Why "California's Driest Year on Record" is less serious (and more) than you're hearing

As January 2014 dawned, California residents were greeted with a collection of terrifying headlines about the lack of rain the state received in 2013.  The Weather Channel posted a national story titled "Record Driest Year in California, Parts of Oregon". The San Francisco Chronicle warned "After dry spell, get ready for water restrictions" while the LA Times editorialized "LA's driest year: Time to shut off the lawn sprinklers for good".  The Huffington Post plays it straight "2013 Is California's Driest Year On Record" while the Wall Street Journal reported "California Stretched by Worsening Drought".  A map published by the NOAA showed nearly all of California under some water stress, while a large swath (inconveniently centered around Paso Robles) was under "Extreme Drought":

NOAA Drought Map

The data from our weather station at Tablas Creek bears this out.  In all of 2013, we received 3.71 inches of rain.  That's just 13% of what we consider our normal rainfall of 28 inches, and easily the least in a calendar year since we started keeping records in 1997.  The story in areas east of us is worse: the weather station at J. Lohr, in the Paso Robles Estrella River heartland, totaled just 1.93 inches in 2013.

Why it's not as bleak as it seems
So, why is this story not as bleak as it looks? It all looks much worse because of how the rain we've received the last two winters falls on the calendar.  The rainy season in California doesn't follow the yearly calendar; it starts in November and goes through April.  This season largely corresponds to winter, when agricultural crops like grapevines are dormant.  A grapevine doesn't care whether the rainfall arrives early or late in the dormant season; it's not going to start using that water until it sprouts in the spring.  So looking at how much rain fell between January 2013 and April 2013 (some 2.35 inches at Tablas Creek) and ignoring the fact that November and December 2012 were unusually wet (11.74 inches) gives a false picture of both what last winter was like and what the growing conditions are now.

Similarly, the winter of 2011-12 was characterized by late rain: more than two-thirds of the 15 inches of rain that we received that winter came in 2012.  Between the late rain that winter and the early rain the following winter, it looks like 2012 was an about average rainfall year, with just under 23 inches of rain out here, when in fact both the winters of 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 provided roughly half of normall rainfall.

So, while a headline like "13% of annual rainfall" makes for good copy, the situation on the ground is more nuanced.  We've had two consecutive low-rainfall but hardly bone-dry winters in the books, and we're in the middle of what looks like another dry --maybe even very dry -- winter.  That's plenty bad enough, but not unprecedented.

Why it may be worse than it seems
So why is the situation worse than it seems?  We're not sure whether our historical norms are still what we should expect on average.  We're in our 15th winter since 1999-2000, and in those winters, we've only seen four seasons with above-average rainfall (2004-05, 2005-06, 2009-10, and 2010-11).  Two others (1999-2000 and 2007-2008) saw more or less average rainfall.  That leaves nine years with 60% or less of normal rainfall, raising the question of what normal rainfall actually is for us now.

Most models of climate change suggest that rising global temperatures will result in drier conditions in the American southwest, including California.  The EPA's Climate Change Center concludes that "human-induced climate change will likely result in more frequent and more severe droughts" in the our area.  Both the EPA's low-emission and high-emission models project for significant declines in California precipitation over the 21st century:

SouthwestPrecipChange-large

Drought is by nature a cyclical phenomenon.  But whether the current three-year dry pattern breaks this spring, next year, or later (and we're definitely hoping for sooner than later) it seems inevitable that we're entering a period where even relatively wet areas like ours will suffer more frequent and more prolonged periods of low rainfall, with all the attendant stresses on ground water supplies and growing tensions between agriculture, housing and recreation.

What to do?
How a vineyard is developed determines to a great extent the amount of water it needs each year to remain healthy and productive.  The more closely spaced grapevines are, the more support they will need each year.  This suggests that the old-school California vineyards planted before widespread irrigation are a model worth studying.  These vineyards were planted at very low density by modern standards, often as much as 12 feet by 12 feet apart (rather than the current norm of 3 feet by 8 feet).  We've been planting recent blocks -- such as our head-trained, dry-farmed "Scruffy Hill" block, pictured below -- using this old-fashioned vine density, and are cautiously optimistic about the results.  Sure, we're not going to get 4 tons per acre, but that's not what we want anyway.  We're seeing acceptable yields (2 to 2.5 tons per acre) and excellent vine health without irrigation over the last two dry years.

Scruffy Hill

Other vineyard techniques that we've been using and expect to see more widely adopted in coming years include deep ripping of the soils before the rainy season, to encourage water to penetrate rather than run off, switching from more frequent but shorter-duration irrigation to less-frequent but longer-duration irrigation to encourage deeper root growth and better vine self-sufficiency, and greater exploration of higher-vigor, deeper-rooting rootstocks instead of the lower-vigor, more shallow-rooting rootstocks that are the most common today.

Even if "California's Driest Year on Record" is a bit of a statistical fluke, it's clear that it's dry here and likely to get drier.  Anyone who is not planning now for that future is courting disaster.


What Facebook's News Feed Changes Mean for the Wine Community

There was a bit of a flap in social media circles a couple of weeks ago when Ad Age broke the story that Facebook would be reducing the organic reach of pages and requiring those pages that wanted to reach a significant percentage of their fans to advertise to do so.  A Facebook sales presentation sent to its partners last month makes it clear: "We expect organic distribution of an individual page's posts to gradually decline over time as we continually work to make sure people have a meaningful experience on the site."

The implications of this change do not appear to have percolated into much of the wine community, but it sounds like the impacts will be substantial for the many small- and mid-size wineries who have been relying on Facebook as an inexpensive marketing channel, and perhaps even more so for winery organizations that rely largely on sharing their members' content.  What's more, it does not appear that Facebook is planning these changes for some time in the distant future.  Instead, it appears from the reach of our Facebook posts that these changes are well underway.

It is no secret to anyone who administers a Facebook page that any post reaches only a fraction of the page's fans.  But many wineries, who have invested significantly in acquiring fans, may not realize the extent to which their content is already being filtered out.  The specialists who I talk to suggest that organic page reach is averaging in the 12%-14% range now, which means that an average post to a page with 5000 fans will be seen in the news feeds of just 600-700 of those fans.  That Facebook should be looking to further reduce this reach will mean that the businesses and organizations that have been using only the free tools Facebook makes available should expect to the platform to become less and less rewarding.

There are really only two options for a business or organization who wants to continue to interact with large numbers of their fans on Facebook:

  • Get ready to pay for reach.  A Facebook spokesman is quoted in the Ad Age article as saying "the best way to get your stuff seen if you're a business is to pay for it".  This is different than the classic model of Facebook advertising, where you advertised to get new people to like your page or to sell your product to non-fans.  Now, you'll have to get used to paying just to reach the fans you've acquired.
  • Make especially compelling content.  In recent weeks I've noticed a correlation between engagement rate and post reach even greater than before.  Looking at our Facebook page since the beginning of November, most of our posts averaged in the 9%-10% engagement rate, at which level we reached an average of 935 fans, or a little over 17% of our roughly 5300 page likes.  Each additional percent of engagement allowed that post to reach approximately 3% more of our fans, with a peak of 1687 fans (31% of our total) on a post with 16% engagement.  Similarly, on the posts which were less engaging, we reached fewer fans; the one post that received only a 5% engagement rate was seen by just 412 of our fans (7%).

The chart below shows the same data graphically.  The data comes by averaging the reach of all image posts on the Tablas Creek Facebook page since the beginning of November.  I excluded any posts that overlapped with another post that same day, as more frequent postings show lower reach totals for any given level of engagement.

Facebook Post Reach by Engagement

Facebook's message is clear: make your content compelling if you want it seen organically.  Otherwise, expect to pay.

It was probably inevitable that Facebook should make this change, which raises revenue while also helping them prioritize friend-generated content over business-generated content.  But it does mean that the wineries -- and the wine organizations -- that have been relying on Facebook as a low- (or no-) cost means of customer acquisition will need to reevaluate their strategy and budget. 

These changes, while likely unwelcome to most wineries, shouldn't be impossible to adapt to.  Wineries will just have to choose what portion of their marketing budget to spend on promoting their posts to their fans, just as they would evaluate any other advertising opportunity that crossed their desks.  They also likely already have a leg up on generating interesting original content.  But it seems to me like it will be harder for wine organizations, particularly small ones, to react to.  Many of these organizations are sharing other pages' content, and links to non-original content have two strikes against them: they are harder to generate high post engagement scores for, and they have been named as a target for deemphasis by Facebook in the past.

Will businesses and organizations switch their attention to other platforms like Twitter and Google Plus?  It seems unlikely.  Facebook's power lies in its massive audience.  This audience isn't going anywhere, and businesses who pick up their toys and move to a different sandbox will likely find themselves lonely there.


Every now and then you get a particularly meaningful compliment...

The wine business is hard.  It may not get talked about a lot, but it is.  There are huge start-up costs, an ever-growing number of wineries which crowd the marketplace and compete for your existing customers, and a shrinking number of distributors that combine with a relentless stream of wines from around the world and make it hard to gain attention in the wholesale market.

Granted, there are positive demographics working in your favor as a winery, too.  America is becoming more and more a wine-consuming nation, which means that you aren't competing with the other wineries in your area for a pie of a fixed size; the pie is growing every year.  Liberalized wine shipping laws have put some 80% of American consumers in states we can ship to.  And Americans' acceptance of blends (and unusual grape varieties) has never been better than it is.  But it's still a challenge getting and keeping your name out there, particularly when you want, like we do, to succeed both in our direct sales business (our tasting room and wine clubs) and in the wholesale market.

HootnAnnie_logo

So it's great to see an article like the one we received recently from Paso Robles-based bloggers Matt and Annie Browne, whose blog Hoot n Annie is packed each week with first-person accounts of their explorations into the local wine community and their insightful analysis of what works in marketing and social media.  The title of the article is Paso Robles Wineries: Tablas Creek is Doing it Right and I'm not sure I've ever read anything so nice written about us.  They are social media experts, and much of their focus is on what we've tried to do in that sphere (I was very happy to read that they thought we'd been successful) but they also talked about our marketing, our facility, our people, and (of course!) our wine. 

It's easy, I think, to fall into ivory tower syndrome as a winery.  Unless you force yourself to get out into the market, or make sure you're searching out unbiased opinions, it's easy to hear only voices that tell you you're doing great work: those are the people who tend to seek you out.  Does this mean you're doing great work?  Not necessarily.  And even if you are doing great work in one sphere (winemaking, say) it's easy to assume that success will find you as a matter of course.  We had that problem at the beginning; our initial marketing plan could have been summed up as "people will buy Tablas Creek because people love Beaucastel".  It turned out to be wildly optimistic, and we spent some dicey years in the early 2000's turning around the business side of Tablas Creek.  In 2002, for example, we sold 4,000 cases of wine and made 12,000.  That's obviously not sustainable, and we realized that our problems weren't going to be solved by a single effort.  We opened a tasting room, started a wine club, started participating in wine festivals and working with our distributors around the country, and rededicated ourselves to being an involved and committed member of our community.  We made the decision to focus on maximizing the number of customer interactions and doing everything we could to give those customers an outstanding experience that they would rememeber and would tell their friends about.  And little by little we leveraged a successful business out of the good choices we'd made at the beginning in choosing our site and making our wines. By 2006 we'd stabilized our balance sheet and were selling roughly the same 18,000 cases we were making.

But it's not easy.  And each year brings new challenges, as you work to stay true to who you are while continuing to innovate in ways that keep you fresh.  We've tried hard not ever to take our fans for granted, or to rest on our laurels.  Reading a piece like Matt's and Annie's gives me faith that it's working.  Thanks, guys.


Surviving Consolidation in the Wholesale Wine Market

This week, like much of the California wine community, I'll be making the trek up to Sacramento for the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium. "Unified", as this enormous trade show is known within the indistry, is a chance to see the newest in technology, to check in with friends and colleagues from other regions, and to take in a program that includes seminars on viticulture, winemaking, wine marketing, and business/operations. We always have a cohort there, partly to see what the exhibits have to offer but mostly to support NovaVine, the nursery with whom we partner to sell Tablas Creek vine cuttings. For NovaVine, Unified is one of the year's best marketing opportunities.

I have been invited to speak on a panel Thursday afternoon -- a part of the marketing curriculum -- titled "Surviving Consolidation: How to Position Your Brand for Success".  I'll be representing smaller wineries, and will be joined by representatives from the worlds of wine wholesale and retail, as well as Ed Lemay, the Senior Vice President of Marketing at Constellation Wines, who brings the perspective of a larger supplier. I spend a lot of my time thinking of how to prosper in a crowded wholesale market, and thought that while I was putting together my notes for Thursday's session I might share a few of the key points here. For the longer version, please come see us!

It's worth pointing out that I'm not sure that all of this is much more important because of consolidation than it was before.  Sure, there are many states with fewer options for distributors, but the wholesale market has always had more wines than it could possibly focus on, so these strategies for making sure that you, as a small-to-medium size winery, get your share of the attention are likely the same that they've always been. They're just more important now.

  • Know what makes you distinctive. And focus on it. There are thousands of wineries that are competing in the wholesale market, from your neighbors to wineries elsewhere in your state to others from around the world.  If you can't reduce what makes you distinctive down to a few sentences, the game of telephone -- in which you need to educate your wholesaler's management, they need to educate their sales team, those salespeople need to sell to their restaurant and retails customers, and those restaurant and retail buyers need to speak to the end consumer -- breaks down. One place I see many wineries get into trouble is in the assumption that because their model works in their tasting room, it will necessarily translate into the wholesale market. Tasting room customers are faced with many fewer options than any buyer in the wholesale chain. It's good marketing overall to keep yourself focused, but make particularly sure your story for the wholesale market is concise and logical -- as well as memorable.  
  • Demand the information you need to evaluate success. You need to be engaged with your wholesalers. Make sure you're regularly getting inventories, account lists and how many (and which) samples are being pulled. Know what the pricing and the deals are that are offered.  Know (and care) whether your 100 cases are being sold to 30 restaurants or 3 retailers. And then review this information regularly so that if what you're seeing isn't what you want, you can communicate this to your wholesaler. Just showing that you're interested in this information helps tilt the playing field in your favor.
  • Be a good partner. Most wholesalers are filled with talented, passionate salespeople who want to do a good job. You can help them succeed with your brand in many ways: by going regularly to their markets and working alongside them. By being generous with samples, to help make sure that your wines are in their bags often. By taking good care of them when they come out to visit, and when they send out their VIP's to see you. And by giving them the tools they need in point of sale, positive media attention, and marketing support. You are in this together.
  • Work together to set your goals and strategies. Is there a particular wine or two that you need your distributor to focus on this year? Or a particular type or list of accounts you'd like them to target? Or a sub-region that needs work? You should be conducting regular (annual, at least) reviews with your wholesalers to communicate this to them. Make sure you listen to them when they tell you what is working and what isn't, and involve them in the solutions to the problems you identify. The more ownership they have over the initiatives you work out, the more likely they are to see them through.
  • Build and use your own restaurant, retail and consumer relationships. Nothing gets a distributor's attention like accounts asking for your wine. When you are out in the market, collect cards and drop a thank you note after you're back home. Then, stay in touch. Share directly news of new releases, special offers and positive press. And don't forget your consumer mailing list. When you have a cool new placement or a feature at a retailer, share the news with your fans in the area. The fans will appreciate it, the account will be grateful (and maybe even surprised) by the support, and the distributor will know that if they work on your wines they'll be rewarded. Success breeds success, so each time a distributor rep puts your wine into an account and sees it sell through and be reordered, it makes him or her that much more likely to think of your wine the next time there is an opening to fill. Of course, failure breeds failure, too. Don't chance it if you have the power to help.
  • Be careful in franchise states. Nearly half of states have some sort of franchise law that restricts or prohibits suppliers from leaving a distributor that is not performing. In those states, your recourse is less and of course distributors are less responsive. Consider insisting on an opt-out clause in a contract before you sign on. If the distributor refuses, it may be a sign that you're better off not doing business with them anyway. And remember that just because a distributor is a great fit now, they may not be if they are bought by someone else, although your franchise tie will likely remain in force. But even in franchise states, all of the above fundamentals still hold true, and distributors in these states have the same goal as anywhere else: to sell wine. 

It's worth also mentioning that I'm assuming you're already making a good product and pricing it fairly. If not, you're going to find executing a successful wholesale strategy difficult, no matter what else you're doing. The wholesale market is less forgiving than your tasting room, where your customer service, and the time you can spend with your customers, makes a greater difference.

Anyway, this is just a teaser for Thursday's discussion, at which I'm very much looking forward to hearing the other panelists' (and the audience's) perspectives and ideas. I hope you can join us. If you won't be there, please add any ideas or feedback in the comments section.


Is the bloom off the user review site rose?

Last March, I wrote the post Has TripAdvisor overtaken Yelp for winery visitors, suggesting that of the two major user-review Web sites, TripAdvisor seemed to be replacing Yelp as the preferred forum for people writing user reviews of Paso Robles wineries.  The graphic I included in that post showed a pretty dramatic shift over time:

Reviews by Site

The graph also shows a steady increase in the number of user reviews posted for Tablas Creek on the two sites, from 10 in 2008 to 15 in 2009 to 22 in 2010 and 42 in 2011.  With the first quarter of 2012 showing as our busiest quarter yet for user reviews (18) I fully expected to see continued growth.  But something happened around the middle of last year, and while our annual total (63) was still our highest ever, the quarterly total peaked in the second quarter at 25, then declined to 13 in the third quarter and just 7 in the fourth quarter.  I have gone from checking the sites daily for new reviews to now checking only every week or so, and getting used to seeing the same months-old reviews I saw last time.  The curve looks a little different now. To smooth out some of the noise, I've added a rolling average, which averages each quarter with the quarters before and after:

User Reviews Trend thru 2012

It's worth noting that my conclusion that TripAdvisor -- which to most wineries at the time was much less salient than Yelp -- was a player to watch turned out to be true. TripAdvisor tallied nearly three times the number of reviews of Tablas Creek as did Yelp in 2012.  But by sometime around mid-fall the flood of user reviews had turned to a trickle.

I was curious to know whether what we were seeing, both in the drop in user reviews at the end of 2012 and the dramatic shift toward TripAdvisor and away from Yelp, was standard for our area.  So, I picked three other popular, well-established Paso Robles wineries (Justin, Adelaida and Eberle) and took a look at what they'd seen.  I found that the shift toward TripAdvisor and away from Yelp is real, and dramatic.  In 2011, the four wineries (including us) showed 133 reviews from Yelp and 44 from TripAdvisor.  In 2012, Yelp reviews declined 34% to 88, while TripAdvisor reviews grew 390% to 216.

And I found that the dip in reviews I'd noticed in the second half of last year was echoed by our neighbors, though we saw a larger decline than most.  Here are the four wineries' results for 2011 and 2012, using a stacked area graph that allows you to get a good sense of the aggregate:

User Reviews Four Wineries 2011-2012

My first thought was that this could be explained by the number of customers visiting Paso Robles.  After all, the summer season is typically the busiest one in Paso Robles, and the winter the quietest.  But when I looked deeper, I found that at least at Tablas Creek our tasting room traffic doesn't vary that much by quarter.  Our smallest quarter last year was indeed the fourth quarter, but at 6880 visitors it was only 12% less busy than our busiest (the third quarter, at 7815).  I don't have any reason to think that our traffic trend differs significantly from the other wineries in the area, so I tried dividing the total number of reviews for each quarter by that quarter's traffic.  The results show that per Tablas Creek customer, we are seeing a decline in user reviews submitted for the four wineries:

User Reviews per Customer

There are few possible ways of explaining away the development, none of which I find particularly convincing.

  • Perhaps there is a different type of customer who visits in the summer months, a younger, more tech-savvy customer, who is more likely to post a review on Yelp or TripAdvisor.  Maybe, but If you look at the results for 2011, the two summer quarters showed the lowest percentage of reviews per tasting room visitor. Why would this reverse itself in 2012?
  • Perhaps there is something about the four wineries that I chose that makes us all subject to some trend that is out of step with what's really happening.  This is possible, but seems far-fetched.  Other than that we're all in Paso Robles and all of roughly similar scales, we represent wineries that are in different parts of the AVA. Could, say, newer... or smaller... or larger wineries have been getting more reviews at the end of last year even though our traffic stayed steady? I just don't see how. The implication would be that there is a specific sort of person who writes these reviews and that sort of person hasn't been visiting Tablas Creek, Justin, Adelaida or Eberle as much in the last six months even though our overall traffic numbers are steady. Maybe they're now boycotting Paso Robles in favor of other wine regions? I have trouble believing such an explanation.
  • Perhaps there are as many user reviews being written, but there is a new competitor in the field that is siphoning off reviews from both Yelp and TripAdvisor.  The obvious option is Google, whose Google+ allows users to write reviews. But the five Google+ reviews of Tablas Creek include only two written in the last year. The other competitor mentioned sometimes is CitySearch, which has only three reviews of Tablas Creek, just one written since 2008.  So, if they're moving away from TripAdvisor and Yelp, where are they going?

In the absence of another plausible explanation, I'm left to think that there has been some sort of shift against both Yelp and TripAdvisor among their users in the last six months.  Unless this is a statistical hiccup that will correct itself over the coming months (possible if unlikely) the possible conclusions are that we're seeing the bursting of a bubble that will eventually lead to a steady but lower-level number of new user reviews, or that this is the beginning of a long-term trend that will result in the category's gradual obsolescence.  I would tend to suspect the first explanation: that like with many new technologies, lots of people jump onto the bandwagon when they see their peers doing the same, but many find that it's just not for them. And it is work, writing these reviews, uncompensated work at that.  It's easy to imagine a reviewer getting fatigued with what's involved.

From a practical standpoint, even if it is true that user reviews are declining, the sites are still important for wineries to monitor. Both sites (particularly Yelp) are search engine goliaths, and there is well-documented evidence that even a single negative review can make a significant difference to a restaurant. A decline in the authorship of reviews doesn't imply a decline in readership, and in fact good reviews are more important now than ever, as there are fewer reviews being written and a negative review is proportionally more influential with a lower volume of other reviews in which it can get lost.

Still, I was interested to see that what seemed like an endless escalation of user reviews has not just slowed, but reversed itself. We'll see, over coming months, what this means.


Common-sense sustainability

I'm in New York this week, helping kick off the release of the 2010 Esprit de Beaucastel and 2010 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc.  My hotel, like most hotels these days, has one of the signs that tells you that in order to help protect the environment, my sheets and towels -- clean when I arrived -- will be changed only every fourth day, saving untold gallons of water and pounds of detergent.  Does the hotel really care about this, or just about the dollars they're saving in water, labor and soap?  It's a Kimpton, so probably they do care.  But many less environmentally-conscious hotels do the same thing, and I think that it's one of the best examples of a common-sense approach to sustainability that can, applied on a broad level, have enormous benefits to the use of resources without any noticeable detriment in customer experience.

As much as we prize (and praise) efforts that businesses make toward environmental responsibility, I'm a realist, and believe that the only ones that really stick are those that have a net positive impact on the business's bottom line.  I don't mean that individual businesses always act in a purely profit-maximizing fashion.  But I do think that eco-conscious ideas won't be widely enough adopted to make a measurable impact if they don't also offer the business some business-friendly incentive, whether that be lower costs, increased production, or improvements in product quality. I don't think that favorable publicity or public image is enough. Look, for example, at the paltry share of US energy production that comes from solar (less than 1%) despite the appeal of renewable energy and the widespread use of incentives.

Along these lines, we've been trying to think of things that we can do that will help us use resources better while saving (or at least not costing) us money.  I can think of two good examples that we've implemented in the past few years, both of which we've been getting lots of inquiries about from other local wineries.  I'm very interested in hearing about other similar initiatives.  If you have come across other good ideas, please share them in the comments.

For years, we had ordered pallets of bottled water each month, so that guests who we took out into the vineyard in the heat of summer wouldn't wilt, and no one would get dehydrated in the midst of their day of wine tasting.  Still, I always hated seeing the pallets arrive, and thinking about the impact of the production of these water bottles and the thousands of bottles each year that ended up having to be recycled or in landfills.  So, we installed a water filtration system outside our new tasting room and ordered several hundred stainless steel canteens. Each morning, we fill up the canteens and put them on ice outside the front door:

Canteens

We have another bucket nearby where we ask people to return the empty canteens, and then we wash them at the end of the day and refill them.  Sure, we lose a few that wander off into people's cars, and there's a little extra expense from the washing, but each canteen is only about four times as expensive as one water bottle, and there's no way we lose 25% of the canteens we use.  It's saving us money, preserving resources and making a point about sustainability at the expense of a little extra work for us.  I'll take that deal any time.

I would put our decision in 2010 to move to lighter-weight bottles in a similar category.  Long-time followers of the blog may remember the public debate we had about whether the winery's image was enhanced by our larger, heavier bottles and our ultimate conclusion that these larger bottles provided negative utility for our customers, making them harder to store, more difficult to lift and move, and more expensive to ship.  Two years later, I find it hard to believe that we ever thought that the larger bottles were a good idea.  Not only did the change save roughly 90,000 pounds of glass weight, and the associated higher costs of producing these larger bottles, trucking the empty glass to the winery and the filled cases from the winery, and shipping the bottles to our customers who ordered the wine, but we've stopped getting complaints about how the bottles we put our wine in don't fit in people's wine racks.  I find myself now suspicious of wines in these big bottles, thinking that they must be trying to impress with their package because of something missing on the inside.  Has this move resulted in lower sales off the shelf, or other indications that the image has suffered?  We haven't heard a single comment that would suggest it.

Sure, we do plenty of environmentally friendly things that don't save us money, most notably our commitment to organic and biodynamic farming.  But we're convinced that the benefit is in the grapes that we harvest and in the quality of the wine that we can make.  For us, the expense is worth it.  Are we happy that we're leaving our piece of land in better shape than when we found it, all while not exposing ourselves and our customers to chemicals?  Of course.  But do I expect other wineries and vineyards to necessarily make the same farming choices?  I'm not sure; it depends on the calculus that they do as to the value of the higher quality product that would result.  But I think that there are some common-sense steps toward sustainability that most any winery could implement right away, and am curious to hear any others that you've found appealing.  Even if it means asking your customers to participate in some small way... from returning an empty canteen to hanging up their once-used towel.


The power of print

Last weekend I noticed a small flurry of online wine club signups, as well as a surge in online orders.  We hadn't sent out a recent email (we do that at the very end of the month).  We hadn't gotten any particularly noteworthy press.  It wasn't until it lasted for a few days that I realized we had sent out our summer 2012 newsletter and it had started to hit mailboxes late last week.

Summer 2012 NewsletterWe have always thought of the principal value of our newsletter being marketing, education, and engagement with our consumer and wholesale customers.  Sure, we include an order form in it, but we don't ever get a lot of them back.  And we really don't push sales.  I think of the newsletter in the same way that I think of our work with social media: we're maintaining mind-share, personalizing our business, and educating: doing whatever we can to bring people inside our world, at least for a little while.  We figure that sales will come organically as a result of this marketing.  But when I went back and looked at the impact of our last newsletter, I realized we'd been underselling the direct sales impact of our print newsletter.

We sent our first newsletter of the year out in early February.  For the next two weeks, we nearly doubled the online club signups and orders that we had been averaging (from .22 VINdependents, .37 VINsiders, and 1.91 orders daily to .73 VINdependents, .60 VINsiders, and 4.4 orders).  By my rough calculations, that newsletter directly added sales of around $30,000 in just those two weeks, based on the average long-term revenue a new club member brings in and the actual extra sales from the additional orders we received.  The impact with this newsletter if anything has been more dramatic.  It's a busier time of year, and our online averages have gone from .30 VINdependents, .55 VINsiders, and 2.05 orders per day to 1.00 VINdependents, 1.71 VINsiders, and 5.71 orders per day.  In just a week, the added value to us has been something like $40,000. All this is beyond the intangible marketing, member retention, event promotion and wholesale trade benefits we've come to expect.

Print newsletters are not without costs.  To send ours out to the roughly 18,000 people for whom we have addresses, it costs us something like $15000 in printing, handling and postage costs.  Would an email, which costs us very little, have the same impact? Not exactly. We do send emails out as a regular part of our marketing program: every month to our VINsiders, every couple of months to our VINdependents, and a couple of times a year to our entire mailing list.  But I have the sense that the cohorts that each medium reaches don't overlap 100%.  Of course, there are some mailing list members for whom we only have a physical address and no email, or vice versa.  But even within the group that has both, there are people who will ignore an email (or have it caught by a spam filter) but will read the newsletter (and the opposite). Two areas where print dramatically outperforms email for us are with the trade (who are apparently so bombarded with messages from the hundreds or thousands of suppliers they work with that they ignore all or most) and in spurring wine club signups (since you are typically emailing existing club members).

For me, all this suggests that we're making the right choice to continue to maintain a balance of communication between email and print.  And that even though the print newsletters are relatively costly, the sales and wine club signups they drive -- without us trying to drive sales -- more than pay for their expenses. So the marketing benefits, and all the benefits that we get with elements of the wholesale trade, are gravy.


Nine lessons the Kimpton Hotel Group offers wineries

Last week, Meghan and I escaped for a night down to Santa Barbara to see David Sedaris perform.  We stayed downtown at the Canary Hotel, a few blocks away from the Arlington Theater where he would be performing. When we checked in, it was during the evening wine hour that Kimpton Hotels are known for, and we sipped on glasses of a local Sauvignon Blanc while the clerk completed the registration.  We were greeted warmly, told that we had been moved to a corner room with a balcony, and then were on our way.

I am not a particularly loyal traveler.  I choose airlines based on the rates they charge and the convenience of their connections, even though I'm an elite member of United.  I pick rental car companies based on price, though if it's close (and it only rarely is) I'll give Hertz and Avis the benefit of the doubt due to their superior customer service.  Between Hilton, Hyatt, Marriott, Westin, and the like, I really don't care and mostly can't tell them apart.  But if there's a Kimpton in town, you'll most likely find me there.  As I was thinking about why, I realized that there are lessons here for wineries, and have tried to apply these lessons to Tablas Creek.  Below are nine lessons I take away from Kimpton's success.

  • Get to know your customers... and show that you remember.  As a part of the loyalty program, you're asked questions like what sort of room you prefer (I like corner rooms because of the light and air flow), what sort of pillow you like (feather), what newspaper you like, etc.  And if you're one of their elite members, you get an even more detailed checklist of what you'd like to see and do.  And when you check in, Kimpton figures out how to make your preferences happen.  It requires both infrastructure and commitment, but the result is that your stays feel personalized.  As a winery, do you know what wines your customers particularly like?  Are you letting customers who have enjoyed a particular wine know when the next vintage is released?  Are you recognizing your best customers?  Are people greeted by name when they check out?  Your systems most likely have this treasure trove of potential information hidden inside.  It's up to you to figure out how to apply it.
  • Be friendly to the whole family. Before we even had kids, still in our twenties, we treated ourselves on the cross-country trip that brought us out to California from Washington, DC.  After more than a week of cheap motels and national park lodges, we splurged a little (it was still only about $100) and stayed in the Hotel Monaco in Salt Lake City.  When we arrived, grimy from a day of driving, with our dog, we were greeted warmly and Maddie even more so.  She was led upstairs, had a special bed for her, a treat on arrival and with the turndown service, and instead of being treated as suspicious (as we'd found in some "pet friendly" hotels on our way out) we were made to feel welcome.  Kimpton hotels are all pet friendly, and all, in our experience, equally kid friendly.  As a winery, have you thought about people who are coming with pets or kids?  We have a small table and chairs where kids can color while their parents taste.  And there's a bowl with water outside for dogs.  The cost is virtually nil, and the gratitude from guests who come with pets or kids is wonderful.
  • Offer consistent value. Kimpton hotels aren't cheap.  They're typically in the $150-$250 range, and there are doubtless cheaper options nearby.  But they pack a lot of comfort and personality for what they charge.  As a boutique winery, that's your job.  You don't want to be the cheapest, you want people to feel like whatever they pay they got a lot of value for.  It's also important that your best customers feel like they're being treated fairly.  This is particularly difficult in the ruthless online hotel marketplace.  If you find a cheaper rate online than Kimpton has on its Web site, they'll match it and offer you a $25 credit.  I'm not suggesting that wineries do the same, but if your wine club members are finding your wines cheaper at their local retailer (and with the Internet, the definition of "local" stretches a lot) they're not likely to be members for long.  Make sure you know what your wines are being offered for online, and figure out how to take action if you're finding that you're falling behind.
  • Make your workplace a great place to work. It's clear in every interaction with Kimpton staff that they enjoy what they're doing.  And the recognition has come: Kimpton was #16 in Fortune's Best Companies to Work For 2012.  For Kimpton, this includes rewarding employees who go out of their way to provide outstanding service, funding ongoing education, encouraging a healthy work-life balance and, most importantly, empowering employees to improvise and make on-the-spot decisions that will benefit their customers.  Working at a winery, particularly in hospitality, is similar to working in hotels in that you're "on" each day.  You see new guests every day, and each day will be many guests' first experience with your brand.  Do your employees feel valued?  Are they given the authority to make decisions?  Are they supported when they come to you with suggestions?
  • Be a good corporate citizen. Kimpton has been a industry leader through their Kimpton Cares program.  They have launched out-of-the-box initiatives like "Great Meetings, Great Causes" that try to bring their message of sustainability to non-traditional venues.  And they for many years offered free parking to hybrid and electric vehicles.  Do these make a difference in the world? Probably, to some degree.  And their commitment seems sincere.  But it has brought them lots of community goodwill and free publicity, which never hurts.  Many wineries are doing well here, whether farming organically or sustainably or supporting community causes.  But there is always more to be done.  At Tablas Creek, we've identified arts in our community as an area to dedicate significant resources to, and now are major sponsors of the Central Coast Shakespeare Festival, Festival Mozaic and the Paderewski Festival of Paso Robles. But beyond what we do ourselves, we've been able to leverage our position in the community.  My father founded the Winery Partners of the Foundation for the Performing Arts Center, a group now in its third year, which has together donated nearly a quarter of a million dollars in recognition of the importance of the venue to the county's cultural life and of the wineries in the county's economic vitality.
  • Focus on public relations instead of advertising.  Kimpton hardly advertises.  At first, this was because (like most wineries) the available funds were low and the market penetration of the stable of boutique hotels limited.  But more and more they believe in the higher return on investment of engaging with customers and writers, developing stories organically, and building via word of mouth.  Social media has only made that task easier.  I think that this is even more true for wineries.  Advertising is a blunt tool, where you reach a lot of people but aren't likely to convince many to take action because of it.  Worse, it's only valuable to the extent that you have already achieved market penetration.  That money that you could spend on an ad in a glossy magazine could almost certainly be better used to develop contacts with writers in the hopes of generating editorial coverage, or reinvested in creative incentives for your current fans to share their enthusiasm with their friends.  Is it more work?  Sure.  But someone else's testimonial for your brand is inherently more powerful than your own.
  • Know your history, and celebrate it. Most corporate hotels feel the same, whether they're in San Francisco or Sarasota.  Not Kimptons.  They make a point of searching out and renovating historic buildings and then imbuing them with the personality of their region.  This doesn't feel like a schtick... the way that, say, a W in suburban Atlanta does with its techno and neon.  Instead, the architecture is thoughtfully restored, the connection between the hotel and its neigborhood celebrated, and the space's history displayed and explained.  As a winery, take a look at the entrance to your tasting room.  What does it say about you?  Are you communicating your essentials?  You might be surprised at the story your facility is telling.  Are you slick or personal?  Fancy or down-home?  Artisan or industrial?  Traditional or modern?  There isn't a right answer, but it's important to know and to make sure that you are creating the impression you want.  For a case study, take a look at the blog post from last spring Telling the Tablas Creek story... without words.
  • Give people who don't know you yet reasons to discover you. Each Kimpton has a restaurant, often among the better restaurants in their cities.  These go far beyond the typical hotel restaurant and while they do provide hotel guests a place to have a quick breakfast or a late-night snack, they cater primarily to the local community.  A vibrant restaurant ensures a steady influx of potential new customers and friends of potential new customers, as well as adding to the prestige and reputation of the venue.  Most wineries won't have restaurants on-site, but it's important to stay visible to customers who don't yet know you.  Are you doing open houses for members of the hospitality trade?  Offering your site as a venue for industry events?  Partnering with non-winery businesses to host their events?  It's easy to open your doors and wait for your customers to find you, but being proactive can bring you so much more.
  • Be generous with the little things. Whether it's the complimentary wine tasting, the complimentary internet access, bottles of water in the rooms, the fruit in the lobby or the goldfish and bowl you can take to your room, things that other luxury hotels charge for are included with your Kimpton stay.  I hate the feeling of being nickeled and dimed.  As a winery, if you're charging tasting fees for people who purchase or event fees for your club members who are coming to buy wine, it's worth considering whether the benefits of loyalty and increased sales may outweigh the small amounts of revenue you're bringing in.

Is this a checklist that any successful winery has to mark off?  Of course not.  But most wineries want what the Kimpton Hotel Group has achieved: respect as purveyors of a consistently high quality product, in classy, comfortable environments, with outstanding customer service and positive impacts on their communities.

Sounds worth emulating, to me.


How to make the most of trade and consumer tastings

Last Sunday, I was standing behind the Tablas Creek table at the Family Winemakers of California tasting in San Francisco.  We were one of 340 wineries pouring wines for more than 1700 trade and 700 consumers (an additional 1700+ trade came on Monday).  Family Winemakers (as it's known in the trade) is, in my opinion, Northern California's best trade tasting each year, and brings out the sorts of top buyers from restaurants and retailers who you usually have to go see personally.  The potential value of a tasting like this is enormous, given the concentration of qualified customers.  And yet, I hear wineries complain after tastings -- even big, well-run tastings like these -- that they can't see the value.

One of our neighboring wineries commented that it was their first Family Winemakers tasting, and they wanted to know how our table was so busy.  Part of it, of course, is that, if not a household name at this point, we're fairly well known among the wine trade.  But that wasn't always the case.  And I don't believe that it's out of a winery's control how much value they get from a tasting like this.  It's no more a viable sales strategy to simply go to a trade tasting and hope that people come to find you than it's a viable marketing strategy to open your doors and assume your customers will walk in.  As I gave the winery next to us a few ideas of how to make sure that you squeeze every possible bit of value out of a big tasting like this one, it occurred to me that the ideas might make the basis for a good blog piece.

A few days after the tasting, I got an unexpected phone call that drove home the point.  One innovation that the Family Winemakers instituted this year was offering wineries the opportunity to pass along a $10 discount coupon to their customers.  It was a great strategy because it both gave the wineries a reason to publicize the tasting, and gave Family Winemakers the ability to track whose promotion was most effective.  Of all the 340 wineries who participated, apparently Tablas Creek's promotion was the most successful, resulting in 42 consumer tickets being purchased with our unique discount code.  OK, I'm pleased with the effort that we make.  But we're a mid-sized Paso Robles winery.  The greater part of our customer base is in southern California, and we have only about 1000 people on our mailing list in the Bay Area.  If our promotion was the most effective, when many wineries in this North Coast-dominated tasting have many times that number of potential local customers, it tells me that far too many wineries aren't making the most of opportunities like this one.  Here's a checklist for wineries:

  • Make sure that your mailing list includes location.  This will allow you to sort it for regional events.  If your top customer in Kansas City keeps getting notes about tastings and dinners in Orange County, they're probably going to get annoyed.  And the result will be that the only notes you'll send out are about events at your winery.  Knowing where your customers are allows you to target them selectively for dinners and tastings in their area.  And make sure you're asking for location wherever you're soliciting for new contacts, whether online, in your tasting room, or at events.
  • Select a good email marketing tool.  The tools for email marketing are incredibly powerful and remarkably inexpensive.  The two market leaders are Constant Contact and Vertical Response, and both are good options.  We use StreamSend, which I like for its flexibility and its lower cost.  And there are countless others as well.  Any of them will give you invaluable information about your email campaigns, including which links get clicked on and by how many people, what addresses are undeliverable, and what percentage of your notes get opened.  This information allows you to keep your database up to date and to learn from your past campaigns.
  • Send an email out to the geographically-relevant members of your mailing list roughly three weeks before every event you do in the market.  Your consumers (and, if the event includes a trade component, your trade) will appreciate knowing about the event, whether it be a multi-winery festival, a wine shop tasting, or a wine dinner.  And it's not a terrible thing for your trade supporters to know that you do these sorts of events; I've several times gotten an email back from a retailer or restaurant, who, upon hearing I'll be in town for another event, wanted to schedule something with me.  Incidentally, if you're worried your existing fans may crowd out new customers, remember that it's useful to have existing supporters at your events for several reasons.  First, they're likely to bring you new customers by sharing the information with friends.  Second, having a busy event, or a busy table at an event, gives you good buzz.  And third, you've helped support the events, restaurants and retailers who support you, which leads to good trade relations.
  • At each event, get contact information for as many of the people who come by your table as possible.  If these are consumers, have mailing list cards or a guest book out on the table, and encourage anyone interested to give you their information then and there.  Don't be shy; you'll get many times the number of people signing up if you suggest it than if you wait for them to ask.  If you see members of the trade, trade business cards with them, and note on the back what wines they were interested in.  If they don't have business cards, or if you already know them and it will feel weird to ask them again, keep a notebook handy to note who liked what.  It's the only way to have the information that will allow you (or more likely your broker or distributor) to follow up effectively. 
  • Have easy pocket-size take-home information about the individual wines you're pouring.  We started making cards like the ones pictured below for our wines years ago, and they're great to have.  At the tasting, it helps provide details about complicated wines (and our wines, being mostly blends, take some explanation).  After a big tasting, a card like this will help people remember their favorites, and having your contact information there makes it a lot easier for them to act.  Finally, from a practical standpoint, having individual cards helps make your larger, glossier, more expensive "about the winery" pieces more usable since they won't go out of date.
  • Esprit08talker   Cotesblanc08talker
  • Spend some time circulating around the room to see who is there, and encourage them to come see you.  Obviously, this is only practical when you have multiple people there to work an event.  But it can be great both in ensuring that key members of the trade taste what you've brought and in getting referrals from other tables.  Bring tastes of wine to other wineries' tables, or to the table of the restaurant serving food across the aisle.  At big tastings, lots of customers ask each table where else they should go.  Do what you can to make sure that you get your share of these recommendations.
  • Get the information about what trade stopped by your table and what they liked to your distributors and brokers within a week or so for follow-up.  Then check back in with the distributor a few weeks later to find out what came of the leads you gave them.  I'm not suggesting that you pester them, or demand a written report about every lead, but if the distributor knows that you care enough to follow up, they're likely to be more diligent in pursuing the leads you provide for them.
These suggestions aren't rocket science, but should help make sure that a winery is effectively covering its bases before, during, and after each tasting that it does, and giving itself every chance to succeed.  And given that everyone's budgets are tight right now, it's more important than ever. 

Building a successful winery tasting room experience before, during and after the visit

Next week, I'll be speaking as part of a panel at the Unified Grape and Wine Symposium in Sacramento. The panel is titled "How to Make Your Tasting Room More Profitable" and is being organized and moderated by California's most respected tasting room consultant, Craig Root.

I've spent a lot of time in the past eight years refining my thoughts on what makes a successful tasting room, and am at this point amazed to think one wasn't in our original business plan.  An indication that we're succeeding is that, according to Craig, the sales and wine club signups that we see at the Tablas Creek tasting room are roughly double the industry average.  I hope to see some readers of the blog at the seminar.  We'll go into more detail than I have here, but below are a few highlights of what I think are important things to be thinking about before, during, and after a customer's visit.

  • Work to build your traffic year-round.  It's a lot easier to sell wine to people who have opened your front door than it is to sell it to people who haven't.
    • Cultivate partnerships. You are not the only one in your area with an interest in bringing people into town and giving them a good experience. Reach out to local hotels and bed&breakfasts and create co-marketing opportunities and specials that will give them a reason to be emailing their customers about you. Work with local restaurants to put together dinners that both you and they will market. This expands your base, supports your partners in your community, and ensures you stay visible. And don’t neglect the other winery tasting rooms in your area. Open houses every six months are easy and fun.
    • Encourage your supporters to come back and bring friends. You’re probably offering free tasting for your wine club members. Are you doing so for their guests? Are you offering some reward to members who refer you business?
    • Understand that your marketing (and your presence in the wholesale market) does have an impact on your tasting room. Make sure that you’re in the places where potential customers are. Go to wine festivals in your catchment area. Work particularly hard to ensure that your wines are on the lists of restaurants in your area. Know that one benefit to your wholesale marketing is spillover into your tasting room.
    • Do your part to ensure that you get editorial coverage. Most wineries think of press as principally beneficial to their wholesale marketing.  And great press does have a multiplier effect in wholesale, as the reviews you get are echoed by distributors and retailers.  But don't neglect the impact it can have on a tasting room.  When we got our last set of reviews from Robert Parker last August, our tasting room traffic rose 20% and our sales 35% over the rest of the year.  Be sure you are at least covering the basics by sending samples of all your new releases to the 20 or 30 key writers around the country a few times each year.  Total cost: around $2500 plus a few cases of wine. Possible benefits: enormous.
  • Make sure that you focus on each customer interaction. I am amazed by how many people we get in our tasting room who tell us stories of other tasting rooms with disinterested servers, overcrowded tasting bars, or salespeople whose only interest is a club sign-up.
    • Have sufficient staff on hand for your busiest times.  An enormous piece of being able to ensure a good customer experience and the sales that result is having sufficient staff on hand to handle your busiest times. This necessarily means that in slower times you'll be overstaffed, but if you calculate the value over time to your business of a single club sign-up or a single dissatisfied customer who would otherwise have bought a case of wine and told their friends, the cost of labor seems pretty minor.
    • Focus on giving everyone a memorable experience. If you do so, the wine (and wine club) will sell itself.
      • A hugely successful tasting room may convert 5%-7% of its customers into club members. That means that the vast majority of the people coming through your tasting room are not going to sign up on the spot. Be careful... if you are incentivizing your staff for club signups you may be encouraging them to focus their best efforts too narrowly.
      • Sell through education and enthusiasm, and make sure that the customers know the options in front of them.
      • Every person who leaves your tasting room happy is a source of repeat business and referrals.
    • Get an impartial perspective.  Consider sending in friends or family members incognito to get a sense of what the typical customer is experiencing.  Make sure it's someone who will be honest with you.
  • Be generous with the little things. Remember that your primary reason for being is (probably) to sell wine. If you focus on making money on your events or your fees, you may be doing so at the expense of wine sales. Some ideas:
    • Comp your tasting fee on a purchase. When we raised our tasting fee from $5 to $10 but comped it on any wine purchase, we found that the percentage of visitors coming to our tasting room who bought rose from 65% to 80%. Even a one-bottle purchase means that sometime in the future, that guest is going to open a bottle of your wine, often with friends, and relive the memory of having visited you.
    • Give away a logo glass. You’ll spend less time doing dishes, and your glass provides a reminder of the experience.  High-quality logo glasses sell for all of $2 in bulk.
    • Make sure that your wine club members know they are appreciated. Send them a welcome packet when they sign up.  Send a holiday card, and consider including a coupon (say, $20 off on their next order). It spurs new orders and keeps you top of mind.
    • Keep the costs of your events reasonable. An inexpensive (even free) event and an incentive to purchase while your customers are there can drive impressive sales. Adding a night-of-the-event-only 5% discount to our semi-annual wine club shipment tasting parties more than doubled our average sales.
    • Choose a wine each month to offer at a discount. This gives you something different to talk about each month in the tasting room, via email, or online (including through your social media). You can use this to focus attention on a new wine, or one whose sales are slow, or just rotate through your portfolio to raise awareness and excitement about the wines you make.
  • Put yourself in a position to continue the conversation with your customer even after they leave. Don’t assume that your connection ends when your customer leaves the tasting room. There are powerful tools available to maintain and even grow a connection that begins in the tasting room.
    • Build and use your lists. Are you asking all your customers if they are interested in joining your mailing list?  Adding just a small percentage of your foot traffic to your email lists (let alone your wine club lists) can give you a powerful tool to communicate special offers, share information about events, and generally build an ongoing connection to your base.  And once you have added these people to your lists, it's important to contact them regularly. An email every few months, with perhaps a print newsletter a couple of times a year, is generally seen as welcome rather than intrusive.
    • Work with new media to stay connected. The tasting room is your primary venue for creating a personal connection with your customers. Social media sites allow you to extend that connection, and help like-minded consumers find and follow you, and hopefully become customers.
      • Facebook should be a part of any winery’s marketing plan. With over 300,000,000 users, a significant portion of everyone's network is on Facebook. If you are not, you lose the opportunity to remain top of mind to a huge portion of your lists (it’s also a great way to make and maintain connections to distributors, trade and media).
      • A blog (like this one!) is a great way to personalize your business, communicate your core ideas and principals, and drive traffic to your Web site. It’s probably your best opportunity to tell an extended story.
      • Twitter can spur real-time interaction and feedback with an important (read: taste-making) segment 25,000,000 strong.
    • Make sure you're a good partner. Whether you're using social media or more traditional email or print marketing, make sure you provide valuable content in addition to (and probably more extensively than) you push sales.  Of course, sales are an important result of any marketing campaign, but if you cross the line and become one-dimensional or self-serving, or you'll push away the customers with whom you're trying to build a connection.

If you are going to be at Unified, and want the more detailed version of this, as well as the thoughts from the other panelists and Craig, our seminar will be 2:00pm on Thursday, January 28th.  I hope to see many of you there!