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July 2008
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September 2008

Pig Roast!

Each August, we hold a pig roast here at the winery.  We got the idea originally five years ago because our neighbor was having problems with feral pigs and offered to get us one for an event, and have continued the event with farm-raised pigs (in the absence of conveniently available wild ones) each year since.  Our winemaker Neil Collins dug a pit in an old rootstock field near the creek and rigged up a rotisserie from an old tractor motor.  The rotisserie:


Neil built the fire at 4:30am on Saturday, and the pig was on the rotisserie by 6am.  It spends the next twelve hours cooking, and is then taken out of the pit, off the spit and carved up.  Chef Tom Fundaro (of Villa Creek Restaurant) did the honors:


It's always fun for me to bring the kids and see what they think of all this.  Last year, Eli (our older son, now 3) discovered that he could figure out which grapes were ripe by what color they were.  This year, he was much more fascinated by the pig itself, while Sebastian (our younger son who is almost one) discovered the grapes:

Pigroast_sebastian Pigroast_eli_watching

We held the event in our nursery, in our shadehouses that are underutilized due to our partnership with NovaVine (they graft and harden off our grapevine material in Santa Rosa, so we don't have much use for shadehouses here).  It turned out to be a beautiful event space.  We welcomed around 120 people, mostly our VINsider Wine Club members, many of whom have come to every pig roast since 2004.  A couple of views of the event space, first during late afternoon with the sun low, and then after sunset with the lanterns and the twinkle lights out:


The food was served family-style, on platters, and to accompany the pig, Tom prepared gazpacho, summer white beans, grilled summer squash and potatoes, and a peach crumble for dessert.  All the vegetables were sourced from Paso Robles, and the dinner was delicious.  It's always one of my favorite events that we do.  If you didn't have a chance to make it this year, we hope we'll see you in 2009.  You can keep up with what's coming up on our upcoming events page.

A winery blog? Who needs it?

As the Tablas Creek blog has gotten more established, I've started to receive questions from other wineries about how to get started.  I have written posts on Learning How to Blog and on the (somewhat related) Usability Lessons for Winery Web Sites.  Still, reading a surprisingly pessimistic assessment of the value of winery blogs recently on Inertia Beverage Group's always interesting REThink Wine blog made me realize that while I've talked about how to blog, I haven't talked about when and even if to blog.  If you're a winery and thinking of starting a blog, here are a few ideas to consider:

  • Do you have the time?  It's important to remember that blogging takes time if you want to do it well. I don't think that a winery blog needs to be updated daily or even every other day (does your business change every day?) but if you aren't prepared to write a finished piece at least every week, you'll probably find that your audience doesn't feel the need to come back too often.
  • Do you want to be spending your time blogging?  Writing is work.  Most successful bloggers are probably closet writers anyway, and are used to spending a part of their time sorting out their thoughts in writing.  You should figure that you'll spend a few hours, at least, on each post, and a similar amount of time replying to your users' comments and including yourself in other relevant conversations on other blogs.  If this is time you'd be spending on similar topics anyway, you're in good shape.  If you (or your boss) will resent the time it's takes away time from work with more immediate returns, you might think again.
  • Do you have a personality that you want better exposed?  I think that most successful blogs are a reflection of a specific personality.  Take Jeff Stai's "el jefe" persona from El Bloggio Torcido, or Josh Hermsmeyer at Pinotblogger.  A blog, with its first-person voice and interactive nature, is a great way to create a cult of personality around a winery person.  This is probably why they're usually adopted by smaller wineries rather than larger, more corporate ones.  If you don't have one person whose personality you'd like to shape the blog, you might struggle to find a coherent message.
  • Do you have patience?  A new blog's audience takes time to build.  When you start your blog, it doesn't have much presence on Google and other search engines, people don't yet have it in their blog rolls, and you should expect to take several months, at least, before you start getting much readership.  The first six months after I started the Tablas Creek blog, we averaged just over 14 page views per day and didn't receive a single comment.  Over the first year, we received a grand total of two comments (one comment from a reader and a response from me).  It can be discouraging to continue to write when you are pretty sure that no one much is reading, but it's that effort that allows you to build the foundation for success later.
  • Do you have other publicity for which you can repurpose your blog work?  We have a newsletter that goes out to about 9000 people roughly three times a year, and an email newsletter that we send out another two or three times a year that goes to about 5500 people.  The process of writing our newsletters has become much easier because of all the content that I'm creating on the blog.  It has also allowed us to replace a harvest journal that we used to put up onto our Web site during harvest -- contrast the blog-based 2006 harvest journal with the Web-based 2005 harvest journal.  When you know that the writing work you're doing will have multiple purposes, it's easier to justify.
  • Are you willing to interact?  A blog really only works when you can have conversations with your readers.  You have to be willing to not just allow comments that may not be wholly complimentary, but respond to them in a thoughtful way.  I am not suggesting that you can't review comments for appropriateness (I erased a couple comments recently that seemed to be written by an automatic engine suggesting that people try a Gallo wine on an unrelated post, and there's a great article on Bigger than your Head about someone who is using blog comments as viral marketing to shill a recently released movie) but you have to be willing to accept that conversations may take on a life of their own if you want to establish your credibility as a blogger.

Reading back, I find these criteria a pretty daunting list.  Don't let it discourage you.  The benefits of blogging, if you stick with it, can be substantial, and there must be many hundreds of wineries who could fulfill most of the above criteria.  Still, maybe this explains why while there are somewhere around 4500 wineries in the United States, there are (according to the Winery Web Site Report's list) just 99 active English language winery blogs.  And from glancing through them, less than half are regularly updated.  Do I think that wineries have great advantages to gain from a good blog?  Absolutely.  But it's worth knowing that it isn't necessarily the right marketing tool for everyone.

Animated satellite images of Paso Robles morning fog retreating up the Salinas River Valley

We've been in the midst of a glorious weather pattern for most of the last three weeks.  These days begin with fog in the mornings in Paso Robles where I live (though usually not at the vineyard) and nighttime temperatures in the mid-40s.  The fog burns off by around 8am and the temperature jumps rapidly, getting up into the mid-90s by 1pm.  Then, right as you feel it might get stifling, a sea breeze kicks up, and by 4pm it's already noticeably cooler.  By 5pm it's cool enough to want to open up the house, and it's chilly by the time we put the kids to bed around 8.

I was struck this morning by the dramatic changes outside, almost by the minute, and did some browsing on my favorite weather sites.  I stumbled across an experimental part of the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) Web site that offers lots of options for long and short loops of satellite data.  I turned one of these loops into an animated GIF which is reproduced below.  It shows a great example of fog retreating north up the Salinas Valley, while other fog that has penetrated through some of the gaps in the Santa Lucia valleys retreats west.  Tablas Creek is in an area that looks clear, even in the first frame from 6am.  The location of the vineyard is located in the satellite map below.


This is another example of what makes our location at Tablas Creek so unique.  We're close to the coast (and so get enough rain to farm largely unirrigated) but are east of the coastal range and so we heat up during the day.  We get an afternoon sea breeze, which combined with radiational cooling allowed by our dry climate, creates nighttime temperatures routinely 45 degrees cooler than the daytime high.  Even better, we get cool nights usually without fog and so avoid the accompanying struggle against mildew and rot that comes with regular moisture.  Finally, we're far enough south that we don't typically get our first winter rains until two weeks after Napa and a month after Sonoma and Mendocino.  This is an enormous luxury and allows us to safely wait until mid-November to pick our latest-ripening grapes.

This is just one selection of the many weather resources at the National Weather Service.  It's well worth checking out for anyone who (like me) loves to look at weather information graphically.

AVA Approval Gridlock at the TTB

There is an interesting post today at Steve Heimoff's blog on the current mess that is the Tax and Trade Bureau's (TTB's) approval process for American Viticultural Areas (AVA's).  I posted a comment on his site that I thought warranted a fuller treatment here.

Steve's core point is that the AVA approval system is in disarray, with wineries and regional associations manipulating the system to the point that it's nearly meaningless.  I don't share his pessimism on the motivations of regions and wineries but I do agree that right now what the TTB is doing is not working (made worse by the TTB's perplexing attempt to rewrite the rules in the middle of the game).  Where we differ is that he suggests scrapping the system and perhaps turning it over to the states, while I would propose that the TTB take a better look at the rules that it has been using for years and if anything make them stronger in defense of place.

The TTB has proposed two main changes to the AVA approval process that it oversees.  The first makes it more difficult to register an AVA that is nested within another AVA.  The second (which I called "a well-meaning step in the wrong direction" in a post from December) proposes a new set of grandfathered brand names that would greatly expand the list of brands with permission to use place names on wines that come from other places.

First some background.  The TTB recently gave preliminary approval to a proposal to expand the existing Paso Robles AVA to include a small area at the southern edge of the current AVA, in the town of Santa Margarita.  This expansion was proposed as a part of the plan whose core proposals were eleven AVA's within Paso Robles, and had the goal of making a more logical and contiguous Santa Margarita District.  One of the core principals we used in creating our AVA's was to avoid whenever possible overlapping AVA's.  Without this extension, the Santa Margarita district would have sat partially within the Paso Robles AVA and partially outside.

Yet, when you submit a group of new AVA's (or amended AVA's) to the TTB, there is no guarantee as to what order it will rule on the proposals.  Approving the expansion of the Paso Robles AVA while not also addressing the reason for it (the newly proposed Santa Margarita District) made Steve, and I'm sure others, speculate on the motivation of the member wineries.  And I think that's too bad.  I am on the Paso Robles AVA Committee that drafted the proposed new AVA's.  We did everything that we could to ensure that the boundaries that we proposed we scientifically based, reasonable, and defensible.  If you accept that it is possible for regions to share macro-level similarities but still have micro-level differences, I don't see that many of the proposed AVA's are controversial.  Paso Robles is a huge AVA, with regions that vary widely in daytime high temperature, elevation, and soils.  The original Paso Robles AVA was drawn to include a contiguous area that shared basic characteristics, and I think that these similarities still hold.  The entire AVA shares a high day-night swing in temperature, very low humidity, a similar number of sunny days, shared lack of rainfall until late in the season, etc, that makes it different from other appellations to the north and south of us. 

What's more, the thought of moving away from the existing Paso Robles AVA would have enormous consequences in the marketplace.  The accumulated understanding of what Paso Robles is, based on twenty-plus years of wineries within the AVA promoting their wines around the country, is substantial.  The proposed new AVA map:


Back to the current AVA extension.  It appears that the reason that this AVA extension was ruled upon by the TTB before the rest of our proposals is that it was the only uncontroversial piece based on the new rules that it published after the AVA's were submitted.  In my opinion, it's these new rules that are at the heart of the problem.

The TTB's new rules display a deep skepticism about the wisdom of creating AVA's nested within other AVA's.  This skepticism is at odds with centuries of history of AVA systems around the world, all of which balance overall regional similarities and more local specificities.  Consumers and the wine trade understand that Pommard is a part of Burgundy, and Stag's Leap District a part of Napa. The current TTB rules warn that anyone proposing an AVA that nests within an existing AVA is subject to the possibility of the new AVA being removed from the old AVA if it is found to be sufficiently different.  This has the end effect of paralyzing the TTB's ability to rule on new AVA's.  They're caught between two of their rulings, having to decide it's "unique" and therefore worthy of its own AVA as well as sufficiently like its larger umbrella AVA to remain a part of that AVA.  No wonder the TTB has held up consideration of any AVA that fits these criteria!

I feel that the TTB has landed itself in a mess of its own making.  The only good solution seems to me to go back to their older rules, which give them criteria that they can reasonably follow to rule on AVA's on their merits.  In an ideal world, they'd strengthen the protection for place name designations (giving, perhaps, a 10-year window for any brands that use place names to either source grapes from the place incorporated into their brand or move to another brand).  I'm not holding my breath, but would hope that we can at least move back to a more orderly consideration of new AVA's.

In any case, I think it's great that Steve is focusing attention on the current state of affairs.  If you've somehow made it to this point without reading his post, go read it now.