You aren’t hearing as much about the Rocks District as you should be. You might be surprised why.

I’m not sure there’s any American Viticultural Area (AVA) as aptly named as the Rocks District of Milton-Freewater. Located in north-east Oregon just 15 minutes south of the city of Walla Walla, Washington, it’s the closest thing I’ve ever seen to the look of Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Vines grow in deep beds of basalt cobblestones, the product of ancient volcanic eruptions, rolled and smoothed as they were tumbled down from the nearby Blue Mountains by the Walla Walla River and then deposited on the valley floor in an alluvial fan. Adding to the region's allure, it sits at roughly the same latitude as the southern Rhone. A majority of the vines are Rhone-derived; more than 45% of the vineyard acres are planted to Syrah, with other Rhone grapes like Grenache, Picpoul, Bourboulenc, Clairette, Grenache Blanc, and Roussanne all represented too. In just a few short years, the Rocks District has built a reputation as a place to find some of the most interesting Rhone varieties in America.

Rocks District Vines - Closeup

Neil, Cesar Perrin, Nicolas Brunier and I had the pleasure of exploring this remarkable terroir with Delmas Wines’ Brooke Robertson while we were in town for the recent Hospice du Rhone celebration.

Jason  Neil  Cesar  and Nicolas with Brooke Robertson

If great wines are borne out of struggle, this region is destined for greatness. Not only do the vines have to navigate the rocks and the paltry twelve inches of rainfall, but they have to live through winter freezes so cold that most producers (including Delmas) now bury their vines every winter to provide insulation, and then unbury them in time to prune and start the growing season1. The 300 days of sun, the long summer days due to the northern latitude, summer daily high temperatures routinely in the 90s°F and not infrequently in the 100s°F, allow for enough ripening in the short season, which can end with a freeze any time after the calendar flips to October. And did I mention the rocks?

Rocks District Cobbles

At Hospice du Rhone, the wines from Rocks District fruit were among my highlights of the Grand Tasting, with as clear a signature as any AVA or appellation I can think of. The fact that it’s a small AVA (just 3,767 acres, or less than 1% of the acreage within the Paso Robles AVA) surely helps, along with its climatic uniformity, but I think that the rocks themselves play an important role. As in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, those rocks absorb and reflect the sun, warming the ripening clusters, producing rich, powerful wines with a distinctive umami flavor of baked loamy earth.

The AVA was created relatively recently, with work beginning in 2011 and formal recognition from the United States Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) in 2015. There are now, according to the AVA’s website, 52 vineyards encompassing 640 acres. More than 50 wineries source fruit from these vineyards, although there are only five production facilities within the AVA’s boundaries. Many more facilities are just a few minutes away, in Walla Walla, the center for wine production (and wine tourism) in the area, and the namesake of the larger AVA in which the Rocks District is nested. And that distance, minor though it seems, provides one of the region’s biggest challenges.

In the federal regulations that govern the American Viticultural Area (AVA) system2, there’s a clause that I’d never noticed before this visit. It says that a wine may be labeled with a viticultural area appellation if it satisfies a series of criteria, one of which is that “it has been fully finished within the State, or one of the States, within which the labeled viticultural area is located”. This clause means that all the wineries with production facilities in Walla Walla (in Washington State) can’t label their Rocks District vineyards with its AVA because that AVA lies entirely in the state of Oregon. Delmas is one of those wineries, so their labels just say Walla Walla.

Neil, Cesar, Nicolas and I were frankly flabbergasted by this restriction when we learned about it. After all, what does a state boundary (or for that matter, where a production facility is located) have to do with viticultural distinctiveness? It seemed to me that this goes against the stated purpose of an AVA, which as explained on the TTB’s website, is:

“An AVA is a delimited grape-growing region with specific geographic or climatic features that distinguish it from the surrounding regions and affect how grapes are grown. Using an AVA designation on a wine label allows vintners to describe more accurately the origin of their wines to consumers and helps consumers identify wines they may purchase.”

That I never knew about this clause in the AVA regulations stems from California’s central place in the firmament of American wine. We’ve never seriously thought about getting fruit from other states. We’re excited, with the launch of our Lignée de Tablas program, to explore other California AVAs, and that’s no problem. But the fact that we can get fruit from the Sierra Foothills (6 hours away from Paso Robles) and use their AVA but Delmas can’t get fruit from their own vineyard, 15 minutes away from the winemaking facility they share with dozens of other local wineries, feels unfair.

The TTB in fact foresaw the challenge that the creation of this new Oregon AVA so close to the region’s winemaking nexus in Washington state would pose for producers. In the 2014 notice of proposed rulemaking for the Rocks District AVA, they solicit feedback on the topic:

“TTB is interested in comments from persons who believe they may be negatively impacted by the inability to use ‘The Rocks District of Milton– Freewater’ as an appellation of origin on a wine label solely because they use facilities located in Washington.”

The TTB must have received enough feedback to convince them that there was support for modifying their rules, because the next year they proposed a rule change to address it:

“The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) is proposing to amend its regulations to permit the use of American viticultural area names as appellations of origin on labels for wines that would otherwise qualify for the use of the AVA name, except that the wines have been fully finished in a State adjacent to the State in which the viticultural area is located, rather than the State in which the labeled viticultural area is located. The proposal would provide greater flexibility in wine production and labeling while still ensuring that consumers are provided with adequate information as to the identity of the wines they purchase.”

I would have thought that the TTB’s proposed rule change would have been uncontroversial, but it ended up far from the case. Organizations that submitted letters in opposition included Napa Valley Vintners, Family Winemakers of California, the Washington State Wine Commission, and the California Wine Institute. Some included proposed changes that would satisfy their concerns, while others just requested that the proposed new rule be scrapped. Even the Oregon Winegrowers Alliance & Walla Walla Wine Alliance submitted a comment in opposition, although the change that they requested was minor. In every case, the stated reason for opposition was because the regional associations worried that state laws that modify the federal regulations overseeing wine production would be unenforceable in a neighboring state. A good example would be the Oregon requirement that to be varietally labeled, a wine must contain 90% of the listed grape, a more restrictive standard than the federal requirement that a varietal wine contain at least 75% of the named grape.

A few of the comments hinted at a second reason: that they were worried that if a cheaper nearby state could make wine from a prestigious appellation, there might be an exodus of jobs to that lower-cost (or less regulated) state, with economic damage to the established reason.

As typically happens when it receives conflicting feedback, the TTB backtracked and the proposed change was never made. This may have avoided the unintended consequences that the regional associations were worried about, but it leaves the producers in the Rocks District with the same challenge that the TTB identified back in 2014. Are they supposed to all build wineries in Oregon when they’re already established in Washington State? Or establish the reputation of their new AVA without the powerful tool of identifying the wines’ place of origin on their labels?

I don’t have a lot of sympathy for the economic argument (made mostly by commenters from the Napa Valley) given that California is already so large, and with such different costs of production, that any negative damage would likely have already happened. Does Napa Valley’s economy suffer when a Paso Robles winery buys grapes and puts out a Napa Valley AVA wine? I don’t see it.3 And even if you did see it, given the size of California, that ship has sailed. 

The other objection, that state wine laws that try to ensure a higher quality product would be unenforceable out-of-state, doesn’t seem to me like an unsolvable problem. In fact, the Wine Institute proposed an elegant solution in their comment objecting to the proposed rule (their addition emphasized):

“(iv) In the case of American wine, it has been fully finished (except for cellar treatment pursuant to §4.22(c), and blending which does not result in an alteration of class and type under §4.22(b)) within the State the viticultural area is located in or an adjacent state, or for, a viticultural area located in two or more States, within one of the States in which the viticultural area is located, and it conforms to the laws and regulations governing the composition, method of manufacture, and designation of wines in all of the States where the viticultural area is located.

It seems to me like this solution gives something to everyone. Appellations like the Rocks District get to build their reputation by appearing on wine labels. Winemakers get the flexibility to source grapes from diverse regions and tell consumers where they come from, without having to build new wineries across state lines. Grape growers are able to benefit from the reputation of the region they help establish. States retain the ability to enforce regulations designed to enhance quality or distinctiveness. And consumers get more clarity on where the wines they love come from. Let's hope that the TTB revisits this issue soon, with a more tailored approach.

Meanwhile, go out and do a little research on which Walla Walla AVA wines actually come from the Rocks District, and try to find a bottle or three. You won’t be disappointed.

Delmas Bottle

Footnotes:

  1. How cold? This January 13th, the low was -8°F and the high just 4°F.
  2. That would be the Federal Register Title 27 Chapter I Subchapter A Part 4 Subpart C § 4.25(e)(3)(iv) for anyone keeping score.
  3. I would also note that I think this argument raises commerce clause objections about a state using regulation to protect its businesses from competition from competing businesses in other states.

Taking Paso Robles on the Road to Japan and South Korea

This past Wednesday at around 6:30pm, I got home, on the same day and at almost exactly the same time that I'd left Seoul roughly 17 hours earlier. This miracle of time travel (thank you, International Date Line) was just the final marvel in what was an amazing 10-day trip through three cities in Japan and South Korea in support of the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance and the California Wine Institute's Export Program, which promotes California's wines abroad. The specific program was their "California Alive" tour that brings the wines of California to Tokyo, Osaka, and Seoul. 

While the California Alive tour happens each February, the event features a different California wine region each year. This year, the featured region was Paso Robles, and so representatives from ten local wineries made the trek across the Pacific Ocean for the tastings (which were open to all California wineries and their importers) and for a dedicated Paso Robles seminar in each city, along with media, influencer, and consumer events that were organized for us by the Wine Institute around the three trade tastings. The events were spaced out enough that there was time in each city for us to work with our local importers and even do a little sightseeing. Given that this was my first trip to Asia, that was very much appreciated. Even better, my brother-in-law Mark Dunn flew up from Bangkok to help me pour and explore:

With Mark Dunn

The event began in Tokyo. Six of us got in at more or less the same time on Sunday evening, and our introduction to the local food was an informal but delicious dinner at a local place orchestrated by the Wine Institute's Hiro Tejima:

First night out with Paso Robles group in Tokyo
The next morning, I woke up early enough thanks to jetlag that I had a chance to explore the Imperial Palace grounds before my work responsibilities started:

JCH in front of Imperial Palace

My sightseeing itch scratched, I headed to the offices of of our Japanese importer Jeroboam for a staff training for their sales team and a lunch visit to a one of the restaurants that sells Tablas Creek in Tokyo, all before our first formal Wine Institute event: a tasting with local influencers at one of the Tokyo locations of the Weber Grill Academy:

Wines at Tokyo influencer event

Influncers at Weber Grill Tokyo

After the event, I hopped in a taxi to get to Cellar Door Aoyama, the Tokyo retailer and restaurant owned by Jeroboam, for what turned out to be an amazing dinner:

Cellar Door Aoyama dinner menu

The next day included the first of the big tastings, where I was assisted by Jeroboam's PR & Marketing Director Yoko Yamashita (foreground left):

With Yoko at Tokyo tasting

The next day, we hopped on a bullet train and headed to Osaka to repeat the program. Somehow, I didn't get many photos of the official events, just all the delicious food that we ate before and after (for that, you can check out my Instagram feed). Then, we headed to the Osaka airport and flew to Seoul. As in Tokyo, the first event was a media and influencers event in conjunction with a Weber Grill store. This is the full Paso Robles plus Wine Institute contingent who made the Korea leg of the trip:

Group outside Seoul Weber Grill event

The next day was Sunday and our first day off since we'd arrived, which meant a chance to see the city. The owner (Yongbin Choi) and our brand manager (Katie Kang) of our South Korea importer Shindong Wine gave us an amazing insider's tour of the city, from palaces to markets to an end-of-day visit to Seoul Tower for an amazing view overlooking the city: 

Jason and Mark with Yongbin and Katie

The Wine Institute tasting was outstanding again and included a terrific seminar where we got to dive into what makes Paso Robles unique:

JH speaking at Seoul seminar

Seoul seminar setup

Whites on ice in Seoul

That was the end of the official events, but I stuck around Seoul one more day to take the Shindong Wine team through the Tablas Creek story, visit one of the enormous and gorgeous department stores through which most of the wine in South Korea is sold, and host a lovely, intimate dinner at another Hyundai Department Store location:

Consumer dinner in Seoul

I came away from my visit with a new appreciation for the work that goes on behind the scenes in helping a region thrive. California wineries, whether they are members or not, all benefit from the tireless promotional work that the Wine Institute does. Looking at their 2024 calendar is eye-opening, with events in 14 countries this year as well as programs that bring sommeliers, retailers, media, and importers to California to experience our wine country as well as ongoing promotion to spread the word about what's going on here to the world. Similarly, the amount of work that the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance team put in to make this tour happen was enormous, and the fact that it went off without a hitch a testament to their planning. I love this photo, of the four people most responsible for the tour's success. Clockwise from left, Joel Peterson, PRWCA Executive Director, Chris Taranto, PRWCA Communications Director, Hiro Tejima, Wine Institute Joint Regional Director, North Asia and Australasia, and Madoka Ogiya, Wine Institute Joint Regional Director, North Asia and Australasia:

PRWCA & CWI brain trust

It's important to get out into the broader world in order to realize that while Paso Robles has made great strides in recognition domestically, when it come to international markets we're still just getting started. Very few of the knowledgeable and worldly guests I met on the trip had ever visited Paso Robles, and the majority didn't know where it was or what made it special. Now there are thousands more members of the wine trade in Japan and South Korea who've been exposed to Paso Robles, and you can feel it rippling out from there. I came away inspired by the potential of both markets and with a new appreciation for all the work that goes on behind the scenes in making this possible.

Thank you, Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance. Thank you, Wine Institute.


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.