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Changes at the 2010 Paso Robles Wine Festival

We just finished the Paso Robles Wine Festival for 2010.  As usual, it was a whirlwind of activity, with a delicious dinner Friday night at the Cass House Inn in Cayucos, pourings with the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance on Friday and Saturday evenings downtown in Paso Robles, and our annual salmon brunch and Rosé launch on Sunday morning out at the winery.

The weather was wonderful, cool and crisp, and the park was busy with enthusiastic tasters as attendance rose slightly compared to 2009.  The Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance has made a concerted effort to make the event classier and more comprehensive over the last five years.  Ticket prices have gone up moderately, weeding out some party-goers.  Additional events such as a VIP/trade hour, the Friday evening Reserve tasting, and educational seminars now allow attendees who are interested in closer contact with local winemakers this access.  The salmon brunch was delicious; Chef Jeff Scott continues to do an amazing job.  A couple of photos of the next generation of Haases (Eli, on left, and Sebastian on right) enjoying the event:

WineFest_2010_0002 WineFest_2010_0001

And one of me with Nikki Getty, who runs our wine club, hospitality and events:

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This year, the PRWCA added a joint winemaker dinner and auction that raised over $100,000 for the Alliance's charity efforts.  Also new this year, they moved the Saturday Grand Tasting later in the day from 1pm-5pm to 3pm-7pm.  That was supposed to have two effects: to help get the event out of the heat of the day and to help open the day up for event attendees to visit the winery tasting rooms.  And we did get more traffic on Saturday: we saw 260 tasters this year, up from an average of 175 the past three years.  Even though sales per customer were down nearly 20% it was still a good day, better than recent Wine Festival Saturdays if not measurably better than a normal Saturday in the busy spring season. 

But Sunday was a different story.  Both traffic and sales were down dramatically, with traffic down 42% from an average of 268 people to this year's 156 and sales per customer no better than the averages we saw the past three years.  Perhaps most dramatically, we went from signing up an average of 13 new wine club members on Wine Festival Sunday to signing up just 2 this year.  Summing up the results between the two days, the improvement on Saturday did not make up for the decline on Sunday.  For the weekend our sales were down 15% and our wine club signups down 53% compared to the average of our results of the last three years.

I would typically suspect that a decline in our numbers like this were due to something lacking about the tasting room experience.  But I don't think that is the case here.  The tasting room has been on a great run recently, putting up some of its best numbers ever.  We have a terrific, experienced tasting room crew, and we staffed up so heavily for Wine Festival this year that we had tasting room attendants practically competing with each other to have the privilege of serving each new guest.  My second suspicion was that it was something we'd changed in our events for the weekend.  And we did add a charge to attend the salmon brunch in 2010 that we hadn't had in past years.  We did this because we found that the event, which was free to wine club members and free with a tasting fee to non-members, was attracting people who would leave without even entering the tasting room.  Our average sales to the people who came to the salmon tasting in 2009 was roughly half that of our other visitors that day.  Given that the salmon tasting itself was costing us roughly $20 a head, about the level of the average salmon-tasting-attendee purchase, that didn't make a lot of sense.  Plus, the crowds that entered the tasting room all at once after the event ended overwhelmed the tasting room's capabilities, meaning that neither the event's attendees nor the other customers got the experience we wanted.  This year, though the attendance at the salmon brunch was down significantly (from about 150 to about 50) the 50 attendees bought nearly as much wine as the 150 had done last year.

No, it was the rest of the day that was the culprit.  It was so slow in the afternoon that our tasting room manager sent half his staff home.  And we've heard that other wineries and tasting rooms were similarly disappointed in Sunday's sales and traffic. 

I have some speculations as to why the changes made to Wine Festival might have had the impact that they did.  First, moving the grand tasting later made it easier to taste for a partial day on Saturday (stopping in time to get to the event by 3pm) rather than a full day on Sunday.  Second, the later end to the event and the fact that many people had begun their day with wine tasting may have meant that people were wined out by the time that they had to make the decision of whether or not to go tasting on Sunday.  I can imagine, after wine tasting most of the day and finishing with a four-hour wine festival, that I'd choose to go to the beach or to Hearst Castle rather than heading back out to more wineries.  And finally, I'd think that this burnout would be most applicable to the attendees of the gala dinner and auction, who didn't finish their Saturday until after 10pm and who also shelled out $500 per couple to attend.  Between the cost and the fatigue, I would guess that it was these attendees who made the largest difference in our end results.

Our tasting room, like most retail establishments, lives by the 80/20 rule, where 20% of the customers provide 80% of the business.  The majority of our tasting room customers buy just a bottle or two, or even just pay the tasting fee.  But it's the minority who get really excited about what they find that keep our average sales (and our wine club signup numbers) strong.  So, if even a small percentage of the best buyers are eliminated, it can have a dramatic impact on total sales.  The 400 attendees of the wine dinner and auction represented about 10% of the total attendees of the wine festival.  But I'd think that they represented some of the best buyers, and that the lateness and the expense of the event likely discouraged many of them from heading out to tasting rooms the next day.  If I'm right, this could be the major factor in the decline in Sunday's sales and the dramatic falloff in wine club signups. 

The key, for me, is to remember that Wine Festival is not an end in itself.  It is the creation of the organization that the local wineries task with marketing and promoting the area and its wineries.  If the event is successful at the expense of the wineries' results, it is actually not achieving what it needs to achieve.

I'm curious to know, from any readers who attended Wine Festival this year, what you thought.  Did you enjoy the event?  Did the changes in the event change your behavior the rest of the weekend?  I'll be meeting with the marketing committee of the PRWCA next week, and it will be at the top of our agenda.


Why Limestone Matters for Wine Grape Growing

Rocks in Hands Large
Winemaker and Vineyard Manager Neil Collins
with a handful of broken calcareous rock
It has long been recognized that great wine regions such as Champagne, Burgundy, Chablis, the Loire and southern Rhône valleys, and Saint-Emilion in Bordeaux are rich with limestone.  Or, more precisely, these soils are rich in plant-accessible calcium carbonate, the principal chemical component of limestone, typically from decayed limestone outcroppings.  (Limestone itself is too hard for plants' roots to penetrate.) 

Limestone is rare in California except in a crescent of land in the Central Coast between the Santa Cruz Mountains to the north and Lompoc to the south.  When we were searching for a site on which to plant our vineyard, finding calcium-rich soil similar to that of Château de Beaucastel was a primary criterion. That calcium-rich soils were only found in the Central Coast focused our search in this area.  The west side of Paso Robles and Templeton is the state's largest exposed limestone layer, and in 1989 we bought our property here.

For all the anecdotal evidence of the superior qualities of calcium-rich soils, the science behind how calcareous soil influences grapevine health and the wines that come from them is still being explored.  It turns out that there are four principal reasons why these soils improve wine quality.

Wet limestone
In winter, the calcareous clay absorbs moisture,
turning dark.  Note the roots that have pene-
trated between the layers of clay.
Water-retention capabilities
Calcium-based soils have water-retention properties that are ideal for growing grapevines.  Some water is essential for cation exchange -- the process by which plants take up nutrients through their roots.  But grapevines do poorly in waterlogged soils, which increase the likelihood of root disease. Calcium-rich clay soils have a chemical structure composed of sheets of molecules held together in layers by ionic attractions. This structure permits the soil to retain moisture in periods of dry weather but allows for good drainage during heavy rains.

Soils that are less able to retain moisture must be irrigated.  Drip irrigation creates a funnel-shaped wet area in the topsoil immediately under the dripper.  As cation exchange cannot occur in the absence of moisture, the only roots that are taking up nutrients are those within the dripper zones.  And as those zones are in topsoil rather than in deeper soils, it is clear why French regulations prohibit the use of irrigation in the top terroirs in France: wines from those vineyards would not be able to express their terroir.

At Tablas Creek, we have become more and more convinced that dry farming is perhaps the most important aspect to producing wines of place.  And our calcium-rich soils mean we can dry farm, even though it almost never rains between April and November.

Cation exchange and berry pH
Calcium-based soils tend to be more basic than soils derived from other nutrients.  The soil pH of the calcareous layers at Tablas Creek tends to be around 8, much higher than the typical topsoil pH of between 5.5 and 6.0.  Research has shown that cation exchange is greater at higher levels of base saturation, perhaps because most of the minerals that grapevines require are at their most accessible when soils are more basic.  

High-calcium soils are also correlated with easier nutrient uptake. The nutrients a grapevine needs to thrive (magnesium, potassium, calcium, and sodium) are taken up at certain specific sites on the root hairs through the process of cation exchange. Negatively charged compounds in plant roots attract positively charged cations.  Calcium helps soil particles aggregate through a process called flocculation, which helps make available more cation exchange sites to a plant's roots. 

In low-pH soils, Hydrogen ions start to displace the ions of the four principal nutrients.  Only above a pH of 6.0 are all four nutrients readily available. So, calcium carbonate acts as a buffer (it has been used for centuries as an antacid) and counteracts the acid created in the breakdown of organic matter in topsoil.  The end result is a a pH level at which nutrient availability is at its highest.

Finally, there is increasing evidence that soils rich in calcium help maintain acidity in grapes late in the growing season.  A researcher at the University of Bordeaux linked the healthy cation exchange processes in soils rich in calcium -- and with enough water -- to higher grape acidity and lower wine pH.  And we have good anecdotal evidence of this property.  At the symposium on Roussanne that we conducted two summers ago, producers from eastern Paso Robles, where calcium-rich soils are much rarer and rainfall consistently less, consistently reported harvesting Roussanne roughly half a pH point higher than those of us on the calcareous (and wetter) west side.

Rock cut
The limestone-rich layers of the mountain behind
the winery shine bright white in mid-summer
Root system and vine development
Unlike cereals and other annual crops that have shallow root systems, grape vines have deep root systems.  This means that the composition of the deeper soil layers is more important for vine health and wine character than that of the topsoil.  It also means that amending the soil (by, for example, liming to add calcium) is less effective than is natural replenishment of essential nutrients from deeper layers. 

Grapevine roots are remarkable.  They can penetrate dozens of feet into soil in their search for water and nutrients, and they continue to grow throughout the vines' lives.  This means that the physical properties of the soil are important: a hardpan layer through which roots cannot penetrate can have a serious negative impact on a vine's output.  Calcium's tendency toward flocculation (soil particle aggregation) creates spaces into which roots can penetrate and in which water can be stored.  This quality is particularly important with clay, and clays high in calcium tend to offer better soil structure and less mechanical resistance to roots than those without.  In addition, in long periods of dry weather, the clays dry out and crack, allowing roots to penetrate deeper into the soil where more residual moisture can be found. And even in our vineyard (relatively young in vineyard terms) we've found roots ten feet deep and deeper in experimental excavations.

In addition, soils where calcium is scarce -- like those where water is unavailable -- tend to show excessive exploratory root growth, and may have large, inefficient root systems that support small, relatively weak growth above ground.  And this makes sense: vines have a certain amount of energy to apportion between root growth, canopy growth and berry ripening.  If they are forced to invest more energy in searching for calcium there is less available for other tasks.

Disease resistance
Finally, there is evidence that calcium is essential for the formation of disease-resistant berries.  Calcium is found in berries in its greatest concentration in the skins, and essential for the creation of strong cell walls and maintaining skin cohesion.  However, if calcium is scarce, plants prioritize intracellular calcium over berry skin calcium and berries are more susceptible to enzyme attack and fungal diseases.

We've thought since the beginning that limestone was a key to making great wines.  It's great to learn the science that underpins our belief.

Anyone who is interested in the more detailed science behind this article should read the two-part piece by Valerie Saxton in Wine Business Monthly, from which I drew heavily for this article.  You can find Part I and Part II online.


Tablas Creek is a 2010 "Best Winery Blog" finalist!

WBA_Finalist_2010 I'm proud to announce that Tablas Creek has again been named a finalist for "Best Winery Blog" at the 2010 Wine Blog Awards.  These awards were created four years ago by the tireless Tom Wark (whose blog Fermentation is a daily must-read for anyone in the wine community) to recognize the growing importance of the blogging community on the world of wine and were this year handed over to the nonprofit OpenWine Consortium.  The awards (which in past years were called the American Wine Blog Awards) have been opened up to this year to any English-language blog in the world.

As in previous years, your votes will help determine the winners; in the final tally, 50% of the weighting comes from voting by the public, and 50% from the votes of the panel of eleven expert judges (whose names are typically revealed after the awards are announced) who culled all the nominations into the five finalists in each category.  So please vote!

The most interesting part of the process for me is always discovering the blogs I wasn't aware of.  The Best Winery Blog finalists include two other winery blogs I consider must-reads (4488: A Ridge Blog and Twisted Oak's El Bloggio Torcido and two that I didn't yet know (Bonny Doon's Been Doon So Long and Quevedo Port).  How did I not know that Randall Grahm was blogging? 

I am particularly proud that Tablas Creek is the only repeat finalist from the 2009 Best Winery Blog category.

You can browse the list of finalists, or if you know who you like, you can vote here.  Voting ends Sunday, May 30th.


Vine Relocation Project

We've gotten approval for our expansion plans, and should start construction sometime in the next week or two.  This third and final phase of our building will include more fermentation space, a new room for our foudres, more offices, more and better parking proximate to the tasting room entrance, and a new larger tasting room that will be integrated into the winery, with walls of windows looking into the winery and giving everyone who comes to taste a feel for what's going on that day in the cellar.

Yes, we're excited.

We'll be landscaping the parking in a way that should be attractive, with a continuation of the limestone wall that we have around our parking area now.  But in order to make room for the parking, we realized that we're going to have to co-opt about one-third of the head-pruned Mourvedre block that is just inside the entrance to Tablas Creek.  We had a surveyor come out and mark the line where the limestone wall would run, and then Neil, Ryan and David set about saving the 119 ten-year-old Mourvedre vines that would have to go. 

The first order of business was to uproot the vines, hopefully with enough of their root system that they could get re-established in their new home.  On March 13th, Neil and David broke out the backhoe to try to get the vines safely out of the ground:

IMG_7156

You can see a little more clearly the challenge of the project with a closeup.  The first few vines came out largely de-rooted, but by a dozen or so vines in we'd managed to get the roots more intact.

IMG_7157

We eventually managed to get 119 vines out of the ground.  Their new home was to be the area around the straw-bale tractor barn in the middle of the vineyard: a frosty but fertile spot that seemed well-suited for Mourvedre. 

The next day we got the vines back into the ground around the straw-bale barn.  And then we waited.

Mourvedre sprouts late anyway, and we'd replanted the vines in one of the colder spots in the vineyard.  Plus, the diminished root system has to further delay the vines.  But as we got well into April without seeing any signs of life, we started to get worried.  But in the last few weeks, more and more of the vines have sprouted.  We're now at about 75%, and hope to see growth on close to all of them within a few weeks.  The vines in their new home:

IMG_7305

and one more:

IMG_7299 

Will the vines make it through the summer?  We don't know.  We know we'll have to give them some water from time to time while the root system gets itself established.  But David, who is usually pretty pessimistic when it comes to estimations, thinks that most of them will survive.  And that's pretty cool.


Vineyard weed control... and introducing the spader, our newest toy

At this time of year, it's essential that we get into the vineyard and complete the long process of knocking down the vineyard weeds so that they don't steal water and other scarce resources from the vines.  This is a multi-stage process that takes us months and involves variously mowing, disking and burning the cover crop, using our tournesol cultivator and hand-hoeing among the vines, and even rototilling to smooth out the areas we've chewed up.  The rain we received this winter makes the process longer, both because it contributed to the most amazing cover crop growth we've ever seen and because we kept getting rain in April that forced us out of the vineyard for days at a time.  Even after weeks of work, there are still sections of the vineyard where the weeds and wildflowers are more visible than the vines, like the section of Grenache Blanc below nearly swallowed by vetch:

Vineyard_cleanup_0003

Our main tool for turning over the soil has been the disker (which anyone in a farming district will be familiar with).  It digs down 6-8 inches and turns the cover crop into the topsoil.  This is a quick and inexpensive way of working the soil.  Two photos are below, one of the overturned soil and another of the disks themselves:

Vineyard_cleanup_disk1  Vineyard_cleanup_disk2

While the disker handles the cover crop between the rows, the tournesol can weed within the vine rows.  It accomplishes this challenging task with the aid of rubber sensor arms that stick out in front of the sunflower-shaped cultivator heads that give the tournesol its name:

Tournesol Tractor

One problem with the disker is that it doesn't penetrate that deeply, and can leave a hardpan of clay six to eight inches below the surface.  A second problem is that it leaves the soil pretty chewed up and uneven, which complicates future work in the vineyard.  Enter the spader, which we just got and put into action this week.  It works with a series of spade-like blades attached to a cam system that individually delve into the soil and turn it over.

Vineyard_cleanup_0006

Watching the spader get to work is impressive.  The dirt comes out so smooth it looks as though it's been rototilled.  Two similar rows are below, the left disked and the right spaded:

Vineyard_cleanup_0002  Vineyard_cleanup_0004

Even more impressive is how it can, in one pass, turn a vineyard row from winter-scruffy to summer-clean.  As you can see:

Vineyard_cleanup_0009

Another advantage of the spader is how deep it penetrates.  Neil Collins, who is our vineyard manager in addition to our winemaker demonstrated, reaching his arm elbow-deep into the newly-turned dirt:

Vineyard_cleanup_0010

As you can probably tell, we're excited.  And the biodynamic consultant who we're using to help us as we transition 20 acres to biodynamic is a big fan: he reported that the deeper tilling, the reduced soil compaction and the better penetration of nutrients and water resulted in a 40% increase in crop (at higher quality) at the last vineyard where he saw one introduced.


Notes from the Cellar: Biodynamics and crystallization? Yeah, it's new to me too.

by Chelsea Magnusson

When I was a student at Cal Poly, my Advanced Viticulture class spent a few lecture sessions on alternative farming methods.  In less than five minutes, we were finished with our lesson on biodynamics - it was clear that the professor was not trying to sell the idea.  Most of the class chuckled through his talk on the subject, which seemed to be his aim.  It's funny to look back now, only three years later, and see vineyards and wineries everywhere embracing or at least experimenting with the idea of biodynamics.

Including us. 

Back in March, Robert Haas took a trip to Napa with winemakers Neil Collins and Ryan Hebert to tour vineyards and wineries that practiced biodynamic farming.  While there, they discussed the merits of biodynamics, the processes employed, and the results experienced.  You can read his post containing his thoughts about the experience.

We are currently applying biodynamic farming principles to approximately 20 acres of our vineyard, with a wide selection of affected varietals including Syrah, Grenache, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Mourvedre, Counoise, and Tannat.  We've also hired a biodynamic consultant, Philippe Coderey, to help with timing, preparations, and probably more than anything, being there with explanations when we get confused or skeptical.  So far, I've loved our biodynamic experience.  And to be perfectly candid, I find it easy to believe that a vineyard would show improvement upon implementation of biodynamic techniques (or any new farming efforts, for that matter).  With the increased time we've spent in our 20 acre parcel of biodynamic vines, we are just a touch more attentive and involved.  On one of the days we were applying a preparation, a coworker pointed out that we (the cellar crew) seemed to be a bit more animated on our "biodynamic days".  Upon reflection, I think she's right.  It's something new and different, and it's something we (or at least, I) don't totally understand.

IMG_0475
Ryan (foreground) and Neil add preparations to our compost pile

Philippe was explaining to us not too long ago that everything carries with it an energy.  When I think of energy, I conjure a mental image of a person who's able to get up early to go to the gym before work, put in a full day at the office, go home to start laundry, take the dog for a brisk walk, etc, etc.  But it's much more than that.  This type of energy we're talking about is not something you can get from a cup of coffee.  We're talking about the energy flow, (or, if you prefer, the vibe, the aura, or the chi) of an object.  We've learned that wine, like everything else, possesses this energy.  And really, that's something I can believe.  Consider how much effort is put into each bottle of wine - from the vine that produces the fruit, to the harvest and the crush, to the fermentation, and every small step in between.  And apparently, you can see this distribution of energy by crystallizing a sample of wine and analyzing the picture that it forms.

In order to produce an accurate and consistent energy crystallization, a scientific method must be employed.  I was curious about the process, so I sat down with Philippe to ask him how he performed the task and what he looked for in the results.

To process a crystallization, wine is added to a Petri dish along with water and a copper chloride solution.  After the sample is prepped, the Petri dish is placed in a dehydrator that's kept at 90°F.  After 8-12 hours, the sample is pulled from the dehydrator and photographed.  We gave Philippe two samples of wine - 2005 and 2006 vintages of Esprit de Beaucastel.  He was asked to run the samples and then allow us to look at the results without knowing which crystallization belonged to each wine (a blind crystallization, so to speak) and try our hand at matching the picture of the crystallization to the vintage.  As it turned out, we had no idea what we were looking at or looking for - I think it was Neil who said we would have similar luck trying to read tea leaves.

063 066
Left: Photos of the crystallization of the 2005 and 2006 Esprit de Beaucastel. 
Right: Ryan and Neil try their hand at crystallization interpretation... to no avail.

ESPRIT 003 ESPRIT 008
Photos of the crystallization of the 2005 and 2006 Esprit

When analyzing a crystallization, the idea is to look at how the "life forces" and "organization forces" are arranged.  When I was told this, I couldn't help but to cock my head in confusion.  From what I hear, most people are more familiar with the term "energy field".  The manner in which the life forces are organized can tell a little bit about the energy and vitality of the wine.  As a compliment to the life force composition, the organization forces illustrate the depth and complexity a wine possesses.  So, for instance, a really lovely wine with perfect balance will have a very clean and organized crystallization.  Philippe told us that a wine crystallization can provide information both about the wine itself as well as the vineyard it came from.  Since we were primarily interested in the reading for the wine, I learned what the three most basic elements of the picture represent:

Copy of ESPRIT 007

  1. The Center: The center represents the fruit component of the wine.  A tightly organized center will mean that the wine has less of a fruit forward character, while a center that covers more area will come from a wine with massive fruit.  Please note that the "center" is not necessarily located in the actual center of the Petri dish.  Rather, it's the area where everything meets.
  2. The Outer Ring: The outer ring represents the mineral component of the wine. Wine with a prevalent mineral character will have a pronounced and strong outer ring.  Earthy characteristics in the wine are represented through the outer circumference of the mineral ring.  I was told that if one was trying to gather information regarding a vineyard, a strong outer ring would relate to vines with deep, healthy root systems.  As such, as vine with deep roots will be more connected to the soils and therefore have a more profound communication of terroir.
  3. Middle Zone: The middle zone of the Petri dish (the space that falls between the outer ring and the center) represents the vegetal, herbaceous, and/or floral character of the wine.

And there was a consistent character to different samples of the 2006 that was distinct from the character of the different (but internally consistent) samples of the 2005.  Could we have told you what this means?  Perhaps not.  But maybe in six months?  While we may not be crystallizing every single barrel in the cellar, it is interesting for us to look at our wines from a new perspective in an effort to evolve and improve.  And I wonder; are university lectures on the subject still brushed off so easily?


An exchange with Representative Kevin McCarthy on HR 5034 and direct shipping

On April 15th, H.R. 5034 was introduced into the US House of Representatives.  This bill, written by the Beer Wholesalers of America and titled the "Comprehensive Alcohol Regulatory Effectiveness Act of 2010" [Get it? The "CARE Act"] would write into law the primacy of the 21st Amendment, which repealed prohibition, over the Commerce Clause of the US Constitution, which gives the federal government exclusive power to regulate interstate commerce.  The net impact would be to allow states to write laws which allow their own in-state wineries (and breweries) to ship direct to consumers but prohibit out-of-state wineries (and breweries) from doing the same.  Read the full text here.

Of course, local wineries, and the in-state jobs that they represent, have been one rallying point for the advocates of direct shipping.  And direct shipping has been largely victorious in the nearly five years since Supreme Court ruled in Granholm v. Heald that states were not allowed to discriminate in favor of in-state interests in their alcohol regulations.  At that time, we could ship to 13 states.  Later this month, we will add Maine as our 31st legal shipping state.  The end result of the deregulation has been more choices for and lower prices to consumers, and more tax revenue to states, who have nearly all written shipping laws that require out-of-state wineries to remit state and local taxes on the wines they ship into the state.

Of course, one tier has been left out of the celebration: the wholesale tier, who in the era before direct sales collected a state-mandated markup on every bottle of beer, wine and liquor sold in every state.  These wholesalers are licensed by each state, and are often the single largest contributors to state political campaigns.  And although direct shipping of beer and wine is a tiny proportion of all sales and largely covers products that are not available through distribution, wholesalers have mobilized in force against direct shipping.  It's really amazing that so many direct shipping laws have been written in the last five years given the money and political muscle that have been lined up against each one.

With state ploys for legal discrimination being eliminated one by one in the courts (the most recent, a Massachusetts capacity cap under which all in-state wineries fell, was reaffirmed as unconstitutional by the First Circuit Court of Appeals in January) wholesalers have evidently turned to the federal government for help.  Hence H.R. 5034.

Although the bill has yet to be brought to the floor of the House for a vote, I did not want to be complacent about its prospects.  So, I wrote our local congressman, Representative Kevin McCarthy of California's 22nd District, to urge him to oppose the bill.  I assumed, given that his territory includes both Paso Robles and Bakersfield (wine producing regions) that he would be opposed to the bill.  His response suggested to me that he had not yet considered the bill's impacts on his district, and that he was taking the legislation's sponsors at their word when they said that this was an issue of states' rights.

I thought it would be interesting to post our exchange.  I have a few concluding thoughts (as well as how to contact your own representative) below the emails.  First, from last Thursday:

Dear Representative McCarthy,

We met a few years ago at an event organized by the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance about immigration issues.  This is much more pressing to us, and to every small wine producer in the Paso Robles region.  I hope you will oppose HR 5034, a bill sponsored by beer wholesalers that would overturn winery-to-consumer shipping around the United States.

The legislation is couched as addressing public safety and states' rights, but is better described as an effort by wholesalers to protect their monopoly and choke off a potential source of competition.  If it passes, it will eliminate consumer access to thousands of small wineries and tens of thousands of wines, nearly all of them with such small productions as to be irrelevant to distributors.

HR 5034 has been condemned by winery associations including the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance.  It would choke off the lifeblood of most small wineries in our area and around the country.

Please let me know how you intend to vote on this important issue.

Sincerely,
Jason Haas

I received a response this morning:

Dear Jason:

Thank you for contacting me in opposition to H.R. 5034. 

According to the bill's sponsors, H.R. 5034 is intended to reiterate the three-tier system of alcohol regulation in the U.S., and to ensure that states retain their traditional regulatory authority over alcohol distribution, which are areas that I support. However, I appreciate your concerns that the legislation could negatively impact wineries, especially small ones, in California. Given these concerns, I will closely monitor this legislation before making a final decision on this bill should it come to the House floor for a vote.

Thanks again for contacting me on issues of importance to you. If you would like additional information on services my office can provide you, my votes and positions on issues facing our nation, and to subscribe to receive periodic "e-newsletters," please visit my website at http://kevinmccarthy.house.gov/.

Sincerely,

Kevin McCarthy
Member of Congress

I responded to him just a few minutes ago:

Dear Representative McCarthy,

Thank you for your response to my earlier note regarding HR 5034.  In your response, you write:

"According to the bill's sponsors, H.R. 5034 is intended to reiterate the three-tier system of alcohol regulation in the U.S., and to ensure that states retain their traditional regulatory authority over alcohol distribution, which are areas that I support."

Please, in your deliberations, recognize that nothing currently prevents states from regulating alcohol in any way they choose.  Some states force all wine to go through the three-tier system and prohibit wine shipments entirely.  Others only allow it only for wineries of a certain size.  Others allow shipment into some areas and not others.  Others allow wineries and retailers to ship.  The only prohibition is that states not discriminate in favor of in-state wineries.  The major beneficiaries of the free trade that has resulted from the Supreme Court prohibition of discrimination have been the small wineries of California, over 200 of which are in your district.

While the sponsors of the bill would have you believe that this issue is one of states' rights, it is instead an issue of legislated monopolies (the liquor distributors) trying to eliminate their competition (your small wineries).  If you support free trade, you should oppose this bill. 

The passage of HR 5034 would likely result in dozens of local wineries having to close, the elimination of hundreds of good local jobs, and blunt the most powerful engine of the vibrant Paso Robles economy.

I hope that you will oppose this dangerous bill.

All the best,
-Jason

I find it hard to believe that a California representative, and a member of the Congressional Wine Caucus, would take a bill like this at face value.  If a representative who has a territory with such a vested interest in expanded access to direct shipping can be so willing to accept the justifications of the wholesalers' lobby, what can the prospects be in the rest of the country?

If we expect the members of Congress to see this bill for what it is -- an anticompetitive money grab by big businesses with legislated monopoly power -- we need to make our voices heard.  Please speak up!  As usual, the Web site Free the Grapes is a great resource.  Or, you can also go straight to a page where you can customize and have notes sent to your senators and representatives.  And please continue to spread the word.  There is a Facebook group dedicated to stopping HR 5034, and a quick blog search on HR 5034 turns up nearly 4000 articles, led, appropriately, by Tom Wark's full-throated repudiation of the wholesalers' claims.