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.
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.
[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!
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
I am in Vermont, relaxing for a short time after a wonderful cruise up the Rhone River. And what an experience it was. We (Meghan and I, as well as our winemaker Neil Collins and his wife Marci) led a group of 62 up the Rhone, from Avignon in the south to Lyon in the north, with a short extension up the Saône to Macon for a little Burgundy experience to cap it off. From this floating home base, we made shore excursions each day to cultural, historic, culinary or oenologic destinations, reconvening each evening for a dinner paired with wines from Tablas Creek, Famille Perrin, Chateau de Beaucastel, and Maison Nicolas Perrin. For those who made it, I wanted to share some photos. For those who didn't, but are considering coming next time (and yes, there definitely will be a next time) I hope this will give you a taste of what to expect.
Our Home Base
Our home for this eight day trip was the Uniworld S.S. Catherine. This ship is one of the newest in Uniworld's fleet, named after Catherine Deneuve and showing much of the same glamour and elegance as her namesake. The exterior:
The interior was beautiful, but the highlight for me was the roof deck, from which you could watch the countryside go by, the moon come up, or the sun go down:
The Focus Visit: Beaucastel and Clos des Tourelles in Gigondas
Most of the itinerary of the cruise was that of the Uniworld ship we were on. However, we worked with our travel partners Food & Wine Trails to create two special experiences just for our group. A visit to Chapoutier, including both a tour of their Hermitage vineyards and a focused tasting and lunch in their cellars, was amazing. I'll dive into that more below. But the centerpiece of the trip for us (and, speaking to the attendees, for most of them) were the twin visits to the cellars at Beaucastel and to the Perrins' newer property in Gigondas: Clos des Tourelles. So that both visits could be more intimate, we divided the group into two. One half visited the first day of our trip, and the other half the second. We started with a tour of Beaucastel's Chateauneuf du Pape vineyards, with head-trained vines growing out of what looks like a moonscape of rounded river stones. That's Beaucastel's Hospitality Director Kirsty Manahan speaking to the group:
Kirsty then brought us through the remarkable cellar, with stacks of bottles aging gracefully and big wooden tanks identical to those we use at Tablas Creek:
We then moved to a tasting of the wines, including vintages back to 2001:
One of the cool discoveries for me was a photo of my dad and Jacques Perrin from 1973: the beginning of the Haas-Perrin collaboration that ultimately resulted in Tablas Creek:
From Beaucastel, we continued by bus to Clos des Tourelles, the Perrins' property in Gigondas. A former monastery -- the first permanent structure built outside the town's medieval city walls -- Les Tourelles is being renovated as the headquarters of the Famille Perrin umbrella, and is just a few months away from opening. We got to enjoy a reception on the property's patio, overlooking the walled vineyard that is the appellation's only "Clos":
Charles Perrin joined us there, which was a treat for the guests:
We walked up a short stairway to the town center, where the Perrins' restaurant l'Oustalet is located on a pretty shaded patio. I would submit Gigondas as one of the most picturesque villages in the south of France.
The meal was delicious -- summer truffles, anyone? -- and the wines equal to the challenge:
From there, fully sated, we continued to the first of our shore visits, a walking tour around the ancient town center of Arles.
The Shore Excursions
Each day, the participants in the cruise got a choice of ways to explore the towns and countryside we were passing through. Because it was a river cruise, and because we didn't have massive distances to travel, we woke up each morning in port, so the shore opportunities were daily and varied. Some were more sedate, like walks through quiet towns like Viviers (in which we also got to hear a short performance on the basilica's pipe organ):
Other shore visits offered more activity, like the chance to kayak down the Gardon River to and under the remarkable Roman aqueduct known as the Pont du Gard. This was one of my top highlights of the trip, and a bucket list thing to do:
One nighttime excursion was a bus tour of Lyon (the "City of Lights"), serendipitously as the full moon was rising:
And, at the end of the trip, we spent a lovely day in Beaune, including a visit to the weekly market:
And a tour of the lovely, historic Hospices de Beaune, a hospital for the poor started in 1433:
Focus Visit #2: Chapoutier and Hermitage
As we made our way north, we watched the landscape change from the southern Rhone's broad valleys and pebbly soils to the northern Rhone's steep terraced vineyards. When we reached Tain l'Hermitage, we stopped for the night. The next day, we were greeted at the ship by two representatives from Maison M. Chapoutier, the historic wine family who have farmed their vineyards in Hermitage since 1808. We walked through the town and into the vineyard blocks at the foot of the hill which forms the town's northern border:
The small size of the appellation was striking, as was knowing that this hillside has been the inspiration for a high percentage of the world's producers of Syrah. The tasting in Chapoutier's cellars was equally convincing, as we got a chance to taste wines from Hermitage (both red and white), Cote Rotie, and even Chapoutier's Chateauneuf du Pape, which was particularly interesting given where we'd just come from.
We finished with a lunch in their cellars, which was a remarkable way to end a great day.
We were docking in a new town each night, which meant new places to explore. Some of these I knew well (Avignon, for example) so I skipped the planned tours in favor of some simple wandering. Others I'd visited, but rarely or not for a while, and in these cases I very much enjoyed the more formal narrative on the town's history and culture. Arles was one of these. The remarkable Roman amphitheater is one of the best preserved anywhere in the world, and was actually hosting a bull race -- the Camargue version of the "running of the bulls" famous from the Spanish city of Pamplona -- that day.
The small town of Tarascon, just south of Avignon, has one of the best-preserved medieval castles in the south of France.
The castle had been converted to a prison during the French Revolution, which saved it from destruction. It also meant that the rooms had graffiti (largely from 18th & 19th century English prisoners) carved into their walls, which I found fascinating:
It's particularly nice, I found, approaching these towns from the river. Unlike the typical entry points of railway station, airport, or even outside-of-town road sprawl, the river typically shows a historic face, and the docks were all in the middle of town rather than the outskirts. And it seemed like our schedule meant that we often arrived at dusk, which is hard to beat:
The Onboard Program
As our group represented more than two-thirds of the passengers, whether we were mingling at breakfast, taking in the views of the river topside, or exploring the differences between pastis and pernod in the lounge, the ship's activities became group activities. And the length of the stay meant that after the first day or two everyone felt like family. But we did add a few enhancements to the ship's program. We sent over (or procured in France) special wines for each night's meal, doing our best to mirror what we were drinking to what we had seen that day or the parts of the Rhone we were passing. That meant wines like Beaucastel Chateauneuf du Pape and Miraval rosé in the south (and the Tablas Creek equivalents), Famille Perrin Gigondas and Vinsobres as we made our way north, and then the wines of Maison Nicolas Perrin in Tain l'Hermitage and Lyon. It was a particular treat to be sipping on the (delicious) Nicolas Perrin Condrieu with dinner as we passed the tiny village of Condrieu on our way north from Tain to Lyon.
Neil and I also hosted a seminar, where we got the whole Tablas Creek group together during a longer sail and deconstructed our flagship Esprit de Tablas and Esprit de Tablas Blanc blends, tasting these wines and varietal bottlings of each of the grapes that go into them. Coming toward the end of the journey, this also gave Neil and me a chance to put the visit into context:
But the star of the show was ultimately the Rhone. The engineering on display as we traversed 13 locks, each bringing us 60 vertical feet higher, was a recurring highlight of the trip. We would slow down and the windows would get dark as we entered the lock, massive yet barely larger than the ship. Then, after a pause, we'd begin to climb out of the manmade canyon, up to a new landscape at a rate of a foot every few seconds:
It was equally impressive watching the technology required to pass under the low bridges, with the ship's awnings, railings, and even the captain's wheelhouse retracting into the deck:
Wherever we were on our journey, we had the Rhone's patchwork of grain fields, vineyards, lavender and orchards on display, with the honey colored building stone of the old towns sprinkled in. That landscape was the constant backdrop of the many visits, and a lovely reminder of what draws millions of visitors to the south of France each year:
If you joined us on this journey, thank you. I'd love you to share your own highlights in the comments. If you weren't able to join us this time, we'll definitely be back. And we look forward to sharing this experience with you then.
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:
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?
So, I feel like the Chamber of Commerce here, but really, if you like wildflowers, this is the year for you. The combination of good rain early in the season and ample sunshine in February has produced the most impressive display of color in several years. I'm going to share a few of these that we've taken here at the vineyard, which is impressive enough. The vistas on the rolling hills east of town are even more impressive, at least for their scale. I remember a trip that we were making to Utah nearly a decade ago when the wildflowers were in bloom off of Highway 46, and people were pulled haphazardly off the road just staring at the mesmerizing, hypnotic scenes. We have a link to some of these scenes at the end of the blog. But first, what we're seeing here at the winery, starting with this pretty purple flower that carpets any areas we didn't plant a cover crop, and peeks through even the taller growth like an ultraviolet wash behind an oil painting:
The mustard flowers are familiar to anyone who drives around the Central Coast in the springtime, but this year's growth is particularly lush:
The lupines are just beginning. In another few weeks, they will be swaying hypnotically to the spring breezes and covering the area with their thick perfume:
Some flowers you'd like to admire from afar, like the thistle, whose spines make it a nuisance in the vineyard. We've largely eliminated it from problematic spots, but along the fencelines it still shows off its deep purple, spiky blooms:
But the crown jewels of the wildflower season, of course, are the California poppies: our state flower. They are so plentiful, and so photogenic, that I have photos of them from nearly every day this month. I'll spare you the entire collection, but here are a few of my favorites:
If you're interested in knowing where to go, a good article in the San Luis Obispo Tribune yesterday has recommended routes and lots more photos. But come sooner than later. By June, this burst of color will have largely faded to the golds and deep greens of California summer.
As my travels representing Tablas Creek across the country in 2015 came to a close, I wanted to round up some of my favorite discoveries in the food and wine scene. I didn't hit every pocket of the country, but I did work with our wholesalers in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Missouri, Louisiana, Florida, New York, and even sprinkled in Huntsville and Reno for good measure. Here's a shortlist of ten trendsetters who are working their delicious and clever magic at the moment, and inspiring myself and others to rethink the concept of "going out to eat":
Industrial Eats, Buellton, California
This industrial park-based, counter service gem features local wines on tap (including our Patelin de Tablas Blanc), is open from 11 am to 9 pm straight, and is stocked with some of the purest, most flavorful ingredients and preparations in Santa Barbara County. Owner Jeff Olsson is really into farms and backstory. One bit of evidence: while I was midway into a wood-fired pizza, I saw a local diver do a delivery of softball-sized, bright purple sea urchins for their famed Uni Avocado Toast. Salivate over their menu at www.industrialeats.com
Shaya, New Orleans, Louisiana
Hyped as America's best new restaurant by Esquire magazine, Shaya calls its cuisine "modern Israeli food in chic". Our Vineyard Brands rep Todd booked us for a lunch tasting appointment at this uptown eatery in October, which is a total gamble in my line of work. We were an hour late after our previous tasting stops ran into overtime, and we had to cram both lunch and a tasting of all of our new releases with Shaya's wine buyer into a 25-minute window. Todd ordered one of everything and we crushed our way through lamb ragu with crispy chickpeas on heavenly hummus, baba ganoush, and shakshouka.
Shaya's menu is less about massive mains and more about smaller plates, the vibe is nice but casual, and the wine list is short and concise, with 40 well chosen wines on offer. www.shayarestaurant.com
Coya, Miami, Florida
Miami is a humbling place for me to work every year. No other place in America makes me feel like I am more in need of teeth whitening, Armani suits, and some light cosmetic surgery. With significant population blocs originating from Russia, Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela and beyond, it's no surprise that the city is chock full of models and globally inspired cuisine (with ironically large portions to boot). Coya seems like you're in an entirely different country, with its impressive glass vases full of random fermentations (black corn essence?) stacked floor to ceiling, dark wooden interiors, massive chandeliers, and a mind blowing menu of delicious, high-brow Peruvian fare.
The ceviche mixto with prawns, squid, mussels, yuzu and tobiko made our mouths rain, as did octopus and olives. I'd brought along a 2003 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc which excelled in such company and came to a crescendo with a truffle oil-splashed Tiradito de Cobia. www.coyarestaurant.com/miami
Cured, San Antonio, Texas
Although dry aging meats has been a part of the steakhouse business for decades, more and more restaurants are making the effort (and time) to cure their own meats for world class charcuterie. Cured, located in San Antonio in the heart of the Pearl district, serves up house-cured arrangements that look every bit as floral as they are edible, which pair well with their two page wine list full of savory red and rosé offerings. www.curedatpearl.com
Arroyo Vino, Santa Fe, New Mexico
Owner Brian Bargsten is a few years into this hotspot just outside of Santa Fe proper, where tumbleweeds, cacti and old world wines co-exist. I've seen this concept in a few cities - an excellent wine shop with a chef and full scale kitchen. Pull a bottle of something interesting off the shelf and pay a modest corkage, versus getting hit with a quadruple mark up price tag. New Mexico lamb is every bit as good as its more famous Colorado brethren, and Arroyo Vino serves it as well as anyplace in this culinary utopia. (Brian is seen below in the white t-shirt, hand-sorting Tablas Creek estate fruit in September). www.arroyovino.com
Okra, Phoenix, Arizona
Cullen and Maureen Campbell from Crudo opened up Okra this year, with biodynamic wines, cool drinks, and Southern fare. "Put a little south in your mouth" is their tagline. Turns out, Tablas Creek Vermentino pairs extremely well with fried chicken, which no doubt inspired me to do a bone luge after the marrow plate. www.okraaz.com
The Waterboy, Sacramento, California
Chef/Owner Rick Mahan of The Waterboy and OneSpeed in Sac is obsessed with quality lamb. My first time tasting with him three years ago the subject came up when I was describing our biodynamic practices at the vineyard. "Do you ever sell any?" he asked me. There are two farms in the Sacramento Delta that he works with regularly, but Tablas Creek lamb has been on his brain ever since. In November of this year, we finally realized his dream of doing a dinner event at this midtown gem where our meat took center stage, with four of our wines selected to pair with it.
Ember, Arroyo Grande, California | The Spoon Trade, Grover Beach, California
I grew up near Grand Avenue in Arroyo Grande, and a fancy dinner out usually occurred at Sizzler. I never thought I'd see the day that two hip, chef-owned eateries would open up on opposite ends of the workingman's strip and be immediately successful. Ember is owned by Brian Collins who cooked at Chez Panisse and ran Full of Life Flatbread in Los Alamos prior to opening up his wood-fired temple in the former Leisure Mart building. (I bought acrylic paints and goldfish here as a grommet!) Serving a seasonally changing menu featuring flatbreads, local fish, a ribeye with chimichurri, and inventive small plates like the pork belly and Cayucos abalone plate, I'm consistently floored by what Brian and his team have managed to do in a location that many feared wouldn't work. www.emberwoodfire.com
Two miles west near the vehicle beach ramp where Modesto monster trucks often roam, Jacob and Brooke Town opened The Spoon Trade after devoting a chunk of time to road trip and eat through America. They are a powerhouse restaurant couple that worked in some of the main Bay Area hubs (like Nopa) before deciding to move back home and open up their dream spot. The tri-tip tartare with house-baked sourdough is as local as a central coast meat dish can get, the burger is simple and legitimate, and there's an already-famous Fried Chicken and Waffle plate on hand if that's your thing. There's something for everybody here, with four local wines on tap, Oregon wines in cans, and a short geeky bottle list that wouldn't look out of place in Oakland or Portland. www.thespoontrade.com
Hatchet Hall, Culver City, CA.
And lastly, mainly for your consideration, here's the wildest wine list of the year. In fact, its mere existence made headlines on sites like LA Weekly for infuriating customers and critics alike. Have a look...
You've gotta admit, it makes you think twice and realize that the times they are a'changing. (I think I ordered the Vielles Vignes '13 and was served a glass of South African Sylvaner or something.) www.hatchethallla.com
I'd love to hear what you think about this list, and any of these other cool spots I've mentioned here. And if there are restaurants and wine bars in your neighborhoods that you love, please share so we can keep them on our radar for 2016. Happy New Year and thanks for reading!
By Robert Haas. Special thanks to Jeffery Clark, who provided most of the photos.
I’m back in Vermont, basking in the afterglow of our Tablas Creek cruise of the Rhone. It was a ten-day celebration (including the optional three-day visit to Paris and Champagne) of great food and wine, organized by our partners at Food & Wine Trails. By the end, new friends felt like old friends, and our 120-person group had made the S.S. Catherine ours. On a personal level, I very much enjoyed sharing with the group the homeland of the Rhône varieties that we have nurtured at Tablas Creek Vineyard.
About one half of our large group of adherents opted for the Paris-Champagne addition, July 30th-August 1st. The Bel Ami Hotel was comfortable, nicely air-conditioned (needed in the hot weather France has been seeing this summer) and well placed around the corner from Paris landmarks on the Boulevard St. Germain, such as the Brasserie Lipp, and the cafés Deux Magots and Café de Flore.
For the trip to Champagne, we arrived in Vrigny at the property of Roger Coulon, propriétaire-récoltant on the Montagne de Reims, with an hour and a half bus trip. Coulon produces only about 90,000 bottles from his own vines. His cellars were straightforward, simple but modern. We tasted his wines. They had an artisanal terroir character that I loved. We enjoyed an excellent champagne lunch at his close-by restaurant, Les Clos des Terres Soudées. He paired his various cuvées of champagne with each course. We then visited the cellars of Taittinger -- quite a contrast -- with traditional old cellars cut deep into the Champagne chalk under Reims, followed by a tasting of their wines. The visits were enjoyable and educational. Some of us preferred the artisanal drier, richer style of Coulon and others the traditional "grande marque" style of Taittinger.
We had some time to spend on our own in Paris and then took the TGV from the Gare de Lyon in Paris to Avignon on the 2nd to join the rest of the cruisers boarding the ship. On my first visits to pre-autoroute France in the 1950’s, that trip down the N7 took 10 hours. The TGV made it in 2.
The famous Pont d'Avignon
The voyage began with a short overnight sail to Tarascon, a little south of Avignon, from where there were interesting shore visits to Tarascon, a city that dates back to the late bronze age. It has a riverside castle from the 15th century that is known as "The King's Castle" (Château du Roi René).
There was also a visit to Arles, which is close-by. Arles is a fascinating city. It was a Phoenician port by about 800 B.C., taken by the Romans in 123 B.C., and still is home to some of the best-preserved Roman remains outside Italy. In modern times it was an attractive abode for Vincent van Gogh, who arrived there in 1888. Many of his most famous paintings were completed there, including The Night Café, the Yellow Room, Starry Night Over the Rhône, and L'Arlésienne.
The Roman amphitheater at Arles
The centerpiece of the cruise was the stay in Avignon, which provided a base for twin cellar visits and delicious open-air lunches in the court of Château de Beaucastel. It was fun to share the Beaucastel secrets with our group. We were too large a group to all go at once so half the group went on the 3rd and half on the 4th. Everybody got to taste from barrels and visit the old spotlessly clean cellars, as well as learn about Beaucastel's wine making. Each day, those not on the Beaucastel visit got to tour the old city of the Popes with its palace and crenelated walls.
The cellars at Beaucastel
Lunch in the gardens at Beaucastel
The lunch menu
Barbara Haas, Robert Haas, and Francois Perrin at lunch
From Avignon we sailed north to Viviers, and then on to Tain- l'Ermitage. This stretch was during the day, so most of us assembled topside to enjoy the views and the passages through the écluses (locks). I was fascinated by the ship's design, from the ballast tanks below that fill with water to the to the retractable pilot house, railings and awnings, all to lower the ship's profile in order to pass under low bridges across the Rhône.
The lock at Viviers
Mind your heads!
Tain- l'Ermitage was a second highlight. We received a very good tour of the Hermitage vineyard and a sit-down tasting of Chapoutier wines. We were also treated to an excellent lunch served with northern Rhône wines. I was interested to see the upright cane and spur pruning of the Syrah, a pruning we have adopted at Tablas on "Scruffy Hill."
The remarkable hillside vineyards of the Northern Rhone
From there, we continued north to Lyon, passing the vineyards of Côte Rôtie and Condrieu on our port side just as we were served a dinner on board paired with wines of those very appellations from Maison Nicolas-Perrin.
On day 5 of the cruise (August 7th, for those keeping track) we got to tour Lyon, a center of classical French gastronomy, and home to the remains of two side-by-side spectacular Roman amphitheaters: one for music and the other for drama. In the evening we reconvened on the Catherine for a nice Tablas Creek cocktail party in the ship's lounge, followed by dinner in the dining room.
Lyon marks the northern edge of what France thinks of as the Rhone Valley (though the river originates in Lake Geneva, in Switzerland). But the cruise continued north to dock in Macon on the Saône, for an excursion to nearby Burgundy. Many guests took a bus to Beaune, toured some of the vineyards of the Côte de Beaune, and visited the 15th century Hospices de Beaune, scene of the annual wine auction of wines from its vineyards. We heard this was all wonderful. However, Barbara and I, along with Neil and Marci Collins, instead took a car and drove through the vineyards of Pouilly-Fuissé and Beaujolais to visit an old friend Claude Geoffray, the 7th generation proprietor of Château Thivin in the Côte de Brouilly.
Radishes in the market in Beaune
From Macon we all sailed overnight back to Lyon where we debarked August 9th and went our own ways.
Although the unusually hot weather was noticeable on shore visits, no one seemed daunted, and they proceeded as planned and seemed to be enjoyed by all. The ship, of course, was well air-conditioned and the cabins very comfortable. The food and service aboard was excellent, far exceeding my expectations, and the wines from Famille Perrin, Beaucastel and Tablas Creek set the scene. We were definitely on a Food and Wine Trail. Lots of good conversation flowed in the Leopard Bar before and after dinner.
The view from inside the cabin
We are already looking forward to our next cruise in 2017.
I had the distinct pleasure of tagging along last week on a trade visit to the Perrin family's holdings in the Rhone Valley. Our odyssey began with our thirsty quintet of wine professionals packed into an undersized rental car like foie gras terrine as we traversed from Dijon to Valence. I sat shotgun with GPS in hand and snails in my belly as we watched the landscape change from the sunflowers and Charolais beef pastures of Burgundy to the lavender fields and olive groves of the Rhone.
I had been on three surfing expeditions to the old country -- relic of an earlier life -- but I had never visited an AOC. I had been waiting years to see the land where my favorite grape varietals hail from and experience the Tablas Creek mothership of Château de Beaucastel for the first time.
An hour into the southward drive, Côte-Rôtie stretched out to the west, with its expansive south facing range planted densely with vines. Between the hills and our American automatic transmission predispositions, our unfortunate rental car received the name “Le Clutch Fumé” about this time. “The Hill of Hermitage should be popping up like a Jack in the Box next,” our driver advised.
We were first scheduled to meet with Nicolas Jaboulet and taste the wines he is making and selecting for Maison Nicolas Perrin. Having the last name of Jaboulet in a burg like Tain-l'Hermitage is like living in Hollywood with the surname of Hitchcock: it’s billboarded on the hill of Hermitage itself, which at one time his family owned a coveted 30 percent of. When he started Maison Nicolas Perrin (in partnership with the Perrins) in 2009, he used his many key connections to source fruit and wine for the project, the range of which includes Hermitage, Côte-Rôtie, St. Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage, and Condrieu. We met up with Nicolas at a brand new tasting bar in the main square of Tain-l'Hermitage, where you can buy all of the Famille Perrin wines and taste a range of them too.
“Crozes-Hermitage is the wine we want to be known for,” Nicolas pointed out during the tasting. His 2013 certainly makes a case for it. We learned that 85% of the Crozes-Hermitage plantings are Syrah, with the balance being Marsanne and Roussanne. “Many growers have taken out Roussanne,” he said. “They only wanted Roussanne if it could be co-harvested and fermented with Marsanne. Growers didn’t want to wait to have two different picking dates for the whites.”
2014 Nicolas Perrin wines resting in foudre and barrique.
At the tail end of the tasting we met Benoit Busseuil, Nicolas' assistant winemaker. He drove us up onto the top of Hermitage to see the labyrinth of Syrah plantings stretch out below us to the banks of the Rhone river. Seeing the tiny parcels and gnarled vines, the price tag on the rare bottles to hail from the hill instantly made sense to us.
Benoit and Syrah vines in Hermitage.
We piled back in the car and headed south where Nicolas met back up with us and treated us to lunch at Michel Chabran in Pont de l’lsére. The wiser of us followed Nicolas’ lead and opted for the Tapas Dégustation menu, along with tastes of the 2013 Hermitage Blanc, 2012 Cote-Rotie, and a rare 2013 St. Joseph Blanc from Domaine Bernard Gripa.
Lunch at Michel Chabran
* * *
In a way, the region of Vinsobres reminds me of Mendocino County in Northern California. The most northernmost appellation in the Southern Rhone, the vines perch on hills up to 1200 feet elevation with plenty of wooded areas between the steep hillside plantings. Vineyard blocks of all different sizes, unmarked and unfenced, with little trellising, must require institutional knowledge or government intervention to keep straight who owns what.
Vinsobres' name originates from the Latin words "vin sobre" meaning "dark wine". The dark color comes from the high percentage of Syrah in the appellation: higher than any other in the southern Rhone.
In a small cluster of houses -- might we call it a Patelin? -- a few kilometers outside of the village of Vinsobres, the Perrin Family guest house is notoriously difficult to find. That said, I take full responsibility for typing in the incorrect address on the GPS. We pulled up at the wrong house, unloaded our bags and even entered a place that kind of looked like it could be the Perrins' house (with the exception of dirty dishes in the sink, shoes and socks at the door and a desk with documents and an adding machine in place). Paul drove off to see if we’d overshot the address, leaving four of us to roam the grounds. Soon an engine sputtered its way up the drive and I encountered a 60-something couple and their terrified faces upon the sight of four dudes and my beard in particular, plus all of our luggage sprawled out on their driveway. They handled it well enough, especially since they had no idea what we were saying and vice versa. Paul reappeared with word that we were two kilometers short of the destination. We hoped they didn't lose much sleep over the knowledge that we were still somewhere in the vicinity.
The real Vinsobres house.
The Perrin guest house at La Vielle Ferme de Vinsobres would have author Peter Mayle reaching for an advance. They carefully restored this centuries-old five-bedroom farmhouse over a decade, adding a modern kitchen, bathrooms, swimming pool and wi-fi. Well-manicured lavender and rosemary line the property, with old vines above and below and no neighbors in range. A well stocked wine cellar on the ground floor awaited us, and we’d shopped heavily in Tain for the night’s provisions, which one of my fellow travelers (a chef in real life) attacked with aproned vengeance.
With Merguez sausage from the grill, steak, cheese and jambon d’Ardeche, plus the biggest salad we’d ever seen, we enjoyed an extended evening on the outdoor balcony, eating and raving about the day, with some major anticipation for the next day's agenda.
Five bottles of Famille Perrin for the five of us… seems about right!
* * *
Kirsty Manahan is the hospitality director for Famille Perrin. Born in England but raised in the south of France, she arrived the following cloudy morning with the property caretaker Mohamad to guide us around. The weather had changed dramatically, and she pointed out that we were due for a code orange weather day, which includes heavy rain, thunder and some lightning. As we took our positions in Mohamad's pickup truck for a vineyard tour, the luckier ones got in the four-seat truck cab, while the rest of us hopped in the back of the pickup with two umbrellas. A roar from the sky above had us looking at each other as "Momo" hit the gas. The drops soon followed.
Code Orange storm tour of stony Vinsobres via pickup truck.
We bounced up along a clay terrace and climbed a good 400 feet past Syrah vines and an interesting patch of Clairette Gris. It wouldn’t have taken much to roll right off of the tailgate with the speed and rocks we were pounding along. The landscape would vary from cobblestones to fluffy clay then to pure pink sand. At the top of the hill the gusts of wind whipped away at us and in spite of the umbrellas, we were now officially soaked, even before a gust imploded one umbrella, leaving it looking more like a weapon than anything useful in the rain. For the last half hour left on the tour, our wonder at the rugged scenery provided our only shelter from the elements.
Once we thawed and dried out, we followed Kirsty to Gigondas for a tour of Clos des Tourelles. In my previous life as a cellarhand, this micro, single vineyard operation would be my dream winery. Built to only produce the one estate wine, it’s compact, clean, historic, and simply appointed with open-top cement tanks for fermentations and French oak foudres for the aging process. The Clos des Tourelles is the only clos (walled vineyard) in Gigondas, and the Perrins have been rehabilitating the buildings since they bought it a few years ago. Construction was actively going on, with the goal of making it the centerpiece of the Famille Perrin holdings. The views are incredible, and the tasting room and guest rooms (scheduled completion: 2016) should be an instant landmark when they open.
16th Century architecture at Clos des Tourelles | One of a mere four foudres in the cellar.
From the Clos you can walk directly up to L’Oustalet which is the hotel and restaurant the Perrins opened a couple years ago.
L'Oustalet in the village of Gigondas.
The sleek restaurant was fully booked for lunch service and chef Laurent Deconick was in the house. We started with a splash of Miraval Rosé then had an incredible menu of Mushroom Risotto with 2011 Beaucastel Vielles Vignes Roussanne, chicken prepared three ways with a dense, powerful Famille Perrin L’Argnee 2010 Gigondas, and then -- we still had work to do, after all -- Rhubarb sorbet and espresso. I made a mental note to spend a few more days in Gigondas next time around.
Ancient Grenache vines for L'Argnee in Gigondas.
A very happy table at L'Oustalet.
The clouds clamored as we approached the four o’clock hour and the town of Courthézon near Châteauneuf-du-Pape. In case we were uncertain of its historic significance, there was actually a sign for Beaucastel on the main roundabout along with major cities and highways. People were snapping pictures outside of the Château as we parked. This was it. We’d finally made it to mecca. We took turns taking cell phone glory portraits of us standing on the stones while Kirsty gave us some backstory on the viticulture laws in the region (no irrigation, head trained low to the ground).
Chateauneuf's famous galets (river stones) in the vineyards at Beaucastel.
We toured the cellars and I wasn't entirely surprised to see the same bladder presses, destemmer and French oak foudres that we use at Tablas Creek. Cesar Perrin -- who worked harvest at Tablas in 2011 -- appeared at one point pushing a bottle cart to collect some wines to label for sale. In the foudres, 2013 and 2014 lots of Coudoulet de Beaucastel and Château de Beaucastel slumbered, while the rain hammered on outside.
Seguin Moreau Troncais Forest oak foudres.
Bottles of 2012 Château de Beaucastel Rouge.
Kirsty had arranged an impressive array of Famillle Perrin wines to taste above the cellar, starting with 2014 Les Sinards Blanc, followed by Coudoulet de Beaucastel Blanc and Rouge, three wines from Gigondas, and a powerful foudre sample of 2013 Chateau de Beaucastel Rouge. "And I have some surprises for you," she announced near the end, as if the tasting needed surprises to keep our interest. These treats included a stellar 2001 Hommage à Jacques Perrin, a lively and ethereal 1970 Beaucastel Rouge, and a 1985 Vieilles Vignes Roussanne that at 30 years old was clear, precise, and full of life.
The Southern Rhone, only slightly abridged.
It was clear to all of us in two days of touring that the Perrins are not only the ambassadors of the Rhone Valley, but they have achieved that difficult balance between tradition and modernity with their wines. Their vision, their experience with their terroir, and their commitment to making wines of place have produced a range of different village cuvees, each with its own identity and well-defined personality. And their commitment to converting each parcel they take over to organic farming means that over time these personalities will only become clearer.
For our last hurrah, we met Marc Perrin afterward for an early dinner in the village. He arrived from Provence where he'd been meeting with Brad Pitt and looking at vineyards and sources to grow the Miraval brand. Why not? If we needed a reminder of how the Perrins are always looking for new good ideas, Marc provided it. One of the guests brought up at dinner that they thought Miraval rosé half bottles -- which haven't been produced yet -- would have potential in the Los Angeles market. As if Marc didn't have enough going on in both the Northern and Southern Rhone, his eyes widened with interest at the suggestion, and you could see his mind immediately begin working. "If I can find the glass, we will try it," he offered. I can't wait.
This last week, it seems we've been dominated by stories about our rain. Whether it's in its pre-precipitation anticipation or its post-fall analysis, it's clear that California is excited about the unusual moisture falling from the sky and curious to know whether it makes a big-picture difference in our multi-year drought. But that's not all we've been seeing. Paso Robles got another mention in what has been an amazing year for our area, we got a nice mention ourselves from the Los Angeles Times, and we learned about how wine has been transported and stored through the millennia. Plus, I discovered a blog I'll be following regularly going forward.
The Los Angeles Times pointed out that the storms aren't just having an impact on the vineyards directly; they're also building the Sierra snowpack, which provides so much of California's summer water source.
Looking back, our local KCBX Public Radio interviewed me for a piece on how the drought impacted the 2014 vintage (it wasn't all, or even mostly, negative). My conclusion was "the quality of this vintage, as is often true with low yielding vintages, looks spectacular -- but now it can rain". And it has! Listen »
In Between the Raindrops
Winter isn't just about rain clouds and green grass; the interludes between the storms provide mixed skies appealing in a different way than the deep unbroken blues of summer. I loved this shot from the L'Aventure Winery Facebook page, of their iconic sign hanging under a cornflower blue sky dotted with sheep-like clouds.
Paso Robles was also the feature of a great blog posted by Chef and Sommelier Shauna Burke. Her piece, called Stopping in the Middle: A Weekend in Paso Robles Wine Country, touched on several of my favorite places to go and things to do. Like the rest of her blog, it also was beautifully written and illustrated. I was intrigued that her previous blog piece was about Vermont (where I grew up) and equally impressed with what she picked to feature in that piece. With that inducement, I ended up reading a year's worth of entries, chock full of terrific recipes, thoughtful recommendations and her terrific photography. Check it out »
And for Tablas Creek
It was really nice for me to see the 2012 Cotes de Tablas picked by S. Irene Virbila as the Los Angeles Times' Wine of the Week, for two reasons. The first is that as the "middle child" (between, in price, the Esprit de Tablas line and our Patelin de Tablas) the Cotes wines, which I think have never been better, seem to struggle to get their fair share of attention. And second, I thought her review was particularly perceptive and really nailed the wine's character: "cherries, plums and wild herbs, with a licorice kick".
Food for Thought (Drink for Thought?)
This last piece isn't new (it was published in March) but it was new to us, and we all found it fascinating. It's a long-format article on the Web site Vinepair called The 8,000 Year Effort To Transport Wine Around The World, going back to when ancient Georgians invented the kvevri, a massive earthenware vessel used to ferment, age and store wine made from locally growing wild grapes. Smaller, more portable amphorae came next, then wood barrels, and finally bottles in recent centuries. And even once they were invented, wine wasn't initially put into bottles at the estate; it was transported in barrels and bottled nearer its eventual destination. In any case, we found the article fascinating, and hope you will too. Read more »