San Luis Obispo County: the Little County that Could

This week, the San Luis Obispo Tribune posted a nice article pointing out the terrific representation of San Luis Obispo County in the two most influential year-end "Top 100" lists published by the Wine Spectator and by the Wine Enthusiast.  The Wine Spectator included seven local wines in their Top 100, while the Wine Enthusiast added three more in their Top 100.  Let's stop and think about this for a moment.  That's 10 of the 200 wines represented in the two lists from our little county, or 5%.  And even better that most of the wines listed were toward the tops of the lists. Already pretty satisfying, right? It's actually even better than that.

Tablas Creek Long View 2014

How much wine does San Luis Obispo County make, compared to the rest of the state, country, and world?  In 2016, San Luis Obispo County ranked seventh in the state of California by bearing acreage according to the USDA:

  • San Joaquin: 68,210
  • Sonoma: 58,007
  • Monterey: 44,095
  • Napa: 43,589
  • Fresno: 37,831
  • Madera: 32,763
  • San Luis Obispo: 31,480

Overall, our county represents 6.8% of the 459,629 bearing acres in the state of California.  So, 5% doesn't seem like that great a representation.1  But of course, not all the wines in the two "Top 100" lists are from California. In fact, just 39 of the 200 wines in the two lists (17 in Wine Enthusiast and 22 in Wine Spectator) are from California.  So, that's 25.6% of the state's "Top 100" representatives that come from SLO County.  Not bad.

Perhaps you'd prefer to look at what percentage of American wine our little county represents?  Opening up the list to wines from Washington, Oregon, and New York adds an additional 22 wines.  That reduces SLO County's percentage from 25.6% to 16.4%, still well above the 3.45% of the country's total production that San Luis Obispo County represents.2

Or perhaps you're prefer to look internationally.  In 2015, the United States produced 10.48% of the world's wine.  So, San Luis Obispo County produced 0.36% of the world's wine: just one out of every 277 bottles made.  That means that in the two "Top 100" lists, the 5% that SLO County represents is overperforming by something like 14 times, measured as our percentage of world production. 

However you choose to measure it, we punched way above our weight class in 2017.

You go, San Luis Obispo County.

Footnotes:
1. It's actually a little better than it sounds, since although SLO County represents 6.8% of California's acres, it represents something less than that of its production. That's because coastal regions like ours generally produce many fewer tons per acre than counties in the Central Valley.  Figuring out by how much is a little tricky, since production isn't tracked by county, only by Grape District.  In the California Grape Crush Report for 2016, District 8, which includes San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, and Ventura Counties, produced 224,584 tons.  If SLO County represents the same 67% of tonnage that it represents of the district's bearing acreage, which seems reasonable, it would produce 150,471 tons, or about 3.7% of the state's 4,031,000 total tons produced.

2. This calculation required a bit of cross-referencing, since grape acreage statistics in states outside California, Washington, Oregon, and Texas are hard to come by.  I used instead the tons estimate I calculated in the above footnote, and calculated the percentage of total national production based on the Wine Institute's data that California represents roughly 85% of the United States' total national production.


You can't evaluate what you don't measure

Tasting Room with People

Once we get into December, things really slow down for us.  The cellar, which has been on a three-month sprint, has put most of the year's wines to bed.  In the vineyard, the vines are going dormant, we've seeded the cover crop, and there's not much to do but hope for rain and wait until pruning begins in January. In the market, most restaurants and retailers have made their buying decisions for the holiday season and aren't really interested in seeing anything new.  Our tasting room, which might see 600 people a week in high season, drops to a third of that.  So, it's the time where I try to look back at what we've done for the year and evaluate how well we've done it.  I talk to other wineries, and industry experts, to see whether what we've observed is part of a larger trend, or if we're an anomaly.  In almost every one of these conversations, I hear the comment that we track data that most wineries don't.

Now, I'm something of a data geek.  I hate not being able to test a hypothesis out against real numbers.  And I hate it when I feel that the data that we're capturing doesn't represent the critical decisions that customers make.  Because that's the important thing about data: it lets you know, beyond anything anecdotal, whether you're doing a great job or not.  Are we taking great care of our tasting room customers?  Are we offering them wines they want to buy?  What about once they are club members?  Do they feel special?  And do we keep evolving along with the rest of the wine community?

I feel like many of the things we track are pretty fundamental, and am always surprised that not every winery feels the same way.  And, in fact, most of these aren't particularly wine-business-specific, and would apply to any retail business.  Here are the things that I think are baseline information:

  • Your real traffic. Most wineries track the number of transactions, the number of wine club signups, and the number of tasting fees.  Fine.  But there's lots of context in here that can slip through the cracks.  Do you track the number of people who don't pay a tasting fee, whether because they are club members, because their tasting fee is comped on a purchase, because they are industry members, or because they share a tasting?  You should be.  If you're not, how do you know how to evaluate a day where you make $1000 in sales to 20 customers?  If you only have 20 customers walk through the door, that looks a lot better than if you had 100.  Plus, traffic is remarkably consistent year-over-year, and knowing how busy certain times of year are helps you staff appropriately.
  • The percentage of your traffic that purchases.  For us, this is easy, since we comp the tasting fee on even a single bottle of wine.  And so far this year, just over 12% of our visitors have paid tasting fees.  I'm happy with this level.  But knowing what percentage of your visitors liked things enough to make a purchase (or, conversely, couldn't find anything that they wanted to buy) is a great indicator of how you're doing.
  • The percentage of your traffic that joins your club.  Absolute numbers of club members are, ultimately, what impacts the bottom line.  But percentages are more informative.  They are the best indicator of how often you really turn someone on to what you do.  And they help you know whether you're maintaining the quality of your experience when things get busier.  If you're not, check your staffing levels.
  • Your average sale per customer (or per transaction).  You can measure this either way, but knowing how much your average customer bought is critical.  Fundamentally, that's your report card on how well you did.
  • Where your sale originates.  Is a purchase made in your tasting room, by phone, or online?  Knowing that you've sold $20,000 in the last week isn't nearly as useful as knowing that you had $14,000 from your walk-in traffic and $6000 in response to an email you sent out to your mailing list.
  • How long your members stay members.  Or, conversely, your cancellation rate.  Now, every club is going to have a certain amount of turnover.  Customers get older, have health issues, lose jobs, and move overseas (or to states you can't ship to).  That happens.  And I'm really proud that our median duration of membership is nearly triple the industry average of 18 months.  But unless you know what your baseline turnover rate is, and are tracking closely enough to see a spike, you can't be quick about finding out why and addressing what you find.
  • What percentage of your emails get read.  If a customer hasn't opened one of your emails in some time, this is a red flag.  It could be that you don't have the right email address to reach people.  It could be that what you're sending out isn't compelling.  In either case, you should want to know.  Of course, also check on anyone whose email bounces back.  It's much harder and more expensive to make a new customer than it is to keep an existing customer.  Put in the time it takes to keep your lists current.
  • The percentage of your visitors from whom you capture contact information.  Becoming a club member is something that a small percentage, at best, of your customers will do.  Industry averages hover around 3%; we feel like with great wine and great service, you can push that up to around 10%.  But that doesn't mean that the other 90% of your customers are a lost cause.  Many of them purchase and would begin an ongoing relationship with you, if you can figure out how to do it in a way that would be welcomed.  An occasional email letting them know about a tasting or dinner near their home?  Or one that provides some useful insight into what's going on in the vineyards or at the winery?  Probably welcome.  Finding a way to start a conversation makes it more likely that they'll return to see you again on a future visit, that they'll want to buy the wines you make when they see them at their favorite restaurant, and that someday they'll become regular customers.  Do you have a mailing list in addition to your club list?  Do you provide information people want to read?  And do you segment your list by region so you can target emails properly and not overwhelm people?  You should. 

You'll note that most of these data points are percentages.  So without counting your traffic accurately, it's very hard to get the rest of the data right.  Consider adding a button on your register to ring up a visitor who doesn't purchase.  That means that the data is all contained in your point-of-sale system, and you don't have to reconcile paper tallies or Excel spreadsheets with your sales totals.

Whatever your method, having this information isn't just an opportunity to check yourself against your baseline.  It creates a shared vocabulary that will allow you to evaluate your performance against your peers, and to interpret the data that's available through industry associations, seminars, and articles. And more than that, it's how you know if you're succeeding at your fundamental goal: to create an experience, and an environment, where your customers want to begin, and sustain, a mutually beneficial relationship with you.


5th Annual December must! Month at Tablas Creek

By Lauren Phelps

We have a saying in Paso Robles, “it’s not the wine industry, it’s the wine community” and this sentiment is never more apparent than during the holiday season.  During these winter months our community of winemakers, wine lovers, and growers rally together to make a significant impact locally through donations and volunteer work.  And we concentrate our philanthropic efforts, multiplying the benefits through must! Charities- a local nonprofit organization that donates 100% of its proceeds directly back to specific community projects in North SLO County. 

Must Donation
Our 2017 must! Charities donation

This December is our 5th annual must! Month fundraiser where we donate $1 for every bottle sold (online, by phone, and in the tasting room) throughout the month.  In total, Tablas Creek has donated over $31,000 from funds raised during must! Month since 2012.

2017 must
December Tasting Room List

Often we are asked by guests in the tasting room what must! Charities does and how buying a bottle of Tablas Creek wine during the month of December supports families in need.  To put it briefly, must! Charities brings together hundreds of individuals and businesses in a collaborative effort to pool funds and resources together to give bigger and better for our community.  Must! strategically selects the most essential projects to fun and supports them with large, lasting contributions that make sustainable change in North SLO County.  Some of what they have supported in recent years includes: 

  • Food Bank Coalition's Children's Farmer's Market Expansion- The $27,000 Cash Investment over the last 12 months added an additional 9 sites to the north county and provided over 170,000 pounds of fresh produce for children and families.
  • Big Brothers Big Sisters-  4 year, $253,000 - $273,000 commitment with Big Brothers Big Sisters of SLO County with financial and business expertise that will grow the North County reach from the 10% that it represents now, to a realistic number based on community need. 
  • CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates)- must! charities is committed to a 4-year, $262,551 collaboration with CASA to address the 120 children remaining on the waitlist in North County.

Haas Quote 2
While we're proud of the donations we make each year, it's not all we do. Tablas Creek team members volunteer with local organizations such as CASA, local youth sports, Paso Robles Youth Art Foundation, Prado Day Center, and Community Counseling Center.  Last year we helped freshen up the Boys and Girls Club in a hands-on service project.

BGC Collage_sm
2017 Tablas Crew Work Day

We couldn’t do any of this without the support of our wine loving community.  Thank YOU for helping us continue our mission to be positive ambassadors of the Paso Robles wine community.


Thanksgiving wine pairings from the Tablas Creek team

I am a sucker for Thanksgiving. Between the excuse to get together with friends and family, the delicious food, and the fact that the whole event centers around being thankful for the opportunity to get together with friends and family and eat delicious food, it's pretty much right up my alley.  The fact that it is still our least commercialized holiday only makes it better.

Turkey Day 2017What's more, it's always fun for me to see which of our wines will get recommended for Thanksgiving in the press.  There are plenty of options.  With a traditional turkey dinner, I tend to steer people toward richer whites and rosés, and fruitier reds relatively light in oak and tannin.  There are a lot of the wines that we make that fit this broad criteria, from Roussanne and Esprit Blanc to Dianthus Rosé to Counoise, Grenache, or Cotes de Tablas.  Richer preparations open up a world of Mourvedre-based reds, from Esprit de Tablas to Mourvedre to our Panoplie.  This year, we've seen Cotes de Tablas recommended in Sunset, Esprit de Tablas Blanc recommended on Alcohol Professor, and Patelin de Tablas Rosé recommended on Maker's Table.  And that's normal. I remember one year a while back where we were lucky enough to have the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle and Chicago Tribune each recommend Tablas Creek with their Thanksgiving article... and each picked a different wine.

So, this is a long way of saying that if you're planning to stay in the world of Tablas Creek, you've got options.  But of course, there's a world of wines out there, and it seems a shame to limit yourself.  So, I thought it would be fun to see what a broad cross-section of our team were looking forward to drinking this year.  Their responses are below.

Dani Archambeault, Wine Club Assistant
This year my husband and I have decided to have an ‘Old Fashioned’ kind of Thanksgiving!  So High West Double Rye Whiskey it is!  We enjoy this Rye because of its spicy-woody richness with tastes of cinnamon & roasted sugars.  I am sure it will pair perfectly with my mom’s sweet potato casserole & soften the impact of the Fox News blaring in the background ;)

Janelle Bartholomew, Wine Club Assistant
For Thanksgiving this year we will be enjoying a Domaine Weinbach Riesling, and the 2015 TCV Counoise. The peach and apple that resonate with Riesling along with the bright acidity are perfection with Turkey. The cranberry and clove stand out for me in the Counoise which makes such a harmonious balance with all the yummy baking spices in both the main dishes and desserts.

Leslie Castillo, Tasting Room Team Lead
We are going to enjoy a couple of wines I discovered while I worked harvest in the Southern Rhône Valley a few weeks ago.

I am specially excited about my favorite Tavel, Domaine de la Mordorée's 2016 "La Reine des Bois". This wine has beautiful and complex aromatics, bright acidity, spice, textural minerality and captivating depth. It is wild yet elegant and powerful, I think it will bring a nice contrast to the traditional thanksgiving meal components like; sage, turkey, mashed potatoes, etc. The wine I chose is all that while still respecting the environment as it is organic.

Neil Collins, Executive Winemaker
Thanksgiving again! as I think about just which beverages to enjoy with this annual feast I realize how many wonderful options there are in the Tablas Creek stable, Terret Noir, Pinot Noir, En Gobelet, Clairette Blanche, Picardan, Roussanne, referencing just a smattering. This is not even thinking of non-Tablas, non-California wines. I will have quite a table of folks this year so there will doubtless be plenty enjoyed. As always as we cook and prepare, as people start to arrive we will have a growler or two of Bristols Cider open for all. When we come to the vino I have chosen three main players, 2016 Grosset Polish Hill Clare Valley Riesling this seems the perfect match for the day, second La Ronze 2015 this Gamay from Beaujolais was produced in the Regnie appellation, the newest of the crus, and should be fruity and delicate for the food at hand. As that big bird lands upon our table I will break out a Magnum of 2012 Esprit de Tablas Blanc, a big bottle for a laden table and the wine the perfect pairing. Bon Appetit to you all!! 

Darren Delmore, National Sales Manager
I’ve reserved a hyper local wine duo of 2007 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc - to be drunk out of massive Pinot Noir goblet stems (which I’ve found shows off its wild, evolved pedigree) - as well as a mystery magnum of 2002 Talley Estate Pinot Noir that turned up at my family’s pizzeria fully sealed at some point in the year. At the most, both bottles will please any wine sipping palates at my brother’s table, and at the very least, using the same stems will slightly cut down on dishwashing duties. 

Brad Ely, Cellar Master
This Thanksgiving I will be opening a Felton Road Block 3 Pinot Noir from Central Otago, New Zealand. It is light on its feet, very textural, and won't over power any of the various flavors on the dinner table. I tend to stick with lighter wines made in a fresh style for Thanksgiving, and this fits the docket quite well. I am sure there will be a few bottles of Gamay making an appearance as well!

Chelsea Franchi, Senior Assistant Winemaker
For me, bubbles are an absolute must for any celebration – or, if I’m being completely honest – a must for any gathering.  This means that the availability of something sparkling over the holidays is non-negotiable.  My husband and I had the great honor to meet up with the members of the Tablas Creek riverboat cruise this summer, where one of the pre-cruise excursion destinations was the Champagne cellars of Roger Coulon.  We brought a few bottles back home with us and I think this weekend would be the perfect time to examine the difference between tasting Champagne IN Champagne and tasting Champagne in California.  All in the name of science, naturally.

For the dinner portion of the evening, the two bottles I’m most excited to crack into are my Smith-Madrone (dry) Riesling from the Napa Valley and one of the bottles from my Cru Beaujolais stash; probably the Jean-Michel Dupre Vieilles Vignes from Morgon.  Both of these have enough structure, beautiful roundness of body, as well as infinitely enticing aromas, to support the wide array of diverse dishes we’re going to be enjoying.  With these three lovely wines, I’ll have to add three more spaces to my long list of things I’m thankful for!

Robert Haas, Founder
This year my cellar choice will be a 1985 Trapet Chambertin. The Trapet family was the largest single proprietor in Chambertin.  He mostly sold his wines to negociants in barrel. Raymond Beaudouin convinced him to bottle some and I later represented him personally and through Vineyard Brands.  The domaine has subsequently split up in the family.  1985 was a great vintage, and it should be fully mature.  

Craig Hamm, Assistant Winemaker
For my family dinners there is generally a good amount of open bottles on the table. A couple of the wines we will be choosing will be Tablas 2015 Counoise with plenty of cranberry and light fruits tones along with the baking spices that fills in, it should be a winner. Another wine we will be opening will be A 2014 Hilltop Syrah from Stolpman Vineyards. Cheers and happy holidays.

Eileen Harms, Accounting
We will be on the road so when we stop at our hotel for the evening we packed our  “Road Trip Wine” Meiomi Chardonnay and Duckhorn Migration Pinot Noir. We also added a backup plan; Gruet Blanc de Noir where we get a bit of Pinot Noir with a dash of Chardonnay, just in case. Happy Thanksgiving!

Jordan Lonborg, Viticulturist
Thanksgiving is without question my favorite holiday of the year. Family, friends, WINE and good food are all that is needed for a successful holiday. It’s a celebration of being thankful for all that we have. That said, my list is long!!! In the spirit of giving thanks, I will be drinking (and sharing) the 2015 Tannat.

As a grower, if I had to choose one varietal to work with for the rest of my career,  it would be Tannat. Hands down it is one of the toughest, most disease resistant, insect pest resistant, (most importantly) virus tolerant plants I have ever encountered. It is one, if not the only, variety I know on the the property that needs little assistance and ripens beautifully year in, year out! So in the spirit of paying homage, I raise my glass to you Tannat! Thank you for being the rock that you are! Also, you know what makes you a tad bit cooler than the rest? You are a palindrome! Happy thanksgiving to all of you! Love your families, love your friends, and think about those who are not as fortunate!!! Happy thanksgiving!!!!

John Morris, Tasting Room Manager
This year's pairing should be a cinch as we're serving lamb chops, a natural partner for many Tablas Creek wines.  Still there's some narrowing down to do.  Single-varietal Mourvedre or a blend?  A Côtes de Tablas to bridge some of the lighter food on the table?  Which vintage?  Something young and fresh, or maybe a bottle mellowed and deepened with time?  Hmm, maybe this isn't so easy after all.  We’ll open with some bubbles of course, but after that we’ll get straight to the reds.   After some thought I’ve decided on our 2015 En Gobelet, which is both fresh and vibrant, and deep and complex.  If I only had one bottle, I’d hang onto it for some years to let it develop and open something else, but I happen to know where to get more.  Cheers to you and your family!

Monica O'Connor, Direct Sales Manager
I’m having a sort of opposite-day Thanksgiving this year – half of my guests are off to other gatherings later in the afternoon, so my main dish is lobster ravioli (lobster: that other traditional Thanksgiving viand http://www.foodandwine.com/blogs/how-and-why-you-should-eat-lobster-thanksgiving).

We’ll toast with a Gruet Blanc de Noirs, a pleasant and refreshing sparkling from New Mexico - certainly called for on such a warm autumn day. I have a bottle of 2013 Perrin & Fils Gigondas La Gille which I’ve been saving for the right occasion, and it will go beautifully with our paté, cheese and other savory starters. With our meal, I have finally decided on the 2012 Esprit Blanc, a perfect complement to the lobster and citrus beurre blanc sauce, with its Roussanne richness and gentle acidity to round out the meal.

I am so grateful to be able to share these beautiful wines with my friends and family who will soon be filling my home with warmth and laughter. Happy Thanksgiving!

And as for me...
My general rule is to open the biggest bottle that I have on Thanksgiving.  That automatically makes for a festive gathering.  As for wines, my personal favorite for the traditional turkey and fixings is Beaujolais.  So this year, although I'll be over at my parents' for the meal (and will therefore get to share some of that 85 Chambertin) my contribution will be procuring a magnum of 2016 Domaine Marcel Lapierre Julienas, which my dad tried and reported was terrific this summer.  Julienas is one of the lesser known "cru" appellations in Beaujolais, and typically produces wines that balance between classic Beaujolais juiciness and the more savory, serious aspect that comes from the cru terroirs.  Hopefully, it will hit the spot. If not, we might just have to open a third bottle of that Chambertin.

Wherever you are, we wish you a happy, healthy Thanksgiving, and that you be surrounded by good food and great company.


Life as a Harvest Cellar Intern: To Shower or Not to Shower?

[Editor's note: With this post, we are happy to welcome Linnea Frazier to the Tablas Creek blog.  Linnea was one of our cellar interns for this years harvest, fresh from Portland’s Lewis and Clark College. This was her first cellar experience. This won't be the last you hear from her, as we are also happy to announce that she will be staying on with us working as our Marketing Assistant, as well as in the Tasting Room.]

By Linnea Frazier

I glanced at the clock. It was 8:13 pm and I had just trudged through the door after yet another twelve-hour cellar work day. After grappling with my juice-stained, water-logged boots and eventually winning the battle, I flopped onto the bed and contemplated my grape induced state of affairs.

To shower or not to shower? Eh, that’s what the glory of dry shampoo was invented for. To eat something besides oatmeal for dinner and make a decent meal fit for a person? Hmm, if I put enough chia seeds in it that means I’m healthy right? To attempt to stay up past 9:30 for once and get a drink with the friends who were threatening to file a missing persons report on me? Hard pass, because that would probably entail staying awake long enough to understand basic human social cues (plus the whole shower thing). Then I should probably FaceTime my Mom and placate her that I haven’t fallen into a fermenting tank yet. Perhaps not, because she would demand to check the state of my Harvest Hands.[i]

That glorious night ended as most every night of Harvest did, with my feet in fuzzy socks and a glass of my one true love, Syrah, in hand. There I rested, falling asleep by nine like the 23-year-old harvest Grandma that I was more than happily content being.

Image1

Looking back at this year’s harvest I can’t help but chuckle at my preconceived notions going into it, and how much that changed into the new reality I have emerging from it. To describe working harvest at a winery in a mere blog is no easy task. Words almost seem to fail when I think about the evolution of what those unoffending, little grape clusters do to make their way to be imbibed and dissected at our dinner party tables, and what we need to do as winemakers to ensure they don’t stray that path. Perhaps it’s the influence of our heavily moustached shepherd Nathan, but there’s a sheep-dogging metaphor in there somewhere.

For what happens in a winery's cellar is worlds apart from the warmth and comfort of its tasting room. The environment of a cellar is raw, almost carnal in nature, with the cellar crew itself verging on animalistic at times amongst the frenzy of a Harvest. It is cold, damp, and amongst the constant heavy whir of machinery you can readily lose sense of time and place. The fervid smell of fermentation clings to everything, including you. It is this living, breathing entity with the cellar crew tending to it as worker bees tend to their hive. And it is one of my favorite places in the world.

Harvest was not about my reversion to a 9 pm bedtime. Nor was it about learning how many espresso shots your body can take in twelve hours. Nor even how alright you are with leaving a veritable crumb trail of grape skins wherever you go. No, in the end, it was about falling in love with not only the people who make Tablas Creek what it is, but also with a process that has been one of the most gratifying and humbling human experiences my minimal years have yet to afford me.

To walk through the rows of vines in the vineyard, to feel the buildup of sugar between your fingers in a berry, knowing that countless man hours and spreadsheets and lab work have the exact time and date of picking down to the minute, is humbling. To watch the picking crews leave after a night shift to sleep and rest as we come in to start our days, is humbling, for I am convinced these men and women are some type of superhero. To be standing at the sorting table and plucking unlucky creepy crawlies and debris from grapes about to be destemmed and ready to begin the long journey of fermentation is humbling.  To watch the seasoned veterans of the cellar let their experience out to play as they debate amongst themselves what direction they want to take a blend, is humbling. To punch down[ii] the cap of skins that inevitably forms in our fermentation tanks and watch the CO2 escape from it in a witchy cauldron type of way, is humbling.

 

Harvest Intern Blog Pumpover Picture

To test alcohol densities daily and watch the contents of the tanks make the slow progression from a juice to a wine, and then to jump into action and transfer it into barrels at the last possible nanosecond, is humbling. To clean out the metal grates that collect the cellar debris and runoff after the end of a heavy fruit day, let me tell you, is humbling.

So you learn there is no shortage of lessons in the life of a harvest intern, there is no job you are unwilling to do, there is nothing you want to say no to because you want to be involved in it all, as simple as it sounds. You fall in love with it, the process of it. You are there for the beginning, middle, and after a year or two you get to taste the end to the manifestation of your blood, sweat, and espresso.

And the cellar crew at Tablas Creek has everything to do with that ease of falling in love.

The best sleep of my life has been after work days spent with the most ridiculously hilarious, vivacious people I could have ever even imagined. These people, these people made every day of harvest something I was eager to wake up for. From making fun of the men for their slow decline into caveman status as their harvest beards began to overrun their faces, to the inevitable glitter bombing and water wars of Kesha Fridays (shout out to my cellar gals), to the endless rounds of slow clapping if someone would be a bit too eager with a forklift, to the vineyard dogs that would intuitively sense you hitting that wall after hour nine and come up to let you lean into them for a moment, and most fondly to the five-star lunches our Winemaker Neil’s wife Marci (also known as Harvest Mama of the Year) would create, there are countless memories I now carry with me when looking back at my time in that cellar.

 

Harvest Lunch Picture for Blog Post

 

So as this years Harvest closes and my incentive to make hygiene a priority comes back, I can safely say that as sad as I am it is over, I am also utterly content because I get to continue existing here with those that have become family.

As the years have progressed I have grown to understand that the people make the place, the place does not make the people. And Tablas Creek feels at times otherworldly in its sense of community, its altruistic desire to extend that shared sense of self and love for cultivating wines to others in a manner I have never seen before. Before joining this company, yes I enjoyed wine and loved the nuance of it, its seductive fluidity that all wine drinkers can appreciate. But now wine is emotional to me. Seeing how much the Haas family has melded with this land, what they have done to ensure the honesty of their grapes is again, humbling. It is not about what could be easier, more cost-efficient, more along the lines of instant gratification that are all unfortunate aspects of vineyard management, and agriculture in general. For the Haases it is about ensuring that this place, and this type of winemaking will be here for our grandchildren and then their children after them. I believe that to strive for a better future that you will not even see, is true generosity. That generosity is why Tablas Creek has become what you see today.

So cheers Tablas Creek Harvest 2017, you didn’t always smell great but you sure changed my world.

 

References

  1. Harvest Hands, the decline of decent cuticles due to the inevitable blistering and blackening of your hands (and soul) as Harvest progresses.
  2. Punch downs, a form of Cap Management which is physically turning the grapes in the tanks to ensure the skins and the juice evenly ferment. Also the process that gave me my new biceps.

 


Our Skeptic's Embrace of Biodynamics

Back in 2010, I had the pleasure of listening to John Williams from Frog’s Leap Winery speak at the Yosemite Vintners Holidays.  Although the focus of his talk was on how underrated “off” vintages are with some age (or, if you prefer, how the tendencies which lead most writers to rate a vintage highly can often make the same wines short-lived) the conversation soon turned to his thoughts on Biodynamics, of which he has been one of California’s most vocal proponents.  His take was that most of the things that receive focus for Biodynamics (think cow horns and lunar cycles) were little more than distractions, and what mattered in Biodynamic farming was that doing so reestablishes a plant’s ability to make sense of its environment and self-regulate.  I found the whole talk fascinating.

In the last seven years, spurred in part by what I learned at John’s talk, we have been increasingly incorporating Biodynamic elements into Tablas Creek’s farming practices. We’ve been organic since our inception, and certified since 2003, so it wasn’t as though we needed to make a massive move away from chemical-intensive agriculture.  But Biodynamics still requires a shift in mindset from organics.  Organics tends to look for non-chemical alternatives to the chemical herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers that define modern industrial farming. And that’s a worthy effort. But Biodynamics, which begins with the assumption that you have eliminated chemical interventions already, is much more concerned with creating environments that are self-regulating, where even non-chemical interventions are mostly rendered unnecessary.

170309-APP-104_wOur flock at work in the vineyard (photo credit: Brittany App)

So, we introduced our herd of sheep and alpacas into the vineyard. The animals fertilize naturally with their manure and graze down cover crops so we need to make fewer tractor passes to eliminate weeds. We started interplanting fruit trees and herbs, leaving sections unmowed, and planting other sections with flowering herbs, to attract and retain a diverse group of insect species that help control pests and keep soils alive and vibrant. We increased from a dozen to 39 owl boxes, to control gophers. We built beehives and captured a wild swarm to help preserve this valuable resource. And we redoubled our efforts to produce our own compost on site from our prunings and the grape must left over from fermentation, both to spread on the vineyard and to make into compost tea, to spray on the vines to combat mildew.

Orchard at Tablas Creek 2One of the hundreds of fruit trees we've interplanted in the vineyard

We made these changes partly because it made sense to us from a resource management standpoint – why not try to make our farm unit as self-sufficient as possible – but also because the idea of putting as little as possible from the outside onto our vineyard appealed to our ideal of terroir: the character of place that, reflected in wine, is the holy grail of winemakers around the world. We figure that the less that goes onto the vineyard that originates elsewhere, the greater the chance that we can allow the signature of our own land to show.

Budbreak and Wildflowers 2Lupines are some of the native wildflowers we encourage to grow between the vines

In the last seven years, as we’ve incorporated these new practices, I have come to believe that you can separate the tenets of Biodynamics into three broad sections. I list them in what I think is the order of their importance, which just happens to be the inverse order of what most laypeople (and maybe more important, mainstream wine journalists) tend to focus on with Biodynamics:

  • A broad subset that is basically just really good farming. This includes the prohibitions on chemical interventions (to preserve biodiversity and ensure that your soil is able to break down raw materials into nutrients your vines can process). And the efforts to turn a monoculture into a polyculture (to ensure a healthy diversity of insects and microorganisms in the soil and to ensure habitat for the natural controls for pests). And the focus on composting (to turn the by-products of your farming into nutrients for your crops).
  • Another broad subset that includes the micro-additions of Biodynamic preparations. This is where the cow horns come in. For example, some preps are made by packing various natural products (such as manure, or silica) into the hollows of the cow horns, letting them mature for some time. Other preparations are made with botanicals, such as stinging nettles, horsetail, or chamomile, which are then composted, fermented, or dried.  Whatever the preparation, when applying it to your vineyard, you dilute it massively in water before spraying the resulting solution onto your vines. I think it’s safe to say that none of these actions will harm your crops, and they probably do a small amount of good. How much good can they do, when the prescription is to dilute 25 grams of manure in 13 liters of water (a ratio of 1:520)? Or 1/4 teaspoon of stinging nettle in 1 gallon of water (a ratio of 1:3072)?  I have my doubts, although chemical reactions can happen at much lower concentrations than this. But at least, I’m confident any impact these actions have on the vineyard are going to be positive.
  • A subset relating to the Biodynamic calendar. Here I think things are on tenuous ground. While it is incontrovertible that the moon, at least, does have some impacts on Earth (think the tides), the moon’s gravitational pull on Earth is roughly 1/300,000th of the pull of the Earth. Might it impact things like sap flow? I guess, in a tiny way. But I have to think that the lunar impacts will be dwarfed by the other stimuli a vine is receiving from things like length of daylight and soil temperature. And as for picking, I think it’s even harder to make a credible case that what’s going on in the heavens is going to make a difference in the characteristics of the fruit you pick. On the other hand, waiting for the calendar (published months in advance) to tell you when to pick can cause some damage if you’ve ignored the weather, say, during a heat spike. I think that all this is really best ignored.

So, when we decided to pursue Biodynamic certification late last year, we didn’t know whether the powers that be at Demeter (the international organization that administers and protects the Biodynamic trademark) were going to view what we were doing as sufficient, or whether we’d learn that we’d need to make significant (and perhaps unwelcome) changes to our practices in order to qualify.  We ended up deciding that if we needed to make changes in order to qualify for certification that we felt would jeopardize our vineyard or our wines, we wouldn’t lose much. After all, we’d done what we’d done so far without certification.

FoliageOne of our 39 owl boxes that help attract the gopher's most effective natural predator

But it was still tremendously encouraging to learn that Demeter itself had come to the conclusion that if a winery focused on the elements that I grouped together in the “really good farming” bullet above, and made a credible effort at those I classified as “micro-additions of Biodynamic preparations” it was good enough for them.  And so, we moved forward with the certification process.

And I do believe in certification. I think it’s great that many growers (and farmers) are pursuing organic or Biodynamic practices without any goal of becoming certified. The more people who are farming in an Earth-friendly way, the better. But at the same time, certification gives an outside validation that your practices aren’t lip service, and are being applied consistently and rigorously.

So, it is with pleasure and pride that I announce that Tablas Creek Vineyard is now Biodynamic certified. That includes the grapes we grow, the olives, eggs, and the vegetables in our staff garden, and even the lamb that we harvest a few times a year from our flock.

If this makes you happier about your choice to consume Tablas Creek, that’s great. If it doesn’t make any difference, that’s fine too. We’re confident that the proof is in the bottle.

Biodynamic Certification


Harvest 2017, the End

By Brad Ely

[Editor's note: this is the bookend to Cellar Master Brad Ely's Harvest 2017, the Beginning, posted on August 29th. If you haven't read it yet, you might want to.]

Last week marked the end of fruit for the 2017 vintage with three picking bins of golden Roussanne.  At the beginning of harvest we started with Viognier, and I would have never imagined the last fruit would be white as well. It sounds a cliche, but vintage variation is real, every harvest is different, and it is a beautiful thing.

20170902_193923

The colors of fall are taking over the vineyard. Green lush canopies are shedding leaves and changing colors, becoming gold, brown, auburn and maroon. Taking their winter vacation from a long and strenuous growing season.

Harvest heaved off with a shotgun start. Record breaking temperatures maxed out our thermometers for a week and a half straight, causing rapid ripening, and throwing the whole cellar crew into a frantic pace. Not the most ideal situation as many blocks are finishing veraison (the process of changing from hard green berries, to colorful soft berries with an accumulation of sugar). After the heat wave, we stalled out, with low temperatures pumping the breaks, and giving us cellar team shorter days, and almost whole weekends off. It was a false sense of relief, as temperatures climbed back up, leading to a hot and heavy finish.

Each harvest has its own feel, its own unique personality. While this holds true, each also has a similar roller coaster of emotions and checkpoints in store for us along the way, as the fruits of our labor twist and turn along their journey to liquid magic.

Things begin with feelings of joy and excitement. And it continues for a few weeks, getting back into the swing of things, brushing the dust off skills that haven’t been used since last year. Having the perfect aim with the bin dumper, trying not to lose a single berry, or spill a drop of wine. Remembering every process and procedure. Weighing incoming grapes, labeling tanks, setting up pump-overs, pulse airs, and punch downs in the most efficient order. Recognizing old smells, identifying new ones. Asking lots of questions, experiencing and learning along the way.

20170904_092821

Eventually these skills become second nature again. Before you know it the cellar is buzzing with the daily grind. Fruit arrives at the winery in white bins. It is weighed, sorted, destemmed if red, pressed if white, and sent to its new home for the next two weeks. After a two-week party, what was once juice escapes as wine, and finds its home in oak barrels and tanks for the next year and a half.

As the freshness of harvest wanes, these activities become the regular. Workdays grow longer and longer, arriving as the first light illuminates the vineyard, and leaving well after the sun has set back down. The limits of caffeine consumption are tested. Themed days of questionable music begin to emerge, as a marker to remember what day it was in the first place, and as a way to look forward to the next. Wednesday is Dubstep, followed by R Kelly Thursday, followed by Kesha and glitter Friday (my personal nightmare). Our beloved jamon leg is whittled to the bone, replenished, and whittled down once again.

There comes a point when the fun starts to diminish. Frustration develops, bodies weaken, and spirits dwindle. There is an amount of tired that starts to build, and even the soundest night’s sleep doesn't scratch the surface. Our stained purple hands begin to grow feeble and ache. Thumbs become dry, crack, heal, and then crack again. The slightest bit of contact with acidulated water results in a quick cry for mum. The standard for clean clothes becomes less stringent, and even the stained stuff will pass with a quick smell test. The hot water turns cold with hours of work to go, only to realize  the 12 hour timer set upon in the morning has times out, and it must be reset to continue on.

IMG_20170905_195332_259

Just as it seems the workflow will never end, and spirits are close to being broken, a clearing in the storm occurs. More tanks are being pressed off than being filled, and the constant buzz of the harvest equipment becomes faint. One by one each new wine marches off the cellar floor and into the barrel room, leaving empty spaces where they once resided.

20170914_091319

The last fermenters are dug with mixed emotions. A sense of relief, knowing two-day weekends, a regular sleep schedule, visits with family, and a restoration of social life are on the horizon. A reintroduction to civilization will occur, and we must adapt to normal life once again. As the tiredness fades, and our bodies are rejuvenated, a feeling of post harvest blues sets in. All of the feelings of glory and accomplishment flutter through our daydreams as we clean, and clean, and clean the scene where all of the action occurred. Any remaining dismal sentiment from the end of harvest is quickly forgotten, replaced by thoughts of the great times had, the friendships created, and the new wines quietly resting in barrel.

Eventually, these wines will find their resting places out of our hands, and in the cellars of their final consumers. When you pop a cork, we hope you feel the signature of the harvest with each glass poured. We can't wait for you to make its acquaintance.

20171026_104748


Harvest 2017 Recap: Fast Start and Finish, Solid Yields, and Plenty of Concentration

Last week, with the threat of our first rainstorm on the horizon -- key word here is threat, as it didn't pan out -- we brought in the last lingering blocks of Mourvedre, Roussanne, and Counoise.  And then, all of a sudden, we were done.  Sure, there are a few lots we're still waiting for, as they sit concentrating on straw in our greenhouse. But the picking, at least, is through. No wonder our cellar crew was ready to celebrate:

Lunch on day of last pick

The harvest came in two large waves, with a significantly less busy stretch in between.  The first surge was kicked off by a record heat wave that sent temperatures soaring over 102°F nine days in a row in late August and early September, and included the majority of our purchased grapes for the Patelin de Tablas wines.  The slow interlude corresponded with nearly three weeks of temperatures more than 5°F cooler than normal. When, by early October, things heated up again (modestly this time) most of the late-ripening grapes on our estate were nearly ready, and we had a pretty continuous run between October 2nd and October 19th, picking 16 of 19 days in that stretch. You can see the double-peaked workflow in the chart below. In the chart, blue is purchased fruit for the Patelin program, and orange estate grown fruit:

Harvest by Week - End

Yields were the best we've seen since the twin vintages of 2005 and 2006, up about 20% from 2016. On the one hand, this should be unsurprising, given that we got good rainfall last winter after five years of drought. But you still never know, and midway through the summer, we were all thinking that harvest was going to be at average or slightly above average quantities.  To have it among our most productive vintages ever was somewhat of a surprise. The complete picture:

Grape 2017 Yields (tons) 2016 Yields (tons) % Change vs. 2016
Viognier 18.9 14.2 +33.1%
Marsanne 13.8 4.5  +206.7%
Grenache Blanc 46.4 30.6 +51.6%
Picpoul Blanc 9.7 7.7 +26.0%
Vermentino 22.2 19.0  +16.8%
Roussanne 41.7* 47.0  -11.3%
Total Whites 152.7 123 +24.1%
Grenache 73.1 58.8  +24.3%
Syrah 41.5 36.8  +12.8%
Mourvedre 72.9 62.7  +16.3%
Tannat 20.5 12.3  +66.7%
Counoise 18.8 18.0 +4.4%
Total Reds 226.8 188.6 +20.3%
Total 379.5 311.6 +21.8%

Overall yields ended up at 3.62 tons per acre, about 20% above our ten-year average.  Other years in which we've seen yields around 3.5 tons per acre have included 2005, 2006, 2010, and 2012, which includes some of our favorite vintages. Like 2005 (the vintage that this reminds me the most of) this year followed a multi-year drought, and the obvious health of the vines suggested that they were able to ripen the relatively healthy yields with concentration and character.

*If you're wondering why Roussanne has an asterisk, there are two reasons. First is that there's still a little Roussanne concentrating in our greenhouses, to be added to the total. It won't amount to much (a ton, more or less) but it's there. The second reason is that it's worth noting that at least some of the decline comes because we pulled out an acre or so of Roussanne this winter. We also pulled out a couple of acres of Syrah, but the Syrah total is augmented by the fact that the year before, we grafted over about two acres of Roussanne to Syrah.  So, Roussanne has seen a bit of a double-whammy in recent years. We'll be planting some more Roussanne soon.

Another way that you can get a quick assessment of concentration is to look at average sugars. Since 2007, the average degrees Brix and pH:

Year Avg. Sugars Avg. pH
2007 24.42 3.67
2008 23.87 3.64
2009 23.42 3.69
2010 22.68 3.51
2011 22.39 3.50
2012 22.83 3.65
2013 22.90 3.63
2014 23.18 3.59
2015 22.60 3.59
2016 22.04 3.71
2017 22.87 3.74

You'll note that 2017's sugars saw a rebound after the lower levels in 2015 and 2016. This is a sign of the health of the vines. The higher pH levels seem to have been a result of the stress that the early-harvest heat wave produced, as well as a reflection of the overall warm summer.  In the 2017 growing season, only May was cooler than average, with April, June, and July particularly warm.  Overall, 2017 was our second-warmest year ever, just a hair cooler than 2014 and about 10% warmer (measured in degree days) than our 20-year average. The chart below summarizes (October's information is for the first 19 days, as we picked our last significant block on October 19th):

2017 Degree days vs Average

We picked even more lots this year (124) than last, and we ran out of space on our harvest chalkboard.  Note the number of times that you see Roman numerals after a pick, particularly toward the end of harvest: those are the blocks that we picked multiple times:  

Full Harvest Chalkboard

The duration of harvest -- 54 days -- was exactly at our average this millennium. Both the beginning (August 30th) and the end (October 23rd) were a little earlier than our average since 2000, but not by much: about 4 days.  That said, we started later than we have since 2012, and finished later than 2013, 2014, and 2016. The fact that 2017 saw a later budbreak than recent years pushed everything into a more normal time frame than we've seen recently, but it was still a warm year.

In character, it's early to tell what things will be like, but so far, we're excited. I asked Winemaker Neil Collins to sum up the vintage based on his tastings, and his response was, "full, and great structure, and lovely acidity... just what we wanted it to be."  Given that Neil, like most winemakers, tend to focus on the shortcomings they see in the immediate aftermath of harvest, this is a pretty resounding endorsement.  We'll know more, of course, in coming weeks.

The last project for us for harvest 2017 is to make our first Vin de Paille "Sacrérouge" since 2014.  This traditional dessert wine-making technique involves drying newly-harvested Mourvedre clusters on straw, and only pressing and beginning fermentation when they have reached our desired level of concentration -- typically around 35° Brix -- after 2-3 weeks.  [For more details on how and why it's done, see our blog Vin de Paille: A Dessert Wine Making Technique for the Obsessed from a few years back]. The Mourvedre we'll be using for this project is currently sitting on the straw, and we expect to bring it in and start fermentation later this week. 

Vin de Paille Mourvedre

Now that the fruit is in, it's welcome to start raining any time.  Meanwhile, we're enjoying the autumnal views of the vineyard without having to worry that the cooler nights and the likelihood of future precipitation -- our first chance, it appears, may come as early as the first few days of November -- might negatively impact our harvest.

Foliage