The Tablas Creek blog provides thoughts, reports, photographs and the occasional video from Tablas Creek Vineyard, in Paso Robles, California. Tablas Creek is a vineyard and winery in north-west Paso Robles, and one of the pioneers of Rhone varietals in California.
As regular readers of the blog have probably gathered, we're spending much of this year looking back as we celebrate our 30th anniversary. As a part of this celebration, in advance of the 30th Anniversary Party we hosted here a few weeks back, we decided to open every vintage of our flagship red wines, from our very first Tablas Creek Rouge in 1997 to the 2017 Esprit de Tablas that is still sitting in foudre waiting to be bottled later this summer. While we're opening older vintages of Esprit fairly regularly, we only go through a systematic tasting every couple of years1. So, it would have been a special occasion for us anyway. But because we had Jean-Pierre Perrin in town, we thought it would be great to invite some other local regional Rhone Rangers winemakers to join us. In the end, about 18 of us, evenly split between Tablas folks and those we'd invited to join, sat down on a Friday afternoon to taste 21 different wines. The tasting mat tells the story:
I thought it would be fun to share my notes on each wine. I was spending a lot of time coordinating the discussion, so some of my notes are a bit telegraphic, but I hope that you will still get a sense of the differences. I have also linked each vintage to that wine's page on our Web site, if you'd like to see production details or what the tasting notes were at bottling.
1997 Rouge: A nose that is minty and spicy, still quite fresh. On the palate, bright acids, earth, and still some solid tannins. I'd never have guessed that this wine was 20 years old, or made from grapevines that were just three to five years old.
1998 Rouge: Older and quieter on the nose than the 1997. The mouth has a cool elegance and nice leathery earth. A little simple perhaps, but still totally viable. From one of our coolest-ever vintages, where we didn't start harvesting until October.
1999 Reserve Cuvee: Dramatic on the nose, dark mocha and meat drippings. On the palate, still quite intense, with coffee, red berry fruit, and big tannins. A long finish. Still vibrant and youthful. I remember selling this wine when it was young, and it was a bit of a tannic monster. Those tannins have served it well in the intervening two decades.
2000 Esprit de Beaucastel: A lovely meaty nose with eucalyptus, licorice, red currant and chocolate. Similar flavors on the palate, with a velvety texture and a long finish. Right at its peak, we thought. We've consistently underestimated this wine's aging potential, and each time we open a bottle we like it more.
2001 Founders Reserve: From lots we'd set aside for Esprit and Panoplie that we blended for the wine club after deciding not to make either wine in the frost-depleted 2001 vintage. On the nose, more savory than fruity, dark eucalyptus and black pepper. A touch of alcohol showed. The mouth is vibrant, with great acids, mid-weight texture, and a long finish. A little rustic compared to the wines around it, but intense and fun to taste.
2002 Esprit de Beaucastel: Dark and chocolaty on the nose, with black fruit and balsamic notes. The mouth is similar, with cocoa powder, black cherry, luscious texture, and a long finish. My favorite of the older vintages.
2004 Esprit de Beaucastel: A spicy balsamic nose nicely balanced between fruity and savory elements. On the palate too I found it right on point, with no element sticking out, but less dramatic than the vintages before and after. Still fresh.
2005 Esprit de Beaucastel: Leaps out of the glass with a meaty, smoky nose, deep and inviting. On the palate, spruce forest and meat drippings, black licorice and dark red fruit. Dramatic and long on the finish. A consensus favorite, and right in the middle of what looks likely to be a long peak.
2006 Esprit de Beaucastel: A lovely wine that paled a little after the 2005, with a nose that is lightly meaty, with both black and red currant notes. On the palate, it feels fully mature and resolved, with a nice sweet clove/cumin spice notes, and nice freshness on the finish.
2007 Esprit de Beaucastel: A dense, inky animal nose, with iodine and cherry skin coming out with time. On the palate, luscious and densely tannic, with a creamy texture and a dark cherry cola note vying with the tannins on the finish. Still young and on its way up, and definitely helped by time in the glass. Decant if you're drinking now, or hold.
2008 Esprit de Beaucastel: Very different from the previous vintage, much more marked by Grenache's openness and red fruit. A high toned red berry nose, with a palate that is open and lifted and medium-bodied. This had a lovely translucency and freshness that made it a favorite for many of us of the 10-15 year old range.
2009 Esprit de Beaucastel: Sort of split the difference between the two previous vintages, with a dense eucalyptus and cola nose, with pepper spice notes. Plush but still tannic on the palate, with red raspberry fruit and some dusty tannins that are a reminder of its youth. Lots there, and still fleshing out.
2010 Esprit de Beaucastel: A pretty nose, with leather and spicy boysenberry. On the palate, nicely mid-weight on entry, but good tangy purple fruit and these nice tannins with the texture of powdered sugar. In a good place, and reminiscent of the 1998, from a similarly cool vintage.
2011 Esprit de Tablas: Like the 2010, with the volume turned up slightly. A creamy cherry candy nose, with Syrah's dark foresty character a bit toward the forefront. Savory and textured on the palate, with black cherry coming out on the finish. More open than my last tasting of this wine, which suggests it's on its way out of its closed phase.
2012 Esprit de Tablas: A high toned nose, almost all red fruit at this stage. Candied strawberry on the nose, then red plum on the palate, with a tangy marinade note that I've always found in the 2012. Medium weight. Still fleshing out and deepening; I'm very interested to see where this goes during and after its closed phase.
2013 Esprit de Tablas: A darker nose than 2012, with a spicy Mexican chocolate character. The mouth is savory with black raspberry and black cherry fruit, new leather, soy marinade, and some youthful tannins. Seems more on a black fruit 2010/2011 trajectory than a red fruit 2008/2009/2012 one.
2014 Esprit de Tablas: I wrote pure multiple times on this one: a nose like "pure wild strawberry" and the "mouth too, with crystalline purity". Nice texture, generously red fruited. We've been thinking of the 2014 vintage as something like 2007, but tasting this wine it was instead more like 2009.
2015 Esprit de Tablas: A nose of spiced red fruit, like pomegranate molasses. The mouth is pure and deep, purple fruit and spicy herbs, a little leathery soy note provides savory counterpoint. Long and expressive. My favorite of our recent vintages.
2016 Esprit de Tablas: A dense, savory nose, bigger and denser than the 2015, yet still expressive. Blackberry or black plum, pepper spice, chewy tannins, and a long finish. A hint of meatiness like a rosemary-rubbed leg of lamb. Should be incredible to watch evolve. A consensus favorite of our younger wines.
2017 Esprit de Tablas: A nose like black cherry and smoke, with a concentrated juiciness that despite its power doesn't come across as sweet. Elderberry and new leather. Long. I am excited to show off this wine, which seems to me too be the closest thing we've blended to the 2005 in the years since.
I asked people around the table to offer a few of their favorites, and 14 of the 21 wines got at least one vote. Those with four or more included the 2000, 2005, 2008, 2009, 2011, 2014, and 2016, with the 2005 and the 2016 sharing the top total.
A few concluding thoughts:
What a pleasure to taste with the combined hundreds of vintages of experience in that room. A few (including Jean-Pierre Perrin, and Jordan Fiorentini of Epoch Estate Wines) had to leave before we thought of taking the photograph, but what a room of winemaking talent to share the experience with:
I was really pleased that the favorite wines stretched from the beginning of the sequence to the end, and included warm years and cool, low-production years and plentiful ones, and blends that included unusually high percentages of Mourvedre (2005, 2015), of Grenache (2008, 2014), and of Syrah (2009, 2016). I thought that the older wines showed great staying power, while the younger wines were open and felt already well mannered. John Munch from Le Cuvier commented, in his typically pithy style, "the older wines didn't taste old, and the younger wines didn't taste young".
The longevity of the wines from even our very early vintages gives me a ton of optimism about how our current wines will age. Look at a wine like the 2000: for a decade, we've been commenting at every tasting that it's the best showing we've seen yet. Our oldest vines then were 8 years old, with the majority of the vineyard between 3 and 5. This long aging curve wouldn't be a surprise for Mourvedre-heavy Chateauneuf, but I think we've consistently underestimated how well our own wines age. Hopefully, events like this help recast our expectations.
It is always fascinating the extent to which the wines are alive, and do move around over time. Last time we held a tasting like this, in 2017, our favorites included 2000, 2003, 2006, 2010, and 2015. All of those showed well at this tasting, but only the 2000 was among our top-5 vote-getters this time.
At the same time, the tasting supported by contention that the run we're on now is the best we've ever seen. If you tally the votes in 3-year increments, the top range was 2014-2016 (15 votes), followed closely by 2008-2010 (13 votes) and 2003-2005 (11 votes). If I had to make a gross generalization, in our early years (say, up until 2007), we were making wines that had robust power but were a little rustic and needed age to come into balance. And they mostly have. In our middle years (say, 2008-2013) we were working to build elegance into the wines, trusting that they would deepen with time in bottle. And they mostly have. What we're getting now, with its combination of power and purity, is what we've been aiming at all along, and I think that watching them age will be fascinating.
We update a vintage chart at least quarterly with the results of these tastings.
Last week, after two full weeks of work, we finally got a chance to taste all 11 red wines we'll be making from the 2018 vintage. It was impressive. Esprit and Panoplie were rich and lush, with plenty of ripe tannin but also freshness provided by vibrant acids. The En Gobelet and Le Complice each spoke clearly of the idea behind why we created the wines: En Gobelet loamy and pure, with plenty of dark red fruit, while Le Complice was dark, herby, and spicy, like Syrah and yet not quite. The Mourvedre, Grenache, and Counoise were intensely characteristic of each grape: Mourvedre meaty and chocolaty, Grenache fruity but also powerfully structured, and Counoise juicy and electric, translucent and fresh. Even the Patelin de Tablas and Cotes de Tablas were each, in their own way, remarkably expressive. And, equally important, thanks to the relatively plentiful 2018 harvest, we'll be able to make solid amounts of most of our wines. With our 2012-2016 drought still in our recent memory, that was a relief.
How did we get here? It was the result of a process we've developed over the decades, where we spend a week or more sitting around our conference table, schedules cleared so we can focus just on this. Around that table this year joining Neil and me was the rest of our cellar team (Chelsea, Craig, Amanda, and Austin), Claude Gouan (Beaucastel's long-time oenologist, recently retired) and, once he arrived mid-week for our 30th Anniversary celebration, Jean-Pierre Perrin. As usual, we started our blending week Monday morning by tasting, component by component, through what we had in the cellar. As we typically do in years where we have decent crop levels, we split our varietal tasting into two days: Counoise and Grenache (plus our few lots of Terret Noir and Pinot) on Monday, and Syrah, Mourvedre, and Tannat on Tuesday. Our goal at this first stage is to identify the quality of the different lots, and get a sense of both the character and diversity present in the vintage to help give us direction in blending.
We grade on a 1-3 scale, with 1's being our top grade (for a deep dive into how we do our blending, check out this blog by Chelsea from a few years back). For context, in a normal year, for every 10 lots we might see 3-4 "1" grades, 5-6 "2" grades and 1 "3" grade. As you'll see, lots of good grades this year. My quick thoughts on each variety:
Grenache (19 lots): The most powerful Grenache we've seen in years, although with the power came some lots that were tannic enough that we felt we had to be careful how we applied them in blending. Nine of the lots received 1's from me, with two others getting 1/2 grades (my intermediate grade that sits between a 1 and a 2). Only one 3. A combination of excellent fruit, good acids, and tannic structure.
The Syrah and Mourvedre portions of my notes. That's a lot of "1" grades!
Mourvedre (17 lots): A really nice showing for Mourvedre. I gave eight lots a 1 grade, there was only one lot I even thought about giving a 3 (I ended up giving it a 2/3, because while it was lighter, it was still pretty). Lovely and classic, leaning more toward the loamy chocolaty Mourvedre side than the meaty, though there were a few of those sorts of lots too. Nice ripe tannins. A great core for the many wines we make that are based on Mourvedre.
Syrah (15 lots): Really outstanding, reminiscent in many ways of what we saw in 2016. Eight 1's, with three others that I gave 1/2 grades to. Dense, dark, creamy and mineral. And, like what we saw in 2016, we ended up liking the syrah's contribution in the blends so much that we didn't have any left over for a varietal. Sometimes, that's how it works.
Counoise (7 lots): A nice range of Counoise styles, from the translucent, juicy lots that remind us of Gamay to the rich, spicy, purple-fruited Counoise that we love to use in Esprit. Three 1's of the seven, on my sheet.
Terret Noir (1 lot): Terret was as usual zesty and bright, but felt less focused and concentrated than it had in past years, and while it will make a nice contribution to Le Complice, we didn't feel it was worthy of bottling on its own. The portion that didn't make it into Le Complice will get declassified into Patelin, which is also fun to contemplate.
Tannat (3 lots): Massive, dense, and dark, and powerfully tannic. Chocolaty. Should be a Tannat-lover's dream vintage.
Cabernet (1 lot): Beautiful, classic Cabernet, but with only one barrel (from our old nursery block) not enough to bottle on its own. It will go into the Tannat, as it does most years.
Pinot Noir (7 lots): All these lots come from the small vineyard in the Templeton Gap that my dad planted outside my parents' house back in 2007, with different clones and levels of stem inclusion providing several small (in many cases, one-barrel) lots. The mix of the seven hit, for me, just the right note, with pretty cherry Pinot fruit given weight and complexity from the stems. A nice touch of oak. Should make for a delicious 2018 Full Circle Pinot.
We finished Tuesday with a round-table discussion about what we wanted to try in the blending the next few days, and decided that given the apparent strengths of all three of our main red grapes it only made sense to kick off the blending trials for both Panoplie and Esprit with three different blends, each one emphasizing one of the varietals, and see what we learned.
Wednesday morning, we reconvened to work out each blend, starting with the Panoplie. As always, we tasted our options blind, not knowing what was in each glass. Panoplie is always overwhelmingly Mourvedre (typically 60% at least) and typically not much Syrah, because Syrah's dominance often proves to be too much for the character of the Mourvedre. But in this vintage, we all agreed on the blend with the higher percentage of Syrah, which we felt offered great lushness and structure. After a brief discussion, we settled on a blend with 64% Mourvedre, 24% Syrah, and 12% Grenache.
Panoplie decided, we moved on to the Esprit. The first trial helped us narrow things down, as none of us picked the wine with the highest percentage of Mourvedre (50%). This was likely true for the same reason we saw last year: because although the Mourvedre was outstanding, we'd used all the lots that got near-universal 1 grades to get to 40% Mourvedre. Increasing that to roughly 50% forced us to include Mourvedre lots to which several of us gave 2 grades at the expense of 1-rated Grenache and Syrah, and our blind tasting confirmed that this was a mistake. That said, we split roughly evenly between camps favoring more Grenache (which produced wines with vibrancy and lift, nice saltiness and firm tannins) and those favoring more Syrah (which produced wines with more density and dark lushness) and decided to try some blends that split the difference.
The next day was a big one. We tasted the day before's Syrah-heavy Esprit against one with equal parts Syrah and Grenache, and again split pretty evenly between the two. In the end, we decided that yet another in-between blend was best, and ended up with an Esprit at 40% Mourvedre, 27% Syrah, 23% Grenache, and 10% Counoise.
We next moved on to our two small-production wine club blends, En Gobelet and Le Complice. Given the head-trained lots that we'd chosen for Esprit and Panoplie, we didn't have a ton of choice on En Gobelet, which is made entirely from head-trained, dry-farmed blocks. And given the relatively high tannins across the vintage, and particularly among the Grenache lots, we were leery of including too much Tannat in the blend. So, it was with some relief that we loved the blend that resulted: 36% Grenache, 28% Mourvedre, 27% Syrah, 6% Counoise, and 3% Tannat. It made for an En Gobelet that was juicy yet structured, with beautiful red-fruited power and the structure to age.
Le Complice celebrates the kinship we feel Terret Noir shows with Syrah, and particularly the Syrah lots fermented with stems or whole clusters. Both grapes share a peppery spiciness, although Syrah is very dark and Terret quite pale. Because both grapes tend toward high tannin, we've realized the past two years that we also need some Grenache, to provide flesh to the bones and spirit of Syrah and Terret. That said, because we felt the Terret on its own was weaker than 2016 or 2017, we decided to try some blends with lower percentages of the grape and more Syrah and Grenache. But it was interesting to me that we still all coalesced around the blend with the highest percentage of Terret (15%), along with 60% Syrah and 25% Grenache, as the most characterful and balanced. It was a good reminder that grapes that might be lacking on their own that can be just what a particular blend needs.
After this, we had to break for our 30th Anniversary party, and Claude and his wife left for a driving tour of the desert southwest. So, the next Monday, we reconvened to tackle the Cotes de Tablas and the varietals. The main question this year with the Cotes was given the relatively high tannins of the Grenache lots, what was the right blend (and the right choice of Grenache lots) to show off the grape's charm. We ended up spending more time on this question than I can ever remember, and ended up using a relatively high percentage of Counoise and swapping in some of the Grenache lots we'd originally liked less because their simple juiciness was just what the more tannic lots needed. In the end, we chose a blend of 45% Grenache, 33% Syrah, 12% Counoise, and 10% Mourvedre. Even with our adjustments, it will be a serious Cotes de Tablas, with significant aging potential.
Given what we'd made of the blends, the math dictated how much of the varietal wines we could make: no Syrah, and not much Counoise (125 cases), but a nice quantity (680 cases) of Mourvedre, 1250 cases (our most-ever) of Tannat, and a glorious 1100 cases of what should be an amazing varietal Grenache. Although we'll miss having the Syrah, we should have plenty of great stuff to share with fans and club members over the next couple of years. And coming on the heels of bottling of all four of our main red grapes from the terrific 2017 vintage I feel better about the selection of red wines we'll have to show than I can remember.
A few concluding thoughts. First, although we're always looking for comparable vintages to the newest one we're wrapping our heads around, it's hard for me to make an easy vintage comp for 2018. Maybe 2002, which was also a dark, serious, structured year, outstanding for Syrah, and the first dry year after a very wet one, but the vines were so much younger then. Or 1999, with the same big tannins around expressive fruit, but without the concentration we see now. The fact that I'm having to reach so far back into our history suggests that it was a year with its own unique character. It will be fun to get to know it over the coming months.
Second, we saw more day-to-day variation in how the wines tasted this year than I can remember since at least 2011. The same wines would taste lusher and rounder one day and more powerfully tannic the next. This was a good reminder that it's important to leave yourselves the flexibility to come back and re-taste things a second or third time. Whether that's a function of what was going on with the weather (it still hasn't settled into our summer pattern, and we had a few rainstorms pass through while we were tasting), or the stages of the wines, or even (as much as I cringe to mention it) the Biodynamic calendar, it's a fact that wines do taste different on different days. Making decisions over the course of two weeks helps reduce the likelihood that those decisions will be based on a tasting day that is an outlier.
Finally, it was such a treat to have both Claude and Jean-Pierre around that blending table. It's pretty mind-blowing to think of the number of vintages, and arguments, and discoveries, they have made at Beaucastel sitting around blending tables like this, in the 40-plus years they've worked together. To have that accumulated experience on display will be my lasting memory of this year's blending.
On Friday night, we hosted an industry party to celebrate our 30th anniversary. It was a wonderful evening, with about 350 friends and colleagues, beautiful weather (we got lucky), great food by Chef Jeff Scott, music by the Mark Adams Band, and masterful coordination by Faith Wells. I'll share a few photos, all taken by the talented Heather Daenitz (see more of her work at www.craftandcluster.com). We brought in some chairs and couches, and converted our parking lot to space to sit, mingle, and browse the memorabilia we'd pulled together.
Expanding to the parking lot spread the event out, making sure that no area felt cramped, and gave the event two focuses: the food, near our dry-laid limestone wall, and the wine tables, on our patio.
We decided to open every wine we're currently making, as well as several selections out of our library. We figured if not then, when?
Chef Jeff's menu focused on things that were raised or harvested here at Tablas Creek, including lamb, pork, honey, olive oil, eggs, pea tendrils, and herbs. The egg strata, made from 16 dozen of our eggs and flavored with our olive oil, was one of my favorites:
One of my favorite things that Faith suggested we do was to put together photo walls, each representing a decade of our history. This gave us an excuse to go through our massive photo archives and try to pull out pictures that showed how things had changed.
In the end, though, the event was, as most events are, really about the people who came. We had winemakers from around California, almost the whole current Tablas Creek team and many of the former employees who helped bring us where we are, local restaurateurs and hoteliers, members of the community organizations and charities we support, and even local government officials. Jean-Pierre Perrin (below, left) made the trip from France, and I know it was fun for people who had only heard his name to get to meet the man so responsible for the creation of this enterprise.
The Paso Robles wine community is remarkable for the extent to which it really is a community, made up of people who live here and are involved in the broader local community, from schools to restaurants to youth sports and charities. Getting a large group like this together isn't so much an industry party as it is a gathering of friends. And I couldn't shake the feeling all day that this was like a wedding, with old and new friends arriving from far away, and people stopping me again and again to say, warmly, "congratulations".
It was this aspect of Paso Robles that I'd been intending to highlight in the brief remarks I had planned to give to the group. But I decided in the middle of the event that doing so would have interrupted the event's momentum and turned something that felt like an organic gathering into something more staged and self-centered. And that was the last thing I wanted to do, so I just let the evening take its course.
That said, looking at the photos makes me feel that much more confident in what I had planned to say. The event wasn't the right moment. But I thought I'd share them now. I didn't write it out, but these are, more or less, the remarks I'd planned to share:
Thank you all for being here. It's hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that it's been 30 years since my dad, as well as Francois and Jean-Pierre Perrin (who is with us here tonight) celebrated the purchase of the property with a lunch from KFC on the section of the vineyard that we know call Scruffy Hill. And not just because all the great restaurant folks here this evening are a case in point that the Paso Robles culinary scene has come a long way from those days.
I wrote a blog a couple of weeks ago about 10 things that we got right (and wrong) at the beginning of our project. [Note: that blog can be found here.] Things we got wrong, like that we were only going to make one red and one white wine each year, or that we didn't need a tasting room. And things we got right, like that the climate and soils in this place was going to be great for these varieties, and that if we planted the right grapes, whites could thrive here. But the biggest piece of our success isn't something that we got right or wrong; it's really neither of those things. It wasn't on our radar at all. In my opinion, the biggest thing that has allowed this crazy project to succeed is the wine community that we joined here in Paso Robles. It is this community that has become a destination for wine lovers and for some of the most talented winemakers in the country. It is this community that has embraced Rhone varieties, and blends, both of which were major leaps into the unknown for an American winery 30 years ago. And it's this community which has welcomed us, interlopers from France and Vermont, to be a part of its vibrantly experimental mix.
I often think, when I reflect on the anniversary, that 30 years old is the age at which, in France, they finally start taking a vineyard seriously. I am proud of what we've accomplished, but even more excited about what we're working on now. Thank you for your support over the first generation of Tablas Creek. I look forward to celebrating many future milestones with you.
The idea that for all we've done, we're just getting started, was the inspiration for the party favor we sent people home with: a baby grapevine from our nursery. We may have been here for a generation. But it's really still just the beginning.
So, if you came, thank you for helping us celebrate. If you couldn't come, thank you for helping us make it 30 years. We couldn't have done it without you.
In an ideal vineyard world, we get cold, wet weather, with regularly frosty nights, until mid-March, and then it turns warm and dries out after. A pattern like this means that we've banked enough water to give us good confidence in the vineyard's ability to weather the dry season, that we've extended dormancy until late enough in the spring that we reduce our risk of frost, and that once things sprout we can move forward smoothly getting the vineyard cleaned up and the vines thinned and flowering.
Enter the 2019 growing season, which has unfolded exactly as we'd like to see. Our last frosty night was March 14th; it's been mostly dry and benign since then; and the combination of wet winter and warm spring has produced excellent growth in the grapevines, the cover crops, and the flock. The vines are out several inches, and we're even starting to see flower clusters form:
We're still a couple of weeks away from actual flowering, but look like we're on a similar path to what we saw last year (when our first flowering happened mid-May). All this is just what we'd like to see, and it gives us the chance to focus on making the most of the explosive cover crop growth we saw last winter. Sure, much of it will be turned under to decompose in the soil, but we've also invested in a new baler which will allow us to dry and store the nutrient rich feed to nourish our flock in the late summer and early fall months when forage is scarce. These round bales are dotting the vineyard landscape right now:
The eventual goal is to turn even these mowed rows under, accelerating the breakdown of the plant matter and eliminating any potential competition with the grapevines for the soil's water. If we time this right, and avoid any late-season rainstorms, this should be a one-shot effort, and within another month, every row in the vineyard should look like the Pinot Noir at my mom's place (though there's still obviously work to do to get the weeds out from among the vine rows):
In all these efforts, the weather pattern that we've seen the last few weeks (a warm-up into the upper 80s, then a cool down into the 60s, then the pattern restarts) is just perfect. Fingers crossed that the rest of spring unfolds as ideally.
Yesterday, as we were setting up for the filming of a video to celebrate our 30th Anniversary, we were interrupted by a brief but noisy downpour. The rain went as quickly as it came, but it's a sign of the season that my first thought was not about the vines, but instead that the rain (which totaled less than 1/10th of an inch) would be great for keeping the dust down at the baseball field for the youth team I'm coaching.
The rain really did feel like a last gasp of winter, and the warm sun that followed was in keeping with what we've seen most of the last three weeks. I wouldn't be at all surprised if this is the last rain we see until November. Nearly the entire vineyard has sprouted into budbreak, and we're doing our best to tame the incredible growth of the cover crop:
As we enter this transitional season, it seems a good time to look back at the winter of 2018-19 and try to put it into context. First, rainfall. The bulk of what we received this winter came (as usual) in January and February, but early March was quite wet too, and we saw greater-than-normal rainfall four of the five main rainy months:
In total, we have accumulated 30.79" of rain since last July. That's roughly 123% of what we would expect as an average annual total, and given that we still have more than two months (albeit not normally rainy months) before the rain year concludes, we're at about 131% of what we'd expect by this time. We're thrilled. Our wells are full, the soil was fully saturated but is drying out enough that we can begin to get into it, and the cover crops are as tall, dense, and healthy as we've ever seen. The photo below, of our winemaker Neil in a head-trained Counoise block, shows a block that was already grazed down by our flock once this winter. All the growth you see has come in the last 10 weeks, and the vines themselves are totally obscured:
As for temperature, we've seen the ideal transition from winter chill to spring warmth. Freezing temperatures are fine (even desirable) when the vines are dormant, but will kill any new growth once it has sprouted. So, in an ideal year, we'd love to see regular frosty nights through mid-March, and then once it warms up, to not see it drop below freezing again until after harvest. That's what has happened so far this spring. We saw the last of our 29 below freezing nights on March 14th. The next day saw our first above-70 day in more than a month. Since that, we've had lots of sun, an average high temperature of 69, and an average low of 40, without a single frost. That's perfect. We've still got another three weeks before we stop worrying about frost, but given that the long-term forecast is for a warming trend, at least the first half of that period looks good. Fingers crossed, please.
Now, our job is to incorporate all the organic matter that the cover crop has provided into the soil, so it can break down and provide nutrients for the vines. We've been mowing to start this process and allow for good drainage of air, which has produced a pretty striped look to the vineyard landscape:
It's a big task to mow then disk 120-plus acres. But barring an unexpected storm, the work should go quickly, and in another month, this scene will be gone, with the warm brown earth newly visible, the vines' competition for water eliminated, and the stage set for the growing season. Meanwhile, we'll be enjoying our own local super bloom:
I've said it before, but I'll say it again. If you're coming for a visit in the next month or so, you're in for a treat.
I find it hard to wrap my head around this fact, but this year marks 30 years since my dad, along with Jean-Pierre and Francois Perrin, bought this property and began the process of launching what would become Tablas Creek Vineyard. To celebrate, they stopped at Kentucky Fried Chicken (this was before it became KFC) and took their purchases as a picnic lunch onto the section of the vineyard we now call Scruffy Hill to talk about what would come next. I don't have a photo of that lunch, but I do have one of the ceremonial planting of the first vine, from 1992:
1989 was a different time, and not just because not-yet-called-KFC was the best option in town for lunch. Paso Robles itself had just 16 bonded wineries. None of them were producing Rhone varieties. The entire California Rhone movement had only about a dozen members. And yet the founding partners had enough confidence in their decision to embark on the long, slow, expensive process of importing grapevines, launching a grapevine nursery, planting an estate vineyard from scratch, building a winery, and building a business plan to turn this into something self-sustaining.
I was thinking recently about how much of a leap into the unknown this was, and decided to look back on which of those early assumptions turned out to be right, and which we had to change or scrap. I'll take them in turn.
Wrong #1: Paso Robles is hot and dry, and therefore red wine country This is a misconception that persists to this day among plenty of consumers, and (if it's not sacrilegious to say) an even higher percentage of sommeliers and the wine trade. But it's hard to be too critical of them when we made the same mistake. Our original plan was to focus on a model like Beaucastel's. There, the Perrins make about 90% red wines, and many Chateauneuf du Pape estates don't make any white at all. And yes, Paso Robles is hot and dry, during the day, in the summer. But it's cold at night, with an exceptionally high diurnal shift, and winters are cold and quite wet. The net result is that our average temperature is lower than Beaucastel's, and the first major change to our vineyard plans was to plant 20 more acres of white grapes. Now, our mix is about 50% red, 35% white, and 15% rosé.
Right #1: Obscure grapes can be great here In our initial planting decisions, we decided to bring in the grapes you would have expected (think Mourvedre, Grenache, Syrah, or Viognier) but also those that had never before been used in America, like Grenache Blanc and Counoise. We thought that they would provide nice complexity, and our goal was to begin with the Beaucastel model (in which both of these grapes appear) and then adjust as our experiences dictated. It turns out that we liked them enough that not only are they important players in the blends that we make, but we even bottle them solo many years. This meant a relatively quick decision to bring in Picpoul Blanc in 2000, and to eventually import the full collection of Chateauneuf du Pape grapes in 2003. If you've been enjoying new grapes like Picardan, or Terret Noir, or Clairette Blanche, you have this early decision to thank.
Wrong #2: We're going to make just one red wine and one white wine This is a decision we realized we needed to revisit pretty quickly. As early as 1999, we decided that in order to make the best wine we could from a vintage, we needed to be able to declassify lots into a second wine (which at that point we called "Petite Cuvee"). Having this declassified wine also, we realized pretty quickly, gave us some cool opportunities in restaurants, which could pour this "second" wine by the glass, exposing us to new customers. And the wine, which we soon rechristened "Cotes de Tablas", soon proved to be more than just a place to put our second-best lots. Many of the characteristics that caused us to declassify a particular lot (pretty but not as intense, less structured and perhaps less ageworthy, good fruit but maybe less tannin) make a wine that's perfect to enjoy in its relative youth. Although we've been surprised by the ability of these wines to age, having something that people could open and appreciate while our more tannic flagship wines were aging in the cellar proved invaluable.
And we didn't stop there. We realized within another few years that there were lots that were either too dominant to be great in a blend, or so varietally characteristic that it was a shame to blend them away. And opening a tasting room and starting a wine club in 2002 (more on this below) meant that we had recurring educational opportunities where having, say, a varietal Mourvedre, was really valuable. At the time, many fans of Rhone grapes had never tasted even the main ones (outside of Syrah) on their own. Having a rotating collection of varietal bottlings beginning in 2002 not only gave us great entries for our wine club shipments, but I think helped an entire generation of Rhone lovers wrap their heads around this diverse and heterogeneous category.
Right #2: Importing new vine material would be worth the costs Nearly the first decision we had to make was whether we would work with the existing Rhone varieties that were already in California or whether we would bring in our own. And it's not as though this decision was without consequence. Importing grapevines through the USDA's mandated 3-year quarantine set us back (after propagation) five years, and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. But it also came with some potentially huge benefits: the opportunity to select our clones for high quality, the chance to work with the full complement of Rhone grapes, and eventually the privilege of supplying other wineries with high quality clones. I remain convinced that for all the different impacts Tablas Creek has had, it is this proliferation of clonal material that will go down as our most impactful.
Wrong #3: Vineyard and winery experience is enough to run a nursery With fifteen years' distance blunting the anxiety, it's easy to forget just how steep the learning curve was for us in the nursery business. But I know that when I moved out here in 2002, it was the perennially money-losing nursery that was the source of most of our headaches. The nursery business is difficult for three reasons, particularly for a startup. First, it's technically tricky. Expertise in grapegrowing is only tangentially relevant to things like grafting and rooting, or dealing with nursery pests. This is made more challenging by the fact that the same things that made this place good for quality wine grapes (that it forces vines to struggle) made all the nursery challenges worse. Second, it's subject to supply shocks that are largely outside of your control. If you get a spring frost, or a summer drought, you'll produce smaller vine material, get a lower percentage of successful grafts, and produce fewer vines. I know that in our first few years we often had to go back to our customers and cut back their orders because of production challenges. And third, on the demand side, it's incredibly cyclical and prone to boom and bust. Because it takes three to four years for a new vine to get into into production, you tend to have cycles of sky-high demand for scarce grapes followed by periods where everyone has the same new varieties in production, which causes demand for new vines to collapse. We lost quite a lot of money overall on our nursery operations before realizing the right response was to outsource. Our partnership since 2004 with NovaVine has been such an improvement, in so many ways.
Right #3: Organic viticulture works The Perrins have been innovators in organic viticulture since Jacques Perrin implemented it in the 1960s. By the time we were starting Tablas Creek, it was taken as a given that we'd farm the same way, partly out of a desire to avoid exposing ourselves, our colleagues, and our neighbors to toxins, but more because we felt that this was a fundamental precondition for producing wines that expressed their place. At the time, there wasn't a single vineyard in Paso Robles being farmed organically, and the studied opinion of the major California viticulture universities was that doing so was pointless and difficult. It has been wonderful to see a higher and higher percentage of our local grapegrowers come around to our perspective, and to see the excitement locally and around California as we push past organics into the more holistic approach of Biodynamics. But that idea -- that organic farming is key to producing wines with a sense of place -- is as fundamental to our process today as it was in the beginning.
Wrong #4: Tasting Room? Wine Club? Who needs 'em! At the beginning, our idea was that we would be in the production business, not the marketing and sales business. Our contact with the market would be once a year, when we would call up Vineyard Brands and let them know that the new vintage was ready. They would buy it all, take care of the nitty gritty of selling it, and our next contact with the market would be a year later, when we would call them up again and let them know they could pick up the next vintage. This proved to be a lot more difficult than we'd initially imagined. We were making wines without an established category, from grapes that most customers didn't know and couldn't pronounce, in a place they hadn't heard of, and blending them into wines with French names that didn't mean anything to them. By 2002, inventory had started to build up and we had to radically rethink our marketing program. The two new key pieces were starting a wine club (first shipment: August 2002, to about 75 members) and opening our tasting room on Labor Day weekend that same fall.
The opportunities provided by both these outlets have fundamentally transformed the business of Tablas Creek, giving us direct contact with our customers, an audience for small-production experimental lots, a higher-margin sales channel through which we can offer our members good discounts and still do better than we would selling wholesale, and (most importantly, in my opinion) a growing army of advocates out in the marketplace who have visited here, gotten to see, smell, and touch the place, and take home a memory of our story and our wines. I don't think it's a coincidence that our wholesale sales grew dramatically over the first five years that our tasting room was open, or that each time a new state opens to direct shipping our wholesale sales improve there. Still, we would never have predicted at the outset that nearly 60% of the bottles that we'd sell in our 30th year would go directly from us to the customer who would ultimately cellar and (or) drink it.
Right #4: Building (and keeping) the right team is key Long tenure was a feature of his hires throughout my dad's career. I still see people at Vineyard Brands sales meetings who remember me coming home from little league games in uniform, 35 years ago. And I'm really proud of how long the key members of the Tablas Creek team have been here. That includes David Maduena, our Vineyard Manager, who is on year 28 here at Tablas Creek. Denise Chouinard, our Controller, worked for my dad at Vineyard Brands and moved out here to take over our back office 23 years ago. Neil Collins will oversee his 22nd vintage as Winemaker here this year. Nicole Getty has overseen our wine club, hospitality, and events for 15 years, while and Eileen Harms has run our accounting desk for the same duration. This will be 14 years at Tablas Creek for Senior Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi and 13 for Tasting Room Manager John Morris.
I say all this not because longevity on its own is the point, but because of what it means to keep talented and ambitious people on your team. It means that they feel they're a part of something meaningful. That they're given the opportunity and resources to innovate and keep growing. And that you don't have to reinvent the wheel every few years.
Wrong #5: People will buy it because Beaucastel Much of our challenge in the early years was self-inflicted: we hadn't done the work to create a consumer base for Tablas Creek, so when the wines got onto shelves or wine lists, they tended to gather dust. We assumed that if we made great wines, somehow the news would get out to the people who always clamored for Beaucastel (coming off a Wine Spectator #1 Wine of the Year honor in 1991), and the sales would take care of themselves. That turned out to be wildly optimistic. While our association with Beaucastel helped get the wines onto the shelves and lists, the boost it provided in sales wasn't enough to overcome the wines' unfamiliar names and lack of category, and the winery's own nonexistent track record. In the end we had to do the hard work of brand building: telling the story to one person at a time in our tasting room, to ambassadors in the trade, and to the masses (such as it was) through press coverage.
One caveat: a key piece of this turnaround was our decision in 2000 to bestow the name "Esprit de Beaucastel" on our top white and red blend. Unlike the names "Rouge", "Blanc", "Reserve Cuvee", and "Clos Blanc", having Beaucastel on the front label instead of in the back story was one of the early keys in reminding consumers who might have some vague awareness that the Perrins were involved in a California project that this, Tablas Creek, was that project. So, the Beaucastel name did matter... but people needed a more explicit reminder.
Right #5: Fundamentally, this place is great for these grapes Ultimately, we got right the most important question, and Paso Robles has turned out to be a terrific place in which to have founded a Rhone project. The evidence for this is everywhere you look in Paso. It has become the epicenter of California's Rhone movement, with more than 80% of wineries here producing at least one Rhone wine. It became the home to Hospice du Rhone, the world's premier Rhone-focused wine festival, for which high profile Rhone producers from France, Australia, Spain, South Africa, Washington, and all over California convene every other spring for three days of seminars, tastings, dinners, and revelry. And the range of Rhone grapes that do well here is exceptionally broad. You can taste some of the state's greatest examples of Syrah, of Grenache, of Mourvedre, of Roussanne, of Viognier, and of Grenache Blanc all here in Paso. In this, it even surpasses the Rhone. You aren't generally going to taste world class Syrah or Viognier from the southern Rhone; it's too warm there. And Grenache, Mourvedre, and Roussanne all struggle to ripen in the northern Rhone. But the cold nights and the calcareous soils found in Paso Robles provide freshness and minerality to balance the lush fruit from our long growing season and 320 days of sun. Rhone producers here have enormous flexibility in how long they leave the grapes on the vines, which allows them to be successful in a wide range of styles.
And I haven't even mentioned yet the happy accident (which I'm pretty sure my dad and the Perrins didn't consider in 1989) that Paso Robles has proven to be an incredibly supportive, collegial community, which has embraced its identity as a Rhone hub and turned enthusiastically to the business of improving its practices, marketing its wares, and becoming a leader in sustainability.
Conclusion: The next 30 Years Ultimately, what makes me so excited about where we are is that we've had the opportunity to work through our startup issues, and to make the adjustments we thought Paso Robles dictated, without having to compromise on our fundamental ideas. We're still making (mostly) Rhone blends from our organic (and now Biodynamic) estate vineyard, wines that have one foot stylistically in the Old World and one in the New World. And we're doing it all with grapevines that are only now getting to the age where the French would start to really consider them at their peak.
Buckle up, kids. The next 30 years is going to be amazing.
This winter has been wonderful. We've accumulated nearly 31 inches of rain, without a single storm that caused us damage, flooding, or even any notable erosion, thanks to an amazing 62 days with measurable precipitation. The green of the cover crops is mind-bending. And it's been chilly enough that the vines have been kept dormant. Our weather station at the vineyard has recorded 29 below-freezing nights, and we've had weeks at a time where the days have been cold too: we had a 39-day stretch between January 31st and March 10th where it rose into the 60s just three times, including several days that topped out in the 40s. That's unusual. But the net result has been that we've been largely free of the worries of recent years that the vines might sprout prematurely, leaving them susceptible to damage from a late frost.
The last two weeks have felt different. Our last below-freezing night was March 14th. Since March 15th, we've seen six days reach the 70s, surpassing the total between December 1st and March 14th. The lengthening days and the warm sun have produced a wildflower bloom that's getting national media attention. And the vines have begun to wake up:
Budbreak, as you probably guessed from the name, is the period when the grapevine buds swell and burst into leaf. It is the first marker in the growing cycle, a point when we can compare the current season to past years. Upcoming markers will include flowering, veraison, first harvest, and last harvest. And like harvest, budbreak doesn't happen for every grape simultaneously. Early grapes like Viognier, Grenache Blanc, Grenache, and Vermentino tend to go first, followed by Syrah, Marsanne, Tannat, and Picpoul, and finally, often three weeks or more after the earliest grapes sprouted, Roussanne, Counoise, and Mourvedre. And it really is just starting. I only saw signs of budbreak in Grenache (pictured above), Grenache Blanc, Vermentino, and Viognier (below):
This year is later than many years this decade, and a month later than our record-early 2016, but it's only about average for what we'd have expected historically. When we saw first budbreak the last dozen years gives a good overview:
2018: Late March 2017: Mid-March 2016: Very end of February 2015: Second week of March 2014: Mid-March 2013: First week of April 2012: Mid-April 2011: First week of April 2010: Last week of March 2009: Second week of April 2008: Last week of March 2007: First week of April
It's important to note that the vast majority of the vineyard is still dormant. I was only able to find leaves in our earliest-sprouting grapes and only at the tops of the hills, which are warmer than the valleys, where cold air settles. It will be at least another couple of weeks before we see sprouting in late-emerging grapes like Mourvedre or Roussanne, or in low-lying areas. This Mourvedre block is one of many that show no signs of sprouting yet:
Why does budbreak happen when it does? It's mostly a question of soil temperatures. Grapevines (and all deciduous plants) are cued by rising soil temperatures to come out of dormancy and begin their growing season. Evolutionarily, plants are trying to balance competing goals: to sprout early enough to achieve maximum carbohydrate generation from photosynthesis, while staying dormant long enough to avoid suffering damage to their reproductive prospects through frost.
Bud break varies with the winter. Because wet soils retain cold better than warm soils, winters that are both wet and cold tend to see the latest emergence from dormancy. The consistent cold and wet we received in the winter of 2018-2019 meant that despite the lengthening days, the vines' most important sensors were telling them that winter was still in effect, and sprouting would be a risk. And, in fact, budbreak does begin our white-knuckle season, since while dormant vines can freeze without danger, new growth is susceptible to frost damage. April frosts cost us roughly 40% of our production in both 2009 and 2011, and we don't feel truly safe until mid-May. So, we've still got more than a month to go before we can relax, and I'm thankful that it will be a few weeks before our later-sprouting varieties and our lower-lying (read: more frost-prone) areas are out enough to be at risk.
But in general, if you could design a favorable winter weather pattern, it would look a lot like what we've seen recently. We'd ask for regular frosts and rain through the middle of March, and then a switch to a warm, dry pattern thereafter. While we're always grateful for rain, since frosts tend to follow in the wake of frontal passages, the precipitation you get in spring storms isn't worth the risk of frost damage. We've been fortunate that the recent storms we've received have largely been warm ones, without frost, and that the extended forecast doesn't seem to contain anything particularly threatening. But there's a long way to go.
Meanwhile, we'll enjoy the rapid changes in the vineyard, and the hope that always comes with the emergence of new buds. Please join me in welcoming the 2019 vintage.
We spent most of last week around our conference table, making sense of the white wines from the recently concluded 2018 vintage. As usual, we started our blending week Tuesday morning by tasting, component by component, through each of the 32 lots we’d harvested this past year. Yeah, I know, tough life. Though, to be fair, these blending weeks are my favorites of the year. Not every week is this exciting.
The first stage of blending is to look at the raw materials we have to work with, and decide whether that will constrain any of our choices. In 2018, it didn't seem like it would. Although quantities were down a bit from our near-record 2017 levels, they were still healthy:
2018 Yields (tons)
2017 Yields (tons)
% Change vs. 2017
Total Rhone Whites
Being down 10-ish percent still allowed us plenty of possibilities, with the reductions in crop more likely to constrain how much of our varietal wines we could make, rather than whether we would be able to make them at all. The once concern we had was Roussanne, which always forms the basis of Esprit Blanc, and which we've made as a varietal wine every year since 2001. Still, the first stage was as usual to go through the lots, variety by variety, and get a sense of both the character and diversity present in the vintage:
We grade on a 1-3 scale, with 1's being our top grade (for a deep dive into how we do our blending, check out this blog by Chelsea from a few years ago). For context, in a normal year, for every 10 lots we might see 3-4 "1" grades, 5-6 "2" grades and 1 "3" grade. As you'll see, lots of good grades this year. My quick thoughts on each variety:
Viognier (5 lots): A really good year for Viognier, with 2 of the 5 lots getting 1's from me and the others strong 2’s, marked down only because they were so dominant I wasn’t convinced that they would shine in blends. Overall, concentrated, tropical and deep, with surprisingly good acids. Of course, there were a few lots that hadn’t concluded malolactic fermentation. Those lots will soften as that finishes, unless we decide that we like them how they are.
Picpoul Blanc (2 lots): Not my favorite Picpoul vintage, with our largest lot getting a 2 from me because it was showing a little oxidative character and a ton of acid as it’s still going through malo. Still, plenty of salty minerality, and that nice tropicality that we’ve come to expect from the Picpoul grape.
Roussanne (9 lots): The barrel program here dominated my impression of these, with two lots showing beautiful (but dominant) oak, two others that were raised in foudre showing brightness and pungency and tasting very young, and five others in mixed but neutral cooperage showing solid, dense, mature Roussanne character, though with a touch lower acidity than I’d like to have seen. My grades: five 1’s (though two of those got asterisks for being oaky enough that we needed to be careful in blending), three 2’s, and one that bordered between 2 and 3 because it was so low in acid.
Grenache Blanc (10 lots): A pretty heterogeneous mix here, with four lots still sweet and five lots still going through malolactic. Like with the Roussanne lots, two that were fermented in foudre were noteworthy: finished with their fermentations but still very young and showing a hint of reduction, which masks their richness. The lots that were done with fermentation and malo, and had spent some time in smaller cooperage, were outstanding, which bodes well for the collection overall. My scores: four 1’s, three 2’s, one 3, and two “incomplete” grades.
Marsanne (3 lots): A spot-on showing for this grape, with all three showing Marsanne’s classic honeydew and chalky mineral charm. One lot added a gentle creaminess and surprisingly good (for Marsanne) acidity, and seemed a cinch to bottle on its own. The other two will be lovely Cotes de Tablas Blanc components. My grades: one 1, and two 2’s.
Clairette Blanche (1 lot): We only had 240 gallons of this, our scarcest white grape, but it was pretty: lovely salty minerality, and a little tropical lychee character. Plenty of acid, and still not done with malo. A 1 for me.
Picardan (1 lot): Newer for us than Clairette, but we have a few more rows in the ground, so the lot was larger (528 gallons). This was a tough wine for me to evaluate. There was still a touch of sugar left, and lots of malic acid, muting the nose and leaving a somewhat primary, candied sweet-tart impression on the palate. Another wine that for me got an “incomplete” grade.
Petit Manseng (1 lot): Not really relevant to the rest of the week’s work, since we don’t blend Petit Manseng into the other Rhone whites. Still, this was a good chance to check in on how it was doing, and decide whether we wanted to push it along fermentation to a drier profile, or to leave it with more residual sugar [If this question seems interesting to you, check out the blog from a few years back Wrapping Our Heads Around Petit Manseng]. At the roughly 70 g/L residual sugar, I thought this was lovely: luscious like key lime pie, with the same hints of pithiness and acidity that suggests.
Wednesday morning, we started on our blending work by tasting possible Esprit de Tablas Blanc blends. We always want the Esprit Blanc’s blend to be dictated by the character of the Roussanne, and in some years, that makes the choice easy. Not this year. The 2018 vintage produced both good lushness and higher acids than we’d seen the few years before, so it wasn’t obvious that we should include higher quantities of the high-acid grapes like Picpoul and Grenache Blanc. Plus, Picpoul this year didn't seem so obviously outstanding as to dictate a high percentage in the Esprit Blanc. Adding to the complexity of the challenge, some of the Roussanne lots we’d liked best were quite oaky, and while we feel that a touch of wood is appropriate on the Esprit Blanc, we don’t want it dominated by that character. So, we decided to focus on blends with moderate (60%-70%) proportions of Roussanne, but to vary the amounts of the oakier lots, and also to try blends that replaced a portion of Picpoul with Picardan and Clairette (as we did last year) and also others that didn’t (as we’d done through 2016).
As is often the case when we have lots of viable options, the Esprit Blanc blending took a while. The first flight of four options saw the table fail to come to consensus, although we did decide that we liked the lots that included some Clairette and Picardan. A second round, controlling for that and varying the amount of new oak, surprised us with the realization that even with all the oaky lots in the blend, it didn’t taste particularly oak-dominant. (Though, given that those lots only made up about 10% of the wine, that might not be surprising.) After we’d mulled on that for a while, the blend fell into place on our third trial, at 66% Roussanne, 21% Grenache Blanc, 8% Picpoul Blanc, 3% Picardan, and 2% Clairette Blanche, with most but not all of the lots in the new barrels.
Once we'd decided on the Esprit Blanc blend Wednesday, the Cotes de Tablas Blanc came together quickly on Thursday. In this fairly scarce (and low-acid) Roussanne year, it was pretty clear that there wasn’t much need for it in the Cotes Blanc. And setting aside the Marsanne lot we loved for a varietal bottling meant we knew how much Marsanne we had for Cotes Blanc. So, that meant a blending trial mostly to determine the best relative proportions of Viognier and Grenache Blanc. As is often the case with a trial with only one variable, we all came to agreement on the first round: 40% Viognier, 35% Grenache Blanc, 20% Marsanne, and 5% Roussanne. That allowed the Viognier to show nicely (the Cotes Blanc is always designed to show off this most exuberant of our grapes) but with the Grenache Blanc giving it a nice acid backbone to play off. We talked for a while to see if we could think of anything to improve the blend, but couldn’t, so we all used the rest of the morning to clear some other work off our desks.
We had managed to make our two main blends without using up any of our grapes completely. So, the final step was to taste those two blends alongside the seven (yes, seven) varietal wines that this left us. Other than Grenache Blanc (1200 cases) and Roussanne (some 700 cases) we won’t have enough of these other varietal bottlings for a full wine club shipment, but it will still be a treat to have 400 cases each of Picpoul and Viognier, 275 of Marsanne, 125 of Picardan, and even 50 cases of Clairette Blanche. At this stage, the highlights for me were the Viognier, which was absolutely classic and luscious, the Marsanne, which showed the grape's signature honey and floral notes but also had great brightness, and Clairette, which had electric minerality and a lovely lemongrass character. If you’re fans of any of these, stay tuned to emails that announce their release as we get them into bottle later this spring and summer.
A few concluding thoughts:
I was struggling much of the week with a nasty head cold, and there was one day where I could barely taste. Thank goodness for a strong team, and a process which meant that things could move forward even without my full faculties. My head had cleared by the end of the week, and tasting the finished blends all together was a great chance to affirm the success of the week’s work.
The cold 2018-2019 winter has definitely had an impact on how far along things were in their fermentation. Normally by late March, most of the lots are done with sugar fermentation and largely done with malolactic. Not this year, despite the efforts of the cellar team in bringing barrels out into the sun, moving recalcitrant lots over the lees of those fermenting actively, and generally nudging things along as much as they could. Fermentation is a temperature-sensitive chemical reaction, and this year has been cold.
The vintage’s signature seems to be medium body with expressive aromatics, bright acids, and striking minerality. That’s a great combo. We can’t wait to share these wines with you!
About two months ago, I posted a blog Paso Robles is Absurdly Beautiful Right Now, sharing some photos I'd taken in the newly-green vineyard, ground fog wending its way around vines, solar panels, and olive trees. Fast-forward two months, and we're seeing the lovely consequences of combination of the last two weeks of sun and the nearly 30 inches of rain that we've received. The result has been a vineyard as green as I can ever remember, set off against impossibly blue skies and the dark brown of the still-dormant grapevines. To wit:
Although we'd had two dry weeks before today's half-inch of rain, there is water everywhere, seeping out of hillsides and running merrily in Las Tablas Creek. You can see a puddle sitting in the swale between the east-facing Vermentino vines (foreground) and the west-facing Mourvedre vines (behind the frost fans).
The vines themselves are still dormant thanks to a series of below-freezing nights, although the warmth of the sun suggests that we'll see bud-break before too long. In fact, this was the week last year when we first saw leaves. I don't expect that this year -- it has been colder, and all the water in the soil is keeping soil temperatures down -- but early April seems like a pretty safe bet. So, views like this, with a bare Counoise trunk silhouetted against the blue sky, will be short-lived:
The dormant trunks make amazing patterns in the vineyard, like the Mourvedre cordons below:
Still, as impressive as the green grass is, it's the sky at this time of year that always steals the show for me. Here's a view looking up toward our tallest hill, over Counoise and Grenache blocks. You can see the still-unpruned Grenache in the foreground; we wait longest to prune this, our most frost-prone grape:
I'll leave you with one last view of the vineyard contours, looking up the same hill of Vermentino in the first two photos. The sweep of the land comes through, I hope.
After four relatively quiet months, March is go time in the vineyard. The days start to get longer, the cover crops and wildflowers explode into growth thanks to the sun and rain, and it starts to feel like spring is just around the corner. Of course, it's not, quite; it's still often below freezing at night, and with the cold weather we've seen this year, the grapevines shouldn't sprout for at least another few weeks. But all of a sudden you know the clock is ticking.
Normally, we'd prune starting in January. And we did get a bit of a start this year. But it's been wet enough that there were lots of days where we couldn't get into the vineyard, and pruning in the rain is an invitation to fungal infections and trunk diseases. That means we're behind where we'd normally be. You can't prune too early, because you need to wait until the vines are dormant so that they can store up the necessary vigor in their roots. And pruning too early encourages the vines to sprout early too, and in an area prone to spring frosts -- like Paso Robles -- that's a risk. So, rather than prune in December, we typically do the bulk of our pruning in February and March, starting with the varieties that sprout late, and which we're not too worried about freezing, like Mourvedre and Roussanne. We try to finish with Grenache, Grenache Blanc, and Viognier, which all tend to sprout earlier, in the hopes of getting another week or ten days of dormancy out of them.
Viticulturist Jordan Lonborg and Vineyard Manager David Maduena took 90 seconds to explain what they aim for in their pruning, and then demonstrate:
All this is done by hand. We have about 115 acres that need to be pruned. 80 of these acres are trellised like the ones in the video, at roughly 1800 vines per acre. The other 35 acres are head-trained, at much lower density, between 350 and 600 vines per acre. That's more than 160,000 vines to prune. At 20-25 seconds each, that's slightly more than 1,000 man-hours of work. Figure that we typically have 8 of our full-time crew working on pruning in this season, with an hour of breaks each day makes 146 days of work... or with a crew of 8, just over 18 work days each. That sounds about right... roughly a month of work, if the weather holds.
Why does all this matter? Pruning our vines well has several positive effects:
It reduces yields and improves quality. As a rough estimate, you can figure on one cluster of grapes per bud that you leave during pruning. Leaving six spurs each with two buds predicts roughly a dozen clusters of fruit, which should give us about the three tons per acre we feel is ideal for our setting and our style.
It makes for a healthier growing season. If we space the buds correctly, we should have good vertical growth of canes and have clusters of fruit hanging below the canopy. This configuration means that air flow through the rows should naturally minimize mildew pressure. It will also shade the fruit from the sun at the hottest times of day, while allowing any nutrients or minerals we spray onto the vineyard to penetrate the canopy.
It promotes even ripening. Different vines in any vineyard block have different base levels of vigor. If left to their own devices, some might set a dozen clusters while others might set thirty. Of course, the more clusters, the slower they ripen. Getting an even cluster count helps minimize the spread between first and last fruit ripe in a block and makes the job of the picking crew much easier.
It sets up the vine for the following year. Done well, pruning encourages the growth of wood in places where it will be needed in future years, filling in gaps where cordons may have died back in previous years or separating spur positions that have grown too close.
It saves labor later. A good example of how much labor good pruning saves can be found by looking at a frost vintage, where the primary buds have been frozen and secondary buds left to sprout wherever the vine chooses.
We estimate that we're about 70% done with our annual pruning work. This week is supposed to be sunny, and if that holds, by the end of the week we should be largely done. And then we have another little break where we wait for budbreak and get to start worrying about frost. As I said a few years back, springtime is terrifying... but hopeful.