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November 2007
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January 2008

Learning how to Blog: a few year-end reflections on two years of blogging

Although I started this blog about two years ago, it's really only in the past year that I've felt I've found my voice.  The major benefit of blogging, for me, is that I get a chance to clarify my own thoughts on issues I'm mulling over, and hear from other people interested enough (and generous enough with their time) to comment.  I come away from my first two years of experience profoundly grateful that so many people I respect have taken the time to read my thoughts.

I'm sure that blogging came more naturally to some other people than it did to me.  I'm not a writer by trade, so I'm learning as I go along.  I don't spend as much time writing as I'd like, given my responsibilities managing Tablas Creek, not to mention juggling a four-month-old and a toddler.  But, the largest hurdle has been that writing for a blog is not like writing copy for a Web site, and not like writing for a brochure or a newsletter.  I've had to learn how to write again.

Now that the Tablas Creek blog is two years old, I find myself starting to get asked, more and more, how to do it.  There isn't any one answer.  But, it occurs to me that it might be helpful for others considering a similar undertaking to put down some of my conclusions about what makes a blog work.

  1. Have a voice.  This seems obvious, but it's actually been the most difficult thing for me.  I'm accustomed, in my experience as a business and technical writer, to writing impersonally: the information is the key, and the person writing the information is supposed to be invisible.  In a blog environment, you connect to the person writing the articles, and if you're not making it clear who you are in what you write, you're likely to miss engaging with your audience.
  2. Write in first person.  See the above point.  If you're writing in passive voice, or in abstract terms, you're not going to be able to inject your personality into the writing.
  3. Write about what you're worried about.  In a blog environment, the core of writing something interesting is picking a topic that can arouse emotions.  In general, the pieces that I've found most fulfilling to write (and which have received the most comments, a sure sign that they've engaged their readers) are the things that are keeping me up at night, like my frustrations over organic labeling requirements or my reaction to a writer calling all Tablas Creek's wines "conspicuously expensive".
  4. Answer the questions you get asked all the time.  I see lots of people, in the trade and outside it, at the winery and at events we do around the country.  There are questions that I hear again and again, and these indicate either that some larger debate is going on (and so people are hearing conflicting answers) or that an issue is so inherently confusing that it's hard for people to know what to think.  I tend to have opinions on controversial topics, so debates like these have been the genesis of some of my better pieces.  A couple of examples would be the debate between cork and screwcap, or the question of the future of AVAs under the TTB's proposed new rules.
  5. Write for other writers.  Many observers on the world of wine have been surprised that blogs, for all their proliferation, still haven't touched that many consumers directly.  Sure, I know that we have consumers following the Tablas blog (thank you!) but the more significant audience has been other writers.  Writers, whether other bloggers or more traditional writers with columns in magazines or newspapers, are the audience most likely to care that you're formulating coherent thoughts on controversial subjects.  The ability to build credibility with other writers (and develop an ongoing relationship with them) has been a wonderful and unexpected benefit of blogging.
  6. Read and comment on other wine blogs.  There are lots of reasons to get involved in the wine blogging community.  First, there's lots of great information and even more interesting ideas out there.  Second, being committed enough to follow what other writers are writing gives them incentive to do the same with you.  And finally, each time you comment, a blog links back to your own blog, which helps you enormously in establishing your own search engine rankings.
  7. Lead with a hook.  I remember a political science class in college where we were asked to write, rather than a standard research essay, a newspaper editorial.  You think differently when you're writing editorial copy.  You're more concise.  You take a position.  And you begin with your strongest, most thought-provoking conclusion (rather than burying it at the end after you've presented lots of supporting evidence).  Blogging, with its first-person perspective, its assumption of a mobile readership, and its title- and summary-driven aggregators, has a lot in common with editorial writing.

So, thank you to all the bloggers out there who've helped light the way.  I'll be mentioning some of the blogs that I have found the most inspiring (for various reasons) in a piece early in 2008 [Ed note 3/9/08: This post is now live; click here].  And most of all, thank you to all the readers who've stuck with me through these first two years.

Chavignol Sancerre Thomas-Labaille 2006 "Les Monts Damnés"

In October, we were lucky enough to have Patrick Hub visit us at Tablas Creek.  Patrick is the proprietor of Olympic Wine Merchant, the top wine shop in Olympia, Washington.  We spent much of the day in the cellar and in the vineyard, and generally got into the how and why of Tablas Creek more intensively than is possible anywhere outside of the winery.

Sancerre_chavignol A few weeks later, we received as a thank you a few bottles of a 2006 Chavignol Sancerre from Thomas-Labaille with the intriguing name "Les Monts Damnés" (literally translated as "the Damned Mountains").  I took it home a few days later and opened it with friends last weekend.

The wine was a revelation, really as good (for me, at least) as Sauvignon Blanc gets.  The rocks of the Sancerre region come through so clearly in the wine that you feel like you're there.  The citrus fruit is present but does not dominate the mineral character, and there isn't a trace of the weediness or herbaceousness you get with so many New World Sauvignon Blancs.  Overall, just a wonderful expression of why Sancerre remains the pinnacle for everyone who makes Sauvignon Blanc.

Even better (like most Loire whites) it's not a particularly expensive wine.  I did a Web search, and it's generally available in the low-$20 range.  If you can find one, you're in for a treat!

Rainfall microclimates in Paso Robles

Appellations are by nature generalizations.  You do your best in defining one to understand macro-level differences in soils, climate and rainfall (the three components which together give a place its signature).  And, practically speaking, you won't ever be able to delineate an area that is absolutely uniform.  Even within our vineyard at Tablas Creek, there are areas that are warmer and cooler, and have different amounts of topsoil above the high-calcium limestone-derived bedrock.

All this is a long-winded leadup to my point, which is that the Paso Robles AVA is essentially defined by climate.  And, the appellation does have broad climatic similarities (probably the most important of  the three variables) that make the AVA a meaningful designation.  Still, there are over 40 different soil types within the AVA, and rainfall varies from an average of about 7 inches in the high plateaus east of town (think Creston, or Shandon) to nearly 40 inches in the extreme western reaches of the AVA.  So, the proposal to subdivide the Paso Robles AVA has some good scientific reasoning behind it.

This last rainstorm that we received yesterday, which dumped 3.15 inches at Tablas Creek, is a good illustration of the diversity of rainfall amounts around the AVA.  I've pasted in below the readings from the other weather stations in the region:


You can see how much more rain we get at Tablas than the other weather stations: nearly double what they get in the Templeton gap, and nearly triple the reading from the most easterly weather station in Shandon.  And there's good logic for this; at Tablas, we're only about 10 miles from the Pacific, and in the rain shadow of the Santa Lucia mountains.  Pacific storms get pushed up into cooler air by the mountain range, and drop their rainfall over us.  By the time the storms get into town or further east, they've lost much of their moisture.  This is why the Adelaida area was known until the middle of the 20th century as the breadbasket of the Paso Robles area.  It's warm enough to ripen crops consistently, but wet enough to farm without irrigation.

And this is one of the characteristics we were looking for in founding Tablas Creek: enough rainfall to dry farm.  At 28 inches average annual rainfall, we can do it most years.  The Adelaida District area of Paso Robles is one of the only parts of California warm enough to ripen Rhone varietals and still with enough rainfall to farm without irrigation.  No wonder this is becoming known as the center of California's Rhone movement!

Rain... finally!

We're in the middle of a true Pacific winter storm, with driving rain and 20-30mph winds.  This is badly needed; we're coming off a winter with only about 35% of typical rainfall, and we've only had about two inches so far this year.  This storm was forecast to give us a couple of inches, and as of 2:45pm it had already dropped 2.8 inches.  A panoramic from the top of the vineyard:


According to local meteorologists, the reason for the storm is that a long-lasting ridge of Pacific high pressure (that was giving us cold but dry weather) dissolved last weekend, opening the way for a series of cold, wet storm systems out of the Pacific Northwest to drop far enough south to affect us.  And it does not look like this storm will be a one-off.  There are two more systems lined up behind this one, and I've read in two weather forecasts that "the storm door is open".  Let's hope so.

Two more photos that give a feel for the stormy morning:


The TTB's new AVA rules: a well-meaning step in the wrong direction

I was surprised with how quickly the TTB published new draft rules to resolve the issues surrounding the approval of new AVAs that might conflict with existing brand names, or that are nested within other existing AVAs. [I wrote about this a few weeks back at some length.] 

A first reading of the new TTB proposals suggests an honest effort on their part to create more rigorous protections of the future use of place names as brands while redressing possible negative financial implication for brands created after 1986 who use a viticultural area as a part of their brand name.  However, we believe that it takes the wrong approach, would set United States regulations further at odds with our responsibilities under international law, and would set a dangerous precedent not just for the geographical labeling of wine, but also of other agricultural products.

The crux of the proposal suggests a rule whereby wineries that registered a brand name between 1986 and 2005 which later was adopted as a viticultural area may continue to use their brand name but must make a "statement which the appropriate TTB officer finds to be sufficient to dispel the impression that the geographic area suggested by the brand name is indicative of the origin of the wine".  Labels approved after 2005 have no such protection, and wineries will be notified upon the approval of any new COLA (Certificate of Label Approval) if there is a chance that it may one day conflict with a place name.

In addition, the new regulations address the nesting of AVAs within other AVAs, which has been done for centuries in other countries and for decades in the United States.  The rules proposed include a frightening warning for those who (like the Paso Robles AVA Committee) would propose AVAs of greater specificity within an existing AVA.  The full paragraph is below, with the most alarming idea in bold:

"In any case in which an AVA would be created entirely within another AVA, whether by the establishment of a new, larger AVA or by the establishment of a new AVA within an existing one, the petition must dispel any apparent inconsistency or explain why it is acceptable. When a smaller AVA has name recognition and features that so clearly distinguish it from a larger AVA that surrounds it, TTB may determine in the course of the rulemaking that it is not part of the larger AVA and that wine produced from grapes grown within the smaller AVA would not be entitled to use the name of the larger AVA as an appellation of origin or in a brand name."

The Napa Valley Vintners Association quickly objected both to the expansion of the grandfathering clauses to cover an additional twenty years of brand approvals and to the curious departure from the international standards of appellation nesting.

In a letter to the other members of the Paso Robles AVA Committee, my dad proposed another solution that would strengthen, rather than weakening, place-name designation:

"If honest and accurate representations of the wine in the bottle to the consumer is the objective of the TTB then the problem of conflict that they are feeling is due not to the AVA system regulations but to the issuance of COLAs.  The owner of a COLA that is issued with a geographic name should be required to source 85% or more of his grapes from that geographic location, whether or not it is an AVA.  Installing such a rule would avoid all future conflicts between COLAs and AVAs.  It would mean that the wine in the bottle was made from grapes of the same geographic origin as the label implies.  It would inform the consumer reading a wine list or retailer solicitation without it being necessary for him to see a bottle disclaimer.  It would also eliminate the need for a rolling grandfather amendment.             

As for AVAs within AVAs, the precedent has already been set in the USA, since they already exist.  The larger AVA informs the consumer by determining the larger geographic location of the vineyard with which he will be more likely to be familiar.  The smaller AVA determines the more exact location of the vineyard(s) and their distinctiveness within the larger AVA.  That is the way all wine producing countries in the world regulate their identifications of geographic locations to best inform consumers.             

I am not for rolling grandfather exceptions.  There is an established regulation for 1986 and prior.  It should be followed.  People who find themselves in conflict with new AVAs, who have COLAs approved after 1986 should be given a length of time, say 5 years, to bring their sourcing into line or change the brand name or /and label.  After all, they are fraudulently representing the source of their grapes, and they know it.             

If I had my way, I would make people who have COLAs prior to 1986 that misrepresent the source of their grapes either conform by sourcing 85% from the geographic area or change their label and/or brand name in a delay of 10 years or so."

I believe that we have an opportunity to make a better system, and that the TTB's proposed new rules instead make a system even more riddled with exceptions, exemptions and disclaimers.  The first order of business is making comments to the federal government on their proposed changes in rulemaking.  To learn how to do so, visit Docket No. TTB–2007–0068 (at

A little reminder of why we're in California (and a look back at Vermont)

Many of you probably know that my dad's wine career started in the Northeast.  He was born in Brooklyn, grew up in suburban New York, and moved back to Manhattan to work at his father's wine shop M. Lehmann.  Even after my grandfather sold that shop and my dad began his career as an importer, he was based in Manhattan.  When he and my mom got tired of living in the city, they moved to Vermont, where he founded Vineyard Brands.  That's where I grew up.

My parents now split their time between Vermont and California, typically spending summer and the winter holidays in Vermont, and late winter, spring and fall out here.  They flew back to Vermont on Saturday, just in time for the first winter storm of the season.  My dad sent me two pictures of the snow.  The first is of the old Vineyard Brands offices, in the converted barn of the old Vermont farmhouse I grew up in:


The second is a view from my dad's office, looking off the back deck south across an old sheep pasture:


When I was growing up, we had some concord grapes (barely visible on the other side of the snow-covered lane) that my dad had visions of making into wine.  A good choice, I think, choosing Paso Robles over Chester, Vermont!