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December 2008
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February 2009

Valentine's Day Wine (AKA Wine for Chocolate): Sunset Magazine says Vin de Paille "Sacrerouge"

I don't normally post on this blog about press that we receive (although we do post it on our Web site at but every now and then we get a piece of press so cool I can't resist.  This one was even better because it was unexpected.

In their February issue, Sunset Magazine published their "Lover's guide to wine" with suggestions for wines and foods that will (in their words) "jump-start your evening".  Even better, they featured our Vin de Paille "Sacrerouge", the 100% Mourvedre dessert wine that we make occasionally from grapes dried on straw in our greenhouses.  It is a lush, beautiful wine (Robert Parker called it "kinky") and we've always thought it a great pairing with or instead of Valentine's Day chocolates.

Sunset took it one step further, calling it "bottled seduction" and suggests "gulp it, pour it over yourself, surrender sense to it".   In a serendipitous twist, it has been our featured wine this January, and so is 15% cheaper the rest of this week than it will be at any other time.  So, what are you waiting for?  Read the article or order some.


A little tropical rain in January

We're worried about the rainfall we've received this winter.  So far, we're under seven inches total, which is behind the pace we need to be at to get to our annual average of 28 inches.  And we had a very warm, dry stretch from late December through mid-January with daytime highs reaching the upper 70s and nighttime lows in the mid-20s.  That's spectacular weather to live in, particularly when the rest of the country is suffering through record freezing temperatures and bitter winter storms, but each winter week that goes by without rain is roughly 4% of the 6-month season when we're supposed to be receiving the rain which will support the vines during the summer and fall.  We know that April is looming just a few months away, and we're unlikely to receive any significant rainfall once we get there.

So, for all these reasons, we were happy to see a break in the weather pattern and a series of minor storms make their way through the Central Coast.  Even better, yesterday's storm tapped into a reservoir of tropical moisture, which tends to produce our most substantial rainfalls in the winter.  As evidence of the tropical character of this weather pattern, our low yesterday was just 53 degrees, fully 15 degrees warmer than our normal winter lows.  With all the clouds, the high was just 57 degrees, and the four degree range the lowest that I can remember in the seven years I've lived in Paso Robles.

The weather report for Paso Robles is below.  Note how at Tablas Creek we've received nearly twice as much rain as the next highest level (the Templeton Gap) and three times as much as the weather stations further east.


This last storm was useful for the vineyard but not dramatic, with nearly an inch yesterday and another two-tenths of an inch on both the 22nd and the 24th.  In a normal winter, this would be perfect (no wind, no erosion damage, steady gentle rain) but in a dry winter we'd been hoping for more.  We have two more days in this wet weather pattern, with tomorrow (Sunday, January 25th) showing the best chance for significant rain.  Another inch or so looks likely.  We'll happily take it, knowing that another ridge of high pressure is likely to keep more rain away well into February.

Tablas Creek on "Adam the Wine Guy"

Google alerts can be is an incredibly powerful tool.  If you don't yet have one set up to track news and blog posts about your business, you're probably nowhere near the first person to find out what other people are saying about you in public forums.  I've had lots of different people ask me what (paid) clipping service I use to stay on top of the press about Tablas Creek... when the reality is that I'm just using Google alerts and reading the food and wine magazines that come through the winery.

Mostly, the alerts I get let me know about writers and Web sites I'm already familiar with, although I would not otherwise have found out so soon about a Tablas Creek-related post.  Every now and then, though, I get an alert that points me to a site that I should really have been aware of but wasn't.  Such was the case on Monday, when I got an alert to a video post about the Tablas Creek 2004 Cotes de Tablas Blanc by Adam the Wine Guy.  Adam is Adam Leemon, who I knew as sommelier at Dolce Enoteca in Los Angeles.  His biography since then sounds fun, with stints as sommelier to the stars, appearances on TV and radio, and consulting gigs helping put together some of Los Angeles' top wine lists.

Two forays I didn't know about were his Web site ( and his blog (  On his blog he posts a different interactive video wine tasting each day, along the lines of what Gary Vaynerchuk has done with so much success with Wine Library TV.  Anyway, in this Monday's episode, Adam posts a video tasting of the 2004 Tablas Creek Cotes de Tablas Blanc.  I thought it was a nice example of how easy (and powerful) it can be to integrate video into the creation of a blog persona.


Why I am feeling optimistic about 2009

I just got back from the national sales meetings of Vineyard Brands (which represents our wines nationally) in Birmingham, Alabama.  I present to the sales team each January, and these meetings give me a chance to get the pulse of the national wholesale wine market as well as catch up with old friends. 

This was the first time in the seven years I've made this presentation that our wholesale sales were down the previous year, which made the presentation a little more challenging.  Still, being down only 11% was a relatively solid performance amidst the meltdown of the economy during the last quarter of the year.  The same week, I spent a day in Atlanta working with a couple of the key account specialists with Empire, our Georgia distributor.  This was a great day, with every stop we made ordering multiple wines.

In the conclusion of my presentation to Vineyard Brands, I mentioned that I thought our fundamentals had never been stronger, and that I was looking forward to 2009.  I think it can be hard to think long-term (and looking a full year ahead qualifies as long term) amidst some of the more pessimistic views of the fine wine market this year. (Feeling too euphoric after reading this blog?  Check out predictions from Tom Wark's Fermentation.)  Still, I am feeling quite hopeful as we move into 2009.  And here's why:

  • Between 2005 and 2008, we've seen a remarkable succession of strong vintages at Tablas Creek, each with their own distinctive character. These are the wines that will be on the market in 2009 (and beyond).
  • We're a part of three hot categories within the world of wine: Paso Robles (and, more broadly, California's Central Coast), Rhone varietals (particularly Rhone blends), and wines made with organic viticulture.
  • We have an ever-growing base of enthusiasts, driven by some 22,000 visitors to the Tablas Creek tasting room in 2008.  This visitor total is up 4% from 2007, and I think it's hard to overstate the importance for a relatively small winery like us of sharing the experience of Tablas Creek with over 40,000 people over the last two years.  I am a strong believer that it's worthwhile to make fans one at a time, and that the cumulative impact of this one-on-one outreach is enormous.  It's worth noting that our direct sales, including tasting room and phone/internet, were up 15% last year.
  • There is a move in the wine markets, as in the consumer markets in general, away from show and toward substance.  Since we've never been very good at show, but feel that we offer a lot of substance, this is good for us.  Want to see what I am talking about?  Take a look at the small aside on designer Karl Lagerfeld near the end of a recent blog post by Steve Heimoff.
  • Our press has never been better.  Last year, we received very nice writeups from Robert Parker's Wine Advocate and Stephen Tanzer's International Wine Cellar.  And, just before Christmas, we got the best score in our history from the Wine Spectator on the 2006 Esprit de Beaucastel.
  • Everyone is looking for value, to the point that it's almost a joke seeing the food and wine press trip over itself offering value recipes and value recommendations alongside the same advertisements for luxury items that we've seen for years.  And, if you look at what top examples from major wine categories will cost you, it can be daunting.  The top wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy have been astronomically priced for years now.  And the top California Cabernets, Merlots, or Chardonnays will set you back triple digits, at least.  Even the top Chateauneuf-du-Papes will set you back $90 or more.  But the Esprit de Beaucastel wines, which at $40 and $45 represent some of the best of California Rhones?  Pretty good values, I submit.

Finally, independent of anything that we at Tablas Creek are or are not doing, all the demographics of the world of American wine consumption are pointing in the right direction.  American wine consumption rose to its highest-ever level in 2008, according to Wine Business Monthly, and this growth is being driven by the changing tastes of younger consumers, who are adopting wine as their drink of choice as their parents' generations never did.  I analyzed American wine production and consumption data in September, and concluded that we saw a "vibrant, growing market, and great prospects for growth over the next decade".  Economic troubles notwithstanding, I see this as true now as it was four months ago, and feel that we're well positioned to take best advantage of the market opportunities we come across in 2009.

Facebook, social networking for wineries and a new use for a winery blog

About three months ago, I created a Facebook page for Tablas Creek.  For those of you who are not familiar with Facebook, it's a site where people can interact with their friends by sharing updates and photos, posting thoughts and links, and generally keeping a loose eye on what your group of friends is thinking and doing.  It was originally designed for students, and many of the users are still in their teens or twenties.  But, as social networking sites like these (MySpace is the other main one) insinuate themselves into mainstream culture, the demographics have broadened.  According to Facebook's press page, the 150 million users worldwide spend an average of 17 minutes a day on the site, and more than half the users are post-college.  That's a lot of eye time for a lot of potential customers.

The main connection on Facebook is that of "friend".  You can request to be a friend of another Facebook user, and if that person accepts your friend request, you have access to their postings and updates.

While the application was designed for individuals to use to stay in touch with their cohort of friends, it also allows companies and organizations to create pages to represent themselves.  Some do so by creating a personal page as a winery (as in my first name is Justin and my last name is Winery) and then making friends with their followers.  Other create organization or group pages, and followers can become "fans" (of an organization) or "members" (of a group).  There doesn't seem to be any particular pattern that wineries and vineyards have chosen.  All three options are well represented.

Treating your business personal page as a person has some advantages that I didn't anticipate when I created the Tablas Creek page as an organization.  Friend relationships are considered by Facebook closer than fan or member relationships, and personal pages can update their Facebook status.  The status is a powerful tool, as the default home page of each user shows recent status updates from their friends.  An organization or group doesn't have a tool quite as effective.

Still, the relationship of a possible customer to a business (at least, a business that's not tiny) seems more appropriate to that of "fan" or "member" than "friend".  For better or worse, I chose to create the Tablas Creek page as an organization page, and we now have some 230 fans.  Some are friends of mine or of other Tablas Creek employees, but many are not, and each day we get another 3 or 4 or 5 new fans organically.

A screenshot of the current Tablas Creek page:


You will notice that, as an administrator of this page, I have the option of sending an update to fans, and I do so occasionally.  You'll also notice that there are 35 "notes" posted.  Nearly all of these are blog posts, as I've configured Facebook to automatically pull any posts I make here on the blog into the Tablas Creek Facebook page as a note.  This is a potentially powerful tool for wineries with Facebook pages who are also bloggers, as it obviates the need to duplicate content and provides regular updates on important items to the Facebook audience.

There are also portions of the page that are relatively undeveloped, such as the discussion board (no one has yet created any discussion topics) and the wall (there have only been seven posts).  I'm sure that both of these components will grow as our database of fans grows.

There is also the option of creating and publicizing events.  We're just starting to use this capability, which many other Facebook users have reported is currently the most applicable one to a business.  I do have the experience of using the event page through the Paso Robles Rhone Rangers (which was created as a group a few months ago and has 600+ members).  The upcoming 2009 Paso Robles Rhone Rangers Experience has a corresponding event page on Facebook which shows 53 confirmed guests (some of whom are winery members) and another 121 listed as "Maybe Attending".  We'll see the extent to which these people actually buy tickets; according to the event staff at Robert Hall Winery, who are accepting reservations, no one has identified themselves as having heard about the event through Facebook.  A funny October article in the New York Times Magazine by Hal Niedzviecki told of his effort to invite his more-than-700 friends to a Facebook event and seeing only one of the fifteen "attending" and 60 "maybe attending" friends show up. 

So, why am I spending the time to create and maintain this Facebook page for Tablas Creek?  First, it's not much time or maintenance, particularly because I can use my blog posts as content.  And, I have to confess I spend a fair amount of time on Facebook anyway, so it's not like I have to remember to check whether anyone has responded.  And, I'm convinced, as more and more people adopt the application and integrate it more fully into their lives, that it will become the same sort of tool for businesses to keep its fans updated as it has become for communities of friends: a tool whose power is in its broad reach, even if its depth is limited.

And plus, if I don't start now, how will I ever get us more than 236 fans?  Oh, wait... there's one more.  Make it 237.

Modern Organic, Stone Ground Olive Oil

When we started planning out the Tablas Creek vineyard, we decided to line the roads within the vineyard with olive trees.  Olives are traditional in the Rhone, and they have the added advantage that they aren't much work, won't grow so big they'd shade the grapes, and don't share any pests with grapevines.  The trees grew beautifully, and in about ten years we started getting an olive crop. 

This posed a bit of a problem. 

As we'd chosen the olive trees primarily for their looks, we hadn't really thought through what we'd do with the olives once the trees started producing.  You can't leave the olives on the tree, because they rot and attract pests, but we did not have the capacity to press them here (wine presses are woefully unsuited to breaking down olive pits).  The first few years we just cured the olives that we harvested, though our harvest soon overwhelmed our needs for cured olives.

In 2004, we got our first harvest in sufficient quantities to press, and took them to a local olive oil producer to press.  They did it for a year, and then (very nicely) asked us to find somewhere better set up to handle small custom-crush lots.  Keeping lots separate is difficult, and machines that are designed to process dozens of tons of olives waste a lot of time and effort on half-ton lots.

Roman_olive_press_by_David_Shankbone So, for the last three years, we've been taking our olives down to Figueroa Farms in Santa Ynez, which has done a very nice job for us.  But, the modern processing equipment is a far cry from the pastoral ideal of the stone-ground press (like the one at right, which is a detail from a photo I found on Wikipedia of a Roman press; the photographer is David Shankbone).

Modern olive presses use crushing blades and centrifuges to crush the olives and separate the oil from the water and the solid materials (pomace).  The process is noisy, industrial, and very far from our ideal of minimal processing, much more so to my mind than a modern bladder press is from an old-fashioned wooden basket press for wine.  Plus, we've wanted to be able to label our olive oil as organic, and in order to label a food product as organic it needs to be processed in an organic-certified facility.

Enter Pietra Santa Winery. Pietra Santa, located in Hollister (not far from Calera) is an artisan producer of olive oil as well as wine, and their facility is certified organic.  Even more exciting, they use stone grinding wheels to crush the olives into pomace.

Olive_press Of course, technology of stone grinding has advanced from the Roman press (above) which would have been turned by oxen.  The press is powered by electricity rather than bovines, and the pomace, once it has been crushed, is still separated by a centrifuge rather than by being pressed between fiber discs (to remove the solids) and then decanted (to separate the oil from the water). 

In December, our winemaker Neil Collins brought the olives from the 2008 harvest up to Pietra Santa for pressing.  His photos follow the path of the fruit as it becomes oil.  First, the olives are sorted and moved by conveyor belt up to where they will be washed:


Then, the olives are washed vigorously in water:


Next, the olives are crushed under the stone wheels:


The liquids (oil on top, water below) are separated:


And the oil streams out of the centrifuge:


And into the carboy:


The end result will be Tablas Creek extra virgin olive oil, for the first time certified organic in 2008, and available exclusively in the Tablas Creek tasting room!