Selecting the library wines for the 2012 Collector's Edition
Compost Tea: a Power Shake for the Vineyard

Reflecting on a decade of Esprit de Beaucastel

This week we're bottling the 2010 Esprit de Beaucastel.  About 2000 cases are going into national distribution. Another 1000 will go out to our wine club. 1500 will be allocated to our tasting room.  500 will go into our long-term library for later release.  Some of the cases, palletized and ready to be picked up this morning:

Esprit 2010 in 6-packs

This is our tenth vintage of the Esprit red, though it doesn't seem possible to me that it's been that long.  Of course, it doesn't seem possible to me that I just turned 39, either.  But reflecting back, a lot has changed in that decade.  When we bottled the first Esprit in the summer of 2002, Tablas Creek was in a very different place.

That summer we were coming to terms with the fact that for all our care in choosing our site, importing our clones, and making wine in a manner consistent with Beaucastel, we'd been wildly optimistic with our estimates of how easy our wines would be to sell.

Some of the challenges we faced, at the time:

  • Blends were still an uphill battle. Non-varietal wines, particularly those that weren't a traditional Bordeaux-style blend, were typically consigned to the "other" section of wine lists and the least desirable -- and often unlabeled -- locations in retail.  The fact that our first wines were called, rather unhelpfully, Rouge and Blanc didn't help things.
  • Rhone varieties, at least those from America, were still a very minor category.  Robert Parker's first comprehensive reviews of California Rhones didn't come out until February 2002 (Issue #139) when he declared "No wine category in California has grown as much as the appropriately named 'Rhône Rangers'". That same year, the Wine Spectator wrote a feature article titled "California Rhones Arrive", though the category was small enough that the accompanying "top scoring California Rhone-Style Wines" sidebar shows only 10 wines that topped 90 points.  Still, it took some time for the excitement about this new category to percolate down to the wholesale, restaurant, retail and consumer levels.
  • Paso Robles was still relatively unknown.  Parker had just visited the area for the first time in late 2001, and his first coordinated reviews of the area appeared in his Rhone Rangers piece in 2002.  In the Wine Advocate's first 138 issues, although the region had had the occasional wine reviewed, the words "Paso Robles" did not appear in a single article.

Despite the headwinds detailed above, we'd been working under the old-fashioned European model, where marketing was not a primary consideration for wineries, and tended to be left to agents or distributors.  We'd come to the uncomfortable conclusion that this model wasn't working, at least not when we grew beyond the few thousand cases of wine we made in our first couple of vintages.  In 2002, the year I moved out here, we sold a little over 4,000 cases of wine.  And we made about 12,000.  Of course, you don't sell wine the same year you make it, but if we were struggling to sell the 5,000 - 8,000 cases we'd made in recent vintages, it was clear that we needed to take a much more active approach in our own marketing. 

So we started pushing every way we could think of.  We opened our tasting room.  We started our wine club.  We began to participate in many more events, to spread the word about Tablas Creek to consumers.  We set up work with our distributors and agents around the country, to spread the word to the wine trade.  We reached out to our export agents.  And slowly, with help from many quarters, we turned things around.  A few of the key drivers:

  • The media came on board with Paso Robles in a serious way. Looking at Parker's annual reviews after his cautious beginning in 2002, you can feel him getting more and more excited about the region's potential, and by 2005 was confident enough to declare "there is no queston that, a decade from now, the top viticultural areas of Santa Barbara, Santa Rita Hills, and the limestone hillsides west of Paso Robles will be as well-known as the glamorous vineyards of Napa Valley." Other press would follow, with notable features on Paso between 2005 and 2007 in Decanter, Bon Appétit, Wine Enthusiast, Gourmet, Wine Spectator, Sunset, Decanter (again) and Food & Wine.
  • The Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance did incredible work in promoting the region.  Not only did they bring media into the area, they coordinated a road show that has brought scores of Paso Robles wineries to dozens of stops around the country and touched thousands of trade and consumers, and they began an advertising campaign that raised the region's profile tremendously.  I've written before on the impact of the PRWCA, and I think that it's worth reiterating that the way they've been able to raise the region's profile while keeping a diverse collection of stakeholders united has been remarkable.
  • The Rhone Rangers category has become much higher profile, and increasingly associated with the Paso Robles region.  The media, particularly Robert Parker, played key roles in this, of course, but two organizations have also had a big impact. The wonderful Hospice du Rhone festival, based in Paso Robles, brought exceptionally high profile media, trade and consumers to town each April, and created a strong association between Paso Robles and high-end Rhones.  And The Rhone Rangers have brought the word about Rhones to major markets around the country, including San Francisco and Los Angeles each year and regular stops in Seattle, Washington, DC and (this year) New York.  Over the decade I've been involved, Paso Robles wineries have grown from about 10% of the Rhone Rangers membership to its current level of nearly 40%.  This growth is reflective of real changes in what is in the ground in Paso Robles, driven at least in part by our own decision to settle here, but the region has also been successful at self-identifying with Rhones. Paso Robles wineries put together the first local chapter of Rhone Rangers, back in 2005.  Sadly, Hospice du Rhone announced recently that their 2012 celebration in Paso Robles would be their last, but I got the sense that one of the main reasons was a feeling on the part of its organizers that it had largely achieved what it set out to do.
  • The Sideways Effect.  Although we didn't see a direct benefit (we don't make Pinot Noir and we aren't in Santa Barbara Wine Country) we saw several powerful indirect effects.  The most important, in my opinion, was that the movie popularized and personalized the experience of going out wine tasting, which benefited wineries everywhere.  We also saw a surge of dedicated Southern California wine lovers who skipped the tourist-overrun venues of the Santa Ynez Valley in the couple of years after the movie's release and came, many for the first time, to Paso Robles.  Finally, the message that there are wineries outside of Napa and grape varieties other than Cabernet, Chardonnay and (of course!) Merlot helped all of us in California's less-well-known regions making California's less-planted grapes.

In those early days, I spent a lot of time on the road, showing people the wines, telling the story, encouraging restaurants and retailers to take a flyer on wines that they themselves would have to work to sell.  That so many did and have become regular customers still humbles me.  That we've moved from having to sell each case one at a time to having to allocate our cases so that they don't all get snapped up by a handful of accounts amazes me.

Thank you to all of you who have joined us on this journey.  A decade in, the best is still yet to come.  Cheers!

Bottling 2010 esprit 2