Choosing the Wines for the Fall 2018 VINsider "Collector's Edition" Shipment

Each summer, I have the pleasure of tasting through library vintages of our Esprit de Beaucastel and Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc to choose the wines for the upcoming VINsider Wine Club Collector's Edition shipment. We created the Collector's Edition version of our VINsider Wine Club back in 2009 to give our biggest fans a chance to see what our flagship wines were like aged in perfect conditions. Members also get a slightly larger allocation of the current release of Esprits to track as they evolve. This club gives us a chance show off our wines' ageworthiness, and it's been a great success, generating a waiting list each year since we started it.

This year, our selections will be the 2010 Esprit de Beaucastel and the 2012 Esprit de Tablas Blanc. Each wine bears the signature of its vintage: 2010 was one of our coolest, with exceptionally long hang times and wines that show depth almost effortlessly, while 2012 was the first warm year after two cool vintages, producing Roussanne with charm and friendliness.

In both cases, the wines have evolved in fun ways, becoming something more complete than they were when they were young.  The 2010 Esprit, which was always an intellectually satisfying wine, has fleshed out and added heft and substance without muddying the vintage's essential elegance.  The 2012 Esprit Blanc has added depth and savory, nutty notes that layer beautifully over the wine's essential sunny generosity.

It's worth noting that this isn't the end; both these wines will go out another decade, at least, and the 2010 Esprit, particularly seems like it will benefit from even another six months in bottle. The duo:

CE Wines 2018 2

Tasting notes, from tastings today:

  • 2012 Esprit de Tablas Blanc:  Medium gold, only slightly deepened with time. An immensely appealing nose of almonds, honey, white flowers, mint, and a rich fruity yeastiness that Chelsea identified as apple fritter.  The mouth is like baklava: nuts and honey, with additional flavors of roasted pear, clove, and candied lemon peel. Still vibrant and youthful, but with delicious additional complexity from the five years in bottle. 75% Roussanne, 20% Grenache Blanc, 5% Picpoul Blanc.  Delicious now, but will certainly be good for another 5-10 years, or more.
  • 2010 Esprit de Beaucastel: A deeply meaty, spicy nose of strawberry fruit leather, bittersweet chocolate, and bay leaf. On the palate, beautifully balanced between youthful and more mature expressions, with flavors of plum skin, leather, loam, and meat drippings. Very nice freshness, with savory notes of black pepper and black tea coming out on the finish.  It's still unwinding, and we think that anyone with the patience to wait another 6 months will be rewarded. It will drink well and continue to gain depth and complexity, we think, for another decade or two. 45% Mourvedre, 30% Grenache, 21% Syrah, 4% Counoise. 

The complete Collector's Edition shipment is pretty stunning, if I may say so myself:

  • 2 bottles of 2010 Esprit de Beaucastel
  • 1 bottle of 2012 Esprit de Tablas Blanc
  • 3 bottles of 2016 Esprit de Tablas
  • 1 bottle of 2014 Esprit de Tablas
  • 1 bottle of 2016 En Gobelet
  • 2 bottles of 2016 Esprit de Tablas Blanc
  • 1 bottle of 2017 Cotes de Tablas Blanc
  • 1 bottle of 2017 Grenache Blanc

We will be adding to the Collector's Edition membership, subject to available space, in the next few weeks. If you're on the waiting list, you should look for an email with news, one way or the other, of whether you've made it on for this round. We add members, once a year, in the order in which we received applications to the waiting list. If you are currently a VINsider member and interested in getting on the waiting list, you can upgrade to the Collector's Edition online or by giving us our wine club office a call. And if you are not currently a member, but would like to be, you can sign up for the VINsider Wine Club Collector's Edition, with all the benefits of VINsider Wine Club membership while you're on the waiting list.

One final  note. This will be the 10th year of our Collector's Edition club.  I remember back in 2008 when we were brainstorming ideas as to how to get the library wines that we'd been cellaring since the 2003 vintage into the hands of our fans, and struggling with how to do this without cheapening the experience of VINsider Club members. It's interesting for me to go back and read a blog I wrote then, sharing our thoughts and soliciting ideas from readers.  I still think of the Collector's Edition as a "new" addition to our offering, but with a decade under our belts, it's clearly not any more.  Those of you who are members, I'd love to hear your thoughts.  And thank you, as always, for your patronage. We are grateful, and don't take it for granted.


A mid-summer vineyard assessment suggests 2018 is looking like a throwback to the 2000s

I feel like I'm inviting disaster just by typing this sentence, but it's been, well, benign so far this summer.  I got back from two weeks in Europe, some vacation and some work, to find a vineyard significantly advanced over where it was in the first half of June.  Vines that were just finishing flowering are now fully set, with early varieties nearly full-sized.  The Grenache, below, looks fully formed, though the grapes will continue to grow a little and there's no hint of color change yet:

Vineyard Summer 2018 Grenache

Fruit set looks good, with only minimal shatter, and the late rain that we received in March appears to have given the vines enough vigor to set a healthy crop.  We will surely be dropping some fruit this summer.

The vineyard looks vibrantly healthy, with even stress-prone varieties like Roussanne and Mourvedre still fully green.  This isn't a surprise; we've only had one day (June 22nd) top 100, and only 14 days reach the 90s.  That may sound like a lot, but the average nighttime low since May 1st has been 46 degrees, and a couple of days in mid-June didn't even make it out of the 60s. More measurably, in terms of heat accumulation (as measured in Degree Days at the weather station in our vineyard) we're still below our 20-year average, with May 18% cooler than normal and June just 5% warmer than normal.  I'm not sure if the health of the vineyard comes through in photographs, but it's (no pun intended) worth a shot:

Vineyard Summer 2018

Or, for another perspective, here's a shot from below the Counoise trellises, showing the clusters sheltering beneath their leafy canopy:

Vineyard Summer 2018 Under Counoise

How does this compare to other recent years, and what does it mean for harvest?  Well, our late-March budbreak, which kicks off the growing season, was about two weeks later than in most recent years, though more or less average looking at a 20-year perspective.  The weather since then has been quite a bit cooler than the years since 2012, but again, more or less average looking at the 20-year scale.  That's probably easier to make sense of in a graph.  First, the heat accumulation (in degree days) this year versus two averages: one of all years since 1997, and the other looking at just the recent warm stretch that began in 2012:

Summer 2018 Degree Days Through June

You can see that our recent years (in green) have been quite a bit warmer than the longer-term average (in blue), whereas 2018 (in red) is cooler.  That's perhaps even more dramatically illustrated by looking at 2018 in terms of percent difference from average.  All three months we've measured this growing season have been between 8.5% and 15.5% cooler than the 2012-2017 stretch:

Summer 2018 Degree Days Through June vs Normal

All this weather data just reinforces my thought that we're going to be seeing a harvest that's more like what we got used to in the 2000s (when we averaged 1069 degree days through June, nearly identical to this year's 1045) than what we've seen in the 2010s. The best comps to date are 2002, 2006, and 2009, all of which didn't see harvest begin until the first half of September. I'm not expecting veraison until we get close to the end of July.  Of course, there's still a long way to go, and there is a hot stretch forecast starting next week.  But we are at what's typically the hottest time of year, and it's still been moderate.  So far, so good.


Into the Heart of Darkness: Tasting every Tablas Creek Tannat 2002-2017

Each year, we pick a wine we've been making for a while and open up all that wine's vintages, for the dual purposes of better understanding how it ages over time and better advising our fans which vintages to open if they're looking for peak drinking1. This year, we decided to look at Tannat, which is a grape renowned for its ageworthiness that somehow, we'd never opened systematically. So, it was with significant anticipation that we assembled each vintage of Tannat we've made, from our first (2002) to the newly-blended 2017:

Tannat vertical

An additional goal of this particular tasting was to choose a selection of the Tannats to show at a public retrospective tasting. Sixteen wines is too many, but we figure we can pick a representative sample that will give guests a great sense of how the wine develops in bottle, as well as how the vintage affects the wine's composition and flavor profile.  If this sounds like fun, we'll be hosting that tasting on August 19th.  Details are here.

Whether you're thinking of coming or not, I thought it would be fun to share my notes on each wine. I have 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.

  • Tannat 2002: On the nose, inviting, with eucalyptus, black cherry, chocolate and mint. The mouth is similar, still quite rich and tannic, with a little cedary oak coming out on the finish. So fresh, and still absolutely in its prime. A treat.
  • Tannat 2003: Smells a little more mature: leather and soy marinade, as well as mint and dark chocolate. The mouth was still quite tannic, elevated by Tannat's signature acids, with flavors of cream soda, chocolate truffle and raspberry liqueur. The finish was my least favorite part of the wine, a touch on the pruney side. 
  • Tannat 2004: Some wildness on the nose, very savory: aged balsamic, tobacco, dried strawberry, and green herbs. The mouth is generous, spicy, and richly tannic, with an earthy mulchy note playing back and forth with black cherry liqueur.
  • Tannat 2005: A lovely meaty chocolate-cherry nose, with meat drippings. Like a Burgundy from an impossibly powerful vintage. The mouth is comparatively gentle, with beautiful currant/plum/black cherry juiciness, with additional flavors of mint and hoisin.  Less overtly tannic than the first three wines, and a real pleasure. My favorite of the older Tannats.
  • Tannat 2006: A slightly oxidative note on the nose, on top of milk chocolate and baking spices. The mouth leads with sweet cherry fruit, given savory complexity by a pine forest note. Medium-weight (less than the four wines before) but nice tannin and acid on the finish, with higher toned flavors of chocolate-covered cranberry lingering.
  • Tannat 2007: Fresh on the nose: minty eucalyptus, cherry cola, and pork fat. Rich and figgy in the mouth, powerfully tannic, but with a sweet edge. It came across to me as a touch alcoholic at this stage, with a finish of chocolate-covered raspberry cordial.
  • Tannat 2008: Immediately different than the previous wines, more translucent on pouring. The nose is older, a touch raisiny, less spicy. The mouth too is quieter, with leather and golden raisin, and less tannin and verve. Not sure if this is a stage, or just a weaker Tannat vintage.
  • Tannat 2009: A blockbuster nose: soy, mineral, tobacco and potpourri.  On the palate, all black descriptors: black plum, black tea, and black licorice, rich and concentrated, with both juiciness and gaminess coming out appealingly on the finish.  Impressive.
  • Tannat 2010: The cool 2010 vintage produced a different, more elegant expression of Tannat: graphite, white pepper, lilac, pork fat, and molasses on the nose. Rich but not aggressive on the palate, with fresh cherry flavors, chewy mouth-coating tannins, and that pancetta-like note returning on the finish.
  • Tannat 2011: Spicy fruit jumps out of the glass: cranberry, eucalyptus, and cocoa powder. Bright on the palate, almost pomegranate-like in its vibrancy and tannic bite, roasted leg of pork and chocolate-cherry. Falls a little short on the finish, with a little raisiny note coming out. We thought this might be better in a few years.
  • Tannat 2012: Again, something different: more red fruit than black, with cedary oak and star anise spices. The mouth shows vibrant acids, then cherry skin, then tannic on the finish.  Still very young.
  • Tannat 2013: Spicy and powerfully savory on the nose: iron shavings, juniper, and fall leaves. The mouth is nicely balanced and more generous than the nose suggests, with cocoa butter, blueberry, and more minty spice. Nicely complete, with excellent finesse.
  • Tannat 2014: Electric and spicy, with za'atar and meat reduction, violets and strawberry on the nose. The mouth is similarly vibrant, with echoes of red cranberry fruit and a long, tangy, saline finish.
  • Tannat 2015: A darker nose, of black licorice, spicy eucalyptus, and a meaty note like a rosemary-rubbed leg of lamb. The mouth is dense and plush, yet lifted by a welcome bitter note that we alternately identified as blood orange and aperol. Really cool, and drinking great right now.
  • Tannat 2016: Just bottled 6 weeks ago, the nose still seemed quiet from the recent bottling: violets and black olive, but obviously more to come. The mouth is nice: dark chocolate, black plum, licorice, and plenty of tannin. Lots to show here, but much more to come. Will be released later this year. Patience.
  • Tannat 2017: Newly blended and living (for now) half in wooden upright tank and half in small barrels while we wait to free up foudre space. Smells like a baby: grape jelly, meaty, still youthfully thick like raspberry pie.  Lots of fermentation aromas.  Tons of potential, but a long way from bottling yet. 

I asked people around the table to offer a few of their favorites, and the wines that got votes included the 2002, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2014, and 2015, with the 2005, 2009, and 2015 pretty universally among everyone's top picks.

We ended up choosing the following vintages for August's public tasting: 2002, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016.

A few concluding thoughts:

  • Tannat definitely has a strong personality.  We were commenting at about wine five that we were running out of ways to say chocolate, mint, and black cherry. That's not to say there weren't vintage variations; there definitely were. But unlike, say, Syrah, which is something of a chameleon depending on where it's grown, I think Tannat's personality is pretty well set, wherever it grows, both in flavors and in its full-bodied, richly tannic texture.
  • Tannat really does age gracefully. The oldest wines didn't taste at all elderly, and some (like that 2002) were almost impossibly fresh, with tannic structure, acids and density that suggested another few decades weren't out of the question. Now Tannat is famous for its ageworthiness, but it's still nice to have confirmation that this fact holds true here in Paso Robles too.
  • That said, I was surprised by how vibrant the younger wines showed. I tend to bury my Tannat bottles in the back of my wine fridge and assume I shouldn't even crack one open for a decade.  The 2013, 2014, and 2015 were all showing beautifully. I think that's one of the benefits of growing this grape here in Paso Robles: you have plenty of sun to ripen the grapes, and so there is fruit to balance the grape's tannins. But just as important, there is acidity from the cool nights and the calcareous soils that keep the wines fresh. If there was one surprise for me, it was the vibrancy of the wines.
  • The meatiness in Tannat is different than what we find in Mourvedre or Syrah. Mourvedre tends to remind me of the drippings from beef roasts. Syrah brings to mind smoky bacon. Tannat's meatiness was more fatty pork, but not bacon-smoky, more like pancetta or roast leg of pork. 
  • For all its meatiness, maybe the most fun thing about Tannat was the floral note that the younger wines showed. I've often found violets in new Tannat releases, which is a fun surprise, like a bodybuilder in a tutu. As the wines age, the floral tones deepen, becoming dried roses and eventually (in the 2009) potpourri. 
  • Those of you coming out for the tasting in August are in for a treat.

Footnote

  1. We update a vintage chart at least quarterly with the results of these tastings.

Rethinking the Role of Wine Festivals in the Age of Yelp and Instagram

Last month, we participated in the Paso Robles Wine Festival, as we do every year. This year was particularly nice, with gorgeous weather and a great vibe at both Friday evening's Reserve Event and Saturday afternoon's Grand Tasting in the downtown park. If you came to see us over the weekend, thanks. We hope you had a great time. We sure did.

Paso Robles Wine Festival Cru 2018

Every year, we debate how much to invest in activities at the winery. This year, we decided to go (relatively) big.  On Sunday, we brought in Chef Jeff Scott and he made gyros from lamb we raised on the property. We also had Chris Beland come in and play music. Our patio was full much of Sunday, and everyone had a great time. All that said, our traffic was modest on Sunday (124 people) which continued a 5-year trend of downward Sunday traffic. It's been declining about 10% a year for a while now. And even our Saturday traffic (209, up a bit from last year) wasn't really an increase over a normal May week.

Friday, on the other hand, was our busiest in recent years, with 105 people. But overall, our weekend traffic (438) was right about at our average for the last 5 years, only slightly busier than a normal May weekend, and actually less busy than Wine Festival Weekend was in the mid-2000's.  Years ago, the Paso Robles Wine Festival weekend was a major source of revenue for the member wineries.  You poured wine in the park on Saturday.  On Sunday, you opened your gates (often to a line of cars) on Sunday morning and saw as many people that one day as you might in a low-season month. So, given the potential payoff, wineries pulled out all the stops in trying to get a high percentage of the park attendees out to the wineries, with food, music, seminars, and special open houses.  Given that it's now not that different from any other weekend, does it makes sense to do the same?  It's not like the decision to provide food and music were free.

We think yes, for two reasons. First, our success with the customers we saw was great. We had our highest weekend sales in the last 5 years, and our second-best number of wine club signups. That's a win. But given that most of those came Friday and Saturday, I'm not sure how much to attribute to our events.  Second (and to my mind, more importantly), what we were doing was investing in the long-term success of the Paso Robles wine region. A regional wine event without the enthusiastic participation of its wineries isn't really that special to the people who attend.

Years of post-event surveys have told us that roughly 50% of the attendees of the Paso Robles Wine Festival are making their first visit to Paso Robles Wine Country. I feel like our most important job is making them fall in love with the place, so they return.  Whether we sell them much wine this time around or not, festivals are part of the marketing of our region, and that investment is a long-term play. We should both pour cool wines in the park and do our part to make sure that attendees have a great selection of things to do the next day. After all, the festival in the park only happens one weekend a year, and is put on in the hope that the attendees will then return, spend multiple days visiting wineries, and make visits here a recurring part of their lives.

I think that longer perspective can get lost if you look just at the post-event traffic numbers. The growing numbers of people who visit Friday and Saturday are likely at least in part the result of good work at past festivals, where attendees fell in love with Paso Robles wine country.  The Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance has done a great job, I think, in making the event more full-fledged in recent years, incorporating the many great restaurants of Paso Robles more and more, adding a reserve tasting, great seminars, etc.

I don't think that the higher average spend per customer we've seen in our tasting room on Wine Fest weekend (double what it was in 2011, triple what we saw in the mid-2000's) is a coincidence. And, more importantly, neither is the growth of our non-festival weekends. In 2003 (the earliest year for which I have good data) we sold about $9,000 in wine on the Sunday of Wine Festival to about 300 guests, part of a $12,500 week that was nearly double our $6,900 average non-festival sales week that year.  This year, on Wine Festival Sunday we also sold about $9,000 in wine. But it was to 124 visitors, and part of a $41,000 tasting room week that was only 13% better than our average week this year ($36,000).

And consumer trends only reinforce how important it is getting new people into the pipeline of your region or your brand.  A study published by Eventbrite showed that the majority of attendees of food and wine festivals are sharing photos of the event on social media. Peer to peer recommendations are the most trusted form of advocacy.  And a positive experience that is echoed on an online review site like Yelp has positive impacts on not only future customers' buying decisions, but on things as apparently removed as your search engine rankings.

So, for us, it's an easy decision. We will keep investing in the success of our community, and trust that these seeds we plant will sprout in the form of return visits and sales. And we're grateful we're a part of a community in Paso Robles where we're just one of many wineries who've made the same choice.


Flowering 2018: Might We Be Seeing Our First Moderate Vintage of the Decade?

There are five viticultural markers that we use each year as markers: notable reference points that indicate where we are compared to other years.  These are, in order:

  • Budbreak (typically late March or early April)
  • Flowering (typically May sometime)
  • Veraison (typically late July or early August)
  • First Harvest (typically late August or early September)
  • Last Harvest (typically late October)

Budbreak gave us the first sign that we were going to see a later beginning than recent years.  Flowering, which we saw first evidence of in mid-May but which is still widespread as we get into the second week of June, is confirmation that we're looking at a growing season roughly two weeks later than what we've come to be used to since 2012. An example, from our Grenache block on Scruffy Hill in late May:

Flowering grenache on Scruffy Hill May 2018

If you haven't seen grapevines flowering before, you can be excused for finding it underwhelming.  It's not a showy process.  Still, the tiny white fuzz-like flowers that appear on the clusters are the first stage of development of the berries.  From this point on, if the berries are fertilized successfully, they'll grow in size and mass until veraison, at which point they stop growing but accumulate sugar and ripen the seeds within. 

During flowering, you hope for consistent, sunny weather, with only limited wind and no rain.  Cold or wet weather at this stage can produce incomplete fertilization, or shatter, where a cluster has a high proportion of unfertilized berries, looking snaggle-toothed and (often dramatically) reducing yields.  Some varieties, most notably Grenache, are prone to shatter, while others are less so.  This year, conditions have been good, and we are cautiously optimistic that shatter won't be a major issue. It's worth remembering that overall, conditions in Paso Robles are pretty benign compared to what grapevines face in most parts of the world.

2018 appears to be developing into something of a throwback. The rest of the years this decade have been pretty extreme at this stage.  In our warmer years (like 2012, 2013, 2014, 2016, or 2017) May has felt like early summer, with multiple days in the 90's and even low 100's.  In the chilly years (like 2010, 2011, and 2015) May has been more like April, with several nights dropping down into the 30's and most days topping out between the mid-60's and mid-70's.  What we're seeing is something more in the middle.  A quick line graph may help give you a sense. I've put the line for 2018 in red, to help it stand out:

Average Temps by Month 2010-2018

You can see that the 2018 trend line falls in the middle, in a space that's largely unoccupied (in May, at least) this decade. So, what does this mean for the rest of the growing season?It's too early to be particularly definitive.  It could develop into a year like 2015, where we ricochet between significantly warmer-than-normal months and significantly cooler-than-normal months.  It could build like 2012 from a cool early season to a scorching August.  Or it could settle in as a more uniformly cool or warm summer.  But we do have a not-insignificant portion of the growing season behind us, and at this point we're about 2% below our average number of degree days through June 6th, and 28% below our maximum to date (2014).  That cool weather, combined with a fairly late budbreak, suggests we're a couple of weeks behind most of our recent years, and unlikely to begin harvest before September.  Of course, there's lots that's yet to be determined.

At this point, we're happy to be most of the way through flowering in good shape, with the vines healthy from the March rain we received and the lack (so far) of heat spikes, at the roughly one-third point of the growing season.  And the vineyard smells great.

Flowering grenache on Scruffy Hill May 2018 2

We'll take it.


Other Wines We Love: 2012 Qupe Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard Grenache

The next in an occasional series of our non-Tablas Creek wine discoveries.

Bob Lindquist is one of my favorite people in the wine business.  As the founder of Qupe and one of the pioneers of California's Rhone movement, Bob probably needs little introduction to most fans of Tablas Creek. He has been making wines from Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo County grapes since 1982, and has been honored with many awards, including the 2015 Rhone Rangers Lifetime Achievement Award. Even more interesting, to me at least, he's still on the Rhone movement's cutting edge. He's planted Rhone varieties in new places, most notably the Sawyer-Lindquist Vineyard in the cool (UC Davis Region 1 on the Winkler Scale) Edna Valley. He adopted Biodynamic farming early enough that this year is year 10 of the Sawyer-Lindquist Vineyard's Demeter Certification. And he's still a tireless promoter of the category we both inhabit; I've run into him in airports and at out-of-state wine events more times than I can count.

Bob's wines are in style like his manner: thoughtful, understated, and long-lived.  They're rarely flashy when they're young, although they're always pure and correct.  But they have remarkable longevity, and (like Bob) the more time you spend with them, the more insight you realize they have to offer. 

Last night, we opened a bottle of Qupe 2012 Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard Grenache. We paired it with a Blue Apron recipe for seared steaks with parsley-caper butter, which we dressed up by grilling the steaks and zucchini and then serving the zucchini over a whipped ricotta concoction we'd loved from a different Blue Apron recipe.  The food was terrific: one of the best meals we've cooked this year.  The steaks turned out juicy and flavorful, with the meaty flavors brought out by the umami of the parsley-caper butter.  The mashed potatoes were tangy and rich, while the sweet smokiness of the slow-grilled zucchini was given texture and cool richness by the ricotta.  But the wine was the star of the show.  Grenache has a tendency toward being candied on its own, but this rendition had none of that: just pure crunchy red fruit, vibrant acids, and a little welcome spice at the end. The wine came across as almost weightless, in the best possible way: flavors distilled down to their essence, as I often find from grapes grown in a region almost too cool for them to ripen.  Just an absolute pleasure to drink.  A snapshot, mid-meal (I didn't stage a shot at the beginning because, well, I wasn't expecting the revelation we got):

Qupe Grenache

The Grenache grape can be something of a chameleon, which is perhaps unsurprising for a grape planted in so many diverse places around the world.  It is a warm climate staple, and most regions where Grenache is widely planted (including the southern Rhone, Spain, and Paso Robles) are warm ones.  And some of the characteristics that I found in this Qupe Grenache are those we see here at Tablas Creek: its red fruit profile, its brilliant garnet color, its good acids, and its spice.  But while many examples of Grenache world-wide are earthier and show more baked red fruit character, this wine felt so fresh, even at age 6, like it was all high tones and electricity. I don't know what age will do to the wine, but given Qupe's track record for aging and the wine's freshness, I'm confident it's going to go somewhere exciting, though it's so good and so pure now, I'm sure lots of it will get consumed in the near term.  And best of all, it's not an expensive wine, still available for $35 on the Qupe Web site.  If you have the chance to snag some, or you have some in your cellar, you're in for a treat.

Bravo, Bob.


Blending the 2017 reds confirms that we're looking at a vintage for the ages

Last week, after three weeks of work, we finally got a chance to taste all 12 red wines we'll be making from the 2017 vintage.  It was a treat.  Esprit and Panoplie were rich, lush, and intense, but with good structure and no sense of heaviness.  The Mourvedre, Grenache, and Syrah were each powerfully evocative of what we love about each grape: Mourvedre meaty and chocolaty, Grenache juicy and vibrant, and Syrah smoky and spicy. Counoise was ridiculously electric, with masses of purple fruit that in most vintages it only hints at.  The En Gobelet and Le Complice each spoke clearly of the idea behind why we created the wines: En Gobelet loamy and pure, with a great expression of place, while Le Complice was both dark and bright, like Syrah with an extra application of translucency. Even the Patelin de Tablas and Cotes de Tablas were each, in their own way, remarkably expressive.  And, equally important, thanks to the plentiful 2017 harvest, we'll be able to make solid amounts of all our wines.  After five drought-impacted years, what a relief.

2017 red blending components

How did we get here? It was, as they say, a process.  As usual, we started our blending week Monday morning by tasting, component by component, through what we had in the cellar. Thanks to the healthy crop levels that we saw in 2017, we had no choice but to separate 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 (20 lots): A very good showing for Grenache, although there was more diversity here than in some of the other grapes.  Eight of the lots received 1's from me, with three others getting provisional 1's (lots that I believe will become 1's with just a little cellar work).  Only one 3.  Pretty but powerful too, with excellent fruit and good acids that proved valuable in blending.
  • 2017 red blending notes
    The Mourvedre portion of my notes. That's a lot of "1" grades!
    Mourvedre (18 lots): The best showing I can ever remember for Mourvedre.  I gave eleven lots a 1 grade, and felt a little guilty that I didn't give a few of the 2's higher grades.  Only one lot I even thought about giving a 3.  Meaty and rich, great texture, lots of depth. A wonderfully powerful base for our many wines that are based on this grape, and thanks to the plentiful vintage, great prospects for an amazing varietal Mourvedre.
  • Syrah (19 lots): Really good here too, though because the other varieties were so strong, it didn't stand out as much as it did, say, in 2016. Seven 1's, with seven others that I gave 1/2 grades (my intermediate grade that sits between a 1 and a 2). Lots of smaller lots here as we experiment with different amounts of stem inclusion, which made for some fun and diverse expressions of the grape, from dark, inky, and plush to ones more marked by herby spice.
  • Counoise (7 lots): For the first time in years, multiple Counoise lots that seemed Esprit-weight. There were still some of the lighter pretty high-toned Gamay-style lots that lovers of our varietal Counoise bottling will recognize, but a greater quantity of rich, spicy, purple-fruited Counoise than I can ever remember.
  • Terret Noir (1 lot): Terret was as usual zesty and bright, with tons of spice and nice tannic bite. It was the one grape that didn't increase its yield between 2016 and 2017, and there's not that much (2 puncheons) but it's enough to make a nice impact on the Le Complice.
  • Tannat (6 lots): Four of the six lots got 1 grades from me, and the others got 2's only because I thought they were so powerful they were a little one-dimensional. It's going to be a great Tannat year. Lots of black fruit, Tannat's signature tannic structure and acids, and a lovely little bit of violet floral lift.
  • Pinot Noir (4 lots): All these lots come, of course, from my parents' small vineyard in the Templeton Gap, but we were experimenting with different amounts of stems and whole cluster. The mix of the four hit, for me, just the right note, with pretty cherry Pinot fruit given weight and complexity from the herbal elements by the roughly 50% whole clusters we used in the fermentation. A touch of oak was nice too. Should make for a delicious 2017 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 lack of evident weaknesses in the Mourvedre we weren't sure whether we wanted feature more Syrah, more Grenache, or a relatively equal amount of each in Panoplie and Esprit. And for the first time in several years, Counoise was powerful enough to include in the discussion for both wines.  So, we went into blending determined to try a range of options.  As always, we tasted these options blind, not knowing what was in each glass.

Wednesday morning, we reconvened to work out each blend, starting with the Panoplie.  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.  We've only added Counoise once.  We tried three blends and split pretty equally, with the only conclusion being that including Counoise sacrificed more in power than it gained in vibrancy.  After a second round of trials, we settled on a blend with a fairly high amount of Mourvedre (69%) and a roughly equal amount of Grenache (17%) and Syrah (14%).

Panoplie decided, we moved on to the Esprit.  Here came our first real surprise.  Given that the Mourvedre was so good, we decided to try two Mourvedre-heavy blends, one with more Syrah and the other with a roughly equal percentage of Grenache and Syrah, as well as something of a control wine: one that matched the percentages of our 2014 Esprit, with 40% Mourvedre, 35% Grenache, 20% Syrah, and 5% Counoise. To all of our surprise, we universally preferred the last blend, with the least Mourvedre and the most Grenache. After ten minutes of discussion where we tried to rationalize this determination and figure out if we could think of anything that would improve the blend, we decided to trust the process and go with what we all liked best.  Sometimes the wines surprise you in the glass, which is why we do things this way.  Looking back, I can see why this might have happened.  Knowing how good the vintage was, and how short our last two crops were, we decided to make a relatively high quantity of Esprit: 4200 cases. That's a lot of wine: roughly one-third of what we harvested. Even at 40% Mourvedre, we were committing nearly half of the Mourvedre we harvested.  As we increased that and approached 50%, we had exhausted our 1-rated lots and were having to start using some 2-rated lots.  But we could get to a full 35% Grenache with only 1-rated lots. So, increasing from 40% Mourvedre to 50% Mourvedre and decreasing from 35% Grenache to 25% Grenache meant that we were swapping out 1-rated Grenache for 2-rated Mourvedre.  And our blind tasting results (rightly) told us that was a mistake.

On Thursday morning, we tackled our two small-production wine club blends -- one in just its second vintage, and one we've been making for a decade. 

Our 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.  Last year, when we first made this wine, we realized that the two wines benefit from some Grenache, to provide flesh to the bones and spirit of Syrah and Terret. Given the limited amount of Terret from 2017, we knew that all of it would be going in this blend and account for about 13% of the 825 cases we were trying to make.  So our trials were to find the right ratio between Syrah and Grenache, and the right percentage of the Syrah that was fermented using whole clusters.  In the end, we picked the most dramatic example with the least Grenache (20%) and quite a high percentage of whole cluster Syrah (67%). It felt like a statement about what Syrah could be with a little added translucency: like a ray of sun shining through a deeply pigmented stained glass window.

For our En Gobelet, made entirely from head-trained, dry-farmed lots, in early years we used a relatively high percentage of Tannat to give backbone to wines that were otherwise mostly Mourvedre and Grenache. In more recent years, as we got some head-trained Syrah in production, our Tannat percentage declined. Given how good the Tannat was, and how luscious the vintage was, we thought it might be an opportunity to build more Tannat into the blend. And that was the wine we chose in the blind trials: one with 11% Tannat to go along with 39% Mourvedre, 34% Grenache, 11% Syrah, and 5% Counoise. It's important to us that all our wines taste distinct from one another, and we felt like Tannat's dark spiciness would set this blend apart from the similarly Mourvedre-heavy Esprit. Club members are in for a treat, in a couple of years.

After this, Cesar had to drive back to San Francisco for his flight to France, and we tabled the plan for the week while we all set to work excavating what had landed on our desks while we were sitting around the blending table. The next Tuesday, we reconvened to tackle the Cotes de Tablas and the varietals.  Unlike some scarce years where the Cotes falls into place pretty quickly because of a lack of blending options, this year we had to answer some fundamental questions about what we wanted the Cotes to show.  More Grenache, or more power?  How much Counoise-driven vibrancy, or is that really lively Counoise more valuable as a varietal?  And how much Syrah is just enough?  Typically, Grenache without enough Syrah comes across with a candied edge. You keep adding Syrah until it cuts that edge, but add too much and it takes over and the wine loses the freshness and purity Grenache brings. In this vintage, we tried a couple of blends with around 50% Grenache and varied the Syrah and Counoise percentages, then one with less Grenache and more Syrah, and one with more Grenache and not much of the others.  This was the longest debate we had, and in the end picked something in the middle, with 53% Grenache, 25% Syrah, 12% Counoise, and 10% Mourvedre. It's delicious, with just enough depth and structure to balance Grenache's graceful fruit.

Given what we'd made of the blends, the math dictated how much of the varietal wines we could make: no Terret Noir, but 450 cases of Syrah, 525 cases of Grenache, 550 cases of Counoise, 1100 cases (!) of Tannat, and a glorious 975 cases of the year's best grape, Mourvedre.  What a pleasure to be able to show off varietal bottlings of all four of our main red grapes from such a terrific vintage (and for the first time since 2010). What's more, I'm convinced, after having tasted through everything this week, that it will be our best varietal Mourvedre (and best Counoise, and best Tannat) we've ever bottled.

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 2017.  2005, which was also a plentiful vintage following an extended drought, and which made robust and appealing wines, seems to maybe be the best, but the vines were so much younger then, and the tannins more aggressive. 2014 had some similarities, but I think 2017 was across the board more expressive, and the Mourvedre was much better.  Just a great year overall, and so nice that it's plentiful too. 

Second, while it will be impossible to tease apart what contributed the vintage's noteworthy lushness and expressiveness, it's fascinating to speculate the role that our move to apply Biodynamic farming played.  Sure, the 43 inches of rain made a huge difference.  And we've been farming increasingly biodynamically for years.  But just as we noted in 2010 and 2011 the quality of the lots from the 20-acre swath we'd started farming Biodynamically in 2010, I think there's good reason to believe that at least a part of the quality of 2017 comes from the fact that we had finally extended those practices across the entire vineyard, not least that the early and plentiful rain allowed our flock to graze every vineyard block twice.  Will we see the same impact in a drier year like 2018?  Time will tell.

Third, it was great to have Cesar Perrin here for the blending.  In recent years, we've mostly seen Jean-Pierre and Francois Perrin during our spring blending sessions.  But Cesar, who spent a couple of harvests here during the string of internships that he took at great wineries around the world, has really come into his own.  He is the Perrin family personified, with a reverence for tradition tempered by a love of experimentation.  For me, one of the great advantages that we've always had with the Perrins' involvement is that they come with an outside perspective but also with generations of experience with these grapes.  As they move from 4th to 5th generation, it's clearer than ever that Beaucastel is in good hands, and with it Tablas Creek.

2017 blending group shot

Finally, this was the first red blending week without my dad in the room. I spent a lot of the week thinking about him, trying to think about what he would have thought about the wines in front of him as well as what I was experiencing. Every blending session, there was at least one moment where he approached a question from a different perspective than the rest of us, and even when we were convinced that our solution was right, the change in perspective took us in a direction that was worth exploring. It's a new world for us, doing this without him.  But at least I'm convinced with this 2017 vintage -- which he did taste when he came into the winery in February -- we'll do his memory proud.


Direct Shipping Shenanigans, Delaware Edition

After a burst of progress on wine direct shipping in 2016, in which Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Arizona all opened up, we've had a bit of a pause for the last 18 months or so. Some of that is because most states are now open, and most of the states that are left are relatively small wine markets without their own wine industries, which reduces the pressure both from consumers in that state and from job-creating wineries.  Some of that is because the holdouts tend to be clustered in areas like the deep south (where cultural norms tend to resist the liberalization of alcohol laws) or the northeast (where arcane blue laws, most of which protect powerful distributor lobbies, are long-entrenched). But for the first time in over a year, we have a bill up for vote in a non-shipping state that has the potential of opening a formerly closed market to wine shipments.  Sure, the state is Delaware, the 39th largest state in wine consumption and only 0.42% of the American wine market. But I identified it a few years ago as the likely next state to open up, and we'll happily take any progress we can get.

Enter Delaware bill HB 165. It contains pretty standard wine direct shipping language, establishing a reasonable annual permit ($100) for wineries wanting to ship wine into the state and requiring that wineries collect and remit taxes as though the sale were completed in the location where the wine was delivered.  Common carriers are responsible for checking ID's at delivery.  Reporting requirements are reasonable (quarterly). There is a quantity restriction (three 9-liter cases per household per year) that I don't think is necessary, but it shouldn't cause too many people much angst.  In essence, it's a good bill, and would put Delaware in Tier 2 of the five-tier hierarchy I devised a few years back to evaluate the ease and cost of state shipping regulations.

Except for one clause. A restriction, found in Section d, Clause 5 (lines 61 and 62 of the bill's text) dictates that:

A wine direct shipper licensee may not ... Ship wine that is listed in the current publication designated by the Commissioner for sale by Importers in this State to retailers in this State."

What's the big deal here? Delaware is one of many states that require that any wholesaler register with the state any alcohol product that they offer for sale within the state's borders. States see a role for themselves here in ensuring that wine, beer, and liquor be offered equitably to different retailers and restaurants, and that it not be (for example) given away to prejudice an account into giving preferential treatment to one wholesaler or another. Again, this is fairly routine.  But this shipping bill would eliminate any wine that a Delaware wholesaler is offering for sale from the direct shipping permit. Although this seems straightforward on its face -- you're opening access to the market for wines that aren't available in distribution, and wineries without a wholesaler relationship in Delaware would see this as a win -- it's a major headache for several reasons.

First, just because wineries have a wine listed with a distributor doesn't mean that this wine is actually in stock in retail anywhere.  A quick search of wine-searcher.com for Tablas Creek in Delaware shows four wines available, all at one shop in Claymont.  Only one is current vintage (the 2015 Patelin de Tablas), one is back vintage (the 2013 Esprit de Tablas) and two look like they're the Cotes de Tablas and Cotes de Tablas Blanc, but don't have vintages listed.  I know that our distributor there, who also covers Virginia and West Virginia, also has Esprit de Tablas Blanc, Patelin de Tablas Blanc, and Patelin de Tablas Rosé available for sale.  It's possible that they just haven't sold any recently (our total wholesale sales in Delaware in the last 12 months totaled just 24 cases), or that what they've sold has all gone to restaurants.  But in either case, even the wines that aren't in stock wouldn't be eligible to ship to Delaware consumers. 

Second, just because it's at retail, it doesn't mean it's convenient to a customer.  I had to look up where Claymont, Delaware is, and learned that it's north of Wilmington, at the very northern tip of the state, right on the Pennsylvania line. If a consumer is in the middle of the state (think Dover) they're looking at a drive of about an hour, without traffic.  It's a two-hour trip each way for a resident of a southern town like Laurel.

Third, wineries typically sell a different mix of wines in wholesale than they do direct. Our wine club shipments include early access to our top wines (like our Esprit de Tablas and Esprit de Tablas Blanc) as well as small-production wines that don't make it into distribution. A restriction like this means that our wine club shipments wouldn't be legal to ship into Delaware, which means that we couldn't sign up club members.  Our point of sale system -- which is one of the most sophisticated winery platforms available -- isn't capable of restricting residents of certain states to only certain wines, so we wouldn't be able to take any orders online from Delaware, or would have to then cancel out the portion of orders that weren't eligible for shipment, which would be a nightmare.

Taken together, if that restriction stays in HB 165, it wouldn't make any sense for us to get a shipping permit.  And there are many, many wineries like us out there, which means that the bill wouldn't do much to make available new wines to Delaware consumers, and will likely leave them frustrated and baffled as to why some of their favorite wineries will ship to them and others won't.

Why would this restriction have been entered into the bill?  It's a case of wholesaler (and retailer) protection.  Wholesalers (and retailers) are state-licensed companies, and contribute big money to state campaigns ($107 million in the last decade, according to one study) to protect their share of this $135 billion industry.  Although some individual distributors have more progressive views, wholesaler associations see direct shipping as a threat, and have consistently opposed the liberalization of shipping laws.  They tend to argue that restricting shipping combats underage drinking and ensures the orderly collection of taxes, but given that no one has ever shown a link between wine direct shipping and underage drinking, and that most shipping bills add revenue to state coffers, neither holds up, and it's pretty clear to me that this resistance is at its root protectionism, pure and simple.

Opposing these forces are an array of winery and consumer groups, most notably the Wine Institute and Free the Grapes, both of which support liberalized direct shipping and have seen a remarkable run of success in opening up one state after another since the 2005 Granholm v. Heald decision struck down laws that protected in-state wineries right to ship to consumers but prohibited out-of-state wineries from doing the same.  It was on the Facebook page of Free the Grapes that I found a remarkable exchange that included Paul Baumbach, the principal sponsor of HB 165.  Free the Grapes was urging consumers to contact their Delaware representative and support an amendment to HB 165 (Amendment 1, proposed by Delaware House Rep Deborah Hudson) that proposed the elimination of lines 61 and 62 that restrict the shipping permit to non-distributed wines.  Rep. Baumbach wrote the following (remarkable) comment:

This post is paid for, not by those concerned about Delaware vineyards, but by a California lobbyist organization. Why does HB165, which I am prime-sponsoring, prohibiting the Direct shipping of Delaware wines which are available in our stores? Because they are available in our stores! This bill s designed to help Delaware wine consumers have access to all wines? That means that it works to provide access to wines which aren’t legally available to Delaware residents? HB165 as filed accomplishes that, despite what a California group is spending money on Facebook to make you believe. Make sense?

The level of obfuscation here is pretty remarkable, and makes clear that the goal is not in fact to "help Delaware wine consumers have access to all wines". I would submit that it's in fact a delaying tactic, in much the manner that New Jersey has done, appearing to pass a shipping bill while not actually opening the market much and protecting as much of the state-licensed distributors' profits as possible.

I hope consumers see through this.  If you live in Delaware, please make your voice heard, and support the bill provided it includes House Amendment 1.  An interface on the Free the Grapes Web site makes it easy to contact your elected officials.

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