Tasting the Wines in the Fall 2011 VINsider Wine Club Shipment

Every six months, we send out a six-bottle shipment of wines to the members of our VINsider Wine Club.  The fall shipment is the showcase for our signature wines, and is typically centered around both our Esprit de Beaucastel and our Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc.  Beyond that, though, we get to choose more eclectic wines that we're excited about, often including single varietal renditions of grapes our fans know better from our blends, or small-production blends that we think express something interesting about Tablas Creek.  This year, we chose to include the beautiful 2010 Marsanne, our first-ever rendition of Hermitage's signature grape, the 2010 Picpoul Blanc, with its interplay of bright and lush, intensely reminiscent of pina colada, and the 2009 En Gobelet, an unusual (perhaps unique) blend of Mourvedre, Tannat and Grenache exclusively from head-pruned, dry-farmed vineyard blocks.  Note that there are only five wines because club members get two bottles of the 2009 Esprit de Beaucastel.

We opened the shipment's wines today to draft the tasting and production notes that will be included in the shipment (which will leave the winery the week of September 19th).  I thought that readers of the blog might enjoy a preview.  Click on any wine for more detailed technical information.

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2010 MARSANNE

  • Production Notes: The 2010 Tablas Creek Vineyard Marsanne is our first varietal bottling of Marsanne, the noble white grape of France's Hermitage appellation. We use most of our Marsanne in our Cotes de Tablas Blanc each year. However, in 2010 we felt that the Marsanne was so complete and compelling, and so representative of the Marsanne grape, that we selected out several lots for a single-varietal bottling.  These were fermented in stainless steel to emphasize their freshness.  Just 13.0% alcohol.
  • Tasting notes: a minty, spicy, citrus blossom and honeyed nose, with flavors of saline, nectarine and mineral, a creamy mid-weight texture and a long, clean, limestone-enriched finish. Should be a sublime pairing with baked scallops or mussels marinieres. Drink over the next five years.
  • Production: 525 cases
  • List Price: $30 VINsider Price: $24

2010 PICPOUL BLANC

  • Production Notes: Tablas Creek's fourth bottling of this traditional Southern Rhone varietal, used in Châteauneuf du Pape as a blending component, and best known from the crisp light green wines of the Pinet Region in the Coteaux de Languedoc. Literally translating to "lip stinger", in France the grape is known for its bright acidity, its minerality, and a clean lemony flavor. We have found that in California, it maintains its bright acidity, but also develops an appealing tropical lushness. Fermented in stainless steel to emphasize freshness, and like the 2010 Marsanne just 13.0% alcohol.
  • Tasting notes: powerful aromas of pineapple, white flowers, grilled citrus and caramel. In the mouth it is brightly acidic with flavors of pina colada broadened by a hint of toast, a lush texture surprising for those who only know Picpoul from France, then reverting to brightness on a lemony, mineral-laced finish. Would be a great pairing with a creamy chicken pasta. Drink in the next two to three years.
  • Production: 500 cases
  • List Price: $27 VINsider Price: $21.60

2010 ESPRIT DE BEAUCASTEL BLANC

  • Production Notes: Like all our 2010 whites, a powerfully expressive wine, not at all sweet, at low alcohol, that should age very well.  Roussanne (60%) as usual forms the core of the honey and mineral flavors, but we used our highest-ever percentage of Grenache Blanc (35%) for breadth, anise and citrus notes and just 5% Picpoul Blanc as the wine already had excellent acidity.  The wine was blended in May, aged in foudre and demi-muid, and bottled in August 2011.
  • Tasting notes: Higher-toned than most vintages of Esprit Blanc, showing on the nose more yellow sweet/tart fruit like passion fruit, pineapple and mango.  A hint of lychee comes out as the wine warms, enriching classic Roussanne flavors of white tea, honey and spice.  The mouthfeel is extraordinary: rich but with great structure, very clean and pure.  We think this is the most ageworthy Esprit Blanc we've made.  It should drink well for two decades.
  • Quantity Produced: 2100 cases
  • List Price: $40 VINsider Price: $32

2009 EN GOBELET

  • Production Notes: Our second-ever En Gobelet, a unique blend (we think perhaps the only one in the world) of Mourvedre, Tannat and Grenache selected from head-pruned, dry-farmed sections of the vineyard.  Mourvedre (56%) provides dark red fruit, earth, spice and mid-palate richness while Tannat (23%) adds dark color, smoky, spicy flavors and firm tannins and Grenache (21%) brightens everything with forward fruit, approachability and lushness.  The head-pruned blocks all also share a characteristic elegance that we have often remarked on as noteworthy.
  • Tasting notes: a spicy nose of black olive, dark chocolate, menthol and blue fruits. The mouth is powerfully structured showing flavors of fig, briary fruit, pepper spice and a surprisingly creamy texture with fine, chalky tannins. The finish shows Tannat's characteristic firmness leavened by bright acids and a pretty floral note from Grenache. For now, pair with substantial food like wild boar ragu or pasta puttanesca, or you could lay it down for a decade or more.
  • Production: 600 cases
  • List Price: $45 VINsider Price: $36

2009 ESPRIT DE BEAUCASTEL

  • Production Notes: Like all the 2009 reds, scarce in quantity due to drought and frost, but remarkable in intensity while still maintaining balance through terrific tannins.  It is as usual based on the red fruit, earth and mocha of Mourvèdre (40%), while Syrah (28%) provides black fruit and mineral and Grenache (27%) brings rich mouthfeel, glycerin and a refreshing acidity.  6% Counoise adds vibrancy and brambly fruit. The wine was blended in August 2010, aged in foudre and bottled in July 2011.
  • Tasting notes: a deep, spicy nose of crushed rock, tobacco and dark fruit (particularly currants). The palate shows great balance between savory and sweet notes, with milk chocolate, herbes de provence, an iron-like mineral note and massive structure that, combined with the power of the ripe but substantial tannins suggest that it will benefit from short- to mid-term cellaring, and drink well for two decades or more.
  • Quantity Produced: 3100 cases
  • List Price: $55 VINsider Price: $44

A Tasting of the Wines in the Spring 2011 VINsider Wine Club Shipment

Every six months, we send out a six-bottle shipment of wines to the members of our VINsider Wine Club.  The fall shipment is in many ways the showcase for our signature wines, and typically includes both our Esprit de Beaucastel and our Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc.  The spring shipment is more eclectic, but typically highlighted by the next vintage of Panoplie, our elite wine made in the image of Beaucastel's iconic Hommage à Jacques Perrin.  We also typically try to send out our Rosé each spring as a preview of this wonderful summertime wine, and the 2010 is a beauty, crisp and spicy, rich yet clean.  Beyond that we choose whichever wines we're particularly excited about.  This year, we chose the beautiful newly-bottled 2010 Vermentino, crisp and classic in this cool vintage, the 2009 Grenache Blanc, remarkably lush yet still focused from the concentrated 2009 vintage, and two single-varietal reds from 2008: the bright yet surprisingly deep 2008 Grenache and the structured, mineral-laced 2008 Syrah.

My dad and I opened the shipment's wines this Friday to draft the tasting and production notes that will accompany them in the shipment.  These shipments will leave the winery the week of March 21st, so we'd waited to write the notes until the last possible moment.  I thought that readers of the blog might enjoy a preview.

2010 VERMENTINO

  • Production Notes: The 2010 Vermentino is our ninth bottling of this traditional Mediterranean varietal, known principally in Sardinia, Corsica, and Northern Italy. It is also grown in the Rhône Valley (particularly Côtes de Provence) where it is known as Rolle. The Vermentino grape produces wines that are bright, clean, and crisp, with distinctive citrus character and refreshing acidity.
  • Tasting notes: A classic nose of mineral, citrus leaf, and lime zest. In the mouth, an initial impression of sweet citrus quickly turns crisp, with great acids, just a hint of tropical fruit, and a long, clean rocky finish. Pair it with rich oysters or as an aperitif. Enjoy now or over the next two to three years.
  • Production: 1235 cases
  • List Price: $27 VINsider Price: $21.60

2009 GRENACHE BLANC

  • Production Notes: Grenache Blanc continues to shine on California’s Central Coast. Most of our production goes into our Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc each year, but in 2009 we reserved a small lot for our wine club. It had a very long fermentation in a mix of stainless steel and foudre that didn’t finish until nearly a year after harvest. It was bottled in June 2010.
  • Tasting notes: A smooth nose of buttered toast, preserved lemon and caramel, with a mouth-filling richness on the palate. The finish at first is bright and lemony, and then turns softer with lingering creamy, mineral notes. Drink in the next two to three years.
  • Production: 524 cases
  • List Price: $27 VINsider Price: $21.60

2010 ROSÉ

  • Production Notes: After a tiny crop in 2009, production was back up in 2010, and the composition of our Rosé reflects that, with our traditional blend of 59% Mourvèdre, 30% Grenache and 11% Counoise. We left the grapes on their skins for just under two days before drawing off the juice and completing the fermentation in stainless steel. The wine was bottled in February 2011.
  • Tasting notes: Cranberry in color, with an explosive nose of red chile jam, watermelon, plum, mineral and spice. The mouth is bright with flavors of watermelon and tart cherry. The sweetness of the fruit is chased quickly by bright acids and a long, deep finish with echoes of lime and tangerine. Drink now through the end of 2012.
  • Production: 1468 cases
  • List Price: $27 VINsider Price: $21.60

2008 GRENACHE

  • Production Notes: The 2008 Grenache, like the 2008 vintage, is exceptionally elegant yet with sneaky power and remarkable complexity for such a young wine. The Grenache was harvested in excellent conditions in early October, fermented in individual lots in closed stainless steel fermenters, blended in June 2009 and aged in foudre until its bottling in April 2010. Unlike in previous vintages (into which we blended 10% Syrah) the wine is 100% Grenache, as we found it to be exquisitely balanced on its own.
  • Tasting notes: Bright medium red, with a classic Grenache nose of currant, red plum, and cherry. Fresh and pure on the palate with flavors of red fruit and milk chocolate, nice chalky tannins that provide firmness and a touch of saline minerality on the long finish. Drink now or over the next six to eight years.
  • Production: 480 cases
  • List Price: $40 VINsider Price: $32

2008 SYRAH

  • Production Notes: The cool 2008 vintage was an excellent one for Syrah. Harvested largely in the middle two weeks of September and fermented in both open-top stainless steel fermenters and upright 1500-gallon oak casks, we blended the wine in June 2009 and aged it primarily in 1200-gallon foudres but also in two new 60-gallon barrels to provide a touch of oak. As with the Grenache, we chose to keep the wine 100% Syrah due to the expressiveness of the varietal in the 2008 vintage. The wine was bottled in April 2010.
  • Tasting notes: Translucent blue-black in color, with a nose of sweet oak, black fruit and mint. The flavors are consistent with the nose, with surprising acidity that should give the wine a long, graceful evolution. Think tart blackberries, with an appealing brambly component. The finish turns creamier, the hint of oak returning. Hold for 6 months or more, and then drink for another fifteen.
  • Production: 476 cases
  • List Price: $40 VINsider Price: $32

2008 PANOPLIE

  • Production Notes: The 2008 Panoplie marries the vintage’s characteristic elegance with an incredible array of flavors. As always, Panoplie is selected from lots in the cellar chosen for their balance, richness and concentration. The composition (54% Mourvèdre, 29% Grenache and 17% Syrah) reflects the quality of the Syrah in this cooler vintage, but is still based on the structure and meatiness of Mourvèdre. The wine was blended in July 2009 and aged in foudre for a year before being bottled in July 2010.
  • Tasting notes: Dark brick red in color, with a dark, meaty nose showing aromas of raspberry, chocolate, leather and baking spices.  The mouth is rich but with a current of mineral-driven coolness running through it, showing flavors of plum, chocolate, loam, red bramble fruits, just a touch of oak and fine, ripe tannins.  The very long finish is minty, fruity and earthy all at once.  Although it's drinking beautifully now, we expect it to tighten up in the next few years, then reopen around 2016 and drink well for two decades.
  • Production: 500 cases
  • List Price: $95 VINsider Price: $76

More details on the shipment are online for anyone interested: http://www.tablascreek.com/wineclub_news.html


A first in-depth look at the 2009 Tablas Creek red wines

2009 was a challenging vintage, with very low yields from three years of drought and some significant April frosts.  It was further complicated by a record-breaking October rainstorm that dropped a foot of rain on the vineyard and stopped harvest for three weeks while everything dried out.  The net result was a vintage with the lowest yields per producing acre we've ever seen: 1.85 tons per acre of reds.

As the grapes were fermenting, we noted the lushness of the fruit and the power of the wines, both unsurprising in such a low-yielding vintage.  We also noted relatively high pH levels, which gave the wines a softness at early stages that worried us a little.  It's only as the wines have had some time in barrel to settle down that we've come to recognize the beautiful tannins that firm up the wines and give them balance.  The emergence of these tannins in barrel has changed our opinion of the harvest from one that was impressive but perhaps overly lush to one that we're exceptionally hopeful will be a great one.

We will be showing the 2009 Esprit de Beaucastel and 2009 Panoplie for the first time in December at our annual futures tasting and en primeur offering.  Offering wine en primeur is a time-honored French tradition most often associated with first-growth Bordeaux estates. In outstanding vintages, valued customers are offered the opportunity to secure a limited quantity of sought-after wines at a special price in advance of bottling and subsequent general release.  We've done an en primeur offering to VINsider Wine Club members on our two top red wines each year since 2003, and it's become an event we all look forward to as it's our first opportunity to show, in effect, what's next to our biggest fans.

We are in the process of putting together an invitation that will go out in November to our club members, and so needed tasting notes on the two wines that will go into the offer.  I thought it would be an appropriate opportunity to take a look at all of the 2009 reds together, and wanted to share what we found.  It's worth noting that the tiny yields meant that in order to protect our flagship wines we had to sacrifice some wines (including the Mourvedre, which we've made each year since 2003, and the Syrah, which we've made each year since 2002) that have been a regular part of our portfolio.  Still, we did make the decision to make our second-ever En Gobelet, as well as the Cotes, Esprit, Grenache and Panoplie.  The wines are all sitting in foudre, and will remain there for the next 9 months or so until they're bottled. 

09 Esprit in Foudre

The tasting notes:

  • 2009 Cotes de Tablas (43% Grenache, 24% Syrah, 16% Counoise, 15% Mourvedre): A Grenachey, spicy nose that resonates between black and red fruit, showing red licorice, sweet spices, and dried strawberry.  In the mouth, it's notably rich for a Cotes de Tablas, showing candied red fruit, sweet spices like cinnamon and nutmeg, and a long finish that turns darker and is firmed by fine tannins and an almost iron-like minerality.  Very impressive, I thought.  
  • 2009 Grenache: A nose brighter than the Cotes red, very fruity, showing watermelon, red cherry, raspberry and blueberry.  The mouth continues the flavors suggested by the nose, with cherry cola and an appealing creaminess to the texture.  The finish is the most interesting part to the wine for me, with nice acids framing the fruit and then showing a chalky minerality before ending with a sweet spice that might be sarsparilla.
  • 2009 En Gobelet (56% Mourvedre, 23% Tannat, 21% Grenache): A darker nose, showing the menthol, black cherry and mineral notes that are characteristic of Tannat.  The mouth is still relatively tannic, with bittersweet chocolate, leather, mesquite, cherry liqueur and a bloody, beefy character that is often characteristic of young Mourvedre.  The tannins actually soften on the finish, leaving mineral and a garrigue-like herbiness (thyme? sage?) as the last impressions.
  • 2009 Esprit de Beaucastel (40% Mourvedre, 28% Syrah, 27% Grenache, 5% Counoise): Showing more red than black fruit at the moment, with a nose of red plum and currant, and a little Mourvedre-driven meatiness and gaminess lurking behind the fruit.  In the mouth, cassis, cherry, and mineral shows the Syrah component, as does a chalky/mineral/meaty/bone marrow character that my wife once described as "butter in a butcher shop".  The finish shows the wine's youth, with a primary grapiness that should evolve into something more complex.
  • 2009 Panoplie (65% Mourvedre, 26% Grenache, 9% Syrah): Oh, boy.  An explosive nose of pepper, grilled meat, boysenberry, currant and blackberry.  It's the most polished and resolved on the nose of any of the wines.  In the mouth, it's hugely mouth-filling, with sweet fruit but big tannins that give definition.  On the finish, it shows a saline minerality that highlights the roasted meat flavors and the dark red and black fruits.  Absolutely gorgeous.

Tasting the Fall 2010 "Collector's Edition" Wines

Last fall, we debuted the VINsider Wine Club Collector's Edition.  Members of this wine club get three bottles of older vintages of Esprit de Beaucastel and Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc each fall (as well as a few more bottles of the newest Esprit and Esprit Blanc) in addition to their club shipment.  They also have the opportunity to buy a little more.  The club has been a great success from the beginning, and we've maxed our our capacity each of the last two years.  Our membership is now up to about 450 people.

Collector's Edition members will receive the 2004 Esprit de Beaucastel and the 2006 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc this fall.  These wines were ones that showed beautifully in recent vertical tastings, both at stages where some of the primary flavors of youth had matured into deeper, more complex tones, but which should still provide another decade or more of good drinking.  I thought it would be fun to share the tasting notes from our recent tastings.

06 Esprit Blanc Bottle Shot ESPRIT DE BEAUCASTEL BLANC 2006

  • Production Notes: Above-average winter rains and a cool spring got 2006 off to a wet and late start. A moderate summer followed, and the resulting harvest was delayed but unhurried, with beautiful weather persisting into November. Wines showed notable elegance, pure flavors, medium body and comparatively lower alcohol levels. The 2006 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc featured 65% Roussanne, primarily from neutral barrels, at its core. 30% Grenache Blanc provides roundness and distinctive anise aromatics, and 5% Picpoul Blanc adds bright acids that emphasize the wine's mineral and saline characteristics. The wine was blended in April 2007 and bottled in June 2007.
  • 2010 Tasting Notes: The color at age four is youthful: a clear pale gold with a hint of green. The nose shows more savory than fruity, with notes of mineral, saline, honey and menthol. The mouth is rich and warm, with flavors of lanolin, rose petal, new boards and sweet spices. It feels both seamless and – despite its intensity – weightless. On the lingering finish, the wine has both brighter lemon and darker butterscotch flavors. It would love rich food like crab, lobster, or ginger pork, and should drink well for at least the next three years and likely much longer.
  • Quantity Produced: 1800 cases
  • Library Price: $45 VINsider Price: $36

Esprit04_lores ESPRIT DE BEAUCASTEL 2004

  • Production Notes: 2004 was our third consecutive drought year, marked by low yields, a warm spring and very early flowering. A fairly mild summer morphed into a late-August heat wave, with much of the harvest completed by mid-September. The fall weather cooled down, and we waited a long time for Mourvèdre, suspending harvest for two weeks after a mid-October rainstorm. For the 2004 Esprit de Beaucastel, we balanced the relatively high proportion (50%) of Mourvèdre with 27% Syrah for color, black fruit, and mineral, 17% Grenache for freshness, warmth, and sweet spice, and 6% Counoise for openness. The wine was blended in August 2005, aged in foudre and bottled in July 2006.
  • 2010 Tasting Notes: The first impression is decidedly Old World, with a deep, dark nose of laquered wood, rosemary, spiced plum and cloves. As it sits in the glass, more fruit emerges with cherry, black raspberry and gingerbread spice. The palate shows beautiful balance, with flavors of roasted meat, mineral, fig, pomegranate, black cherry and crushed rock. It’s a very pure and self-assured wine; Francoise Perrin called it a “vin carré”: literally a “square wine”. It has a long finish of plum, herbs and mineral. The wine is at the beginning of what should be a wonderful decade-long maturity. Try it with a rack of lamb.
  • Quantity Produced: 3250 cases
  • Library Price: $60 VINsider Price: $48

The Collector's Edition is full for 2010, but anyone who is interested can read more on our Web site, and can get onto the waiting list for 2011.  We expect to be able to add another 150 or so members next year, and we'll take them off the waiting list in the order in which we receive their requests.

Finally, anyone who missed the notes on the other wines in the fall 2010 wine club shipment can find them here.


A tasting of the wines in the fall 2010 wine club shipment

Each spring and fall, we send out six wines to the members of our VINsider Wine Club.  With each shipment we include a letter from our wine club director, an order form, and production and tasting notes for the wines in the club shipment.  As these wines are typically unreleased, most of them do not yet have a Web page, and for me it's often one of my first opportunities to taste these wines after bottling.  It's always exciting, and the rest of the staff typically joins me as we take a look at the future.  This tasting was particularly fun for me because it was my first serious look at the 2008 reds and my first comprehensive look at any of the 2009 whites since bottling.  It will be fun to showcase wines from two such different -- but strong -- vintages. 

Incidentally, if you're wondering why there are only five wines pictured (and described) in what is always a six-bottle shipment, it's because the shipment will include two bottles of the 2008 Esprit de Beaucastel.

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In the order in which we'll be pouring them at our September 18th club shipment tasting event:

VERMENTINO 2009

  • Production notes: Vermentino is best known in Corsica, Sardinia, and northern Italy, but also found in the Rhône Valley, Côtes de Provence and Languedoc under the name Rolle. Our 2009 edition shows the noteworthy intensity of this low-yield vintage. Our two blocks were picked on September 22nd and October 8th and averaged 22.4º Brix and a 3.45 pH. The wine was vinified in stainless steel, and we stopped malolactic fermentation to emphasize the varietal’s brightness and freshness. It was bottled in screwcap in March 2010.
  • Tasting notes: Inviting meyer lemon, mineral and kiwi aromas are followed by a creamy lushness surprising for Vermentino, and a rich, long, spicy finish. Drink now or for the next few years.
  • Quantity Produced: 420 cases
  • List Price: $30 VINsider Price: $24.00

BERGERON 2009

  • Production notes: This is our fifth bottling of our Bergeron-style Roussanne (in the cool Savoie region of Alps, Roussanne is known as Bergeron). To make our Bergeron, we chose some Roussanne from one of the coolest spots of the vineyard, and fermented it in stainless steel to preserve its freshness and acidity.
  • Tasting notes: A nose of green apple, mineral, herbs and preserved lemon. In the mouth, very mineral and notably saline, quite rich for a Bergeron, almost buttery. The finish shows notes of caramel apple and the wine cries out for shellfish. Drink for the next five years.
  • Quantity Produced: 480 cases
  • List Price: $30 VINsider Price: $24.00

ESPRIT DE BEAUCASTEL BLANC 2009

  • Production notes: Roussanne, with its wonderful balance of richness, minerality, and acidity, as usual forms the core of our 2009 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc. 2009 was our third consecutive drought year, and yields were further reduced by serious April frosts. The blend for 2009 includes 62% Roussanne, 26% Grenache Blanc (for roundness and distinctive green apple and anise flavors), and 12% Picpoul Blanc, our highest-ever percentage, for acids and minerality in this lush vintage. The wine was blended in May and bottled in July 2010.
  • Tasting notes: Similar in many ways to the blockbuster 2007, though with the appealing softness and breadth to the texture that distinguish the 2009 whites. The wine shows a rich, lifted nose, very spicy, with aromas of ginger, tangerine, asian pear, beeswax and herbs. The mouth shows rich Roussanne flavors of honey and spice and a long, dry finish with toffee and pear notes. A slight tannic bite suggest that this wine will benefit from short-term cellaring, and drink well from mid-2011 through the end of the decade.
  • Quantity Produced: 1800 cases
  • List Price: $40 VINsider Price: $32

MOURVÈDRE 2008

  • Production notes: Mourvèdre has an (undeserved, in our opinion) reputation for toughness and rusticity. In fact, if it gets ripe and is handled cleanly in the cellar, we find it the Rhone varietal most reminiscent of Pinot Noir: with good intensity of flavor, medium body, good acidity and an ageability that is belied by its initial approachability. This 2008 Mourvèdre was picked late (between October 10th and November 3rd), fermented in open-top fermenters, and then moved to foudre for aging. It was blended in August 2009, aged one additional year in foudre, and bottled in June 2010.
  • Tasting notes: A garnet color. Spicy nose of red cherry, plum and pepper. The mouth is consistent with the nose, with a little meatiness lurking under the bright fruit. The tannins firm up on the long, coffee-laced finish and suggest a good life ahead. Drink now and for the next decade.
  • Quantity Produced: 675 cases
  • List Price: $40 VINsider Price: $32

ESPRIT DE BEAUCASTEL 2008

  • Production notes: Our signature red wine showcases the spiciness and impeccable balance of the remarkable 2008 vintage. It is as usual based on the red fruit, earth and mocha of Mourvèdre (38%), while Grenache (30%) brings rich mouthfeel, glycerin and a refreshing acidity. Syrah (26%) plays its largest role since 2002, providing black fruit and mineral and 6% Counoise adds vibrancy and brambly fruit. The wine was blended in August 2009, aged in foudre and bottled in July 2010.
  • Tasting notes: A deep, spicy nose with waves of fruit alternating between red and black raspberry and cherry, grilled meat, balsamic, and licorice. The palate is highlighted by beautiful acidity, an appealing mintiness, and substantial but fine-grained tannins. The wine is tasting just great now, and we think it will only get better. Enjoy over the next two decades.
  • Quantity Produced: 3400 cases
  • List Price: $50 VINsider Price: $40

More details on the shipment are available online for anyone interested: http://www.tablascreek.com/wineclub_news.html.  A few final thoughts are below. 

First, these 2008's show just an amazing degree of complexity and intensity of flavor with absolutely no sense of weight.  This is in dramatic contrast to the impressively structured 2007 vintage, whose primary impression is one of power and density.  The 2008 reds have well-delineated varietal character, a distinctive spiciness, wonderful acidity, and should both drink well young and age gracefully.  Do I think that they'll age as long as the 2007's?  Probably not.  But they'll give enormous pleasure while they're young, and their balance suggests that medium-term aging will only increase their complexity.

The 2009 vintage seems to me to be a softer version of 2007: equally lush, but perhaps a touch less structured.  The viscosity of the wines combines with their overt minerality and relatively low acidity to make wines whose richness is balanced by a saline mineral character more than by acidity.  In this sense, it's a vintage whose wines would be absolutely at home in the Rhone Valley, where the white wines are typically rich and softer than those from Paso Robles.  These wines often surprise with their ageability, and I'm particularly excited to see where the 2009 Esprit Blanc goes over time.


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.


Grapes of the Rhone Valley: Grenache Blanc

This article is the first in what will be an ongoing exploration of the principal varietals of the Rhone Valley.  A version of this article first appeared in the Tablas Creek newsletter.

GrenacheBlanc Overview
Grenache Blanc is the fourth most widely planted white grape in France. It produces rich, full wines with bright flavors and crisp acidity and is a key element in our flagship white wine, the Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc. It is also growing in popularity as a single-varietal wine, particularly in California’s Central Coast. As the name suggests, it is related to the more widely known Grenache Noir. Many grape varietals have both red and white variants; the best known is Pinot, which has Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris variations. Grenache Blanc, like Grenache Noir, is drought-resistant, vigorous, easy to graft and ripens fairly early in the cycle, after Viognier and Marsanne, but before Roussanne.

Since we brought Grenache Blanc into our nursery, we have sold budwood and grafted vines to a number of other Rhône-producing vineyards in California. The California climate of hot days and cool nights seems to be perfect for the varietal and encourages its two prime qualities: richness with crisp acids.

Early History
Grenache Blanc originated in Spain, and still plays a role in the wines of Rioja and Navarre. From Spain, it spread to France, and has thrived in the vineyards of the Rhône valley and Châteauneuf-du-Pape. In Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the crisp acidity of Grenache Blanc is used to balance the honeyed richness of Roussanne, and white Château de Beaucastel is roughly 80% Roussanne and 20% Grenache Blanc.

Grenache Blanc at Tablas Creek
We imported cuttings of Grenache Blanc from Beaucastel in 1992, and the vines spent three years in quarantine at the USDA station in Geneva, New York. In 1995, the cuttings were declared virus free and released to Tablas Creek Vineyard. These vines were received into our nursery and the first grafted vines went into the ground in 1996 . Our first significant harvest of the varietal was 1999. For the next three years (up to and including the 2001 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc), we could only refer to the varietal as Grenache on our label because Grenache Blanc was not yet recognized by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Not surprisingly, many people found this confusing and we were regularly asked why we added a red varietal into our white blend.  In 2002 we petitioned the BATF to recognize Grenache Blanc as a separate varietal.

Grenache Blanc in California
Even as plantings of other white Rhone varietals have plateaued, the planting of Grenache Blanc has increased; almost 40% of the 159 acres planted in California were planted since 2005. To date, almost one third of all Grenache Blanc in California is planted in San Luis Obispo county, and most of the single varietal Grenache Blancs released in California have come from the Central Coast.

Aromas and Flavors
Grenache Blanc is straw-colored and produces wines that are high in alcohol, with crisp acids. The nose has bright green apple and mandarin orange aromas, with clean flavors of more apple, mineral and a touch of peach. It typically has a lingering finish with a hint of licorice. Although it can stand confidently on its own (as most recently in our 2008 Grenache Blanc, which will be sent out to our wine club members as a part of our spring 2010 wine club shipment), its crispness and long finish make it a tremendous blending component. The crispness of Grenache Blanc shows well at low temperatures, whereas many white Rhône varietals shut down when served too cold. In our Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc, the Grenache Blanc allows the wine to show well, even highly chilled (as many restaurants often serve all white wines). As the wine warms up in the glass, the other varietals unfold, and the full richness of the wine is displayed. Anyone interested in learning more about Grenache Blanc and Grenache is encouraged to attend the Rhone Rangers tasting in San Francisco (March 27-28, 2010), where one seminar will be devoted to the grape.


Tasting the wines in the spring 2010 wine club shipment

Each spring and fall, we send out six wines to the members of our VINsider Wine Club.  With each shipment we include a little update from our wine club director, an order form, and, of course, production and tasting notes for the six wines in the club shipment.  As these wines are typically unreleased, most of them do not yet have a Web page, and for me it's often one of my first opportunities to taste these wines after bottling.  It's always exciting, and the rest of the staff typically joins me as we see, in effect, what's next.  I thought it would be fun to share what I found.

Spring_shipment_2010

In the order in which we'll be pouring them at our March 6th club shipment tasting event:

GRENACHE BLANC 2008

  • Production notes: Grenache Blanc continues shine in California’s Central Coast. Most of our production goes into our Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc each year, but in 2008 we reserved a small (565 case) lot for our wine club. It had a very long fermentation (in a mix of stainless steel and foudre) that didn’t finish until nearly a year after harvest. It was bottled in September 2009.
  • Tasting notes: A clean nose of mineral, green apple, grapefruit and pear, with flavors that begin bright with lemon and lime, then broaden in the mid-palate before re-tightening on the finish with a lingering character of green apple skin and wet rocks. Drink in the next two to three years.
  • Press: Tanzer's I.W.C. 89 points (11/09)
  • Quantity Produced: 565 cases
  • List Price: $27 VINsider Price: $21.60
  • More at http://www.tablascreek.com/grenacheblanc08.shtml
ROUSSANNE 2008
  • Production notes: 2008’s relatively cool growing season produced wines of medium body, tremendous elegance, and expressive varietal character. The 2008 Roussanne was fermented 40% in oak (mostly old, neutral barrels), 20% in foudre, and 40% in stainless steel. The wine was blended in July and bottled in September 2009.
  • Tasting notes: An expressive nose of beeswax, lacquered wood, and white flowers, with a powerful spiciness emerging with air. The mouth is juicy yet still restrained, with flavors of peaches and cream. The finish is more mineral, very clean, with almond, pear, honey and chamomile notes. Enjoy now or over the next 4-6 years.
  • Press: Parker 90-92 (8/09); Tanzer's IWC 90 (11/09)
  • Quantity Produced: 720 cases
  • List Price: $27 VINsider Price: $21.60
  • More at http://www.tablascreek.com/roussanne08.shtml
ROSÉ 2009
  • Production notes: The 2009 Rosé reflects the generally tiny crop in 2009, and the particular shortage of Mourvèdre.  We were worried that given the extreme concentration of the Mourvèdre, using as much as we typically do (60% in most vintages) would produce a wine too dark and structured.  So, we reduced the Mourvèdre to 46% and increased Grenache (39%) and Counoise (15%). We left the grapes on their skins for just under two days before drawing off the juice and completing the fermentation in stainless steel. The wine was bottled in January 2010.
  • Tasting notes: Cranberry in color, with an explosive nose of sour cherry, cranberry, Christmas spices and orange zest.  The mouth is incredibly juicy with flavors of maraschino cherry, sour strawberry and apple. Mouth-watering acidity on the long, dry finish cleans up the wine's richness. Drink now through the end of 2011.
  • Quantity Produced: 640 cases
  • List Price: $27.00 VINsider Price: $21.60
  • More at http://www.tablascreek.com/rose09.shtml
GRENACHE 2007
  • Production notes: The 2007 Grenache, like the 2007 vintage, is big yet balanced, with powerful aromas and flavors, and should benefit from short-term cellaring. The wine was blended in June 2008, aged in foudre, and bottled in March 2009. 10% Syrah gives the wine firmness and a touch of mineral on the finish.
  • Tasting notes: A powerful nose of mint, boysenberry, and licorice. Vibrantly fruity on the palate with unusually dark tones for Grenache: black cherry, blueberry and black raspberry, followed by a long finish with some chalky tannins that cut the wine’s richness. We suggest you hold this wine for 1-2 years and drink for the next decade.
  • Press: Parker 92 (8/09), Wine Spectator 92 (12/09)
  • Quantity Produced: 750 cases
  • List Price: $35 VINsider Price: $28
  • More at http://www.tablascreek.com/grenache07.shtml
SYRAH 2007
  • Production notes: The powerful 2007 vintage produced our most intense Syrah ever. Aged in a combination of 1200-gallon foudres and small new Dargaud & Jaegle 60-gallon pieces, we blend our Syrah for a balance of fruit, mineral, and spice, and add 10% Grenache for its signature acidity and openness. The wine was blended in August 2008, aged in a single foudre and bottled in March 2009.
  • Tasting notes: A deep, dark nose of ink, soy and iodine, with a little oak and black fruit sneaking through. The mouth shows mineral, blackberry, iron and spice, with beautiful tannins and length. This is a wine for the long term; hold for 3-5 years, and then drink for another fifteen.
  • Press: Parker 92 (8/09); Tanzer’s IWC 91 (11/09)
  • Quantity Produced: 685 cases
  • List Price: $35 VINsider Price: $28
  • More at http://www.tablascreek.com/syrah07.shtml
PANOPLIE 2007
  • Production notes: The 2007 Panoplie is a wine of incredible lushness and power. As always, Panoplie is selected from lots in the cellar chosen for their balance, richness, and concentration. The components (60% Mourvèdre, 30% Grenache, and 10% Syrah) were blended in July 2008 and aged in foudre before bottling in July of 2009.
  • Tasting notes: Dense purple-red in color. A dark, meaty nose with aromas of sweet earth, plums and nutmeg. Explosive in the mouth, with flavors of currant, plum, cocoa powder and red licorice, finishing drier and powerfully tannic. Hold, if possible, until 2015, and drink for two decades after that.
  • Press: Parker 96-98 (8/09); Tanzer's IWC 95 (11/09)
  • Quantity Produced: 540 cases
  • List Price: $95 VINsider Price: $76
  • More at http://www.tablascreek.com/panoplie07.shtml

More details on the shipment are available online for anyone interested: http://www.tablascreek.com/wineclub_news.html.  A few final thoughts are below. 

First, these 2007's are built for the long haul.  I wouldn't touch the Syrah for several years, and the Grenache seems to me to be likely to benefit from a year or two of aging.  Surprisingly, it was the Panoplie, of the three, that was the most giving right now.  That's one of the things that we love about Mourvedre: it has loads of chewy tannin and can be aged beautifully, but doesn't have the hardness when young that most similarly-structured varietals have.

Second, I'm really coming to love the elegance of the 2008's.  The 2008 whites show medium body, sparkling acidities, very pretty fruit flavors and spot-on varietal character.  I think that the wines are already showing beautifully, even with varieties like Roussanne that are typically structure-bound at this age.  I'm not sure I'd recommend laying these whites down (though their exquisite balance suggests they could be) but for drinking right now I'm not sure we've ever made a more appealing vintage.


Panoplie 2000-2008: A Vertical Wine Tasting Fit for the Holidays

There are certain wines in our portfolio I drink fairly often, and others that I hardly ever drink.  The ones I drink a lot are probably predictable: I tend to have the current vintages of Cotes de Tablas and Esprit de Beaucastel with good frequency, both tasting with guests at the winery and working out in the market.  I'm a fan of Mourvedre and Roussanne, and my wife is a fan of Vermentino and Rose, so we have those regularly at our house.  And, because their cellar life is longer, because they're our most widely distributed wines, and because we keep a healthy library at the winery, I rarely go too long without tasting most of our vintages of Esprit de Beaucastel or Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc.

But I have gotten several questions recently on how different vintages of our Panoplie have been tasting.  I realized that I honestly didn't know, and didn't have the knowledge to accurately update the vintage chart we maintain.  For the unfamiliar, Panoplie is our top red wine, made only in top vintages, and in the model of Beaucastel's Hommage a Jacques Perrin.  Like the Hommage, it is always heavy on Mourvedre, and tends to be light on Syrah.  We choose Mourvedre lots that are structured enough to stand without Syrah (which lends structure, but also tends to dominate a blend and make it too monolithic).  We blend Panoplie unapologetically to age.  So, we're expecting all these wines to last two decades or more.  But our first vintage of Panoplie is now nearly a decade old, and (understandably) some of the lucky customers who got some of those 67 cases have been asking whether it's drinking well now.  I honestly couldn't tell them.

So, I decided it was time to open up a vertical of Panoplie, ranging from 2000 to the not-yet-bottled 2008, to get a sense of where in their evolutions the wines were, and what we might expect going forward.  I also wanted to get a big-picture overview of how our thinking about this wine had evolved over the last decade.  I was joined for the tasting by my dad, as well as winemaker Neil Collins and assistant winemaker Chelsea Magnusson.  We chose the afternoon of the Wednesday before Christmas as an appropriate day: for most of us the last work day before the holiday weekend.  We were feeling festive, and vertical tastings like this are one of the most fun rewards we get to give ourselves.  The tasting notes (note that we didn't make a Panoplie in 2001):

  • 2000 Panoplie (55% Mourvedre, 30% Syrah, 15% Grenache): a minty, menthol but dark, gamy nose.  In the mouth, grippy tannins and very dark fruit.  Very Syrah-dominant.  It has nice length and good acids to balance the structure, but it's not very giving right now.  This was the only wine in the group that was starting to show some secondary meaty, leathery flavors, but until the tannins calm down a little more I'd recommend that people still give it a little more time.
  • 2002 Panoplie (80% Mourvedre, 13% Grenache, 7% Counoise): a really pretty nose with red licorice and berries.  Sweet-smelling, but totally dry on the palate.  Still has good tannic grip but is rounder than the 2000, with some flavors of bittersweet chocolate and grilled steak joining the brambly berry fruit.  Neil commented that you could taste the Counoise in the brambliness.  Delicious, and still youthful.  My favorite of the tasting for drinking now.
  • 2003 Panoplie (69% Mourvedre, 21% Grenache, 7% Syrah, 3% Counoise; the only Panoplie where we used all four of our principal red varietals): a figgy, plummy, slightly porty nose with a hint of oxidation.  In the mouth, sweet flavors of plum jam and mint chocolate.  Juiciness builds on the palate, which shows more freshness than the nose.  The finish turns darker and is still quite tannic.  The wine doesn't seem fully resolved right now with the nose and palate not really in sync.  I'd suggest people wait a little while and try again.
  • 2004 Panoplie (69% Mourvedre, 21% Grenache, 10% Syrah): beautiful nose of cassis, raspberry, soy, and mint, fresh but layered and deep.  The mouth is full of sweet fruit, particularly blueberry and currant, and the texture is seamless.  You feel the tannins on the finish, but they're cloaked in fruit.  At this stage, the palate seemed a little overtly sweet, but the wine is delicious.  Chelsea commented that this was the wine she'd take home for her parents.
  • 2005 Panoplie (70% Mourvedre, 25% Grenache, 5% Syrah): nose is a little more closed than the 2004; smells tight and extracted, with a eucalyptus and some dark fruit coming out with time.  On the palate, the wine (like many of our 2005's) is still tannic, though it has a promising savory, tangy note that comes out on the finish.  Neil called it "chunky" right now, which I thought was right on.  Definitely wait on this one, probably at least another few years.
  • 2006 Panoplie (68% Mourvedre, 27% Grenache, 5% Syrah): Smells young, with a little alcohol joining the brambly fruit on the nose.  With a little time in the glass, this wine blossomed, with licorice, herbs and more fruit coming out on the nose.  In the mouth, it's nice and juicy with the characteristic tangy acids of the 2006 vintage.  Neil thought it tasted "a little wound up" but that it showed beautiful balance and promise.  That said, it's a lot more approachable than the 2005, but anyone giving it a try should definitely decant.  I'd suspect that it will shut down in another year or two, and then reopen a few years later and drink well for a long time.  My dad's and Chelsea's favorite wine of the tasting.
  • 2007 Panoplie (60% Mourvedre, 30% Grenache, 10% Syrah): The nose is dense and extracted, and just exudes power.  It tastes very rich, at least as dense as it smells, and vibrates with flavors of red and black licorice.  There is an appealing brushy, herby character that suggests that when it calms down a bit, and develops some secondary flavors, it will be a remarkably complex wine.  The tannins are powerful all the way through to the finish, and tend to block the finish a bit.  Definitely wait... but expect to be rewarded handsomely for your patience.
  • 2008 Panoplie (54% Mourvedre, 29% Grenache, 17% Syrah; tasted from foudre; will be bottled summer 2010 and released spring 2011): A nice roasted coffee note on the nose, with an inkiness that appears to come from the higher Syrah content (the cool 2008 vintage was a great one for Syrah).  In the mouth, you taste flavors in sequence rather than all together, which isn't unusual at this stage of a wine's life: first some nice sweet oak, then black fruit, then tannin.  There is a nice lift and clarity on the finish that is totally characteristic of the 2008 vintage.  It's a little disjointed now, but will be very classic and classy.  Neil's favorite wine of the tasting.  This wine will go out in the spring 2011 VINsider Wine Club shipment.

In the big picture, we've refined our model a bit.  As with the Esprit, our percentage of Grenache has risen gradually as the vines have aged and we're liking it more.  We also went through a couple of vintages (2003 and 2004) where the wines were a little sweeter, and have moved back to a drier style.  We took advantage of the vintage character of 2008 to add more Syrah than we have in any Panoplie since 2000 (and will likely do so again in 2009).  But what struck us more than the differences were the similarities.  All these wines were more than half Mourvedre, and the characteristic Mourvedre flavors of plum, currant, mocha and roasted meat was a common denominator in all eight wines.  And they all shared the chewy structure that ripe, concentrated Mourvedre brings and which gives longevity to wines.  The vintages brought variations in character, and the denser, more tannic vintages like 2000, 2005, and 2007 all show even more structure than their corresponding Esprits.  Right now, the relatively more elegant vintages of 2002, 2004, 2006 and 2008 gave more pleasure... but I don't have any doubt that even the biggest of these wines has the balance to age for decades.

It will be a pleasure to find out if I'm right.


The importance of multi-channel marketing (AKA yes, print will be seen by more eyes than email)

This month, we launched the VINsider Wine Club Collector’s Edition, which gives its members access to library vintages of Esprit de Beaucastel and Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc that we’ve aged in our cellars.  As we have held back only a limited quantity of our older wines, we announced an initial limit on numbers for 2009 to 250.  With about 3600 wine club members, I was fairly confident that we’d get to our maximum, and in fact we have.  We’ve reached our 250 and will be cutting off any further registrations at the end of this week.

What has been interesting to me was the relative effectiveness of the different effort we've used to promote this new club.  We have let our club members know four different times about this opportunity. 

  1. July 28th: a mention as a part of our regular end-of-month email for July 
  2. August 9th: a paper letter which we sent out on letterhead
  3. August 17th: a column in our fall newsletter
  4. August 25th: a prominent mention in the end-of-month email for August

I was expecting the greatest response to be from the first email mention, but this was not the case. In the five days after we sent out the email (about the limit, in my opinion, of the impact of a piece of email communication) we netted 27 registrations.  It was the paper letter that had the most impact.  On August 10th, the first day anyone could have received it (realistically, just Southern California) we received 29 registrations.  The next day brought in 49.  In total, in the week after we sent out the letter, we received 147 responses.  The column in the newsletter produced 37 in the next week.  And this last email, which went out not even 36 hours ago, has netted another 44 registrations so far, with more coming in.

I plotted the registrations by day on a graph, with the different marketing events noted:

Collectors Edition Registrations by Day

Our experience launching this program has been for me a salient lesson in multi-channel marketing.  If you send out a regular email (as I think any winery, or really any business with direct customers, should) you should expect that a significant percentage of its recipients are going to ignore or skim the letter.  Of course, some people may just toss a printed letter too, but these days, a physical mailing, if it’s nicely done, is unusual enough that I think it commands more attention.  Of course, a print mailing is more expensive to produce and send out than an email by a factor of something more than 100.  But if what you are promoting is sufficiently valuable, it’s important to remember that it will see a lot more eyes than an email.

As for emails, we saw very different response rates between the initial email that announced the Collector’s Edition program, which saw only a small bump in registrations, and the one that went out yesterday, which produced more response in the first day than the earlier email did in a week.  I think there are three factors at play here.

  1. Position within an email matters.  In the initial email, we soft-played the section promoting the Collector’s Edition.  I didn’t want to steal the thunder of the letter that was coming soon, and so we put the mention toward the end of the email.  We do organize our monthly emails consistently, with -- in essence -- a table of contents at the beginning, so customers can scan the email quickly, but I still think that many people don’t make it past the first or second point in an email.  In the recent email, the announcement about the Collector’s Edition was the first section.
  2. An announcement at the end of a limited time promotion tends to see more response than one at the beginning.  We feature a wine each month, and typically see more orders at the end of this monthly feature than at the beginning, even though we often sell out of the featured wine before the end of the month.  Of course, communicating urgency -- in this case that there were only 25 spots left in the program -- helps.  At the same time, it’s important not to underestimate your customers, and save urgency for when it’s real. 
  3. There is a cumulative effect to repeat marketing by different channels.  Each mention, as long as it feels natural and unforced, raises people’s curiosity and makes it more likely that they will investigate further.  By the end of the month-long program, I’d hope that nearly all our wine club members would have at least heard about and considered briefly our new program.

None of this should be a revelation to marketers.  Still, I spend more of my time working on marketing than I do on any of the many other pieces of my weekly job, and I was taken by surprise at some of our results.  A few general lessons for any winery doing this sort of promotion:

  • Think about print as a complement to email marketing for anything special
  • If you’re going to use email marketing, make sure that your most important items are in the beginning of your email.  Better yet (if you can do it without overwhelming your customers with too much mail) make it the sole focus of an email.
  • Don’t be afraid, if you can do so within your established patterns, to mention an important program in more than one email.  A customer who may be distracted or buried when one mention comes in may have time to read the next one a few weeks later.
  • Expect to receive most of the results of an email within 48 hours.
  • Marketing the same program through multiple channels can have a cumulative effect.

Oh, and as to the immediate item at hand?  We have enough wine allow a slightly larger membership in the Collector’s Edition club, and felt that doing so was fairer than cutting it off arbitrarily less than a day after our “last call” announcement.  So, we’re going to accept any additional registrations through the end of this week.  Anyone who misses that cutoff will be put onto a waiting list for 2010, when we expect to be able to expand the program a little more. If you're interested in this year's shipment, which I think is exceptionally cool, act soon.