Previous month:
February 2008
Next month:
April 2008

I'd like to thank the Academy...

American_wine_blog_award_winner_200 So, the votes have been tallied, and the Tablas Creek blog has won "Best Winery Blog" at the 2008 American Wine Blog Awards!  Thank you to everyone who voted; the award was 70% determined by votes from the public.  The other 30% was determined by the votes of six expert judges (whose names will be revealed this week).

The world of wine blogs is rich and diverse, and growing all the time.  The fact that some of my favorites didn't make the list of finalists this year (no Dr. Vino? no Wine Anorak?) just indicates how many worthy candidates there are.  I learned a lot reading through the blogs of the other finalists, and came up with a few new favorites of my own (most notably Fredric Koeppel's Bigger Than Your Head, which I'd heard of vaguely before the awards but had never visited).

Finally, a big thank you from the whole wine blogging community should go to Tom Wark, who somehow finds time out of his busy schedule of advocating and consulting to write the blog Fermentation and host, conduct and publicize the American Wine Blog Awards.

Budbreak is terrifying (but hopeful)

With the recent warm weather, we're starting to see budbreak in our earlier-sprouting varietals, particularly Viognier and Grenache.  A Grenache vine pushes, below:


As usual, we're seeing earlier budbread at the tops of the hills, which are less often frosted because the cold air slumps down the hillsides and settles in low-lying areas.  Many mornings, the temperature difference between the hilltops and the valleys is as much as 8 degrees.  Our hilltops tend to receive their last frosts in early April, while our valleys are prone to frosts all the way into May.  In fact, one morning last June, Neil Collins (our winemaker, who lives on the property with his family, in one of the lowest, coldest spots near the creek) emerged to find ice on his car.

Budbreak is a touch early this year; normally, we don't see it until the first or second week of April.  And this early start is plenty scary.  We normally get a few limited frosts in the second half of April, and are at real risk of a killing freeze in early April.  Neil doesn't really relax until Wine Festival, the third weekend of May.

One element we have in our defense against frosts is our frost-protection fan system, with which we blow cold air that has pooled in a low-lying area up a chimney, allowing it to be replaced by the warmer air that may be just a few feet above.  One of these octagonal fans is visible in the background of the photo below:


Budbreak does not hit the entire vineyard evenly.  Not only do the tops of the hills push first, but younger vines push earlier.  (As if we needed another reason to appreciate older vines!)  Below, a replanted vine is several inches out while the older vines on either side have barely sprouted:


At the same time, budbreak is hopeful -- a symbol of renewal.  Each year, you have the chance to make something you've never made before, and with the vineyard a year older than it's ever been, every expectation that your ceiling is higher than it's ever been.  So, you hold your breath and know that each cold night you avoid a major frost, the Northern Hemisphere tilts slightly more toward the sun, the days get a few minutes longer and you're one day closer to not having to worry through those cold nights.  Finally, two more photos, both of which (for me) catch the hopefulness of the season:


A sweet sweet-pea photo

The weather here has been beautiful over the past two weeks: warm and sunny, with days in the 70s and even (in the past couple of days) into the 80s.  On one level, this is scary; we're already seeing the first signs of bud break in some of the higher (warmer) parts of the vineyard, and we're at risk of frost until May.  Expect more on bud break and some photos later this week.  But, between the warmth and all the rain we've gotten this winter, the cover crops have established themselves beautifully and the vineyard is lush and green.

And now, like the rest of the Paso Robles flora, the cover crops are starting to flower.  Here's a pretty shot of a sweet pea, one of the components of our vineyard cover crop mix because it's a legume, and fixes nitrogen into the soil.


I'm a Wine Blog Awards finalist!

2008awardsfinalist I got back from spending most of the last week on the East Coast (working in Virginia, during which I was lucky enough to enjoy a great dinner at Restaurant Eve in Alexandria and host a terrific wine dinner at the Keswick Hall Hotel in Charlottesville) with the happy surprise in my mailbox that I've been nominated as an American Wine Blog Awards finalist in the category of "Best Winery Blog".

This is an enormous honor; there are more and more great wine blogs out there providing very different windows into the world of wine.

While a panel of judges culled all the nominations to determine the finalists, votes from the public determine the ultimate winners of the awards.  If you'd like to vote on the wine blog awards, you can vote here.  If you'd like to see the complete list of finalists (with links to all their blogs) you can read more here.

Limestone in Paso Robles

Yesterday, I was over for a Paso Robles Rhone Rangers meeting at Halter Ranch.  Halter is a beautiful property just across Adelaida Road from Tablas Creek, and both were parts of the old Macgillivray Ranch through most of the 20th century.  After our meeting, Ranch Manager Mitch Wyss took me down to a little waterfall in Las Tablas Creek just behind their ranch buildings.  Although Las Tablas Creek is dry (or just trickling) for most of the year, in the spring there's enough water to splash merrily down the waterfall.


I was struck by how dramatically the waterfall-driven erosion had exposed the limestone layers that underlie this Adelaida area.  According to the prevailing view, the bulk of the calcareous clay that we have out in this neck of the woods isn't true limestone, although it shares much of the chemical composition.  And, this is a good thing, as limestone is hard, too hard for vines' roots to break up or break through.  However, there are bands of true limestone that run throughout the region, and the waterfall illustrated one place where the water had broken through a 9-inch limestone layer and was eating its way through the softer clay layers underneath.  Another view, this time from inside the riverbed, with some drying layers of the calcareous clay in the foreground:


The sides of the little canyon were a great illustration of the layers we're planting in, with the cap of limestone at the top:

Limestone_layers Limestone_layers_profile_with_trees

As further evidence of where the roots need to get to to find nutrients, there was a big old oak tree root that had pushed through the limestone and was snaking its way horizontally below it:


And finally, one more photo, a closeup of where the root emerges from the eroded hillside:


Finally, back at Tablas Creek (where we don't have intact limestone layers like at Halter) one photo of what we do with all the broken-up pieces of limestone that we've ripped from the topsoil to keep from destroying our tractors:


Blogs that Inspire

In my "lessons learned from two years of blogging" post from the end of last year, I promised that I would write about some of the other blogs that I'd found particularly inspiring.  This has proven a difficult piece to finish, both because I keep finding new blogs that I love and because I'm always worried that I'll hit "post" and then realize I've left out someone crucial.  But, if I'm going to write it, it has to be finalized sometime.

I hope that you find a few new blogs mentioned here, but I feel relatively confident most of you will recognize most of the names.  I've included the author and his or her city, and broken up the blogs into a couple of categories.

The Gold Standard
Vinography (Alder Yarrow; San Francisco): I mentioned a few of Alder's chief recommendations in a recent post announcing that he'd posted a story on Tablas Creek.  These include (but aren't limited to) that he writes one of the most wide-ranging wine blogs, covering topics that include wine events, wine- and vineyard-related art, the intersection of wine and politics, restaurant and wine bar reviews, and (of course) wine reviews.  He's so well connected, and updates so regularly, that he is often the first to break noteworthy stories like the recent private sting operation set up by  And, he's amazingly accessible and retains his enthusiasm for wine and wine country.

Dr. Vino (Tyler Coleman; New York): Tyler's interests run a little more to food and wine pairing (including the hilarious ongoing "impossible food-wine pairings" series), but he's equally comfortable exploring wine regions, reviewing books, interviewing wine personalities, or investigating the environmental impacts of winemaking and wine consumption.  This last interest even got him an op-ed piece in the New York Times.  The writing is consistently funny and engaging, and the site updated often multiple times a day.

The Professionals
An Obsession With Food (Derrick Schneider; San Francisco): I love Derrick's work for the care he puts into his writing, as well as for the thoughtfulness and length of his pieces.  It's probably not surprising that he's writing regularly now for The Art of Eating, which is unlike any other food or wine publication that I know.  Pieces, often addressing topics far outside the mainstream, can stretch across dozens of pages, and there appear to be no particular concessions to marketability.  In an interview with the Art of Eating's founder and editor Ed Behr, compared it to the New York Review of Books, calling it "sometimes impenetrable, often spellbinding, and never, ever reductive."  Derrick's blog is not updated daily, but when the posts come they are thoroughly thought-out, well edited, and beautifully written.  And, sprinkling his wife Melissa's gorgeous photography across the site also does it no harm.  One of my favorite posts is his advice about writing, which I still refer to occasionally for new ideas.

Wine Anorak (Jamie Goode; London, UK): Jamie is trained as a scientist (his PhD is in plant biology) which allows him to write credibly on some of the scientific topics that the mainstream wine press often glosses over, such as the growing concern over the accumulation of sulfur compounds in screwcap-finished wines).  His talent is in making these technical topics non-threatening to a general audience, and at the same time mixing his more research-driven pieces with cheerful accounts of eating, drinking and living in London.

It's worth also giving a shout out to the no-longer-active blog Amuse Bouche, written by Jon Bonne, who gave up writing the blog when he was hired as Wine Editor of the San Francisco Chronicle.  I am thrilled to have Jon in charge at the Chronicle, but miss his informal missives from Seattle and New York on food, restaurants and the world of wine.

The Enthusiast
Good Wine Under $20 (Dr. Debs; Los Angeles): Dr. Debs is a university history professor who started blogging on wine as an experiment for a project.  She focuses on wines that provide value, and despite her blog's name is flexible enough to realize that wines can provide value even if they're over $20 (see her profile of Tablas Creek as an example).  Her blog (just begun in 2006) has become amazingly popular amazingly fast, and I think this is a reflection that her enthusiasm for wine, and her conviction that it's possible for anyone to find good wines they can afford, feels absolutely genuine.  In addition to her regular reviews of high QPR (quality to price ratio) wines, she writes an ongoing "winery watch" series focusing in detail on wineries of interest.

The Advocate
Fermentation (Tom Wark; Sonoma, CA): Tom is a public relations consultant and the head of the Specialty Wine Retailers Association, whose profile has been growing higher and higher as retailers organize to try to protect (or establish, depending on your point of view) their rights to sell wine to consumers around the country.  Tom's investigative pieces reflect a distinctive voice: often outraged and full of righteous indignation, which (given the hypocrisy inherent in most wholesalers' and states' arguments against interstate wine commerce) is most welcome.  He also has taken a lead role in the promotion of wine blogging, hosting and coordinating the annual Wine Blog Awards and writing a series of "bloggerviews", or in-depth interviews with important bloggers across the world of food and wine.

These are just a handful of the wine blogs that are on my daily blog roll; there are new ones appearing all the time.  I highly recommend the Winery Web Site Report both to keep tabs on new developments in the world of online wine and as a clearinghouse for ideas about the values and challenges of wine blogging.

Finally, I maintain a "Wine Blogs" tag for posts on the Tablas Creek blog that include recommendations into the wide and growing world of wine blogs.

Any other recommendations as to great wine blogs?  Please share!

Wine shipping cost comments from a cancelled Wine Club member survey

Early this year, we made a point to reach out to our canceled VINsider Wine Club members and ask them for some feedback on what we could be doing better.  I'm not worried overall about our club members; our median tenure of a club member is about 3.5 years, more than double the industry average.  Still, I was sure that we could learn something from the former members who have moved on.

We're still receiving dozens of survey responses each day, and we're holding off on rigorous analysis of the data until we have received most of the surveys we expect to get.  I'm sure that these will lead to several additional posts here on the blog.  Still, I've been reading through many of the responses and was surprised to see one item pop up with some frequency.  Several ex-club members have commented that they don't like paying shipping for wine, or that they think that what we're charging for shipping is too much for them.

I was surprised, since we subsidize shipping costs considerably, particularly to the East Coast (where most of the survey respondents who mentioned shipping costs live).  I wonder how often these people have tried sending 40-pound packages second-day air across the country.  We receive good shipping rates from FedEx thanks to our membership in the Wine Institute (about half off FedEx's published rates) but we still pay between $70 and $79 to ship a case of wine to the East Coast, and between $40 and $46 to ship a half-case of wine.  We charge our customers $45 (full case) and $30 (half-case).  In the mountain states (where we charge $25/$35 for half case/full case) we pay $29/$55.  In California, where we use UPS Ground (they guarantee next-day delivery to nearly the entire state, and second-day on a few outlying fringes) we pay $19/$29 (we charge $15/$25).

Yes, we're receiving a higher margin on this wine, since we're selling direct to customers, but we're also providing most of these customers (our wine club members) either a 20% or a 25% discount, and absorbing packaging costs and labor expenses. 

I wonder how other wineries do this.  Many of the customers who mentioned that they felt our shipping prices were high said that other wineries who they ordered from provided very inexpensive shipping (on the order of a $15-$25 per case) or even free shipping.  I can only assume that these wineries must be eating this cost to do more business on the East Coast.

Shipping costs have gone up enormously over the past few years, reflecting the higher costs of gasoline. On of my first conclusions from this survey is that I'm not sure public perceptions have changed along with them.