Is it possible that we just released the first varietal Vaccarese bottling... ever?

Have I said recently how much I love my work? 

Vaccarese 2019 bottle against limestone wallThis week, we got to release our 2019 Vaccarese, the first bottling of our first vintage of this obscure Rhone red grape. I dove into its history in the blog Grapes of the Rhone Valley: Vaccarese last year, so I'm not going to rehash its full history here. If you'd like to refresh yourself on it, take a moment now. OK, welcome back.

But in getting from growing the grapes to making and bottling the wine to now, finally, getting to share it with our fans I've spent a fair amount of time looking for literature on Vaccarese. It barely exists. In her seminal and comprehensive Wine Grapes, Jancis Robinson dedicates barely three-quarters of a page to it (under its synonym Brun Argenté) and in the subheading calls it a "very minor southern Rhone variety". At just 12 hectares (about 30 acres) in France as of 2012, it's scarce. Most of that, Jancis reports, is in Chusclan, a minor appellation in the Gard, where it is known as Camarèse. (Yes, this grape is old enough that despite its scarcity now and as far as we can tell forever, it goes by three different names. Welcome to the challenges of being a grape ampelographer.) In Chusclan, it is generally blended with Grenache to make rosés. But its percentage is capped at 20%. So, you're not going to find a 100% Vaccarese from Chusclan.

How about Chateauneuf-du-Pape? Very unlikely. According to Harry Karis in his 2009 Chateauneuf-du-Pape Wine Book, there were 4.1 hectares (about 10 acres) in the entire appellation, representing just over one tenth of one percent of the 3,231 hectares planted. [Editor's note April 29th: It appears there may be one! See the comment below from Robert Parker Wine Advocate contributor Joe Czerwinski, reporting on a special cuvee from Chateau des Fines Roches called "Forget Me Not". The wine's page on the producer's website lists a blend of 90% Vaccarese and 10% Grenache. That's the closest we've yet found!]

For confirmation, I checked the Wine Searcher Pro, the industry-leading wine search engine, to see if any Vaccarese bottlings were listed. A global search returned just three results, one Cotes du Rhone for sale in Switzerland and two Chateauneuf-du-Papes, one for sale in Austria and another in Massachusetts. But in all three cases Vaccarese was the fourth or fifth variety in the blend. How rare does this make Vaccarese? Compare the limited results to a grape like Picpoul, which returns 2,720 listings. Grenache Blanc, rarely found on its own, returns 1,670 listings. Even Counoise returns 185 results. 

How about historically? It seems unlikely. Although the grape comes in for praise in Pierre Galet's 1990 ampelography Cépages et Vignobles de France, it's for its blending value. He quotes a winemaker who finds it "particularly interesting for moderating the alcoholic power of Grenache in the rosés of Chusclan and the red wines of Chateauneuf-du-Pape" (my translation). And while there was more acreage in 1990, according to Galet there were still just 40 hectares (100 acres). Going back to the Viala and Vermorel's 1901-1910 Ampélographie doesn't help. They don't have an entry for Vaccarese, instead listing it and a few alternate spellings in the index as "nonspecific names given to grape varieties in the Vaucluse". Brun Argenté is dismissed equally briefly in the index: "a grape variety from the Vaucluse, poorly described ampelographically" (both translations mine again). Camarèse doesn't even get an appearance in the index. So, it's pretty clear that at least for the last century Vaccarese has never been widely planted, or been a lead grape where it was.

So, where does that leave us? Forging our own way. And based on our experiences this week, where we've released the 2019 Vaccarese to our club members and been tasting the 2020 Vaccarese around the blending table, the grape has potential. My (brief) notes on the 2020 out of barrel were "Lovely dark color. Nose herby and savory. Mouth medium-weight, blackberry and chalk, rose hips and leather. Structured." It was good enough that we're going to use a portion of it in our 2020 Esprit de Tablas, in just its second year in production. That's rare for us. For more on that story, stay tuned for next week's blog, on this week's blending. But we'll still have enough to bottle perhaps 100 cases on its own, which I think is important for such a new grape. After all, we want help from other people wrapping their heads around this grape which is so new and so rare.

If any of you have ever had a 100% Vaccarese from anywhere, or even a Vaccarese-led wine, will you please let me know? We'd love to try it as a comparison. If not, and ours if your first, please let us know what you think!      

Vaccarese in row with sign

Have I said recently how much I love my work?


Virtual Wine Club Events are Awesome, and Everyone Should do Them

By Ian Consoli

This past weekend we completed our second virtual Wine Club pickup party at Tablas Creek, and I am fully convinced that everyone should be doing them. We have connected with hundreds of wine club members across the country, without leaving the vineyard and with minimal expenditures of time or money. The positive reviews from members keep pouring in, and, honestly, we’ve had a lot of fun doing these first two. So yes, we’ll continue to do these virtual events even when we feel comfortable hosting events at our tasting room. I think the rest of the wine industry should do the same.

Virtual Wine Club Event

We invite our wine club members out to the winery for club pickup parties twice a year in normal times. We close the tasting room to the public on a Sunday and cap out at ~450 members (four different time slots, 115 per session). We offer a glass of something seasonal on arrival. Jason gives a ~15-minute update on what we’ve been working on over the last six months, and then we invite members to find a pouring station where they get to try each of the wines in their wine club shipments. A chef (usually our friend Chef Jeff Scott) prepares two bite-size dishes, one each for the red wines and the white wines, for everyone to enjoy during the tasting. The events are a lot of fun, and we enjoy getting to see so many members in a single day.

Cue the summer of 2020. We skipped the Spring 2020 pickup party due to the Coronavirus. It was all we could do in April just to unite our members with their wines, given that nearly everyone was in a new situation and we were all working from home. But by summer, Wine Club Director Nicole Getty and I decided we wanted to do something for our members in the fall. With no template or examples that we could find, we put our heads together to come up with a virtual wine club pickup party based on our in-person events. We came up with this structure:

A virtual event hosted by General Manager Jason Haas and Winemaker Neil Collins. Members could either open one or more of the bottles they’d received or order an optional tasting half-bottle kit of our Esprit de Tablas and Esprit de Tablas Blanc. Recipes developed by Chef Jeff Scott and distributed by us to members in advance of the event for them to prepare at-home and enjoy along with the tasting. We would simulcast on our Facebook Live and YouTube channel so that members who didn’t have a Facebook account could still participate. During the broadcast, Jason and Neil started with an update on Tablas Creek, then tasted through each of the six wines with guest appearances from Chef Jeff to explain his recipes and why he paired them with each of the select wines. After confirming recipes and attendance from Chef Jeff, we were ready to go.

The turnout at the event in the Fall of 2020 was shockingly good. Not because I didn’t expect it to work, but because I had been producing live shows for months and typical viewership was in the 20-50 screen range. We were at 80 screens within 2 minutes and crested the century mark for most of the broadcast. I remember watching the number of live viewers climb and climb and thinking, here we go! By the end of the event, we had reached 1300 screens. Jason, Neil, and Jeff were incredible. The content of their conversation was informative, and their personalities were on full display. We estimated the broadcast would last an hour; it lasted two and just flew by. We heard Chef Jeff talk about food like Steve Jobs introducing the first iPhone. Sitting behind the dashboard was a true pleasure, and comments from the audience echoed that sentiment.

After that first success, we knew we were on to something. We analyzed the event’s benefits and think they mostly fall into three items: access, intimacy, and convenience.

  • Access. We offer multiple opportunities throughout the year to meet our owner, winemakers, and viticulturist through onsite events like the pickup party, horizontal tastings, vertical tastings, and our annual pig roast. In addition to these onsite activities, we participate in winemaker dinners around the country to provide that same access. Virtual events allow your fans unprecedented access to whoever you choose. In our case, that meant our proprietor, our winemaker, and the chef who made the recipes specifically for the wines our members were tasting.
  • Intimacy. Jason often jokes that more people have seen his living room in the last year than in the previous two decades. Virtual events offer a face-to-face experience for members. With a chat box in front of them, members can ask your owner and winemaker whatever questions they have, and they will get a response. Wondering why vine quarantines take so long? Just ask. That question you’ve been dying to ask the winemaker about his use of native fermentation? Here’s your chance. Been wondering what kind of truffle oil to use? Don’t know what truffle oil is? Ask the chef. And know that members will remember this intimacy.
  • Convenience. Don’t forget the importance of For all our effort in participating in festivals and dinners around the country, winery events generally require your fans to travel to be where you are. Wine club events even more so. We ship to 40 states, and we have members in every one of them. Even the majority of our California members don’t make it to Paso Robles annually. And the 450+ members who attend each of our pickup parties only represent about 5% of our membership. So, how do you maintain and build your connection to the vast majority of members who don’t visit? Based on these comments, it looks like we’ve found a solution:

Where are they from_

Fast forward six months, to our recent (April 16th) Spring VINsider Virtual Pickup Party. We learned a lot from our first experience, and while most things stayed the same, we realized we wanted a better solution to get wine samples to members who didn’t want to have to open the bottles they’d received. We had the half bottles of Esprit and Esprit Blanc on hand for our fall shipment, making it a relatively easy decision to package them, but even so, having only two of the six wines available as half-bottles wasn’t ideal. Given we don’t bottle any of the wines in the spring shipment in half-bottles, that wasn’t an option anyway. But we like the solution we came up with. We partnered with Master the World, a company founded by two master sommeliers dedicated to providing blind tasting kits for somms-in-training, to make 100 sample packs of all six wines in the Spring Classic wine club shipment. These came in 187ml bottles (quarter-bottles), and we were able to make them available to members, shipping-included for $99.

With the same format, new wines, and a new sample kit, we aired on Friday, April 16th. The results were even better than for the fall event.

Virtual Pickup Party Live Results

A lot is going on here; I’ll summarize my key observations. Between Youtube (YT) and Facebook (FB), our peak live viewership was 138 screens. I emphasize screens because we likely have multiple people on each screen. At just two people per screen, that’s 276 viewers, but I believe that number is conservative. While I focus on the live viewership numbers because it shows how engaging the content is, it’s important to note that our reach was a cumulative 1851 screens, or a low-end potential of 3700 sets of eyes on the broadcast (or 7400 individual eyes)! Total Live minutes viewed on FB was 5300. That means 88 hours of view time on our FB page. Total comments were 234, total reactions (likes, laughs, and loves) were 99. That’s a lot of members taking advantage of this intimate environment!

Between total attendees and their participation in the event, it’s easy to see that people were happy to be there.

But does it sell wine? The short answer is we’re sure it does, although it’s hard to measure. We did see a surge in online and phone orders around the event. Of course, the baseline level of orders is higher now than it was before the pandemic, but still, we know that some of the people who attended and were commenting on the live event placed orders in the next few days. It’s worth remembering that the principal goal of our member events has never been sales. These are club members who are buying every six months anyway. Our main objective has always been to reinforce their connection with us through these events. And we feel sure that we were successful in this goal. It’s also worth noting that if you’re comparing it directly to an in-person event that there are many fewer direct and indirect costs of putting on a virtual party. You don’t have to close your tasting room. You don’t have to prepare or serve food. And the demands on your staff are much less.

Conclusion

We’re excited to continue to host this kind of event in the future. We’re meeting our members where they are, we’re teaching them new recipes, and we’re giving them the opportunity to interact with the proprietor, winemaker, and chef.

We face new questions come October. It seems like we will be able to host an in-person pickup party for the first time since 2019. If we do, will the virtual version still see a large attendance? Will the sales of one cannibalize the sales of the other? Will members choose to go to both? We don’t have the answers to these questions right now, but we’ve seen enough value on several levels to give it a try. It sounds like members are excited about that; here is a selection of the comments we received at the end of the broadcast:

What did they say

Best Practices

I wanted to leave a few tips and tricks we’ve learned along the way for any of our winery friends who are thinking of doing events of their own. You can also contact me directly, as I’d love to share our methodology. ian@tablascreek.com.

  1. Start with an intro video: average viewership numbers start at four minutes. Pick a five-minute song or video to play while viewership populates.
  2. Pay an artist: pick a local band to get that intro song from and pay them for their work. The pandemic has struck artists pretty hard.
  3. Drink wine early and often: we’ve started the last two broadcasts with a 30-minute update before talking about wine. After feedback, we’ll be shifting that model to shorten the intro, start tasting earlier, and sprinkle the updates between the wines.
  4. Use streaming software: we use Be.live, but Streamyard is another excellent alternative. This allows us to stream on multiple platforms and build in visuals.
  5. Have a dedicated producer: let the people on-screen focus on what they’re doing and have someone selecting questions to show on-screen.
  6. Encourage questions: that’s what it’s all about! And be sure you are answering them.
  7. Two people on screen: it’s much more conversational and flows much better than one.
  8. Celebrity guests: adding that third or fourth person from time to time keeps interactions fresh and engaging.
  9. Prepare for things to go wrong: you are working with technology, something will always go wrong, stay on your toes for the whole broadcast and be prepared to troubleshoot.
  10. Have fun: your hosts are drinking wine on camera, guests are drinking wine at home, and the producer drinks wine behind the camera. It is a fun evening with plenty of memories to be made at the end of the day.


Prohibition's legacy and the marginalization of organic wine

Introduction
Prohibition may have ended nearly 90 years ago, but its legacies remain, often hidden, in the way that wine and other alcoholic beverages are marketed and sold in America. I've written about the unintended consequences of the 21st Amendment which repealed Prohibition and as a side effect carved out an exception to the Commerce Clause that has made every step forward in the fight for direct shipping a battle between actors in the winery, wholesale, and retail spheres. Another effect is that because there is an express prohibition in the federal standards from any statement that might "suggest a relationship between the consumption of alcohol, wine, or any substance found within the wine, and health benefits or effects on health" a winery can't talk in advertising or on their website about the studies that show links between red wine and heart health.

Understanding the NOP Standards
One consequence of Prohibition's legacy is in how wine is treated by the National Organic Program (NOP) standards. The organic labeling standards, as written for most products, contain four levels of organic purity. In descending order:

  • 100% Organic
    • All ingredients, processing aids, and facility must be certified organic
    • Can use the organic seal 
  • Organic
    • All agricultural ingredients must be certified organic, but up to 5% of non-organic, non-agricultural ingredients are allowed
    • Can use the organic seal
  • Made with Organic
    • At least 70% of ingredients must be certified organic
    • Must state the ingredients that are organic ("made with organic apples")
    • Cannot include USDA organic seal anywhere or represent finished product as organic
  • Specific Organic Ingredients
    • For use of organic ingredients in a non-organic product. Does not need to be certified.
    • Organic can only be used in ingredients list and not on front panel
    • Cannot use the organic seal or state organic anywhere other than the ingredients list.

How Wine Is Treated Differently: Cue Strom Thurmond
Wine is a pretty easy product to measure, as it's typically more than 99% grapes and winemaking additions (yeasts, nutrients for that yeast, acid, and an amount of sulfur measured in parts per million) are minor in volume. More natural-leaning wineries like us don't add yeast or nutrients at all. And yet, the organic regulations put a unique hurdle in front of wine: "Any use of added sulfites means that the wine is only eligible for the 'made with' labeling category and may not use the USDA organic seal." Because we add sulfites in the winemaking process, the highest tier that we can qualify for is the "Made with Organic" tier.

Pause for record scratch here. What?

Before I go further, I want to acknowledge that there are people with serious sulfite allergies and sensitivities. I have found various government estimates that between 0.2% and 1% of Americans have sulfite sensitivities to one degree or another. That's not an insignificant number, although most sensitivities are mild. The most serious sulfite allergies can cause asthma or even in rare cases anaphylaxis, although these reactions are extremely rare. It is in theory for those people that wines have to carry a "contains sulfites" declaration on their label. Whether this declaration (which has led a lot of people to attribute to sulfites unrelated symptoms such as the "red wine headache") is wise is the topic for another blog. In any case the presence of sulfites already has to be declared. But sulfites, in and of themselves, are not inorganic... except according to the NOP standards, when they're used in wine. 

Why turns out to be a legacy of prohibition. In an article for the Tribune Newspapers, Bill St. John recounts the influence of then-Senator Strom Thurmond, segregationist, teetotaler and avowed opponent of alcohol, whose "crowning achievement" was a warning label on alcohol whose purpose was "not to inform but to frighten". That is how the "contains sulfites" labeling requirement ended up in the regulations of the BATF (now TTB) rather than the FDA. There are many common food products that contain higher concentrations of sulfites than wine (including dried fruit, frozen potatoes, frozen shrimp and many condiments) but none of them are required to declare a warning like this. Only alcohol.

Why the Standards Haven't Evolved
According to Geoffrey Jones and Emily Grandjean's working paper for Harvard Business Review Creating the Market for Organic Wine: Sulfites, Certification, and Green Values, the standard we have today is a result of two things: the stigmatization of sulfites in alcohol, and economic protectionism. When a coalition of wineries and organic farming advocates got together in 2012 to propose adopting the same standards used in Europe and most of the rest of the world (a 100ppm cap on sulfites for organic wines, as opposed to the 350ppm cap for "conventional" wines) a handful of wineries making sulfite-free wines, most notably Frey Vineyards, pushed back. The NOP board sided with that group.

In the conclusion to his article Reds, Whites, and Sulfites: Examining Different Organic Wine Regulation Practices in the United States and the European Union in the Northwestern Journal of International Law & Business, author Ryan Puszka points out that the health difference between the American and world standards is negligible:

"For all ecologically and nearly all health concerned purposes, the penalized winemakers produce an identical product to certified wine producers from completely organic grapes. The logical foundation of the current NOP scheme and resulting disenfranchisement, then, is substantiated by flimsy health claims about extremely marginal cases that thinly veil an economic desire to narrow competition in the market."

So, there's a coalition of anti-alcohol interests, natural wine purists, and sulfite-free wineries who have banded together to make the "Organic Wine" status hard to achieve in the United States. Why should we care? Because having the standards written as they are means that organic wine is unlikely to ever be more than a niche product. And having organic wine no more than a niche product means that grapes -- which are one of the easiest crops to farm organically -- are going to be farmed organically a lot less widely than they should be. And that should concern us all.

To understand why, it's helpful to know what sulfites are doing in winemaking. After all, sulfur is a mineral, and a perfectly legal thing to put on an organic vineyard, used for its antimicrobial and antifungal properties. On vines, it's a common tool to keep mildew from spreading. In winemaking, it discourages the action of yeasts and other bacteria. Put in too much and your wine won't ferment. But in small amounts, it allows fermentation yeasts to proceed while inhibiting the action of vinegar-causing bacteria and other spoilage processes. It also absorbs oxygen, protecting a wine from oxidation as it ages in barrel or bottle.

Implications on the Reputation of Organic Wine
As you might expect from my list of sulfur's properties, many of the early organic-labeled sulfite-free wines were unstable and short-lived. The ones that were shelf-stable tended to have been highly fined and filtered and otherwise processed in a way that tended to make them unexciting. And those early impressions of organic wines have lingered in the marketplace. To this day, wineries like us dread being put on the "organic wine" shelf, because fine wine drinkers tend to avoid it, assuming it's aimed at people for whom the organic seal is more important than the wine quality.

The "made with organic grapes" option might seem like an equally good substitute, but it hasn't gotten much traction either. I'd speculate that this is for three reasons. First, there's that lingering doubt because of the many flawed or mediocre organic wines about whether organic grapes is actually a good thing. Second, the NOP clearly intends that the classification be a lesser one that implies that there are things in there that are not organic, and maybe not even grapes. Think "Pasta Sauce, made with Organic Tomatoes". The implication is clear that there are things in there that aren't organic, and aren't tomatoes. Third, you can't use the organic seal. As it was intended to be, the seal is the shorthand for certified organic. You can put extra words on your label, but there are always lots of words. The seal stands out.

Why We Should Care: Less Organically Farmed Land
If there's not a great reason to put yourself into the organic classification you're eligible for, wineries would be excused for not bothering to go through the work and expense of certifying themselves organic. And that's what's happened: according to Jones and Grandjean, in 2017 organic acreage represented only 2% of vineyard land in California, and had actually declined 10% since 2013.

To be sure, some of the prime grape acres have let their organic certification lapse but have adopted Biodynamic certification, which requires the same elimination of chemicals in the vineyard but allows a limited (under 100ppm) addition of sulfites in the winery. Biodynamics, which also incorporates elements of biodiversity and soil microbial health, has garnered a reputation as a farming method adopted by some of the world's greatest vineyards. Of course it also comes with elements that speak of cosmic energies and cycles of the moon, which tends to limit its audience a bit.

Many other vineyards are being farmed organically but not certified. I talk to vintners all the time who have chosen that path. And of course sustainability certification have proliferated. But I don't think that either of these are ideal outcomes. Someone who does not have to be audited for a certification is more likely to hedge, and it's difficult to know how many of these vineyards would actually be able to pass an organic certification. Verification matters. And as for sustainability certifications, they do a good job on breadth, asking wineries to look at things that neither organics nor Biodynamics addresses, like renewable energy, water use reduction, or wildlife passthroughs. But, by and large, sustainability certifications fall short on rigor. Most allow the use of Roundup and many chemical pesticides. You can make a legitimate critique that many are little more than greenwashing.  

In any case, it is a failure of the national organic standards that they have left air in the room for these other approaches to proliferate. Ryan Puszka's conclusion on this is scathing:

"Furthermore, the no-added sulfite NOP standards disincentivizes U.S. and European winemakers from attaining organic certification, as they may not deem the “made with organic grape” certification worthwhile in light of the high costs associated with certification. Moreover, this confusing system renders wine labels even more indecipherable than they already are, requiring customers to know the different international standards of “organic” and “made with organic . . . “. The net result is consumer confusion and economic inefficiency. All of these issues undermine the legitimacy of national organics programs."

What Comes Next
For us, the failures of the existing certifications are another reason we're excited to embrace Regenerative Organic Certification. There is a carve-out in the TTB's application of the NOP standards that a wine that farms their grapes organically, produces the wine in an organic-certified facility, and uses less than the international standard (100ppm) of sulfites can't use the NOP seal but can use the seal of their certifier. The good folks at CCOF have a useful document explaining the rules, which contains the below image:

CCOF Made with Organic Grapes

The Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC) logo will be treated similarly. Thankfully, ROC is following the international organic (and Biodynamic) standard and allowing ROC labeling on wines that are made from Regenerative Organic Certified grapes, produced in an organic certified facility, and use no more than 100ppm of sulfites.

So, while you won't see a USDA Organic seal on a bottle of Tablas Creek any time soon, we're hopeful that starting in 2021 you'll see the ROC logo on our bottles. And together we can help put one last legacy of Strom Thurmond to bed. 


Revisiting the 2001 Roussanne and the Beginning of the Tablas Creek Varietal Program

2001 Roussanne on Patio

The original model for Tablas Creek was that we were going to make one red wine and one white wine, with the thought that when the vineyard had matured, we might make a reserve-level white and red as well. We named our first wines Tablas Creek Blanc and Tablas Creek Rouge.

Within a few years, we'd come to the conclusion that this simple model was a mistake, for two reasons. First, it didn't give the market much help in figuring out what the wines were. Sure, the Rouge was red. And the Blanc was white. But other than providing elementary French lessons, that didn't help a consumer trying to figure out what was in those wines, or what they would taste like. In an era where blends from California didn't yet have a category on most shelves or wine lists, that was two strikes against us at the start. Second, and more importantly, having just one red and one white didn't give us any flexibility in putting the wines together. If using everything threw off the balance between the varietals, or a lot didn't have the character we wanted, our only option was to sell off those lots. That's a painful choice to make, and although we did it from time to time, usually the blends ended up containing something close to the full production of that color from that year.

Things started to change for us in 1999. We made the decision during the blending of that vintage to pull out a couple of Grenache lots that were juicy but also quite alcoholic and tannic from our main blend, blended them with a little Syrah and Mourvedre, and called the wine "Petite Cuvée". That allowed us to shift our main red blend to be heavier on Mourvedre and feature a richer, lusher profile. We called that "Reserve Cuvée".

The next year, we added a third blend from three remarkable barrels, called it Panoplie, and renamed the two blends we'd made the year before. Petite Cuvée became Cotes de Tablas, referencing the usually Grenache-based wines of Cotes du Rhone, while the Reserve Cuvée became Esprit de Beaucastel, connecting its Mourvedre-driven profile with that of Beaucastel and making our connection with our partners more explicit. And with the 2001 vintage, we applied that same model to the whites, making our first vintage of Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc. We were able to be selective with the Esprit tier, make better wines than before, and get recognition for that from press and collectors. We were able to sell the Cotes tier at a price that restaurants could pour by the glass, and get exposure to new customers. As I wrote last year in my reflections on our 30th anniversary, these changes were a big part of helping us get ourselves established in the marketplace. But as anyone who has counted the 25+ wines that we now make each year will realize, that's not the end of the story.

It turned out that each year there were some lots that were so evocative of an individual grape that it seemed a shame to blend that character away. The first time we acted on this nagging feeling was 2001, when my dad identified two Roussanne barrels while tasting through the cellar in advance of that year's blending. He made the executive decision that we should bottle them alone and we'd be able to figure out how to sell them. It was, after all, only 50 cases. And it turned out that with the opening of our tasting room in 2002, it was valuable having something that was not available in distribution for the people who made the trek out to see us, and even more valuable having a varietal bottling of this grape that was still new to most of our visitors, so they could start to wrap their heads around it. The label has my dad's typically dense, complete description of the selection process on its back:

TCV_2001_Roussanne_RGB_Full
And the wine itself has always been compelling. I have a vivid memory of a dinner I hosted in 2004 or 2005 where, when this 2001 Roussanne was opened on the other side of the room, the whole gathering stopped what they were doing and looked over because the room had filled with the aroma of honeysuckle. But it had been years since I opened one, and so I pulled a bottle out of our library yesterday to check in, and invited our winemaking team to join me. It was amazing.

2001 Roussanne on Limestone Rock

My tasting notes from yesterday:

A lovely gold color in the glass, still tinged with Roussanne's typical hint of green. The nose shows sugar cookies and lemon curd, warm honeycomb and cinnamon stick. On the palate, dense and lush with flavors of spun sugar and candied ginger. Someone around the table called it "liquid flan". And as sweet as all those descriptors make it sound, it was dry, with just enough acid to keep it fresh without taking away from the wine's lushness. The finish had notes of graham cracker, dried straw, and vanilla custard. Neil called it "an exceptional moment for an exceptional bottle".

With this wine as the starting point, we added new varietals most vintages in the 2000's, each time when we found lots that evoked the grape particularly vividly. Syrah, Counoise, Tannat, Grenache Blanc, and Vermentino debuted in 2002. Mourvedre, Viognier, and Picpoul saw their first vintages in 2003. Grenache came on in 2006, and Marsanne completed the list of our original imports in 2010. Once we started getting the obscure Chateauneuf du Pape grapes out of quarantine and into production in the 2010s, those made their debuts as varietal bottlings: Clairette Blanche and Terret Noir in 2013, Picardan in 2016, and Bourboulenc, Vaccarese, and Cinsaut in 2019. These wines have proven to be fascinating for us, and great tools to share the potential and diversity of the Rhone pantheon with our wine club members and other visitors to the winery.

But it all started here, in 2001, with two barrels of Roussanne. To know that two decades later that first-ever Tablas Creek varietal wine is not just still alive but a shining testament to the potential of this grape in this place is pretty darn cool.


The Esprit de Tablas Blanc is having a moment

I know, you're supposed to love all your children equally. But it's an open secret to the people I work with that year in and year out, my favorite wine that we make is our Esprit de Tablas Blanc. That's not an indictment of any of our other wines. And it's not even that I open more bottles of Esprit Blanc than I do anything else (that honor goes this year to our Vermentino). But I feel like the Esprit Blanc is a wine that year after year we can stand up against the best examples of rich, textured whites made anywhere in the world, from any number of different grapes, and have it shine.

Esprit Blanc bottles

So, it's pretty cool that in this end-of-year holiday season the Esprit Blanc (both 2017 and 2018 vintages) has been getting some serious love from writers. I don't usually write much about the press we receive here on the blog, but I thought it was worth highlighting some of the honors it's received in the last few weeks. Roughly in the order in which they were released:

2017 Esprit Blanc in Wine Enthusiast's "Top 100 Cellar Selections of 2020"
There is a visceral assumption in America that white wines (or at least dry white wines) should be drunk young. This may be true for many white grapes, but there is a long list of exceptions. Still, Wine Enthusiast deserves serious kudos for including so many whites in this year's Top 100 Cellar Selections list: 20 dry whites in all, not counting five sparkling wines and two sweet whites. Those selections are drawn from grapes you would expect (Riesling, Semillon, and Chardonnay, from multiple regions) as well as those you might not (Gruner-Veltliner, Albarino, and Garagnega). And it's great to see the 2017 Esprit de Tablas Blanc bringing Roussanne and Rhone-style to that party. This summer, we opened and tasted every vintage of our Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc and Esprit de Tablas Blanc for our annual summer vertical tasting, and the longevity of the wines really stood out. In my notes from the tasting, I shared that the list of favorites spanned nearly two decades:

I asked everyone around the table to pick four favorites, and the wines that got multiple votes were 2001 (3), 2006 (3), 2009 (3), 2013 (2), and 2017 (5). But there were wonderful vintages that didn't get "favorite" votes too. The wines do change and evolve, and you should do your best to explore if you prefer your Esprit Blancs older, younger, or somewhere in the middle. But across the board, we thought that they were great showcases for the texture, richness, structure, spice and minerality we think this property imbues in our white wines.

Rhone-style whites can age well, as a rule, but do so a little differently than many of the whites that are famously ageworthy. Grapes like Riesling or Chablis-style Chardonnay age based on their acidity, with texture playing a secondary role. Rhone whites, particularly Roussanne, age based on their texture, with acidity almost irrelevant. The 2017 Esprit Blanc is intensely Roussanne in character, with density, structure, and texture galore, and flavors of honey and mineral that we expect to deepen into caramel and nuts over time.

2018 Esprit Blanc in Wine & Spirits "Top 100 Wines of 2020"
Wine & Spirits Magazine does their Top 100 a little differently than most. In addition to a list of wines, they publish a list of Top 100 Wineries. We were proud to be a part of this year's list. And in their list of wines (which I can't find online anywhere, though there's a link to the issue in which it appears) they don't rank them. Instead, they choose the best wines from various categories throughout the year. That ensures that instead of a list with a dozen Napa Cabernets, or white Burgundies, or German Rieslings represented, a broad range of types of wines and regions of origin is represented.

We were excited to see one of our wines make the list for the second year in a row. Last year it was the 2016 Esprit de Tablas. This year, it was the 2018 Esprit de Tablas Blanc honored as "Best California White Blend". As I find generally true of Wine & Spirits' reviews, Patrick Comiskey's tasting note is almost lyrical:

Tablas Creek's top white has been roussanne-dominant for several vintages now, and they've learned how to capture the variety's elegant fleshiness without letting it get blowsy, propping it up with higher-acid whites, like grenache blanc, picpoul, clairette, and picardan. This wine smells of apple pulp and honey at first go, giving up little but seductive texture. On the second day open, the wine becomes grand, the weight of roussanne comfortable and powerful, with a lemony, crisp apple contour.

94-95 point Reviews for 2018 Esprit Blanc from Vinous, BevX, Owen Bargreen, and Blue Lifestyle
Sometimes a wine will really resonate with one reviewer, but not so much with others. It's been noteworthy to see the consistency of the reviews that the 2018 Esprit Blanc has gotten. The 93 from Wine & Spirits Magazine (a famously conservative grader) was good enough to get it into their Top 100 wines of the year, and the other recent scores the wine has gotten have been a point or two higher. Each reviewer pulls something different out of the wine, but the consistent mid-90s scores that the wine has received the last couple of vintages feels like a small but significant step up from what we've seen before. I won't bother repeating the different notes, but if you're curious, they're all linked from the 2018 Esprit Blanc's page on our website.

2017 Esprit Blanc in Bloomberg's "Top 10 Wines of 2020"
Top 100 is great. But top 10? That's new territory for us, for any of our wines. So when we saw that the 2017 Esprit Blanc had made Elin McCoy's Top 10 Wines of 2020 list for Bloomberg, alongside icons like Krug and Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, we were floored. Even better, her description of the wine and of Tablas Creek encapsulates maybe better than any other short profile we've gotten what we're all about:

This showstopping California blend of five white Rhône varieties from Paso Robles is a vivid reminder that you don’t have to compromise on quality to support wineries consciously working to make the world a better place. The stunning Esprit de Tablas white has salty minerality; zesty acidity; rich, complex flavors; and serious aging potential—a grand wine for a reasonable price. Tablas Creek became the world’s first Regenerative Organic Certified winery this year, embracing a new comprehensive program that includes social responsibility for its workers.

A "grand wine for a reasonable price"? That's an epitaph any wine would want on its Hall of Fame plaque. And from my perspective, it couldn't happen for a more deserving wine we make, or at a better time.

Cheers, everyone.


Mourvedre: Sidelined by Phylloxera No More

One of the silver linings of the last nine months unable to travel has been the chance to spend time virtually with some of California winemakers whose work I find inspiring. One of these is Bedrock Wine Company's Morgan Twain-Peterson. He and I were paired up in the finale of the California Wine Institute's "Behind the Wine" series. We got a chance to talk about heritage clones and the work he's doing as a part of the California Historic Vineyard Society, which has interesting parallels to the work we've been doing bringing in the complete collection of Rhone varieties. It turns out that in mapping the pre-phylloxera vineyards he's working with, he's uncovering genetic diversity that has amazed even him. The vineyards are, as you would probably expect, mostly Zinfandel, but (as I learned in the lead-up to our session) include plenty of Rhone varieties like Mataro (the old name for Mourvedre), Grenache, and Carignane. He found one vineyard with three Vaccarese vines, and another with one Clairette Blanche. That's amazing.

Ampelography Cover PageWeek before last, Morgan sent me a link as a follow up to our conversation about Mourvedre/Mataro. It was a link to a copy of the 1884 Ampelography by Charles A Wetmore, archived via Google and the University of California. Wetmore was at that time the Chief Executive Viticultural Officer of California's wine's first governing body: the Board of State Viticultural Commissioners.

Inside, Wetmore takes the major grape varieties that had at that point made their way to California and evaluates each for its success and potential in the state. One of the grapes that he was most excited about was Mataro. [A quick aside; even then there was confusion about its name, with Wetmore noting that it was "called generally Mourvedre" along the Mediterranean coast of France, but Mataro "along the Spanish coast" with both names in widespread use.] He begins: "Although this is not as extensively cultivated now as other varieties for red wine, yet its present popularity demands for it a place next to the Zinfandel; indeed, I believe that for the future it will have a wider range of usefulness."

He continues with (for me) the piece's most interesting assertion: "All the great French authorities agree in placing the Mataro as the finest red wine grape of the southern regions." This is a good reminder that before phylloxera, Mourvedre was the dominant Rhone grape, not Grenache. After some comments on its ripening, he says "The apparent defect of this grape is the roughness of the new wine; but this is the defect of most noble varieties. Like the Cabernet-Sauvignon of Bordeaux, it requires age to develop its quality."

He goes on: "The chief merits of Mataro are, viz: The vine bears well and resists early fall rains; the fruit contains an abundance of tannin; the wine is wholesome, easily fermented and contributes its fermenting and keeping qualities to others with which it is combined." That is an amazingly pithy summation of why so many Rhone (and Rhone Rangers) producers work with Mourvedre, even if it's not a lead grape for them: the tannic structure and resistance to oxidation that Mourvedre brings to a blend even in small quantities.

After quoting some French authorities, he concludes "I believe there are few red wine vineyards in California, whether for dry or sweet wine, wherein the introduction of a proportion of Mataro, varying from ten to seventy-five per cent, will not be a positive gain." So, if both French and California authorities were so bullish on Mourvedre's potential, what happened to it? Why did it become a relatively trace variety, which in 2000 represented some 7,600 hectares in France, less than one-tenth of Grenache's 95,000 hectare total, while also languishing in California and representing just 605 acres in 2000, barely more than one tenth of one percent of total wine grape acreage? There are doubtless many reasons, but I think it's fair to put a significant portion of the blame on the root parasite phylloxera.

It is significant that Wetmore's work was published in 1884. That date comes during the phylloxera outbreak in Europe, and just before phylloxera devastated vineyards in California and forced widespread replanting onto grafted vines. Mourvedre didn't graft easily onto the rootstocks of the period, so was largely lost. The exceptions were the regions (like Contra Costa here in California, and Bandol on the Mediterranean coast) where the sand content of the soil was high enough to resist phylloxera, and vines could be planted on their own roots. It's from Bandol that Jacques Perrin got the Mourvedre clones that won Beaucastel renown.

1892 French  EnqueteThis time capsule of a document is a great reminder of what a setback that era was and how many of the planting trends we accept as normal and historical are in fact a reaction to what was fashionable (and possible) in its aftermath. Case in point: the widespread pan-Mediterranean rise of Grenache. While digging in the online French viticultural archives, I found this remarkable quote from this book from 1892, whose title roughly translates as "Investigation of the Reconstitution of the Vineyards in France and on American Vines" (pictured right) speaking about the region of the Var, which is now largely planted to Grenache. My translation of the relevant section is below. Riparia is the scientific name for the first of the American-sourced rootstocks that became necessary in the post-phylloxera era:

"The dominant plant is Alicante-Bouschet grafted on Riparia. We still notice Clairette, Ugni Blanc, Chasselas, Calmeite Noir, and Mourvèdre also grafted onto Riparia; while all the plantations made up of the first grape varieties indicated are vigorous, those made up of Mourvèdre are much less so, and seem to suffer. The owners of Saint-Cyr especially believe that this last grape takes [grafts] with difficulty."

Mourvedre isn't an easy grape even without its grafting issues. It ripens late, typically three weeks after Grenache. It is less vigorous and productive than grapes like Grenache, Cinsaut, and Carignane. And in the very late 19th and early 20th centuries, when neither California nor the south of France were commanding high prices for their wines, it's easy for me to imagine the decision making process of growers wondering what to replant after having to pull out thousands of dead vine trunks. That grape that ripens late and might not take successfully to this still-new grafting process? Or something easy and vigorous like Grenache. Yeah. Easy choice. If they worried about quality or color, it would be easy enough to figure they could solve that problem later. But getting something that would grow successfully had to be priority number one. A few decades of decisions like that and it's easy to understand how Mourvedre could become scarce.

That cautionary tale also highlights Jacques Perrin's bravery (and wisdom) in searching out the traditional grapes of Chateauneuf-du-Pape in the decades after World War II. Grafting technology was better. Viticulturists in France had a half a century of experience cross-breeding rootstocks and better understood which crosses worked well for which soils, which climates, and (critically) which grapes. Jacques' experimental vineyards are still there, including this great hand-lettered sign.

Old Mourvedre sign at Beaucastel Square
The success Beaucastel has had with Mourvedre and other even-rarer Rhone grapes is a major inspiration for our push to bring in and plant the historical grapes of the Rhone. There are, after all, lots of reasons that grapes can have become unfashionable that has nothing to do with the quality of wine they might make here and now. Take Picardan for example. It proved to be prone to powdery mildew -- a scourge of French vineyards in the mid-19th Century -- and was already in steep decline when phylloxera hit a few decades later. It would likely have gone extinct but for Jacques' efforts. But here, with mildew hardly ever a problem and a warming climate making higher-acid grapes more appealing, it's been terrific. And there are likely more discoveries like this to be made. 

Success stories like these are one more reason to admire and support the work that Morgan and the other founders of the California Historic Vineyard Society (including Turley's Tegan Passalacqua, Ridge's David Gates, and Carlisle's Mike Officer) are doing to map and DNA-test California's heritage vineyards, and to work with UC Davis's Foundation Plant Services to then clean up, archive, and reproduce these varieties so other grapegrowers can plant them. They've already shown that these old vineyards contain amazing diversity, with grapes there that appear to be unique in the world -- likely rare European varieties that have since gone extinct in their homelands. Which of these might be the next Picardan... or Mourvedre is an exciting question to consider.

Mourvedre, if you're curious, may be starting to recover both here and in France. From those 7,600 hectares in France in 2000, as of 2016 it was up to 8,754, an increase of about 15%. In California, its acreage has climbed as of 2019 to 1,166 acres, growth of 93% since 2000. There's hope yet. 

Meanwhile, if you're looking for a time capsule into that nearly-lost world of pre-phylloxera, pre-Prohibition California viticulture, check out the Ampelography. It's a treat.


Creating a Wine Tasting Show: The Story behind Chelsea and the Shepherd

By Ian Consoli

If you follow only our blog and not our other social media channels, it’s possible that you don’t yet know Chelsea and the Shepherd. Or at least, you might know Chelsea, or the Shepherd, but not Chelsea and the Shepherd. If that’s the case, please allow me to introduce you. Blog readers, meet our YouTube series in which our Senior Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi and our Shepherd Nathan Stuart walk you through the wines in Tablas Creek Vineyard’s most recently released VINsider wine club shipment. YouTube series, meet our readers.

For many, the series has become a favorite. Some gravitate toward Chelsea’s incisive observations (and next level vocabulary). Others identify with Nathan, as he brings the wine tasting process down to Earth.

As we prepare for the release of Chelsea and the Shepherd Season 2 I thought it would be fun to share how it came to be created. It’s a story that begins with two guys with just enough time on their hands to be creative and a desire to make the wine tasting process less intimidating and more fun.

Chelsea and Nathan Main Thumbnail

Shepherd Nathan Stuart came to Tablas Creek with an eclectic resume and a remarkable collection of talents. Shepherd. Cellar hand. Trained vineyard guy. Cameraman. Drone operator. Video editor. In early 2019, when I moved into my marketing role here at Tablas Creek, he had already produced two amazing videos sharing Tablas Creek’s story: the Esprit de Tablas Story and the People behind Patelin de Tablas. We were fortunate enough to share an office. Day one Nathan looks at me with an eager smile under an impressively giant mustache and says, “Oh we’re doing marketing together now? This is going to be fun.”

Fun it certainly has been. To his technical talent Nathan adds a creative mind, openness to discussion, and an inability to turn off his imagination. He also, it turns out, is just as good in front of the camera as he is behind it. The net result? I’ve been living in a think tank for most of the last two years.

Fast forward to a vertical tasting of Panoplie in July of 2019. I sat in awe as I first got to bear witness to Senior Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi’s descriptors and vocabulary. After scurrying back to the think tank and mentioning it to Nathan, the idea of capturing her ability to paint pictures with her words was born.

Fast forward again, to November 2019, just after a harvest in which I see the value of Nathan’s periodic forays into cellar life, how he makes the rest of the team laugh, how his ability to work hard but not seriously makes the whole team better, and it clicks, “a wine tasting show with a winemaker and the shepherd!” Chelsea absolutely loves the idea. The valve on the think tank opens up, the ideas pour out like some freshly fermented Grenache, and Chelsea and the Shepherd is born.

Our challenge: even in a non-Covid year, we ask a lot of our members if they want to learn about the wines we send to them. We host a pickup party each spring and fall, and it’s a testament to their dedication that so many of them make the trip each time, but still, it’s an experience that the 90+% of our members who don’t join us can’t share. How to bring this experience to members, wherever they live? Technology! Our idea: A YouTube video to walk wine club members through their newest six-bottle shipment. Give great information, but don’t assume too much knowledge. We know that people can join us at any point in their wine journey, so it’s essential that we be approachable for newcomers. By combining Chelsea’s wine knowledge and vocabulary with Nathan’s everyman relatability, it seemed like we had a good balance.

The first take: February, 2020. Nathan prepares his camera for a six-wine, single-day shoot. Un-planned, un-rehearsed, they sit down for a full 8-hour workday, a testament to Nathan’s boundless energy and Chelsea’s patience and inherent parenting skills. They piece together what will ultimately become the first episode of Chelsea and the Shepherd. For Nathan, that 8-hour film day is just the beginning as he takes many more to turn those hours of footage into a five-minute video.

Covid’s impact: The original launch date of the Chelsea and the Shepherd video was March 24th 2020. We’d prepared a couple of teaser videos that we pushed back because mid-March felt so scary. But as we settled into a “new normal” of lockdowns, social distancing, and stay-at-home orders we began to recognize that this video was a potentially powerful way for us to connect our fans and our wines with the tasting room closed. Turning it into a series seemed only appropriate. Nathan utilized the extra footage, compiled individual videos for each wine, and our YouTube video became a YouTube series.

Had Covid-19 not hit, it’s hard to know whether or not we would have felt compelled to turn it into a full series. We’re glad we did, and plan to continue to release new seasons with every wine club shipment, giving you insights that, in the past, were only available if you visited.

And now: Enjoy Season Two, Episode One of Chelsea and the Shepherd on our YouTube Channel! While you’re there, consider subscribing and following along.

So did we reach our goal of appealing to all of our audiences? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.


Syrah's Wild Ride in California, from Darling to Pariah... and Back

1971 California Grape Acreage Report CoverOne of the most interesting publicly-available resources on wine trends is the California Grape Acreage Report, prepared and released annually by the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service California Field Office. In it, you can find a complete data set by grape and by county going back to 1971 with what grapes were in production or newly planted, and where. It's really an amazing collection, and I've used it to write some of my favorite blogs, including all of the Grapes of the Rhone Valley series and maybe my favorite blog ever, A Tale of Two Grenaches, which uses this information to show how Grenache can be reaching new highs in quality and visibility even as overall Grenache acres have declined to a level one-fifth of what they were at their peak in 1974. (Here's what happened: about 2,000 acres of new high quality Grenache plantings went into coastal and mountain AVAs at the same time as roughy 18,000 of the 20,000 acres of bulk Grenache, no longer needed for jug wines, have been pulled out of the Central Valley.)

Syrah's story is similar, in that there are multiple trends going on at the same time, each affecting the grape's narrative. Let's take a look first at, overall, what's happened to Syrah since 1970. Essentially, there have been five eras.

1970-1988: Planting the First Few Seeds

Despite growing interest in the wines of the Rhone Valley, there really wasn't much going on with Syrah planting in California. From a base of four pre-1970 acres in the initial acreage report, there were some years where no Syrah was planted, others where a little was planted: an average of about 10 acres a year. The 24 acres planted in 1975 was the first significant addition to the state's total, planted by Gary Eberle at Estrella River Winery. This is the source of the famous Estrella Clone of Syrah, purportedly from Chapoutier cuttings, whose descendants populate most of the state's Syrah vineyards today. But by 1988 there were still just 167 acres of Syrah in total.

1989-1994: The Wave Builds

WineSpectatorRhoneRangerCoverIn the April 15th, 1989 issue of the Wine Spectator, Bonny Doon's Randall Grahm posed in Lone Ranger gear next to a horse to accompany a cover article on "The Rhone Ranger," and a category title was born. That year, California vineyard owners planted 72 acres of Syrah, more than double the largest previous yearly total. In 1990 that total jumped to 278, more than doubling the state's total to date. And the grape was off. The next five years saw an average of 213 acres of Syrah per year planted, bringing the state's total to 1308 by 1994. That put it on the map, but it was still a tiny percentage, 30th in that year's acreage report, its total eclipsed by grapes including Burger, French Colombard, Carnelian, and Alicante Bouschet. But this was the era in which Rhone wines started to get the press's attention. And it was the era where the importation of new clones (first, but not only, by us) began to open up options for the state's winemakers.

1995-2002: Explosion

Fast forward just eight years from 1994 and Syrah leapt from 30th in the state's plantings to 7th, trailing only the "big 5" grapes of Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, and Zinfandel, plus the declining but still plentiful French Colombard. Plantings averaged 2,210 acres per year, peaking at 3,515 acres in 1997. It went in everywhere, with 100+ acres in 19 different California counties. Eight counties had more than a thousand acres. Those counties could be found all over the state, and included Sonoma, all three Central Coast counties (Monterey, San Luis Obispo, and Santa Barbara), and four Central Valley counties (Fresno, Sacramento, San Joaquin, and Madera). Napa and Mendocino just missed, with 995 and 674 acres respectively. What do those counties have in common? Not much, other than that grapes are grown in all of them. And that, plus the sheer math of the number of grapes hitting the marketplace, sowed the seeds for a problem.

2003-2013: Recognition Comes, but Not Mass Market Sales

Unlike the earlier periods, it's hard to put firm dates on the beginning and end of this category, and some aspects of it remain in play today. But this period saw Syrah gain a reputation for being very hard to sell at the same time as the category got unprecedented praise from wine writers and saw the rise of the "cult" Rhone producer, many located in Paso Robles.

I feel like this era of recognition started with Robert Parker's first article on "California's Rhone Rangers", in February of 2002. In his introduction, he writes:

The noble Syrah grape has done so well so quickly in California that it is surely going to find a permanent place among California wine lovers. Remarkably adaptable, it has shown positive results in the cool hillside climates of the Sonoma Coast, the western hillsides of Paso Robles, and in exceptionally hot areas such as the valley floors of Napa, Sonoma, and Paso Robles. In both Santa Barbara and even the cooler satellite district of Santa Ynez, it has also done exceptionally well provided crop levels are modest. Syrah is capable of producing anything from a Beaujolais-like, bubble gum, fruity style of wine with light tannin, low acidity, and obvious pleasure and appeal, to more formidably concentrated, massive wines with high tannin, great intensity, and potential longevity.

Stories followed in other publications. The Wine Spectator began doing an annual review of California Rhones. More producers, and better wines, meant more high scores. Through the 2000 vintage, the Wine Spectator had given 143 California Syrahs 90+ ratings, and only one (the amazing 2000 Alban Pandora) hit 95 points. In the next decade, 1064 California Syrahs got 90+ ratings, and 69 were 95 or higher. A number of Rhone specialist wineries, most notably Alban, Saxum, and Sine Qua Non, used this recognition to build allocation-only mailing lists with long waiting lists, and dozens of other wineries, many of them our neighbors, followed the style and business model. 

But the sheer volumes of Syrah were never all going to be absorbed by a few (or even a few dozen) cult winemakers and their mailing lists. And by 2003, there was 2,360% more acreage in production than there had been a decade earlier. That increase was even more staggering in volume. In 1993 there were 1,905 tons of Syrah harvested in California. That's enough to produce about 120,000 cases of wine. In 2003, that total had grown to 110,249 tons, an increase of 5,687%. That tonnage, if all vinified into varietal bottlings, would produce nearly seven million cases of wine.

Did you notice something else interesting about that math? The tonnage grew faster than the acreage. In 1993, figuring that vineyards planted in 1991 and earlier would be in production, those 708 acres averaged 2.69 tons of fruit per acre. In 2003, and again figuring that any acreage planted 2001 or earlier would be producing, growers harvested an average of 6.60 tons of Syrah off of 16,694 acres.  

And Syrah's reputation took a hit. Inventories built up. Steve Heimoff, the Wine Enthusiast's California specialist at the time, asked What's the Problem with Syrah in 2009, where he reported hearing that selling it in the wholesale market was "like trench warfare". James Laube published a Wine Spectator article Why Isn't Syrah More Popular in 2010. Eric Asimov wrote that same year in the New York Times Is there still hope for Syrah? with the opening line: "There's a joke going around West Coast wine circles: What’s the difference between a case of syrah and a case of pneumonia? You can get rid of the pneumonia." The Rhone Rangers, doing their best to make lemons out of lemonade, turned the punch line into benefit tastings for global pneumonia prevention in New York and San Francisco, called Pneumonia's Last Syrah.

So, what caused this glut? There wasn't much new Syrah planting in this era, averaging just 250 cases per year statewide. And because some vineyards started to be pulled out or grafted over, there were only about 1,000 more Syrah acres in California vineyards in 2013 than there were a decade before. Sure, there were the challenges that Syrah is a flexible, adaptable grape and tastes different depending on where it's grown and the winemaker's preference. The entry into the American marketplace in this era of lots of cheap Australian Shiraz probably didn't help. And because it was so widely planted, it didn't have a signature region whose name was synonymous with the grape the way that Napa is with Cabernet. But those explanations all feel incomplete to me, not least because you can make many of the same critiques about a range of other successful grapes.

No, I think it came down to a simple question of math. There was so much more wine in a decade that the American Syrah market would have to have grown 50% per year, every year, compounded, to absorb all the extra production. Not even the dry rosé market, the success story of the last decade, has done that. The grape also suffered a little bad luck, in that right as Syrah seemed poised to take off in the fall of 2004, the movie Sideways came out, launching Pinot Noir sales into the stratosphere. Merlot is often mentioned as the main casualty of Pinot Noir's rise, but I think Syrah was equally a victim, as Pinot sucked all the promotional air out of the room.

The net result was that although Syrah sales rose rapidly through the 2000's, they had an impossible task to keep up with production, and inventory built up. How impossible a task? Look at the exponential math. If Syrah sales had grown by 30% per year, compounded over a decade, they would have ended up just under fourteen times what they were at the beginning of that decade. That would have absorbed just one quarter of the growth in production coming from all those new Syrah acres. Plus, it's not like there was this massive global production of Syrah that this American production could displace or be absorbed into. In 1990, there were only about 80,000 acres of Syrah worldwide, compared to 700,000 acres of Grenache, 300,000 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, or 380,000 acres of Merlot. The increases in Syrah were always going to be harder to find homes for. Really, it was never going to be possible.

California Syrah plantings and acreage by year 1970-2019

2014-2019: An Under-the-Radar Renaissance

The last half-decade or so has seen California acreage of Syrah decline by about 20%, as growers who planted it in the Syrah wave move on to the next popular grape. But Syrah is still being planted. Over the last six years, California has averaged 716 acres of Syrah pulled out, and just under 100 new acres planted, per year. As of 2019, there are 15,458 acres of Syrah in the state. Last year, those acres produced 82,846 tons of fruit. That's 5.36 tons per acre, a meaningful decline of about 20% from that 6.60 tons/acre at the tail end of the planting boom.

What is happening now is complex, and still evolving, but it appears to me that the Syrah is coming out of places it probably shouldn't be anyway. There are about 1,300 fewer acres of Syrah in the Central Valley than there were in 2013. That's almost all low quality, high production acreage. And while this evidence is mostly anecdotal, in coastal and mountain appellations, it has mostly been pulled out of the vineyards of generalists rather than Rhone specialists. The producers that we speak to who are growing their own Syrah for their own programs aren't pulling vines out. It's vineyards that are producing grapes for the open market. Are there some negative implications for less inexpensive Syrah up for grabs in the state? Sure. But I think the positives outweigh them.

I also think that the state of California Syrah has never been stronger. And who doesn't love a good comeback story? Eric Asimov wrote about A New Chapter for California Syrah last year. Matt Kettmann, who has taken over reviewing the wines of the Central Coast for Wine Enthusiast in recent years, has been at the forefront, not least because he tastes so many great Syrahs. I'll let him have the last word, from a podcast interview he recorded in 2018, which more or less mirrors my own thoughts.

The one thing I will say, though, is that Syrah, and especially cool climate Syrah is kind of a favorite wine for many winemakers, for many sommeliers, for many wine professionals. People can’t get enough of it. So as the American wine customer gets more and more educated over the years, I wouldn’t be surprised if you see them shift in that direction too.

We're not yet at "Syrah is back!" phase. But with it increasingly being planted in the right places, by people who are Rhone specialists or at least Rhone lovers, with most of the vines now getting to 20+ years old, making some of California's most highly-rated and most sought-after wines, and with some of the pressure being released by 20% less acreage in production and another decade for the market to develop, I feel like Syrah can finally get past its reputation as a failed "California's next big thing" and go back to doing what it's always done best: appealing to those of us who want meat, and spice, and wildness in our wines just as much as we want fruit and tannin. That may not be a mainstream flavor profile, but at 3.2% of the state's total acreage, that's OK. It doesn't need to be.

Harvest Syrah 2015


Which of the many Covid-19 changes to the wine industry will prove enduring?

Usually, at this time of year, I'm locking in the plans for the market visits I'll be making for the busy fall selling season. When I travel, I typically spend my days riding around with distributor reps calling on restaurant and retail accounts to show them our new releases, and my evenings hosting in-store tastings and winemaker dinners to help those same accounts tell the Tablas Creek story to their customers. But I won't be visiting any out-of-state markets the rest of 2020. That's for sure, and I think the first half of 2021 is likely to be more of the same.

Instead, I've been scheduling Zoom meetings and arranging for sample deliveries to wholesale accounts, working on a national strategy to organize virtual tastings around the releases of the 2018 Esprit de Tablas and Esprit de Tablas Blanc, trying to figure out what sorts of trade visits to Tablas Creek we can safely host, and finalizing details with my guest for Wednesday's Instagram Live broadcast.

Jason on video chat with Sadie

I think it's safe to say that this pandemic will be a generation-defining event, in the way that 9-11 was, or the Vietnam War. Covid has spurred changes large and small to nearly everyone's personal and work lives. I've been thinking a lot about which of the changes that we're making to our business will be things that will endure even after the pandemic is in the rear-view mirror, and which will fade away as we get back to normal life. Here are my current thoughts.

Things that seem like they will endure

  • Virtual trade tastings. These sorts of tastings have been (in my opinion) exceptionally effective. We've figured out how to rebottle wines into sample bottles and get those samples to the restaurant and retail buyers (and media) in a relatively cost-effective way. Then, over Zoom, we can present the wines, have a conversation, show photos, answer (and ask) questions, and generally be interactive. Compare this to the closest thing in the before world: a trade lunch or trade seminar. People have to physically get to your location, you always get tons of cancellations, it's expensive, and it's inflexible. What you lose from being online is negligible, but what you gain is massive. People can be anywhere. There are no commute costs and no one cancels because they're stuck in traffic. You can add people up to the last minute, and you can even record the events for people who couldn't join you to watch later.    
  • An increased focus on reaching consumers online with live events. At Tablas Creek, Neil and I both started doing live broadcasts weekly at the beginning of the pandemic, him on Facebook and me on Instagram. They've both been sufficiently compelling that although we've moved to an ever-other-week schedule, we're planning on keeping them going indefinitely. I've written about how one of the things this pandemic has done is encourage us (and other wineries) to meet consumers where they are, rather than force them to come to us. This is a great way to do this, at very low cost, and they're archived and posted on our social media channels for people to revisit at their leisure. 
  • Shift toward e-commerce and delivery. Our baseline of weekly phone and internet orders during the pandemic was roughly three and a half times what it was last year. That's a huge increase. I know that some of it was an unsustainable surge in people stocking up, and some of it was that everyone was at home cooking instead of out at restaurants (and so they needed to buy wine to go with those meals). But that's a lot of customers who now know how to use the online tools who didn't before, and I think it's extremely unlikely that the baseline will go down to where it was before. I've read in other industries that the pandemic spurred five years of changes in behavior in a few months. That sounds right to me, at least for this metric.
  • Tastings by appointment at wineries. We've always been proud that you didn't need an appointment to taste at Tablas Creek, and felt that allowing someone who is recommended to visit to make a spur-of-the-moment decision to do so was central to our mission to spread the word on the Rhone Rangers category. But we realized that there was no way that we could control our flow of tasters (which then allows us to maintain distancing and ensure a good experience for those who come) without appointments. So, we implemented them. The results have been quite positive. The average sale per customer has gone up about 13%, as have wine club conversions, and we haven't lost much traffic, because when visitors see that Saturday is sold out, they've been booking Friday or Sunday visits instead. That means we can give everyone better experiences, and we've seen the results in sales and club signups. I can easily imagine not wanting to go back.
  • Fewer wine cruises. We've hosted wonderful cruises that brought people to Beaucastel and around French, Spanish, and Italian wine regions each odd-numbered year since 2013. And we were far from the only ones. By the past few years, it seemed like every winery, wine region, and wine association was sponsoring a wine cruise somewhere. I don't think they will go away, but I do think that we'll see fewer of them, as I think it will take a long time for people's tolerance for close quarters and enclosed spaces to return to where it was pre-Covid.
  • Wine and drinks to-go from restaurants. One of the relief measures that most states passed in the immediate aftermath of shut-down orders was to allow restaurants to sell beer, wine, and cocktails for takeout with their food. And it's been wonderful, with really no negative impacts on anyone that I can think of. While a few places might re-enact restrictions on this business, I think most of them will stay in place, not least because restaurants are likely to be struggling with reduced capacity or outside dining only for quite a long time. By the time things get back to normal, I just can't see state governments choosing to punish restaurants by taking away this revenue source. 

Things that likely won't endure

  • The end of wine festivals. There just aren't going to be wine festivals, at least not as we know them, until there's a Covid vaccine. Sure, events will move online. (Along those lines, if you want to experience the famously exclusive Aspen Food & Wine Classic, you can do so online for free. One of our wines is even included in a seminar!) But I don't think that this spells the end of wine festivals, because the online experience is so far removed from what you get if you go to an event and can choose from hundreds of wines from dozens of wineries, and sample tastes from scores of restaurants. That doesn't translate online very well, and as soon as people feel safe in crowds, I expect these sorts of events to come roaring back.
  • Virtual consumer tastings. We pivoted to offer virtual wine tastings during the three months when our tasting room was closed. And we enjoyed them, and got lots of positive feedback. But as things have moved toward reopening, we've seen demand fall pretty sharply. In April, we sold 58 of our virtual tasting packs per week. In May, that declined to 23 per week. In June, it fell to 8 per week. Some of that was other wineries jumping into that same space. But a lot of it was, I think, Zoom fatigue, and the fact that sitting in front of a computer is a pale reflection of a winery visit, no matter how engaging a winery tries to make it. We're going to plan to continue to offer virtual tastings, but I don't expect the demand to be huge. The sorts of virtual events that I do think will endure are those that offer experiences that aren't a knockoff of what you can get at a winery, like panel discussions including far-flung members of the wine community, and offering deep insights into regions, grapes, or techniques. 
  • Cheap wine shipping. There were a ton of pressures, both short- and long-term, for wineries to offer free or discounted shipping during the first round of stay-at-home orders. And we did, offering $10 flat-rate shipping for more than three months. It seemed the least we could do to help people sheltering at home, and we were worried that the closure of restaurants would mean that a big outlet for our wines would disappear, leaving us with lots of extra inventory. As it turned out, we did lose most of that restaurant business, but the growth in direct sales mostly made up for it, though at the cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars in shipping subsidies. Boutique wineries can generally not easily replicate Amazon and other e-commerce giants' infrastructure of having warehouses around the country, and therefore being able to offer fast, cheap ground shipping. Many wines are made in tiny quantities, and the logistical challenges of splitting, say, 70 total cases of inventory of our newly-released 2019 Picardan among multiple warehouses and our tasting room are really thorny. Because wine is perishable, two-day shipping or faster is pretty much non-negotiable. And because wine bottles are heavy, air shipping is expensive. Even with the better rates that our fulfillment center can negotiate because of their volume, it's around $100 for us to send a case of wine to the east coast, and not much less to go to Texas or the Midwest. That's a lot of cost to eat if you're offering free or steeply discounted shipping, particularly if your wines aren't $50 or more per bottle. Essentially, nothing has changed since this Twitter thread I shared in February. All together, this means that I don't think that most wineries will be able to keep up free or nearly-free shipping indefinitely:   

So, I'm curious. What did I miss? Any big wine industry changes that you're seeing that you think are here to stay? Or that will be relegated to the dustbin of history as soon as we have a Covid vaccine? Please share in the comments.


After decades in the wine wilderness, the higher-acid Rhone white grapes are ready for their spotlight

2019 was a watershed year for us, in a number of ways. We celebrated our 30th anniversary. Our long-time Winemaker Neil Collins was named Paso Robles Wine Industry Person of the Year. We were invited to be the pilot vineyard in the new Regenerative Organic Certification that we think will become sustainable farming's gold standard. We were honored by our first-ever feature article in the Robert Parker Wine Advocate. But for me the most significant achievements were grape-related. First, we completed our collection of Chateauneuf-du-Pape grapes with the grafting of Muscardin into the vineyard. And second, we got our first-ever harvest from three new grapes: Cinsaut, Vaccarese, and Bourboulenc.

Bourboulenc's arrival had particular significance because it meant that we finally had all the approved Chateauneuf-du-Pape white grapes in the cellar, joining Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Picpoul Blanc, Clairette Blanche, and Picardan. (As well as Viognier and Marsanne, which are allowed in Cotes du Rhone though not Chateauneuf du Pape.)

Rhone whites are generally thought of as settling on the richer, more textural, lower-acid side of the white wine spectrum. And that's definitely one face of what the Rhone offers. But it's far from the only face of the family. It includes rich, low-acid wines (like Viognier). Rich, mid-acid wines (like Roussanne). Rich, high-acid wines (like Grenache Blanc and Bourboulenc). Medium-weight, low-acid wines (like Marsanne). Medium-weight, high-acid wines (like Picpoul and Picardan). And light-weight, high-acid wines (like Clairette Blanche). The fact that the wines that were preferred by growers beginning particularly in the 1970s tended toward the richer, lower-acid part of the spectrum (think the rise of Roussanne, Marsanne, and, most dramatically, Viognier, of which just 35 acres were planted in total in the late-1960s) was a function of the marketplace's preferences toward powerful, aromatic wines, and of what worked in that comparatively chilly decades that preceded the 1990's.

Starting with the 1990s we've seen three decades each warmer than the last, and each the warmest on record world-wide. With the climate warming around the world, all grapes achieve ripeness more reliably than before. I remember my dad commenting five or six years ago that the warming climate had basically eliminated bad vintages in France (typically characterized by thin, acidic wines from cold, rainy years). Of course, those warmer years also produce wines with less acid and more sugar (and therefore more alcohol and body). That reduces the risk of growing the grapes on the higher-acid, lower-body edge of the spectrum, because they're likely to get to full ripeness and have enough body. It also makes the lower-acid grapes more at risk of being heavy or out-of-balance. For this reason, Clairette Blanche is currently seeing a resurgence of interest in Chateauneuf-du-Pape for its ability to bring freshness and elegance to the ever-weightier Roussanne and Grenache Blanc. 

2019 white varietal wines

Enter the forgotten Rhone varieties: Picpoul Blanc, Clairette Blanche, Bourboulenc, and Picardan. All four have high acids at harvest. All four saw years of decline in the Rhone, and because international markets tend to follow what is in demand in a grape's homeland, all four were late to arrive in California. None pre-dated our arrival. And even as we brought in Roussanne and Marsanne, Grenache Blanc and Viognier, we decided to wait to focus on these less-planted white varieties. It wasn't until we saw what a revelation Grenache Blanc turned out to be here in Paso Robles that we dipped our toes into the water, importing Picpoul Blanc in 1997, planting it in 2000, and getting our first small crop in 2003. All it did was force its way into (and displace Viognier out of) our Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc in 2004, just its second harvest. 

Our next round of imports began in 2003, but because these grapes were so rare that we had to take field cuttings, all our imports had virus and had to be cleaned up by UC Davis. The grapes trickled out of quarantine, Clairette Blanche in 2009 (we planted it in 2010) and Picardan in 2012 (we planted it in 2013). Bourboulenc didn't make it until 2015 (we planted it in 2016). But both Clairette and Picardan showed Picpoul's precocity, finding their way into Esprit Blanc in 2017, their fifth and second vintage, respectively, at Tablas Creek.

It probably shouldn't have surprised us. We're convinced that grapes like Picpoul and (to a lesser extent, Grenache Blanc) are victims of a vicious circle in France. Because they're not much respected and don't command a high price on the market, they tend to be only viable economically if they're cropped heavily. So, they're usually overcropped and then earmarked for quick fermentations and inexpensive bottles, which reinforces that they're of low value. Here in California, we crop them modestly, give them the same attention in the cellar as our other grapes, and then allow them to find their place in the blends and varietal bottlings through the blind tastings that kick off our blending trials each year.

For the first time, in 2019, we have all four as varietal bottlings to share with you. They were bottled the week of June 8th, and I opened these four high-acid wines this past week in order to write tasting notes for our Web site. I thought it would be fun to share them with you now. I've linked all the wines (except the Bourboulenc, for which we're still waiting for a bottle photo) to its page on our Web site if you want detailed production notes.

  • 2019 Clairette Blanche: a clean mineral nose of lemongrass, lychee, and honeydew melon. The palate is bright and yet mouth-filling, with flavors of fresh apricot, lemon, chalky minerality, and a little sweet anise-tinged spice. The finish is clean, long, and mouth-watering, with a lingering citrus note.
  • 2019 Picardan: clean but rich aromas of nectarine, yellow raspberry, and sun-dried hay. On the palate, quite rich texture balanced by yellow plum flavors and a preserved lemon pithy bite. The finish is long and peachy, with a lingering note of saline minerality.
  • 2019 Picpoul Blanc: an immensely appealing nose of yellow roses, fresh pineapple, sea spray, and sweet green herbs. The palate is mouth-watering, with flavors of salted pineapple, yellow raspberry, and briny minerality. Tropical and saline notes come back out on the long, vibrant finish. Drink now and over the next few years.
  • 2019 Bourboulenc: a rich golden color. On the nose, aromas of marmalade, caramel, and a briny sea spray minerality. The palate is richly textured yet bright, with flavors of mandarin and nectarine, and a little Meyer lemon pithy bite coming out on the long, minerally finish.

We didn't make much of any of these wines: just 70 cases of Clairette Blanche, 80 cases of Picardan, 145 cases of Bourboulenc, and 280 cases of Picpoul. And because we have so many whites from 2019 -- not just these, but Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Marsanne, Viognier, and our blends -- we've decided to space out their releases. We'll be announcing the release of the first two (Clairette and Picardan) to club members this week. Picpoul will follow next month, and Bourboulenc will go out to members of our VINsider "white-only" club in September.

After my tasting of these four wines, I just can't imagine that these grapes will remain obscure for long. Although each had its own personality, every one had texture and richness, vibrant fruit and refreshing acids, and all showed the saline minerality we attribute to our calcareous soils. We can't wait to share them with you.