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April 2008
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June 2008

Eleven-Wine Dinner in Los Angeles with Campanile (and a Los Angeles Rhone Rangers tasting)

I don't normally post information about upcoming events on the blog (we have a page for that on the Tablas Creek Web site:  But, I have two events coming up next week in Los Angeles that I think are cool enough that they're worth a mention. 

Campanile_restaurant The first is a dinner at Campanile Restaurant on Tuesday, June 3rd.  We sent eleven different wines to Campanile for them to choose from for a dinner menu, expecting them to choose 6 or 7 to go with the 6-course dinner menu that Chef Mark Peel traditionally puts together.  I was stunned when I saw the final dinner menu that they decided to use all eleven wines!  I'm pretty sure that I've never done a dinner where we showed this broad a cross-section of the wines we make, let alone at a restaurant as terrific as Campanile.  The event is co-sponsored by Domaine 547, a wine 2.0 shop whose wine blog is one of my favorites.  The dinner is $150/person (inclusive of tax and tip) which seems to me a very fair price for a dinner of this quality.  Anyone interested should call Campanile at 323.938.1447.

The next day, I'll be joining 42 other Rhone Rangers wineries for the second annual Rhone Rangers Southern California tasting at Raleigh Studios in Hollywood.  There is a trade tasting (free to qualified trade and media) in the afternoon and a consumer tasting (tickets $60) in the evening.  I'm looking forward to the location, which is an active television studio, where Ugly Betty, The Closer, and Private Practice are currently in production.  I'm not sure what the interaction will be, but apparently the Rhone Rangers is arranging that the stars of the shows who might be interested have entrance into the tasting.  There's more information on how to reserve space on the Rhone Rangers Web site.

Paso Robles Wine Festival 2008 Musings and Photos

The 2008 Paso Robles Wine Festival is in the books.  I've poured at the last seven festivals, and this one was one of the hottest.  Both Saturday and Sunday topped 100 degrees (an unwelcome change from the past few years, which were beautiful) and I think it deterred some of the local crowd.  In the four hours of the event, we poured about 7 cases of wine, two fewer than last year.  We still felt busy, but it was the kind of busy where you're always talking to new people, but you do have time to talk.  In some past years, it was all we could do to pour wine into the outstretched glasses in front of us.  The slight decline in audience was not unwelcome.

There were still some wineries pouring appallingly warm -- even hot -- red wines.   One friend (who's not in the wine industry) questioned this and was told that this was the temperature that it was supposed to be served at.  I can't fathom this.  The event gives you ice for free.  Why wouldn't you make sure that your wines were served at an appropriate temperature?  We were icing even our red wines, and serving the whites and the Rosé very chilled.  This is your opportunity to make an impression on hundreds of potential new customers.  I can't think of much that's more unappealing than sipping hot red wine on a 100 degree day.

Overall, there was a typical mix of more established and newer wineries at the park.  There were a few big names missing; Justin again chose to pass on the event and, most notably, Tobin James elected to sit this year out.  I think they, more than any other winery in Paso Robles, are associated with the party atmosphere that the park has cultivated over the years, and I imagine that some of the efforts that the PRWCA has been making to make the event more upscale are probably unwelcome.  For us, the net effect is probably good.  Over the weekend, we saw about 100 fewer people at the tasting room (from about 600 last year to about 500 this year).  But, those 500 people who came bought the same amount of wine as the 600 did in 2007.  Pouring less wine but selling the same amount must be a good thing!  Plus, while still small compared to an event like the Hospice du Rhone, there was notably better trade and media presence at this year's event than in years past.

On Sunday morning of the event, we again welcomed Chef Jeffrey Scott out to Tablas Creek for a cured salmon tasting and the official launch of the 2007 Rosé.  A photo from this year's event, with Chef Scott in the foreground serving a fresh sheep's milk ricotta cheese he found to go with the salmon (definitely more elegant than cream cheese):


Our goal is to get people out to the vineyard in the morning: effectively, to encourage them to start their day as far from town as possible and work their way back in.  This helps us even out our traffic on what's usually our busiest single day of the year, and get more people out to us when their palates are fresh and their trunks empty.

Plus, it's always a good time, with delicious food.

I thought it might be fun to share some family photos from this year's Sunday event.  It's one of the events each year to which we always bring the kids, as it's in the morning, outside, and very low-key and relaxed.  First, me with Eli (age 3, in front) and Sebastian (age 9 months) on my back:


Eli spent most of his time making sure there was enough ice in the chillers that we were using for the Rosé:


A nice photo of Meghan with Sebastian:


The challenges of running out of wine

We're not running out of wine.  Yet.  But, for the first time ever, I can see it looming. 

It's not a familiar position for me.  When we started, we made some mistakes in our marketing, the largest of which was neglecting to create a marketing plan.  We assumed that because we were associated with Chateau de Beaucastel, and we had confidence in our capabilities of making wine, our wines would sell out without us having to work at it.

Based on this assumption, we planted most of our vineyard fairly fast.  60 acres went into the ground between 1994 and 1997.  Another 20 acres went into the ground in 2000.  That meant that we grew from producing nothing in 1996 to about 4000 cases in the 1999 vintage to about 12,000 cases in the 2003 vintage.  Our marketing plan, such as it was, was to sell all this wine through wholesale without having to spend money to support the wines in the market through the traditional methods of market visits, wine festivals, distributor incentives, etc. 

We bottomed out in 2002, selling just 4000 cases wholesale while we watched inventory levels rise and knew that our production was growing rapidly.  Over the course of that year, we reinvented how we marketed Tablas Creek.  We opened our tasting room.  We launched our VINsider wine club.  And we started supporting the wines in the marketplace, visiting and working with dozens of distributors each year and participating in many more wine festivals around the country. 

And, little by little, we pulled ourselves out of the hole we'd dug.  Our total sales (wholesale and direct) rose to 5500 cases in 2003, 8000 in 2004, 11,000 in 2005, 15,000 in 2006 and 18,000 last year.  The growth was divided among the different outlets we had: tasting room, wine club, domestic wholesale and export.  Since we'd had the dubious luxury of having extra inventory of our wines from library vintages, we had lots of options for special features in our tasting room and could make selections for our wine club without having to worry that we were shorting our wholesalers of what they wanted.

Our production from 2004-2006 was a fairly consistent 16,000 cases per year, with 2004 a little below that and 2005 and 2006 a little above due to ample winter rainfall and favorable growing seasons.

Enter 2007.  The 2007 harvest was very light, and fooled us.  It followed a cold, dry winter and two years of higher-than-normal yields, and the result was a perfect formula for low production.   Our yields were less than 2.5 tons/acre, and we produced less than 13,500 cases of wine.  The wine is really good, very intense and focused (a little like 2002 was for us) but there's just not much of it.  And, the fact that we've worked through most of our back inventory in the past few years means that we're at the point that we're not going to have the wine to satisfy everyone who wants it.  With the natural growth of our wine club (we're netting about 500 new club members each year), the fact that our tasting room is up compared to last year, and the growth in demand for exports with the weak dollar, I don't see how we sell much less than 20,000 cases this year even with our moderate expectations for the domestic wholesale market in a challenging economy.  That's a lot more cases than we produced last year.

We're going to do what we can to stretch the 2006 vintage as long as we can, and release the 2008's (please, let yields be good!) a little earlier.  But, the simple fact is that we're having to make some difficult choices, particularly in whites (which were down more than reds, and which are released sooner).  Our fall 2008 wine club shipment will have 4 reds and only 2 whites for the first time ever.  We're going to hope that we can complete the fermentation of the 2008 Rosé in time to include it in our Spring '09 shipment with 2 whites and 3 reds.

I guess I should be happy about this.  Doesn't every business want to sell out of their product?  The simple solution of raising prices calls (and we will be doing that, slightly, with the next releases of our Cotes de Tablas and Cotes de Tablas Blanc).  But I have always felt that we make wines for people to drink and enjoy, not to be intimidated by because of their price or their scarcity.  And, I'm convinced that part of the reason for our success is that overall, the wines that we make provide excellent value for the people who buy them.  I'm not going to disrupt that.

But, I originally moved out here to be Director of Marketing.  How do you market when you don't have wine to sell?  What do I tell our National Sales Manager to do when any sales that he creates cause new headaches?  Or say to key restaurants or retailers who call and ask for a wine that we've sold out of except for what we've allocated to our wine club?  It will be a challenging year as we navigate this new situation of having to limit our sales to our current production and balance the demands from our different markets.

I don't yet know how this will play out.  We're going to be pulling back some of our wholesale market work, cutting down on wine festivals and letting some of our underperforming distributors slide in ways we wouldn't have tolerated in past years.  We'll protect our wine club for sure.  We aren't going to disappear from the wine scene; even wineries who are perpetually out of stock continue to show their faces and their wines periodically to maintain their fan base. 

But, I'm guessing I'll have many more opportunities to get better at telling people "sorry, we're out".  I guess that's what happens when a business grows up.

Hospice du Rhone!

Last weekend was the 2008 Hospice du Rhone.  As always, it was a terrific show, with a great mix of producers, distributors, restaurateurs, retailers, distributors and consumers.  It's one of the few events I do where the trade and consumers interact so much, and on such equal footing.

Hospicedurhone08 I think that one of the secrets of why the event works so well is that it doesn't take itself too seriously.  It presents terrific speakers, consistently some of the most important, relevant names in the wide world of Rhone varietals, but it does it without ceremony. The informal (but delicious) lunches  are outside.  The setting at the Paso Robles Event Center (home of the Mid-State Fair) is rustic, old-west, and a little bit goofy.  The serious events are punctuated by skits including a "top 10" list read annually by Mat Garretson, and the whole event comes across as light-hearted yet substantive.  This approach is typified by the pseudo-film-noir themes that they choose for their posters.  The 2008 poster spoofing James Bond (at right) is a great example.

While the tastings always offer an impressive number of top-quality Rhone wines from around the world, the lunches are the most fun parts of the event for me.  You sit at picnic-style tables without assigned seats, and may find yourself, as I did, next to Patrick Comiskey from Wine & Spirits Magazine, Rhone Ranger legend Bob Lindquist from Qupe, two distributor managers from Florida, and two pairs of consumers from Santa Fe.  These informal interactions are a great way to demystify the people in the world of wine, and I always come away from the lunches with new ideas about how to enjoy, promote, and think about Rhone wines.

My final thought is how lucky we are to have this world-class event in Paso Robles every year.  Yes, Paso Robles is becoming known as a hotbed for Rhone production in the United States (as evidenced by the recent creation of the Rhone Rangers Paso Robles chapter), but the Hospice du Rhone is still the one time each year when we can count on having many of the wine world's largest players come to us.

For someone like me used who has clear memories of presenting our wines to people in the industry who didn't know that Paso Robles wasn't a part of Napa, this is probably the sweetest result of all.