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December 2009
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February 2010

In Search of a Green(er) Wine Bottle

I spent this past week with winemaker Neil Collins up at the Unified Wine and Grape Symposium in Sacramento.  Unified (as everyone in the industry calls it) is the country's largest wine and grape trade show, with 12,000 attendees visiting booths from about 600 vendors representing the newest advances in hardware like vineyard and winery equipment, bottling lines or tanks; annual supplies like barrels, bottles, capsules, corks and labels; and services such as vineyard management teams, biodynamic consultants, consultant winemaking or e-commerce outsourcing.  We were there to support NovaVine, who sell cuttings of our grapevines to vineyards around the country.  While they spoke with vineyard owners and managers about planting new blocks to our Rhone varieties, we poured samples of the wines we made from our clones and discussed the advantages and disadvantages of each grape and clone with interested buyers.

Still, we weren't tied to the NovaVine table, and we took advantage of the quieter times throughout the three-day event to wander the largest imaginable showroom for viticulture and winemaking toys.  One area we made a point to visit was the various bottle makers' and agents' booths, as we are in the market for a new bottle for our wines.  Two years ago, we finally discarded the bottle that we had been using for our top wines since our inception for a bottle with a more traditional shape and greater heft and quality.  You can see the difference between the two bottles below, from the 2005 Esprit de Beaucastel to the 2006:

Esprit05_bottle  Esprit06_bottle

Those of you paying attention to the title of this blog piece have probably already realized what we failed to at the time: that moving to this more substantial bottle would come with costs.  This new bottle was about two-thirds of a pound heavier than the old (from about 1.35 lbs to just over 2.0).  Some of this cost was explicit in the cost of the bottle to us (after all, it contained more raw materials) but it also came with hidden costs in shipping the bottles to and from the winery, and an environmental cost as well.  Half a pound may not seem like much, but calculate it out: we bottled about 9,000 cases in this bottle last year.  Those 9,000 cases contain 108,000 bottles.  The heavier bottle added some 36 tons of glass weight to our cases, which had a cascade of consequences.  Because each full case of wine weighed 48 pounds instead of 40, we could fit fewer pallets on a truck.  Because the bottles were heavier, we paid more to ship them via air or ground.  And we came to realize that rather than (or perhaps in addition to) increasing the implied quality of the wines, the heavier bottles worked to undermine our efforts toward environmental responsibility that we have been making by farming organically, moving to solar power, and installing one of California's first vineyard wetland water treatment facilities.  Just as you might reasonably question an environmental activist with a BMW M-series in his driveway, we felt that whatever the bottle's merits, it wasn't the right fit for us.

Of course, there were other challenges.  The bottles don't fit in some of the smaller storage racks, which frustrated a vocal minority of our collectors and retailers.  The weight of the bottles made them difficult to pour at events, particularly the whites that had been in icy water.  And the strain on our staff, particularly in the tasting room, matters too; those extra eight pounds per case add up in an already-bulky, awkward package.

So, Neil and I have been looking at different bottles all winter, with the goal of finding a new bottle that we can move our top wines into and be happy with from functional, aesthetic and environmental perspectives.  We've been getting samples from nearly every glass maker.  You can see some of what we've received, lined up on one of our tasting bars, in the photo below.  Note that each has its weight on it, and that the weights can vary enormously from around one pound to more than two pounds:


Thus Neil and I spent a chunk of our time at Unified last week speaking to glass manufacturers and researching different options for bottles.  It became clear that the bottle manufacturers have been taken by surprise with wineries' desires for lighter bottles.  Most of the lightest bottles that they make still are intended for the lowest-end wines.  They look cheap.  What we're looking for is a bottle that looks like a top-end bottle, but weighs half as much.  And, somewhat to our surprise, those bottles just don't exist yet.  Several manufacturers have just released lighter-weight versions of one or two of their top-end bottles; one bottle that we like the shape of is the Cabo mold (second from right, above) which is normally 900 grams -- almost exactly two pounds.  Their new 700 gram (1.54 lbs) version looks nearly identical but shaves off nearly half a pound.  But it's still far from a lightweight bottle.

We still haven't made our decision on what bottle to go with, although the reduced-weight Cabo is probably the front-runner right now.  We aren't willing to go to a cheap-feeling or cheap-looking bottle, but would love to be able to further reduce the weight of the bottle we use.  We are interested in hearing from you as to what you look for in bottles, both in a wine that you already know and when you're choosing a new wine off a retail shelf.  But we are coming to the inescapable conclusion that whatever choice we'll make will necessarily be an interim one.  It's clear that bottle manufacturers are hearing a new message loud and clear: that wineries are looking for high-quality, low-weight bottles.  And that the first bottle makers to successfully produce the right molds will be in position for a lot of business.

Building a successful winery tasting room experience before, during and after the visit

Next week, I'll be speaking as part of a panel at the Unified Grape and Wine Symposium in Sacramento. The panel is titled "How to Make Your Tasting Room More Profitable" and is being organized and moderated by California's most respected tasting room consultant, Craig Root.

I've spent a lot of time in the past eight years refining my thoughts on what makes a successful tasting room, and am at this point amazed to think one wasn't in our original business plan.  An indication that we're succeeding is that, according to Craig, the sales and wine club signups that we see at the Tablas Creek tasting room are roughly double the industry average.  I hope to see some readers of the blog at the seminar.  We'll go into more detail than I have here, but below are a few highlights of what I think are important things to be thinking about before, during, and after a customer's visit.

  • Work to build your traffic year-round.  It's a lot easier to sell wine to people who have opened your front door than it is to sell it to people who haven't.
    • Cultivate partnerships. You are not the only one in your area with an interest in bringing people into town and giving them a good experience. Reach out to local hotels and bed&breakfasts and create co-marketing opportunities and specials that will give them a reason to be emailing their customers about you. Work with local restaurants to put together dinners that both you and they will market. This expands your base, supports your partners in your community, and ensures you stay visible. And don’t neglect the other winery tasting rooms in your area. Open houses every six months are easy and fun.
    • Encourage your supporters to come back and bring friends. You’re probably offering free tasting for your wine club members. Are you doing so for their guests? Are you offering some reward to members who refer you business?
    • Understand that your marketing (and your presence in the wholesale market) does have an impact on your tasting room. Make sure that you’re in the places where potential customers are. Go to wine festivals in your catchment area. Work particularly hard to ensure that your wines are on the lists of restaurants in your area. Know that one benefit to your wholesale marketing is spillover into your tasting room.
    • Do your part to ensure that you get editorial coverage. Most wineries think of press as principally beneficial to their wholesale marketing.  And great press does have a multiplier effect in wholesale, as the reviews you get are echoed by distributors and retailers.  But don't neglect the impact it can have on a tasting room.  When we got our last set of reviews from Robert Parker last August, our tasting room traffic rose 20% and our sales 35% over the rest of the year.  Be sure you are at least covering the basics by sending samples of all your new releases to the 20 or 30 key writers around the country a few times each year.  Total cost: around $2500 plus a few cases of wine. Possible benefits: enormous.
  • Make sure that you focus on each customer interaction. I am amazed by how many people we get in our tasting room who tell us stories of other tasting rooms with disinterested servers, overcrowded tasting bars, or salespeople whose only interest is a club sign-up.
    • Have sufficient staff on hand for your busiest times.  An enormous piece of being able to ensure a good customer experience and the sales that result is having sufficient staff on hand to handle your busiest times. This necessarily means that in slower times you'll be overstaffed, but if you calculate the value over time to your business of a single club sign-up or a single dissatisfied customer who would otherwise have bought a case of wine and told their friends, the cost of labor seems pretty minor.
    • Focus on giving everyone a memorable experience. If you do so, the wine (and wine club) will sell itself.
      • A hugely successful tasting room may convert 5%-7% of its customers into club members. That means that the vast majority of the people coming through your tasting room are not going to sign up on the spot. Be careful... if you are incentivizing your staff for club signups you may be encouraging them to focus their best efforts too narrowly.
      • Sell through education and enthusiasm, and make sure that the customers know the options in front of them.
      • Every person who leaves your tasting room happy is a source of repeat business and referrals.
    • Get an impartial perspective.  Consider sending in friends or family members incognito to get a sense of what the typical customer is experiencing.  Make sure it's someone who will be honest with you.
  • Be generous with the little things. Remember that your primary reason for being is (probably) to sell wine. If you focus on making money on your events or your fees, you may be doing so at the expense of wine sales. Some ideas:
    • Comp your tasting fee on a purchase. When we raised our tasting fee from $5 to $10 but comped it on any wine purchase, we found that the percentage of visitors coming to our tasting room who bought rose from 65% to 80%. Even a one-bottle purchase means that sometime in the future, that guest is going to open a bottle of your wine, often with friends, and relive the memory of having visited you.
    • Give away a logo glass. You’ll spend less time doing dishes, and your glass provides a reminder of the experience.  High-quality logo glasses sell for all of $2 in bulk.
    • Make sure that your wine club members know they are appreciated. Send them a welcome packet when they sign up.  Send a holiday card, and consider including a coupon (say, $20 off on their next order). It spurs new orders and keeps you top of mind.
    • Keep the costs of your events reasonable. An inexpensive (even free) event and an incentive to purchase while your customers are there can drive impressive sales. Adding a night-of-the-event-only 5% discount to our semi-annual wine club shipment tasting parties more than doubled our average sales.
    • Choose a wine each month to offer at a discount. This gives you something different to talk about each month in the tasting room, via email, or online (including through your social media). You can use this to focus attention on a new wine, or one whose sales are slow, or just rotate through your portfolio to raise awareness and excitement about the wines you make.
  • Put yourself in a position to continue the conversation with your customer even after they leave. Don’t assume that your connection ends when your customer leaves the tasting room. There are powerful tools available to maintain and even grow a connection that begins in the tasting room.
    • Build and use your lists. Are you asking all your customers if they are interested in joining your mailing list?  Adding just a small percentage of your foot traffic to your email lists (let alone your wine club lists) can give you a powerful tool to communicate special offers, share information about events, and generally build an ongoing connection to your base.  And once you have added these people to your lists, it's important to contact them regularly. An email every few months, with perhaps a print newsletter a couple of times a year, is generally seen as welcome rather than intrusive.
    • Work with new media to stay connected. The tasting room is your primary venue for creating a personal connection with your customers. Social media sites allow you to extend that connection, and help like-minded consumers find and follow you, and hopefully become customers.
      • Facebook should be a part of any winery’s marketing plan. With over 300,000,000 users, a significant portion of everyone's network is on Facebook. If you are not, you lose the opportunity to remain top of mind to a huge portion of your lists (it’s also a great way to make and maintain connections to distributors, trade and media).
      • A blog (like this one!) is a great way to personalize your business, communicate your core ideas and principals, and drive traffic to your Web site. It’s probably your best opportunity to tell an extended story.
      • Twitter can spur real-time interaction and feedback with an important (read: taste-making) segment 25,000,000 strong.
    • Make sure you're a good partner. Whether you're using social media or more traditional email or print marketing, make sure you provide valuable content in addition to (and probably more extensively than) you push sales.  Of course, sales are an important result of any marketing campaign, but if you cross the line and become one-dimensional or self-serving, or you'll push away the customers with whom you're trying to build a connection.

If you are going to be at Unified, and want the more detailed version of this, as well as the thoughts from the other panelists and Craig, our seminar will be 2:00pm on Thursday, January 28th.  I hope to see many of you there!

Photos from a break in the week of storms

It's been pretty wooly out here the past few days.  We've had three storms in three days.  The first storm, on Sunday afternoon, gave us about half an inch of rain and some winds up around 30mph.  Yesterday's storm was bigger, with about an inch and a half of rain and winds up to 40mph.  And today we've received about an inch of rain with our top gust at 28mph.  But, as it typically true in California, as the rain has passed, we've had interludes of beautiful weather.  When the sun comes out, I think that winter is the most beautiful time of year.  The intense green of the cover crops, the earthy browns of the vineyards, and the blue and white interplay of clouds in the sky are totally different from what the region looks like in any other season.  In this interlude, I made it outside to take some photos.  First, a shot of our patio just after the sun came out, water still dripping off the shadecloth:


The drops of water on the vines made them look like they were encased in ice:


The only damage that we've seen has been some minor erosion on the gravel roads into the vineyard (left).  On the steeper slopes, we laid down straw to help minimize the soil loss (right).

IMG_6920  IMG_6931

The cover crops are having a field day. Because they were so well established, we've already disked them under once, and seeded with a mix of sweet peas, oats, vetch and clover:

Cover Crops

The softness of the landscape is a hallmark of winter, and highlighted particularly by the drama of the skies:


Finally, a fun shot of our old vineyard truck, with the stormy Santa Lucia mountains in the background:


The complete photoset is available on Tablas Creek's fan page on Facebook.

The Gathering Storm: A Preview of a Potentially Historic Week of Weather

As those of you who have been following the blog regularly know, 2009 was our third consecutive year of drought.  Among the drought's other impacts, we have seen yields decline each of the three yields, and in 2009 will make nearly 40% less wine than we did at our high-water mark in 2006.

All that looks like it is about to change.

We got off to a good start this winter with the massive October rainstorm that threatened harvest and dumped nearly 10 inches of rain on Tablas Creek.  In the three months since, we've seen only moderate rainfall, and sit this morning at just under 17 inches of rain for the winter.  That total is slightly above normal for this time of year, but without significant additional rainfall, we won't be able to make up three years of shortfall.

Enter this week's weather.  The infrared image below is from the NOAA's terrific library of satellite imagery from around the world.  Note the powerful plumes of moisture off both the Northern California and Southern California coasts.  Apparently, these are being drawn together by a jet stream that has moved unusually far south, and is pulling subtropical moisture from the south Pacific into a string of arctic storms that stretch nearly to the Aleutian Islands.


The net impact of this weather pattern (which is apparently not uncommon in el nino years) is that over the next week California's Central Coast is forecast to receive five separate storms, each of which is supposed to drop between half and inch and two inches in the valleys, with double or triple that in the mountains nearer the coast.  Do the math on that, and most locals are suggesting it would not be surprising for us to receive 20 inches of rainfall by next weekend.

This is the ideal time of year for us to receive this rain; the vineyard's cover crop is well established and we shouldn't see much erosion.  And it's still early enough in the winter for it to penetrate deeply and then dry out enough for us to get back in the vineyard for pruning.

In any case, it should be an exciting week.  I'll post every couple of days with updates.

A great photo of a fair-weather winter sky (a.k.a. "transitory ridging")

We're enjoying a period of what our meteorologist calls "transitory ridging" -- as I understand it, high pressure that moves over an area in between two low pressure systems rather one that establishes itself in an area and diverts low pressure systems around it.  It has resulted in beautiful winter weather this last week: sunny and warm, but with interesting clouds in the sky from the nearby weather systems.  We're particularly able to enjoy this weather because we know that it sets the stage for a major weather shift.  Forecasts are predicting a series of el nino-influenced storms: perhaps as many as a half-dozen over the next two weeks.  If this pattern happens, we could get another five to ten inches of rain, which would be wonderful.

I particularly liked the cloud patterns above the winery in the photo below.  Note that this view is soon to be improved: one reason why we're choosing to build our winery expansion to the east (road-side) of the winery is because the first thing that greets guests is our gravel-covered staff parking lot.  If I had a way of Photoshopping-out the cars, I would have.


The east facade will become the new face of the winery, with a series of terraces cascading down toward the south, a landscaped entrance to a new tasting room, trees lining a new parking area, and our septic system (in the circular wall) relocated out of view.

To those of you who are doing rain dances, thanks.  The rainy forecast makes the sun that much sweeter.

Why you trellis Syrah

So, I was out taking some archival pictures this morning of the face of the winery that will soon disappear as we start the construction on our winery expansion (more on this in the next few weeks).  We're building on the east side of our winery: the side that faces Adelaida Road and which all visitors see first.  On that side, in addition to our staff parking lot and the septic tanks (not beautiful) there are our solar panels (interesting) and a small block of head-pruned Mourvedre vines.  We'll be able to save most of the Mourvedre vines even with the new construction, but will lose a few of the rows closest to the winery.  As I was wandering through these vines, I remembered that when we planted this block, it turned out that we had two Syrah vines mixed (unwittingly) into the Mourvedre.  It's pretty easy to tell, whatever time of year it is, which are the interlopers.  Two photos, first of a typical Mourvedre vine.  Note the nice upright structure:


Next, the Syrah.  Note that it looks like a giant sat on it, with the canes spreading horizontally rather than angling up:


These two photos explain why, in Chateauneuf du Pape, Syrah is excepted from the appellation law requiring all vineyards to be head-pruned.  Most grape varieties (including all the other Southern Rhone varieties) grow in an upright shape, like Mourvedre.  Syrah's horizontal shape tends to lead, when head-pruned, to the grape clusters dragging on the ground and being shaded by a dense canopy.

I get questions fairly often about why we choose to head-prune certain blocks and trellis others.  Some people ask if it is tied to the grape.  It's not, particularly, but is instead more tied to the topography and natural water supply of the vineyard block that we're planting.  A head-pruned vineyard almost has to be dry farmed, as there is no structure on which to run irrigation lines, and takes well to cross-cultivation, which is only feasible on relatively flat ground.  [Though of course cross-cultivation is not required; it's just easier.  There are plenty of old head-pruned Zinfandel vineyard on steep hillsides in Paso Robles, and our own head-pruned "Scruffy Hill" block is one of the steepest on our property.]  But, beyond those considerations, most varieties can be head-pruned.  The exception is Syrah.  And with this Syrah vine soon to be dug out to make space for our new winery, I thought I'd better share the photographic proof.