her conclusion, she includes a comment from Tor Kenward, the winery owner with the eye-opening $900 tasting:

"Of course there are many other wine regions in California where the prices are lower and winery tastings are even, often, free. 'I tell wine lovers to go to Mendocino, to go to Santa Barbara,' Mr. Kenward said. I decided to follow his advice myself. Stay tuned to this column."

It is of course true that looking only at the most expensive hotel rooms and winery tasting packages (many of which are signaling to their hoped-for audience with the price) isn't the full story. As Lettie explains in the article, the average tasting fee for a "base" experience in Napa Valley has risen, but is still just $40.62 according to CellarPass. An "elevated" experience averages $82.26. And a quick check of Expedia for a two-night Thursday/Friday stay in June offers budget lodging options in the low-$200s and nicer hotels and resorts starting around the mid-$400s (yes, there are more expensive options, including the $1799 price tag for the Stanly Ranch whose $1300 base mid-week rate was the article's main example). So, while Napa Valley is an expensive place to visit, it's still possible for a consumer used to buying $50+ bottles of wine and spending $100 per person on a meal to build a viable trip without totally breaking the bank. But her point remains: people who want to feel that they've experienced the best the region has to offer must now budget several thousand dollars for a visit.

In my nearly three decades in business, it's been drummed into me that it's a very good idea to focus on your core product, and to tailor your other offerings to support that main product. In our example at Tablas Creek, we want to sell wine and add (and keep) people loyal to our wine club. So we've priced our other offerings accordingly. Our tasting fee is $25/person, and we comp that on the purchase of two bottles of wine. Tastings are free to all our club members. Our tours are free. We pour guests 6 or 7 tastes of wines priced between $28 and $65, so the cost of the tasting just covers the cost of the samples. For what it's worth, I consider each tasting fee we collect a failure, because it means that the guest didn't like anything enough to buy two bottles or the experience enough to sign up for one of our wine clubs.

So why do we charge a tasting fee at all? Two reasons. First, we want to weed out people who just want a cheap place to drink wine. If people look at our fee and think "that seems like a lot" they're probably not great candidates to buy our wine, and we want as much of our limited capacity as possible to go to current or potential future customers. Second, people often don't value what they don't pay for, as this article from Business Insider explains well. You are signaling how much you believe your offerings are worth when you put a price on it. Your decision to offer it for free sends a signal about how much someone should value that product or experience. 

Still, the 15% or so of our visitors who pay a tasting fee isn't a big piece of our profitability. Even if we changed our policies and 100% of our 30,000 annual guests paid the $25 it would be less than 10% of our revenue. So it's easy to be generous with our visiting policies, and use them to support the wine sales and wine club signups that are our bread and butter. For me, the sign that this is working is the relatively small percentage of visitors who pay a fee, and the long median tenure of our wine club members, which at the end of last year was a little more than four years, roughly triple the industry average.

So, what's going on in Napa? I think it's best understood as a shift of business priorities, with some unintended follow-on effects. At $100+ per experience, unless it's for a very expensive wine, the tasting fee is not a supporting product. And at $900, it's not a supporting product no matter the price of the wine. That experience, and the fee it comes with, is the main event. And that's what I think is at the root cause of some of the sky-high prices there. With the massive popularity of Napa Valley as a tourist destination, and many of the tourists coming from international locations where it's impossible or impractical to ship wine, a winery is behaving rationally by looking to turn the visit itself into a profit center. Yes, it may shock and disappoint a regular visitor to the region, but the high prices are telling those visitors that they're not the winery's target audience anyway. For someone coming from far away and looking for a once-in-a-lifetime experience, I get it. It's not what I'd look to do as a wine lover. And it's not what I'd want Tablas Creek to do as a business. But I get it.

The unintended consequences come in for the wineries who see their neighbors (who may have different target audiences or production levels than they do) raising prices and are then left with the dilemma that pricing, as I mentioned earlier, is seen a proxy for worth. Do they raise their prices to keep up and risk losing their historic audience? Do they keep their prices and risk being seen as less elite than their neighbors? Or do they try to split the difference (as, if I read between the lines in the article, it seems that the lovely, historic Spottswoode Winery has done) and feel guilty about it? Unfortunately there's not a great solution once a critical mass of wineries has set dramatically higher prices for themselves.

But whatever the downstream results, it seems clear that Napa Valley has set itself up for a future with higher, and perhaps dramatically higher, prices for visitors. With that, it seems inevitable that some wine lovers who are turned off by the change will decide to branch out and come to places like Paso Robles, where creating life-long customers for our wine remains the primary focus. And that writers, like Lettie, who have previously focused a large share of their attention on Napa Valley, will decide to write more about other California wine regions. Those are downstream consequences that would be just fine with me.

Rainbow over Paso Robles sign


On the Road Again

By Darren Delmore.

Like a UFO in its own right, my Tablas Creek Subaru Outback fireballed through the Chihuahuan desert in late-February. It’d been awhile since I’d hit the road for wholesale market work. My Southwest odyssey included winemaker dinners and tastings in Arizona, Texas and New Mexico. I saw a country that was coming back, climbing out of the pandemic, and ready to drink some Tablas Creek.

Call me old school, but driving instead of flying had more pros than cons; including the transport of newly released rosé samples, catching up on long phone calls, the bevy of interesting wine podcasts that are available nowadays (I’ll Drink to That, Disgorgeous), and the chance to add in a mystical pitstop like Marfa, Texas along the way. Plus, now I truly know the meaning behind the phrase “longer than a Texas mile”.

Marfa

Texas, as suspected, seemed like nothing unusual had really happened over the last two years. My week-long tour there, which began in Houston, was as busy as any market visit in my ten year history with Tablas Creek, and included a luncheon for wine directors and shop owners, appointments from Uptown to Montrose, and even a sold-out in-person dinner at the great Backstreet Café, with whom we partnered for a virtual wine dinner during the thick of things. It was good to see their sommelier Sean Beck owning the room like normal, and blowing off some social rust of my own. The crowd washed down chili-rubbed snapper on lemongrass risotto with Cotes de Tablas Blanc, feasted on lamb sausage and white bean cassoulet with Patelin de Tablas Rouge, and capped off the night with Bulgogi style braised beef cheeks on a pomegranate reduction, paired with our Mourvédre. 

I witnessed Austin on a rare, freezing day with a wind chill factor sending things into the 18 degree temperature range. Not even the warm, pillowy breakfast tacos at Tacodeli could prepare me for the frigid airmass.

Tacodeli

I’ll never forget my parking lot tasting of the new wines with the Austin Wine Merchant, homeless folks asking us for tastes, and realizing how many layers of fabric I was lacking.

AWM

Had I not driven, I would’ve never made it up to Dallas, courtesy of a massive ice storm that shut down highways and the school system on the Thursday I was slated to work and do a wine dinner. I white knuckled it from Austin to Dallas in a specific window of Wednesday night before the freezing rain set in, like a Wal-Mart trucker with a haul full of toilet paper back in April 2020. Our dinner event was ultimately canceled because of the ice, though our Vineyard Brands manager Todd got me around town to show our wines to a handful of accounts and make the journey worthwhile.

Then off again, passing through Amarillo and on to Santa Fe to the shuffling sounds of Townes Van Zandt and Khruangbin, I arrived in time for top chef Laura Crucet’s culinary crescendo at Pig and Fig Café in White Rock, New Mexico. We debuted the 2021 Patelin de Tablas Rosé to the forty-plus attendees, before art-exhibit-worthy plates of braised buffalo ravioli with Mourvédre and tzatziki drizzled Moroccan Lamb Kefta with Esprit de Tablas Rouge transported us all into gastronomical bliss.

The homestretch of Arizona had me in Phoenix visiting a few restaurant accounts and wine shops, all of which had an increased focus on more organically grown wines than I remember from before the pandemic. Spring training was still on hold, so buyers and restaurant owners had a lot of downtime to meet and taste and hear what's new. You now can find our wines at Sauvage, Faraway Wines and Provisions, Restaurant Progress, Tratto, and many more cool AZ accounts.

Tratto

Lastly, I concluded the odyssey in Tucson, in the Barrio Viejo to be specific, at the beautiful, classic restaurant The Coronet. I showed the owners around our vineyard during Covid, and we plotted a delectable collaboration. The timing seemed right; the Gem Show had just brought somewhat normal business to town, snowbirds had flocked in, and we had fifty reservations for a dinner event that included Thai Mussels and Roussanne, Duck Leg Confit and Patelin de Tablas Blanc,  and Venison on a charred onion blackberry puree with Esprit de Tablas Rouge. VINsiders, restaurant owners from Alaska, and Tablas fans from Minnesota were in the house, to the tinkling ivories and bassy grooves of a local jazz trio.

Barrio

I had to step back a few times and take the familiar scene in. We’re back, it seems, and we’re out here.


Aspen-inspired reflections on what it means to be a sustainable winery

This past weekend I flew to Aspen to participate for my first time in the Aspen Food & Wine Classic. It was my first work flight since January of 2020 and the only out-of-state visit and only wine festival I have planned this year. I've been cautious in this ongoing pandemic both what I commit Tablas Creek to and what I choose to participate in myself. But this seemed like an opportunity I couldn't pass up.

I'd been invited by Food & Wine's Executive Wine Editor Ray Isle1 to join him on a panel with the title "Wines for a Healthy Planet". It was a chance to talk through the many permutations of sustainable, organic, Biodynamic, Regenerative Organic, natural, and more, in front of as high a profile audience as any in the world of wine. We've been a part of (or at least adjacent to) most of those categories over the years, and I had a chance to have a real conversation with Ray about what it means to be a responsible winery in this day and age. And yet because of the many different ways in which the wines Ray chose advance the goal of a healthier planet, the discussion went places that I hadn't expected, and I come back to California with some new inspirations on how we might continue to evolve our farming and our operations. I wanted to share those thoughts while they're fresh in my mind, and encourage any readers to share other innovative ways that have come across their radar that might go beyond a farming certification.

Jason Haas and Ray Isle at Aspen Food & Wine 2021

I'll follow Ray's lead and share the eight wines in the lineup, in the order in which we tasted them, with some thoughts on how each advances the discussion.

  • 2019 Frog’s Leap Rossi Reserve Sauvignon Blanc. John Williams, Proprietor and Winemaker at Frog's Leap in Napa Valley, is an inspiration of mine, famous for his early adoption of organic farming, his no-nonsense approach to what really matters in Biodynamics, and his embrace of dry farming. He's been outspoken about how all three are how he's made wines of soul and balance in an era when most of his neighbors were chasing power unapologetically. As a pioneering advocate for natural ways of making wine, John's Sauvignon Blanc was a great way to start. [Note, if you haven't read John's lovely piece "Thinking Like a Vine" you should.]
  • 2019 Tablas Creek Esprit de Tablas Blanc. I got to debut our newest vintage of Esprit Blanc next. I've spoken plenty about our own approach to farming and to building a responsible business, but focused in my remarks at the seminar to explaining the significance of the Regenerative Organic Certification that we received last year. More on this in a bit.
  • 2016 Pyramid Valley Field of Fire Chardonnay. New Zealand has been a world leader in sustainable farming practices, with 96% of its acreage included in its nationwide sustainability program. Pyramid Valley takes that one step further by implementing Biodynamics, producing this brilliant Chardonnay from their limest0ne-rich site in North Canterbury. You could taste in the vivacity of the wine the health of the vines and their expressiveness of their soils. 
  • 2019 J Bouchon Pais Salvaje. OK, here things got weird and even more fun. Pais (known in America as Mission) is an ancient grape variety, likely Spanish in origin, that was brought to the New World by Spanish missionaries to produce sacramental wine five centuries ago. It has largely lost favor in recent decades as new varietals arrived here, but this wine was unique in my experience. Made from wild grapevines more than a century old, seeded (presumably) by birds and growing as a wild grapevine would, climbing trees in a riverbed in southern Chile, these vines have never been cultivated, irrigated, pruned, or otherwise intervened with. They're picked by workers on tall ladders leaned against the trees. Their website has a photo. Truly a wine made without impacts on its environment! The wine itself was bright and spicy, showing its 50% carbonic fermentation, rustic and refreshing. 
  • 2018 Cullen Red Moon Red. From the Margaret River region in Australia, Cullen has been organic since 1998 and Biodynamic since 2003. Beyond that, they're the first winery I know of to be certified as carbon-neutral, achieved both by reductions in their own footprint (the glass bottle they use is the lightest I've ever felt) and through the funding of reforestation programs and a biodiversity corridor project. The wine, a blend of Malbec and Petit Verdot, was minty, spicy, and light on its feet, about as far away from the jammy stereotype of Australia as it's possible to get.   
  • 2018 Tenuta di Valgiano Palistorte Rosso. Made in Tuscany from a blend of Sangiovese, Merlot, and Syrah, like many of the other wines the Tenuta di Valgiano was organically and Biodynamically grown. But unusually, it was made from a vineyard entirely surrounded by forest, isolated from other vines that might have been treated in a more industrial way. The idea of chemical drift isn't one that gets talked about much in grapegrowing, the wine gave Ray a chance to share stories of other vineyards that saw their border rows of vines defoliated by herbicide sprays.
  • 2016 Torres Grans Muralles. The Torres family of wineries, stretching from Spain to Chile to Sonoma, is one of the world's largest family-run producers. They're also leaders in sustainability, particularly in their work co-founding International Wineries for Climate Action (IWCA), whose participants commit to reducing their carbon footprint 50% by 2030 and 100% by 2050. This wine shows another piece of their commitment to how wineries can have positive impacts on their communities, sourced from ancient vineyards in the Spain's Conca de Barberà region discovered as a part of a conservation effort Familia Torres began in the 1980s, in which they placed ads in small-town newspapers looking for farmers with plots of old, overgrown grapevines. This led to the discovery of two heritage varieties (Garró and Querol) which combine with Garnacha, Cariñena, and Monastrell to produce this unique wine.
  • 2017 Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon. We finished with a classic. Spottswoode was one of first wineries in Napa Valley to begin farming organic in 1985 and has been certified since 1992. They're now Biodynamic certified as well, a B Corp (the first, winery, I believe, to achieve this), and participants in programs like 1% for the Planet and IWCA. Their "One Earth" list of initiatives is an inspiring example of how a winery can make a positive impact in multiple ways. But just as important is the example they set. Far from environmental sensitivity being something for the fringes of wine, all these efforts help them make a superlative version of America's most famous and popular grape.

I asked Ray for how he chose this diverse collection of wines. His reply emphasizes that while farming is important, it's not just about that:

“I did this seminar because I wanted to highlight how wineries around the world—literally in every wine region—have become more and more invested in agricultural and winemaking practices that are good for the environment, rather than potentially detrimental. Whether that’s through organic viticulture, regenerative agriculture, biodynamics, or climate-conscious programs for reducing a wineries’ carbon, water or energy footprints, there’s a global shift in wine right now towards this sensibility. I feel like the producers I chose—Spottswoode, Pyramid Valley, Frog’s Leap, Tenuta di Valgiano and others, including of course Tablas Creek—are at the forefront of these efforts. Plus, they all make excellent wine; that’s pretty vital, too.”

I come away from this experience convinced that the biggest sustainability challenge for the generation of wineries that, like us, have adopted organic or Biodynamic farming in the last few decades is going to be to improve our business practices. We will of course continue to invest in our farming. I'm proud that Tablas Creek is helping lead the way on some of these initiatives, specifically the work that we've done to achieve Regenerative Organic Certified status. But as I wrote when I published the results of a carbon footprint self-audit in May, the challenges of improving packaging and energy use and water conservation will loom large over the wine community in coming years.

After being a part of this seminar, I have a bunch more ideas running around in my head. Thanks, Ray.

Footnote:

  1. If you'd like to get to know Ray a little (and you should) he was my guest in one of my Instagram Live conversations this summer. Our archived conversation can be found here.

A Maine Summer Dinner and Pairing: Fresh Cod and Esprit Blanc

Earlier this summer, we took an extended vacation to New England. I'm from Vermont, and long-time readers of the blog will know that my parents would always go back for the summer and fall to the 1806-era farmhouse that I grew up in. My mom still does. My sister and her husband converted the barn of that farmhouse (which was in one iteration the office for the importing company my dad founded, Vineyard Brands) into a home for their family to live in. So, this summer trip back is a chance to bask in family, give our boys the chance to spend time with their cousins, and soak up some welcome moisture and green mountainsides in the middle of what always feels like a long, hot, dry summer here. After not being able to travel back last summer, we extended this year's trip to a full month, and created a mini-vacation within that Vermont trip by renting a house on the water in Maine for a week. It was lovely.

To someone from California, the difference between Vermont and Maine may seem minimal, but it's not. If Vermont is the New England equivalent of Lake Tahoe, Maine is its Mendocino. And nowhere is that distinction so clear as in the food, where Vermont focuses on fresh produce and local cheeses while Maine's specialty is seafood. We did the requisite oceanside lobster rolls, but Maine seafood is more than just lobster. The rocky coasts and cold, clean water make an amazing source for everything from oysters to crab to the New England staple, cod. And it was in searching for a great cod recipe that we stumbled upon one of our trip's culinary highlights: a simple but delicious recipe we found in the New York Times Cooking app for One-Pan Roasted Fish with Cherry Tomatoes

We made a few alterations to the recipe. We found good local slicing tomatoes, which we chopped roughly instead of using cherries. We didn't have any fresh mint to hand, so we used fresh basil. And the starch that we had was some local new potatoes. But the result was delicious. Note the nautical chart placemats, which I think are a required purchase for any guest house on the Atlantic Ocean:

Esprit Blanc and Cod

The recipe calls for a teaspoon of honey, which got me thinking about Roussanne for a pairing. What I had to hand was the 2019 Esprit de Tablas Blanc that we'll be releasing this fall. [For my detailed tasting notes on it, check out my blog from last week about the upcoming Fall 2021 VINsider Wine Club shipments.] I was a little worried that the sweetness of the honey and that of the ripe tomatoes was going to be too much for the wine. I couldn't have been happier to be wrong. The creaminess of the fish, still moist but flaking apart easily, combined with the lightly roasted tomatoes to make an amazing pairing for the rich, textural character of the wine. The saline notes on its finish seemed to speak to both where we were and where the fish had been just a few days before. The honey wasn't noticeable in the food, but it emphasized the honeyed Roussanne character of the wine. We cleaned our plates, finished the bottle, and dredged the potatoes through the sauce it made, wanting more.

There are times where you stumble on the perfect wine, for the perfect meal, in the perfect place. This was one of those dinners. But the recipe was so easy, and would be so adaptable to different fish, different tomatoes, different starches, that it's going to be a regular in our arsenal going forward. If you make it, try it with a bottle of Esprit Blanc. It was magical.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smoky skies over Tannat

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


Back from the Rhone Valley and Our Mediterranean Cruise

[Editor's Note: With this blog, we're pleased to introduce a new author. Assistant Winemaker Craig Hamm has been a vital part of the Tablas Creek team since 2013. He grew up in Templeton, CA, on the Muscat vineyard his father owned. He recently returned from leading the 2019 Tablas Creek cruise, along with Winemaker Neil Collins.]

By Craig Hamm. Photos by Craig Hamm and Annika Sousa.

In June, our Winemaker Neil Collins, his wife Marci, my wife Annika and I shared the truly amazing experience of visiting the southern Rhone and cruising the Mediterranean. Now that a little time has passed and we've begun preparing for the upcoming harvest, I am reflecting back on the trip.

The first part of my trip began before the cruise, and even before the pre-cruise visit which brought guests to Beaucastel. Neil wanted to give me a couple of days to explore the many projects of Famille Perrin, so we arrived in France a few days early. Cesar Perrin met us at the hotel and we headed to Beaucastel. Upon approaching the Chateau we stopped on the side of an overpass looking at a road that split the Beaucastel estate in two. On one side, Chateauneuf du Pape. On the other side, Cotes du Rhone, whose grapes form the Coudoulet de Beaucastel. There were no fences to protect from deer or to delineate boundaries. Cesar pointed out several small cypress trees used as markers for the property line. Not like the Central Coast!

Beaucastel

There were tractors running through this rocky soil known as “galets”. I'd seen seen pictures of the vineyards in Chateauneuf, and I knew there were going to be some rocks but in person these things were tough to walk on. I imagine the days of working this land would really strengthen one's ankles.

And yet, a continent away, there were reminders of home. We were able to see bloom taking place on the Grenache vines and remember that same smell that we had just left in Paso Robles, and we stopped to pay our respects to the rows of mother vines from which our vineyard material is derived.

Mother mourvedre

Driving up to the Chateau was an exciting moment. Cesar opened up two grand doors and walked us downstairs to a quiet and dark cellar, lined with red brick floors and large oak casks. As we wound through the cellar, Neil would point to things he remembered using during his stint at Beaucastel in 1997, like sulfuring the bank of concrete tanks we passed, smooth with tiles on the inside. Deeper in the cellar, where the bottles age, we meet up with Cesar's brother Charles and a small group of tasters from Bordeaux. We tasted through different decades of whites and reds then sat together for a family style meal. It was just a hint at the start of what would become a wine lover’s ideal getaway.

After lunch, we visited Le Grand Prebois, the main cellar for the wines of Famille Perrin. This cellar was a mixture of a Gothic Cathedral and Chateau de Beaucastel:

Grand Prebois

After a short visit, we headed off to the village of Gigondas, at the foot of the Dentelles de Montmirail ridges. Past the village, up a track traversing a steep mountainside covered with terraced old vines, we found ourselves at the top looking over the entire Rhone Valley. It was patchwork of different shades of green from oaks, pine, and of course grapevines. Walking the vines we were shown some of the spots so precarious that they have to plow the vineyards by horse. Back down the hillside we met back up with the same group we had tasted with earlier that day to enjoy some freshly made pizza along with a selection of 1975, 1985, 1995, 2000, 2005, and 2015 Chateau de Beaucastel whites. Yes, white wines can age. Several other amazing bottles were opened at the table that night, but none as special as a 1974 Chateau de Beaucastel -- the last vintage that family patriarch Jacques Perrin made from start to finish. That's Cesar (left) and Charles (right), with Neil and the vertical of Beaucastel Blanc.

Cesar Charles and Neil

The whirlwind of the first day left me speechless but also grateful for the Perrin family’s hospitality. Day two began with similar intensity with a tour of vineyards, this time led by Claude Gouan (Beaucastel's long-time Oenologist, recently retired, below left, with Neil). First stop was atop a small hill in the parking lot of an old church, with a panoramic view of the Cotes du Rhone, the vineyards a collage of small parcels, each with its own slight difference in row orientation, growth, or age. It was wild to see so many vines with such age. Using passing cars on the road as markers for the property outlines was a fun challenge in itself.

Claude and neil in Vinsobres

We clambered back into the oversized passenger van that we'd been using and headed north to Vinsobres. Since the van was too big to fit into some of the village's tiny streets, we parked outside the ancient town walls and walked in for lunch. Vinsobres was one of the most fragrant places on the trip with flowering vines and small parcels of lavender fields and wild red poppy flowers dotting the landscape. The soil types ranged from sandy to heavy limestone that mirrors our most western block on the Tablas Creek property. On this site we were able to see 80 year old Grenache vines, still producing great canopies and clusters. Claude turned onto a dusty dirt road with lavender and oak trees neatly lined up. I asked his reason for this in my attempt at broken French, and he replied simply “truffe” -- French for truffles.

Continuing our whirlwind tour of Rhone regions, we crossed the Rhone river and stopped in at Domaine des Carabiners to taste their Lirac and Tavel wines. The fifth-generation producer, Fabien Leperchois, who is married to Claude's daughter Anaïs, achieved organic certification in 1997, and Demeter biodynamic certification in the vineyard as well as the cellar in 2009. The fact that they farm Biodynamically on a similar acreage to Tablas Creek got Neil fired up to see how they set up preparations and the equipment they used. Fabien joined us, we all piled back in the van, and headed to the road (below) that separates Lirac and Tavel.

Lirac and tavel

Fabian pointed out that the rocky soil contains the same stones from the Rhone River, and Claude tossed me a small “galet” as a souvenir. We tasted their wine on an overlook, above the vineyards in the area. We continued our tour to the little town square of Tavel, where there is an ancient Roman washing station that leads into small personal gardens that are fed by aqueducts, where we tasted a couple more Tavel biodynamic wines. We finished the night around a big family table outside the Gouan family home nestled amongst the vines of Beaucastel for dinner along with more wine.

Group at Tavel

Our own tour complete, the next morning we headed south to Avignon to meet up with the team of Tablas Creek cruise participants for the wine dinner that kicked off the cruise festivities. From this point we were following the cruise itinerary like all the guests, beginning the next morning with a group tour of the Chateau de Beaucastel vineyard, cellar and library. We got to taste several of the vintages of white and red Beaucastel in the library. There is nothing more you could ask for than sipping Chateauneuf du Pape in the cellar of one of the region's most storied estates. From there we whisked up to Gigondas for a wine paired lunch at Clos des Tourelles with Charles Perrin.

Clos des Tourelles Meal

We had a nice walk about the village, then back to the bus and to our next destination Aix-en-Provence, where we checked in to the hotel and had the opportunity to take a guided walk into town, ending at a beautiful Gothic church. When we settled in for the night, we'd earned our good night's sleep.

The next morning, we continued south toward Monaco, where the cruise ship waited for us, stopping on the way at Chateau Font du Broc, a beautiful winery in Provence to taste some Vermentino and of course rosé, enjoy a delicious lunch, and admire the views of vines running down towards the valley and an expansive horse paddock.

Chateau Font du Broc

This was my first time on a cruise. It was wild to see this 10-story ship that we would call home for the next week.

Ship

On embarkment in the evening we got to enjoy some Tablas Creek on our terrace with the lights of Monaco, its sailboats and yachts as our backdrop. Truly a great way to see the city off.

Patelin rouge monaco

When we awoke the next morning, we were in Italy. Portofino is a picturesque little fishing port that looked to me a movie set, with everything just perfectly placed and lit up by the bright blue sea.

Portofino

Next stop was Corsica, the Mediterranean island that is a part of France, but with a culture that owes nearly as much to Italy. We were the first American group to visit Domaine San Micheli, owned by the gracious Phélip family. The visit was a family affair, with the grandson opening the wines as the grandmother and grandfather poured the wines, alongside the winemaker.  We went through a little geography of the region and continued to try wines from all over the island in a wine-education-style lunch.

Lunch in the shade

Next, on to Sardinia, the larger island south of Corsica that belongs to Italy. In Sardinia Annika and I walked through a church that had been built on ancient Roman baths that were later discovered during renovations. We also walked around the Bastione Saint Remy for the expansive views:

Bastione San Remy

The cruise ship made its next stop on the southern Italian island of Sicily, before turning west toward Spain. In Trapani we had a great day swimming in the Mediterranean to rest our feet, which had covered a lot of cobblestoned kilometers over the last week. The water was clear and shallow for hundreds of yards. Side note: watch out for jellyfish. I got stung.

The beach in Trapani

The next day we spent at sea, making the long trip from Sicily to the Spanish coast. This was the occasion of our winemaker(s) dinner, where we poured magnums of Esprit and Esprit Blanc with the main course. But it wasn't the only on-board wine activity. We had a couple of wine receptions, and Neil and I hosted a seminar where we broke down the blending process, tasting all the components and the final blend. And, of course, wine at dinners. There was plenty of wine on this trip, even on days we weren't visiting wineries.

Blending seminar

Finally, we arrived in Spain, the last of the four countries we'd visit on this trip, and where we'd spend the longest. In Almeria (below left), we got to visit a Moorish castle. In Cartagena (below right), we ate enough tapas to feed a small army.

Moorish castle 2

Pork legs

But this being a wine cruise, we continued our education too. At Bodega Mustiguillo, in the Utiel‐Requena region, we dove into Bobal, a grape long thought to be good only for bulk wine that is being rediscovered as a quality wine making grape, used for rosé sparkling and several different blended wines. It was an interesting wine and reminded me of Tannat, in that the goal was to not have the tannins overpower the fruit. We got to try one from 95 plus year old vines. A cool learning experience for me, and a reminder that there are tons of grapes with the ability to make fun and delicious wines.

Our last day excursion was on the Spanish island of Mallorca, to tour a couple more wineries. They were a great contrast, with Bodega Ribas the oldest family owned winery in Spain and Mesquida Mora an up and coming producer, and biodynamic. The wines were amazing.

Lunch At mora

As good as the wines were on the whole trip, my take home from the cruise was that the company was even better. I started out not knowing a large majority of the guests but in the end after bus rides and shared dinner tables, beaches and of course evenings in Horizons Bar I felt like we were all family. I now know people who champion Tablas Creek from Virginia, Florida, Texas and all sorts of other places. For myself, as a first trip to Europe this is one for the books. Thank you to everyone that made this possible.


My Most Memorable Meals of 2018

By Darren Delmore

One of the greatest physical threats of being the National Sales Manager for Tablas Creek is accelerated weight gain from all the killer food being whipped up at restaurants around the country that serve our wines. Here's a shortlist of my heavenly highlights of 2018, which were many. Now, off to find the nearest cool sculpting place, or at least the hotel's treadmill! 

Michael Warring

In what may have once been a donut store on the eastern outskirts of Vallejo now quietly houses a dynamic husband-and-wife duo serving artistry on a plate, many courses at a time, for a steal. The word isn't entirely out yet, though the culinary cognoscenti that visit Napa Valley are known to Uber out here for one of two seatings a night. Michael and his wife Ali do everything, including washing dishes, and it's a real open performance. Ali is a fan of Tablas Creek whites and the evening I was there served an older vintage of our Grenache Blanc because she loved the petrol notes that arise with some bottle age. This truffle ravioli dish brought me deep into he wet, salty earth, only to come to when the made-before-your-eyes marshmallow ice cream closed out the evening.

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McPhee's Grill

My family lives a block away in Templeton from this Paso Robles institution. Ian McPhee, along with Laurent Grangien, were the OG wine country chefs for our aspiring wine region, and I think both chefs have improved with some time in the cellar. During the Hospice du Rhone wine festival in April, my old boss at Two Hands wines in Australia and the winemaker from Staglin wanted to have dinner and share some bottles, so I immediately booked a table and McPhee's did not disappoint. From baby back ribs, grass fed steaks, wood fired flatbreads and more, the locally-sourced fare went gorgeously down the hatch with the velvety match up of 2005 Tablas Creek Panoplie and 2005 Hommage a Jacques Perrin, among other bottled beauties.

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Hitching Post

I serendipitously stopped by this classic in Buellton on the way back from the Ojai Wine Festival, and lo and behold got sandwiched by the legends themselves Frank Ostini and Gray Hartley. It'd been a while since I'd grabbed a seat at the notorious bar from the film Sideways, which keeps the old school Central Coast steakhouse vibe alive, complete with relish trays. They serve Tablas Creek Vermentino by the glass, along with the complete lineup of Hitching Post Pinot Noir, and I followed Gray's lead with ordering some grilled quail and a small grass fed flat iron steak. The oak-grilled aromas and flavors keeping the barroom -- which that night housed a mix of Cal Trans dudes, a bachelorette party, and other tourists posing out for a selfie or two -- classy.

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Kitchen Door

In the bustling Oxbow Public Market in downtown Napa, Chef Todd Humphries continues to turn out wood fired Asian fusion comfort food, and often has Tablas Creek on tap! With only a half hour to burn here in the spring, I ordered (for a second time) the smoked salmon rillettes and crostini. Have a look at the buttery fat layer at the surface, the perfect foil for the bright acidity of Patelin de Tablas Rosé.

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The Wine Gallery

A Tablas Creek wine dinner in the balmy heat of the summer while a south swell is raging along the beaches of Laguna? Sign me up. Chef Rick Guzman and owner/sommelier Chris Olsen hosted the sold out five-wine feast, beginning with a wood fired Crab melt and closing out the night lingering over a heritage pork and bean skillet that they matched with multiple vintages of Esprit de Tablas Rouge. We're coming back for more in 2019!

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Bar Bianco 

Hailing from a pizzeria family myself, it's incredible what is happening with pizza across the US! And it seems the wines being offered at pizzerias are slowly getting elevated to match the farm-to-table crusty cuisine being churned out city to city. In Arizona, the most talked about chef and restaurateur is arguably Chris Bianco, with his Pizzeria Bianco establishments, Tratto, and now Bar Bianco and its monthly wine dinner series focusing on organic vineyards around the world. I asked to have Tablas Creek be a part of the series way back in 2017, and with some perseverance, we combined forces in October and I got to nerd out with a signed copy of his infamous cookbook. Going hyper seasonal, we started with an Antipasto of Okra, Roasted Gold Peppers, Turnip, Sopressata, and Manchego, and concluded with a Braised Beef Shoulder, pickled winter squash and sweet onion German Potato Salad paired with 2014 Esprit de Tablas Rouge. Chris gave a heartfelt toast about community, how the power of good food and sharing a table can connect us all.

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Alter

It's ironic that exactly where my rental car was heavily burglarized three years ago now resides a Michelin-star worthy hotspot called Alter. The Wynwood district in Miami is overflowing in beautiful graffiti art, new wave galleries, coffee roasters, and incredible places to eat and drink. It used to certainly be the Patelin of Florida. We hosted a Tablas Creek wine dinner here in November, five courses designed by Chef Brad Kilgore, with each expanding the imagination factor, but the duck breast and Cotes de Tablas Rouge 2016 blew the whole crowd out of their seats.

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Longboat Key Club

Off the shimmery shores of Sarasota, Florida, there's an annual celebration of wine and Stone Crab known as Bacchus on the Beach. Our Vineyard Brands contact Freddy Matson and Bob Weil of Longboat Key Club put on a mesmerizing memorial dinner to Robert Haas on the powdery white sands, with an endless array of crustaceans and cuvees from both Tablas Creek and Chateau de Beaucastel. I've conducted dinners comparing the California and French bottling, but this was the first time we did all older vintages of Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc and Chateau de Beaucastel. The whites were stunning, spanning from 2005 to 2011, and a lot of VINsiders who turned out raved about the quality of the older whites and how they often don't think to age them. I stumbled away believing there may not be any finer white grape in the world to pair with buttery fresh crab than Roussanne.

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Chez Delmore 

After consuming all this brilliance, and as the nights dip into the 30's around Paso Robles, I've learned that the most memorable meals can often be crafted in your own home, shared by loved ones. I'm no chef, but I've been making a fairly wicked French Onion soup from the cookbook of Daniel Boulud for years. Our farmer's market down the street has all the ingredients for this simple but patience-driven dish, and I've always admired that Chef Boulud's wine recommendation for his soup, once it's pulled out of the broiler with melted Comte cheese and the salty, broth-soaked crust below, is Roussanne, and an older one if you can find it. I think I know some people. Happy Holidays!

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