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.


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.


Tasting Room, Then and Now

By John Morris 

I recently ran across this photo of our tasting room staff from an outing in December of 2007.  The thing that strikes me most about this shot is the size of our group.  Our entire tasting room staff at the time consisted of 8 people.  Now, 3 and a half years later, we’re 16 strong.  Pictured from left to right are David, Phil, myself, Zach, Sylvia, Brian and Gustavo.  Absent due to a school-related commitment is Chelsea, then a member of our tasting room staff, now our assistant winemaker.  Since that time three of us have gotten married, one has become a father, another a step-father, and two have moved to the east coast.  Tellingly, five of the eight are still employed at Tablas Creek, six if you count the occasional guest appearance by Zach. 

New Image

David, on the far left, was my first hire, and is perhaps our most energetic, even as he is our oldest.  Everyone else pictured predates me.   Phil recently moved to the Boston area to help with his grandchildren after a lifetime in California.  He exuded an oasis of calm in the tasting room for over five years.  Zach completed training at the fire academy last year as he juggled shifts here, and became a father a few weeks ago.   Sylvia has been our assistant tasting room manager since before I moved to Paso, if that says anything.   Brian joined the Peace Corps and was posted in Morocco after a year-long stint here, and now resides in Washington D.C.   Gustavo (originally from Chile, but commonly mistaken as Frenchman) came aboard just before me, and has been a rock for the last four years.  He spent two months interning in the cellar at Chateau de Beaucastel last fall, and returned even more knowledgeable than before.  Much of the rest of our staff, including Steve, Cindy, Tedde and Mary have been here going on three years.  Deanna worked here some years ago and returned last year.  Recent additions are Alex, Lisa, Joelle, Charlie, Teri and our dynamic new assistant manager, Jennifer.  Austin, our winemaker’s son, now helps out on Saturdays.

A lot has been made of our splendid new tasting room, with good reason.  It’s much roomier, beautiful to look at, quieter, supremely functional, and has been a dream to work in.  The cellar crew loves it because we aren’t setting up tables in their space every weekend.  We love it because we aren’t setting up tables in their space every weekend!  If you haven’t been in, you owe it to yourself to check it out. 

But in even in this striking new space, it still comes back to people.  Behind the gorgeous new bars, reflected in the huge glass windows that allow a glimpse into the cellar, you’ll see most of the same faces you’ve come to know, doing our best to provide welcoming, personal service with an educational twist, pouring wines we never forget we are blessed to work with.  Here’s to my crew.


Our New Tasting Room is Ready!

We're thrilled that our months-long expansion is in its final stages.  The building is done.  The furniture in the new tasting room is complete, and that in our semi-private tasting rooms is nearly done.  We've got most of our landscaping in the ground, with the last pieces coming in the next week.  We even thought we'd be able to get into our tasting room this weekend before the accumulation of small things (permitting questions, contractor touch-ups, equipment testing) suggested that it might be better to be a little more conservative.  We're planning on next Tuesday (March 15th) as our first official day in our new space.

Those of you who have been following the construction project on Facebook have gotten to see the building at many stages.  And I've written recently on the blog about how we hope the experience of visiting the tasting room will communicate who we are.  But as recently as last week I posted a photo looking into our tasting room that showed the floors and tasting bars all still covered with protective wrapping.  But in the last week everything has come together.  I'm excited to be able to present our new tasting room.  First, the view from the front door, looking roughly north-west:

NewTR_1

A few features worth noting: the floor is three different colors of cork, which should be soft underfoot and should absorb some sound.  The sculptural centerpiece in the middle of the room will hold our merchandise, but will also break up the room so that when you're tasting at any bar you'll only see one other bar.  This helps keep the experience intimate even as we've nearly doubled our square footage.  And you can see that the cellar surrounds the tasting experience.  It's hard to tell in this photo, but those barrels are huge... eight feet high on the bottom row, fifteen at the top.  And they're really close.

NewTR_2

Moving further into the room, you're looking now to the north, where the foudres are on full display.  The bar on the right will hold our cash registers (we've doubled the installed space for these) so checking out will be easier.  All the bars and the centerpiece are made principally of bamboo, which makes for a beautiful finish and is among the most environmentally friendly of building materials.

NewTR_3

Continuing into the room, the camera is now on the back bar, looking back east toward the entrance.  You can see the two big cuvinets that are behind the checkout bar, as well as the sculptural leaf logos that are on the front of each bar.  The countertops are the same that we have used in our current tasting room, stained and sealed concrete, which gives a warm, natural feel to the bar tops.

NewTR_4

Finally, a view of the back of the sculptural centerpiece that will be the home for our merchandise.  This view is from the back corner of the room, looking south-east toward the front door.  It will look different once it has books, art, clothing and jewelry displayed, but it should be both beautiful and functional.

It's incredibly exciting for us to be so close to moving into our new space.  We hope that we've been able to improve upon what we appreciated about the space that we were in (the personal interaction, the proximity of the cellar, the natural look and feel of the materials) while allowing us to give better service to all the people who come to visit us each year.  We also have two additional rooms (not visible from any of these photos) to the south of the main tasting room which we can either open up to give us additional tasting bar space, or close of either for a private group or just to keep the space more intimate.  One of the rooms will even have the capability of pulling up chairs for seated tastings, which we're thinking we might use for special by-appointment library tastings.  Those rooms aren't quite done yet; when they are I'll post another series of photos on the blog.

Meanwhile, everyone who will be in town for Zinfandel Festival will be in for a treat.  Nothing like baptizing a new space with our second-busiest weekend of the year!  Come on out and let us know what you think.  After all, it's not about us... it's about you.


Olive Relocation Project

We're nearing the end of the construction that will eventually provide us with two new rooms for our cellar, nearly double our office space and -- most visibly -- a new tasting room.  I wrote last week about the efforts we're making to have the environment we're creating tell our story for us.  One of the efforts toward making our new series of terraces as appealing as possible is incorporating as much shade as possible for visitors looking to shelter from the often baking summer sunshine.  We're planting nine sycamores around the front patios and parking lot that in time will grow to provide ample shade.  Sycamores (also known as plane trees) are, after all, the shade tree of choice in Provence, often planted in stately avenues on either side of country roads and driveways.

But though we bought the largest sycamores that we could find (about 18 feet high) they're still young trees and will take some years to flesh out.  Because sycamores are water-loving, their roots penetrate very deep over time, which makes the survival rate of uprooted and replanted mature trees low.  So to provide a more mature look to our new front entrance, we decided to move five of the roughly 150 olive trees we planted around the property in 1995 to our new entrance.

Olives, unlike sycamores (and unlike most other trees) have a very compact root ball, and so are comparatively easy to move.  My dad remembers seeing to proprietor of Marques de Caceres in Rioja move olive trees that were hundreds of years old to save them from destruction.  And the equipment now available to facilitate the unplanting and replanting is remarkable.  The photo below, shows the series of blades after they have sliced down through the soil and then interlocked around the tree's roots:

IMG_0008

But we're getting ahead of ourselves.  The first step is to position the blades around the tree's base and then force them, one at a time, into the ground, severing any smaller roots cleanly:

IMG_0002  IMG_0005

Then the tree is lifted out of the ground: 

Overview_0001

And driven to its new location (in this case, next to one of our new terraces):

IMG_0007

The olive is placed in an already-prepared hole in the ground, and the blades are then removed from around the root ball:

IMG_0009  IMG_0011

Et voila:

IMG_0012

The process is a remarkable one to watch, and the impact dramatic on the new spaces to which the mature trees are relocated.  Look for the new (old) olives when you make your first visit!


Telling the Tablas Creek story... without words

As regular readers of the blog (or anyone who's visited Tablas Creek in the last six months) will know, we're in the final stages of expanding our winery and building a new tasting room.  The building is done, and we're working on landscaping the outside and finishing and furnishing the inside.  Watching the outside appearance take shape has made us more and more excited about the narrative that our setting will tell to visitors, before we even open our mouths.

I'm convinced that many wineries are missing opportunities to use the experience a visitor has in visiting their winery to communicate their core values. Sometimes, that's an unavoidable consequence of a tasting room's location, but just as often it seems to me that it's just a lack of forethought. We've tried hard to make the most of the opportunity we're offered by this fresh start to put forth a story about us that is unique, clear, and compelling.

Head-pruned-mourvedre The first thing that we want to emphasize is that a visitor to Tablas Creek is coming to a working vineyard and winery.  This is not a hospitality center.  It's not a tasting room with a show vineyard out front.  It is the entirety of our operation, where everything from the propagation of our grapevines to the growing of our grapes and the making of our wines takes place.  The area we've dedicated to our parking is nestled inside one of the most beautiful vineyard blocks we have, of dry-farmed, head-pruned Mourvedre.  Dry-farming is noteworthy for the concentration it brings to wines while retaining elegance.  And head-pruning is traditional in Chateauneuf-du-Pape though comparatively rare in California.  So in addition to emphasizing that they're at a vineyard, it will start to tell the story of what sort of vineyard they're visiting.  The photo to the right was taken in that block, just after pruning.

Next, we to communicate why we chose this place.  There were three factors that brought us to Paso Robles in 1989, at a time when the region had essentially no Rhone varieties in the ground and not much of a reputation: a favorable climate, ample winter rainfall, and limestone soils.  The climate is implicit to most visitors, and our new patios outside will give guests a great place to relax, picnic and enjoy the sun.  The limestone will be more explicit, as we've surrounded the parking area with a dry-laid limestone wall similar to the one around our current parking area.  We're also embedding limestone boulders in the concrete of our patios and integrating them into our landscaping.  Below on the left is a photo of our mostly-completed limestone wall, and on the right of one of the limestone boulders on our patio.

Limestone wall  Embedded_boulder_0001

We're also distinguished by our history, both our association with Beaucastel and our decision to import our grapevines from France in 1989.  We have a vintage Beaucastel sign, salvaged from the Beaucastel estate by Neil during his stint in the cellars there, outside our current tasting room, with the distance (and direction) noted.  This sign will move to our new front entrance.  We'll also be bringing several of the large pots of mother vines up from our grapevine nursery and using them to decorate our patios and landscaping.  These vines are the foundation of all our vineyard plantings, as well as those of the hundreds of other vineyards and wineries to whom we've sold cuttings over the last fifteen years.  I'm not sure what the American Rhone movement would look like had we not brought over these vines (or had we not made the decision to share them with other growers) but it would surely look far different than it does today.  The Beaucastel sign, on the left, and a collection of mother vines, on the right:

Beaucastel_sign  Mother_vines

In addition, we'd like our visitors to see how we're working in an environmentally responsibile way.  It may not be evident that our vineyard is farmed organically, but two of features of our environmental efforts will be apparent to visitors.  The new parking area is tucked under solar panels that will be immediately evident upon arrival.  Upon departure, visitors will see the wetland that we created to naturally treat our winery wastewater across our driveway from the parking lot entrance.  The view of the solar panels, below left, is particularly distinctive in contrast to the ancient technology of the dry-laid stone wall in front of it.  The wetlands area is below, right, in a photo taken during a blue heron's visit a couple of summers ago.

Solar_limestone_0001  Blue_heron_0002

So, we hope that visitors will have learned a lot about who we are before they've even stepped through our front door.  And once they enter, they'll be greeted by walls of windows that look into the cellar on two sides of the tasting room, and chalkboards updated each day that let visitors know what's going on in the cellar.  We'll be installing a bank of foudres (like the one below, left) in one of the two rooms, and placing our upright fermentation tanks (below, right) in the other.  These large wooden casks are unusual in California, though traditional in Chateauneuf-du-Pape.  They allow us to age our wines without overlaying a heavy oak imprint on the flavors.

Foudres  First_Syrah_2009_0006

Hopefully, before we even open our mouths, a new visitor to Tablas Creek will have a good sense of who we are and what we value.  What's that message?  Well, if it's something like "you've arrived at a traditional estate winery that has embraced innovative, environmentally responsible techniques to produce rich but mineral-driven wines with a French Rhone heritage" we'll be on the right track.


A video tour of the new addition to Tablas Creek

The construction of our new cellar, office and tasting room space is proceeding nicely.  We've got floors, walls (or at least framing), and a roof over much of the new addition.  It's gone up fast over the last month or so, and we're starting to really get a feel for what the space will be like when it's done. 

I have found myself walking through the evolving space each day, envisioning what it will be like from a guest's perspective.  And it has been fun to see the reactions of people who've known the property for a long time.  I thought it might be appealing to do give a little video tour of the new construction.  This video was taken about three weeks ago, and so we've already made a lot of progress beyond what you'll see here.  But it should give you a sense of the scale of the rooms that we're creating, and how we hope that they'll make for a great tasting experience.

I will do another walking tour in a few weeks, to keep you updated on how the addition is progressing.


An update on construction: photos of a space taking shape

It's been wild watching a new building take shape outside our windows over the past two months.  As regular readers know (my dad posted in June about our pending construction) we're adding 8,000 square feet onto our winery building, incorporating more office space, a new fermentation room, a new room for our foudres, and a new tasting room nestled between the two new cellar spaces with big waist-to-ceiling windows looking into both.

What's been unusual is that the building will eventually be contiguous with our current office and cellar spaces, and so we've had an up close view of the work.  The photo below gives you a sense of the sometimes alarming proximity:

Heavy equipment

The sequence of events began with several weeks of earth work, excavating and flattening the area that would sit underneath the new construction.  About two months ago, we could see the first signs of the building itself: lines painted on the ground that indicated footing walls and drainage pipes:

Lines_0001

The next stages involved digging trenches and pouring concrete for footings:

Footer_0001   Concrete_block_0001

Then there was another pause while less-visible work took place: the layout, trenching and covering of conduits for drains, water, electricity and telecommunications.  Once all that was in place, they poured the floors for the tasting room and office spaces:

Poured_concrete_0001

The concrete for the fermentation and foudre rooms was more complex because of the drains in the floors and the exact slopes that the floors had to follow.  The drains were installed at the time of the first concrete pouring about a week ago, but the cellar floors weren't poured until yesterday.  Two photos taken from the same location show the change:

Concrete_tr_0003   Foudre_construction_0002

A close-up view of the drains that will be in the foudre room shows the slope.  The foudres will sit back-to-back, with the front row facing left toward what will be the tasting room and the back row facing right toward the back wall of the room. 

Foudre_construction_0003

We've also been excavating what will be the parking area.  We love that our visitors will be parking so close to the vineyard, encircled by a block of head-pruned Mourvedre vines and our solar panels:

Concrete_tr_0002

To give you a better idea of the layout of the space, I will leave you with the site plan.  You can see the existing building, the new space, the parking area inside the vines (the solar panels are off-screen to the top) and, perhaps most excitingly, the cascade of patios running down the hill from the tasting room toward the south, which should give great spaces to sit, relax and enjoy a glass of Tablas Creek with friends.

Plan


Business as Usual

by Robert Haas

Or, maybe I should write business as unusual: then and now.

Construction_start

As you can see from the photo view, we are starting new construction on the third and last phase of building Tablas Creek Vineyard’s winery: adding 8,000 sq. ft. to give us one-third more working space in the winery and in the offices, and a new tasting room integrated into the cellar on the east side of the winery, facing Adelaida Road. A rendering of the new tasting room and entrance shows what it should look like at completion.

Construction_rendering

We've come a long way since the winery’s original construction in 1997:

Construction_1997

Thanks to a little serendipity we are able to operate our tasting room without inconvenience to our visitors throughout construction. We are able to do so not because of thoughtful planning on our part but because our original business plan did not include a tasting room! Our original thinking about how to market Tablas Creek followed the French model, where wineries are largely absent from the marketing of their product. Château de Beaucastel, like most top French estate wineries, is open to tasters by appointment only and direct sales represent only a tiny part of their business.

By 2002, we had come to the conclusion that our lack of a tasting room was a mistake. Guests who made appointments and came to visit left like disciples, and we would hear stories months later of people with whom a visitor had spoken who had themselves become excited about Tablas Creek. It became clear that making it easier for people to experience our wines and learn our story would only help us distinguish ourselves within the world of wine. What’s more, we calculated that the direct to consumer sales allowed by a tasting room were essential for our bottom line. So we converted our original entrance foyer on the west side (facing away from Adelaida Road) into a tasting room, and three years later expanded into what had been our conference room and my office. We chose this space as the only reasonable area for a tasting room within the current building. Not at all in our thinking at the time was that our second and third phases of construction were planned for the opposite side of the winery.

And oh, do we need the extra space. We’re outgrowing our cellar space, our offices and our tasting room simultaneously. The cellar has been saved the past few years by drought-reduced harvests, but we have nowhere to put the new upright fermenters or additional foudres we’d like to add to the cellar, and have had to store barrels in a refrigerated barn down near our greenhouses. All our staff are double- or triple-bunked in offices. And those of you who have come to see us on weekends have at times been asked to wait while we clear up space at a tasting bar, or have been served at the folding tables we set up in our barrel room every Friday. Even better, the new tasting room will be integrated into the new cellar construction, with walls of windows into both fermentation and barrel storage and – we hope – ongoing educational opportunities for everyone who comes to taste.

So, once again, serendipity plays its role. Visitors will see the new construction as they drive past the winery, but it will be far away from the tasting room itself and should be unnoticeable to guests.

Harvard Business School teaches (or at least it used to teach), “Build your business plan and then stick to it.” But my own 60 years of business experience has taught me, “If the plan has flaws change it.” So we did. And here we are in 2010 expecting to comfortably receive about 24,000 visitors, all the while preparing our premises for future decades.


Changes at the 2010 Paso Robles Wine Festival

We just finished the Paso Robles Wine Festival for 2010.  As usual, it was a whirlwind of activity, with a delicious dinner Friday night at the Cass House Inn in Cayucos, pourings with the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance on Friday and Saturday evenings downtown in Paso Robles, and our annual salmon brunch and Rosé launch on Sunday morning out at the winery.

The weather was wonderful, cool and crisp, and the park was busy with enthusiastic tasters as attendance rose slightly compared to 2009.  The Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance has made a concerted effort to make the event classier and more comprehensive over the last five years.  Ticket prices have gone up moderately, weeding out some party-goers.  Additional events such as a VIP/trade hour, the Friday evening Reserve tasting, and educational seminars now allow attendees who are interested in closer contact with local winemakers this access.  The salmon brunch was delicious; Chef Jeff Scott continues to do an amazing job.  A couple of photos of the next generation of Haases (Eli, on left, and Sebastian on right) enjoying the event:

WineFest_2010_0002 WineFest_2010_0001

And one of me with Nikki Getty, who runs our wine club, hospitality and events:

WineFest_2010_0003

This year, the PRWCA added a joint winemaker dinner and auction that raised over $100,000 for the Alliance's charity efforts.  Also new this year, they moved the Saturday Grand Tasting later in the day from 1pm-5pm to 3pm-7pm.  That was supposed to have two effects: to help get the event out of the heat of the day and to help open the day up for event attendees to visit the winery tasting rooms.  And we did get more traffic on Saturday: we saw 260 tasters this year, up from an average of 175 the past three years.  Even though sales per customer were down nearly 20% it was still a good day, better than recent Wine Festival Saturdays if not measurably better than a normal Saturday in the busy spring season. 

But Sunday was a different story.  Both traffic and sales were down dramatically, with traffic down 42% from an average of 268 people to this year's 156 and sales per customer no better than the averages we saw the past three years.  Perhaps most dramatically, we went from signing up an average of 13 new wine club members on Wine Festival Sunday to signing up just 2 this year.  Summing up the results between the two days, the improvement on Saturday did not make up for the decline on Sunday.  For the weekend our sales were down 15% and our wine club signups down 53% compared to the average of our results of the last three years.

I would typically suspect that a decline in our numbers like this were due to something lacking about the tasting room experience.  But I don't think that is the case here.  The tasting room has been on a great run recently, putting up some of its best numbers ever.  We have a terrific, experienced tasting room crew, and we staffed up so heavily for Wine Festival this year that we had tasting room attendants practically competing with each other to have the privilege of serving each new guest.  My second suspicion was that it was something we'd changed in our events for the weekend.  And we did add a charge to attend the salmon brunch in 2010 that we hadn't had in past years.  We did this because we found that the event, which was free to wine club members and free with a tasting fee to non-members, was attracting people who would leave without even entering the tasting room.  Our average sales to the people who came to the salmon tasting in 2009 was roughly half that of our other visitors that day.  Given that the salmon tasting itself was costing us roughly $20 a head, about the level of the average salmon-tasting-attendee purchase, that didn't make a lot of sense.  Plus, the crowds that entered the tasting room all at once after the event ended overwhelmed the tasting room's capabilities, meaning that neither the event's attendees nor the other customers got the experience we wanted.  This year, though the attendance at the salmon brunch was down significantly (from about 150 to about 50) the 50 attendees bought nearly as much wine as the 150 had done last year.

No, it was the rest of the day that was the culprit.  It was so slow in the afternoon that our tasting room manager sent half his staff home.  And we've heard that other wineries and tasting rooms were similarly disappointed in Sunday's sales and traffic. 

I have some speculations as to why the changes made to Wine Festival might have had the impact that they did.  First, moving the grand tasting later made it easier to taste for a partial day on Saturday (stopping in time to get to the event by 3pm) rather than a full day on Sunday.  Second, the later end to the event and the fact that many people had begun their day with wine tasting may have meant that people were wined out by the time that they had to make the decision of whether or not to go tasting on Sunday.  I can imagine, after wine tasting most of the day and finishing with a four-hour wine festival, that I'd choose to go to the beach or to Hearst Castle rather than heading back out to more wineries.  And finally, I'd think that this burnout would be most applicable to the attendees of the gala dinner and auction, who didn't finish their Saturday until after 10pm and who also shelled out $500 per couple to attend.  Between the cost and the fatigue, I would guess that it was these attendees who made the largest difference in our end results.

Our tasting room, like most retail establishments, lives by the 80/20 rule, where 20% of the customers provide 80% of the business.  The majority of our tasting room customers buy just a bottle or two, or even just pay the tasting fee.  But it's the minority who get really excited about what they find that keep our average sales (and our wine club signup numbers) strong.  So, if even a small percentage of the best buyers are eliminated, it can have a dramatic impact on total sales.  The 400 attendees of the wine dinner and auction represented about 10% of the total attendees of the wine festival.  But I'd think that they represented some of the best buyers, and that the lateness and the expense of the event likely discouraged many of them from heading out to tasting rooms the next day.  If I'm right, this could be the major factor in the decline in Sunday's sales and the dramatic falloff in wine club signups. 

The key, for me, is to remember that Wine Festival is not an end in itself.  It is the creation of the organization that the local wineries task with marketing and promoting the area and its wineries.  If the event is successful at the expense of the wineries' results, it is actually not achieving what it needs to achieve.

I'm curious to know, from any readers who attended Wine Festival this year, what you thought.  Did you enjoy the event?  Did the changes in the event change your behavior the rest of the weekend?  I'll be meeting with the marketing committee of the PRWCA next week, and it will be at the top of our agenda.