Why we haven't offered red-only and white-only options for wine club members... and why we're doing it now

We're not big on change.  OK, maybe that's me.  I'm not big on change.  So the fact that we're making what amounts to our first major change to our VINsider Wine Club since we introduced it in 2002 is significant.  After several years of internal debate, we've decided to offer VINsider members not only our classic mixed shipment of wines, but also red-only and white-only options starting this fall.

I know; it shouldn't be this big a deal.  Most wineries have offered these options for years.  But I've always been reluctant, for a couple of reasons. 

  • A "show of confidence" in our whites. I think that we, more than most wineries, focus equally on our reds and whites, and that offering only a mixed-color shipments is in effect a vote of confidence in the breadth of our options, particularly the whites.
  • A reluctance to give up control.  Growing grapes in an environment like Paso Robles, with its regular cycles of drought and its frequent spring frosts, means that our own production can vary widely from vintage to vintage, and it's been great knowing that we're able to -- using a real-world example -- offer an extra red from 2010 in our fall 2012 and spring 2013 shipments shipment because our whites from 2011 were short. 
  • We already have our VINdependent Wine Club, which should fill this need. Our VINdependent Wine Club allows members total flexibility to buy whatever they want, with a minimum 6-bottle annual commitment (albeit at a somewhat lower discount). And it's been very successful.  Last year, we signed up nearly 1000 members to this club, and have roughly 2000 active members.
  • I was worried about breadth. I'm always concerned that we have a compelling selection of wines for our club members, and it's already a challenge making 11 different wines a year in 500-case quantities (11 rather than 12 because we include 2 bottles of the newest vintage of Esprit red each fall).  For red-only and white-only clubs, doubling the quantity of a shipment with 3 reds is an option (as you see below) but what do you do for a white-only shipment when your standard shipment has 4 reds and 2 whites, as we will this fall?  Including 3 bottles of each of just 2 wines didn't seem to me like a particularly exciting thing to do.

So why are we doing it now?  A couple of reasons. 

  • Listening to our customers.  Every few years we survey the VINsiders who have canceled their membership, trying to probe on how we can do better.  In general, the survey responses are gratifying; nearly all cancel because of external circumstances: they moved to a non-shipping state, or they had a personal or professional setback that required them to cut back on their discretionary purchases, or they had health issues that required a change in lifestyle.  Most of these say they look forward to rejoining when they are able, and our data supports that: of the roughly 1600 new registrations we received last year for our VINsider Wine Club, nearly 10% (137) were previous members.  But there is a consistent minority in these surveys who say that they just don't drink either whites or reds, and it was a burden for them to have to pay for the color of wines they don't enjoy.  And I get that.  I happen to love both reds and whites, and probably drink both colors more or less equally, depending on what I'm eating at the time, but I know not everyone is the same.
  • We have more variety to offer now.  We made a conscious choice in the last vintage to make a little less of our core blends, particularly the Cotes de Tablas, and a little more of our estate varietal and small-production wines, so as to have more -- and more interesting -- selections to send to our club members and to show to the visitors who come out to our tasting room.  This change gives us options we didn't have before.
  • We realized that the VINdependent Wine Club was (compared to the VINsider Club) a lot of work.  This club, which we created about 5 years ago to satisfy customers who were excited about Tablas Creek but who didn't fit, for whatever reason, into the VINsider Club, is to my knowledge the only one of its kind in California.  As long as VINdependent members buy 6 bottles at any point in the calendar year, they satisfy their annual commitment and don't receive a prepackaged shipment.  They can choose those 6 bottles however they want... some (probably the largest segment, around one-third) only buy reds, or whites.  Others just buy our flagship wines.  Others want a smaller commitment, or live in a non-shipping state but visit Paso Robles once a year, or just don't want anyone else to choose their selection.  But, as the end of the year approaches, because we don't make automatic shipments, there is always a portion (typically around 30%) of our roughly 2000 VINdependents who haven't made their annual purchase yet, and in some cases may not have purchased since early the previous year.  A lot can happen in 18 months, and we spend much of December emailing and calling them to ascertain what they'd like.  Some we're never able to get ahold of, which has made the annual cancellation rate among our VINdependents about 50% higher than that of our VINsider Club.  If we can take that red-only and white-only customers -- most of whom only signed up for the VINdependent club because we didn't have another red-only or white-only club when they visited -- and bring them into our VINsider Club, that seems compelling.  Everyone wins: members get a better discount and more convenience, while we sell a little more wine, more predictably, and retain our members at a higher rate.

Without further ado, I'm pleased to present to you our inaugural red-only and white-only shipments.  The red-only includes 2 bottles each of 2012 Esprit de Tablas, 2012 En Gobelet, and 2012 Grenache:

Fall_2014_RedOnly_edit

For the white-only, we have 2 bottles of the 2012 Esprit de Tablas Blanc, 2 bottles of the 2013 Viognier, 1 bottle of the 2013 Vermentino and 1 bottle of the 2013 Picpoul Blanc:

Fall_2014_WhiteOnly_edit

And, of course, our classic mix, with 2 bottles of the 2012 Esprit de Tablas, and 1 bottle each of the 2012 En Gobelet, 2012 Grenache, 2012 Esprit de Tablas Blanc, and 2013 Vermentino:

Fall_2014_Classic_edit

We announced this change to our VINsiders via email about two weeks ago, and it has been interesting -- and gratifying, because it suggest that most of our VINsiders are happy with the mix we're offering -- to see that the number who have switched to one of the new options has been relatively low.  In this initial period (granted, only two weeks, but we typically see most of the response to an email within that period) we've seen 83 VINsiders switch, or roughly 1.5% of our membership.  In the tasting room, however, we've seen a higher percentage take advantage of these new options: 50 of the 355 new VINsiders (14%) have elected for red-only or white-only over the initial eight-week period we've offered these options.  This discrepancy is probably not surprising; while some of the new red-only and white-only signups would probably have signed up anyway, most would likely have either opted for our VINdependent Club or not have signed up at all.

As for proportion of red-only and white-only, it's been maybe even a little more lopsided than we would have predicted, with 115 (86%) opting for red-only and 18 (14%) opting for white-only.  I'll be interested to see whether these numbers will balance out at all; my suspicion is that they will, at least slightly, given that so far 18% of the new registrants have opted for white-only, while just 11% of those who switched from our existing members did so.

Finally, a little housekeeping, for anyone reading who wants to make a change. Current VINsider Club members can select red-only or white-only options on the VINsider Update Form, and prospective new members can choose their preferred color mix when they register on the VINsider Sign-Up Form.


Our crazy state alcohol laws: a farce in nine acts

You probably don't need me to tell you our alcohol laws are often crazy. But, well, our alcohol laws are crazy, particularly if you look at the state and local level.  The national level, for what little it has to do with alcohol, tends to be positive, like the Granholm v. Heald decision that helped reduce protectionism and create a more level playing field for American wineries.  State alcohol laws shelter behind the 21st Amendment's protection -- written in the aftermath of prohibition -- that gives them broad leeway to write laws to suit their local mores about alcohol.  Of course, that protection, which was intended to allow states or counties to remain alcohol-free, has allowed powerful constituencies to write protections for themselves into their state's alcohol legislation. The results can be frustrating, infuriating, unexpected and even funny.  Here are a few favorites:

  • Minimum markup laws.  In Ohio, retailers and wholesalers are required by law to mark up wine a minimum amount: 33% at the wholesale level, and either 40% (on cases) or 50% (on individual bottles) at retail.  Written into the law is a remarkable justification: "to prevent abuses caused by the disorderly and unregulated sale of wine ... prevent aggressive sales practices that improperly stimulate purchase and consumption ... discourage intemperate consumption of alcoholic beverages ... eliminate discriminatory sales practices that threaten the survival of wholesale distributors and retail permit holders". The admission at the end is breathtakingly honest: that "the survival of wholesale distributors and retail permit holders" is a goal of the legislation.  Typically, price competition -- the foundation of the capitalist system -- is protected, not labeled a "discriminatory sales practice".
  • Price posting. Many states require that wine wholesalers post the price at which they're offering their products, and then enforce with varying degrees of rigor that no customer is given preferential treatment. In New York, for example, you are required to post the price that any licensee will pay for your wines.  You are allowed (expected) to offer a better price if someone buys 2 or 3 or 5 cases than if they buy just one. In Oregon, wholesalers are required to post prices per bottle, and are not allowed to offer discounts on quantity (or to charge extra to deliver purchases of just a few bottles).  On the other hand, they're also not allowed to extend credit, so they receive payment at the time of delivery.  That helps with the cash flow problems created by all the tiny deliveries!
  • Franchise laws.  In some twenty states (AR, CT, DE, GA, ID, KS, MA, ME, MI, MO, MT, NC, NM, NJ, NV, OH, TN, VA, VT, and WI) once you've chosen a distributor to represent you, you cannot leave that distributor and move to another even if they perform badly, lose their key personnel, or are purchased by another firm. There are in some cases exceptions to these franchise laws -- or review boards to which you can appeal with cause -- but in every case, it tilts the balance of the playing field even further toward the state-licensed distributor.  I wrote about this at length last year in the article the costs of state alcohol franchise laws.
  • The Johnstown Flood Tax.  In Pennsylvania, which sells all its wine and liquor through state-run stores, all alcohol sales are assessed an 18% tax earmarked to pay for repairs from the Johnstown Flood.  Which happened in 1936.
  • Wet, dry and damp counties.  In Texas, like much of the south and midwest, there are counties that are "wet", where alcohol may be sold.  There are counties that are "dry", where it may not be sold.  But there are also quite a few counties where wine may only be sold if it is 14% alcohol or less.  I remember doing a presentation to our sales team there and having many of the reps making notes on which of our wines they could sell, and which they couldn't because those wines were on the wrong side of the 14% law.
  • State control.  In Wyoming, you are not allowed to sell a wine without being with a state-licensed broker.  And by sell, I mean talk about.  You aren't really selling the wine anyway; the state of Wyoming is the only licensed wholesaler.  But their job pretty much stops at warehousing and delivery.  If you want to help convince the local retailers and restaurants that they should ask the state of Wyoming to deliver your wine, you'd better be with someone with a license.  Same thing in a few other states.  Want to pour wine at a festival in Maine?  You'd better get the state license.
  • Direct shipping protectionism.  The arcane barriers to direct shipping, nearly all erected to protect wholesalers but couched in language about encouraging responsible alcohol consumption or ensuring the collection of tax revenue, could fill a post by themselves.  There are still roughly a dozen states that effectively prohibit all wine being shipped in, but (like with dry counties) that's a choice. The ones that get me are the inexplicable ones, like Maine not allowing us to ship half-bottles there (minimum size: 750ml). Or states like Rhode Island, South Dakota, Arizona and Delaware that allow us to ship wine if the customer makes an in-person purchase here, but not if they pick up their phone and call us, or want to order online.  Or those with bizarre or minimal limits per month or year, like South Dakota's limit of 5 bottles per shipment, Texas's limit of 46 bottles per individual per calendar month, or Wyoming's limit of 2 cases per household per year.  Or (and this starts to go from ridiculous to serious) those with capacity caps, the distributor lobby's wedge issue of choice at the moment. Arizona decided that wineries that produce fewer than 20,000 gallons per year -- conveniently, just above the size of Arizona's largest winery -- can ship to consumers, while larger wineries like us can't. These encroachments and others like them will get increasingly onerous unless people stand up. Free the Grapes is a great place to start.
  • Sampling restrictions.  In Vermont, you are not allowed to sample multiple accounts on a single bottle of wine.  In fact, you are not allowed to bring a sample of wine into a licensed establishment.  If you, as a winery or distributor representative, want to show a wine to an account, you have to convince the account to buy the wine from the warehouse, then you have to buy it from the establishment, open it and taste it with the proprietor, and then repeat the same process at each stop in your work day.  You can imagine how well this works.
  • Massachusetts.  Finally, we'll devote a paragraph to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which passed a direct shipping law so obviously anticompetitive -- the sponsors explained in the legislature, during the debate about the law that the law's limits were set so as to allow all the in-state wineries to ship to consumers while prohibiting as many out-of-state wineries as possible -- that a federal court declared it unconstitutional. Of course, this declaration was moot, because the law also contained a clause making the common carrier (think UPS or FedEx) liable if they delivered a shipment to a consumer in excess of the 26 cases/household/year aggregate limit.  Think about this.  The carrier is supposed to know whether or not this customer has bought more than the aggregate limit already that year, that could have been delivered by another carrier.  Even before the law was invalidated, both UPS and FedEx announced that they wouldn't accept any shipment bound for the state, and now, four years later, nothing has changed, though there's a glimmer of hope, as the Massachusetts House of Representatives passed a budget that includes reasonable wine shipping provisions.  It's now awaiting action at the state Senate.  If you live there, or know any wine lovers who do, there's a template at Free the Grapes that will help you ask them to move it forward.

Perhaps the most surprising thing from my perspective is the degree to which the restaurants, retailers and consumers in these different states accept the status quo.  Nearly all of these laws enrich some entrenched interest at the expense of the consumer.  Wineries, restaurants and retailers are often collateral damage.  As much fun as this craziness can be, I, for one, would like to order a little sanity.  But I'm not holding my breath.


Game Theory, the Prisoner's Dilemma and... Winery Membership Organizations, Part 1

Game theory describes a branch of science at the intersection of economics, psychology and mathematics which explores models of interaction between rational actors, seeking to explain why and when these actors (be they individuals, companies or even nations) will choose to cooperate or to betray each other.  Many of these games are iterative, a fancy way of saying that they happen again and again, like many actions in life, where the actors can learn from their previous actions and the previous actions of their competitors.

One of the classic examples of game theory is the prisoner's dilemma.  Imagine the situation where two co-conspirators are arrested on light evidence, and each independently offered the opportunity to inform on the other in return for escaping jail time.  If neither chooses to inform, the prosecution doesn't have much of a case and so both get light sentences (say, 1 year).  If both choose to inform, both get moderate sentences (say, 3 years).  If one chooses to inform and the other doesn't, the one who informs gets no jail time, but the one who doesn't, and sees his co-conspirator testify against him, gets 5 years.  You can set up the four possible actions in a grid:

 A TestifiesA Stays Silent
B Testifies A gets 3 years
B gets 3 years
A gets 5 years
B gets 0 years
B Stays Silent A gets 0 years
B gets 5 years
A gets 1 year
B gets 1 year

At first glance, the actions that the actors should take in this game seem pretty clear: whatever one prisoner does, the other comes out better if he testifies, serving no time (vs. 1 year) if the other person stays silent, and 3 years (vs. 5 years) if the other prisoner testifies. And yet the best outcome for the duo happens if both behave irrationally (or perhaps trustingly) while the worst outcome occurs when both behave rationally (or self-interestedly).  Real-world applications of this abound, from arms reduction treaties to curbs on greenhouse gases to the production of individual countries in the OPEC oil cartel.

PrisonersDilemma
Graphic courtesy Wikimedia Commons, which has a great interactive Prisoner's Dilemma
example -- from which the screenshot above was taken -- here.

How is this applicable to wine associations?  I'm happy you asked.  I've been spending a lot of my time thinking of this recently thanks to my positions on the board of directors of two organizations: the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance (PRWCA) and the Rhone Rangers.  In both cases, I believe that the organizations provide a valuable service to their members, but there are significant free-rider problems that discourage membership.  Think about it this way.  If the Rhone Rangers is successful in its marketing and makes Syrah easier to sell, all Syrah producers benefit, not just the ones who are members.  Similarly, if the PRWCA is successful in its promotion and brings more people to area tasting rooms, or raises the profile of Paso Robles so its wines sell better off retail shelves and wine lists, any Paso Robles winery will benefit, whether or not they have paid their membership dues.

And the dues, for the PRWCA at least, are not cheap.  We've had two important local wineries drop out of the alliance this year, each saying that they were going to reallocate their marketing dollars to efforts that more directly benefited their bottom lines.  These decisions shot a significant (though not crippling) hole through the PRWCA marketing budget.  Were the wineries behaving rationally?  Actually, yes, they almost certainly were, though if their behavior was generalized everyone, including them, would be worse off.  It's a prisoner's dilemma-type example!

The main reason that wineries band together is to gain efficiency with the money they spend.  It's generally accepted that an advertising campaign gains efficiency with repetition and with consistency.  So, a single marketing campaign, well targeted and well run, is typically more effective at driving behavior than ten different advertising campaigns each one-tenth the size of the original campaign.  And the PRWCA gains additional efficiency because of its expertise -- unlikely to be found in-house at any individual winery -- both because of the people running it (thank you, Jennifer Porter) and because of the outside consultants it is able to afford.

Let's look at an example that will require a little math. I'll round the numbers to help them make sense, but it doesn't really matter what the numbers are: the conclusion still holds, as long as we agree that wineries are unlikely to be as efficient spending individually as the group would be spending their money in a coordinated campaign. For ease of calculation, I will assume that there is a 50% loss in overall spending efficiency when a winery splits their money from the group's to spend it individually.  And we'll round numbers to 200 wineries, with a contribution of $5000 each (leaving a total budget of $1,000,000).  I'll look only at the power of advertising to drive people to local tasting rooms, and assume that each visitor makes 5 tasting room visits when they're in town, and assume that the PRWCA gets one person to make the decision to come to town for each $5 they spend.

OK, back to specifics.  Let's look at the impact of the PRWCA's spending of $5000 -- one winery's portion of the total budget -- as a part of their master marketing campaign.  This $5000 brings 1000 customers into town.  These customers make 5 visits each, or 5,000 visits total, split among the 200 wineries.  Each winery receives 25 of these tasting room visits. 

Now, let's look at the scenario where Winery X takes the $5000 that they were going to give to the PRWCA and reallocates it to running radio ads in Fresno, Bakersfield and Orange County.  This advertising is only 50% as efficient as the PRWCA's marketing, so the winery might expect to pay $10 per customer (double the PRWCA's cost).  But the people that this advertising drives to Paso Robles will all start at Winery X's tasting room.  So they get 500 visits for their $5000.  Other tasting rooms in the region still benefit, as these visitors make on average 4 more visits to other tasting rooms when they're in town.  But those 500 customers, who make their additional 2,000 total visits to other Paso Robles tasting rooms, account for only about 10 new visits to each of the other 199 wineries -- less than they would have each received had the same money been spent by the PRWCA.  So Winery X ends up 475 customers ahead, whereas every other winery in the area ends up 15 customers behind.  Winery X is behaving rationally, and can even point to the fact that its advertising is helping their neighbors gets customers.

Like in the prisoner's dilemma example, the problem comes in the aggregate.  What seems like a small loss per other winery looks a lot larger when you multiply that loss by all the wineries affected: the region loses 2,985 tasting room visits from the 199 other wineries, and only gains 475 for Winery X.

If every winery were to make the same decision to spend their $5000 individually, with the same results, they too would get 500 customers to start in their tasting room, and would each contribute 2000 other tasting room visits to the region.  Across the 200 wineries, that pool grows to 400,000 visits.  Divided equally, each winery gets 2000 of these, plus the 500 from the advertising they paid for themselves.  That's 2,500 customers total.  If the same $1,000,000 had been spent by the PRWCA, it produces 200,000 customers who make 1,000,000 visits total: or 5,000 visits per winery.  By spending their money rationally (an economist might equally say selfishly) they have cut their total number of customers in half.

Of course, not every winery makes this decision.  And that's the most frustrating thing for those of us who do contribute to the group's spending.  Winery X receives most of the benefits of the marketing that an organization like the PRWCA is doing with the member wineries' money... whether or not they are members.  Sure, there are a few ways that they lose out: they're not on the organization's printed map; they're not included in the group's media outreach; they're not a part of the trade outreach that the organization does; and they lose a modicum of goodwill from their neighbors.  I actually think that these benefits on their own probably pay for the costs of membership.  But if their principal driver of revenue is their tasting room traffic, they still probably come out ahead, at least in the short term.

How does one quantify the benefits that do accrue directly to the members from their membership?  And how does a regional organization best respond to this? Game theory has answers for this, too.  I explore how to quantify the value of membership in part 2 and will delve into game theory's suggestions for how an organization should respond to those who drop out in part 3.


The future of the proprietary blend

This week, I joined much of the rest of the California wine community in Sacramento for the Unified Grape and Wine Symposium.  Unified, as it's called, is part trade show, part educational conference, and part social hall, with nightly reunions of all the significant viticultural universities and lots of the informal socializing that helps keep a community together.

I was up there to speak on a panel titled The Proprietary Wine: Rethinking the Constructs of Blended Wine, a topic near and dear to my heart.  I and the other panelists shared how we thought about, and went about creating, the blends that we each focus on.  I showed the 2012 Patelin de Tablas Blanc and the 2011 Esprit de Tablas, to have an opportunity to discuss how our approach differs for an estate wine and for the Patelin line, which is primarily from a collection of other local vineyards.

Blending components

It became clear that each of us, to one degree or another, agreed that the freedom to blend different grapes, and the liberty to adjust to what each vintage gives you, allows us to make wines that we find more consistent and more interesting.  But more than why we blend and what we hope to gain from it, I thought that the most interesting part of the seminar came in the question-and-answer period at its conclusion, specifically a question as to whether we thought that blends would, in the short or long term, take the mantle of desirability from the varietal wines that now dominate the marketplace.

On one side of the debate stands the success of the other panelists (whose quantities had grown in a shorter time than we've been active well into the tens and hundreds of thousands of cases) as well as brands like Menage a Trois, which came up in discussion several times as one of the top selling wines in the country despite its unconventional composition.  Also on that side is the 15+% growth in both the red and white blend categories reported in Nielsen data from 2012.  Arguing on the other side of the debate was the proprietor of a small winery, who asked me privately after the session whether I had any answer to the questions she gets from wine buyers just where they're supposed to put her blend on their shelves or on their lists.  I hear that less than I did, but it would still certainly be easier to be in a more widely recognized category.

My general feeling is that blends will continue to grow in acceptance, but not because of a paradigm shift.  In fact, I feel that the growth of acceptance of blends is part and parcel of the growing acceptance of unusual grapes and new growing regions.  The American market even a decade ago was dominated by six grapes (Cabernet, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc) and maybe eight foreign regions (Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Rhone, Germany (mostly German Riesling), Spain (mostly Rioja), Italy (writ large), Australia, South America (mostly Chile with a little Argentina).  Perhaps you could add in South Africa and New Zealand.  It was these regions that warranted their own sections in even the best stores and wine lists.  If you didn't fit into one of these categories, you tended to get stuck in "other red" or "other white".  I know, because that's where we spent a lot of our history.

Fast forward a decade, and while retail has by and large been slower to change -- some notable exceptions notwithstanding -- wine lists are a great deal more inclusive than they were.  Most large lists are still organized by grape or region, but there are many more grapes and many more regions listed.  And small lists, which are more and more common even in many top restaurants, have more flexibility in their category-less simplicity to include whatever wines their buyer thinks interesting and complementary to their food.  If it's based on Vermentino, or Negrette, it's likely listed that way, without fanfare or apology.

These developments are part of the maturation of the vibrant American wine market.  I don't mean to say that there is a more mature wine consumer, though many Americans are still relatively new to wine, and I think that as wine lovers spend more time with their passion their tastes do tend to become more diverse, but that there are more and more different types of wine consumers in this wonderfully heterogeneous market.  That means you don't need to convert a Chardonnay lover to Picpoul in order to be successful.

And that is a future to be excited about.


Vintage Hollywood

I have recently been finding myself contrasting two recent vintages primarily in terms of their personalities, rather than (or at least, in addition to) their flavors.  Our 2011 vintage produced wines that are tense, wound-up, powerful and brooding, that make you make an effort to get to know them.  The wines from our 2012 vintage are sunny, open, friendly, and easy to like without being simplistic.  Yes, these are notably anthropomorphic descriptions, and I have described each without mentioning anything about sweetness, acidity, flavors or texture.  And yet, don't you have a sense of what the two vintages' wines are likely to taste like?

That got me thinking of which movie stars might correspond to those two vintages, and once I got myself started, I couldn't stop.  So, I present to you the last ten vintages, with a female and male movie star who will help you get to know them, and a little explanation as to why. Images courtesy Wikipedia.

Star Banner.fw

  • 2004: "We didn't know they had it in them".  The 2004 vintage struck us at the time as likely to produce friendly, appealing wines without perhaps the structure and depth to age into elegance.  We were wrong, and the vintage has had remarkable staying power and has become something we didn't think it would be.
    • Female star: Mila Kunis, because when you saw her in That 70's Show, did you think she would be an A-list talent, as well as one of the most genuinely funny interview subjects in Hollywood?  Me neither.
    • Male star: Matthew McConaughey. Wooderson didn't seem likely to graduate to Dallas Buyers Club.
  • 2005: "Came through a few rough patches".  2005 wines were big and brawny when they were young, obviously with potential, but they shut down hard in middle-age and got downright difficult, to the point that we actually had to delay including the 2005 Esprit de Beaucastel in our Collector's Edition Wine Club because it wasn't ready.  But now?  They're the wines I pick when I want to impress.
    • Female star: Drew Barrymore, who as a teenager didn't seem likely to mature into the funny, self-possessed star she is now.
    • Male star: Robert Downey Jr., whose transformation from talented tabloid regular to master of multiple genres has been remarkable to see.  Did you realize he's the most valuable movie star in Hollywood, and has been for two years running?
  • 2006: "The overachiever".  A little like 2004, except that the wines seemed more solid and less friendly at the start, likely to be respected and admired but unlikely to be loved.  Then they steadily put on substance while rounding off rough edges, until they were stars in their own rights.  It happened so gradually we were actually surprised when our 2006 Esprit de Beaucastel became our first wine to make the Wine Spectator's annual "Top 100" list.
    • Female star: Amy Adams, who seemed destined for typecast roles as the funny sidekick but who has pushed her boundaries until she's one of the most marketable women in Hollywood.
    • Male star: John C. Reilly, the consummate character actor who parlayed strong work in a steady stream of sidekick roles in great indie films into juicy lead roles in blockbusters like Chicago and Gangs of New York.
  • 2007: "The star".  Big, glossy, powerful, clearly A-list material, our most impressive vintage suggests the classic Hollywood star, at the height of his or her powers, who can play any role successfully.  Yet, you never forget you're watching a star conscious of his or her own power.  No one would describe the 2007 vintage as "cozy".
    • Female star: Catherine Zeta-Jones.  A-list lead.  Talented singer.  One of the most beautiful women of her generation.  Would I be terrified to meet her?  Absolutely.
    • Male star: George Clooney.  Ridiculously talented, funny, self-deprecating and successful in a number of different roles, but you never forget you're watching a movie star.  That's what 2007 is like.
  • 2008: "The quiet pro".  This vintage, sandwiched between the showier 2007 and 2009 vintages, was excellent in its own right, but didn't demand a lot of attention.  It's like the star you're always happy to see in a movie, but whose name probably isn't on the marquee.  Yet at the end, you're glad to have spent the time with them.
    • Female star: Julianne Moore: classy, elegant, always appealing, and often in roles that show off her acting rather than her beauty.  Always an asset to a cast.
    • Male star: Jake Gyllenhaal: ditto.  Can lead a major production, but it doesn't seem to happen as often as it could.
  • 2009: "The dark side".  Powerful, tightly wound, the 2009 vintage is like 2007 with some added menace: an a-list star willing to go without makeup in pursuit of a meaty role.  We're expecting the 2009's, which are a bit forbidding and tannic now, to unwind only gradually, but to reward patience handsomely.
    • Female star: Angelina Jolie, the classic female action hero, whose depth is promised and only gradually revealed. A powerful presence, alluring and intimidating in equal measure.
    • Male star: Daniel Craig, whose take on James Bond is darker than previous iterations, played straight rather than with a wink, still plenty suave while adding more muscle and an introspective streak. A Bond who doesn't let you inside.
  • 2010: "Classic elegance". The comparatively stress-free 2010 vintage, a wet year coming after three years of drought, produced wines that have to me always come across as effortlessly appealing, not notable for their power but beautifully delineated and in perfect balance, like a movie star who ages gracefully.
    • Female star: Gwyneth Paltrow, charming in whatever role she takes on, from the big screen to the kitchen, but seemingly most at home playing a version of herself.
    • Male star: Denzel Washington, whose quiet confidence and air of class allows him to imbue humanity into characters who in other hands would be straightforward villains or saccharine heroes. Watch Training Day and Remember the Titans and marvel that he starred in these back-to-back.
  • 2011: "A little intimidating". 2011 turned up the volume on 2010, gaining intensity from a spring frost and retaining bright acids from our second consecutive cold year.  All the wines have a brooding darkness and the promise of great depth. At the same time, they require a certain investment on your part as their consumer to meet them on their terms. They're not interested in pleasing the crowds.
    • Female star: Halle Berry, who could have settled into a comfortable role as model and actress playing beautiful people, but seemed to search out troubled characters that were impossible to pigeonhole.
    • Male star: Hugh Jackman, who inhabits Wolverine's character comfortably: funny and sociable in short, bitter bursts, but ultimately inward-focused and intense.
  • 2012: "Pleased to meet you". In dramatic contrast to 2011, 2012 comes to greet you with a smile. This isn't to say that there's not depth behind this happy facade, but the first impression I have with all the wines from 2012 is that they're charming, with generous fruit, engaging and enticing.
    • Female star: Reese Witherspoon, recent arrest notwithstanding, plays characters with an easy smile who you want to root for and for whom joy seems a regular emotion.
    • Male star: Tom Hanks, whose wide range never seems to include dour or unappealing characters.  Of course, if you were casting for an unappealing character, would you cast Tom Hanks?  Exactly.
  • 2013: "The prodigy". In our as-yet-limited experience of the 2013 vintage, it seems to combine the appeal of 2012 with the depth and intrigue of 2011.  We're not sure where it's going yet, but we know it's going to be fun to follow and get to know.
    • Female star: Jennifer Lawrence, whose range at age 23 is already staggering, and whose career arc is likely to be meteoric.
    • Male star: Leonardo DiCaprio, circa 1997.  There isn't really a current equivalent to the promise that a 22-year-old Leonardo DiCaprio showed, already nominated for an Oscar (at age 19) for his role in What's Eating Gilbert Grape and within a few months of becoming the biggest star in the highest-grossing movie ever.

I'm sure any list like this is going to create controversy, and would love to know your nominations for the characteristics of our different vintages.  Or maybe I'm totally off base and you've only made it this far because you're wondering if I've lost my mind.  In any case, let me know what you think in the comments.


Malolactic, Misunderstood

There is a recurring item on the Wine Spectator Web site called "Ask Dr. Vinny".  In it, the Spectator writers take on commonly asked questions about winemaking and wine consumption.  Last month there was a question from a reader in the United Arab Emirates: "Is there any change that can be made in viticulture practices to produce low-alcohol wines apart from using reverse osmosis?"

I was pleased to see that the response included the obvious: "Want lower-alcohol wines? Pick sooner rather than later."  You might think, "well, duh" but implicit in the question is a commonly-held reliance on the technological solution in the world of modern winemaking.

I've fielded several questions recently about a related topic: whether our wines go through malolactic fermentation.  To understand what this means, please bear with a bit of science (or skip ahead, if this is old hat or if the thought of chemistry equations makes your skin crawl).  Grape juice undergoes two different types of fermentation in its transformation into wine.  In the first, and most dramatic, fermentation (typically called "primary fermentation") yeasts convert sugar into alcohol, carbon dioxide, and heat. This fermentation is the core one that turns grape juice into wine:

Sucrose (C6H12O6) ==> 2 Ethanol (C2H5OH) + 2 Carbon Dioxide (CO2) + energy

But there is another chemical reaction (technically a decarboxylation, not fermentation) caused by a family of bacteria that converts sharp-tasting malic acid into the gentler lactic acid and carbon dioxide:

Malic Acid (C4H6O5) ==> Lactic Acid (C3H6O3) + Carbon Dioxide (CO2)

620px-Malolactic_fermentationMalic acid, commonly found in apple skins and the primary flavor in rhubarb, is an aggressive acid, with a pH of 2.2, while lactic acid, commonly found in milk products, is much gentler, with a pH of 2.4.  That difference may not seem like much, but because pH is a logarithmic scale, a liquid with a 2.2 pH has 60% more acidity than one with 2.4 pH. An image of the process (courtesy of Wikipedia) is to the right.

OK, enough with the chemistry.  In practical terms, while all wines go through primary fermentation, only some go through malolactic fermentation.  It's pretty easy to understand why you would want a wine to do so: it produces a creamier texture and smoother mouthfeel, as long as there are enough other acids in the wine to maintain balance.  Red wines nearly always are let go through malolactic; they contain much higher levels of tannic acids from the skins of the grapes since they are fermented with the skins, while most white wines are pressed first and fermented separately. These tannic acids tend to be highlighted in an unpleasant way by malic acid, while the lactic acid produces a softer, richer, more appealing mouthfeel. 

Why wouldn't you want a richer mouthfeel on whites, too?  Well, it comes with some costs, when grapes are super-ripe and therefore lower in natural acidity.  Historically, nearly all whites did go through malolactic fermentation, because the technology to stop the process (typically some combination of sulfur dioxide addition, refrigeration, and sterile filtration) hadn't been developed yet.  But as these techniques came into relatively widespread use, some winemakers chose to block the malolactic fermentation on whites with sweeter or more floral profiles, where brighter acidity was a desirable foil to the wine's character.

And so things stayed, until recent years when the trend toward riper and riper wines left the stopping of malolactic fermentation as a standard practice for many winemakers. Leave the grapes on the vines for another couple of weeks, pack extra rich and tropical flavors into them, then stop the malolactic fermentation to give a balancing dash of acidity to an extravagantly rich wine.  Sure, you end up with a lot of alcohol, but if you're trying to make the biggest, most impressive wine, and don't want it flabby, it's a relatively easy choice.

What's the problem with this?  Well, it's in the eye of the beholder. For many people, nothing.  But I find that the extra ripeness and alcohol typically mask expression of the soils, and abundance of power with often disconcertingly elevated acidity makes for wines that are fatiguing rather than refreshing.  It's like the trend toward IPA's with extra hops, extra malt, and extra alcohol.  Sure, they're impressive, but I rarely finish even my first glass, let alone order a second.  More isn't necessarily better.  In this, I realize I'm out of step with current trends.  So be it.  I'm still waiting for the artisan lager revolution to start.

Is stopping the malolactic fermentation always bad?  Of course not.  There are times when it's the right choice on a particular lot or in a particular vintage.  We've done it from time to time, though not in the last five years or so.  But picking earlier, when you have enough natural acidity that you can let malolactic go through and still have wines with balance, seems to me to be much more desirable.  The wines are more expressive, less alcoholic, and show an appealing, creamy texture that seems to show off our limestone soils.

To choose another analogy, I'm finding myself, more and more, seeing white wines with high alcohol, intense tropical flavors and lots of malic acid as the equivalent of a celebrity who has had too much surgical enhancement.  The net result often isn't beauty, and can border on the grotesque.  You can have Pamela Anderson.  I'll take Gwyneth Paltrow.


What Facebook's News Feed Changes Mean for the Wine Community

There was a bit of a flap in social media circles a couple of weeks ago when Ad Age broke the story that Facebook would be reducing the organic reach of pages and requiring those pages that wanted to reach a significant percentage of their fans to advertise to do so.  A Facebook sales presentation sent to its partners last month makes it clear: "We expect organic distribution of an individual page's posts to gradually decline over time as we continually work to make sure people have a meaningful experience on the site."

The implications of this change do not appear to have percolated into much of the wine community, but it sounds like the impacts will be substantial for the many small- and mid-size wineries who have been relying on Facebook as an inexpensive marketing channel, and perhaps even more so for winery organizations that rely largely on sharing their members' content.  What's more, it does not appear that Facebook is planning these changes for some time in the distant future.  Instead, it appears from the reach of our Facebook posts that these changes are well underway.

It is no secret to anyone who administers a Facebook page that any post reaches only a fraction of the page's fans.  But many wineries, who have invested significantly in acquiring fans, may not realize the extent to which their content is already being filtered out.  The specialists who I talk to suggest that organic page reach is averaging in the 12%-14% range now, which means that an average post to a page with 5000 fans will be seen in the news feeds of just 600-700 of those fans.  That Facebook should be looking to further reduce this reach will mean that the businesses and organizations that have been using only the free tools Facebook makes available should expect to the platform to become less and less rewarding.

There are really only two options for a business or organization who wants to continue to interact with large numbers of their fans on Facebook:

  • Get ready to pay for reach.  A Facebook spokesman is quoted in the Ad Age article as saying "the best way to get your stuff seen if you're a business is to pay for it".  This is different than the classic model of Facebook advertising, where you advertised to get new people to like your page or to sell your product to non-fans.  Now, you'll have to get used to paying just to reach the fans you've acquired.
  • Make especially compelling content.  In recent weeks I've noticed a correlation between engagement rate and post reach even greater than before.  Looking at our Facebook page since the beginning of November, most of our posts averaged in the 9%-10% engagement rate, at which level we reached an average of 935 fans, or a little over 17% of our roughly 5300 page likes.  Each additional percent of engagement allowed that post to reach approximately 3% more of our fans, with a peak of 1687 fans (31% of our total) on a post with 16% engagement.  Similarly, on the posts which were less engaging, we reached fewer fans; the one post that received only a 5% engagement rate was seen by just 412 of our fans (7%).

The chart below shows the same data graphically.  The data comes by averaging the reach of all image posts on the Tablas Creek Facebook page since the beginning of November.  I excluded any posts that overlapped with another post that same day, as more frequent postings show lower reach totals for any given level of engagement.

Facebook Post Reach by Engagement

Facebook's message is clear: make your content compelling if you want it seen organically.  Otherwise, expect to pay.

It was probably inevitable that Facebook should make this change, which raises revenue while also helping them prioritize friend-generated content over business-generated content.  But it does mean that the wineries -- and the wine organizations -- that have been relying on Facebook as a low- (or no-) cost means of customer acquisition will need to reevaluate their strategy and budget. 

These changes, while likely unwelcome to most wineries, shouldn't be impossible to adapt to.  Wineries will just have to choose what portion of their marketing budget to spend on promoting their posts to their fans, just as they would evaluate any other advertising opportunity that crossed their desks.  They also likely already have a leg up on generating interesting original content.  But it seems to me like it will be harder for wine organizations, particularly small ones, to react to.  Many of these organizations are sharing other pages' content, and links to non-original content have two strikes against them: they are harder to generate high post engagement scores for, and they have been named as a target for deemphasis by Facebook in the past.

Will businesses and organizations switch their attention to other platforms like Twitter and Google Plus?  It seems unlikely.  Facebook's power lies in its massive audience.  This audience isn't going anywhere, and businesses who pick up their toys and move to a different sandbox will likely find themselves lonely there.


Wine on tap: an idea whose time has (finally) come

In 2010, I wrote a blog post with the title "the appeal of wine in keg, and an appeal to the restaurants who want it".  In it, I lamented that despite keg wine's appeal in terms of freshness, cost savings and environmental responsibility, there hadn't been enough adoption around a single standard to allow a producer like us to even know what sort of keg to buy, let alone to put the infrastructure in place to economically get empty kegs back to us after a restaurant has finished with the wine.

Kegs_0002

Fast forward three years.  This year, we'll sell over 500 cases of wine in keg, split between our three Patelin wines.  Next year, we're projecting that we'll increase that to 1200 cases.  It's still a small portion of our overall production but between the explosive growth, the fact that every ounce of this wine is being poured by the glass, and the fact that it's the coolest new restaurants and wine bars that are choosing to install keg systems, it's one of the most exciting developments in our business in recent years.  All that on top of the benefits that I identified three years ago:

  • Freshness: The wine that is poured out of a keg is replaced by an inert gas, which means that it doesn't oxidize.  If the number of by-the-glass wines I order that are oxidized is indicative, there are an awful lot of wines out there not showing to the winery's (or to the restaurant's) advantage.
  • Waste: Restaurants expect to dump out the unused ends of most opened bottles at the end of each night, and the rest of any bottle that's been open multiple days.  This adds up; restaurants I've spoken to estimate they may waste 25% or more of their glass pours this way.  Keg wines are good down to their last pour.
  • Sustainability: The bottles, capsules, corks and labels that help preserve, identify and market a wine between barrel and glass are temporary enclosures, that will be discarded when the bottle is consumed.  That's a lot of resources tied up in something whose only purpose is to be used and thrown away (or recycled).  Kegs eliminate it all, and when empty are returned to be washed and reused.
  • Cost: All that packaging doesn't come free.  We pay on average $22 per case to package our Patelin de Tablas wines.  Sure, you have to buy (or rent) kegs, but the cost is less than the cost of the equivalent packaging, assuming you have a reliable way of getting the kegs back.

The industry has standardized around 18.9 liter (essentially 5 gallon) stainless steel kegs, hooked up to tap systems that replace the wine that's poured out of the keg with a mix of Nitrogen and Carbon Dioxide.  This inert gas protects the remaining wine from oxygenation, but is different from a beer kegging system in that the contents are not under pressure.  Each keg contains the equivalent volume to 26 bottles of wine, which means that for the 240 kegs we've sold so far this year we've avoided having to produce, ship and discard some 6240 bottles, labels and capsules, as well as the cardboard for 520 case boxes and inserts.  That's good both for the environment and for our bottom line.

It hasn't been an easy road here.  In 2011 and 2012, when we began to keg our Patelin wines for California accounts, we did it all in house.  We set aside a volume of each wine at bottling time, stored in stainless steel barrels, bought a supply of kegs, filled them here and shipped the first batch off to Regal WIne Company, who distributes our wines in California.  So far, easy.  But it turned out that even  with Regal's enthusiastic support it was difficult to get the supply chain to work in reverse, and impossible to get ahead of the growth curve economically.

First, the supply chain issues.  All the shipping infrastructure for California wine is designed to take product away from a winery and bring it first to a distributor warehouse and then to restaurant and retail accounts.  Regal had to install a tracking system, charge a keg deposit to accounts that ordered the kegs, and train their delivery team (and their restaurant buyers) to return empty kegs after their contents had been poured out.  Then we needed to wait until a critical mass of empty kegs had been returned to Regal and schedule a truck to go pick them up.  The kegs, by this time, had accumulated various delivery and return stickers on them and needed more than a simple washing to get them in shape for the next filling and delivery: old labels and delivery instructions needed to be scraped off with razors, the kegs needed to be disassembled and sterilized, and then reassembled and filled by hand.  The process took the two members of the cellar team the better part of a day for 25 kegs, which not only eliminated our cost savings from the foregone packaging, but was also difficult or impossible in busy stretches of harvest.

Second, the growth curve.  We found that for every new account that started pouring Tablas Creek by the glass, we needed to buy about 6 more kegs: one currently on tap, two empty but either not yet returned to the distributor or accumulating at the distributor and not yet returned to us, one full and in the wings at the restaurant for when the tapped keg is empty, and then two in inventory waiting for the reorder, since if Regal couldn't guarantee some continuity in inventory, the accounts mostly couldn't justify changing their menus.  Each empty, new keg cost us around $120.  We passed along about $20 of the roughly $40 in savings from eliminated packaging, lowering the price by $20 and using the other $20 to cover costs of purchasing, cleaning, filling and shipping kegs.  The problem was that kegs weren't being sold, poured, and returned to us fast enough to amortize their purchase cost before we needed to purchase more kegs to meet the new demand.  We had counted on the average time between fillings for a keg being around 90 days, which meant that we'd make back the cost of each new keg in a year and a half.  In reality, it averaged around 180 days, doubling the amortization period.  And our shipping costs, to pay for trucks to bring empty kegs back here and (once refilled) back up to the distributor, ended up higher than expected.

Finally, the system that we'd developed was never going to work outside of California.  If it was tough getting kegs back to us in a timely and economical manner in-state, from our largest distributor with whom we have a wonderful working relationship, it was clear that it was never going to work out-of-state, where the volumes of wine we sell are an order of magnitude less than in California and where the shipping distances are longer.

Enter Free Flow Wines.  This company is the brainchild of Jordan Kivelstadt and Dan Donahoe, and is the first serious attempt to apply economies of scale to the logistical challenges of selling wine in keg.  They work with about 100 wineries, who send Free Flow their wine in bulk, rent kegs from Free Flow's large inventory, and then outsource the keg filling to the experts there.  Free Flow has a working relationship with over 100 distributors, and will sign out ordered kegs to these distributors, track them until their return, and automatically charge and credit keg deposits.  Between the 100 wineries there is critical mass of that makes it economically viable to send a truck to retrieve empty kegs from these often far-flung distributor warehouses.  We started working with Free Flow earlier this year, and kegs have gone from being one of our constant headaches (albeit one that we were willing to deal with for the other benefits we saw) to a channel whose contribution might be as positive for our bottom line as it is for the wine we sell through that channel.

And that wine quality?  Impressive.  How impressive was driven home to us earlier this year when a return shipment of empty kegs included a keg of our 2010 Patelin de Tablas that was only half-empty.  We hadn't sold this wine in at least 9 months at the time, and the keg could have been out as long a 18 months.  Evidently some account took the keg off tap and stashed it somewhere, eventually finding it and returning it to Regal to recoup their keg deposit.  It was with some trepidation that we tapped the keg to see how the wine was tasting, but we needn't have worried.  It tasted like it had come out of a fresh bottle, even most of a year later, not temperature controlled, half-full.  If we'd needed a demonstration of the quality of this storage and service system, that did it.

Now, to the advantages in wine quality, economics, and resource conservation, we can add another: scalability.  It's about time.

Kegs_0001


Who says Americans don't age wine?

I've written before, in a handful of contexts, about what a great tool I think CellarTracker is.  I use it to monitor what our customers are saying about our wines, to track when wines seem to be going through dumb stages, and to look in on how some wines I don't open that often are aging.  My starting point is typically a survey of tasting notes on Tablas Creek, sorted by date. In a recent search I noticed that several people have opened and written up our 2006 Esprit de Beaucastel in the last month or so.  That's hardly surprising; it's the library vintage of Esprit that we sent out to our Collector's Edition wine club members last month, and the wine's arrival to some 750 club recipients likely spurred at least some of those new tasting notes.

One thing I noticed in the search is that of the 2050 bottles of the 2006 Esprit that have been entered into CellarTracker, 1287 of them (63%) are still in cellars, while only 37% have been consumed.  I wondered whether or not that had been influenced by the fact that the wine is a new arrival for many customers, so I checked some other vintages and found that the 2006 is in line with other vintages around it:

Percent of Esprit Consumed
The data from 2000 (when there were only 347 bottles entered into CellarTracker, most of them, presumably, some time after they were purchased) looks to me like an outlier, and we didn't make an Esprit de Beaucastel in 2001, but starting in 2002 the data looks pretty regular, with well over 1000 bottles entered each year.  Not only does the data show that it's not until about a decade out that half of the entered bottled are drunk, but It also seems to show that consumers are following our advice to wait on particularly big, structured vintages (like 2005, 2007 and 2009) and instead drink the more open vintages from the even-numbered years.

I find it heartening that even in our oldest vintages of Esprit, released a decade ago or more, at least 40% of the bottles entered into the CellarTracker system have yet to be consumed.  I did a few spot-checks to see whether it's only this wine that people are saving, and found that CellarTracker customers are in aggregate behaving in a rational manner: drinking up the wines that are meant to be drunk young but aging wines (both reds and whites) that are worthy of aging.  A few of these data points, from least to most ageworthy:

  • Rosé/Dianthus: 2012 47% consumed; 2011 73% consumed; 2010 76% consumed
  • Vermentino: 2012 19% consumed; 2011 51% consumed; 2010 66% consumed
  • Esprit Blanc: 2010 23% consumed; 2006 56% consumed; 2003 72% consumed
  • Cotes de Tablas: 2010 35% consumed; 2008 64% consumed; 2005 72% consumed
  • Panoplie: 2010 6% consumed; 2007 9% consumed; 2004 25% consumed

Can we reconcile this evidence with the much-reported trope that the vast majority of wine purchased (between 70% and 90%) is consumed within 24 hours of its purchase?  Perhaps not.  The average CellarTracker user is clearly not the average wine drinker; there is a level of self-selection in the person who would choose a cellar management tool.  Those who do not routinely age wine are unlikely to need a tool to manage their wine inventories.

But I think it's a larger mistake -- and one that leads many winemakers to incorrect winemaking assumptions -- to assume that there is a single type of wine consuming American, who doesn't like to age their wines.  From talking to our customers, it's clear that there is a significant audience for whom cellaring wine is an important pastime, and that the 285,000 active users of CellarTracker are just a fraction of that number. 

Are there millions of wine consumers who wouldn't dream of cellaring a bottle for a decade?  Sure.  Should this matter to a winery like us?  I'm not convinced.  We're a relatively small winery with a direct relationship with more than half of the 50,000 customers we need each year to keep us going.  And the wine consuming market is tremendously heterogeneous.  Just as there are millions of wine consumers who drink nothing but sweet wines, or nothing but wines under $10, or nothing that requires a corkscrew, there is a market of millions who have the means and interest in buying ageworthy wines.  Heck, 2.8 million people read each issue of Wine Spectator, for a start.  It's great that there are wines that are directed at the wine drinker who wants immediate gratification.  But that's not the only market out there, and my sense is that the wine lover who wants to get to know a wine over time, and who enjoys the developing arc of a wine's personality as it ages, makes up a larger percentage of the American public than is routinely acknowledged. 

And thank goodness for that.


An appealing new idea for charity wine auctions

At 6pm tonight, this year's Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance Auction will begin.  It's not a swanky black-tie gala with big-name chefs under the stars.  It's not preceded by a tasting where 300 of local society's leading lights are wined and dined (mostly wined) in the hopes of loosening their wallets.  It's not prequalified with a $150 ticket to get in the door.  Instead, it's online, on eBay:

PRWCA_auction

You may hesitate at first, but... isn't that a good thing, and refreshing?  Don't we want more than 300 people to see (and bid on) the packages we as a region are donating?  Doesn't it sound appealing to market to EBay's 100 million active users?  Don't we want the proceeds to go to our charitable partners rather than the overhead of flying in chefs, renting tables, linens, etc.?  And don't we want mostly to bring support to our community from outside, rather than (or at least in addition to) going back to the same local charitable stalwarts?

I asked the PRWCA's Executive Director Jennifer Porter why she made the change and found her responses fascinating: "We changed to online because we weren't drawing an out-of-market bidder to the live auction," instead "relying on members and our community to donate lots, buy tickets and buy lots back. That, plus the high cost of running the event, just didn't seem to make sense".  Other local regional wine groups, most notably Monterey, have canceled their auctions for this reason, but Jen didn't want to do that.

She found the idea from her former career in entertainment.  While she was working with Comedy Central, the Colbert Report auctioned off pieces of their set using the same company (Auction Cause) that the PRWCA will be using.  Although she is not aware of any other regional wine associations to make the move to eBay, the James Beard Association is doing so currently, so it's not unknown in the world of food and wine.

Key to Jen's decision was a reflection on the mission of the PRWCA itself: promotion of the area.  Chiefly because the audience was mostly drawn from long-time fans of Paso Robles, Jen thought that "the live auction format was not achieving the goal of promotion".

The Paso Robles wine community has always been ready in its support of our local auction, but whether because of the new format or because of the outreach that the Alliance has done, this year's auction packages seem particularly exciting, including things like "Live Like William Randolph Hearst" (including a stay on the coast, a private tour of Hearst Castle and a case of wine), "Wine Country by Air" (including a private helicopter tour of Paso Robles wine country and a barrel tasting, blending session and private dinner at a great local winery), and "Music and Memorable Experiences" (including a private guitar lesson, CD and wine vertical from a local winemaker/musician, a wine country picnic and dinner and a deluxe room at one of our local hotels).

What are we donating? The complete Tablas Creek experience: a private vineyard tour, tasting and dinner with me and my dad, with wines out of his cellar, transportation provided by The Wine Wrangler,  and a one year membership in our Collector’s Edition Wine Club, which includes 18 bottles of reserve and library wines.  

To bid on this year's efforts, visit http://is.gd/pasoroblesauction between now and November 17th.

Since 2006, the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance has contributed more than $350,000 to a range of local community organizations.  This move online seems to me to be well positioned to allow us to continue to be a powerful supporter of our local charities while also bringing more people into the process.  What do you think?  Will you be a part of it?  Please share, in the comments.