Lyricism and the Power of a Great Wine Review

The wine review is a bit of a hoary tradition, much ridiculed among the new generation of wine writers. And I get some of that. Describing which red fruit (Is it raspberry? Currant? Huckleberry?) or what herb (Thyme? Savory? Chervil?) is most evident in a wine can get esoteric, arbitrary, even twee.  And, sure, it's easy to see how someone tasked with writing dozens of reviews each day can fall into patterns which make one wine seem much like another.  As an antidote, Eric Asimov from the New York Times challenged the 2011 Wine Blogger's Conference in his keynote speech to spend the next year not writing a single wine review, instead focusing on why their readers should care about the wine in the first place.

And yet, a great review can bring a wine to life in amazing ways, turning a description of a wine's colors, flavors, aromas and textures into a character sketch that is indelibly individual.  Last week we received such a series of reviews from Nashville, Tennessee-based wine writer Fredric Koeppel on his blog Bigger than Your Head.


I've followed Bigger Than Your Head for several years, since I became aware of Fredric's work thanks to the 2008 Wine Blog Awards, for which he was a finalist in the "Best Wine Review Blog" category (this blog won the much less competitive "Best Winery Blog" category that same year).  Fredric didn't win that year, but did in both 2009 and 2010, deservedly so, and was a finalist in both "Best Wine Review" and "Best Writing on a Wine Blog" the last two years.  What sets his reviews apart from the herd?  There are several aspects, none of which make him unique, but which in total set him among the very top cohort of wine reviewers, for my taste:

  • He values context, and pulls out threads that tie together all the wines, describing as accurately as any article I've seen the style and influence of Tablas Creek's people and place.
  • His writing is precise.  He doesn't recycle the same few descriptors, but brings in evocative flavors one doesn't normally associate with wine (our article included the descriptors "graham cracker", "marsh grass","iodine", "briars", and "spruce").
  • He breaks a wine down into color, aromas, flavors, texture, and finish, and describes each piece sufficiently that you feel you come to know a wine. Of course, this takes a certain freedom from word limits and column inches.
  • He gives a quality judgment, independent from the flavors he describes.  This isn't the omnipresent 100-point scale, nor is it some similar but simplified 20, 10, or 5-point scale.  His quality descriptors are intuitive; the ones used in our wines that he reviewed were "very good+", "excellent" and "exceptional". He's also not afraid to note wines that he does not recommend, which gives him credibility with the ones that he does.
  • He notes value, highlighting wines that punch above their price category.

If you need further convincing to click over to his post, here's one review I particularly loved, that I felt captured our 2010 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc -- a wine I think is the best white we've yet produced -- perfectly. If you don't agree, well, don't go read the rest. But I think you will.

Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc 2010, Paso Robles. 13.5% alc. 2,100 cases. 60% roussanne, 35% grenache blanc, 5% picpoul blanc. Pale straw-gold color; lovely balance and poise, light on its feet with a wonderful well-knit texture with finely-honed acidity and plangent steely, limestone qualities; again, a white wine of shades and degrees of nuance, lightly spiced, delicately fitted with lemon and pear flavors and a hint of apricot; all bound with that spruce-tinged minerality. Excellent. About $40


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.

Reflecting on a decade of Esprit de Beaucastel

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

Esprit 2010 in 6-packs

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

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

Some of the challenges we faced, at the time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bottling 2010 esprit 2

Has TripAdvisor overtaken Yelp for winery visitors?

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

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

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

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

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

Our experience suggests that neglecting TripAdvisor is a mistake.

Reflections on Tablas Creek's 2011 Best Winery Blog award

Wba-winery-WINNER-2011 On Saturday, at the 2011 Wine Bloggers Conference in Charlottesville, VA, the winners of the 2011 Wine Blog Awards were announced.  One of them was us!  Thank you to everyone who voted; the award was 50% determined by votes from the public.  The other 50% was determined by the votes of the panel of expert judges who culled the list of nominees down to the five-ish finalists in each category.

The world of wine blogs is rich and diverse, and growing all the time.  The fact that speakers at the Wine Blog Awards included traditional media figures (and wine writer titans) Eric Asimov and Jancis Robinson shows just how far blogging has penetrated into the mainstream of wine discussion, and how blurry -- some at the conference would say irrelevant -- the boundary between wine writer and wine blogger has become.  As always, I learned a lot and developed some new favorites reading through the blogs of the other finalists.  And it's only fitting that Tom Wark's Fermentation won both "Best Overall Wine Blog" and "Best Industry Blog".  After all, Tom created the Wine Blog Awards back in 2007 and this was his first year eligible after handing the awards off to a nonprofit consortium two years ago.  Congratulations to all the winners.  The complete list:

Best Overall Wine Blog – Fermentation
Best New Wine Blog – Terroirist
Best Writing on a Wine Blog – Vinography
Best Winery Blog – Tablas Creek
Best Single Subject Wine Blog – New York Cork Report
Best Wine Reviews on a Wine Blog – Enobytes
Best Industry/Business Wine Blog – Fermentation
Best Wine Blog Graphics, Photography, & Presentation – Vino Freakism

I am proud that this was the fourth year in a row that the Tablas Creek blog was a finalist.  I'm also proud that the last year of the Tablas Creek blog has been more of a communal effort than ever before, including several great posts by my dad and contributions from two new authors: Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Magnusson, writing Notes from the Cellar, and Tasting Room Manager John Morris, writing View from the Tasting Room.  Each brings a different perspective to our effort to share our experiences as we make, sell, plan and reflect on Tablas Creek.

Thank you to all of you who take the time, whether regularly or occasionally, to read our thoughts.

The Tablas Creek Blog is a finalist at the 2011 Wine Blog Awards!

Wba-winery-finalist-logo We are proud that, for the fourth year in a row, the very Tablas Creek blog that you're reading has been named one of five finalists for "Best Winery Blog" in the 2011 Wine Blog Awards.  We won the award in 2008 (the inaugural year of the awards) and would love to take the prize back from the 2010 winner: the always-worthy Randall Grahm, again a finalist this year.

Finalists were selected from dozens of nominations by a panel of experts.  The award itself is determined 50% by the votes of the public and 50% by the judging panel.  So, we encourage you to vote on the results... your opinions really do matter.  You can vote at

In addition to "Best Winery Blog" the categories are "Best New Blog", "Best Writing", "Best Single Subject", "Best Wine Reviews", "Best Industry Blog", "Best Presentation, Photography, Graphics", and "Best Overall Wine Blog".  And in each category are wine blogs that I read myself at least weekly.  The quality of the writing and of the journalism in the wine blogging world has never been better, and it's an honor to be able to be a part of such an accomplished, creative group of writers.

Whether or not you have been following every post on this blog, I thought that it might be an appropriate time to look back at a few of my own favorites over the past year.  In date order, with some brief notes on why I think each is worth revisiting:

  • The appeal of wine in keg... and an appeal to the restaurants who want it (July 2010).  I couldn't believe how much the infrastructure for selling wine in kegs has improved in the last year.  Evidently we weren't the only wineries looking at the options and asking for help!  Of course, we still haven't figured out how to get the kegs back to us anywhere outside of California...
  • A great idea by the Rhone Rangers: Pneumonia's Last Syrah (September 2010).  Still one of the best marketing ideas I've had the pleasure of being a part of.  This editorial ended up on the back page of Wines&Vines a couple of months later.
  • Biodynamics and dry-farming: repairing the failings of "modern" viticulture (November 2010).  An important step in my own personal journey in understanding why the choices that we make in our viticulture matters in the way that the wines taste.
  • A post-harvest round table discussion with Tablas Creek's winemakers (December 2010).  A great video filmed and edited by Tommy Oldre that captures the personalities of our winemaking team (and our winemaking dog) as succinctly as I can imagine possible.  And it's worth remembering just how unusual 2010 was.  Literally unprecedented in our experience.
  • Zombie legislation: HR 5034 lurches back to life as HR 1161 (March 2011).  I love the occasional times I get to do political or legal analysis.  My belief is that the wholesalers' lobby is going to reintroduce similarly consumer- (and winery-) unfriendly legislation each year until the opposition gets complacent and doesn't raise a hue and cry.  Consider this my contribution to raising the hue and cry for 2011.
  • Blending, blending, blending... and an eventual look at the 2010 whites! (April 2011).  The blending of the 2010 whites was the longest we've ever faced, and provided the clearest example yet of how our process protects us from our own biases.  I lay out all the messiness in this post.
  • The Remarkable Rise of Paso Robles (May 2011).  A reflection on how Paso Robles has come as far as it has, as fast as it has, made more relevant by Stacie Jacob's announcement the next week that she would be leaving the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance after seven years at the helm.
  • Investigating an Attempted Wine Scam (June 2011).  The post which received the most comments over the last year (14 and counting!) and I've heard from dozens of other wineries letting me know that they'd found this post after googling the attempted scam or attempted scammer.  Nice to know that shedding a little light on a problem can provide real help.

As always, thank you for your support.  It's an honor to have been able to do this for as long as I have.

The Remarkable Rise of Paso Robles

In the course of my work with Tablas Creek, I work closely with winery associations like Rhone Rangers and Family Winemakers of California that bring me into contact with winemakers and winery principals from other American wine producing regions.  One refrain I've been hearing for the last few years has been "Wow, Paso Robles is on a roll".  The follow up is usually either a question like "How did you do it?" or a comment that "I wish that my region could do what Paso has done."

Paso Robles Sign It's not that long ago that Paso Robles was a relative unknown.  When I started selling our wines in the early years of the 2000's, I would routinely meet wine industry professionals who didn't know where Paso was, or even that it was in the Central Coast.  Those who did know it thought of it as a place to grow rustic Zinfandels or inexpensive Bordeaux varieties.

So how did Paso Robles go from backwater to next-big-thing in a decade?  I think that there are six principal reasons that Paso has been able to be as successful as it has.

  • The inherent quality of the terroir.  I'll start with the most obvious.  Paso Robles has a remarkable combination of soils and climate.  These characteristics led us to choose Paso in 1989 as the home for our at-that-time-unnamed Rhone project, even though there were no Rhones in the ground there, it was on no one's list of the next great California wine region, and it had no cachet that would help make the wines more marketable.  All of the below factors wouldn't mean much if the region wasn't capable of making remarkable wines.  Between the notable concentration of calcium-rich soils, the largest diurnal temperature swing in the state, the rainfall in the western hills that permits dry-farming and the long growing season with limited threat of harvest rainfall it's a tremendous spot to plant and grow grapes.
  • The leadership of the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance.  I speak to producers from other regions who point again and again to the work that the PRWCA has done over the tenure of Stacie Jacob as Executive Director.  They launched an annual road show, began regular work bringing both media and key restaurateurs and retailers out to visit Paso Robles, refined the annual series of events in Paso Robles that exposes the region to thousands of consumers each year, and began targeted marketing and advertising campaigns that did a lot to bring the region into the public eye.  What's more, they did it in a way that united the region's growers and winemakers, as well as the wineries large and small, east and west.  In 2005 it was not at all clear that the Paso Robles region would remain a single unit, with work underway for a Paso Robles Westside AVA and real friction between vintners and growers.  By producing clear benefits for all the different constituencies that make up the Paso Robles wine community the PRWCA has managed to have an enormous impact. 
  • The willingness of the major winery players in the area to work to support the region.  The PRWCA's efforts would not, I don't think, have been possible without buy-in from all the major players in Paso Robles.  The leading wineries on the east side (such as J. Lohr, Eberle, and EOS) as well as west side (like Justin, Tablas Creek, L'Aventure) have all participated actively in the Wine Alliance's efforts, and other than us all have served on the PRWCA's board of directors.  Paso Robles is a wine community of joiners with principals willing to work together.  That's rarer than you might think; I know that many regions' associations have trouble even getting their members to attend their events, let alone support the association with funds for coherent marketing.
  • The city of Paso Robles' welcome embrace of wine community.  Justin Baldwin is fond of telling the story that when he moved to Paso Robles, the best dinner in town was the tuna melt at the bowling alley.  By my first visit a decade later, the best food was the Denny's.  In the 1980s and 1990s you didn't go into Paso Robles to eat, or shop (except for groceries) or relax.  Downtown vacancy was over 40%.  It was a dying ranching town, without many prospects for renaissance.  But the wine community's growth, and the tourism that followed, has brought the town back to life.  There are now amazing restaurants, fun shops, and a vibrant downtown park surrounded by the decade-old city hall/library and movie theater.  The continued willingness of the community to embrace the local wineries -- driven in no small part by the relatively recent memories of how depressed Paso Robles was -- has allowed the community to focus on outreach rather than waging the internecine not-in-my-back-yard battles seen in other California wine regions.
  • The rise in wine tourism punctuated by the release of Sideways.  Most people associate Sideways, released late in 2004, with a dramatic growth in Pinot Noir sales and an associated decline in Merlot.  And those effects are indisputable.  But I would point to two other impacts of the movie.  First, it romanticized and personalized the experience of going to wine country to taste wine, which was an important factor in the growth of wine tourism around the country.  Second, it was set in Santa Barbara County, which drove home the point that there was wine in California outside Napa to an audience largely unaware of the fact.  No, we didn't see the busloads of movie-crazed tourists that the Santa Ynez Valley did, but we had perhaps an even better result.  The southern California wine lovers who typically patronized the Santa Barbara County wineries featured in the movie skipped over the tourist hordes and came to the next region north: Paso Robles.
  • Advocacy from key members of the wine media, principally Robert Parker.  With the recent recognition of Paso Robles as the home of the Wine Spectator's wine of the year, it may be hard to remember the impact of Robert Parker's declaration in June of 2005 that "there is no question that a decade from now, the top viticultural areas of Santa Barbara, Santa Rita Hills, and the limestone hillsides west of Paso Robles will be as well-known as the glamorous vineyards of Napa Valley".  The media buzz has built from there, with notable contributions from Steve Tanzer and more recently James Laube in the Wine Spectator.  This media enthusiasm led uncounted numbers of wine enthusiasts and collectors to explore Paso Robles, and eventually pulled along the wine trade (typically more conservative than either consumers or media due to entrenched relationships and the sheer inertia of size). A scroll back through our press links will give you a good sense of how consistent the press attention has been over recent years, particularly in the late 2005-mid 2007 period when Decanter, Bon Appetit, Gourmet, Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, the San Francisco Chronicle, Sunset and Food&Wine all wrote feature articles about the Paso Robles wine region.

When we bought the land that would become Tablas Creek in 1989, there were seventeen wineries here, and no Rhone varieties in the ground.  This year, there will be over 220 wineries, and Paso Robles has California's largest acreage of Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Roussanne and Grenache Blanc.  And the region has a lot more potential for growth; even in the prime vineyard land out west of town less than one-third the cleared plantable acres have been planted to grapes.  With many of the top vineyards less than 20 years old the future is bright.  In the immortal words of Bachman-Turner Overdrive: You ain't seen nothing yet.

Tablas Creek is in Vogue!

No, literally.  We're in Vogue Magazine, at least the online version Vogue Daily, in an Earth Day-themed article called The Green List.  Somewhat more affordable than the $100 repairative moisturizer from an organic farm in Vermont, the vacation in a sustainably-sourced villa in Vietnam, or the beautiful geode-and-responsibly-mined-diamond earrings is the 2008 Esprit de Beaucastel, tied in a pretty cotton-fiber gift tag.


We don't much post press here on the blog (there's a page for that on our Web site: Tablas Creek In the News) but this was so much fun that I thought I should.  A gift to impress the eco-conscious hostess... how nice! Thank you to Peter Zitz from our most excellent New York distributor Michael Skurnik Wines for suggesting Tablas Creek to the editor, and for sending us the link.

Tablas Creek is a 2010 "Best Winery Blog" finalist!

WBA_Finalist_2010 I'm proud to announce that Tablas Creek has again been named a finalist for "Best Winery Blog" at the 2010 Wine Blog Awards.  These awards were created four years ago by the tireless Tom Wark (whose blog Fermentation is a daily must-read for anyone in the wine community) to recognize the growing importance of the blogging community on the world of wine and were this year handed over to the nonprofit OpenWine Consortium.  The awards (which in past years were called the American Wine Blog Awards) have been opened up to this year to any English-language blog in the world.

As in previous years, your votes will help determine the winners; in the final tally, 50% of the weighting comes from voting by the public, and 50% from the votes of the panel of eleven expert judges (whose names are typically revealed after the awards are announced) who culled all the nominations into the five finalists in each category.  So please vote!

The most interesting part of the process for me is always discovering the blogs I wasn't aware of.  The Best Winery Blog finalists include two other winery blogs I consider must-reads (4488: A Ridge Blog and Twisted Oak's El Bloggio Torcido and two that I didn't yet know (Bonny Doon's Been Doon So Long and Quevedo Port).  How did I not know that Randall Grahm was blogging? 

I am particularly proud that Tablas Creek is the only repeat finalist from the 2009 Best Winery Blog category.

You can browse the list of finalists, or if you know who you like, you can vote here.  Voting ends Sunday, May 30th.

Whither inexpensive, artisanal California wine?

In early March I was interviewed by Jordan Mackay for an article in the New York Times called "Local Versions of Europe's Everyday Wines".  In it, Jordan explored why so few California winemakers were attempting to make inexpensive but artisanal wines that can compete with the basic regional wines of France. This seems to be a topic of broader interest among wine writers; Jon Bonné wrote a similar article (“California’s Côtes du Rhone”) in the San Francisco Chronicle last year.  I caught up with Jon at this past weekend’s Rhone Rangers tasting, and our conversation wandered to this topic.  He suggested that smaller California wineries are only now focusing their attention on making wines in this $10 to $20 category, but that with the market hungry for these sorts of wines, the category will grow.  I think he's right, and that as long as winemakers can find older vineyards of less-fashionable varietals, we'll see growth. Still, there are structural issues with the economics of grape growing in California that will inhibit the production of these wines – even if the market rewards those that are produced.

We recently considered whether our own cost structure could support adding a vineyard that would either allow greater production of our Cotes de Tablas wines (our least expensive wines, around $25 retail) or produce grapes to sell at the going rate for top vineyards in our area.  This prospective vineyard was beautiful – 20 acres on a mountaintop near the summit of Peachy Canyon Road, five miles south-east of Tablas Creek – and it was clear to us that it will make a great vineyard.  But, as we did the math, we couldn't make it come out to break-even either in selling the grapes or in making more Cotes de Tablas. 

Here's how the math works, using Tablas Creek's costs and production from 2008 (a fairly average year for us).  Our 2008 vineyard expenses (between labor and benefits, depreciation, taxes, materials, fuel & maintenance, utilities, licenses and fees) were $612,313, and we harvested 262 tons of grapes off our 95 producing acres.  So, our cost of producing each ton was $2,337 and our yield 2.75 tons per acre.  Our cost of grape production, not counting interest on our land or improvements, was $6,427 per acre.

The owner of the 20-acre property was asking around $1 million for those 20 plantable acres.  A 30-year mortgage on $1 million at 5.75% would require about $70,000 in payments per year.  Planting costs in an irrigated, trellised vineyard are typically about $30,000 per acre.  Head-pruned, dry-farmed vineyards are notably less expensive (around $4,500 per acre) but yields are typically lower and the vineyard may take an extra year or two to come into production.  Assuming that we financed the planting costs, we'd add another $42,000 in finance payments each year ($6,300 if we chose to head-prune and dry farm).  Total financing costs of $112,000 per year, divided by 20 acres, comes to $5,600 per acre, though planting head-pruned, dry-farmed could reduce that to about $3,800 per acre.

So, our total costs (in financing and expenses) per acre per year would be something like $12,000 ($10,200 if we chose to dry farm). Could we expect to recoup our farming costs?  If we sold grapes, probably not. The top vineyards in our area charge between $3,000 and $4,500 per ton for grapes.  At our yields (2.75 tons per acre in 2008) we could expect between and $8,250 and $12,375 in grape revenue per year.  If instead we chose to dry-farm, we felt it was unreasonable to expect more than 2 tons per acre, so even at $4,500 per ton, we wouldn't cover our $10,200 annual farming cost.

Would the financial picture look better if we used the extra production to make more of our Cotes de Tablas?  Not really.  We'd typically sell the wine for $150/case into the wholesale market, allowing for the distributor's and the retailer's markup.  Our vineyard costs come to about $73/case ($4,363 cost per ton calculated at 60 cases per ton).  The crush and winemaking costs (based on our 2008 Cotes de Tablas) add another $44/case, and the bottling costs (bottles, labels, capsules and labor) $20/case.  That totals $137/case in cost of production, not counting costs of overhead or to sell the wine.

It's worth noting that the assumptions above are for a vineyard that is financed 100%. But any money that is paid up front rather than financed incurs opportunity costs roughly equivalent to financing costs. These opportunity costs represent the lost profits from not having invested this money elsewhere.

Our net decision was an easy one.  We didn't buy the additional property.

So, for what sort of proprietor would such a property make sense?  It would work for a producer who built a winery and tasting room and sold much or all of the production direct.  They would have to be willing to put $3 million or more into the project (between land, planting, vineyard improvement and winery), but the higher margins in direct sales make it a viable proposition after that.  Or a savvy investor in land might take a chance, given that the price of prime vineyard land here is almost certain to appreciate.  Someone who bought it and covered most of their annual costs through selling grapes could come out ahead given that in a dozen years it might sell for double what it's worth now.

In the calculations above, you can see how large a portion of the annual expenses the initial investments in land and planting represent.  And I think that these costs are the real reason why most wine reviewers think that Europe enjoys a competitive advantage in the $10-$20 price category.  There is so much old vineyard planted in all the traditional wine-producing countries that a winemaker can find inexpensive grapes from older vines on vineyards long since bought and paid for.

Will that ever be possible in California, where most vineyards have to be planted from scratch, on land that is often in demand for development and therefore more expensive?  We'll see some growth, I'm sure, as long a it's still possible to find overlooked older vineyards.  But the numbers above shed some light on why small California producers, working with similar economies of scale and similar restrictions on mechanization, tend not to aim their wines at the under-$20 portion of the market.