Previous month:
March 2009
Next month:
May 2009

Making the most of time in the market

I had a distributor tell me last week that I should provide "supplier training" to their other wineries.  I laughed; it's good to feel appreciated.  But then I thought, why not?  There are lots of wineries, across the spectrum, who are realizing that they need to spend time out in the market if they hope to survive or grow in the current economy.  Many of the people spending time out in the markets haven't done it much in the past.  And I'm always amazed how grateful the reps I work with are for the follow up I do.  Is it really that rare? 

Effective market work includes things to do before you arrive (even when you are scheduling your work), other things to do while you are there, and follow-up to complete after you get back.  Here is some basic advice for all three phases of your market work:

  1. Ask your distributor for what you want.  If you know what accounts you want to visit (or even what types of accounts you want to visit) let your distributor know.  If you have a specific salesperson you'd like to work with, let them know that as well.  You won't always get what you ask for, but you're more likely to get it if you ask for it.  At the same time, be reasonable.  You can't spend all your time visiting the same top downtown accounts that everyone wants to be in.  And, you probably can be more effective by being more creative.  For example, we made a point a few years ago to visit the college towns in as many states as possible.  We figured that these areas would be more progressive in their wine tastes, and more receptive to the fact that we farm organically, and both turned out to be true.  Distributors don't always think this way.
  2. Make your days as productive as possible by scheduling evening consumer events.  When you're on the road, you can expect to spend your days (say, 10am to 6pm) working with your distributor.  But what about evenings?  Are there restaurant and retail accounts with whom you could set up dinners or tastings?  These evening events give you the opportunity to market to consumers, to build your mailing list, and to help the accounts who buy from you actually sell some of that wine they bought.  And you're there anyway.  Setting up these sorts of events requires some advance planning, but they are usually well worth the effort.
  3. Before you arrive, check to confirm that the inventory and pricing you expect are in place.  Distributors are busy.  They represent hundreds or thousands of wines, and typically shift their focus from week to week to whoever is coming to visit them in the market.  It's in your best interests to confirm 3 or 4 weeks in advance that the wines you expect to show are in inventory, that the pricing you'd like to see has been implemented.  There is no better time to ask a distributor to bring in wines than when you're about to visit the market, and your visit can be more productive if accounts who are interested can be shipped what they liked.
  4. Discuss with the salesperson you're working with who will ask for the sale.  It's easy to coast through a day of market visits, meeting and speaking with the buyers, and end your day with a series of "to follow up" visits.  Of course, once you leave the premises of the buyer, the chances of a sale decrease dramatically.  These visits are sales opportunities.  Make sure that someone is asking for the sale at each visit.  If a buyer doesn't feel able to commit right then, see if the distributor can set up shipment for a future date... in two weeks, or at the beginning of the next month.
  5. Take notes when you visit accounts.  A day that a winery representative spends riding around with a distributor will typically involve visits to 5 to 9 accounts.  I've always found that by the end of the day the specifics of which account liked which wine gets fuzzy.  If you take notes when you leave an account, you'll be in much better position to follow up later.
  6. Keep track of who you see at trade shows.  Trade shows are a challenge, because your table is often overwhelmed by waves of tasters.  Some will be wearing name tags, but many will not.  Some will have business cards, but many will not.  But the more people you can record (with, ideally, the name of the account, who you spoke with, and what they were most interested in) the better able you will be to give your distributor the tools to follow up effectively. Bring a legal pad where you can jot down notes and record as many as you can.   And don't be shy about asking someone who comes by your table who they're with and what their role is, or (even simpler, because it has all the information in one place) for a business card.
  7. Send your notes to your sales representative and his or her manager.  When you get back home, take a little time to write up your notes and send them to who you worked with and to his or her manager.  This shows that you expect them to follow up, and gives them a very useful tool for that follow-up.  And check back in a few weeks to see which of the pending sales have come through.
  8. Send a thank-you note to the key buyers you met.  Restaurant and retail buyers see dozens of salespeople each week.  It's remarkable how effective sending a simple thank-you note after you get back can be to fix a positive memory in the buyer's mind.  I don't think it really matters whether this is sent by email or written by hand.  It is, as they say, the thought that counts.

I hope this proves helpful.  Anyone with good strategies for successful work in the market (or, if you're in the restaurant, retail, or wholesale world, things that you've appreciated your suppliers doing) please share!

Thoughts on Taste Live, Twitter and online wine tasting

Last Friday, I was fortunate to be invited to participate in the Taste Live (formerly Twitter Taste Live) online wine tasting in honor of Hospice du Rhone.  For the uninitiated, Taste Live is a community of over 1000 wine (and beer) enthusiasts who get together roughly every couple of weeks to taste wine (or beer) on a particular theme.  The tasters, scattered all over the world, share their thoughts and questions about what they're tasting over Twitter.  The Taste Live Web site compiles all the Twitterers' comments into an interface that is easy to assimilate at a glance. 

My first vision was sort of pathetic: hundreds of lonely wine tasters getting together virtually on a Friday evening to taste wines in front of their computers and communicate what they thought in 135-character bites.  But it appears that most of the participants get together at central locations (wine shops, wineries or restaurants) to taste together, share some camaraderie, and, oh yeah, tweet about what they're tasting.  A terrific diagram from the Taste Live "learn more" tab explains:


The Taste Live events are organized by time zone.  There were three separate tastings that happened last Friday: one in the UK, another on the US east coast, and the one that I was involved in, on the US west coast.  They all share a theme for the day (last Friday's theme was Hospice du Rhone) but feature a different selection of four or five wines.  Customizing the wines for each tasting allows the organizers to correct for the regional variability in wine distribution and availability, and to identify retailers who have agreed to stock the wines that will be discussed in their time zones.  Each tasting took place from 7pm to 10pm local time, so the east coast tasting was finishing up as we were getting started.

The west coast wine selections (chosen by Jill Bernheimer of Domaine 547 and Paige Granback of The Jug Shop) included two Tablas Creek wines: the 2007 Cotes de Tablas Blanc, and the 2006 Mourvedre.  Jill and Paige invited me to taste and tweet along with everyone else to help give some perspective on our wines.  

I, of course, was doing exactly what I'd visualized: sitting at home at 7pm on a Friday evening, trying to tweet about wine while simultaneously getting the kids ready for bed.  Not, perhaps, the most conducive environment for focus, but I still was able to contribute in a fairly consistent fashion.

My review of the event?  I thought that it had components that were excellent, including that the Hospice du Rhone team had invited some eminent Rhone Rangers winemakers (including Randall Grahm and Jeff Cohn) to sit in at the event's Sonoma epicenter and tweet about the wines they were tasting and about Rhone-style wines in general.  Plus, as a participant, you get some reach beyond just those who participate day-of because many of the organizers and participants are wine bloggers and blog about the wines they taste.  But it also had chaotic elements, with tasters in different places wanting to move at different speeds and people who hadn't bothered (or weren't able) to get the pre-selected wines contributing thoughts on wines that weren't on the list and weren't in front of anyone else.  There is really no capacity with the present technology to moderate of this sort of discussion, and Jill commented mid-way through that organizing wine tweets was like herding cats.  It was also difficult to answer questions that came up because of the decentralized, non-threaded nature of Twitter itself.  Tweets flowed in, hundreds in all over the course of the evening, including ones with some excellent questions for the producers involved, but by the time I was able to respond to a question, the twitterer might have already asked another question and typically we'd received dozens of other tweets in the interim.  Conversations become difficult and you end up with lots of not-particularly-interactive chatter.

So, I loved the concept, and was thrilled to have Tablas Creek included, but am not sure that Twitter is the right engine for this sort of tasting.  Twitter's 135-character limit for tweets is both a strength and a weakness, forcing contributors to be concise but limiting the depth of possible answers.  And the event will get increasingly unmanageable as its numbers grow.  We probably had somewhere around 100 contributors to the west coast tasting, and that already created such a rapid flow of tweets that correspondance was difficult.  If the event should grow to 1000 people it seems like it might collapse under its own weight.

Still, Taste Live is an exciting development in the world of creating wine tastings that are both thematic and decentralized.  As the technology gets better, both for moderation and for creating threaded discussions, I can imagine this becoming a really powerful way of sharing thoughts and experiences of wine.  Will it be via Twitter?  I'm not convinced.  But if you'd like to keep up with me just in case, you can follow along at @jasonchaas.

The real differences between eastside and westside Paso Robles

I've gotten a series of questions recently, mostly from people inside the trade, asking me some variation of the question "so, you're pretty far west in Paso Robles, right?  That must mean you're cooler than a lot of those big eastside wineries."

Interestingly, it just isn't true that, in Paso Robles, east is hotter and west is cooler.  Sure, the farthest eastern stretches of the Paso Robles AVA are usually hot, and stay hot later in the day than we do out west.  But north and south make at least as much difference as east and west for temperature.  To get your bearings, take a look at the map below (created with the help of the excellent interactive Paso Robles AVA map tool on the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance site); click on the image for a larger, clearer one:


While we are close to the coast, the cool sea air is largely blocked from affecting us by the Santa Lucia mountains.  Just a few miles south, in the Templeton Gap, cool air flows more freely through the gaps in the mountains and cools the vineyards there dramatically in the afternoon.  I wrote in more detail about how this happens about a month ago in the post west Paso Robles wind flow, the Templeton Gap and the Adelaida climate.

The other effect of the dual flows of cold, often moist air (up the Salinas Valley and through the Templeton Gap) is to bring morning fog into the lower-lying areas, including most of the vineyards in the Salinas and Estrella River valleys.  As this fog takes some time to burn off in the morning, summer days are often fifteen or twenty degrees warmer when I make it out to Tablas Creek to begin my work day than when I left my house in town.  These dual effects (afternoon sea breeze and morning fog) in effect create four different climatic zones in Paso Robles.  Areas in the Templeton Gap, which receive the earliest afternoon cooling and relatively late morning fog, are the coolest parts of the AVA.  Areas that are relatively high in elevation north of the Templeton Gap but west of town (like the Adelaida area in which Tablas Creek sits) have a moderate climate, warming early in the day but cooling earlier in the evening.  The average daily temperature in this zone is similar overall to areas close to town who warm later in the day but stay warm later into the evening.  Finally, there are the areas relatively far east of town which don't get any significant fog but also don't get much cooling from the valley airflow.  These areas are measurably hotter than the rest of the AVA.

Although the climate of the Adelaida area is not that different from that in town, there are three major characteristics that distinguish it.  The first is soils, which in our part of Paso Robles are very high in calcium with little topsoil cover, forcing vines to work into the chalky bedrock for sustenance.  The calcareous soils in west Paso Robles and west Templeton are among the largest in the state of California, and some of the only ones in areas warm enough to ripen late-ripening grape varieties like Mourvedre, Grenache and Cabernet.  There are smaller calcareous deposits east of town, but in nothing like the same concentration. 

The second distinction is rainfall.  The closer to the coast that you go, and the higher up the coastal range you go, the more rainfall you receive.  So, out at Tablas Creek (1500 feet elevation) we average nearly double the rainfall of the town of Paso Robles (700 feet elevation) and triple that of areas east of town.  This means that producers west of town who wish to do so can farm without irrigation many years, creating grapevine root structures that delve deep into the bedrock in search of moisture.  By contrast, irrigated vineyards reward the roots that stay at the surface, largely in the topsoil, nearer their primary source of water.  We feel that the deeper root systems that are encouraged in our largely-unirrigated vineyard produce grapes that show more character of place.

Finally, the third distinction between east and west Paso Robles is topography.  The land rises sharply once you leave the Salinas valley to the west, rising into wooded foothills cut by pocket canyons.  East of town, gently rolling hills and broad plains extend nearly to the eastern edge of the Paso Robles AVA.  The area east of town is unquestionably easier to farm, and most of the large plantings in the AVA have occurred there.  These large plantings include parcels planted and managed by the larger wineries in the area (including J. Lohr, Meridian, EOS, and Robert Hall) but very many are planted by independent grapegrowers who market their grapes, by the ton, through a variety of long-term and year-by-year contracts.  There is good reason for producers interested in producing at higher yields, whether to produce value wines or to maximize their tonnage per acre as a cash crop, to choose the east side of town.  The steep hills of the Adelaida and Templeton Gap regions make mechanizing farming difficult and mechanizing harvesting impossible.  The relative lack of groundwater on the west side makes irrigation a dicey proposition, while a plentiful aquifer under much of east Paso Robles assures a regular water supply.  These two factors preclude us, and most other producers on the west side, from producing more than 3 or 4 tons of grapes per acre most years.

To get a sense of the differences in topography, compare the following two photos.  The first is a shot taken at Tablas Creek, looking east at one of the larger (perhaps the largest of the) plantings on the west side, at Halter Ranch.  You can see the relatively steep hillsides and the valleys within that can be planted to grapevines:


Compare that to the below shot of the rolling plains and extensive plantings of the Estrella River basin, included paradoxically by the Wine Enthusiast a few years ago in an article touting the potential of westside Paso Robles called "The West Side Story":


I think that much of the difference between the wines of east and west Paso Robles (that most people within and outside the industry ascribe to climate) can be better thought of as an example of topographic determinism.  By that I mean that the producers who wanted to make higher-production wines to sell less expensively chose eastside Paso Robles because it just isn't practical to farm inexpensively west of town.  And by doing so, they convinced many people that this was all their area was capable of.  The producers who started west of town were forced to sell their wines more expensively because it was more expensive to develop and farm their land, and their land produced fewer tons per acre.

I'm not dismissing the impacts of soils and rainfall; we believed that both were important enough for what we wanted to do to choose the site that we did, far west of town in an area that at the time didn't have a vineyard within three miles.  But I think that the terrific high-end wines being produced by eastside wineries, from eastside vineyards (but just starting to get noticed) will start to change people's opinions of the entire AVA.  And this is why the plan for 11 additional AVA's within Paso Robles, still as of this writing being considered by the TTB nearly two years after it was filed, should in the long run help the producers east of town at least as much as those of us to its west.

I think that the rise of wineries making and marketing premium wines east of town is a great thing; the investments that these wineries will make (and have been making) to produce their premium wines in areas formerly thought suitable only for "value" wine production should result in a dramatic improvement in the reputation of the Paso Robles "brand".

And, perhaps even more importantly, a more sophisticated understanding of what the real differences are between Paso Robles east and west, north and south, hills and plains, and wet and dry, will help all of us match up the varieties we grow with the farming practices we implement and the land we farm.

Congratulations to... my wife Meghan?

So, we just completed the third annual VINsider NCAA tournament bracket.  And once again, our fans showed that their skill in choosing winners extends beyond just wine.  The median entry in the ESPN VINsider group that I set up was in the 60th percentile.  I encourage the Tablas Creek staff to join in the brackets each year, and a handful of us did.  My wife Meghan, who you have to thank for our newsletter, labels and brochures, entered as well, picking UNC to win it all (she's always been an ACC partisan).  Her bracket picked three of the final four and seven of the elite eight and landed her in the 98.5th percentile and at the top of the VINsider pool.

I always knew I had good taste!

My own bracket was fairly embarrassing; I did very well picking upsets in the first round and was in the 99th percentile after two rounds and 97th after three... but things fell apart quickly after that, and my final four of Memphis, Louisville, Oklahoma and Pitt didn't exactly happen. 

Thank you to everyone who played.  It's always a fun diversion for us here!

A first look at the surprisingly lush 2008 whites

This afternoon, we got together to taste our first preliminary blends of the 2008 whites.  Up until this point, we've been tasting through different lots, but nothing systematic.  My impression going into the tasting was that 2008, after all its challenges, would be a vintage more like the elegant 2006's than the blockbuster 2007's.  After our first day of tasting, I think I have to reevaluate that preconception.

We always begin our blending by making the Esprits.  This year, more than most years, we had to know what our upper limit was of Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc.  Some (weaker) years we can skip this step and make as much as we can based on the Esprit-quality lots we have.  But in recent years there have been many more high-quality lots than we've needed to make a reasonable amount of Esprit Blanc.  And sales of the Esprit Blanc in the wholesale market have been impacted by the poor economy more than any other wine we make, and we wanted to be sure we weren't making more of the wine than the market could absorb.  In the end, we set our upper limit of production at 1850 cases, only 800 of which will go out in wholesale (the rest we'll use in a wine club shipment, to sell in our tasting room, to hold back for a later release as a library wine, and for export).  By comparison, we made 2150 cases of the 2007 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc.

The next step, even before we begin tasting, is to subtract out the gallonage that a reasonable blend of the Esprit Blanc would take and see what we have left.  We knew, from the components that we had left, we would have to produce at least three single-varietal wines (to populate upcoming wine club shipments) as well as the Cotes de Tablas Blanc.  Looking at the gallonages made it clear that we weren't going to be able to make a varietal Viognier and still have enough Viognier left over to form the core varietal of the Cotes de Tablas Blanc.  We've never been thrilled with Marsanne as a single varietal.  These two factors more or less dictated the wines that we had to try to make: a varietal Roussanne, a Grenache Blanc, and a Bergeron-style Roussanne from early-harvested lots.  Luckily, we'd anticipated wanting to make a Bergeron last fall, and had picked accordingly.

Finally, subtracting out the gallons that would be needed to make our three single-varietal wines, we could see roughly what the Cotes de Tablas Blanc would look like: something along the lines of 42% Viognier, 25% Roussanne, 22% Marsanne and 11% Grenache Blanc.  A surprise was that with any reasonable amount of Picpoul in the Esprit Blanc (we've used between 5% and 10% since 2004) we'd have some Picpoul left over for a single varietal.  We were excited about this; we hadn't been able to make one since 2005.  Unfortunately, unless we removed it entirely from the Esprit Blanc, which isn't likely, there wouldn't be enough to send out to the wine club.

So, this is what went on behind the scenes before we even began tasting.  Neil and Ryan (Neil Collins and Ryan Hebert, our winemakers, for the uninitiated) put together proportional blends of all the wines we'd need to make given the lots that we have in the cellar.  Some quick notes from the preliminary blends we tasted today:

  • 2008 Cotes de Tablas Blanc: Surprisingly lush for what I'd classified in my head to be a middle-weight vintage.  Peach pit from the Viognier component stands out.  Not terribly floral yet; still a little muddy from recently concluded fermentation.  Very broad and long.  A little soft right now.  Looking forward to this settling after it's blended into tank, but should be up there with the 2007 (our best vintage of this wine to date) in style and quality.
  • 2008 Bergeron: Again, surprisingly lush.  I might have thought this was our varietal Roussanne if I hadn't had them side by side.  A nice mineral character.  Honey, rocks, and breadth.  I thought that this could benefit from a little more brightness, but expect that it will come with a little more time in tank.
  • 2008 Roussanne: Wow.  Rich and gorgeous.  Tons of honeycomb and sweet baking spices, some of them from nicely-integrated oak.  Structured, without any of the cedary tannins we sometimes see with very young Roussannes.  Low in alcohol (around 13%) which I never would have guessed given its weight and rich mouthfeel.  Potentially our best Roussanne ever.
  • 2008 Grenache Blanc: Still a little sweet, which is always a challenge with Grenache Blancs in the spring (they're always the last varietal in the cellar to finish fermenting).  Still, even accounting for that, this should be gorgeous.  The brightest acids of any wine that I tasted today, with a nice citrus bite.  Actually carries the 6 grams of sugar, but will be better when that's fermented away.
  • 2008 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc: Similarly rich to the Roussanne, but subtly different in flavor.  A little more floral on the nose, and a little more citrus in the mouth.  Still lots of honey.  Poached pears?  Not quite as knock-your-socks-off as the Roussanne, but very seductive.  Perhaps a touch lower in acidity than we'd want (which means less perception of mineral) and we'll experiment with a couple of different blends that include more Grenache Blanc and Picpoul over the next few days.

We didn't taste a Picpoul today, as it will vary so much depending on what we decide to do with the Esprit Blanc.  As we have never put Picpoul into the Cotes de Tablas Blanc, and don't have enough to really impact a wine that we'll make somewhere around 3000 cases of, we'll just allow the Picpoul single varietal to float in quantity depending on how much we use for the Esprit Blanc.

All the wines shared a richness in the mouth that was noteworthy.  They also shared surprisingly low alcohols, with most hovering right around 13% and only the Grenache Blanc over 14%.  We tasted the Marsanne component that will go into the Cotes Blanc which had excellent concentration at 12.5% alcohol.

We'll reconvene on Monday to taste some different assemblages of Esprit Blanc, and hopefully have most of the wines blended into tank and settling by the end of next week.  Those of you coming for our blending seminar on April 11th are in for a treat!