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February 2011

Rhone Rangers and the value of communal marketing

RR_NewLogo_Lg On Tuesday, I handed off the presidency of the board of the Rhone Rangers to Josh Bendick of Holly's Hill Vineyards in the Sierra Foothills after a two-year term.  I've served on the organization's board for seven years now, a long time in the world of nonprofit boards.  And I'm not going anywhere; I have two more years as a member of the executive committee (the past president becomes a vice president during his or her successor's tenure to provide continuity in leadership) and I'm sure I'll stay on the board for a while after that.

But moving out of the formal leadership position in an organization to which I've dedicated a lot of time and mental energy over the last several years has made me reflective both about how far we've come as an organization and where I feel we've fallen short.  My main goal five years ago was to transform the Rhone Rangers from an organization whose sole output was a once-a-year event (our San Francisco Grand Tasting) to one which reached many more parts of the country and provided value to its members year-round.  I think we've largely succeeded at both of my main goals.  My principal regret is that we still only represent about a tenth of the producers we could, and I've struggled more than I thought I would to convince other producers of the organization's value.  I'll spend some time exploring that, but it's worth noting what we've been able to achieve in the past five years, principally:

  • Put the organization back on sound financial footing.  Five years ago, we had to get a credit line from our bank, each November our cash flow dipped dangerously low, and the viability of the organization was threatened.  Now we have enough cash in the bank to know that we'll be able to continue each year, we've regularized the billing and invoicing so that its flow is more predictable and wineries have an incentive to renew early and spare us the November dip, and we've opened up several new sources of revenue.  Combined, sponsorships, associate memberships and our live auction make us less dependent upon ticket sales at our San Francisco event and our winery membership fees.  The key figure in this effort has been our Executive Director Cheryl Quist, who we hired four years ago and whose dedication to the organization and whose relentless work ethic has made all the difference.
  • Expanded the San Francisco tasting.  For the first eight years of its existence, the San Francisco Grand Tasting showcased the organization's wineries in a big exhibit hall at the Fort Mason Center on San Francisco's waterfront.  And that's still the biggest piece of the event, which will enter its 14th year this March and feature somewhere around 125 wineries.  [Read more about what should be a great 2011 San Francisco Rhone Rangers tasting.]  But to the grand tasting and a Sunday morning seminar we've added two additional seminars and a 15-winery winemaker dinner on Saturday.  The winemaker dinner also hosts a live auction, which raised over $20,000 last year and is the principal source of funding for the Rhone Rangers Scholarship Fund.  We still have room to build the attendance of the other components of the weekend, but having the event stretch over a weekend allows us to better fulfill the Rhone Rangers' educational mission and gives us more ways we can make an impact.
  • Added events in Los Angeles and (most recently) Washington DC. Seven years ago, with the encouragement of board member Doug McCrea of McCrea Cellars, we launched a summer Seattle tasting to help us spread the word of Rhone Rangers to the Pacific Northwest and support a membership drive among Washington State's many outstanding Rhone producers.  Having an event in the principal market of most of your principal constituencies is a good idea for a membership organization, and we'll be back in Seattle July 12-13 this year for our annual Seattle tasting.  In 2007, we added a tasting in Los Angeles to support our Central Coast wineries.  The Los Angeles event has been a runaway success the past two years, filling up to the facility's capacity with trade and selling out all our consumer tickets.  (This year's Los Angeles tasting will take place Sunday, August 7th.)  And last year, we were invited by the Smithsonian Institution to partner with them on a conference promoting Sustainable Seafood, and 18 Rhone Rangers wineries made the trek across the country.  We'll be expanding the Washington DC tasting to two days (June 8-9) this year and adding seminars to our trade and consumer tastings.  These tastings give us a model upon which we can build to expand our reach across the country in the future.
  • Formalized the Rhone Rangers scholarship fund.  Although we'd given scholarships a few times in earlier years, the organization's financial instability and a lack of structure meant that it was inconsistent.  Each of the last three years, we've dedicated $10,000 to our scholarship fund, and requested, evaluated, and funded proposals from undergraduate and graduate students researching topics related to Rhone varietals.  This has built our connection to America's major viticultural universities and allowed us to contribute to research that will benefit all producers of Rhone varietals, whether members or not.
  • Launched a Paso Robles chapter.  Five years ago, I was struck by the fact that only a dozen Paso Robles wineries were members of Rhone Rangers despite it having the state's largest acreage of nearly every important Rhone grape.  So, I called an informational meeting at Tablas Creek, invited our executive director and the current board president to attend, and was gratified that about 30 Rhone producers showed up to learn about the organization.  About 15 new wineries joined on the spot, but the most lasting impact of the meeting was the momentum among the group to put together a Paso Robles Chapter to focus on promoting Paso Robles as a key center for the American Rhone movement.  That chapter has now grown to 45 members, and each year we produce a chapter brochure, host two Paso Robles events, and have working committees that focus on educating local trade and reaching out to local and national media.  The wholehearted participation by the Paso Robles Rhone community has indeed helped establish Paso Robles as the inspirational center of California's Rhone movement while also providing an important core of members to the national organization.
  • Provide value to our consumer members.  We've had an active consumer component (called Sidekicks) for years, but the organization's contact with these members was occasional and unfocused in early years.  We have built our mailing list steadily, and started a regular quarterly e-newsletter, with information about events, feature articles about grape varieties, and Rhone-related news.  That's been useful, but it's in the area of social media where we've been able to have the greatest impact.  We've started a rotating promotion of our member wineries on our Facebook page, and have been able to quickly share articles of interest and news of note.  We've only recently started Twitter (we're @RhoneRangers) but have built a fairly substantial following in just a few months.

That's a pretty substantial list of accomplishments for five years.  Still, as an organization we've plateaued around 150 winery members.  There are more wineries who make at least one Rhone-style wine just in Paso Robles than there are national members of the Rhone Rangers organization.  We represent maybe 10% of the wineries in California with a Rhone wine in their portfolio.  We're struggling with how to best represent smaller Rhone producers whose main (or even only) market is their cellar door, and for whom paying $750 per year to get the opportunity to show wine in San Francisco or Los Angeles is not appealing.

Each year, I reach out to Rhone producers who are not members, and I'm often surprised to hear reasons why many don't join.  At $750/year, which includes the table fee for any one tasting, the bar is pretty low.  We've calculated that we cover that cost with a single additional wine club signup, a single mention in a local newspaper article, the sales of five or more cases in the wholesale market or five extra visits to Tablas Creek.  And if we can't get that, or some equivalent combination, with an audience which has self-identified as enthusiastic about Rhone varieties, we might as well close up shop.  In fact, each year, our membership in Rhone Rangers (as well as that in other regional or statewide marketing associations) more than pay for themselves.  Participation in groups like this helps hit points three, four and five of the eight fundamentals of winery marketing that I wrote about in 2009.

There are two groups whose objections I can understand.  One is the group of wineries who already have all the demand they can handle.  So, as much as I'd love to convince Justin Smith of Saxum to join Rhone Rangers, I can't really muster much of an argument for him.  The other group that I can see why we struggle to reach is small wineries who sell nearly everything direct but whose main consumer base is not in one of the markets where we hold tastings.  Think the Sierra Foothills, or the Rogue River Valley of Oregon.  Here is where the importance of local chapters comes in.  In Paso Robles, probably a third of our current membership are small enough and have little enough distribution that the trade portion of our San Francisco or Los Angeles events are of little or no value.  For many of these wineries, just being in the 50,000 copies of the chapter brochure (distributed in each member's tasting room) and on its map is probably enough value to join the group. The two local events that we put on each year are gravy.

But it hasn't been as easy as it would have seemed to replicate the chapter model outside Paso Robles.  Based on the success of the Paso Robles chapter, a group of mostly Sonoma wineries put together a North Coast chapter a few years ago.  But their first event turned out to be more expensive and less well attended than they'd orginally budgeted, and ate up most of the startup funds that the wineries involved had contributed.  That left the members reluctant to commit further, and without a brochure or other tangible products of the chapter membership.  We actually lost some members who had been a part of the national organization in the aftermath.

I'm still convinced that creating chapters is, in the long term, the key to attracting small, self-distributed wineries to the organization.  And it looks like a Sierra Foothills chapter is going to get organized this year.  But meanwhile, I'm going to keep reaching out to proselytize the message of this great organization, and encourage Rhone producers to jump on board and help build the category.  In a country where consumers are more willing to embrace non-traditional wines than ever before, the time is now to spread the word.

[So, in following my own message, whether you're a winery, a consumer, a grower or a trade partner (restaurant, retail or wholesale) you can read about becoming a member of Rhone Rangers.  I hope to see you at one of our 2011 events!]

Full Moon and Violet Skies at Tablas Creek

Winters bring a different sort of beauty to Paso Robles.  The hillsides turn softly green, the earth turns a deep brown, and the black oaks lose their leaves, exposing mistletoe and Spanish moss, and contrasting with the live oaks with which they share their wooded hillsides.  A little later in the season, we'll get an explosion of wildflowers, but we're not there yet.

At the same time, the angle of the light changes, and views that can be stark in the summer get a more diffuse light.  We also get remarkable sunsets, which can last for a long time as the sun angles down toward the horizon.  Some of the sunsets are classic, where bright pink and orange clouds contrast against an increasingly deep blue sky, but recently we've been seeing violet skies at dusk to the east.  Last night was a full moon, and the moon hanging in the violet sky was an irresistable temptation.  Here are some of the best photos I got.


A little later:


And a little later still, zoomed in as far as our little camera can go:


Driving home, I caught the last of the light in the west:


I loved how you could see the lines of hills marching away toward the horizon.  I even managed to get a shot of them as the light died.  It will help with all the photos, but particularly with the one below; click on the photo to see it full size.


Creating a new wine: Patelin de Tablas

A difficult economy brings problems, but it also brings opportunities.  Over the last few years, we have been fortunate to see our sales continue to grow, thanks to the wonderful loyalty of our customers, an unprecedented run of great press, and lots of hard work by the wholesalers, restaurants, and retailers who represent our wines.  At the same time, we saw three consecutive years of drought from 2007-2009 reduce the yields from our vineyard from nearly 19,000 cases in 2006 to just 12,000 cases in 2009.  The continued growth of our direct sales, both wine club and tasting room, has exacerbated the impact of the fluctuations of supply on our wholesalers.  Practically speaking, you can't not have wine to pour to people who come to your tasting room, and the demand for your wine club is fixed: your members have signed up for a specific configuration of bottles and shipments.  Between the two centers, we sold nearly 10,000 cases of wine direct last year.

Some math will show the impact on our wholesale and export customers.  Subtract 10,000 cases from our production, and you can easily have 9,000 cases of wine to sell one year, and 2,000 the next.  It's terrible to have to tell a wholesaler who has done a great job for you that you're going to have to cut their allocation dramatically.  And there are lasting consequences on your business: the next time that wholesaler has the chance to place a wine in a choice location, do you think that they'll choose you, or another winery whose supply is more regular?  Making it worse, if you have a productive vintage the next year, you might need to ask your wholesalers to take five times the quantity they received the previous year.  Even if they wanted to help you, you're asking the impossible.

At the same time that we're struggling with how we handle our supply crisis, other vineyards in Paso Robles are struggling with the results of the weak economy.  Many larger wineries have cut back their production or severed contracts with their growers, choosing to focus on their estate vineyards.  This has meant that we've seen some of the best growers in the area -- growers who three years ago would have had a long waiting list to get their grapes -- searching for buyers.

Eventually, a light bulb went on.  We decided to see if we could find a handful of growers whose work we respected with whom we could create a new wine.  This wine, in a year when our estate production was high, could be predominantly from Tablas Creek fruit.  In a year when production was low, it could be mostly purchased.  This would allow the wine to provide an escape valve for our own swings in production, and give us the opportunity to celebrate some of the top growers in our area.

We decided to name these two new wines Patelin de Tablas and Patelin de Tablas Blanc.  Patelin is French slang roughly translated as "country neighborhood".  We chose the growers for the care they take in their vineyards, and for the track records of the wines that these vineyards have produced.  All are in our neighborhood.  Many have planted Tablas Creek cuttings.  All farm sustainably, and many are organic or biodynamic.  We're celebrating the growers explicitly on the labels; each wine will list the vineyards that contributed fruit, with the percentage of the wine that each accounted for.  We'll be profiling the growers here on the blog over the coming weeks, but a few of the principal ones bear mentioning:

  • Chequera Vineyard: 30-year-old, biodynamically farmed Syrah and Viognier vines, which in recent years provided Bonny Doon with many of their high-end Rhone wines.
  • Glenrose Vineyard: One of the first customers for the Tablas Creek nursery, a rugged vineyard over 2000 feet in eleveation carved into a limestone mountainside.  The source for our 2002 Las Tablas Estates wine.
  • Edward Sellers Vineyard: The source for the excellent Edward Sellers wines, planted largely with Tablas Creek cuttings in the cool Templeton Gap.
  • La Vista Vineyard: Just a few miles east of Tablas Creek, planted with Tablas cuttings and on a gorgeous south-facing slope.

The Patelin de Tablas will be based on the dark spice and meatiness of Syrah, brightened with Grenache and Counoise, and given some earthy structure by Mourvedre.  The Patelin de Tablas Blanc will be based on the citrus, green apple and mineral of Grenache Blanc, given lushness and lift by Viognier and mineral and spice by Roussanne and Marsanne.

Adding the Patelin de Tablas wines will also allow us to be more rigorous in the selection program for our Cotes de Tablas wines.  Right now, the Cotes wines are our home for the lots that are bright and open, ready to drink younger, and celebrate Grenache (for the red) and Viognier (for the white).  But the reality is that there are lots that go into the Cotes wines because they are perfect for our Cotes de Tablas model, and lots that go in because they don't have another obvious home.  We think that adding the Patelin line will allow us to make the Cotes and Cotes Blanc that much better.  We're hopeful that we can establish them as the best Grenache-based red blend and the best Viognier-based white blend in California.

We'll sell the Patelin and Patelin Blanc for $20.  The white will be released in March, and the red in September.  They'll be Tablas Creek wines (we're not creating a new label, or a new brand) but we'll distinguish the line from our existing ones by color scheme.  As the Esprit de Beaucastels have gold leaf on their labels, and the Cotes de Tablas wines silver, the Patelin de Tablas wines will have bronze leaf.  The impact is, I think, pretty cool.

And did I mention that we'll sell both wines for $20?  They are tasting great in the cellar, though we haven't finished their final assembly quite yet, and given the pedigree of the vineyards they come from we're convinced they're going to blow people away at that price.

Below are mockups of the labels.  That brownish color will be metallic bronze.  And don't pay too much attention to the percentages on the labels; we needed placeholders for submission to the TTB but the blends aren't quite finalized.  But they should give you a sense.

10Patelin_label  10PatelinBlanc_label

If you haven't guessed, we're excited about this project.  We'll be sharing more over the coming weeks and months.

Ed note: the blends of the wines have been finalized and the wines bottled and released (Patelin Blanc in April 2011 and Patelin red in September 2011).  We have technical information online for both the 2010 Patelin de Tablas and the 2010 Patelin de Tablas Blanc.

Wonderful food pairing: Pasta Puttanesca and Tablas Creek Mourvedre

Over the holidays, we had lots of elaborate meals.  Christmas dinner, for us, was lobster with drawn butter, with which we paired the 2007 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc, my pick for the best white wine we've ever made.  The pairing was great, and the lobsters delicious.

But one holiday meal has stuck with me more than any other.  And it wasn't by any stretch the most elaborate.  It was the last meal we shared before all the various family members decamped back to their homes and real life resumed, and for that meal we chose a pasta puttanesca with wide pappardelle noodles from the cookbook Geometry of Pasta by Jacob Kennedy that my brother-in-law Tom received for Christmas.  We served the dinner for a dozen, ranged in age from one to eighty-three.  Everyone finished what they had and scraped the serving bowl clean for seconds.

Pasta puttanesca (literally "whore's pasta") originated in Naples, and has the benefit of being beautiful as well as delicious.  The red of tomatoes, the black of olives, the yellow of fresh pasta noodles and the green of capers, parsley and basil make for a colorful presentation.  Thanks to my sister Rebecca for taking and sharing the photos:

Puttanesca for Jason

We paired the pasta with our 2008 Mourvedre, not because we had any great expectations for the synergy, but because it's a wine that's in a very friendly place right now, and we had some at the house.  The match was a revelation, with the sweet-but-earthy character of the Mourvedre reflecting similar flavors in the pasta.  What's more, the pasta brought out a beautiful mineral note in the Mourvedre.  We finished three bottles and had to move on to a Syrah (not Tablas Creek) we happened to have to hand.  The Syrah paired much less well, with its overt oak tasting dried out and hard compared to the Mourvedre's elegance.

I was pleased to find the recipe we used online on the Web site for the Geometry of Pasta

A few other photos of the pasta's preparation, the noodles on the left and the mixing on the right:

Puttanesca - noodles   Puttanesca - mixing

The last photo is another I loved, with a closeup of the jar of capers that was used for the puttanesca. And yes, Rebecca got a new camera for Christmas; if you like these photos, you should check out her blog Campestral.

Puttanesca - capers

A beautifully foggy January morning

After about a month of rainy weather, the sun has come back out at Tablas Creek.  And we're thrilled with the rainfall we've received; we're over 17 inches of rain so far this winter, about 175% of normal at this point of the year, and look like we're well on the way to putting the 2007-2009 drought in our rear view mirror.  The vineyard is in great shape after all the rain, but the lack of sun has meant that the cover crops are a little behind.  They'll catch up quickly now that the sun is out.

With the sun comes cold nights, and we've had frost here in the morning most of this week.  Yesterday, we narrowly missed a frost when fog rolled in in the early morning.  By the time I got out to the vineyard around nine, it was starting to lift (you could see the blue of the sky) but still pretty dense at the surface.  We don't get a lot of fog here, so I grabbed the camera and headed out.  Here are some of the best shots; as usual the complete photo album is on our Facebook page:

The fog was densest down by the creek, and the photo below is looking south from our parking lot, toward the creek where it's closest to the winery.  Yes, that bright spot is the sun.


The vines make wonderful patterns as they disappear into the fog.  These wild-looking vines are Chardonnay, which we cane pruned this year as an experiment.


The cover crops are small but healthy, and did a great job holding the soil in place even during the last dose of rain that dropped over three inches in 24 hours.


The ground is so saturated that water is seeping out of the hillsides.  You can see one of these seasonal springs below, on the hillside above our nursery.


As the fog lifts,the color palette changes, and blues and yellows start to join the white and green.  This shot looks north through a Grenache block.


Finally, as I got back to the winery, the fog was mostly lifted, except for the last few clouds seeping out of the woods that line the creek.


We're looking forward to another week of sun, which will allow some of the surface water to soak in and get the cover crops some fuel.  Then, it will be back to wishing for wet weather for us.