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October 2013
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December 2013

Winterizing the vineyard as we wait and hope for rain

By Levi Glenn

The falling leaves mark the commencement of the “slow time” of the year in the vineyard. Harvest is in the rear-view mirror. All the grapes have been fermented and the wines are resting comfortably in their respective vessels, yet one last series of tasks needs to be completed. We have come to call this winterization, and it has nothing to do with new wiper blades or antifreeze. Our tasks include ripping the soil, discing, applying compost, seeding cover-crop, and spreading straw bales. In a normal year it’s a race against the clock. The rain usually arrives at some point in November (we’ve only received 0.59 inches so far), after which it becomes a lot harder to get our tractors into the vineyard. With the tractors darting around the property, it can almost look choreographed. One tractor will broadcasting compost, a second closely behind with a disc to incorporate the compost and aerate the soil, and a third tractor bringing up the rear with seed drill to sow our cover-crop. It takes us close to a month to finish it all up, and that’s when we can really sit down and take a breather.

On a good portion of our vineyard we use our Yeomans Plow. This consists of a three-shank ripper and a roller behind it. There seems to be no end to benefits of this tool. We use it to break-up soil compaction, which is caused mostly by our long, dry summers, but contributed to by our tractorsand even the winter rainfall, depending on the physical composition of the soil. It simultaneously aerates the root zone allowing the roots to breathe and spread more easily, and it trims surface roots forcing the roots to grow downwards instead of into the row middles (allowing us to dry-farm more effectively). On our steepest head trained, dry-farmed blocks we also use it for erosion control. By ripping across the hill, any run-off that may occur sinks down the trenches left by the shanks, allowing us to retain water rather than having it run off down hill. The only drawback to this tool is the amount of rock that it pulls out of the soil, that we then have to remove by hand. The Yeomans has become an invaluable tool in the vineyard.

The Yeomans Plow mounted to the tractor.

Ripped 2
Newly ripped ground in a young dry-farmed Grenache block

Organic compost is at the very center of our nutritional program at Tablas Creek Vineyard. For many blocks this is the only fertilization they receive for the entire year. Our application rates vary from 2-5 tons/acre. This may sound like a huge amount, but an acre is a big area, and as you walk behind the spreader you can see only a scattering of compost on the ground. We make around 100 tons of compost each year from own property. We collect all the vine prunings from the vineyard and run them through a wood chipper, then throw in all the pomace from the winemaking process, and lastly add green waste from tree trimming. All of these ingredients are put into a pile and turned every couple months. Microbes in the raw materials break down all this organic matter into compost, which takes close to a year to finish. We can’t make enough compost ourselves, so we purchase another 250 tons from organic sources to supplement our own. The compost gives the plants a little boost of nitrogen, which helps their growth, but just as importantly introduces an immense quantity of microbes. Even better, compost has a time-release effect, and not all the nutrition will be used up right away. This year’s compost will feed the vines for 3 years, and since we apply every year, the vines receive a compounding effect.

Trekker spreader
A spreader full of organic compost ready to be applied.

50 Tons of newly delivered organic compost.

Throughout the whole estate vineyard we seed cover-crop. We use a seed drill, which creates a small furrow in the soil and drops a selected amount of the seed a couple inches below the soil surface. The seed mixes we use are mostly made up of legumes, but also have some barley and other grasses. Legumes have the unique ability to pull nitrogen from the atmosphere and process it and actually put it back into the soil. The grasses are mostly for erosion control. As the seeds start to germinate, their roots penetrate into the soil and help hold onto the little topsoil that we have. Perhaps the most beneficial aspect of cover cropping is harnessing the immense amount of greenery that grows between the vine rows. Once we till this cover crop back into the soil in the spring we increase the percentage of organic matter in our soil. Organic matter improves soil nutrition, water holding capacity, microbial activity and soil structure. Increasing organic matter in soil is what farmers refer to as “building soil”. With different seed mixes we get different flowers that bloom and attract good bugs, and the more species of plants the more diversity of microbes we have in our soil.  A side-benefit is that a cover-crop allows us to choose the plants that grow in the winter, and cut down on invasive and troublesome species of weeds such as yellow starthistle.

Seed mix Seed bag
Left, a handful of cover-crop seed. The round ones are legumes and the oval ones are grasses.  Right, organic Soil-Max seed mix

Cover popping
Newly-germinated cover crop in January 2013

Cat + seeder
A Catapilar D-6 with a large seed drill on our new property

We only have one last thing to do before we are fully buttoned-down for winter. On the steeper dirt access roads between vineyard blocks, winter rainfall can cause serious erosion problems, but plowing across the slope or planting with cover crops aren't really feasible. So we spread straw in a thin layer across these areas. The straw slows down the water, and helps distribute the force of the heavy rainfall. Only the steepest of spots are in jeopardy. Once it rains a couple times, grass germinates and grows up through the straw, further reinforcing these sensitive areas.

Standing at the top of New Hill, straw in place. December 2012

Straw 2
Straw protecting the avenue between the French grenache and Mt. Mourvedre from erosion. January 2013

Just a week ago we finished up with all of our various winterization tasks. The winter slumber can now begin. It's on to building more rock walls and waiting for the rain. Even with average rainfall from here on out, we will most likely still suffer some drought conditions in 2014. As of today we are at just 16% of normal rainfall. This is making most growers quite axious right now, in a time that would usually be the more restful. It wont be until February that our next big task of pruning begins. Hopefully between now and then all of our erosion control efforts actully get put to use. In any case, the rest will be much appreciated.

Wine on tap: an idea whose time has (finally) come

In 2010, I wrote a blog post with the title "the appeal of wine in keg, and an appeal to the restaurants who want it".  In it, I lamented that despite keg wine's appeal in terms of freshness, cost savings and environmental responsibility, there hadn't been enough adoption around a single standard to allow a producer like us to even know what sort of keg to buy, let alone to put the infrastructure in place to economically get empty kegs back to us after a restaurant has finished with the wine.


Fast forward three years.  This year, we'll sell over 500 cases of wine in keg, split between our three Patelin wines.  Next year, we're projecting that we'll increase that to 1200 cases.  It's still a small portion of our overall production but between the explosive growth, the fact that every ounce of this wine is being poured by the glass, and the fact that it's the coolest new restaurants and wine bars that are choosing to install keg systems, it's one of the most exciting developments in our business in recent years.  All that on top of the benefits that I identified three years ago:

  • Freshness: The wine that is poured out of a keg is replaced by an inert gas, which means that it doesn't oxidize.  If the number of by-the-glass wines I order that are oxidized is indicative, there are an awful lot of wines out there not showing to the winery's (or to the restaurant's) advantage.
  • Waste: Restaurants expect to dump out the unused ends of most opened bottles at the end of each night, and the rest of any bottle that's been open multiple days.  This adds up; restaurants I've spoken to estimate they may waste 25% or more of their glass pours this way.  Keg wines are good down to their last pour.
  • Sustainability: The bottles, capsules, corks and labels that help preserve, identify and market a wine between barrel and glass are temporary enclosures, that will be discarded when the bottle is consumed.  That's a lot of resources tied up in something whose only purpose is to be used and thrown away (or recycled).  Kegs eliminate it all, and when empty are returned to be washed and reused.
  • Cost: All that packaging doesn't come free.  We pay on average $22 per case to package our Patelin de Tablas wines.  Sure, you have to buy (or rent) kegs, but the cost is less than the cost of the equivalent packaging, assuming you have a reliable way of getting the kegs back.

The industry has standardized around 18.9 liter (essentially 5 gallon) stainless steel kegs, hooked up to tap systems that replace the wine that's poured out of the keg with a mix of Nitrogen and Carbon Dioxide.  This inert gas protects the remaining wine from oxygenation, but is different from a beer kegging system in that the contents are not under pressure.  Each keg contains the equivalent volume to 26 bottles of wine, which means that for the 240 kegs we've sold so far this year we've avoided having to produce, ship and discard some 6240 bottles, labels and capsules, as well as the cardboard for 520 case boxes and inserts.  That's good both for the environment and for our bottom line.

It hasn't been an easy road here.  In 2011 and 2012, when we began to keg our Patelin wines for California accounts, we did it all in house.  We set aside a volume of each wine at bottling time, stored in stainless steel barrels, bought a supply of kegs, filled them here and shipped the first batch off to Regal WIne Company, who distributes our wines in California.  So far, easy.  But it turned out that even  with Regal's enthusiastic support it was difficult to get the supply chain to work in reverse, and impossible to get ahead of the growth curve economically.

First, the supply chain issues.  All the shipping infrastructure for California wine is designed to take product away from a winery and bring it first to a distributor warehouse and then to restaurant and retail accounts.  Regal had to install a tracking system, charge a keg deposit to accounts that ordered the kegs, and train their delivery team (and their restaurant buyers) to return empty kegs after their contents had been poured out.  Then we needed to wait until a critical mass of empty kegs had been returned to Regal and schedule a truck to go pick them up.  The kegs, by this time, had accumulated various delivery and return stickers on them and needed more than a simple washing to get them in shape for the next filling and delivery: old labels and delivery instructions needed to be scraped off with razors, the kegs needed to be disassembled and sterilized, and then reassembled and filled by hand.  The process took the two members of the cellar team the better part of a day for 25 kegs, which not only eliminated our cost savings from the foregone packaging, but was also difficult or impossible in busy stretches of harvest.

Second, the growth curve.  We found that for every new account that started pouring Tablas Creek by the glass, we needed to buy about 6 more kegs: one currently on tap, two empty but either not yet returned to the distributor or accumulating at the distributor and not yet returned to us, one full and in the wings at the restaurant for when the tapped keg is empty, and then two in inventory waiting for the reorder, since if Regal couldn't guarantee some continuity in inventory, the accounts mostly couldn't justify changing their menus.  Each empty, new keg cost us around $120.  We passed along about $20 of the roughly $40 in savings from eliminated packaging, lowering the price by $20 and using the other $20 to cover costs of purchasing, cleaning, filling and shipping kegs.  The problem was that kegs weren't being sold, poured, and returned to us fast enough to amortize their purchase cost before we needed to purchase more kegs to meet the new demand.  We had counted on the average time between fillings for a keg being around 90 days, which meant that we'd make back the cost of each new keg in a year and a half.  In reality, it averaged around 180 days, doubling the amortization period.  And our shipping costs, to pay for trucks to bring empty kegs back here and (once refilled) back up to the distributor, ended up higher than expected.

Finally, the system that we'd developed was never going to work outside of California.  If it was tough getting kegs back to us in a timely and economical manner in-state, from our largest distributor with whom we have a wonderful working relationship, it was clear that it was never going to work out-of-state, where the volumes of wine we sell are an order of magnitude less than in California and where the shipping distances are longer.

Enter Free Flow Wines.  This company is the brainchild of Jordan Kivelstadt and Dan Donahoe, and is the first serious attempt to apply economies of scale to the logistical challenges of selling wine in keg.  They work with about 100 wineries, who send Free Flow their wine in bulk, rent kegs from Free Flow's large inventory, and then outsource the keg filling to the experts there.  Free Flow has a working relationship with over 100 distributors, and will sign out ordered kegs to these distributors, track them until their return, and automatically charge and credit keg deposits.  Between the 100 wineries there is critical mass of that makes it economically viable to send a truck to retrieve empty kegs from these often far-flung distributor warehouses.  We started working with Free Flow earlier this year, and kegs have gone from being one of our constant headaches (albeit one that we were willing to deal with for the other benefits we saw) to a channel whose contribution might be as positive for our bottom line as it is for the wine we sell through that channel.

And that wine quality?  Impressive.  How impressive was driven home to us earlier this year when a return shipment of empty kegs included a keg of our 2010 Patelin de Tablas that was only half-empty.  We hadn't sold this wine in at least 9 months at the time, and the keg could have been out as long a 18 months.  Evidently some account took the keg off tap and stashed it somewhere, eventually finding it and returning it to Regal to recoup their keg deposit.  It was with some trepidation that we tapped the keg to see how the wine was tasting, but we needn't have worried.  It tasted like it had come out of a fresh bottle, even most of a year later, not temperature controlled, half-full.  If we'd needed a demonstration of the quality of this storage and service system, that did it.

Now, to the advantages in wine quality, economics, and resource conservation, we can add another: scalability.  It's about time.


Who says Americans don't age wine?

I've written before, in a handful of contexts, about what a great tool I think CellarTracker is.  I use it to monitor what our customers are saying about our wines, to track when wines seem to be going through dumb stages, and to look in on how some wines I don't open that often are aging.  My starting point is typically a survey of tasting notes on Tablas Creek, sorted by date. In a recent search I noticed that several people have opened and written up our 2006 Esprit de Beaucastel in the last month or so.  That's hardly surprising; it's the library vintage of Esprit that we sent out to our Collector's Edition wine club members last month, and the wine's arrival to some 750 club recipients likely spurred at least some of those new tasting notes.

One thing I noticed in the search is that of the 2050 bottles of the 2006 Esprit that have been entered into CellarTracker, 1287 of them (63%) are still in cellars, while only 37% have been consumed.  I wondered whether or not that had been influenced by the fact that the wine is a new arrival for many customers, so I checked some other vintages and found that the 2006 is in line with other vintages around it:

Percent of Esprit Consumed
The data from 2000 (when there were only 347 bottles entered into CellarTracker, most of them, presumably, some time after they were purchased) looks to me like an outlier, and we didn't make an Esprit de Beaucastel in 2001, but starting in 2002 the data looks pretty regular, with well over 1000 bottles entered each year.  Not only does the data show that it's not until about a decade out that half of the entered bottled are drunk, but It also seems to show that consumers are following our advice to wait on particularly big, structured vintages (like 2005, 2007 and 2009) and instead drink the more open vintages from the even-numbered years.

I find it heartening that even in our oldest vintages of Esprit, released a decade ago or more, at least 40% of the bottles entered into the CellarTracker system have yet to be consumed.  I did a few spot-checks to see whether it's only this wine that people are saving, and found that CellarTracker customers are in aggregate behaving in a rational manner: drinking up the wines that are meant to be drunk young but aging wines (both reds and whites) that are worthy of aging.  A few of these data points, from least to most ageworthy:

  • Rosé/Dianthus: 2012 47% consumed; 2011 73% consumed; 2010 76% consumed
  • Vermentino: 2012 19% consumed; 2011 51% consumed; 2010 66% consumed
  • Esprit Blanc: 2010 23% consumed; 2006 56% consumed; 2003 72% consumed
  • Cotes de Tablas: 2010 35% consumed; 2008 64% consumed; 2005 72% consumed
  • Panoplie: 2010 6% consumed; 2007 9% consumed; 2004 25% consumed

Can we reconcile this evidence with the much-reported trope that the vast majority of wine purchased (between 70% and 90%) is consumed within 24 hours of its purchase?  Perhaps not.  The average CellarTracker user is clearly not the average wine drinker; there is a level of self-selection in the person who would choose a cellar management tool.  Those who do not routinely age wine are unlikely to need a tool to manage their wine inventories.

But I think it's a larger mistake -- and one that leads many winemakers to incorrect winemaking assumptions -- to assume that there is a single type of wine consuming American, who doesn't like to age their wines.  From talking to our customers, it's clear that there is a significant audience for whom cellaring wine is an important pastime, and that the 285,000 active users of CellarTracker are just a fraction of that number. 

Are there millions of wine consumers who wouldn't dream of cellaring a bottle for a decade?  Sure.  Should this matter to a winery like us?  I'm not convinced.  We're a relatively small winery with a direct relationship with more than half of the 50,000 customers we need each year to keep us going.  And the wine consuming market is tremendously heterogeneous.  Just as there are millions of wine consumers who drink nothing but sweet wines, or nothing but wines under $10, or nothing that requires a corkscrew, there is a market of millions who have the means and interest in buying ageworthy wines.  Heck, 2.8 million people read each issue of Wine Spectator, for a start.  It's great that there are wines that are directed at the wine drinker who wants immediate gratification.  But that's not the only market out there, and my sense is that the wine lover who wants to get to know a wine over time, and who enjoys the developing arc of a wine's personality as it ages, makes up a larger percentage of the American public than is routinely acknowledged. 

And thank goodness for that.

An appealing new idea for charity wine auctions

At 6pm tonight, this year's Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance Auction will begin.  It's not a swanky black-tie gala with big-name chefs under the stars.  It's not preceded by a tasting where 300 of local society's leading lights are wined and dined (mostly wined) in the hopes of loosening their wallets.  It's not prequalified with a $150 ticket to get in the door.  Instead, it's online, on eBay:


You may hesitate at first, but... isn't that a good thing, and refreshing?  Don't we want more than 300 people to see (and bid on) the packages we as a region are donating?  Doesn't it sound appealing to market to EBay's 100 million active users?  Don't we want the proceeds to go to our charitable partners rather than the overhead of flying in chefs, renting tables, linens, etc.?  And don't we want mostly to bring support to our community from outside, rather than (or at least in addition to) going back to the same local charitable stalwarts?

I asked the PRWCA's Executive Director Jennifer Porter why she made the change and found her responses fascinating: "We changed to online because we weren't drawing an out-of-market bidder to the live auction," instead "relying on members and our community to donate lots, buy tickets and buy lots back. That, plus the high cost of running the event, just didn't seem to make sense".  Other local regional wine groups, most notably Monterey, have canceled their auctions for this reason, but Jen didn't want to do that.

She found the idea from her former career in entertainment.  While she was working with Comedy Central, the Colbert Report auctioned off pieces of their set using the same company (Auction Cause) that the PRWCA will be using.  Although she is not aware of any other regional wine associations to make the move to eBay, the James Beard Association is doing so currently, so it's not unknown in the world of food and wine.

Key to Jen's decision was a reflection on the mission of the PRWCA itself: promotion of the area.  Chiefly because the audience was mostly drawn from long-time fans of Paso Robles, Jen thought that "the live auction format was not achieving the goal of promotion".

The Paso Robles wine community has always been ready in its support of our local auction, but whether because of the new format or because of the outreach that the Alliance has done, this year's auction packages seem particularly exciting, including things like "Live Like William Randolph Hearst" (including a stay on the coast, a private tour of Hearst Castle and a case of wine), "Wine Country by Air" (including a private helicopter tour of Paso Robles wine country and a barrel tasting, blending session and private dinner at a great local winery), and "Music and Memorable Experiences" (including a private guitar lesson, CD and wine vertical from a local winemaker/musician, a wine country picnic and dinner and a deluxe room at one of our local hotels).

What are we donating? The complete Tablas Creek experience: a private vineyard tour, tasting and dinner with me and my dad, with wines out of his cellar, transportation provided by The Wine Wrangler,  and a one year membership in our Collector’s Edition Wine Club, which includes 18 bottles of reserve and library wines.  

To bid on this year's efforts, visit between now and November 17th.

Since 2006, the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance has contributed more than $350,000 to a range of local community organizations.  This move online seems to me to be well positioned to allow us to continue to be a powerful supporter of our local charities while also bringing more people into the process.  What do you think?  Will you be a part of it?  Please share, in the comments.