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June 2009
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August 2009

Introducing the VINsider Wine Club "Collector's Edition"

Earlier this week, we sent out initial notice to all our VINsider Wine Club members that we are launching a library version of our wine club.  We're calling this the VINsider Wine Club Collector's Edition.

Regular readers of the blog may remember a post from last summer called a library wine club? where I was struggling with how we might go about sharing the wines that we'd been aging in our cellars since the 2003 vintage (a post on which I got lots of good comments from readers).  We've finally come up with a solution that we like, and have taken the plunge.  Here are the details:

  • Collector’s Edition members will continue to receive two shipments of wine per year from us.  The spring shipment will be the same six-bottle selection that all VINsiders receive, but the fall shipment, in which we traditionally include the upcoming vintages of Esprit de Beaucastel and Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc, will be increased to a case by the inclusion of six additional bottles:
    • 2 bottles of a library vintage of Esprit de Beaucastel
    • 1 bottle of a library vintage of Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc
    • 2 additional bottles of the upcoming release of Esprit de Beaucastel 
    • 1 additional bottle of the upcoming release of Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc
  • We will select the library vintages each summer based on the results of a library tasting, whose results we will post on this blog (for an example look at the writeup that followed the library vertical tasting from Francois Perrin's visit in May)
  • We will make available a small quantity of the library wines for re-orders

There were a couple of things that we liked about this solution.  First, it didn't require people to be home to accept another shipment, and didn't require us to make another shipment in either mid-summer (when it's often too hot to ship and lots of people are on vacation) or mid-winter (when lots of people have other major purchases and it's sometimes too cold).  Second, it's not a big additional commitment for members: just six more bottles once a year, and no more than two additional bottles of any single wine.  And we were able to give some nice extra benefits to members consistent with our existing policies.

  • As the resulting fall shipment will consist of twelve bottles, members will receive all the wines at the additional 5% case discount (we sell 1-11 bottles to our club members at 20% off; 12+ bottles at 25% off). 
  • As the shipment will include at least six bottles of Esprit de Beaucastel wines, we will ship it for free.  We made this policy change earlier this spring to encourage the sales of our Esprit de Beaucastel wines. 

I think that the resulting Collector's Edition inaugural shipment is pretty spectacular.  The wines (with their costs) will be:

  • 2 bottles of 2003 Esprit de Beaucastel (library price: $55 each; cost: $41.25 each)
  • 1 bottle of 2005 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (library price: $45; cost: $33.75)
  • 4 bottles of 2007 Esprit de Beaucastel (list: $50 each; cost: $37.50 each)
  • 2 bottles of  2008 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (list: $40 each; cost: $30each)
  • 1 bottle of 2007 “En Gobelet” (list: $40; cost: $30)
  • 1 bottle of 2008 Picpoul Blanc (list: $27; cost: $20.25)
  • 1 bottle of 2008 Bergeron (list: $27; cost: $20.25)

We're limiting inaugural membership in the Collector's Edition to 250, and will always have to limit membership to avoid overwhelming our library. 

A letter will go out to VINsiders next week explaining the new club in detail.  VINsiders who are interested in becoming members can just fill out and fax back the last page of the letter, let us know either by phone and email, or sign up online.  And new VINsiders, whether they join online or in our tasting room, will have the option of choosing the Collector's Edition when they do.

This program is the result of five years’ preparation, and allows us to provide newer members (as well as older members who have already consumed all their earliest vintages) the opportunity to experience Tablas Creek’s most ageable wines, cellared in ideal conditions.  We hope that our fans will be as excited to receive this increased access to our own library as we are to share it with them.


Veraison 2009

It's always exciting when we see the first signs of veraison in the vineyard.  The red grapes start to soften and turn red, while the white grapes start softening and add a little yellow to their green tone.  It typically marks a point about six weeks from the beginning of harvest.

Overall, the vineyard appears to be just slightly behind the last two years.  The recent three-week stretch of very warm weather has really accelerated the ripening process.  And yields appear higher than either 2007 or 2008, though not to the levels of 2005 or 2006.

So far, we've only seen veraison in our Syrah and Viognier.  I got some good shots of the first Syrah clusters to show some color change:

Veraison2009_0008

The next shot shows the vines' natural yield control.  Around the time of veraison, the vines allow excess fruit to dry out and fall off.  This permits the vines to fully ripen the remaining berries.  You can see the veraison raisining below:

Veraison2009_0006

At this stage, the clusters often look a little ratty, with a mix of green berries, red berries, and raisins.  The cluster below is representative:

Veraison2009_0002

It's harder to photograph veraison in the whites, but the berries are getting a little softer and a little less green.  I liked the photo of the row of Viognier clusters lined up on a trellis wire and silhouetted against the deep blue sky:

Veraison2009_0011

And finally, one last shot of the vineyard, looking down between two rows of Syrah.  It's worth noting that I had to search out clusters that were showing signs of veraison; the photo below shows a more representative view, and all the clusters appear green.  You can also see faintly on the ground the dried canes from the canopy management that we've been doing over the last month; we have been removing extra shoots and leaves that are overshadowing the grapes or are preventing the passage of air.

Veraison2009_0005

If you are interested in more detail about the physiological process of veraison, you can learn more from my post on veraison in 2007.  And, if you would like to see the complete photo set, you can do so on the Tablas Creek Facebook page.


Robert Haas is 2009 California Mid-State Fair Wine Industry Person of the Year

Robert_Haas_Vineyard On Thursday night, my father was awarded 2009 Wine Industry Person of the Year by the California Mid-State Fair.  It was a really nice presentation, with my dad's introduction given by Steve Lohr of J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines.  He was previously committed to a dinner in Vermont, so I accepted the award in his place.  There was good symmetry, as the son of last year's recipient (Jerry Lohr) presented the award to the son of this year's recipient.

In his generous introduction, Steve Lohr spoke about my dad's career, which has spanned more than 50 years in the wine business as a retailer, an importer, a wholesaler, and now, with Tablas Creek, as a vintner.  He has had tremendous impact on how Americans buy, drink, and think about wine, and has had an even greater impact on Paso Robles and the rest of the Central Coast.  I wrote about his varied career (which I still think is under-appreciated) on the occasion of his eightieth birthday a few years ago, so I won't repeat that here, but I do want to reflect a little on his impact on the local community.

  • At the time when he and the Perrins together decided to buy property in Paso Robles, it was on no one's list of up-and-coming California wine regions.  Monterey, Santa Barbara, the Sierra Foothills, Mendocino, even Lodi were thought of as more compelling regions to explore.  Now, Paso is the third-largest (after Napa and Sonoma) and fastest-growing wine region in California, and has more wineries than all of Santa Barbara County.  I don't think it's possible to overstate the importance for the Paso Robles area of the decision that my dad and the Perrins made to choose Paso Robles for their project after looking all over California.
  • In 1989, no Paso Robles winery was producing any Rhone variety, and the total footprint of Rhone varieties in the AVA was just a couple of acres of Syrah.  Now, nearly 90% of Paso Robles wineries produce at least one wine from Rhone varieties, and the Paso Robles AVA is the largest home in California to nearly every major Rhone variety (including Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Roussanne, and Grenache Blanc).
  • The decision to import new cuttings of Rhone varieties, and to then make these cuttings available for sale to other producers, changed the face of the Rhone Rangers movement in California.  There were only six Rhone grape varieties in California (Mourvedre, Grenache, Syrah, Cinsaut, Viognier and Marsanne) and Mourvedre, Grenache and Cinsaut had mediocre reputations due to the inferior clones that were here.  The decision that he and the Perrins made to accept a five-year delay in their planting to bring vines in through a USDA-mandated quarantine and then, even more importantly, to make these clones available to other interested vineyards, gave the Rhone Ranger movement a critical boost at a time when its membership included only a few early pioneers.  We believed that getting these clones in more widespread circulation would help us (in classic "rising tide lifts all the boats" manner).  The fact that this prediction has turned out to be true should not obscure how extraordinary and generous this decision was.
  • When we decided in 1989 that we would follow the lead of the Beaucastel estate and farm our vineyard organically, there were only a handful of vineyards being farmed organically in California (Paul Dolan's experiments with organic viticulture at Fetzer had just begun in 1986).  None of these organic vineyards were in Paso Robles, and the consensus of the major American viticultural universities was that farming grapes organically was pointless and difficult.  Yet we were convinced that organic viticulture was an essential element of our effort to express the place in which our grapes were grown.  The movement toward organic (and even biodynamic)viticulture is now widespread among the best vineyards of California.
  • Similarly, we decided that we would ferment with native yeasts, use a minimum of new oak and age our red wines in 1200-gallon foudres.  Using native yeasts was unusual (enology professors tended to call it "Russian roulette"), new oak was in fashion, and foudres were unheard of in California.  We had to import ours on container ships from France.  Now, all three practices have gained dramatically in popularity, as California winemakers have come around to the Old World goal of elevating the expression of terroir to paramount importance.

In addition to these far-seeing decisions that he helped make at the beginning of the Tablas Creek project, he has made a point of working to unify and promote the Paso Robles wine growing region.  At the time when the PRVGA (Paso Robles Vintners & Growers Association) was weak in the early years of this decade, he resisted calls to split off and form an association of westside-only wineries, and instead made sure that Tablas Creek participated (and continues to participate) fully in the region's local and national promotional efforts.  When a Paso Robles Westside AVA petition was introduced, he recognized it as a mistake and began rallying opposition to put together a more comprehensive proposal of AVA's for the Paso Robles region.  He serves on the board of the Paso Robles AVA committee, and has consistently been willing to donate his own time and resources in the push to have our viticultural designations be meaningful and scientifically-based.

In addition, he has been very active in the local community, involving Tablas Creek as major sponsors of the arts, including Festival Mozaic, the Paderewski Festival, and the Foundation for the Performing Arts Center.  He serves on the board of this last organization, and patrons of the PAC will enjoy some major changes this year (including wines from some of the region's best wineries at the performances) as a part of the $50,000 in new support he coordinated from the Paso Robles wine community.

There is something fitting about the fact that my dad was not there to receive his award.  By the time we learned of the award, he had already committed to a dinner at Hemingway's Restaurant in Killington, Vermont, and so asked me to accept the award in his stead.  It seems appropriate that, at age 82, my dad would have a work commitment that would keep him from receiving a lifetime achievement award.  His acceptance speech, which I delivered for him, is below:

I am honored and pleased to accept this award voted by fellow members of the Paso Robles wine community. Thank you.

And what a great and growing wine community this is! I feel privileged to live and work in this mixed agricultural setting with its rural atmosphere with its fine California weather, earthquakes and all.

I am often asked if our venture at Tablas Creek in partnership with our good friends, the Perrin family of Château de Beaucastel, is the realization of a dream. Actually, it was more of an itch than a dream. For many years while selecting and marketing other peoples’ wine I had been tempted by the idea of owning vineyard and making wine.

However, it took until 1985 and our and the Perrins’ confidence in California, its climates and soils, and the inspiration of Roederer’s vineyard and winery investment in Mendocino, for me to scratch that itch and say to myself. “We can do that.”

We then started to look for a California property that would be suitable for growing Rhône variety grapes. After spending several years stalking the state looking for high pH soils with a Mediterranean climate we ended up in 1990 with 120 acres of pasture in Adelaida and a long term lease for another 30 acres from our neighbor Alan Ramage. Needless to say to those of you who know the area, we did end up with calcareous clay soils with a vengeance. We had to rip before we could plant.

We then brought in cuttings from France, went through the USDA indexing program, started a nursery to multiply and graft, and began to get some grafted vines in the ground in 1996. We now have about 100 acres planted with another 15 to go.

Of course, the Paso Robles wine community grew along with us. When we got here there were some 17 wineries producing. Now, there are over 200. Thanks to a spirit of community cooperation and endeavor, great soils and climate and excellent work by the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance, Paso Robles has become one of the prime AVAs of California.

What a great place to be! Thank you again.


10-Minute Blender Bearnaise Sauce Recipe

I don't usually post recipes here.  But, I'll make an exception because this one was so good, and so easy.  Before I do, though, I should note that we do publish recipes in our quarterly newsletter, and have compiled them in a recipe archive on our Web site.  That said, read on!

I've always loved Bearnaise and Hollandaise sauces as a special treat, whether with steak or with green vegetables like broccoli or asparagus.  My dad will eat just about anything with either sauce on it, and I grew up thinking that these two sauces were the height of luxurious dining.  I guess not much has changed!  But I also remember my mom carefully whisking the butter into the eggs for what seemed like hours and being frustrated when some inevitably separated.  So, I've mostly stayed away from trying them.  But last night, when I discovered that we were out of charcoal and so were going to be cooking some beautiful bone-in ribeye steaks I'd gotten on the stove, I thought it was worth trying again with Bearnaise.  And it turned out great, was amazingly fast, and should be endlessly reproducible.  Seriously: 10 minutes from start to finish.

Ingredients:

2 tbsp champagne vinegar
2 tbsp dry white wine
1 small shallot, minced
2 sprigs tarragon leaves, minced
3/4 tsp kosher salt
freshly ground pepper
2 large egg yolks
1 stick unsalted butter, melted

Directions:
Combine vinegar, wine, shallot, half the tarragon, 1/4 tsp salt, and pepper in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil and simmer about 5 minutes. Let cool slightly.

In a blender, combine eggs, 1/2 tsp salt, and cooled shallot-wine mixture and blend for 30 seconds.

With the blender on, add the melted butter in a slow stream. It should take you about 30 seconds to add all the butter.

Add the other half of the tarragon leaves and blend for another few seconds.

Move to a small pitcher and serve with steaks.

Wine Pairing:
We served this with a 2004 Beaucastel Chateauneuf du Pape, which was really too young, but we decanted it and watched it open gradually throughout the meal.  By the last glass, the wine was gorgeous.  A marbled steak and the rich tang of Bearnaise pair with most substantial red wines, and would be a beautiful match with an Esprit de Beaucastel, young or old.


Truth, Fiction and Self-fulfilling Prophecy in Wholesale Wine Sales

Sure, consumers are cutting back.  And sure, sizzle is out in favor of substance.  But it is my belief that the wholesale wine market is perpetuating and strengthening the much-trumpeted phenomenon that consumers are only buying the least expensive wines.  The mechanism is that of the self-fulfilling prophecy.  How has it happened?  Read on.

First some background.  Those of us out selling wine in this recession hear, again and again, things like "no one is buying now" and "the only price categories that are working are under $15".  Yet, I have spent more time the first six months of the year out in the market than I have in years and have never had the wines so well received or seen such great sales result from my work.  Our least expensive wine retails for about $20, with the rest in the $30's and $40's.  I just got back from two days working in Northern California, where our sales declined more than 30% in the first six months of the year, and sold multiple wines into nearly every stop we made in the dramatically different markets of Monterey, the East Bay, and San Francisco.

So, what gives?  According to Wine Industry Insight, retail sales of wine in the $20-and-above price category rose five of the first six months of 2009 compared to the same months in 2008.  Of course, restaurant sales of wines have declined, although I have not been able to find anywhere which has quantified by what number.  Overall, the consensus seems to be that higher-end but not luxury wine (say in the $20 to $50 price level) has softened but not collapsed.

I've begun to suspect that there is more than organic reduction of demand at play in the wholesale sales declines I've seen.  Four principal factors have made me suspicious.

  1. Our tasting room sales continue on an upward trajectory.  So far this year, our tasting room sales are up 5% off of a substantial base, and we've continued to gain wine club members (we have about 200 more now than we did at the beginning of the year).  So, clearly our customers are not abandoning buying Tablas Creek.
  2. Our wholesale sales results have varied dramatically depending on how much time we have spent in that market.  Markets where we have visited, or where we have worked out programs that ensure that the wines are being shown to prospective buyers, are flat or up compared to 2008.  Markets which we have not visited and where we have not worked out independent programs are down, often sharply.
  3. Wholesale accounts that I visit mostly report that they have not been shown Tablas Creek as much in the past 9 months as they were being shown previously.
  4. We've had more issues than ever before with our wholesalers running out of stock of our wine.

All these factors lead me to suspect that the major culprit in the sales decline of mid-tier wines is what might be called gatekeeper nervousness.   As I mentioned in my post on succeeding in a poor economy back in February:

For a wine to sell in the wholesale market, the distributor manager has to believe in the product enough to maintain a healthy inventory, the distributor rep has to believe he or she can sell the wine enough to pull a sample and show it to his or her accounts, and the buyers at the accounts have to have enough confidence to buy the wine in a crowded and nervous marketplace.

All these gatekeepers have the power to block a prospective consumer from receiving the opportunity to purchase your wine.  If any tier worries that their customers are only interested in inexpensive wines, it's easy for them to focus most or all of their attention on those wines.  And if they do, they contribute to the creation of the environment that they fear.  As an example of how this fear of any but the least expensive wines can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, my dad came back from a sales trip through Connecticut having sold wine at every stop except for one retailer who said that as his customers are only buying wines under $15, he's only stocking wines under $15 in his store.  If he's only stocking under $15 wines, of course that's what his customers are buying!

The tendency to focus on only the least expensive wines is even more of an issue when it is your distributor or agent who is supposed to be advocating for you who is the reluctant gatekeeper, because in general you have hundreds or thousands of potential retail and restaurant accounts in each state but only one wholesaler. 

This is why, in the wholesale market, our principal focus as we move into the second half of this year is to make sure that our distributors are pulling enough samples of our wines to show.  I honestly feel that as long as this is happening, everything else takes care of itself.  And as we have pushed our distributors to show our wines more often, I have begun hearing from numerous distributor reps and managers who have been surprised with how well received the wines have been, and how many sales they have made, when they've shown Tablas Creek to buyers.

If you're a winery, how do you make sure your wine is being shown?  I have some suggestions. 

  1. Make sure you're receiving samples use reports from your distributors.  You can't know what to do if you don't know what's happening.  Even the act of running this report can spur a commitment to action from distributors whose performance on your wines has declined. 
  2. Be prepared to ask that your wines be included in promotions or contests that your distributors are holding.  Most distributors are running at least one competition for their salespeople at any given time.  Unsurprisingly, this dictates what is top-of-mind for the salespeople.  
  3. Focus on distribution goals rather than sales goals.  This may not be intuitive, but if you are judging your distributor's success on sales of cases, it's usually easier for a manager to set up one or two larger retail drops rather than twenty new placements.  But these big drops have gotten harder to set up in an economy where everyone is trying to move volume, and don't usually have the lasting impact that broader distribution has.
  4. Don't be reluctant to provide some samples at your expense.  Sample budgets have definitely tightened in this recession, and you may need to, in effect, seed the market to convince the distributor that the wines are viable to sample. 
  5. Make sure you are out in the markets working with your distributors.  They have to focus on your wines when you're there, and if you have good success in the market, it breeds more success.  Plus, working with a distributor is a cooperative effort.  If they see that you are supporting them, they're far more likely to support you even when you're not there.

Will these ideas work for everyone?  I don't know.  And are they relevant for wines that are in the true luxury category (over $75 retail)?  Maybe not.  But they at least give you a fighting chance, which is the minimum that you should be asking for.  And as the economy slowly climbs out of recession and consumer confidence begins to rebound, we need our wines on lists and on retail shelves to have a chance of taking advantage of the improved public mood.  And it's reassuring to remember that self-fulfilling prophecy can work in your favor as well.  If accounts and distributors see that your strategy has been successful, they're likely to expect that success... and redouble their efforts.

Now that's something to look forward to in the second half of what has been a very challenging year in the wholesale realm.


A great blue heron visits the Tablas Creek wetlands

Blue_heron_0001 Several of us were sitting on our patio having lunch when a blue heron sailed over the vineyard before coming to rest in the Tablas Creek wetlands that border Adelaida road, just downhill from our entrance.  I got one decent shot (right) before I scared it off by getting too close.

The growth we've seen in the wetlands this year has been extraordinary.  We installed them three years ago in response to a California mandate that wineries treat the water they use before releasing it into a septic system.  For the first two years we struggled to get the appropriate flow of water (which varies enormously based on the time of year and peaks during harvest) through the system.  But, we've made ongoing adjustments and in the last year the growth of the willow trees, irises, reeds, cattails and other water-loving plants in and around the wetlands make them look entirely different than they did in 2006.

And the arrival of a water-loving bird like the great blue heron is just one more indication that this solution to winery waste-water treatment, which we chose because it was friendly to the environment, has been a success.