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Mapping out the future of Tablas Creek

It's been a busy couple of years for us.  We built an expansion to our winery that increased our square footage by 70%.  We launched two new wines (the Patelin de Tablas and Patelin de Tablas Blanc) that have been a success both here at the winery and in the national market.  We dove wholeheartedly into the implementation of Biodynamics here at the winery.  We even debuted our long-delayed new Web site.

But perhaps the biggest investment we've made in the long-term success of Tablas Creek is the recently-concluded purchase of a 150-acre parcel adjacent to our property to the south.  We had been leasing a small portion of the property (about 15 acres) for the last decade, along with another 20-acre parcel to our west.

Overview map

This was not a move we were expecting to make.  And after our major investment in our new building, it was a stretch, financially.  But our neighbor from whom we purchased it had determined he needed to sell it for tax reasons, as he was purchasing some different agricultural land in northern California.  He was going to sell it, one way or the other.  And because of our lease, we had the right of first refusal on the land.

It's no secret that Paso Robles is in the middle of a remarkable surge of development.  There are more wineries and more vineyard acres each year.  And prices for prime vineyard land in the most coveted areas west of town have been going up fast.  Big new money has been moving into Paso Robles in the past few years, and several properties out near us have sold in recent months.  We were sure that if we passed on the opportunity now, we wouldn't see that land come available again... at least not at a price that we might be able to scrape together.

And if we were going to buy more land, there is no other parcel that would make more sense.  The land is beautiful: steep, with highly calcareous soils entirely consistent with what we have now.  It's high enough that it shouldn't be particularly frost-prone.  Everything can be inside one fence line and we can use our current equipment and facilities.  The property contains about 50 acres of walnut orchards that would be relatively simple to convert to vineyard.  It also included 15 of our acres on which we were currently paying rent.  And it contains a lake, built fifty years ago by damming up Tablas Creek, that we have high hopes can be used to frost-protect major sections of our vineyard.

Detail map

But, did we want to buy more land?  We are at least a couple of years from finishing planting our own property, and figured we'd evaluate our needs then.  Regular readers of the blog may remember the 2010 blog post Whither inexpensive, artisanal California wine where we laid out the money-losing proposition of purchasing and developing land to either sell grapes or make more of our least-expensive wine for the wholesale market.

Two things have changed in the past two years.  First, we launched the Patelin de Tablas wines, which have been a runaway success.  We will have sold out of the initial vintage of the white in about 10 months, and are on pace to sell out of the red in about 8 months.  Second, the demand for our estate wines has continued to grow, driven by consecutive 15% annual increases in traffic to our tasting room and a 2011 year where we added nearly 700 net members to our VINsider and VINdependent wine clubs.  The growth in our direct sales demand has meant that, increasingly, we're forced to choose between selling out of our top wines early in the wholesale market or in the tasting room (or both).  There just hasn't been enough production in the last 5 years (with the exception of the relatively plentiful 2010 vintage) to make enough wine to satisfy the demand.

To a certain extent, the Patelin de Tablas helps with this.  Because the bulk of the grapes for the Patelin are purchased, it's possible for us to hold a steady production from year to year, even when drought or frost strikes our vineyard.  But as proud of it as we are -- and we think that the 2010 Patelins are terrific wines -- we are wary of becoming known principally for the Patelin.  And we were worried that, if we didn't act, the only Tablas Creek wines regularly available in the wholesale market would be the Patelins, creating a potentially divergent marketing model where our best wines, the wines we felt make our reputation, were difficult or impossible to find around the country.  It's easy to name respected wineries who ended up being known for their least expensive, non-estate wines, to their long-term detriment.

Recognizing the challenge we faced made our decision easier.  We saw that in order to make enough wine to achieve our goal of bringing our supply up into closer balance with our demand without having the quantity of Patelin we produced dominate the quantity of estate wines, eventually we would need more vineyard.  Financially, more vineyard doesn't make sense if it's all going out wholesale.  But if a vineyard purchase supports balanced growth in both direct and wholesale sales, while protecting the reputation we've worked hard to build, the picture is a different one.

We were up in the new parcel today, getting a better sense of the property and trying to decide when to start pulling out the walnuts and preparing the land for planting.  We'll probably not plant anything there for at least a few years; we want the land to lie fallow for a couple of seasons while we plant cover crops and replenish soils beaten down by years of cattle ranching and surface disking.  And even when we do start planting, we'll certainly plant bit by bit, maybe five acres a year for a decade.  But this gives us the land on which to grow, and terroir which is, critically, like what we have now.  A few photos will hopefully share why were so excited.  From the top of the orchard, looking north-west along the orchard's ridge-top:


From the southwestern edge of the orchard, looking northeast up the hill toward where the previous photo was taken:


Looking southwest at the orchard from a high spot near the eastern border of the property:


And looking north off the ridgetop, across the valley in which Tablas Creek runs, toward the current Tablas Creek property.  The winery building, with its red tile roof, is just visible:

Looking toward Tablas_0001

The intensely calcareous soils are apparent throughout the property, with bits of limestone littering the surface.  A soil cut where the previous owner dug into a hillside shows even more clearly how chalky things are:


The lake is only partly full after our dry winter.  But even so it's a lot of water, and the potential of that water to protect both current and future vineyard from frost is exciting.  We interrupted a large flock of ducks who flew off before I could take their photo, but you can see a couple swimming toward the back of the lake:


It was this lake, and its potential to ameliorate the spring frosts we face nearly every year, that sealed the deal for us.  We'll likely develop this first, perhaps as soon as this summer, while we prep the rest of the property for planting.  Will the frost protection plans work as we hope?  We'll know more soon, and we'll share it with you.  But we are confident that with this purchase, we've secured the future of Tablas Creek as an estate winery.  And that is a big deal.