Releasing Esprit de Tablas and thinking about my dad

This is the time of year when we release the Esprit de Tablas and Esprit de Tablas Blanc.  We've been doing this long enough to have a pretty consistent plan of attack each year.  First, in late summer, we send our most recent vintage of the Esprits out to the club members who ordered futures en primeur the year before. Then, the Esprit wines form the centerpieces of our fall VINsider Wine Club shipments, which go out to members in early October.  We show those wines to members at our VINsider shipment tasting party (which happened this past weekend) and look for a local event at which we can have them make their public debut (this year, it will be at our Harvest Festival dinner with the Cass House Grill in Cayucos).

Then, we turn our focus to the national market.  I spend a good chunk of my fall getting in front of our distributors in key markets around the country; in the last few months I've made trips to Boston, Pennsylvania, New York, and Washington DC.  I head to Chicago next week.  Tomorrow I'll make the drive up to Santa Rosa and show the 2016 Esprits for the first time to Regal Wine Company, who represents us in California.  In these presentations, I tell the story of Tablas Creek, remind people that the Esprit de Tablas wines are our flagship bottlings, and share the new vintage with the sales team, who will hopefully then take that message out to the right restaurants and retail shops they call on.

Last year, we realized that the story of Esprit de Tablas was really, in many ways, a distillation of the story of Tablas Creek. It seemed to me that the only appropriate voice to tell this story was my dad's.  So, when I was in Vermont last summer, he and I sat down in front of a camera manned by my brother-in-law Tom Hutten, and spent an afternoon talking about how Tablas Creek came about.

Filming the Esprit de Tablas video with RZH

When we were done, we had about two hours of footage, treasure troves of stories from my dad's 60+ year wine career.  The multi-talented Nathan Stuart, whose primary role is to oversee our animal program, took off his shepherd hat and put on his videographer hat, and spent the next couple of weeks editing the relevant pieces of the story into a five-minute video that traces the development of the Esprit de Tablas, from my dad's perspective.  I'll be showing this video tomorrow to our California distributor, and again next week in Chicago.

I didn't realize, when I went to put my presentation together, how much hearing my dad's voice would affect me, but I've been finding that a lot of the times I miss him most are when it sneaks up on me unexpectedly, and I hear him talking about Tablas Creek, and remember how much he loved working on all this.  I will always feel lucky that I got to spend that time working with him, helping him make his dream of what Tablas Creek could be into reality.

Hopefully, the distributor teams I show this to over the next couple of weeks will find it inspiring, too. And hopefully, I'll make it through my presentation (most of which comes after this video) without choking up.


When the 3-tier system works as it's supposed to, it's a beautiful thing.

Every summer, I spend a couple of weeks in Vermont.  I'm from there, and my mom still spends summers in the house I grew up in.  My sister and her family are 50 yards away.  And I get a chance to remind my California kids that there are places where it's green in the summer and water flows.  It's a lovely tradition, and I always find it regenerative.

Up until a few years ago, my dad, who like my mom traveled back east for the summer season, would always schedule a couple of consumer events near their Vermont home, and since his health began to decline a few years ago I've tried to continue the tradition.  I did one of these a couple of weeks back at the small shop Meditrina Wine & Cheese, in my hometown of Chester, VT. Now, this isn't a shop that moves dozens of cases of Tablas Creek each year.  But they consistently have a few of our wines on their shelves, their owner Amy Anderson is knowledgeable and passionate, and she's supported Tablas Creek for years. And, as the only legitimate wine shop in town, it was and is a regular destination for the family when we're in town. Amy I discussed doing a tasting together when I was in town last summer, and worked out the details this spring.

Meditrina Tasting 3

About 40 people attended the Wednesday evening tasting, pretty evenly split between people who heard about it from the email I sent out, people who heard about it from the email that Meditrina sent out, and people who were wandering by and stopped in because they saw the (modest) crowd. In the end, Meditrina sold a couple of cases of wine, a few new people learned about Tablas Creek, our Vermont mailing list members were grateful that we did an event (and let them know about it) on the other side of the country, and we helped solidify some relationships.  It's the kind of event that is a basic building block the world over for marketing a family winery.

I do dozens of events a year around the country, typically a mix of restaurant wine dinners, festivals, and in-store tastings.  Why was this one so gratifying?  Well, everything worked as it should, and no one just took advantage of the efforts to make a little easy money. Those efforts began with the promotion of the event. Both we and the shop did our parts in promoting the tasting; it's been on our Web site since the spring, both we and Meditrina sent out emails to our local mailing list members the week of the tasting, and Meditrina posted about it on their Facebook page. 

Meditrina Tasting 2

The good work continued with the logistics and delivery. When the wines that Amy ordered didn't arrive as they were supposed to on the distributor's delivery truck, it looked like we might not be able to pull off the event. But Anton Vicar, the wine specialist for our VT distributor Baker Distributing, jumped into action. He made a special run to the warehouse so that we had wines to sell at the event, bringing them himself as the event was starting. And he hung out at the event after, socializing, making sure things were running smoothly, and interacting with the guests.

And Amy completed the trifecta by putting together an event that rewarded the people who came. The tasting was free. She invested in a nice platter of local cheeses and meats for some nibbles. And she offered great prices on the wines we were showing that evening, so people could feel good about taking wine home with them that night.

Where could this have gone wrong? 

  • The wine shop could have taken the extra business and not done the outreach to help share the winery's story. Or they could not support the wines year-round. (They did, and do.) Or they could have offered the wines at full markup and just taken advantage of the people we brought in. (They didn't.)
  • The distributor could have just said "sorry", asked that the wine shop take orders, and delivered the wine later in the week. Meditrina would have done so, but it'd have been extra work, and inconvenient for the guests, some of whom drove nearly an hour. (Thank you, Anton.)
  • The guests could have used the free tasting as a chance to try some free wine, not bought anything, and maybe ordered it later. But they didn't. They came with enthusiasm and good questions, and supported the shop that did the work of putting on this nice event.
  • Or we, as a winery, could have not promoted the event, and just taken the extra orders that came of it.  I hear all the time when I do events with accounts that the last winery they "partnered" with didn't do anything to ensure the event's success, and didn't turn out their own customers. (This drives me nuts. We always send out news about the events we do to our mailing list members, who are generally grateful. Why wouldn't you do this?)

In the end, everyone benefits.  The wine shop gets some new customers and some extra sales.  The winery gets some new customers, some extra sales, and the gratitude of some mailing list members.  The distributor gets some extra sales and the gratitude of both an account and a supplier.  And the customers get to try some wines they otherwise wouldn't have tried, and a chance to interact with a winery principal 3000 miles from home.

Meditrina Tasting 1

I know that there are times when I complain about the wholesale market in my blog posts.  And it can be frustrating, for all the reasons I explained above.  But this was a great example of how it can work for everyone, and why wholesale distribution should be a benefit to a winery's direct sales, and vice versa.

PS Thanks to my talented sister Rebecca Haas for taking the photos that evening.


Rethinking the Role of Wine Festivals in the Age of Yelp and Instagram

Last month, we participated in the Paso Robles Wine Festival, as we do every year. This year was particularly nice, with gorgeous weather and a great vibe at both Friday evening's Reserve Event and Saturday afternoon's Grand Tasting in the downtown park. If you came to see us over the weekend, thanks. We hope you had a great time. We sure did.

Paso Robles Wine Festival Cru 2018

Every year, we debate how much to invest in activities at the winery. This year, we decided to go (relatively) big.  On Sunday, we brought in Chef Jeff Scott and he made gyros from lamb we raised on the property. We also had Chris Beland come in and play music. Our patio was full much of Sunday, and everyone had a great time. All that said, our traffic was modest on Sunday (124 people) which continued a 5-year trend of downward Sunday traffic. It's been declining about 10% a year for a while now. And even our Saturday traffic (209, up a bit from last year) wasn't really an increase over a normal May week.

Friday, on the other hand, was our busiest in recent years, with 105 people. But overall, our weekend traffic (438) was right about at our average for the last 5 years, only slightly busier than a normal May weekend, and actually less busy than Wine Festival Weekend was in the mid-2000's.  Years ago, the Paso Robles Wine Festival weekend was a major source of revenue for the member wineries.  You poured wine in the park on Saturday.  On Sunday, you opened your gates (often to a line of cars) on Sunday morning and saw as many people that one day as you might in a low-season month. So, given the potential payoff, wineries pulled out all the stops in trying to get a high percentage of the park attendees out to the wineries, with food, music, seminars, and special open houses.  Given that it's now not that different from any other weekend, does it makes sense to do the same?  It's not like the decision to provide food and music were free.

We think yes, for two reasons. First, our success with the customers we saw was great. We had our highest weekend sales in the last 5 years, and our second-best number of wine club signups. That's a win. But given that most of those came Friday and Saturday, I'm not sure how much to attribute to our events.  Second (and to my mind, more importantly), what we were doing was investing in the long-term success of the Paso Robles wine region. A regional wine event without the enthusiastic participation of its wineries isn't really that special to the people who attend.

Years of post-event surveys have told us that roughly 50% of the attendees of the Paso Robles Wine Festival are making their first visit to Paso Robles Wine Country. I feel like our most important job is making them fall in love with the place, so they return.  Whether we sell them much wine this time around or not, festivals are part of the marketing of our region, and that investment is a long-term play. We should both pour cool wines in the park and do our part to make sure that attendees have a great selection of things to do the next day. After all, the festival in the park only happens one weekend a year, and is put on in the hope that the attendees will then return, spend multiple days visiting wineries, and make visits here a recurring part of their lives.

I think that longer perspective can get lost if you look just at the post-event traffic numbers. The growing numbers of people who visit Friday and Saturday are likely at least in part the result of good work at past festivals, where attendees fell in love with Paso Robles wine country.  The Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance has done a great job, I think, in making the event more full-fledged in recent years, incorporating the many great restaurants of Paso Robles more and more, adding a reserve tasting, great seminars, etc.

I don't think that the higher average spend per customer we've seen in our tasting room on Wine Fest weekend (double what it was in 2011, triple what we saw in the mid-2000's) is a coincidence. And, more importantly, neither is the growth of our non-festival weekends. In 2003 (the earliest year for which I have good data) we sold about $9,000 in wine on the Sunday of Wine Festival to about 300 guests, part of a $12,500 week that was nearly double our $6,900 average non-festival sales week that year.  This year, on Wine Festival Sunday we also sold about $9,000 in wine. But it was to 124 visitors, and part of a $41,000 tasting room week that was only 13% better than our average week this year ($36,000).

And consumer trends only reinforce how important it is getting new people into the pipeline of your region or your brand.  A study published by Eventbrite showed that the majority of attendees of food and wine festivals are sharing photos of the event on social media. Peer to peer recommendations are the most trusted form of advocacy.  And a positive experience that is echoed on an online review site like Yelp has positive impacts on not only future customers' buying decisions, but on things as apparently removed as your search engine rankings.

So, for us, it's an easy decision. We will keep investing in the success of our community, and trust that these seeds we plant will sprout in the form of return visits and sales. And we're grateful we're a part of a community in Paso Robles where we're just one of many wineries who've made the same choice.


Direct Shipping Shenanigans, Delaware Edition

After a burst of progress on wine direct shipping in 2016, in which Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Arizona all opened up, we've had a bit of a pause for the last 18 months or so. Some of that is because most states are now open, and most of the states that are left are relatively small wine markets without their own wine industries, which reduces the pressure both from consumers in that state and from job-creating wineries.  Some of that is because the holdouts tend to be clustered in areas like the deep south (where cultural norms tend to resist the liberalization of alcohol laws) or the northeast (where arcane blue laws, most of which protect powerful distributor lobbies, are long-entrenched). But for the first time in over a year, we have a bill up for vote in a non-shipping state that has the potential of opening a formerly closed market to wine shipments.  Sure, the state is Delaware, the 39th largest state in wine consumption and only 0.42% of the American wine market. But I identified it a few years ago as the likely next state to open up, and we'll happily take any progress we can get.

Enter Delaware bill HB 165. It contains pretty standard wine direct shipping language, establishing a reasonable annual permit ($100) for wineries wanting to ship wine into the state and requiring that wineries collect and remit taxes as though the sale were completed in the location where the wine was delivered.  Common carriers are responsible for checking ID's at delivery.  Reporting requirements are reasonable (quarterly). There is a quantity restriction (three 9-liter cases per household per year) that I don't think is necessary, but it shouldn't cause too many people much angst.  In essence, it's a good bill, and would put Delaware in Tier 2 of the five-tier hierarchy I devised a few years back to evaluate the ease and cost of state shipping regulations.

Except for one clause. A restriction, found in Section d, Clause 5 (lines 61 and 62 of the bill's text) dictates that:

A wine direct shipper licensee may not ... Ship wine that is listed in the current publication designated by the Commissioner for sale by Importers in this State to retailers in this State."

What's the big deal here? Delaware is one of many states that require that any wholesaler register with the state any alcohol product that they offer for sale within the state's borders. States see a role for themselves here in ensuring that wine, beer, and liquor be offered equitably to different retailers and restaurants, and that it not be (for example) given away to prejudice an account into giving preferential treatment to one wholesaler or another. Again, this is fairly routine.  But this shipping bill would eliminate any wine that a Delaware wholesaler is offering for sale from the direct shipping permit. Although this seems straightforward on its face -- you're opening access to the market for wines that aren't available in distribution, and wineries without a wholesaler relationship in Delaware would see this as a win -- it's a major headache for several reasons.

First, just because wineries have a wine listed with a distributor doesn't mean that this wine is actually in stock in retail anywhere.  A quick search of wine-searcher.com for Tablas Creek in Delaware shows four wines available, all at one shop in Claymont.  Only one is current vintage (the 2015 Patelin de Tablas), one is back vintage (the 2013 Esprit de Tablas) and two look like they're the Cotes de Tablas and Cotes de Tablas Blanc, but don't have vintages listed.  I know that our distributor there, who also covers Virginia and West Virginia, also has Esprit de Tablas Blanc, Patelin de Tablas Blanc, and Patelin de Tablas Rosé available for sale.  It's possible that they just haven't sold any recently (our total wholesale sales in Delaware in the last 12 months totaled just 24 cases), or that what they've sold has all gone to restaurants.  But in either case, even the wines that aren't in stock wouldn't be eligible to ship to Delaware consumers. 

Second, just because it's at retail, it doesn't mean it's convenient to a customer.  I had to look up where Claymont, Delaware is, and learned that it's north of Wilmington, at the very northern tip of the state, right on the Pennsylvania line. If a consumer is in the middle of the state (think Dover) they're looking at a drive of about an hour, without traffic.  It's a two-hour trip each way for a resident of a southern town like Laurel.

Third, wineries typically sell a different mix of wines in wholesale than they do direct. Our wine club shipments include early access to our top wines (like our Esprit de Tablas and Esprit de Tablas Blanc) as well as small-production wines that don't make it into distribution. A restriction like this means that our wine club shipments wouldn't be legal to ship into Delaware, which means that we couldn't sign up club members.  Our point of sale system -- which is one of the most sophisticated winery platforms available -- isn't capable of restricting residents of certain states to only certain wines, so we wouldn't be able to take any orders online from Delaware, or would have to then cancel out the portion of orders that weren't eligible for shipment, which would be a nightmare.

Taken together, if that restriction stays in HB 165, it wouldn't make any sense for us to get a shipping permit.  And there are many, many wineries like us out there, which means that the bill wouldn't do much to make available new wines to Delaware consumers, and will likely leave them frustrated and baffled as to why some of their favorite wineries will ship to them and others won't.

Why would this restriction have been entered into the bill?  It's a case of wholesaler (and retailer) protection.  Wholesalers (and retailers) are state-licensed companies, and contribute big money to state campaigns ($107 million in the last decade, according to one study) to protect their share of this $135 billion industry.  Although some individual distributors have more progressive views, wholesaler associations see direct shipping as a threat, and have consistently opposed the liberalization of shipping laws.  They tend to argue that restricting shipping combats underage drinking and ensures the orderly collection of taxes, but given that no one has ever shown a link between wine direct shipping and underage drinking, and that most shipping bills add revenue to state coffers, neither holds up, and it's pretty clear to me that this resistance is at its root protectionism, pure and simple.

Opposing these forces are an array of winery and consumer groups, most notably the Wine Institute and Free the Grapes, both of which support liberalized direct shipping and have seen a remarkable run of success in opening up one state after another since the 2005 Granholm v. Heald decision struck down laws that protected in-state wineries right to ship to consumers but prohibited out-of-state wineries from doing the same.  It was on the Facebook page of Free the Grapes that I found a remarkable exchange that included Paul Baumbach, the principal sponsor of HB 165.  Free the Grapes was urging consumers to contact their Delaware representative and support an amendment to HB 165 (Amendment 1, proposed by Delaware House Rep Deborah Hudson) that proposed the elimination of lines 61 and 62 that restrict the shipping permit to non-distributed wines.  Rep. Baumbach wrote the following (remarkable) comment:

This post is paid for, not by those concerned about Delaware vineyards, but by a California lobbyist organization. Why does HB165, which I am prime-sponsoring, prohibiting the Direct shipping of Delaware wines which are available in our stores? Because they are available in our stores! This bill s designed to help Delaware wine consumers have access to all wines? That means that it works to provide access to wines which aren’t legally available to Delaware residents? HB165 as filed accomplishes that, despite what a California group is spending money on Facebook to make you believe. Make sense?

The level of obfuscation here is pretty remarkable, and makes clear that the goal is not in fact to "help Delaware wine consumers have access to all wines". I would submit that it's in fact a delaying tactic, in much the manner that New Jersey has done, appearing to pass a shipping bill while not actually opening the market much and protecting as much of the state-licensed distributors' profits as possible.

I hope consumers see through this.  If you live in Delaware, please make your voice heard, and support the bill provided it includes House Amendment 1.  An interface on the Free the Grapes Web site makes it easy to contact your elected officials.

Free the grapes banner


Consumers don't really understand the difference between Organic and Biodynamic

Neil, Jordan, Gustavo and I spent last weekend representing Tablas Creek at the International Biodynamic Wine Conference, up in the beautiful San Francisco Presidio. San Francisco was putting on a show, with gorgeous cool, sunny spring weather, and the view of the Golden Gate Bridge out the Golden Gate Club's windows was pretty much the best conference backdrop imaginable. The audience there was passionate and eager to share what they were doing. I was grateful that the show was mostly free of the mysticism (think lunar cycles and homeopathy) that makes many people leery of Biodynamic practices.  Instead, it offered deep explorations of soil microbiomes, of the science behind the Biodynamic preparations, and of the costs and benefits of different farming practices like tilling (vs. no-till), composting (what's the right mix and what are the benefits of applying it in tea form vs. spreading solid compost), yeasts (what happens as different "native" yeast strains take lead), and pest control. It offered grand tastings for the trade and for the public.  It was an inspiring mix.

Biodynamic conference crowd

The conference also offered a few different sessions on the marketing of Biodynamic wines.  One such panel discussion featured Gwendolyn Osborn, wine.com's Director of Education and Content. They recently added a Biodynamic landing page (wine.com/biodynamic) for all the wines that they sell made from Demeter-certified vineyards.  It’s great for the category to see such an influential retailer provide this focus.  And people (at least some people) are asking about Biodynamic wines.  In the archives they have from the hundreds of thousands of chats between their sales consultants and their customers, roughly a thousand contained the term "biodynamic". (By contrast, according to Gwendolyn, "organic" appeared about five times as often).

At the same time, the examples she shared suggested that wine.com’s customers, at least, don’t really distinguish biodynamic from organic. Most of the examples she showed that asked about biodynamic did so in a “biodynamic or organic” phrasing (as in, "I'd like to buy a Sauvignon Blanc around $20, and I'd prefer it be biodynamic or organic"). This is interesting to me in part because my elevator pitch introduces biodynamics in a very different way from organics. In fact, in many ways they are opposite approaches to sustainability.

Let me explain. Organics is, essentially, a list of things that you can’t do. Certification for organic status requires verification that you do not use the chemical herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers that together have come to define modern industrial farming. As such, the practice of organics is preoccupied with the effort to find organic replacements for the prohibited chemicals you can’t use. Think organic fertilizer. Or the pursuit to make an organic Round-Up. In both cases, you're still controlling the application of fertility, and the systemic removal of weeds and pests; you're just doing it in less toxic, less chemical ways. That's a great first step, which we should be applauding.

A quick semi-aside: the sustainability certification movement came in for some pretty heavy criticism at this conference as in many cases offering little more than greenwashing.  While I'm of the opinion that we should celebrate anyone's move toward greater sustainability -- whether that's moving from conventional farming to sustainable, or from sustainable to organic -- I think there's a lot of truth to one presenter's comparison of the average sustainability certification as cutting back from 20 cigarettes a day to 10, in that you're still applying chemicals and poisons:

Biodynamics, by contrast, is the effort to make a farm unit into a self-regulating ecosystem. It prescribes the conscious building of living soils through culturing biodiversity and adding preps that contain micro-nutrients. Together these encourage the growth of healthy microbiomes and (thereby) farm units. Yes, the elimination of chemicals is a prerequisite, but it’s not the goal. Instead, it’s a necessary step in the creation of a self-regulating environment. And that healthy environment, which is resilient in the face of pest or weed pressures, is biodynamics’ reward.

In our work at Tablas Creek, the self-contained farm unit appeals to us because we are dedicated believers in doing everything we can to express our property's terroir: the character of place that shows through in a wine. Each thing that we otherwise have to bring in from the outside that we can instead create internally through a natural process brings us one step closer to that ideal of expressing whatever terroir we have in our land. And that’s why biodynamics has so much appeal for us: on the one hand, we're building a healthy vineyard that will hopefully live longer, send roots down deeper, and be more self-regulating. On the other hand, the fruit -- and, assuming we do our jobs in the cellar, the wine -- will be as distinctive as possible, with its Tablas Creek personality shining out. 

That's a win for us. And for our customers. And for our neighbors and the community we're a part of.


Elevating the experience: introducing seated flight tastings at Tablas Creek

By Linnea Frazier

Here at Tablas Creek it’s been a busy start to 2018. With winter pruning almost over and bottling season well under way, the vineyard and cellar have been a constant hive of motion. Not to mention preparing our spring wine club shipments for release in mid-March as well (pro-tip: the Vermentino this year is insane). But maybe most exciting development is a new way to experience our wines in our tasting room; with a seated flight tasting.

For a long time, the tasting room experience didn't change much. You belly up to the bar, your server gives you a little history of the winery and pours you the first wine, and you move on down the tasting list. Some wineries offer you the ability to customize the list, or ask you to pick a few from a larger selection. But the basic experience stayed more or less the same. Sometimes, that's exactly what you want: a chance to taste through a range of wines, to chat with a knowledgeable pourer, and to learn a little about the history and background of the winery you're visiting.

But for a while now we've felt that we wanted to also offer a more in-depth, more focused experience. I asked Jason Haas what his thinking was and here's how he explained it:

"Wine is enriched by context. What I mean by that is that wines, at their best, provide a window into the place and year in which they were grown, and into the people who made them.  One of the best ways to learn about wines is to be able to go back and forth between two or three wines that share something in common -- maybe a grape, maybe a vintage, maybe a winemaking treatment -- and use what's similar about the wines to highlight what is different. That's rarely possible in a standard tasting room setting, because you're tasting the wines in sequence. We're excited to start offering flight tastings, which include multiple vintages of our Esprit de Tablas wines, to give our guests the opportunity to experience Tablas Creek's wines in a more curated environment."

Flights are nothing new to the wine world, but it was important for us to not lose our personal touch that is part of our tasting room’s pouring style. We spent last six weeks remodeling the smaller tasting room (to the left, as you walk in) into the chamber that it is now, with three small tables for two or four people, and one larger communal table for groups of up to eight. Not only are you seated at your leisure but you also have a full hour to contemplate, compare, and contrast the six wines we will place in front of you. For the warmer months to come we also have the option for you to enjoy your flight outside on a private patio, to better appreciate that California sun from the safety of our veranda.

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To start, we've designed three separate flights for you: a Classic, a Reds-only, and a Whites-only. Each was created in order to highlight not only our Rhone blends but also some of the smaller production and wine club wines that we produce.

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The three-vintage vertical of our flagship Esprit that you can see in the reds-only flight had me particularly purring.

Although we will be pouring you your flight at the outset of your tasting, and we have prepared detailed folios with everything from the history of the winery to how the wines were made, this doesn't mean you'll be left on your own. The dedicated hosts in our new flight room will act as your guide through the experience, adding context and background, answering questions, and customizing your wines based on what you're most interested in seeing. Don’t be surprised if he or she pulls up a chair at one point or another!

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Reservations are strongly recommended, although if we have free space available we will do our best to accommodate walk-ins. Flight tastings are $25 per person ($10 for wine club members), fee waived with a $75 purchase. Because of our seating constraints, this experience is limited to groups of 8 or fewer. For more information or to reserve a time, go to tablascreek.com/visiting and if you have questions, please email visit@tablascreek.com.  And if you've had similar experiences you've loved at other wineries, please let us know in the comments. We're actively soliciting ideas and feedback.


Facebook's new algorithm isn't the end of the world for wineries.

About a month ago, Mark Zuckerberg announced (in a Facebook post, of course) that Facebook would be revising the algorithm that decides what its users see in their news feeds. In an effort to make users' experience on the platform more positive, they decided that they would show more posts from friends -- particularly those that generated comments -- and fewer posts from brands and organizations, particularly posts that generated link clicks rather than comments.  The exact wording:

I'm changing the goal I give our product teams from focusing on helping you find relevant content to helping you have more meaningful social interactions.

We started making changes in this direction last year, but it will take months for this new focus to make its way through all our products. The first changes you'll see will be in News Feed, where you can expect to see more from your friends, family and groups.

As we roll this out, you'll see less public content like posts from businesses, brands, and media. And the public content you see more will be held to the same standard -- it should encourage meaningful interactions between people.

The analysis was pretty unequivocal: this was bad news for the brands and organizations that relied on Facebook as a principal means of sharing their content with consumers.  But given that Facebook's main source of revenue is the advertising that these very same brands pay to have their posts and pages be more visible on the platform, I also think that most people thought that the changes would be modest and gradual, like what happened when Facebook made a similar announcement in late 2013.

So, what have we noticed? There seems to be a small decline in reach of our posts, at whatever level of engagement we achieve, since an inflection point in early February where we noticed a few posts that we expected to be shown to a large audience achieve smaller reach.  So, I broke down what we've seen so far in February compared to what we saw in January. For modest-engagement posts (those that between 6.6% and 8.5% of our fans interact with) the percentage of our fans who see these posts has declined 13.4%, from an average of 1287 of our roughly 9100 fans to 1114.  For high-engagement posts (those with between 8.6% and 10.5% engagement) we've seen a decline of 11.1%, from an average audience of 1734 fans to 1450.  And for very high-engagement posts (those with 10.6% engagement or better) we've seen a 20.4% decline, from an average audience of 2239 to 1770.  That's significant but hardly catastrophic.  It's perhaps easier to see in graphical form:

Facebook engagement 2018 2

What's more, brands and organizations are is still in better position than in 2015, when I wrote a blog Is Facebook Even Worth It Any More? after our reach had dropped nearly in half since late 2013. Combining the data that I pulled then with what we see now, you see a graph that is more encouraging, and suggests that Facebook's algorithm writers realized that their actions in 2015 were too dramatic:

Facebook engagement 2018

So, where does this leave wineries, organizations, and other businesses that rely on Facebook? Not that different than where we were before. Our options remain:

  • Work to produce especially engaging content. If there is one thing that was true with "old" Facebook and remains true in this new era, it's that it will reward good content. It's worth keeping an eye on what sort of content the platform's coders decide is good, as this has changed over time. But from Zuckerberg's own post, it seems likely that producing content that people comment on and which engages them in a discussion, rather than content that people click on to take them outside the platform, will be rewarded.
  • Share links from sites Facebook respects as credible. If you are sharing links, pay attention to the source. Facebook has clearly been sensitized to the criticism that they served to disseminate dubious (and polarizing) posts during the 2016 election, and they are making an effort to weed out unreliable or misleading content. It has seemed to us (though our sample size is small enough that I would treat this cautiously) that Facebook is showing links to blogs less than links to mainstream newspapers and magazines. It would be logical for this split to continue.
  • Continue to invest in video. We've only posted a couple of video posts this year, but they continue to be shown to a larger audience than an image or link post that receives the same engagement. If you are able to post Facebook Live videos they receive even more of a bump. It's important to note that videos have to be uploaded directly onto the Facebook platform (rather than sharing a link to YouTube or Vimeo) to receive this bump. In fact, given that Facebook perceives these other companies as competitors, it's unsurprising that links to these other video platforms are some of Fecebook's least-shown posts, in our experience.
  • Build and use your email lists. Facebook (and social media in general) has never been a particularly effective platform for spurring immediate action. Announcing a sale or a special offer typically gets very low engagement. It's a famously ineffective way of promoting events. Instead, its impact is more subtle: you build mind-share, and keep your customers more engaged to your business or service. That shows up in the long run in loyalty, but it's exactly that: a long game. Email outreach, on the other hand, is still the most effective way of turning contacts into customers. And those contacts are yours, whatever the ebbs, flows, and algorithm changes of the various platforms. If your focus is in adding people to your Facebook or Twitter fan base rather than to your email lists, I would suggest you reconsider.
  • Be prepared to pay periodically. Even at relatively modest levels, doing so gives you much greater access to your fans and to those who you target, whether they be friends of your fans or others that fit specific demographics or interests.  We've paid to promote three posts so far this year, and have had these posts served something like 2800 extra times for each $20 we've spent.  Given that our average post is reaching something like 1400 of our fans organically, if we were to choose to promote one post a week, at $20/post, we might be able increase the total number of views of our content by 33% at an annual cost of around $1000.  That's hardly exorbitant. 
  • Don't put all your eggs in Facebook's basket. In the conclusion to my 2013 piece on the changes Facebook announced then, I observed that it was really Facebook's sandbox at that point. After dispensing with Myspace and blowing past Twitter in user base and revenue, their position looked secure.  It looks less so now. Instagram (which is, of course, owned by Facebook) now has over 800 million active users. Youtube has 1.5 billion. And they are far from the only options out there. Though both remain smaller than Facebook, which has 2.2 billion users worldwide, the demographics of both skew younger and both are growing fast.  Should you abandon Facebook and focus on other social media platforms? I definitely don't think so. But neither would I invest in it exclusively.

It's worth noting that Facebook is always a moving target, and these changes only make it more important to keep up on your own analytics data. I fully expect there to be additional changes implemented throughout 2018 and beyond. If February's one month decline in reach of roughly 15% is compounded the next several months, I'll be singing a different tune. But for now, it's not time to panic. It's time to make great content.


So, what makes people join a wine club, anyway?

I had a first for me a couple of weeks ago: I closed the deal on a wine club signup via Twitter:

Twitter thread club signup

This wasn't a Herculean feat; it sounds like Amber LeBeau, who writes the SpitBucket.Net blog, was interested already.  I just connected the last few dots.  But I was fascinated to read the blog that she posted the next day, about why she signed up.  After all, there are thousands of American wineries, most of whom have wine clubs, and thousands more clubs available from retailers, magazines, newspapers, and even NPR.

Now we spend a lot of our time thinking about how to make our wine club (or, more accurately, wine clubs, since we offer three different flavors) as appealing as possible.  We research how other wineries who we respect craft their club offerings.  And we try to listen (and to ask) our own customers about what they want out of a club.  Still, each customer's reason for joining a club is ultimately personal, and what may be appealing to one customer may matter only a little to another. In Amber's piece, she outlines three main factors she uses in deciding whether to sign up for a club or not:

  • How easy can I get your wines at home?
  • How many bottles am I committing myself to?
  • How likely is the style of wine going to change?

Happily, we fared well on all three factors. While some of our core wines are available in Amber's hometown of Seattle, we make more than a dozen wines each year that don't make it into distribution, many of which are exclusively available to wine club members.  We think of our wine club as an introduction to our wines, not a means to move large quantities, and so typically send out twelve different bottles per year, six in the spring and six in the fall.  And we are family-owned, with so much continuity in our philosophy and winemaking team that we've had the same winemaker for more than two decades. So, we passed. (Thank you, Amber!)

Still, because of this conversation and the blog that resulted, I've spent more time than usual recently thinking about what makes for a great wine club.  I thought I'd put my thoughts down here, and encourage you to chime in in the comments if you think there are things I've under- or over-emphasized, or that I've missed entirely.

  • Wines that you love, consistently. This is, I think, the core of it all. If a winery makes wines that you love across the board the chances of you loving what they choose to send you is a lot greater than if you like a few wines a lot and others less.
  • Wines you otherwise can't get. I think it's important that there be wines that are made especially for club members (or, at least, set aside exclusively for club members). When we started, and our wine club was small, this was easy. Now, we have to plan for it, and make wines that we know are going to be dedicated to our members.  This can be lots of fun. [Read, if you haven't, our blog from last spring about making a new wine around Terret Noir for our club members.]
  • Savings. Now, maybe if your wine is otherwise unavailable (i.e. all sold on allocation) this isn't a key.  Getting the wine at all is the important thing.  But for most wineries, you don't have to be a member to get their wine.  Making sure that club members get good prices on what they buy is really important.  There's not much that will make a member into an ex-member faster than seeing your wine sold cheaper than they can get it at a nearby store.
  • Special treatment. I think "club" is the key word here.  You want to know that when you visit a place where you're a member, you'll be treated like an insider.  There's not one specific way in which this has to be done.  But knowing that you'll get more than the basic experience everyone else gets is important.
  • Flexibility & convenience. I've lumped these two things together, because while they're probably not positive decision factors, they can definitely be deal-breakers. A shipment every two months? Probably not a convenience if you have to be home to sign for the packages. A single set configuration which can't be adjusted depending on your likes? Probably ditto (though less so if you really love all the wines). And any particular wine in quantity? Probably less appealing than a variety.
  • Fun other opportunities to connect. Whether this includes member-only days at the winery, excursions (hey, how about a Rhone River cruise?), or just making the point of sending out information and invitations to club members when you're doing an event in their neck of the woods, opportunities to connect outside the tasting room can be lots of fun for everyone.

We are always honored when someone joins one of our wine clubs. It's a meaningful gesture of faith in what we do that a customer will give us their credit card and say, in essence, we trust you to pick some wines we'll love. We want always to make sure that we're worthy of that trust, and are proud that our wine club members stay members for more than three times the industry average. If you have things that you particularly value in a club membership that I haven't mentioned, or another way you look at value, please share it in the comments.

And, once more, to any members out there, thank you.


You can't evaluate what you don't measure

Tasting Room with People

Once we get into December, things really slow down for us.  The cellar, which has been on a three-month sprint, has put most of the year's wines to bed.  In the vineyard, the vines are going dormant, we've seeded the cover crop, and there's not much to do but hope for rain and wait until pruning begins in January. In the market, most restaurants and retailers have made their buying decisions for the holiday season and aren't really interested in seeing anything new.  Our tasting room, which might see 600 people a week in high season, drops to a third of that.  So, it's the time where I try to look back at what we've done for the year and evaluate how well we've done it.  I talk to other wineries, and industry experts, to see whether what we've observed is part of a larger trend, or if we're an anomaly.  In almost every one of these conversations, I hear the comment that we track data that most wineries don't.

Now, I'm something of a data geek.  I hate not being able to test a hypothesis out against real numbers.  And I hate it when I feel that the data that we're capturing doesn't represent the critical decisions that customers make.  Because that's the important thing about data: it lets you know, beyond anything anecdotal, whether you're doing a great job or not.  Are we taking great care of our tasting room customers?  Are we offering them wines they want to buy?  What about once they are club members?  Do they feel special?  And do we keep evolving along with the rest of the wine community?

I feel like many of the things we track are pretty fundamental, and am always surprised that not every winery feels the same way.  And, in fact, most of these aren't particularly wine-business-specific, and would apply to any retail business.  Here are the things that I think are baseline information:

  • Your real traffic. Most wineries track the number of transactions, the number of wine club signups, and the number of tasting fees.  Fine.  But there's lots of context in here that can slip through the cracks.  Do you track the number of people who don't pay a tasting fee, whether because they are club members, because their tasting fee is comped on a purchase, because they are industry members, or because they share a tasting?  You should be.  If you're not, how do you know how to evaluate a day where you make $1000 in sales to 20 customers?  If you only have 20 customers walk through the door, that looks a lot better than if you had 100.  Plus, traffic is remarkably consistent year-over-year, and knowing how busy certain times of year are helps you staff appropriately.
  • The percentage of your traffic that purchases.  For us, this is easy, since we comp the tasting fee on even a single bottle of wine.  And so far this year, just over 12% of our visitors have paid tasting fees.  I'm happy with this level.  But knowing what percentage of your visitors liked things enough to make a purchase (or, conversely, couldn't find anything that they wanted to buy) is a great indicator of how you're doing.
  • The percentage of your traffic that joins your club.  Absolute numbers of club members are, ultimately, what impacts the bottom line.  But percentages are more informative.  They are the best indicator of how often you really turn someone on to what you do.  And they help you know whether you're maintaining the quality of your experience when things get busier.  If you're not, check your staffing levels.
  • Your average sale per customer (or per transaction).  You can measure this either way, but knowing how much your average customer bought is critical.  Fundamentally, that's your report card on how well you did.
  • Where your sale originates.  Is a purchase made in your tasting room, by phone, or online?  Knowing that you've sold $20,000 in the last week isn't nearly as useful as knowing that you had $14,000 from your walk-in traffic and $6000 in response to an email you sent out to your mailing list.
  • How long your members stay members.  Or, conversely, your cancellation rate.  Now, every club is going to have a certain amount of turnover.  Customers get older, have health issues, lose jobs, and move overseas (or to states you can't ship to).  That happens.  And I'm really proud that our median duration of membership is nearly triple the industry average of 18 months.  But unless you know what your baseline turnover rate is, and are tracking closely enough to see a spike, you can't be quick about finding out why and addressing what you find.
  • What percentage of your emails get read.  If a customer hasn't opened one of your emails in some time, this is a red flag.  It could be that you don't have the right email address to reach people.  It could be that what you're sending out isn't compelling.  In either case, you should want to know.  Of course, also check on anyone whose email bounces back.  It's much harder and more expensive to make a new customer than it is to keep an existing customer.  Put in the time it takes to keep your lists current.
  • The percentage of your visitors from whom you capture contact information.  Becoming a club member is something that a small percentage, at best, of your customers will do.  Industry averages hover around 3%; we feel like with great wine and great service, you can push that up to around 10%.  But that doesn't mean that the other 90% of your customers are a lost cause.  Many of them purchase and would begin an ongoing relationship with you, if you can figure out how to do it in a way that would be welcomed.  An occasional email letting them know about a tasting or dinner near their home?  Or one that provides some useful insight into what's going on in the vineyards or at the winery?  Probably welcome.  Finding a way to start a conversation makes it more likely that they'll return to see you again on a future visit, that they'll want to buy the wines you make when they see them at their favorite restaurant, and that someday they'll become regular customers.  Do you have a mailing list in addition to your club list?  Do you provide information people want to read?  And do you segment your list by region so you can target emails properly and not overwhelm people?  You should. 

You'll note that most of these data points are percentages.  So without counting your traffic accurately, it's very hard to get the rest of the data right.  Consider adding a button on your register to ring up a visitor who doesn't purchase.  That means that the data is all contained in your point-of-sale system, and you don't have to reconcile paper tallies or Excel spreadsheets with your sales totals.

Whatever your method, having this information isn't just an opportunity to check yourself against your baseline.  It creates a shared vocabulary that will allow you to evaluate your performance against your peers, and to interpret the data that's available through industry associations, seminars, and articles. And more than that, it's how you know if you're succeeding at your fundamental goal: to create an experience, and an environment, where your customers want to begin, and sustain, a mutually beneficial relationship with you.


Direct Shipping is not a Zero Sum Game

Earlier this year, I was having lunch in Boston with a key account manager from our Massachusetts distributor.  We were talking about what I'd done on my last visit, which included a really cool dinner at (sadly now closed) Blue Ginger that had such a large consumer response that they had to move the dinner into a larger room.  I also conducted a sold-out tasting seminar at the terrific retailer Gordon's in Waltham.  I mentioned that we'd sent news about the events out to our mailing list and wine club members, and that I thought this was a big reason why we'd gotten such a good turnout for the events.  His response took me by surprise, though it shouldn't have.  He said, "I know, we oppose direct shipping, but I guess it can have its uses."

I've been meaning ever since to write a blog post about how misunderstood direct shipping is among most actors in the wholesale market, and how those misunderstandings have driven policy positions that harm wholesalers' interests in the long run. After all, our wholesale business in Massachusetts is up 38% this year, and was up in 2016 and 2015 after nearly a decade of essentially flat sales.  Our Massachusetts wholesaler is on a pace to sell 55% more wine than it did in 2014.  Most businesses would kill for this sort of performance. So, what turned things around?

Direct shipping opened in February of 2015, bringing Massachusetts into the growing majority of states.

Shipping State Animation

At first, it seems counter-intuitive that opening up a state to shipments of wines from wineries in other states should help the sales of that winery's wholesaler.  Doesn't each sale offset another in-state sale?  Not really.  Here's why the ability for a winery to ship to a state should generally increase their wholesale sales there:

  • Wineries are better able to make and cultivate fans. This, I think, makes a lot of sense, and it works in at least a few ways. Each year, a winery like ours sees visitors from every, or nearly every, state.  Of course, more are from California than anywhere else, and a disproportionate number are from the larger western states, but we see a few hundred visitors from a state like Massachusetts each year.  
    • If these visitors can't sign up for our wine club and can't order wine from us, it's a lot harder for us to establish a meaningful connection with them.  That means that when these people return home and see a Tablas Creek wine on a wine list or the shelf of a wine shop, we're less likely to have developed enough of a connection with them that they choose that wine over others.  
    • They are also less likely to bring Tablas Creek to friends' houses, and therefore the critical peer-to-peer market is harder to activate.  
    • I also think -- though this would be hard data to gather -- that shipping bans discourage wine tourism from those states, since those consumers are likely to experience some degree of frustration in getting any new discoveries home.
  • The wines that people order are not the same wines they buy at retail. The idea that consumers will exchange a purchase at their local shop for a purchase of the same bottle online is pretty far-fetched.  Consider why:
    • Wine is fundamentally a difficult product to ship direct to consumers.  It's heavy and perishable, which means that even if (like us) you subsidize the shipping costs, it's at least a few dollars per bottle to get that product shipped across the country.  Because it's alcohol, all packages have to be signed for upon delivery.  You have to wait at least a few days to get the wine.  And because of the mess left behind by Prohibition's repeal and the 21st Amendment's decree that states have the rights to legislate how they treat alcohol, wineries have to jump through significant legal and compliance hoops to get shipping permits.  The net result is that it's not worth it to ship inexpensive wines, or wines that have good representation in distribution, direct to consumers. The average price of a bottle of wine sold in the United States is about $7. Even with growing demand for higher-end wines, the vast majority of wines won't ever make sense to ship direct.  From a winery's perspective, it's not until you get to the $20 and up category where the shipping costs don't outweigh the extra margin a winery makes on a sale.
    • So, what sorts of wine do make sense for both wineries and consumers to order direct?  Those they can't find, or at least can't find nearby.  Direct shipping opens up the power and opportunities of long-tail marketing to wine lovers and producers.  We don't produce enough volume or have enough demand to have wines on the shelves of dozens of stores in each state outside of California.  So, in many cases, consumers don't have any Tablas Creek on the shelf anywhere near them.  And if they do, it's likely that what's easiest to find is our Patelin de Tablas line, which makes up about 70% of what we sell wholesale nationally.  What if they've read about our Vermentino, or our new Terret Noir?  Too bad.  As you would expect, the Patelin wines represented a much smaller proportion -- just under 15% -- of what we sold direct last year.  What did we sell?  A mix of everything.  But more than half of what we sold was our small-production varietals and blends that aren't found in distribution.  
    • I would guess that most wineries' data would show the same thing, and it's backed up anecdotally.  On a visit to another high-end winery near us last week, our server explained that they have two entirely separate lineups of wine for their wholesale sales and their tasting room.  And, of course, a large number of wineries don't distribute any of their wine nationally. 
  • Restaurants work differently. Although many restaurants offer corkage, where customers can bring in their own wines and have them served at their table for a fee, and there are some states who allow wineries to sell direct to restaurants, the challenging logistics and planning (and cost) required means that nearly 100% of wine sold in restaurant comes through a state-licensed wholesaler.  Does opening direct shipping impact restaurant sales negatively?  Not at all.  And we have found that it is our wine club members -- read superfans -- who are the most likely to order our wines at a restaurant.  They feel a proprietary pride in the success of their favorite wineries, and when they are dining with friends it is often these restaurant opportunities that encourage the peer-to-peer sharing that starts new customers on the path to fandom.  If we can't ship direct to a state, it's a lot harder to sign up wine club members (they can, of course, have wine shipped to friends or relatives in nearby shipping-allowed states, but that's cumbersome and difficult). And the restaurant sales those club members will make don't happen.  
  • Direct shipping changes wineries' incentives. All those reasons aside, I think the most important reason that we have seen our wholesale sales increase in state after state after that state opens to direct shipping is this last one.  Judging from our own actions, it's not in our interest to lavish the same amount of attention on states to which we are prohibited from shipping directly as we do to states to which we can ship.  I know that before 2015, I hadn't visited the Massachusetts market in several years, despite that I went to both high school and college in Massachusetts and have lots of friends -- and sports teams -- in Boston I love to see.  It just wasn't worth it.  In a state like New York or Illinios, where we can ship, I can go, spend my days working with our distributor reps to get the wines into new accounts, and spend my evenings doing consumer events at restaurants or wine shops.  I can help ensure that those events succeed, making the accounts that host them happy, by promoting the events to our consumer mailing list in the area.  And I can hopefully come out of those events with a new collection of names that I can add to our mailing list.  This makes these people more likely to come out to Tablas Creek, and to eventually join our wine club or buy wine from us.  Everyone is happy.  In a non-shipping state, I can still do the work days with the distributor, but I can't do much to help promote consumer events (so they're less likely to be successful) and I can't do much with any consumer contacts I make at these events.  Both time and marketing dollars are finite for any winery.  Wineries are only behaving rationally by focusing their attention where they can have the greatest impact, which means that states without direct shipping don't get as much winery-level help with their wholesale sales.

Whatever the reason or combination of reasons, Massachusetts isn't the only state where we've seen wholesale sales increase in the aftermath of the state opening to direct shipping. It has happened again and again.  Between 2005 and 2013, our wholesale sales rose an average of 8% per year.  Check out how much some of the larger states (that opened to direct shipping over that period) grew in the first two years after they allowed direct shipping.  The year that we started shipping to each is in parentheses:

  • New York (2005): + 68.0%
  • Florida (2006): -38.1%
  • Texas (2006): +61.7%
  • Ohio (2007): +14.3%
  • Georgia (2008): +24.0%
  • Washington DC (2008): +72.5%
  • Maryland (2011): +160.9%

On average, our wholesale sales in these seven states increased 51.9% in the two years after we received our direct shipping permit.  Why was Florida the one state to decline?  I didn't realize it had, until I pulled this data.  But I have a few guesses.  First, it's a state from which we see relatively few visitors, at least for the size of its population.  It's also a state with a very spread-out population, where (unlike, say, in New York or Washington DC) it's hard to schedule events in places that are central to a collection of mailing list members.  We also struggled to set up good consumer events in our early years there, so I doubt we were able to leverage or build our mailing list particularly efficiently.  Anyway, the rest of the states show a pretty strong trend, and our sales in Florida have rebounded strongly in recent years, so I'm not going to worry too much about the one data point.

Instead, I just booked my flights for my second work trip this year to Boston.  I'll fly in Tuesday.  Wednesday, I'll work with one of the distributor's top reps, and we'll try to get the wine into some more cool restaurants, before I host a dinner at Porto in Boston's Back Bay.  Thursday, I'll do it all again, and Friday I'll fly home.  I'll catch the Patriots season-opener on TV with some friends who live there.  And none of this would have happened if Massachusetts -- with a push from former Patriot turned vintner Drew Bledsoe -- hadn't decided to open their borders to wine shipping two years ago.