Twitter Taste Live, Tablas Creek and an online wine tasting in honor of Hospice du Rhone

A couple of months ago, I created a Twitter account (jasonchaas; or follow it here).  I figured that I'd lurk around a little and see what uses it might have for Tablas Creek.  Since then, I've spent a higher percentage of my time than usual on the road, and haven't developed it at all.  I might be more motivated if I were convinced that Twitter-style updates (one or two-sentence sound bites on what's going on) were the appropriate way to communicate about Tablas Creek.  But I'm not, and have been focusing on the more robust capabilities of our Facebook page and the blog world.

Still, Twitter offers some remarkable opportunities to create virtual communities and virtual events.  One wine-related Twitter event is called Twitter Taste Live and has over one thousand active members who get together to hold virtual wine (and beer, and food) tastings on different themes every week or so.

On Friday, April 17th, Twitter Taste Live will focus on Hospice du Rhone.  I'm not clear on how the wines get chosen or whether they vary by region (what does region mean, anyway, on the Internet?) but in California, co-organizers Jill Bernheimer (Domaine 547, Los Angeles) and Paige Granback (Jug Shop, San Francisco) decided to feature the Tablas Creek 2007 Cotes de Tablas Blanc and 2006 Mourvedre among the four wines of the communal tasting.

I have agreed to join in virtually, tasting the wines with the group and answering any questions that any of the tasters have.  It will be a first for me, and will hopefully point the way for some possible virtual tasting opportunities we could do with our Tablas Creek fan base in the future.  I'll post a recap here after the tasting, but if you want to participate, make sure you get the wines in advance (we're offering $10 shipping on all orders from the winery in April if you can't make it to see us or to see one of the retail partners) and then register with Twitter Taste Live.  If you're planning to attend, please comment here.

Is this the future of wine tasting?  I'll let you know!

Tablas Creek is a "Best Winery Blog" Finalist!

Blog_awards_2009 I'm proud to announce that Tablas Creek has again been named a finalist for "Best Winery Blog" at the 2009 American Wine Blog Awards.  These awards, created and administered by the tireless Tom Wark (whose blog Fermentation is a daily must-read for anyone in the wine community) are in their third year, and recognize the growing importance of the blogging community on the world wine.

As in previous years, your votes determine the winners; in the final tally, 70% of the weighting comes from voting by the public, and 30% from the votes of the panel of experts who culled all the nominations into the four finalists in each category.  So please vote!

The most interesting thing to me is always discovering blogs I wasn't aware of.  You can read the complete list of finalists, with links to the finalists' blogs, or if you know who you like, you can vote here.  Voting ends Wednesday, March 4th.

Succeeding in a poor economy: it's all about the fundamentals

I get questions every day from people asking how our sales are holding up overall and what we're doing to help survive the current struggling economy.  Most people look surprised, and then relieved, to hear we're doing pretty well, all things considered.  Our wholesale sales were down 11% last year because of a decline in the fourth quarter, but our tasting room sales were up 15% for the year and down just 3% in the fourth quarter.  Our traffic was up 5% for the year.  Our sales to our wine club were up 21% for the year, and we ended the year with about 3400 VINsider wine club members: more than 500 more than we had at the beginning of the year.

So far this year, we're holding steady in the tasting room.  Our January sales were up 4.5%, and our traffic up 9.5%.  We signed up 16% more new VINsiders this January than last.  A part of this improvement can be attributed to the day of the week on which New Year's fell (it was a Thursday this year, creating a four-day holiday weekend to begin the year) but we're seeing consistently good traffic out in our tasting room and our average sale per customer and the percentage of our customers who we're converting into wine club members are both at our averages from the past few years. 

So, given all this, I thought it might be helpful if I tried to enumerate what I think that essentials are for a winery who wants to be successful in this economic climate.  I've tried to give some context for my suggestions, as not all of these will apply to everyone's situation.  Most of it is not rocket science.  It's about focusing on the fundamentals and doing them well.

  • Make sure that the customer experience when someone is coming to visit you is a good one.  I think that this point, for small- to medium-sized wineries, is as important as all the others combined.  I am amazed by how many people we get in our tasting room who tell us stories of disinterested servers, overcrowded tasting bars, or salespeople whose only interest is a club sign-up.  A hugely successful tasting room may convert 5%-7% of its customers into club members.  That means that the vast majority of the people coming through your tasting room are not going to sign up on the spot.  Focus on giving everyone a memorable experience, and the wine (and wine club) will sell itself.  This does not mean that wineries should approach sales as though the idea is somehow dirty: sell through education and enthusiasm, and make sure that the customers know the options in front of them.  Every person who leaves your tasting room happy is a source of repeat business and referrals.  An enormous piece of being able to ensure a good customer experience and the sales that result is having sufficient staff on hand to handle your busiest times.  This necessarily means that in slower times you'll be overstaffed, but if you calculate the value over time to your business of a single club sign-up or a single dissatisfied customer who would otherwise have bought a case of wine and told their friends, the cost of labor seems pretty minor.
  • Build and use your lists.  At Tablas Creek, we saw 22,000 people come through our tasting room last year.  Adding just a small percentage to your email lists (let alone your wine club lists) can give you a powerful tool to communicate special offers, share information about events, and generally build an ongoing connection to your base.  Once you have added these people to your lists, it's important to contact them regularly.  An email every few months, with perhaps a print newsletter a couple of times a year, is generally seen as welcome rather than intrusive.  And, for your core customers (read: wine club members) a little extra outreach in times of economic difficulty may well prove rewarding.  We've found that while our wholesale sales have suffered, the responses to our wine club emails are providing a consistent, growing return even over the past four months in this struggling economy.  One final word: there are wineries who fear to contact their club members out of worries that this will remind them that they want to cancel.  I think that this approach is self-defeating in the long run.  You may squeeze an extra shipment out of a few people, but the numbers of dissatisfied members of your base who you create, and the churn of returned or refused shipments, challenged credit card charges, and lost opportunities for between-shipment sales seem to me to far outweigh the gains.
  • Cultivate partnerships.  You are not the only one in your area with an interest in bringing people into town and giving them a good experience.  Reach out to local hotels and bed&breakfasts and create co-marketing opportunities and specials that will give them a reason to be emailing their customers about you.  Work with local restaurants to put together dinners that both you and they will market.  This expands your base, supports your partners in your community, and ensures you stay visible.
  • Stay visible.  This is not the time to cut your marketing budgets and hope to save your way through the economic downturn.  Sure, be selective about what expenses you choose (was that half-page ad in the glossy wine magazine really worth the $10,000 it cost?) but don't disappear.  When overall business is contracting or staying stagnant, you can be assured that your competitors are out there pounding the pavement.  Keep going to festivals.  Keep working in the market with your wholesalers.  Keep supporting the local organizations that are promoting your area and keep supporting the advocacy groups that focus the wines you make.  This will help ensure that you maintain your share of whatever business is out there, and will position you for fast growth when the economy does turn around.
  • Do your part to ensure that you get editorial coverage.  Writers in lifestyle and wine publications are struggling, too.  Newspapers and magazines are both being hit hard by a decline in ad revenues, and many are letting writers go or converting paid positions to contract labor.  This means that everyone in the media is being asked to do more work for less or the same money.  Help them out.  Come up with creative ideas that will make good stories (and relate somehow to your business).  Then pitch the writers who you know on these ideas.  Don't expect every idea, or even most ideas, to pan out, but you'll be surprised what does.  And not contributing ideas is a great way to ensure that they don't get used.  Plus, be sure that you're covering the basics.  Are you sending samples of all your new releases to the 20 or 30 key writers around the country a few times each year?  Figure that the total cost of doing so is somewhere around $2500 plus a few cases of wine.  Calculate what a full-page advertisement is in any of the key wine or lifestyle publications.  Do the math. 
  • Work with new media.  I wrote a little less than a month ago about Facebook and social networking for wineries.  In the month since I wrote that article, Tablas Creek's Facebook page has gained 130 new fans.  Extrapolate this power across months and years, and you will see how potentially valuable these inroads into social networks can be.  And Facebook isn't the only outlet.  A blog is a great way to personalize your business, communicate your core ideas and principals, and drive traffic to your Web site.  Getting involved in online bulletin boards can develop enthusiasm in an important base.  And new wine 2.0 sites like Snooth are just starting to show their power.  If you aren't particularly technologically inclined and are worried about your ability to execute in these new media options, find an intern to do it, or just ask a member of your staff who is recently-graduated from college.  You'd be surprised how easy and inexpensive it is to create a broad online presence.
  • Be more hands-on in managing your relationships with your wholesalers.  We're finding that a major problem in our wholesale efforts is overcoming the nervousness of our gatekeepers.  Clearly wine consumers have not stopped buying Tablas Creek; the people with whom we have direct relationships prove that.  But for a wine to sell in the wholesale market, the distributor manager has to believe in the product enough to maintain a healthy inventory, the distributor rep has to believe he or she can sell the wine enough to pull a sample and show it to his or her accounts, and the buyers at the accounts have to have enough confidence to buy the wine in a crowded marketplace full of people offering them hitherto-unimaginable deals.  That's a lot of people whose confidence you have to win or keep before the consumer even gets the opportunity to buy your wine.  You can overcome many of these hurdles by staying actively involved with your wholesalers.  Make sure you're receiving inventory reports every month, and accounts-sold reports quarterly.  A distributor can't sell wine they don't have in inventory, and won't sell a wine whose inventory is down to a few cases.  Know who you'd like to see the wine sold to, and make suggestions to the distributor.  Offer to support your wines by offering their sales reps (who usually have a limited sample budget) some samples at your expense. These ideas are good even in a strong economy (the wholesale market is a very crowded one, and distributor mergers have guaranteed that most distributors have many more wines in their books than they can realistically focus on) but become essential when times are tough.  And, be sure you're out in the market, working with your distributors.  It's important for you to hear what their customers are saying, and for the distributors to see that you care enough to support their efforts.
  • Focus on giving people value.  Value is an essential concept.  It does not mean that things need to be cheap.  But, it does mean that you need to think about what will remind or convince a potential customer that what you're offering is worth what they will spend.  Offer a special on a specific wine each month.  Or offer free or discounted shipping.  Be generous with events that will bring people out to the winery where a purchase is more likely to happen.  One example: we included a $15 discount coupon in the end-of-year gift that we sent to all our wine club members at the end of last year.  Just a few days later, we started getting orders from people who had received that coupon.  Would we have received those sales had we not sent out the coupon?  Probably a few.  But most, in my opinion, were spurred by people deciding that this little nudge was enough to tip their value scale into the black. 

These are just a few ideas, and nothing here should be earth-shattering for business owners or managers.  But for us they have meant the difference between lamenting the poor economy and being able to continue to grow even as the fundamentals of the economy have deteriorated.  I hope that this has proven helpful, and would love to hear from other business or winery owners out there who have also come up with creative ways of protecting themselves from the economic downturn.

Announcing the 2009 American Wine Blog Awards

Wine_blog_awards_2009 Tom Wark, on his blog Fermentation, has announced that nominations are open for the 2009 American Wine Blog Awards.  We were proud to win the 2008 Best Winery Blog, and I am hoping that we will be competitive in this category again.  But, regardless of how we do, these awards are a terrific chance to see what's new and compelling in the world of wine blogging.

So, go ahead... browse over to Fermentation.  Nominate anyone you think is doing extraordinary work.  And come back regularly over the next month to read about the finalists and vote for the winners.  The votes of the public account for 70% of the total weighting in tallying the results.

Tablas Creek on "Adam the Wine Guy"

Google alerts can be is an incredibly powerful tool.  If you don't yet have one set up to track news and blog posts about your business, you're probably nowhere near the first person to find out what other people are saying about you in public forums.  I've had lots of different people ask me what (paid) clipping service I use to stay on top of the press about Tablas Creek... when the reality is that I'm just using Google alerts and reading the food and wine magazines that come through the winery.

Mostly, the alerts I get let me know about writers and Web sites I'm already familiar with, although I would not otherwise have found out so soon about a Tablas Creek-related post.  Every now and then, though, I get an alert that points me to a site that I should really have been aware of but wasn't.  Such was the case on Monday, when I got an alert to a video post about the Tablas Creek 2004 Cotes de Tablas Blanc by Adam the Wine Guy.  Adam is Adam Leemon, who I knew as sommelier at Dolce Enoteca in Los Angeles.  His biography since then sounds fun, with stints as sommelier to the stars, appearances on TV and radio, and consulting gigs helping put together some of Los Angeles' top wine lists.

Two forays I didn't know about were his Web site ( and his blog (  On his blog he posts a different interactive video wine tasting each day, along the lines of what Gary Vaynerchuk has done with so much success with Wine Library TV.  Anyway, in this Monday's episode, Adam posts a video tasting of the 2004 Tablas Creek Cotes de Tablas Blanc.  I thought it was a nice example of how easy (and powerful) it can be to integrate video into the creation of a blog persona.


Why I am feeling optimistic about 2009

I just got back from the national sales meetings of Vineyard Brands (which represents our wines nationally) in Birmingham, Alabama.  I present to the sales team each January, and these meetings give me a chance to get the pulse of the national wholesale wine market as well as catch up with old friends. 

This was the first time in the seven years I've made this presentation that our wholesale sales were down the previous year, which made the presentation a little more challenging.  Still, being down only 11% was a relatively solid performance amidst the meltdown of the economy during the last quarter of the year.  The same week, I spent a day in Atlanta working with a couple of the key account specialists with Empire, our Georgia distributor.  This was a great day, with every stop we made ordering multiple wines.

In the conclusion of my presentation to Vineyard Brands, I mentioned that I thought our fundamentals had never been stronger, and that I was looking forward to 2009.  I think it can be hard to think long-term (and looking a full year ahead qualifies as long term) amidst some of the more pessimistic views of the fine wine market this year. (Feeling too euphoric after reading this blog?  Check out predictions from Tom Wark's Fermentation.)  Still, I am feeling quite hopeful as we move into 2009.  And here's why:

  • Between 2005 and 2008, we've seen a remarkable succession of strong vintages at Tablas Creek, each with their own distinctive character. These are the wines that will be on the market in 2009 (and beyond).
  • We're a part of three hot categories within the world of wine: Paso Robles (and, more broadly, California's Central Coast), Rhone varietals (particularly Rhone blends), and wines made with organic viticulture.
  • We have an ever-growing base of enthusiasts, driven by some 22,000 visitors to the Tablas Creek tasting room in 2008.  This visitor total is up 4% from 2007, and I think it's hard to overstate the importance for a relatively small winery like us of sharing the experience of Tablas Creek with over 40,000 people over the last two years.  I am a strong believer that it's worthwhile to make fans one at a time, and that the cumulative impact of this one-on-one outreach is enormous.  It's worth noting that our direct sales, including tasting room and phone/internet, were up 15% last year.
  • There is a move in the wine markets, as in the consumer markets in general, away from show and toward substance.  Since we've never been very good at show, but feel that we offer a lot of substance, this is good for us.  Want to see what I am talking about?  Take a look at the small aside on designer Karl Lagerfeld near the end of a recent blog post by Steve Heimoff.
  • Our press has never been better.  Last year, we received very nice writeups from Robert Parker's Wine Advocate and Stephen Tanzer's International Wine Cellar.  And, just before Christmas, we got the best score in our history from the Wine Spectator on the 2006 Esprit de Beaucastel.
  • Everyone is looking for value, to the point that it's almost a joke seeing the food and wine press trip over itself offering value recipes and value recommendations alongside the same advertisements for luxury items that we've seen for years.  And, if you look at what top examples from major wine categories will cost you, it can be daunting.  The top wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy have been astronomically priced for years now.  And the top California Cabernets, Merlots, or Chardonnays will set you back triple digits, at least.  Even the top Chateauneuf-du-Papes will set you back $90 or more.  But the Esprit de Beaucastel wines, which at $40 and $45 represent some of the best of California Rhones?  Pretty good values, I submit.

Finally, independent of anything that we at Tablas Creek are or are not doing, all the demographics of the world of American wine consumption are pointing in the right direction.  American wine consumption rose to its highest-ever level in 2008, according to Wine Business Monthly, and this growth is being driven by the changing tastes of younger consumers, who are adopting wine as their drink of choice as their parents' generations never did.  I analyzed American wine production and consumption data in September, and concluded that we saw a "vibrant, growing market, and great prospects for growth over the next decade".  Economic troubles notwithstanding, I see this as true now as it was four months ago, and feel that we're well positioned to take best advantage of the market opportunities we come across in 2009.

Facebook, social networking for wineries and a new use for a winery blog

About three months ago, I created a Facebook page for Tablas Creek.  For those of you who are not familiar with Facebook, it's a site where people can interact with their friends by sharing updates and photos, posting thoughts and links, and generally keeping a loose eye on what your group of friends is thinking and doing.  It was originally designed for students, and many of the users are still in their teens or twenties.  But, as social networking sites like these (MySpace is the other main one) insinuate themselves into mainstream culture, the demographics have broadened.  According to Facebook's press page, the 150 million users worldwide spend an average of 17 minutes a day on the site, and more than half the users are post-college.  That's a lot of eye time for a lot of potential customers.

The main connection on Facebook is that of "friend".  You can request to be a friend of another Facebook user, and if that person accepts your friend request, you have access to their postings and updates.

While the application was designed for individuals to use to stay in touch with their cohort of friends, it also allows companies and organizations to create pages to represent themselves.  Some do so by creating a personal page as a winery (as in my first name is Justin and my last name is Winery) and then making friends with their followers.  Other create organization or group pages, and followers can become "fans" (of an organization) or "members" (of a group).  There doesn't seem to be any particular pattern that wineries and vineyards have chosen.  All three options are well represented.

Treating your business personal page as a person has some advantages that I didn't anticipate when I created the Tablas Creek page as an organization.  Friend relationships are considered by Facebook closer than fan or member relationships, and personal pages can update their Facebook status.  The status is a powerful tool, as the default home page of each user shows recent status updates from their friends.  An organization or group doesn't have a tool quite as effective.

Still, the relationship of a possible customer to a business (at least, a business that's not tiny) seems more appropriate to that of "fan" or "member" than "friend".  For better or worse, I chose to create the Tablas Creek page as an organization page, and we now have some 230 fans.  Some are friends of mine or of other Tablas Creek employees, but many are not, and each day we get another 3 or 4 or 5 new fans organically.

A screenshot of the current Tablas Creek page:


You will notice that, as an administrator of this page, I have the option of sending an update to fans, and I do so occasionally.  You'll also notice that there are 35 "notes" posted.  Nearly all of these are blog posts, as I've configured Facebook to automatically pull any posts I make here on the blog into the Tablas Creek Facebook page as a note.  This is a potentially powerful tool for wineries with Facebook pages who are also bloggers, as it obviates the need to duplicate content and provides regular updates on important items to the Facebook audience.

There are also portions of the page that are relatively undeveloped, such as the discussion board (no one has yet created any discussion topics) and the wall (there have only been seven posts).  I'm sure that both of these components will grow as our database of fans grows.

There is also the option of creating and publicizing events.  We're just starting to use this capability, which many other Facebook users have reported is currently the most applicable one to a business.  I do have the experience of using the event page through the Paso Robles Rhone Rangers (which was created as a group a few months ago and has 600+ members).  The upcoming 2009 Paso Robles Rhone Rangers Experience has a corresponding event page on Facebook which shows 53 confirmed guests (some of whom are winery members) and another 121 listed as "Maybe Attending".  We'll see the extent to which these people actually buy tickets; according to the event staff at Robert Hall Winery, who are accepting reservations, no one has identified themselves as having heard about the event through Facebook.  A funny October article in the New York Times Magazine by Hal Niedzviecki told of his effort to invite his more-than-700 friends to a Facebook event and seeing only one of the fifteen "attending" and 60 "maybe attending" friends show up. 

So, why am I spending the time to create and maintain this Facebook page for Tablas Creek?  First, it's not much time or maintenance, particularly because I can use my blog posts as content.  And, I have to confess I spend a fair amount of time on Facebook anyway, so it's not like I have to remember to check whether anyone has responded.  And, I'm convinced, as more and more people adopt the application and integrate it more fully into their lives, that it will become the same sort of tool for businesses to keep its fans updated as it has become for communities of friends: a tool whose power is in its broad reach, even if its depth is limited.

And plus, if I don't start now, how will I ever get us more than 236 fans?  Oh, wait... there's one more.  Make it 237.

We're Number 39! (a.k.a. an analysis of Thanksgiving wine drinking patterns, courtesy of CellarTracker)

CellarTracker is a fascinating tool.  It is the world's most successful Wine 2.0 site, with over 66,000 registered users, 10,000,000 bottles entered into inventory, and over 700,000 user-written tasting notes.  I use it to monitor the reviews of Tablas Creek wines on an almost-daily basis (1017 have been written so far).  Part of this is simple curiosity, but it's also a useful tool in assessing what stage different wines are in.  I can see how reviews of a single wine have changed over time and get a sense of when it may be entering or leaving a closed stage, or whether there is any trending of positive or negative feedback about a specific wine.  Obviously, there is no guarantee that a particular reviewer is qualified, but there is lots of data that suggests the intelligence of humans when taken in aggregate.  Even better, CellarTracker is free both to view and to use.

Another way in which CellarTracker allows you to group data is by drinking date.  Most days, this wouldn't be particularly interesting (who cares what people are drinking on, say, December 1st?) but on holidays you can get a snapshot of what people are opening for their celebrations.  As of this post, there were nearly 6000 bottles marked as consumed on November 27, 2008 (Thanksgiving Day).

The most popular wines, probably unsurprisingly, were largely American and focused on big names in Pinot Noir and Zinfandel.  The top 10 included Kistler, Seghesio, Kosta Browne, Ridge, Turley and Williams Selyem.  I was more interested to find out where we finished, and was pleasantly surprised that I only had to get to page two, where we're currently tied for 39th-most popular.  This seems at first to be pretty pedestrian (who ever looks forward to being 39th-best at anything?) but we're the top domestic producer of primarily Rhone varietals on the list, and the second most popular Paso Robles producer after Justin.

I was also interested to see that Beaucastel was the top non-Champagne French producer (tied with Duboeuf) and 16th-most-popular overall.

In my last post, I focused on the Thanksgiving wine suggestions of various key Tablas Creek staff.  I was impressed by the diversity of opinion, as seven different staff suggested seven different wines.  And we do feel that nearly everything that we make (fruity unoaked reds, rich whites and dry rose) does pretty well with the diversity of flavors on the Thanksgiving table.  And, confirming our in-house opinions, the sixteen bottles of Tablas Creek drunk on Thanksgiving day were all different -- not a single repeat.

What does this mean?  I'm not sure.  Clearly, the most popular wine on Thanksgiving tables around the country is not Kistler, whatever CellarTracker records.  There's just not enough of it, and it's a little pricey for the average consumer.  Still, CellarTracker is a big community of committed wine enthusiasts, and I'm pleased that Tablas Creek wines show up as often as they do here, and get, overall, such nice reviews. 

And I find the opportunity to rummage around, for free, in such a big, rich database nearly irresistible.

Note that credit for the initial idea for this post goes to Tyler Coleman (a.k.a. Dr. Vino), who in a recent post on his blog looked at CellarTracker's top wines drunk on Thanksgiving.  His focus was a little different than mine, but it was his nudge that got me digging.

A winery blog? Who needs it?

As the Tablas Creek blog has gotten more established, I've started to receive questions from other wineries about how to get started.  I have written posts on Learning How to Blog and on the (somewhat related) Usability Lessons for Winery Web Sites.  Still, reading a surprisingly pessimistic assessment of the value of winery blogs recently on Inertia Beverage Group's always interesting REThink Wine blog made me realize that while I've talked about how to blog, I haven't talked about when and even if to blog.  If you're a winery and thinking of starting a blog, here are a few ideas to consider:

  • Do you have the time?  It's important to remember that blogging takes time if you want to do it well. I don't think that a winery blog needs to be updated daily or even every other day (does your business change every day?) but if you aren't prepared to write a finished piece at least every week, you'll probably find that your audience doesn't feel the need to come back too often.
  • Do you want to be spending your time blogging?  Writing is work.  Most successful bloggers are probably closet writers anyway, and are used to spending a part of their time sorting out their thoughts in writing.  You should figure that you'll spend a few hours, at least, on each post, and a similar amount of time replying to your users' comments and including yourself in other relevant conversations on other blogs.  If this is time you'd be spending on similar topics anyway, you're in good shape.  If you (or your boss) will resent the time it's takes away time from work with more immediate returns, you might think again.
  • Do you have a personality that you want better exposed?  I think that most successful blogs are a reflection of a specific personality.  Take Jeff Stai's "el jefe" persona from El Bloggio Torcido, or Josh Hermsmeyer at Pinotblogger.  A blog, with its first-person voice and interactive nature, is a great way to create a cult of personality around a winery person.  This is probably why they're usually adopted by smaller wineries rather than larger, more corporate ones.  If you don't have one person whose personality you'd like to shape the blog, you might struggle to find a coherent message.
  • Do you have patience?  A new blog's audience takes time to build.  When you start your blog, it doesn't have much presence on Google and other search engines, people don't yet have it in their blog rolls, and you should expect to take several months, at least, before you start getting much readership.  The first six months after I started the Tablas Creek blog, we averaged just over 14 page views per day and didn't receive a single comment.  Over the first year, we received a grand total of two comments (one comment from a reader and a response from me).  It can be discouraging to continue to write when you are pretty sure that no one much is reading, but it's that effort that allows you to build the foundation for success later.
  • Do you have other publicity for which you can repurpose your blog work?  We have a newsletter that goes out to about 9000 people roughly three times a year, and an email newsletter that we send out another two or three times a year that goes to about 5500 people.  The process of writing our newsletters has become much easier because of all the content that I'm creating on the blog.  It has also allowed us to replace a harvest journal that we used to put up onto our Web site during harvest -- contrast the blog-based 2006 harvest journal with the Web-based 2005 harvest journal.  When you know that the writing work you're doing will have multiple purposes, it's easier to justify.
  • Are you willing to interact?  A blog really only works when you can have conversations with your readers.  You have to be willing to not just allow comments that may not be wholly complimentary, but respond to them in a thoughtful way.  I am not suggesting that you can't review comments for appropriateness (I erased a couple comments recently that seemed to be written by an automatic engine suggesting that people try a Gallo wine on an unrelated post, and there's a great article on Bigger than your Head about someone who is using blog comments as viral marketing to shill a recently released movie) but you have to be willing to accept that conversations may take on a life of their own if you want to establish your credibility as a blogger.

Reading back, I find these criteria a pretty daunting list.  Don't let it discourage you.  The benefits of blogging, if you stick with it, can be substantial, and there must be many hundreds of wineries who could fulfill most of the above criteria.  Still, maybe this explains why while there are somewhere around 4500 wineries in the United States, there are (according to the Winery Web Site Report's list) just 99 active English language winery blogs.  And from glancing through them, less than half are regularly updated.  Do I think that wineries have great advantages to gain from a good blog?  Absolutely.  But it's worth knowing that it isn't necessarily the right marketing tool for everyone.

AVA Approval Gridlock at the TTB

There is an interesting post today at Steve Heimoff's blog on the current mess that is the Tax and Trade Bureau's (TTB's) approval process for American Viticultural Areas (AVA's).  I posted a comment on his site that I thought warranted a fuller treatment here.

Steve's core point is that the AVA approval system is in disarray, with wineries and regional associations manipulating the system to the point that it's nearly meaningless.  I don't share his pessimism on the motivations of regions and wineries but I do agree that right now what the TTB is doing is not working (made worse by the TTB's perplexing attempt to rewrite the rules in the middle of the game).  Where we differ is that he suggests scrapping the system and perhaps turning it over to the states, while I would propose that the TTB take a better look at the rules that it has been using for years and if anything make them stronger in defense of place.

The TTB has proposed two main changes to the AVA approval process that it oversees.  The first makes it more difficult to register an AVA that is nested within another AVA.  The second (which I called "a well-meaning step in the wrong direction" in a post from December) proposes a new set of grandfathered brand names that would greatly expand the list of brands with permission to use place names on wines that come from other places.

First some background.  The TTB recently gave preliminary approval to a proposal to expand the existing Paso Robles AVA to include a small area at the southern edge of the current AVA, in the town of Santa Margarita.  This expansion was proposed as a part of the plan whose core proposals were eleven AVA's within Paso Robles, and had the goal of making a more logical and contiguous Santa Margarita District.  One of the core principals we used in creating our AVA's was to avoid whenever possible overlapping AVA's.  Without this extension, the Santa Margarita district would have sat partially within the Paso Robles AVA and partially outside.

Yet, when you submit a group of new AVA's (or amended AVA's) to the TTB, there is no guarantee as to what order it will rule on the proposals.  Approving the expansion of the Paso Robles AVA while not also addressing the reason for it (the newly proposed Santa Margarita District) made Steve, and I'm sure others, speculate on the motivation of the member wineries.  And I think that's too bad.  I am on the Paso Robles AVA Committee that drafted the proposed new AVA's.  We did everything that we could to ensure that the boundaries that we proposed we scientifically based, reasonable, and defensible.  If you accept that it is possible for regions to share macro-level similarities but still have micro-level differences, I don't see that many of the proposed AVA's are controversial.  Paso Robles is a huge AVA, with regions that vary widely in daytime high temperature, elevation, and soils.  The original Paso Robles AVA was drawn to include a contiguous area that shared basic characteristics, and I think that these similarities still hold.  The entire AVA shares a high day-night swing in temperature, very low humidity, a similar number of sunny days, shared lack of rainfall until late in the season, etc, that makes it different from other appellations to the north and south of us. 

What's more, the thought of moving away from the existing Paso Robles AVA would have enormous consequences in the marketplace.  The accumulated understanding of what Paso Robles is, based on twenty-plus years of wineries within the AVA promoting their wines around the country, is substantial.  The proposed new AVA map:


Back to the current AVA extension.  It appears that the reason that this AVA extension was ruled upon by the TTB before the rest of our proposals is that it was the only uncontroversial piece based on the new rules that it published after the AVA's were submitted.  In my opinion, it's these new rules that are at the heart of the problem.

The TTB's new rules display a deep skepticism about the wisdom of creating AVA's nested within other AVA's.  This skepticism is at odds with centuries of history of AVA systems around the world, all of which balance overall regional similarities and more local specificities.  Consumers and the wine trade understand that Pommard is a part of Burgundy, and Stag's Leap District a part of Napa. The current TTB rules warn that anyone proposing an AVA that nests within an existing AVA is subject to the possibility of the new AVA being removed from the old AVA if it is found to be sufficiently different.  This has the end effect of paralyzing the TTB's ability to rule on new AVA's.  They're caught between two of their rulings, having to decide it's "unique" and therefore worthy of its own AVA as well as sufficiently like its larger umbrella AVA to remain a part of that AVA.  No wonder the TTB has held up consideration of any AVA that fits these criteria!

I feel that the TTB has landed itself in a mess of its own making.  The only good solution seems to me to go back to their older rules, which give them criteria that they can reasonably follow to rule on AVA's on their merits.  In an ideal world, they'd strengthen the protection for place name designations (giving, perhaps, a 10-year window for any brands that use place names to either source grapes from the place incorporated into their brand or move to another brand).  I'm not holding my breath, but would hope that we can at least move back to a more orderly consideration of new AVA's.

In any case, I think it's great that Steve is focusing attention on the current state of affairs.  If you've somehow made it to this point without reading his post, go read it now.