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September 2017

Harvest 2017, the Beginning

By Brad Ely

[Editor's Note: With this post, we welcome Brad Ely, Tablas Creek's Cellar Master, to the Tablas blog.]

Friday marked the first day of harvest for us here at Tablas Creek. A whopping 8.72 tons of Viognier for the Patelin Blanc. This is just the soft start of our busiest season in the cellar. Soon the sweet smell of fermentation will be wafting from full tanks, our hands will be stained purple, and we will be busy with the task of guiding grapes through their transformation into wine.

Harvest is the culmination of an entire year’s worth of work in the vineyard. A year of sunshine, rain, wind, temperature fluctuations, frosty mornings, heat waves, all having an effect on the character of the next vintage in bottle. Countless hours of work, making sure the vines produce the best fruit possible. Our job in the winery is not to mess it up. Once the fruit is placed on our doorstep, the vineyard’s work for the year is done.  The vines can rest, and begin dreaming of winter hibernation. Now it is our time, our opportunity, to create something spectacular.

We have been preparing the winery for the last month, cleaning harvest equipment, pressure washing fruit bins, rebuilding pumps, making sure presses work, and tanks are sanitized. We have purchased supplies, new winemaking toys, and tools to fix the new toys when they inevitably break. At times it feels like preparing for battle, making sure every detail of preparedness has been taken care of. Our goal is to come out victorious, with new wines that have reached their maximum potential as our spoils. (Perhaps I have been watching too much Game of Thrones.)

We have also been preparing ourselves, both mentally and physically. We desire harvest to run smoothly, like a well-oiled machine. That means we need to be as equally prepared as the winery. Safety training, CPR and first aid certifications, training of excited interns, revisiting our standards and procedures for everything harvest related. The row of machines dedicated to supplying artificial energy has appeared in the lab. A coffee pot, espresso machine, and even an iced tea maker, to help us grind through the longest days.  Soon a beautiful leg of cured Spanish ham will appear, fondly known as “The Stinker”, for our snacking delight. The fridge has been stocked with cold libations to help us keep our sanity at the end of a hard day's work.  

We rejoice with the opportunity to stop shaving, (the men anyways) not worrying about looking presentable to the general public. The slow process of transforming into cave men has begun. We have had our last suppers and bits of summer vacation, both friends and family knowing we will be out of social commission for the next few months. Every bit of down time will be needed for sleep, a decent meal, and perhaps a stab at the pile of dirty, grape-stained laundry looming in the corner of the bedroom.

Relationships will be built, friendships made, stories told, and also created. So many hours spent with one another provides a connection deeper than the average 9 to 5 workday experience. Musical tastes will emerge, and then be sub sequentially suppressed by the opposition.  Senses of humor will arise, movie quotes rehearsed, dirty jokes told, and a few curse words may take flight. We have come together with a common objective, to raise wines through the start of their long journey to our dinner table. If we are successful, we will enter harvest as a team, and exit as family.

Harvest is the best time of year. Tensions are high, and so are emotions of excitement and thrill. Creating fine wine is an exhilarating feeling matched by very few experiences in life. It is the perfect combination of science and nature, with opportunity for artistic expression every step of the way. Hopes, dreams, and aspirations of creating something magical gain traction around every corner.

This morning, we way our first day of red fruit, beautiful clusters of Pinot Noir that will ultimately become the Full Circle. Perhaps an ironic foreshadowing of what harvest will signify for the vineyard? The last arc in the annual circle it takes on its mission to produce the world’s most noble beverage.

Meanwhile, we'll celebrate the beginning, in style.


Photos of each Rhone grape as harvest nears, and an updated harvest assessment

I've spent a lot of time the last week or two out in the vineyard. Some of that is because I was gone for a chunk of July and wanted to make sure that I understood what had happened in my absence. Some of that is because we've had several visitors who wanted to get their shoes dusty and see where things really come from. And part of it is that we're close to (maybe just a day or two away from) launching a beautiful new mobile-responsive Web site, and I've been looking for great images to populate the site with.

One of the results has been an ongoing Twitter thread where, each evening, I've posted one close-up cluster photo, working through all the grapes we have growing in the vineyard. That's been fun, but now that I have them all, I thought it would be fun to share them all here on the blog. We have a larger portfolio to work with than we did the last time I did this (in 2014). This year, our three newest grapes, Terret Noir, Clairette Blanche, and Picardan, are ready for their photo ops. So, without further ado, in the order we expect to pick:

Viognier

We expect to get our first estate Viognier into the cellar this week.  It's looking ready, berries are softening, and it's sweet. And the vines themselves look bursting with health, with some canes ten feet long. Off we go!

Viognier

Vermentino

Vermentino, with its distinctive coloration and citrusy aromas, typically vies with Viognier for first into the cellar. This year, it seems a little behind, but we should still see it the first week of September.

Vermentino

Syrah

We expect to get our first Syrah in a couple of weeks. This cluster (whose photo I took two weeks ago) still shows a couple of green berries, but in my walk this morning I didn't see any green in Syrah, and the berries were starting to soften. With this week's hot weather, we're not far out. 

Syrah

Marsanne

We're looking forward to better yields off our Marsanne, which have been punishingly low the past two years. This year's crop looks better, and the honeydew melon flavors that come through in the wines already in evidence in the berries. We're likely to see this mid-September:

Marsanne

Grenache Blanc

Grenache Blanc will likely take a while to pick, given that we have it planted in a number of different places and that how advanced it is seemed pretty variable to me as I walked around the vineyard.  We'll likely start in early September, but might not see it all in until the end of the month:

Grenache Blanc

Clairette Blanche

Clairette ripens typically in the middle of the cycle, and we'll expect it in late September sometime. But it already looks good, with the acidity that makes it so valuable as a blending component in evidence: 

Clairette

Grenache

Grenache is always surprisingly late to go through veraison, and even now, a week after I took the photo below, it's not hard to find pink berries in the Grenache blocks. At the same time, they've already accumulated a fair amount of sugar, and Grenache seems to take less time than most grapes between full veraison and harvest. We should see our first Grenache lots in mid- to late-September, but our last lots not until mid-October. 

Grenache

Picardan

I'm guessing a bit here, given that we've only harvested Picardan once.  But it came in fairly late last year, and we expect to bring it in right at the September/October cusp most years. 

Picardan

Tannat

Tannat is easy, in lots of ways. It is relatively late to sprout (protecting it from our spring frosts), it's sturdy and rugged in the vineyard, it ripens evenly, and it harvests right in the middle of the cycle, typically in early October.

Tannat

Terret Noir

We're still learning about Terret, but given that it tends to be high in both acid and tannin, and low in sugar, we try to wait it out. We should be getting it in in early October.

Terret

Picpoul

Picpoul, which gets its name from the root word for "to sting" is renowned for its ability to retain acidity. And our climate and soils here in Paso Robles exaggerate this tendency. So, as nice as it looks in this photo, we're a long way from when we expect pick it in early- to mid-October.

Picpoul

Roussanne

Roussanne is a little like Grenache Blanc, in that we'll likely pick it over a month or more.  I expect that we'll see our first "cherry pick" lots of the ripest clusters before the end of September, but might not see the last lots until late October.

Roussanne

Counoise

The cluster below is unusually advanced for the vineyard; our average Counoise cluster is only about 50% through with veraison.  And it doesn't hurry even after it's done; we expect to wait until mid-October to pick.

Counoise

Mourvedre

We have a lot of Mourvedre out there, in various stages of ripening.  Some, like the photo below, are mostly through veraison.  Others are still half green. And even once it's through veraison, Mourvedre takes longer than any of our other grapes to get to ripeness, so we probably won't see the first picks until early October, and the last until late October or early November.

Mourvedre

A quick note about this week's hot weather and an updated vintage assessment

Although we've brought in a little fruit for our Patelin de Tablas program (well, only Viognier for the Patelin Blanc so far), we haven't yet picked anything off the estate.  But given that it's forecast to reach 105 every day this week, things are going to move fast.  It's not ideal to have this blast of hot weather during harvest, but we think the vineyard is as well prepared for it as it could be, given the health of the vines and the vigor from last winter's generous rainfall.

Even with the speedup spurred by the heat, we're still looking at our latest onset of harvest since 2012, and nearly two weeks later than our earliest-ever start, last year.  My assessment that we were going to start about a week earlier than our 15-year average (September 4th) seems right on target.


Tasting the wines in the Fall 2017 VINsider Club shipments

Each spring and fall, we send out a selection of six wines to the members of our VINsider Wine Club.  In many cases, these are wines that only go out to our club.  In others, the club gets a first look at wines that may see a later national release. Before each shipment, we reintroduce ourselves to these wines (which, in some cases, we may not have tasted since before bottling) by opening the full lineup and writing the notes that will be included with the club shipments. Late last week, I sat down with our winemakers Neil Collins and Chelsea Franchi and we dove into this fall's collection. For what we found, read on.

We base the fall shipments around the newest releases of the Esprit de Tablas and Esprit de Tablas Blanc, and this fall's shipment is no exception. In addition, this year we reached back into our library to include not just the newest 2015 Esprit de Tablas, but also a bottle of the 2013 Esprit de Tablas that has been showing so well recently.  I'm excited to hear the feedback that we get.  

The classic shipment includes six different wines:

Fall 2017 Classic NC 2

2016 COTES DE TABLAS BLANC

  • Production Notes: Although production levels on Viognier recovered significantly from 2015's record low levels, Marsanne continued to be exceptionally scarce, and all our Marsanne represented only 14% of the wine.  So, while the wine is as always led by Viognier, it is unusually marked by Grenache Blanc: 43% Viognier, 40% Grenache Blanc, 14% Marsanne, and 3% Roussanne. That additional tension and citrus character from Grenache Blanc's acidity is in evidence in the tasting notes.  The selected lots were blended in March 2017, and the wine was bottled -- under screwcap, to preserve its brightness -- in June.
  • Tasting Notes: An intense nose of peach pit, wet rocks, white tea and tarragon. The mouth is really nicely balanced, as its initial brightness and flavors of nectarine, preserved lemon, and mineral turn richer on the mid-palate, with sweet spices coming out.  The finish brightens up again with notes of pink grapefruit and lemon verbena.  Drink now and for at least the next five years.
  • Production: 1840 cases.
  • List Price: $30 VINsider Price: $24

2016 GRENACHE BLANC

  • Production Notes: Like all our white grapes except Marsanne, 2016 saw yields recover to near-normal levels for Grenache Blanc. But that doesn't mean the fruit lacked for intensity, and we used high percentages of Grenache Blanc in both our Esprit de Tablas Blanc and Cotes de Tablas Blanc in 2016. For the varietal Grenache Blanc, we chose lots that were fermented in stainless steel (for brightness) and foudre (for roundness), then blended in March and bottled in June, 2017.
  • Tasting Notes: A nose of peppermint, lemon zest, petrichor, and anise... very Grenache Blanc. On the palate, flavors of candied lemon peel and apple skin provide a nice balance of weight and brightness. The grape's characteristic acids build on the finish, with flavors of sweet spice and mineral balanced by a pithy bite. Drink now and over the next few years.
  • Production: 715 cases.
  • List Price: $30 VINsider Price: $24

2015 ESPRIT DE TABLAS BLANC

  • Production Notes: The alternating quite warm and quite cool months during the 2015 ripening cycle produced an exceptionally long and varied Roussanne harvest, with many blocks producing lots with power and lushness, but relatively low acids. This made the vibrant acids of the Grenache Blanc and Picpoul Blanc components particularly critical in 2015. In the end, we maxed out our Picpoul Blanc for the first time since 2009, using every drop of Picpoul in the Esprit Blanc. We used a relatively low proportion of Roussanne (55%, fermented primarily in foudre) for weight and structure, and added high percentages of Grenache Blanc (28%, from foudre and stainless steel) and Picpoul Blanc (17%, from stainless steel) for citrusy acidity and saline freshness. As we have done since 2012, we let the blend age in foudre through the subsequent harvest before bottling it in January 2017 and aging it an additional 8 months in bottle before release.
  • Tasting Notes: Powerfully fruity and floral on the nose, with an exoticism reminiscent to me of Gewurztraminer: ripe melon, honeysuckle, vanilla bean, mace, and a little savory cedar spice. The mouth is rich and powerfully Roussanne despite its relatively low percentage, with flavors of baked pear, creme caramel, and baking spices. The acids build on the finish to a mango-like intensity. A fascinating, structured Esprit Blanc that should be a pleasure to watch evolve in bottle.  Already delicious, it should also go out 15 years or more and gain additional nuttiness and complexity with time.
  • Production: 1700 cases
  • List Price: $45 VINsider Price: $36

2015 EN GOBELET

  • Production Notes: Our eighth En Gobelet, a non-traditional blend all from head-trained, dry-farmed blocks, and mostly from the 12-acre block we call Scruffy Hill, planted in 2005 and 2006 to be a self-sufficient field blend. We have found that in our drought, our head-trained blocks suffer less than our closer-spaced irrigated blocks, and the wine didn't reflect the vintage's warmer moments, instead showing a darkness and a tension that denote a cooler vintage. We chose a blend of 39% Mourvedre, 29% Grenache, 18% Syrah, 11% Counoise and 3% Tannat. As usual, the small addition of head-trained Tannat proved valuable for its chalky tannins and deep flavors. The wine was blended in June of 2016, aged in foudre and bottled in April 2017.
  • Tasting Notes: Spicy and cool on the nose, to me marked by Syrah (or perhaps the cool vintage): black cherry, crushed rock, and meat: the "butter in a butcher shop" description my wife Meghan had the first time she tasted Syrah out of barrel. The palate is vibrant: more cherry, roasted herbs, rare steak, and both the flavor and texture of baker's chocolate. The long finish shows more mineral and a smoky fire-grilled meat dripping character I found immensely appealing. Give this six months, if you can, and then drink for the next two decades.
  • Production: 880 cases
  • List Price: $50 VINsider Price: $40

2015 ESPRIT DE TABLAS

  • Production Notes: The cool, windy weather that impacted flowering in 2015 was largely over by the time Mourvedre bloomed, and it ended up dodging the dramatically reduced yields that impacted most of our other varieties. This gave us comparatively a lot of Mourvedre -- and a lot of really terrific Mourvedre -- when we got to our blending trials in the spring.  In the end, we chose a blend with our highest percentage of Mourvedre (49%) since 2004. To this, we added  25% Grenache for juiciness and acidity, and relatively small portions of Syrah (21%, for structure) and Counoise (5%, for briary spice). The wine's components were fermented separately, then selected for the Esprit, blended in June 2016 and aged a year in foudre before bottling in June 2017. The overall low yields of 2015 made this our smallest-production Esprit since 2009.
  • Tasting Notes: The nose is immensely inviting: warm berry compote, given complexity by sun-drenched bay leaf and newly turned earth.  Mourvedre at its most appealing. The mouth is lush and dense, still quite tannic, with licorice, blackberry, and cedar notes. There is a Mourvedre-driven meatiness, but it's refined too, like a linebacker in a tuxedo. Young and bright on the finish, with lingering flavors of wood smoke, plum skin and spice.  The wine is still unwinding after its recent bottling; we recommend that you hold the 2015 Esprit for a few months, then drink either between 2018 and 2020 or again starting in 2023 any time over the subsequent two decades.
  • Production: 2850 cases
  • List Price: $55 VINsider Price: $44

2013 ESPRIT DE TABLAS

  • Production Notes: Like all the 2013 reds, the Esprit de Tablas shows the results of the vintage's combination of intensity from drought-reduced yields and generosity from the classic Californian vintage.  The comparative lushness of the year convinced us to shift the blend toward the dark, smoky, savoriness of Syrah as opposed to the open juiciness of Grenache.  Still, Esprit is as usual led by the red fruit, earth and mocha of 40% Mourvèdre, with additions of 28% Syrah, 22% Grenache and 10% Counoise. The wine's components were fermented separately, then selected for the Esprit, blended and aged a year in foudre before bottling in August 2015. In the two-plus years since its bottling, the wine has grown richer, with Mourvedre's saddle leather component coming more to the fore. It still has many years ahead of it.
  • Tasting Notes: The nose is now unfolding and deepening after two-plus years in bottle, with aromas of meat drippings, mint chocolate, plum, sweet spices, and a potpourri/spruce/rose hips brightness that shows Mourvedre's floral side. Chelsea described it as "like shade on a hot day".  The mouth is nicely balanced, with a spicy cherry skin character, leather, and a little figgy, caramelly warmth that reminded me of bread pudding. It's still quite a youthful wine, which should make for very good drinking for the next year or two, then likely shut down for a few years before reopening in 2020 or 2021 and drinking well for another fifteen plus years.
  • Production: 3700 cases
  • List Price: $60 VINsider Price: $48

Two additional wines joined the Cotes de Tablas Blanc, Grenache Blanc, and Esprit de Tablas Blanc in the white-only shipment:

White NC

2016 PICPOUL BLANC

  • Production Notes: The 2016 Picpoul Blanc is our ninth bottling of this traditional Southern Rhône white grape, used in Châteauneuf du Pape as a blending component, and best known from the crisp light green wines of the Pinet region in the Languedoc. On its own, it shows the vibrant acids for which it is valued, balanced by a tropical lushness from the generous Paso Robles climate.  We ferment it in a mix of stainless steel and neutral barrels, and use the majority of our production for our Esprit de Tablas Blanc, while reserving a small quantity for this varietal bottling.  The Picpoul lots were selected in March 2017, and bottled in June 2017.
  • Tasting Notes: A bright nose of mangosteen, passion fruit, key lime, citrus leaf, and a briny, wet rock mineral character. The mouth is richer but still bright: candied lime, lychee, and a little pithy tannic bite like a lemon meringue pie. Drink now and over the next few years.
  • Production: 250 cases
  • List Price: $30 VINsider Price: $24

2016 VIOGNIER

  • Production Notes: The productive, consistently high quality 2016 vintage allowed us to produce our first Viognier since 2013. Viognier, known more from the northern Rhone than the area around Chateauneuf du Pape, sprouts first of all our grapes, making it the most prone to frost, but was spared in 2016 and thrived throughout the growing season. It was whole cluster pressed and fermented in stainless steel, then blended and bottled in May 2017 in screwcap, to preserve its brightness. 
  • Tasting Notes: An incredibly appealing nose, classic Viognier with a little extra lift: jasmine flowers and peaches and lemon zest, meringue, and mint. The mouth is flavorful but restrained, more peach pit than peaches in syrup, with nice pithy acids and a touch of mintiness to keep things in balance. Just 12.9% alcohol. This should hold for a few years at least, but really, I can't imagine it being any better than it is right now.
  • Production: 175 cases
  • List Price: $35 VINsider Price: $28

Three additional reds joined the En Gobelet and the two Esprit de Tablas vintages in the red-only shipment:

Red NC

2015 COUNOISE

  • Production Notes: After no varietal Counoises between 2011 and 2013, this is the second consecutive year we've been able to make one. In 2015, like Mourvedre, Counoise's late flowering largely protected it from the cold May that produced low yields in our earlier varieties, and the vintage's alternating cool and warm months provided enough substance to balance Counoise's open-knit personality. It was fermented in stainless steel, aged in neutral barrels, and bottled -- under screwcap, to preserve its brightness -- in April of 2017. 
  • Tasting Notes: On the nose, red currant and curry spice sit on top of rose petals, watermelon rind and green plum. A similar balance between sweet and savory is found on the palate: elderberry, shiso, tangy acids and salty minerality. Bright cranberry flavors and a garrigue-like spice come out on the finish.  A pretty and intriguing wine: something to explore. You might serve this slightly chilled, as you would a Cru Beaujolais, and enjoy it any time in the next six to eight years.
  • Production: 200 cases
  • List Price: $35 VINsider Price: $28

2015 MOURVEDRE

  • Production Notes: Mourvedre is the one red grape that we try to bottle on its own each year, because we think it is a wonderful grape that too few people know, and one we feel worthy of some proselytizing.  Thankfully, Mourvedre was largely spared the 2015 vintage's low yields, and the numerous cool stretches and late harvest gave the grape good time to develop complexity. We fermented it in large wooden fermenters, then moved it to neutral barrels to await blending.  The Mourvedre was blended from selected lots in the spring of 2016, then aged in foudre until bottling in April of 2017.
  • Tasting Notes: Absolutely characteristic of Mourvedre's tension between deeper and more high-toned elements, with aromas balanced between plum and currant fruit, dark chocolate, and a little tarry darkness. The mouth is classically balanced, with Mourvedre's signature cool minty plum, loam, licorice and rare steak. The tannins come out on the finish, with a pithy, floral note that reminded me of orange bitters.  Still a baby.  Open a bottle now, if you'd like, but expect it to really shine between 2020 and 2030.
  • Production: 360 cases
  • List Price: $40 VINsider Price: $32

2015 FULL CIRCLE

  • Production Notes: 2015 is the sixth vintage of our Full Circle Pinot Noir, grown on the small vineyard outside Robert Haas's family home in Templeton, in the cool (for Paso) Templeton Gap AVA. Its name reflects his career: from a start introducing America to the greatness of Burgundy, through decades focusing on grapes from the Rhone, he's now growing Pinot at home. The grapes were fermented in one-ton microfermenters, half de-stemmed and half with stems for a more savory profile, punched down twice daily by hand. After pressing, the wine was moved into year-old Marcel Cadet 60-gallon barrels, for a hint of oak.  The wine stayed on its lees, stirred occasionally, for a year and a half before being blended and bottled in April 2017.
  • Tasting Notes: Notably Pinot on the nose: cherry cola, black tea, and a cool graphite-like minerality. The mouth is medium-weight, with sour cherry and baking spices, a little thyme-like herbiness from the stem inclusion, and a lightly tannic finish with nutmeg spice that felt to us like autumn. A wine to break out in front of a fire during the holidays. Drink now and over the next decade.
  • Production: 260 cases
  • List Price: $45 VINsider Price: $36

The tasting was a great way to hone in on the character of our two most recent vintages.  2015 is powerful and savory, with a noteworthy saltiness in the wines, showing the signature of a cooler, lower-yielding vintage. 2016 is sunnier in character, but I feel like we really nailed the picking dates last year, and the whites show good intensity and a vibrancy that is almost electric in its intensity.  I can't wait to get these wines in our club members' hands and find out what they think.

If you're a wine club member, you should make your reservation for our shipment tasting party, where we open all the wines in the most recent club shipment for VINsiders to try. This fall's party will be on Sunday, October 8th.  If you're not a wine club member, and you've read all this way, then why not join us while there's still a chance to get this fall shipment? Details and how to join are at tablascreek.com/wine_club/vinsider_club


Direct Shipping is not a Zero Sum Game

Earlier this year, I was having lunch in Boston with a key account manager from our Massachusetts distributor.  We were talking about what I'd done on my last visit, which included a really cool dinner at (sadly now closed) Blue Ginger that had such a large consumer response that they had to move the dinner into a larger room.  I also conducted a sold-out tasting seminar at the terrific retailer Gordon's in Waltham.  I mentioned that we'd sent news about the events out to our mailing list and wine club members, and that I thought this was a big reason why we'd gotten such a good turnout for the events.  His response took me by surprise, though it shouldn't have.  He said, "I know, we oppose direct shipping, but I guess it can have its uses."

I've been meaning ever since to write a blog post about how misunderstood direct shipping is among most actors in the wholesale market, and how short sighted their opposition to it is. After all, our wholesale business in Massachusetts is up 38% this year, and was up in 2016 and 2015 after nearly a decade of essentially flat sales.  Our Massachusetts wholesaler is on a pace to sell 55% more wine than it did in 2014.  Most businesses would kill for this sort of performance.  So, what turned things around?

Direct shipping opened in February of 2015, bringing Massachusetts into the growing majority of states.

Shipping State Animation

At first, it seems counter-intuitive that opening up a state to shipments of wines from wineries in other states should help the sales of that winery's wholesaler.  Doesn't each sale offset another in-state sale?  Not really.  Here's why the ability for a winery to ship to a state should generally increase their wholesale sales there:

  • Wineries are better able to make and cultivate fans. This, I think, makes a lot of sense, and it works in at least a few ways. Each year, a winery like ours sees visitors from every, or nearly every, state.  Of course, more are from California than anywhere else, and a disproportionate number are from the larger western states, but we see a few hundred visitors from a state like Massachusetts each year.  
    • If these visitors can't sign up for our wine club and can't order wine from us, it's a lot harder for us to establish a meaningful connection with them.  That means that when these people return home and see a Tablas Creek wine on a wine list or the shelf of a wine shop, we're less likely to have developed enough of a connection with them that they choose that wine over others.  
    • They are also less likely to bring Tablas Creek to friends' houses, and therefore the critical peer-to-peer market is harder to activate.  
    • I also think -- though this would be hard data to gather -- that shipping bans discourage wine tourism from those states, since those consumers are likely to experience some degree of frustration in getting any new discoveries home.
  • The wines that people order are not the same wines they buy at retail. The idea that consumers will exchange a purchase at their local shop for a purchase of the same bottle online is pretty far-fetched.  Consider why:
    • Wine is fundamentally a difficult product to ship direct to consumers.  It's heavy and perishable, which means that even if (like us) you subsidize the shipping costs, it's at least a few dollars per bottle to get that product shipped across the country.  Because it's alcohol, all packages have to be signed for upon delivery.  You have to wait at least a few days to get the wine.  And because of the mess left behind by Prohibition's repeal and the 21st Amendment's decree that states have the rights to legislate how they treat alcohol, wineries have to jump through significant legal and compliance hoops to get shipping permits.  The net result is that it's not worth it to ship inexpensive wines, or wines that have good representation in distribution, direct to consumers. The average price of a bottle of wine sold in the United States is about $7. Even with growing demand for higher-end wines, the vast majority of wines won't ever make sense to ship direct.  From a winery's perspective, it's not until you get to the $20 and up category where the shipping costs don't outweigh the extra margin a winery makes on a sale.
    • So, what sorts of wine do make sense for both wineries and consumers to order direct?  Those they can't find, or at least can't find nearby.  Direct shipping opens up the power and opportunities of long-tail marketing to wine lovers and producers.  We don't produce enough volume or have enough demand to have wines on the shelves of dozens of stores in each state outside of California.  So, in many cases, consumers don't have any Tablas Creek on the shelf anywhere near them.  And if they do, it's likely that what's easiest to find is our Patelin de Tablas line, which makes up about 70% of what we sell wholesale nationally.  What if they've read about our Vermentino, or our new Terret Noir?  Too bad.  As you would expect, the Patelin wines represented a much smaller proportion -- just under 15% -- of what we sold direct last year.  What did we sell?  A mix of everything.  But more than half of what we sold was our small-production varietals and blends that aren't found in distribution.  
    • I would guess that most wineries' data would show the same thing, and it's backed up anecdotally.  On a visit to another high-end winery near us last week, our server explained that they have two entirely separate lineups of wine for their wholesale sales and their tasting room.  And, of course, a large number of wineries don't distribute any of their wine nationally. 
  • Restaurants work differently. Although many restaurants offer corkage, where customers can bring in their own wines and have them served at their table for a fee, and there are some states who allow wineries to sell direct to restaurants, the challenging logistics and planning (and cost) required means that nearly 100% of wine sold in restaurant comes through a state-licensed wholesaler.  Does opening direct shipping impact restaurant sales negatively?  Not at all.  And we have found that it is our wine club members -- read superfans -- who are the most likely to order our wines at a restaurant.  They feel a proprietary pride in the success of their favorite wineries, and when they are dining with friends it is often these restaurant opportunities that encourage the peer-to-peer sharing that starts new customers on the path to fandom.  If we can't ship direct to a state, it's a lot harder to sign up wine club members (they can, of course, have wine shipped to friends or relatives in nearby shipping-allowed states, but that's cumbersome and difficult). And the restaurant sales those club members will make don't happen.  
  • Direct shipping changes wineries' incentives. All those reasons aside, I think the most important reason that we have seen our wholesale sales increase in state after state after that state opens to direct shipping is this last one.  Judging from our own actions, it's not in our interest to lavish the same amount of attention on states to which we are prohibited from shipping directly as we do to states to which we can ship.  I know that before 2015, I hadn't visited the Massachusetts market in several years, despite that I went to both high school and college in Massachusetts and have lots of friends -- and sports teams -- in Boston I love to see.  It just wasn't worth it.  In a state like New York or Illinios, where we can ship, I can go, spend my days working with our distributor reps to get the wines into new accounts, and spend my evenings doing consumer events at restaurants or wine shops.  I can help ensure that those events succeed, making the accounts that host them happy, by promoting the events to our consumer mailing list in the area.  And I can hopefully come out of those events with a new collection of names that I can add to our mailing list.  This makes these people more likely to come out to Tablas Creek, and to eventually join our wine club or buy wine from us.  Everyone is happy.  In a non-shipping state, I can still do the work days with the distributor, but I can't do much to help promote consumer events (so they're less likely to be successful) and I can't do much with any consumer contacts I make at these events.  Both time and marketing dollars are finite for any winery.  Wineries are only behaving rationally by focusing their attention where they can have the greatest impact, which means that states without direct shipping don't get as much winery-level help with their wholesale sales.

Whatever the reason or combination of reasons, Massachusetts isn't the only state where we've seen wholesale sales increase in the aftermath of the state opening to direct shipping. It has happened again and again.  Between 2005 and 2013, our wholesale sales rose an average of 8% per year.  Check out how much some of the larger states (that opened to direct shipping over that period) grew in the first two years after they allowed direct shipping.  The year that we started shipping to each is in parentheses:

  • New York (2005): + 68.0%
  • Florida (2006): -38.1%
  • Texas (2006): +61.7%
  • Ohio (2007): +14.3%
  • Georgia (2008): +24.0%
  • Washington DC (2008): +72.5%
  • Maryland (2011): +160.9%

On average, our wholesale sales in these seven states increased 51.9% in the two years after we received our direct shipping permit.  Why was Florida the one state to decline?  I didn't realize it had, until I pulled this data.  But I have a few guesses.  First, it's a state from which we see relatively few visitors, at least for the size of its population.  It's also a state with a very spread-out population, where (unlike, say, in New York or Washington DC) it's hard to schedule events in places that are central to a collection of mailing list members.  We also struggled to set up good consumer events in our early years there, so I doubt we were able to leverage or build our mailing list particularly efficiently.  Anyway, the rest of the states show a pretty strong trend, and our sales in Florida have rebounded strongly in recent years, so I'm not going to worry too much about the one data point.

Instead, I just booked my flights for my second work trip this year to Boston.  I'll fly in Tuesday.  Wednesday, I'll work with one of the distributor's top reps, and we'll try to get the wine into some more cool restaurants, before I host a dinner at Porto in Boston's Back Bay.  Thursday, I'll do it all again, and Friday I'll fly home.  I'll catch the Patriots season-opener on TV with some friends who live there.  And none of this would have happened if Massachusetts -- with a push from former Patriot turned vintner Drew Bledsoe -- hadn't decided to open their borders to wine shipping two years ago.