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February 2012
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April 2012

Has TripAdvisor overtaken Yelp for winery visitors?

I keep a regular eye on Tablas Creek's reviews on TripAdvisor and on Yelp.  Reading these reviews helps me keep an eye out for potential problems, and also gives me a good overall sense of what people are thinking about the experience they have when they visit Tablas Creek.  Happily, it's overwhelmingly positive.

I have noticed a recent trend away from Yelp and toward TripAdvisor.  For years Yelp was the dominant review site.  Between 2005 and early 2011, Yelp tallied 69 reviews of Tablas Creek to only 5 for TripAdvisor.  In fact, I didn't even start watching TripAdvisor until mid-2011.  But in the last year, we've received an equal number of reviews (23) on each site, and so far in 2012, TripAdvisor has tallied 13 reviews to just 5 on Yelp. The chart below will give you a sense of how the trend has changed recently.

Reviews by Site
Both Yelp and TripAdvisor are powerful players in travel, dining and entertainment.  Per month, Yelp claims 66 million unique visitors, while TripAdvisor claims 50 million.  And the prominent placing of both sites' reviews in search engine rankings means that increasingly, consumers are using these sites in addition to or instead of the more traditional printed brochures and regional association Web sites that they would have used even a few years ago.  They have the advantages (and disadvantages) of crowd-sourced opinions, combining the perception of incorruptibility with the idiosyncracies of uncurated information.  But their net impact is tremendous, and is only likely to grow.

It's possible that we're starting to see some specialization between the two sites, which have essentially identical interfaces and market niches.  I know that I tend to think of Yelp as specializing in dining, and TripAdvisor as specializing in travel.  But a quick look at a few local restaurants suggests that TripAdvisor may be making significant inroads here as well.  Artisan shows 30 TripAdvisor reviews so far in 2012, but only 20 Yelp reviews (2011 and earlier shows 311 reviews on Yelp and 198 on TripAdvisor).  Il Cortile shows 16 reviews on TripAdvisor in 2012 (compared to just 40 before) and 17 on Yelp (compared to 123 before).  And Thomas Hill Organics shows 25 reviews on TripAdvisor (compared to 48 before) and 35 on Yelp (compared to 180 before).  Even if TripAdvisor still trails Yelp slightly in the restaurant world, it's clear that its trend is positive.

I know that lots of wineries have claimed and edited their profiles on Yelp, and many have also chosen to advertise with them, perhaps encouraged by the aggressive advertising sales push that many wineries, including Tablas Creek, received last year.  I don't see the same level of engagement with TripAdvisor.

Our experience suggests that neglecting TripAdvisor is a mistake.

Another detour along the road to American organic wine

About three months ago, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) made a ruling that didn't get a lot of press, but is likely to produce a remarkable trifecta of negative results, discouraging organic viticulture and ensuring that the reputation of American organic wine remains dubious, all while putting American wineries at a competitive disadvantage to their counterparts around the world.  The NOSB's decision: to keep the rules prohibiting sulfites in organic wines, against the unanimous recommendation of the committee tasked with studying the issue.

The current state of affairs for organic wine is not a satisfactory one.  Sulfites play two roles in fine wine, preventing oxidation and discouraging the action of vinegar-causing bacteria.  Organic wines, which must be made without added sulfites, tend to be unstable and unsuitable for aging.  Nearly all oxidize rapidly, and in order to prevent them turning to vinegar, they must be filtered sterile.  The resulting organic wines are of uneven quality, have to be consumed young, and are marketed toward consumers who choose organic but who are not wine knowledgeable.  Most sell in the $8-$12 range.  It is small wonder that the reputation of American organic wines is low.

All this might be understandable -- a sacrifice made in the interest of a worthy ideal -- if sulfites were a synthetic product.  But they are not.  Sulfur is a naturally mined mineral, both legal and widely applied to organic vineyards.  Sulfites are also naturally produced in the fermentation process.

Sulfites do have potential health impacts, although most of the people who have negative reactions to wine are not sulfite sensitive.  I wrote about this in detail a few years ago in the post Sulfites in Wine - What's Causing my Headache.  The relatively small number of people with sulfite allergies (roughly 0.2% of the US population) need to be very careful with what the eat and drink, not just with wine, but with condiments, dried fruits, potato chips, and many other products.  But wines with sulfites already have to show the "contains sulfites" warning on the label.  The EU, typically more rigorous than the United States on labeling and safety requirements, has for years allowed their organic wines to include a maximum 100ppm of sulfites and required these wines to add "contains sulfites" to their labels. 

It is a testament to the positive impact that organically farmed grapes have on the wines they make that that so many vineyards and wineries have chosen to farm organically even thought the market has not rewarded it.  These wineries have mostly not bothered with certification.  But I think that it is indisputable that there would be more wineries farming organically, and more certifying themselves organic, if, as with vegetables, the market rewarded organic wines with premium prices.

There is a category written into the National Organic Program (NOP) standards for wineries who -- like us -- use organic grapes but also sulfites.  But it's not ideal either.  These wines are permitted to print "made with organic grapes" on their labels.  This "made with..." phrasing is what is allowed for other consumer products that include a minimum 70% organic ingredients, but don't qualify for the 95% threshold of "organic".  Think "pizza made with organic tomatoes".  This carries the implication that there are other things in there that aren't organic, and possibly other things that aren't even grapes.  Sulfites, which are measured in parts-per-million, typically make up less than one one-hundredth of one percent of a finished wine.

Back to the recent NOSB ruling.  We have not been alone in recognizing the perverse impacts of the organic standards on wine.  A group of nearly 100 growers, wineries and their supporters petitioned the NOSB in 2010 to allow all wines that were farmed organically to be labeled organic, whether or not they used sulfites in the winemaking process. This would have put us in line with the EU and Canada, among others.  When the NOSB handling committee voted 5-0 last October to recommend the change, it seemed likely that American organic wine was on its way out of its labeling purgatory.  But after a group dominated by a handful of market-leading no-sulfite-added wineries lobbied against the change, the full NOSB board voted the change down 9-5.

Where does this leave us?  The same place we've been, I guess.  But I worry that the window for public acceptance of organic wine is closing.  Certainly we'll see a continuation of the trend toward wine-specific third-party certifications like Biodynamic and SIP (Sustainability in Practice), both of which permit the use of sulfites in winemaking.

But it does feel like the world of wine is trapped in quicksand, at the same time that organics are making dramatic inroads into many foods and consumer products.  As evidence, I wrote about the challenges facing organic wines in the very early days of this blog back in 2006, musing on the low market image of organic wines and considering a proposed marketing campaign to raise their image.  I thought that was premature:

I remain convinced that if there is a marketing campaign planned, it should be aimed at revising the laws so that they are in synch with Europe, where wines that are organically farmed, and which are under a certain maximum number of parts per million of sulfur, can call themselves organic.

I can't help but feel that with the NOSB's recent decision, the wine community has missed an opportunity to both rehabilitate the reputation of organic wine and to dramatically increase the rewards for and prevalence of Earth-friendly viticulture.

Recipe and Wine Pairing: Sauteed Diver Scallops and Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc

By Robert Haas

I got to do dinner for two last night because my wife, Barbara, had a 6 o’clock meeting to attend.  I had planned on diver scallops from our excellent local fish market, Pier 46 Seafood in Templeton.  As I was walking out of the winery to my car I saw walking in Chris Couture, the vineyard manager at Chequera Vineyard where we get much of our Syrah for Patelin de Tablas.  He was carrying a box of fresh asparagus from his organic farm picked that morning.  He kindly offered me two bunches.  What good timing!  I had been on my way to shop for veggies.  Now I could head straight to Pier 46 for my scallops.  I bought three quarters of a pound (8) of the big diver scallops.

2007_esprit_blancThe menu was to be sautéed scallops and simmered asparagus with a chopped hard-boiled egg vinaigrette dressing.  One of the great things about the menu was very little prep and very short cooking times: 15 minutes to hard-boil and chop the 2 eggs, and shave and trim the asparagus and make the vinaigrette.  Add about three minutes to chop a teaspoon of tarragon while simmering the asparagus and a total of about five minutes sautéing the scallops.

Scallops Recipe:

  • Heat the pan over medium heat and then add about two tablespoons of butter to melt. 
  • Add the scallops and sauté, half at a time, about three or four minutes each lot.  Don’t overcook! 
  • When each lot is done, transfer it to a bowl. 
  • After transferring the second lot to the bowl, add to the pan the chopped tarragon, the juice of one lemon and the scallops.
  • Cook just until everything is hot, turning the scallops to coat them in the glazed pan juices.

Asparagus Recipe:

  • Boil two eggs for 14 minutes until hard boiled, then cool and chop.
  • Make a vinaigrette by dissolving a generous pinch of sea salt into a teaspoon of good white wine vinegar, then stirring in a half-teaspoon of Dijon mustard.  Add 2 tablespoons of good olive oil, then whisk to combine.  Add fresh-ground black pepper to taste.
  • Trim the ends of the asparagus and shave the skin off the bottom portion of any thicker stems.
  • Simmer the asparagus in boiling water until tender but not mushy, 2-3 minutes.  Let cool slightly.
  • Arrange the asparagus on a plate, then top with the chopped egg and the vinaigrette.

We drank a Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc 2007 with the meal and I was reminded what a muscular vintage it was: rich and flavorful without being alcoholic or heavy.  Our tasting notes from a review tasting last year were:

Rich and powerful, with an explosive nose of ginger and honey, rose petals, and licorice stick.  In the mouth it's thick and broad, lifted nicely at the end by a herby white tea note.  A really long finish, the longest of any of the wines that we tasted [in our review tasting of 10 vintages].” 

And that is exactly the way it tasted last night: almost four years in the bottle and still young and vibrant.  It was terrific with the buttery scallops and even handled itself well with the asparagus with its egg vinaigrette.

The power grab behind New York's proposed "at rest" legislation

Editor's Note 2/4/2014: This post was originally written in March of 2012 and in part thanks to the outcry of wine lovers everywhere the 2012 legislative session expired without enacting the proposed legislation.  It was reintroduced in 2013, but wasn't enacted. Like a zombie, it's back again, and it's up to all New York-area wine lovers, or anyone who buys or sells wine in this vibrant wine market, to again sound the alarm. 2014's proposed legislation is effectively identical to the 2012 (and 2013) version; read on to learn what's at stake and what you can do. 

When investigating a potential new piece of legislation, follow the money, rather than the purpose that the legislation's supporters say it has been designed to achieve.  That would serve you well in investigating the anti-direct shipping laws that the big wholesalers are pushing at the state and federal levels.  They say it's about preventing underage access to alcohol and ensuring that states can collect the taxes they're due.  Yeah, right.

No different is the "at rest" law currently being debated in the New York legislature.  The law, if passed, would require that any alcoholic beverage sit in a New York warehouse for 48 hours before it could be sold [read the full text].  In a state like California, this wouldn't make much of a difference.  All serious California distributors have their warehouses in California.  But in New York, it would be a different story.  Because New York's fine wine business is so heavily concentrated in New York City, and because New York City is so close to both New Jersey and Connecticut, many (even most) fine wine distributors have one warehouse that covers both New York and New Jersey, and often Connecticut as well. This is the case for our New York distributor -- Verity Wine Partners -- as well as an estimated 80% of wholesalers currenly doing business in New York. These warehouses are typically located in New Jersey because warehouse space is cheaper there, and New Jersey also provides easy access to the ports where wines are typically unloaded from ships.  It's worth also noting that New Jersey has an "at rest" law of its own, which means that if you're going to locate a single warehouse to serve the two states, you would choose New Jersey.

This imbalance is what the law purports to fix: to "level the playing field" so that distributors who have chosen to locate their warehouse in New Jersey would have to add an additional warehouse in New York.  This would supposedly spur construction of new warehouse space in New York and make it easier to be sure that the appropriate excise taxes are collected.  Is there any evidence that distributors are not paying their excise taxes?  No; New York is probably the cleanest state we deal with due to the rigorous price posting requirements and a willingness to prosecute violators by state Attorneys General from Eliot Spitzer's day to the present. But it provides a veneer of "fairness" for an attempt to gain a legally sanctioned competitive advantage.

A look at who is lobbying for the legislation suggests a motive.  Principal backers are New York's two largest distributors, both of whom already have warehouses in New York State, and who could, with one signature, force their competitors to either invest in a new warehouse, significantly increasing their costs, or move from next-day delivery of orders to third-day delivery of orders, significantly reducing their competitiveness.  Either way, they are guaranteed to increase their share of a multi-billion dollar industry.  Who would be hurt?  The smaller distributors, of course.  But also restaurants, retailers and consumers, who would see their selection and service decline and prices rise, and the thousands of smaller wineries like Tablas Creek who are represented by these smaller distributors.

Dustups like this provide further evidence of the widsom of the founding fathers, who through the commerce clause of the US Constitution reserve for the federal government the power to regulate interstate commerce.  Seeing the convoluted patchwork of legislation that has resulted from the 21st Amendment's promise to allow states control over how alcohol is regulated and sold within their borders should be evidence enough for anyone.

Meanwhile, if you are in New York, or know anyone who is, please contact your state senator this week through the interface at and encourage them to oppose "at rest" legislation.