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.

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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.

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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:

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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.


A Tale of Two Rosés

For the last two years, we've been making two rosés.  If that sounds nuts, it kind of is.  But it's in keeping with using our wines to try to express something fundamental about the grapes that go into them.  The first of our rosés, which we've been making since 1999 under one name or another, is the Dianthus.  It's designed to showcase the richer, more substantial side of dry rosé, and it's based on Mourvedre and spends 24-48 hours on the skins, giving it a darker pomegranate color and a bit of bite.  Think Tavel and you won't be too far off.

The second rosé we make debuted in the 2012 vintage, and is called the Patelin de Tablas Rosé.  It is an homage to the higher-toned rosés of Provence and like those rosés is based on Grenache.  It is largely direct-pressed, which means that the grapes are picked, destemmed, and pumped directly into the press, where they're pressed before they can leech much color or flavor out of the skins.  [I took a cool video of this process last year.]  This base is later given a smaller addition of Mourvedre and Counoise that has spent about 24 hours on the skins, giving a pale salmon color.

Of course, right now, neither is the color it will be when it's clear, but the 2013 vintage of both rosés is dry and we're at the point where we're starting to assess their progress.  I love this photo of Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi holding up a glass of each, Dianthus on the left and Patelin Rosé on the right:

Chelsea and two roses

The cloudiness of the wines is typical at this point; those lees will drop to the bottom of the tanks over the next month or so and leave the color we want.  It should be similar to what we saw in 2012:

12_Dianthus 12_PatelinRose


We were worried last year that adding a second rosé to our portfolio might result in each selling half as well.  But we found that they sold in different places and didn't compete with each other.  The Dianthus has always been a little too expensive for restaurants to pour by the glass, and so we typically sold most of it in our tasting room.  We released the Patelin Rosé at a slightly lower price, and it found a very receptive audience, mostly in restaurants, to the point that we sold out of our 1000-case national release in mid-July.  And the Dianthus didn't suffer; as usual we sent it to our VINsider wine club members in March.  The other 500 cases were gone from our tasting room in August, the fastest sell-out ever. 

I think that the growing acceptance of dry rosés is one of the happiest developments in the American wine market.  These are generally great food wines, quite inexpensive in the grand scheme of things, and not easily conducive to pretense or overworked, overblown styles.  And producers love rosé; if you bring one to a party in wine country, you can watch the winemakers make a beeline toward it.  Here at Tablas Creek, it's my mom who deserves the credit for having encouraged us to make a little rosé back in 1999 -- to drink ourselves, if nothing else -- because of how essential a part of the culture of Provence dry rosé is, and because of how well suited these Rhone grapes we grow are for it.

That first year, we made two barrels, or 50 cases of rosé.

This year, we're making 2700 cases.

If that's not progress, I don't know what is.


Every now and then you get a particularly meaningful compliment...

The wine business is hard.  It may not get talked about a lot, but it is.  There are huge start-up costs, an ever-growing number of wineries which crowd the marketplace and compete for your existing customers, and a shrinking number of distributors that combine with a relentless stream of wines from around the world and make it hard to gain attention in the wholesale market.

Granted, there are positive demographics working in your favor as a winery, too.  America is becoming more and more a wine-consuming nation, which means that you aren't competing with the other wineries in your area for a pie of a fixed size; the pie is growing every year.  Liberalized wine shipping laws have put some 80% of American consumers in states we can ship to.  And Americans' acceptance of blends (and unusual grape varieties) has never been better than it is.  But it's still a challenge getting and keeping your name out there, particularly when you want, like we do, to succeed both in our direct sales business (our tasting room and wine clubs) and in the wholesale market.

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So it's great to see an article like the one we received recently from Paso Robles-based bloggers Matt and Annie Browne, whose blog Hoot n Annie is packed each week with first-person accounts of their explorations into the local wine community and their insightful analysis of what works in marketing and social media.  The title of the article is Paso Robles Wineries: Tablas Creek is Doing it Right and I'm not sure I've ever read anything so nice written about us.  They are social media experts, and much of their focus is on what we've tried to do in that sphere (I was very happy to read that they thought we'd been successful) but they also talked about our marketing, our facility, our people, and (of course!) our wine. 

It's easy, I think, to fall into ivory tower syndrome as a winery.  Unless you force yourself to get out into the market, or make sure you're searching out unbiased opinions, it's easy to hear only voices that tell you you're doing great work: those are the people who tend to seek you out.  Does this mean you're doing great work?  Not necessarily.  And even if you are doing great work in one sphere (winemaking, say) it's easy to assume that success will find you as a matter of course.  We had that problem at the beginning; our initial marketing plan could have been summed up as "people will buy Tablas Creek because people love Beaucastel".  It turned out to be wildly optimistic, and we spent some dicey years in the early 2000's turning around the business side of Tablas Creek.  In 2002, for example, we sold 4,000 cases of wine and made 12,000.  That's obviously not sustainable, and we realized that our problems weren't going to be solved by a single effort.  We opened a tasting room, started a wine club, started participating in wine festivals and working with our distributors around the country, and rededicated ourselves to being an involved and committed member of our community.  We made the decision to focus on maximizing the number of customer interactions and doing everything we could to give those customers an outstanding experience that they would rememeber and would tell their friends about.  And little by little we leveraged a successful business out of the good choices we'd made at the beginning in choosing our site and making our wines. By 2006 we'd stabilized our balance sheet and were selling roughly the same 18,000 cases we were making.

But it's not easy.  And each year brings new challenges, as you work to stay true to who you are while continuing to innovate in ways that keep you fresh.  We've tried hard not ever to take our fans for granted, or to rest on our laurels.  Reading a piece like Matt's and Annie's gives me faith that it's working.  Thanks, guys.


Robert Haas comes Full Circle on Pinot Noir

Over the last couple of vintages, word has seeped out that Tablas Creek is making a Pinot Noir.  Why, you might ask?  It's personal.

The person in question is our founder -- and my dad -- Robert Haas.  He made his name as an importer, mostly of French wines, and although his impact on Bordeaux was significant, his love was really Burgundy, and in the years after World War II introduced Americans to an amazing list of classic producers including Ponsot, Mongeard, Sauzet, Matrot, Girardin, Morey, Carillon, Boillot, Gouges, Merode, Trapet, Groffier, Parent, Pernot-Fourrier, Lamarche, Laleur-Piot and d'Angerville.

It was the Perrin family with whom he found the shared interest in making wine in California, but any Burgundy lover also notes the resemblance of our calcareous soils here in Paso Robles to the chalk found there.  And like many wine lovers -- and winemakers, for that matter -- my dad has always been fascinated with Pinot's ability to illustrate, reflect and elaborate the soils in which it is grown.

So when he had the chance to plant a two and a half acre block outside his house in one of the coolest pockets of Templeton, what did he pick?  Pinot Noir.  These vines went in the ground in 2007 and 2008, and we made two barrels of wine from it in 2010.  It was amazing to me how different this wine tasted than the wine we made from the few rows of Pinot vines we planted in our nursery block to propagate the roughly 4000 vines we needed to plant his property. [If you're interested in reading my tasting notes on those two wines, both from the 2010 vintage and from the same clones, grown in the same appellation, you can do so here.]

We decided to call the Pinot from my dad's property "Full Circle", reflecting my dad's journey from Burgundy through the Rhone to California and now bringing a little bit of Burgundy to his world in California.  That first release of Full Circle sold out quickly (there were only 52 cases made) but we're getting ready to release the 2011, and there will be quite a bit more: some 250 cases for us to pour for people in our tasting room and sell.  Still not enough to send out in a wine club shipment, and definitely not enough to put into distribution, but the 3000 bottles we're releasing mean that some significant percentage of our fans will get to try this wine in the next few years.  And the 2011 is delicious: like the 2010 with the volume turned up a bit: a little more texture, a little more fruit, and a little higher acidity.  Vibrant Pinot Noir showing sweet spices, black tea, plum and earth, with loamy minerality and lingering spice on the finish.  Wine club members should look for an announcement of the wine's release next week.

Meanwhile, last week I went on a ramble through my dad's vineyard to see how things were progressing on the 2013 version.  It looked great.  A few of the better photos are below.  First, a check in on veraison: nearly finished, which is unsurprising with the comparatively early-ripening Pinot Noir.  We expect to make our first pass through this vineyard to get the ripest clusters next week.

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On the ground were clusters we'd pruned off a few weeks ago to even out the crop loads and ensure that the grapes have good concentration:

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The setting sun lit up the canopy and gave a warm tone to everything it touched.

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My favorite photo was one where I caught the light just before the sun set, shining through a little gap in the vine rows and lighting up one cluster.  I tasted it after I took the photo, and it was every bit as delicious as it looks.  Full Circle, 2013 vintage, is shaping up well. 

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Stepping out of Beaucastel's Shadow

It is time.  After a decade of Esprit de Beaucastel, our flagship wines will bear a new name.  Please welcome Esprit de Tablas, to debut this fall with the release of the 2011 vintage.

Esprit de Tablas bottles

In early 2002, when we made the decision to put the Beaucastel name on our reserve-level bottling of the 2000 red and 2001 white, our business environment was very different.  The California Rhone community was far less robust.  The natural wine movement and its focus on wines of balance and place (and on organic and biodynamic farming) was restricted to the fringes.  Blends were genuinely unusual and hard to sell.  Paso Robles, for all its growth, still had fewer than 100 wineries and hadn't been "discovered" by the mainstream media; Robert Parker's first reviews of the area were published that February. I would routinely explain to customers that we were from Paso Robles and get the question “what part of Napa is that in?"

Tablas Creek was at a different stage, too, with only four vintages under our belt and little marketing presence. We hadn't yet opened a tasting room (coming in September of 2002) or started our wine club (first shipment, August 2002). We'd just started going out to represent the wines at public festivals and working with our distributors and the Vineyard Brands team that represented us nationally.  I remember visiting wine shops with our distributors in 2001 and 2002 and seeing dusty bottles of Tablas Creek on the bottom shelf of the "other" section of the store.  It was hardly surprising; very few people knew who we were, and we hadn’t yet had much time to spread the word.

From the beginning we had talked with the Perrins about the possibility of putting Beaucastel on the label of Tablas Creek, but their opinion was that the vineyard really needed a decade or more under its belt before they'd consider it.  They are, after all, rightly protective of the name that they've made for their estate in their five generations there.  When they decided that the wines were ready -- in the fourth vintage of red and fifth vintage of white -- it was a powerful endorsement of the vineyard's status, and it really did help in the market.  For consumers who had vaguely heard of Tablas Creek but couldn't remember why, the Beaucastel name placed the wine into context, and it started selling off of lists and shelves. And to the distributor, retail and restaurant partners who had followed and liked the wines from the beginning, the name gave them confidence that they would be able to sell it.  Since 2002, the sales of our Esprit de Beaucastel (red and white combined) have grown steadily from around 3000 cases a year to some 5000 cases last year, even with the growth in the number and complexity of our other offerings.

Over time, as we've gotten more established, and as more people have come to know Tablas Creek for Tablas Creek rather than for our association with Beaucastel, having the Esprit de Beaucastel name on our flagship wine naturally places us in Esprits 2002 2006 and 2010Beaucastel’s shadow.  It's a compelling and comforting shadow, to be sure.  But we have known that ultimately, for us to achieve what we want for Tablas Creek, Tablas (rather than Beaucastel) must be the focus of our identity. We’ve been reducing the prominence of Beaucastel on our Esprit labels gradually over time (see right) and we and the Perrins agree that it's time for us to step out of that shadow and focus on our Tablas Creek brand.

The upcoming change isn't an indication of any reduction in the Perrins' involvement.  Cesar Perrin recently finished a year here, and we've already had four Perrin visits this year, as well as a week with Claude Gouan, Beaucastel's cellar master since the 1970's.  The Perrins are excited to begin developing the new parcel we purchased a couple of years ago.  Nor does it signify a change in the way we're making our wines.  The Esprits will continue to be our flagship wines, and will be consciously modeled after the Beaucastel red and white: blends based on Mourvedre and Roussanne, made in a classic style with native yeasts, aged in neutral foudres, showcasing our terroir, just as they have done since the beginning.

The Beaucastel name will not disappear from our marketing. We'll continue to talk about our Beaucastel connections, past and present, on the back label, on our Web site and in person.  We're proud of the connection.  But Beaucastel will resume its place as a part of our story, not a part of our brand.

And for all Beaucastel's significance, the key name on this label for us is, and has always been "Esprit". Its literal translation from French is "spirit" but it has a greater connotation than this.  Webster's defines it as "liveliness of mind and expression".  I think of it more as inspiration.  For us, Beaucastel has been our inspiration for our Esprit wines, which is subtly different from them being our model.  We're not interested in making a carbon copy, and because we’re in a unique place we couldn't even if we wanted to.  But putting the Tablas brand front and center is in its own way inspired by Beaucastel’s example.  Beaucastel has always been celebrated for its focus on its terroir.  In stepping out with Esprit de Tablas we’re doing exactly that.

Tablas Creek is a finalist for 2013 Best Winery Blog!

WBA_Finalist_2013We are proud to have been named a finalist for "Best Winery Blog" at the 2013 Wine Blog Awards.  This is the sixth consecutive year we've been honored as a finalist, and we've taken home the trophy twice, in 2008 and 2011.  We'd love to make the 2013 awards a three-peat.

This year's finalists include several past nominees and two former winners, and is I think the strongest field to date. If you aren't reading them, you should: they're all compelling glimpses inside the world of a winery, from vineyard to cellar to market:

It seems an appropriate time to look back at some of my last year's most memorable blog posts. If you missed them, or you're a new visitor to the blog thanks to the recent nomination, it's an admittedly idiosyncratic selection of the posts that resonated most with me, with a brief explanations of why for color.  If you're a regular reader, hopefully you'll find some old friends here.  I am particularly proud that this is our most collaborative effort to date, with great posts by several members of our team supplementing my own work. In chronological order:

  • Seeing red -- and green -- in Santa Fe In which National Sales Manager Darren Delmore stakes his claim as the Hunter S. Thompson of the Tablas Creek blog. If you don't feel like you're in Santa Fe with him, check your pulse.
  • When wine tasting, step away from the carafe The post that got the most echoes this year, with excerpts or links posted on scores of other social media sites and the complete article reprinted in several wine associations' newsletters. Why the buzz? We made some simple experiments that showed that when you rinse your glass with water, the next wine is diluted 7%, with some effects you'd predict and some you might not.
  • Harvest 2012: The End of the Beginning I could have chosen any of Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi's posts; they're all beautifully written and illustrated with her terrific photographs, and give an amazing glimpse into the psyche of the cellar. But this one stood out for how raw it was, reflecting the exhaustion and elation of the end of harvest.  Maybe my favorite post of the year.
  • In which we dig ourselves a hole, on purpose Viticulturist Levi Glenn digs into the results of a soil survey on our new parcel conducted by a Cal Poly class.  If you're a soil junky, or just want to understand some of the complexity of what's there when you get below the topsoil, Levi makes this detailed, complex picture compelling and comprehensible.
  • Is the bloom off the user review site rose? I take a look at the number of reviews we and some other comparable wineries around us have been receiving from Yelp! and TripAdvisor, and come to the conclusion that we're in the middle of an industry-wide slump in review authorship. It was fun to see other wineries chime in on what they were seeing, confirming our suspicions.
  • Surviving consolidation in the wholesale market A preview of a talk I gave to the Unified Grape and Wine Symposium in Sacramento, in which I represented smaller wineries and shared some of the essentials of keeping yourself viable in a crowded, noisy market with an ever-shrinking number of wholesalers and an ever-growing number of wineries.
  • The costs of state alcohol franchise laws  I only put up one post this year focusing on the labrynth of legislation a winery has to navigate to get its wares to market, but it was an important one and will preview, I think, the next frontier of court challenges to state-sponsored restraint of the wine trade.
  • Can I get an ice bucket for my red?  A post I'd been thinking about for a while that also seemed to resonate with audiences, deconstructing the myth that red wines show best at room temperature and whites should be served cold.
  • When Terroir Was a Dirty Word A recent post by my dad that dives into the surprising history of the meaning of terroir.  You may not have realized that as recently as the 1960's, it was a bad thing for a wine to taste of terroir.  I certainly didn't.

As always, the winner will be determined 50% by the votes of the expert panel of judges who culled the nominations to the five finalists, and 50% by the votes of the public.  I encourage you to browse the finalists, and if, at the end, you believe us worthy, we'd be honored to receive your vote (Vote here).  Voting ends this Friday, May 24th.


When Terroir Was a Dirty Word

By Robert Haas

Take a look at this picture of the half-bottle of 2010 Meursault from Thierry and Pascale Matrot that my wife, Barbara and I opened for lunch on our little back patio yesterday.  We enjoyed lunch outdoors because the temperature at noon was 68 degrees, 20 degrees cooler than Monday!

RZH Meursault 2010

Who, only 49 years ago, in Burgundy, would ever have imagined that fine Burgundy wines would be finished in other than cork?  Not me, for sure.  Nor would have Thierry Matrot’s father Pierre or grandfather Joseph.  Matrot’s importer Vineyard Brands tells me that sales in the U.S. have soared since the wine was introduced in screw cap closure. 

The screw cap reads,“Noblesse du Terroir”. Terroir, the difficult-to-translate RZH Jancis 2French noun, has come to mean the cumulative impact on a finished wine of the soil and climate (and some say human) specifics of where the wine's grapes were grown. Wines with terroir are much sought-after and admired by today's growers, wineries and wine writers and critics, and consumers.  The Oxford Companion to Wine, published in 1994 and edited by Jancis Robinson (excerpted right) introduces the subject in four full columns, starting with the displayed paragraphs.  In Robinson's definition, terroir is noble, the underpinning of appellation controlée system and central to the philosophy of wine in the Old World.

Now take a look at the seven-line entry of Frank Schoonmaker, America’s foremost wine expert and author in 1964, about terroir.  His association, rather than the "somewhereness" the wine exhibits, is more of a taste of dirt, neither elegant nor elevated. Look at his description of gout de terroir: "somewhat unpleasant, common, persistent”:

RZH Schoon 2

Why this sea change?  I believe that it has been driven by the influence of new grape plantings in the New World, and particularly in California.  In the old world and particularly France, with thousands of years’ experience, the legislated Appellations Controllées designated the great “terroirs”. But even in the Old World, greatness was traditionally associated with particular vineyards and came only gradually in the second half of the twentieth century to be associated with the environmental conditions that gave those vineyards their specific character.

In California, modern planting and marketing history only dates back to 1933, the end of prohibition.  Early-on, California wines were field blends named after French appellations such as Claret, Burgundy, Chablis, etc., though the wines in the bottle had little or nothing to do with the wines (or even the grapes) traditional in these regions.  As the industry became more sophisticated, higher quality vintners -- led most influentially by Robert Mondavi -- adopted varietal names such as Cabernet-Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Merlot to differentiate themselves from the mostly ordinary field blends. But while varietal labeling offered clarity, more was needed to identify quality wines.  Did they come from growing areas well suited to the grapes in the wine?  Thus began the American Viticultural Area (AVA) designations, and central to the AVA's raison d'etre is the concept that each appellation shares similarities in their soils and climate that gives the wines that are grown there a shared character. 

Of course, the AVA system is based on the models used in France, Italy, Spain, Germany and elsewhere in the traditional wine-growing regions of Europe.  But unlike Old World appellations, American AVA's are not restricted to specific grapes.  It may not be traditional to grow Tempranillo in Napa or Cabernet in Santa Maria, but you're welcome to do so.  The AVA just specifies where the grapes are grown, and it's up to you to make your case for the quality of the end product.  And central to the growing significance of terroir has been wineries' efforts to support their claims to quality by geographic designation.  After all, while Cabernet-Sauvignon could be grown anywhere, there are places where it's better suited than others.  Good “Terroir” implied not just a good place to grow grapes, but a good place to grow specific grapes, resulting in an appealing character of place in the wines produced there. 

Screwcaps share some of this history.  They were first developed in the late 1960's by a French company, popularized by wineries in the New World (Australia and New Zealand deserve most of the credit here) and now have reached sufficient acceptance that they're even being used for noble French terroirs like Meursault. 

Cheers to good ideas, wherever they originate.


The High Costs of State Alcohol Franchise Laws

The power to take your business elsewhere is fundamental to capitalism. This power of choice keeps prices reasonable, incentivizes efficiency and customer service, and keeps the business environment healthy by forcing companies to innovate and winnowing out those that don't keep up. Remove the ability to choose another partner and commerce becomes far less efficient.

Wine bottles in chains

But in the world of wine, there are large swaths of the country where such an open market is only a dream. And I'm not talking about the ability for customers to purchase wine freely from wineries and have it delivered to their door (that's a whole different issue).  I'm talking about alcohol franchise laws, which govern the relationship between a winery and the state-licensed distributor that can sell that wine to that state's restaurant and retail customers.  Franchise laws distort the supplier-distributor relationship by granting the distributor indefinite and typically exclusive rights to sell a supplier's product, no matter how good or bad a job they do, no matter whether their key employees stay or leave, and even no matter if the company is sold.

There are currently some twenty states with a version of this alcohol franchise law, in regions as diverse as the northeast (CT, DE, MA, ME, NJ, VT), southeast (GA, NC, TN, VA), upper mid-west (MI, OH, WI), great plains (AR, KS, MO) and mountain west (ID, MT, NM, NV).  There are variations in the extent to which they give recourse for the suppliers.  Some have production limits, so suppliers smaller than an arbitrary size can get out of their franchise ties.  Some require that suppliers keep existing relationships but allow a supplier to add a second distributor.  Some allow you to take your case to a hearings board and leave your distributor if you have cause.  But in all cases it tilts the balance of power in a supplier/distributor relationship even further in the direction of the distributor.

It's not as if distributors need the help.  Most distributors are much larger than most of the wineries they represent.  As a small-to-medium sized winery, I'm sure there isn't a single distributor of the 50+ we use around the country to whom we represent even 1% of their business.  In most cases, we represent a tiny fraction of a percent of their business, and the franchise law's justification -- that small, local distributors need protection from capricious removal of custom from out-of-state liquor goliaths -- is a relic from pre-Prohibition fears of "big liquor" and simply doesn't apply to fine wine.

The costs of franchise laws are significant.  It should be obvious that removing a supplier's ability to choose to move its business elsewhere reduces the incentives to serve the interests of that supplier.  But there are costs to consumers as well, as distributors in states with franchise laws typically work at higher margins than in states without them.  If no other distributor can attract away your high-profile brands with the promise of selling more wine on a thinner margin, distributors are only behaving rationally to make a little more money on what they sell.  Franchise laws also discourage innovation and investment as a distributor can't attract new suppliers by doing a better job and convincing other distributors' suppliers to move. The only way for a distributor to get new business is to buy other distributors, or, in a process that resembles major league baseball's pre-free agency days, arrange for a trade with another distributor.

Distributor consolidation -- in which the number of wine distributors has shrunk by two-thirds over the same two decades where the number of wines for sale in the United States has doubled -- is an issue even in non-franchise states, but it's balanced there by the ability of new distributors to enter the market and attract suppliers dissatisfied by the ever-larger distributors.  It is much less attractive for a new distributor to open in a franchise state, where they can only attract wineries new to the market, and the larger average size of distributors in franchise states reduces the choices that suppliers (and restaurant and retail customers) have and constricts the supply chain.

As in non-franchise states, franchise state wholesalers run the gamut from excellent to indifferent, and we have the pleasure of working with some sterling franchise state distributors. These distributors are among those most hurt by franchise laws because they can't parlay their hard work into more business. Ultimately, franchise laws cause a gradual calcification of the wine market in the states they affect, reducing that market's growth. Many small suppliers I speak to won't sign with a distributor in a franchise state and instead choose to focus their efforts elsewhere, worried that should their needs change they will be locked in and unable to move.

I have yet to read a convincing explanation of why franchise laws are constitutional.  In fact, it seems to me that they violate antitrust laws as well as the Commerce Clause of the US Constitution, which prohibits states from interfering in the free exchange of goods across state lines.  If any readers out there are versed in alcohol franchise law, please jump in in the comments section to explain, if you can.

Despite the potential coalition of suppliers large and small, restaurants, retailers, consumers and innovative distributors, it's rare to hear about the issue of franchise laws.  A potential solution might be found in the model developed for the ongoing and increasingly successful fight for direct shipping, which combines a consumer-focused mouthpiece in Free the Grapes and a few well-funded nonprofits behind it to wage legislative and legal challenges.  If and when this model emerges, you, as a wine lover, will know which side you should support.