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.

Introducing the Dianthus Rosé

Back in 1999, we made the bold decision to add a third wine to the Tablas Creek lineup. To the Blanc (white) and Rouge (red) that we were making, we added a pink wine that we called Rosé.  It was really my mom who deserves the credit for encouraging us to make a rosé at all.  She declared that it was crazy that we were growing these grapes that make such wonderful pink wines in the south of France and not at least making a little to enjoy ourselves.  So, in that 1999 vintage we made two barrels of a rosé from a block of vines in our nursery, whose percentages (51% Mourvedre, 35% Grenache, and 14% Counoise) were the proportions of that co-harvested and co-fermented lot.  We did indeed drink much of it ourselves, but also released a few dozen cases into the local market.

12_DianthusThe next year, we were pleased to get questions from local restaurants and retail shops asking when our Rosé would be coming out. And bit by bit it developed a loyal following.  Robert Parker called it "the finest California rosé" and "amazing stuff".  We sold hundreds of cases by presale in the California market.  We built events around its release in our tasting room.  And our production grew to nearly 1500 cases in the 2010 vintage, and only declined in 2011 because we realized that with the frost-reduced crop if we made 1500 cases of Rosé we'd sacrifice too much red production.

And it wasn't just us. From such modest beginnings many other rosé-loving producers also started making and promoting small productions of dry rosés, and in a decade we saw a wonderful burgeoning of the American rosé movement. No longer are we one of America's only producers of dry rosé; at this March's Rhone Rangers Grand Tasting, rosé lovers will have some 40 different rosés to choose from.

The American rosé market is not the only thing that has gotten more complex in the fourteen years since we made our first two barrels of Rosé. Our own marketing model has grown and morphed. The names Blanc and Rouge are long gone as we have tried to make our names richer and more descriptive, and from the 2012 vintage we'll end up bottling some twenty-five different labels. One of the drivers of this increased diversity is the Patelin de Tablas project. The Patelin wines are sourced from other top Rhone vineyards in Paso Robles, many of which are planted with our own cuttings, and all of which are producing exciting fruit.  We debuted the Patelin de Tablas and Patelin de Tablas Blanc in 2010, and the wines' fresh, approachable style and $20 price found them an enthusiastic audience. 

Last spring, my brother Danny suggested that if we were to produce a Patelin de Tablas Rosé at the same price as our other Patelin wines it would find an equally receptive market.  We'd been toying with the idea anyway, because doing so gave us the chance to work in a different idiom, to make a rosé based on Grenache and with minimal skin contact, in the model of the pale salmon, ethereal Provencal rosés that have driven much of the category's newfound popularity.  I described the process we're using to make the 2012 Patelin de Tablas Rosé in a blog post last September.  It is tasting great, and will be released nationally in April.

The challenge: that with two rosés we couldn't really call one of them simply Rosé unless we wanted to immediately, and continuously, be asked "which rosé?".  So, we started to brainstorm a name that would distinguish our deeper pink -- almost fuchsia -- tones and richer flavors of our Mourvedre-based estate rosé.  Enter Dianthus. Dianthus is a genus of flowering plants known for the deep pink color of their blooms. The family includes 300 different species, including the carnation, and is colloquially referred to in the flower world as "pinks".  Voila.  So, it is our pleasure to introduce the 2012 Dianthus as the successor to our much-loved estate Rosé.  The inaugural vintage will go into bottle week-after-next and be released to our VINsider Wine Club in mid-March as part of one of my favorite shipment lineups ever.  Look for it in our tasting room, and in limited release around the country, in April.

Surviving Consolidation in the Wholesale Wine Market

This week, like much of the California wine community, I'll be making the trek up to Sacramento for the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium. "Unified", as this enormous trade show is known within the indistry, is a chance to see the newest in technology, to check in with friends and colleagues from other regions, and to take in a program that includes seminars on viticulture, winemaking, wine marketing, and business/operations. We always have a cohort there, partly to see what the exhibits have to offer but mostly to support NovaVine, the nursery with whom we partner to sell Tablas Creek vine cuttings. For NovaVine, Unified is one of the year's best marketing opportunities.

I have been invited to speak on a panel Thursday afternoon -- a part of the marketing curriculum -- titled "Surviving Consolidation: How to Position Your Brand for Success".  I'll be representing smaller wineries, and will be joined by representatives from the worlds of wine wholesale and retail, as well as Ed Lemay, the Senior Vice President of Marketing at Constellation Wines, who brings the perspective of a larger supplier. I spend a lot of my time thinking of how to prosper in a crowded wholesale market, and thought that while I was putting together my notes for Thursday's session I might share a few of the key points here. For the longer version, please come see us!

It's worth pointing out that I'm not sure that all of this is much more important because of consolidation than it was before.  Sure, there are many states with fewer options for distributors, but the wholesale market has always had more wines than it could possibly focus on, so these strategies for making sure that you, as a small-to-medium size winery, get your share of the attention are likely the same that they've always been. They're just more important now.

  • Know what makes you distinctive. And focus on it. There are thousands of wineries that are competing in the wholesale market, from your neighbors to wineries elsewhere in your state to others from around the world.  If you can't reduce what makes you distinctive down to a few sentences, the game of telephone -- in which you need to educate your wholesaler's management, they need to educate their sales team, those salespeople need to sell to their restaurant and retails customers, and those restaurant and retail buyers need to speak to the end consumer -- breaks down. One place I see many wineries get into trouble is in the assumption that because their model works in their tasting room, it will necessarily translate into the wholesale market. Tasting room customers are faced with many fewer options than any buyer in the wholesale chain. It's good marketing overall to keep yourself focused, but make particularly sure your story for the wholesale market is concise and logical -- as well as memorable.  
  • Demand the information you need to evaluate success. You need to be engaged with your wholesalers. Make sure you're regularly getting inventories, account lists and how many (and which) samples are being pulled. Know what the pricing and the deals are that are offered.  Know (and care) whether your 100 cases are being sold to 30 restaurants or 3 retailers. And then review this information regularly so that if what you're seeing isn't what you want, you can communicate this to your wholesaler. Just showing that you're interested in this information helps tilt the playing field in your favor.
  • Be a good partner. Most wholesalers are filled with talented, passionate salespeople who want to do a good job. You can help them succeed with your brand in many ways: by going regularly to their markets and working alongside them. By being generous with samples, to help make sure that your wines are in their bags often. By taking good care of them when they come out to visit, and when they send out their VIP's to see you. And by giving them the tools they need in point of sale, positive media attention, and marketing support. You are in this together.
  • Work together to set your goals and strategies. Is there a particular wine or two that you need your distributor to focus on this year? Or a particular type or list of accounts you'd like them to target? Or a sub-region that needs work? You should be conducting regular (annual, at least) reviews with your wholesalers to communicate this to them. Make sure you listen to them when they tell you what is working and what isn't, and involve them in the solutions to the problems you identify. The more ownership they have over the initiatives you work out, the more likely they are to see them through.
  • Build and use your own restaurant, retail and consumer relationships. Nothing gets a distributor's attention like accounts asking for your wine. When you are out in the market, collect cards and drop a thank you note after you're back home. Then, stay in touch. Share directly news of new releases, special offers and positive press. And don't forget your consumer mailing list. When you have a cool new placement or a feature at a retailer, share the news with your fans in the area. The fans will appreciate it, the account will be grateful (and maybe even surprised) by the support, and the distributor will know that if they work on your wines they'll be rewarded. Success breeds success, so each time a distributor rep puts your wine into an account and sees it sell through and be reordered, it makes him or her that much more likely to think of your wine the next time there is an opening to fill. Of course, failure breeds failure, too. Don't chance it if you have the power to help.
  • Be careful in franchise states. Nearly half of states have some sort of franchise law that restricts or prohibits suppliers from leaving a distributor that is not performing. In those states, your recourse is less and of course distributors are less responsive. Consider insisting on an opt-out clause in a contract before you sign on. If the distributor refuses, it may be a sign that you're better off not doing business with them anyway. And remember that just because a distributor is a great fit now, they may not be if they are bought by someone else, although your franchise tie will likely remain in force. But even in franchise states, all of the above fundamentals still hold true, and distributors in these states have the same goal as anywhere else: to sell wine. 

It's worth also mentioning that I'm assuming you're already making a good product and pricing it fairly. If not, you're going to find executing a successful wholesale strategy difficult, no matter what else you're doing. The wholesale market is less forgiving than your tasting room, where your customer service, and the time you can spend with your customers, makes a greater difference.

Anyway, this is just a teaser for Thursday's discussion, at which I'm very much looking forward to hearing the other panelists' (and the audience's) perspectives and ideas. I hope you can join us. If you won't be there, please add any ideas or feedback in the comments section.

Is the bloom off the user review site rose?

Last March, I wrote the post Has TripAdvisor overtaken Yelp for winery visitors, suggesting that of the two major user-review Web sites, TripAdvisor seemed to be replacing Yelp as the preferred forum for people writing user reviews of Paso Robles wineries.  The graphic I included in that post showed a pretty dramatic shift over time:

Reviews by Site

The graph also shows a steady increase in the number of user reviews posted for Tablas Creek on the two sites, from 10 in 2008 to 15 in 2009 to 22 in 2010 and 42 in 2011.  With the first quarter of 2012 showing as our busiest quarter yet for user reviews (18) I fully expected to see continued growth.  But something happened around the middle of last year, and while our annual total (63) was still our highest ever, the quarterly total peaked in the second quarter at 25, then declined to 13 in the third quarter and just 7 in the fourth quarter.  I have gone from checking the sites daily for new reviews to now checking only every week or so, and getting used to seeing the same months-old reviews I saw last time.  The curve looks a little different now. To smooth out some of the noise, I've added a rolling average, which averages each quarter with the quarters before and after:

User Reviews Trend thru 2012

It's worth noting that my conclusion that TripAdvisor -- which to most wineries at the time was much less salient than Yelp -- was a player to watch turned out to be true. TripAdvisor tallied nearly three times the number of reviews of Tablas Creek as did Yelp in 2012.  But by sometime around mid-fall the flood of user reviews had turned to a trickle.

I was curious to know whether what we were seeing, both in the drop in user reviews at the end of 2012 and the dramatic shift toward TripAdvisor and away from Yelp, was standard for our area.  So, I picked three other popular, well-established Paso Robles wineries (Justin, Adelaida and Eberle) and took a look at what they'd seen.  I found that the shift toward TripAdvisor and away from Yelp is real, and dramatic.  In 2011, the four wineries (including us) showed 133 reviews from Yelp and 44 from TripAdvisor.  In 2012, Yelp reviews declined 34% to 88, while TripAdvisor reviews grew 390% to 216.

And I found that the dip in reviews I'd noticed in the second half of last year was echoed by our neighbors, though we saw a larger decline than most.  Here are the four wineries' results for 2011 and 2012, using a stacked area graph that allows you to get a good sense of the aggregate:

User Reviews Four Wineries 2011-2012

My first thought was that this could be explained by the number of customers visiting Paso Robles.  After all, the summer season is typically the busiest one in Paso Robles, and the winter the quietest.  But when I looked deeper, I found that at least at Tablas Creek our tasting room traffic doesn't vary that much by quarter.  Our smallest quarter last year was indeed the fourth quarter, but at 6880 visitors it was only 12% less busy than our busiest (the third quarter, at 7815).  I don't have any reason to think that our traffic trend differs significantly from the other wineries in the area, so I tried dividing the total number of reviews for each quarter by that quarter's traffic.  The results show that per Tablas Creek customer, we are seeing a decline in user reviews submitted for the four wineries:

User Reviews per Customer

There are few possible ways of explaining away the development, none of which I find particularly convincing.

  • Perhaps there is a different type of customer who visits in the summer months, a younger, more tech-savvy customer, who is more likely to post a review on Yelp or TripAdvisor.  Maybe, but If you look at the results for 2011, the two summer quarters showed the lowest percentage of reviews per tasting room visitor. Why would this reverse itself in 2012?
  • Perhaps there is something about the four wineries that I chose that makes us all subject to some trend that is out of step with what's really happening.  This is possible, but seems far-fetched.  Other than that we're all in Paso Robles and all of roughly similar scales, we represent wineries that are in different parts of the AVA. Could, say, newer... or smaller... or larger wineries have been getting more reviews at the end of last year even though our traffic stayed steady? I just don't see how. The implication would be that there is a specific sort of person who writes these reviews and that sort of person hasn't been visiting Tablas Creek, Justin, Adelaida or Eberle as much in the last six months even though our overall traffic numbers are steady. Maybe they're now boycotting Paso Robles in favor of other wine regions? I have trouble believing such an explanation.
  • Perhaps there are as many user reviews being written, but there is a new competitor in the field that is siphoning off reviews from both Yelp and TripAdvisor.  The obvious option is Google, whose Google+ allows users to write reviews. But the five Google+ reviews of Tablas Creek include only two written in the last year. The other competitor mentioned sometimes is CitySearch, which has only three reviews of Tablas Creek, just one written since 2008.  So, if they're moving away from TripAdvisor and Yelp, where are they going?

In the absence of another plausible explanation, I'm left to think that there has been some sort of shift against both Yelp and TripAdvisor among their users in the last six months.  Unless this is a statistical hiccup that will correct itself over the coming months (possible if unlikely) the possible conclusions are that we're seeing the bursting of a bubble that will eventually lead to a steady but lower-level number of new user reviews, or that this is the beginning of a long-term trend that will result in the category's gradual obsolescence.  I would tend to suspect the first explanation: that like with many new technologies, lots of people jump onto the bandwagon when they see their peers doing the same, but many find that it's just not for them. And it is work, writing these reviews, uncompensated work at that.  It's easy to imagine a reviewer getting fatigued with what's involved.

From a practical standpoint, even if it is true that user reviews are declining, the sites are still important for wineries to monitor. Both sites (particularly Yelp) are search engine goliaths, and there is well-documented evidence that even a single negative review can make a significant difference to a restaurant. A decline in the authorship of reviews doesn't imply a decline in readership, and in fact good reviews are more important now than ever, as there are fewer reviews being written and a negative review is proportionally more influential with a lower volume of other reviews in which it can get lost.

Still, I was interested to see that what seemed like an endless escalation of user reviews has not just slowed, but reversed itself. We'll see, over coming months, what this means.

Introducing the new Patelin de Tablas Rosé

We love our Rosé. It shows the charms of Mourvedre when made into a pink wine by being rich yet refreshing, complex yet appealing, and worthy of pairing with substantial food.  But it's always been a bit of an outlier in the world of rosés, somewhat darker than most, somewhat fuller-bodied than most, and just a little too expensive for most restaurants to serve in the way that most rosé is drunk in restaurants: by the glass.

So, early this year, we set ourselves to the task of producing a rosé under the Patelin de Tablas label that would complement the rosé that we've been making since 1999.  We decided to base it on the world's most popular rosé grape: Grenache, and we identified Grenache vineyards within Paso Robles that we could harvest specifically for this rosé program.  These vineyards are starting to arrive in the cellar.  The photo below shows one bin, ready for processing Friday.  Note Grenache's typical beautiful garnet color:

Patelin Grenache for Rose

We don't yet know what the final composition of the wine will be, but we know it will be overwhelmingly based on this Grenache, harvested specifically for the Patelin Rosé and direct-pressed into tank.  The rest will come from saignéed lots of Mourvedre and maybe even a little Syrah.  We're guessing that the finished wine will end up around 80% Grenache, but we'll see how harvest goes.  We want the wine to be a light salmon in color, more typical of a French rosé than the more cranberry tones of our estate Rosé, low in alcohol and vibrant, juicy and refreshing.

What is direct-press, you ask?  Happy to show you.  I shot a short (90 second) video in the cellar Friday documenting the process.  The video begins with Grenache coming down our sorting table, into our destemmer.  We then pump the berries and juice into our press, which isn't even pressing... just turning the grapes and letting the free-run juice flow out.  That juice is being pumped into a stainless steel tank, where it will start to ferment.  We did eventually turn on the press to squeeze the berries, but even in that portion, the color was only gently pink.

Look for the new 2012 Patelin de Tablas Rosé to debut in March, retail for around $20 and be available by the glass at your local dining establishment of choice.

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Common-sense sustainability

I'm in New York this week, helping kick off the release of the 2010 Esprit de Beaucastel and 2010 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc.  My hotel, like most hotels these days, has one of the signs that tells you that in order to help protect the environment, my sheets and towels -- clean when I arrived -- will be changed only every fourth day, saving untold gallons of water and pounds of detergent.  Does the hotel really care about this, or just about the dollars they're saving in water, labor and soap?  It's a Kimpton, so probably they do care.  But many less environmentally-conscious hotels do the same thing, and I think that it's one of the best examples of a common-sense approach to sustainability that can, applied on a broad level, have enormous benefits to the use of resources without any noticeable detriment in customer experience.

As much as we prize (and praise) efforts that businesses make toward environmental responsibility, I'm a realist, and believe that the only ones that really stick are those that have a net positive impact on the business's bottom line.  I don't mean that individual businesses always act in a purely profit-maximizing fashion.  But I do think that eco-conscious ideas won't be widely enough adopted to make a measurable impact if they don't also offer the business some business-friendly incentive, whether that be lower costs, increased production, or improvements in product quality. I don't think that favorable publicity or public image is enough. Look, for example, at the paltry share of US energy production that comes from solar (less than 1%) despite the appeal of renewable energy and the widespread use of incentives.

Along these lines, we've been trying to think of things that we can do that will help us use resources better while saving (or at least not costing) us money.  I can think of two good examples that we've implemented in the past few years, both of which we've been getting lots of inquiries about from other local wineries.  I'm very interested in hearing about other similar initiatives.  If you have come across other good ideas, please share them in the comments.

For years, we had ordered pallets of bottled water each month, so that guests who we took out into the vineyard in the heat of summer wouldn't wilt, and no one would get dehydrated in the midst of their day of wine tasting.  Still, I always hated seeing the pallets arrive, and thinking about the impact of the production of these water bottles and the thousands of bottles each year that ended up having to be recycled or in landfills.  So, we installed a water filtration system outside our new tasting room and ordered several hundred stainless steel canteens. Each morning, we fill up the canteens and put them on ice outside the front door:


We have another bucket nearby where we ask people to return the empty canteens, and then we wash them at the end of the day and refill them.  Sure, we lose a few that wander off into people's cars, and there's a little extra expense from the washing, but each canteen is only about four times as expensive as one water bottle, and there's no way we lose 25% of the canteens we use.  It's saving us money, preserving resources and making a point about sustainability at the expense of a little extra work for us.  I'll take that deal any time.

I would put our decision in 2010 to move to lighter-weight bottles in a similar category.  Long-time followers of the blog may remember the public debate we had about whether the winery's image was enhanced by our larger, heavier bottles and our ultimate conclusion that these larger bottles provided negative utility for our customers, making them harder to store, more difficult to lift and move, and more expensive to ship.  Two years later, I find it hard to believe that we ever thought that the larger bottles were a good idea.  Not only did the change save roughly 90,000 pounds of glass weight, and the associated higher costs of producing these larger bottles, trucking the empty glass to the winery and the filled cases from the winery, and shipping the bottles to our customers who ordered the wine, but we've stopped getting complaints about how the bottles we put our wine in don't fit in people's wine racks.  I find myself now suspicious of wines in these big bottles, thinking that they must be trying to impress with their package because of something missing on the inside.  Has this move resulted in lower sales off the shelf, or other indications that the image has suffered?  We haven't heard a single comment that would suggest it.

Sure, we do plenty of environmentally friendly things that don't save us money, most notably our commitment to organic and biodynamic farming.  But we're convinced that the benefit is in the grapes that we harvest and in the quality of the wine that we can make.  For us, the expense is worth it.  Are we happy that we're leaving our piece of land in better shape than when we found it, all while not exposing ourselves and our customers to chemicals?  Of course.  But do I expect other wineries and vineyards to necessarily make the same farming choices?  I'm not sure; it depends on the calculus that they do as to the value of the higher quality product that would result.  But I think that there are some common-sense steps toward sustainability that most any winery could implement right away, and am curious to hear any others that you've found appealing.  Even if it means asking your customers to participate in some small way... from returning an empty canteen to hanging up their once-used towel.

An evening fit for a prince (or a Hearst)

I get to pour wine at lots of dinners, and even more tastings.  Doing so is a key piece of how we have chosen to market ourselves: not just waiting for people to come and discover us, but going out to where they are and introducing ourselves.  It's a wonderful consequence that these tastings often allow us to support partners in our community whose work we admire.

Every now and then, the setting transforms one of these events into something extraordinary.  One such event happened this past weekend.  We have long partnered with Festival Mozaic, the summer music festival that brings world-class musicians into the Central Coast each July.  Born as the San Luis Obispo Mozart Festival forty-one years ago, Festival Mozaic stages their orchestral and chamber concerts not just in the area's performing arts centers, but also in its vineyards, its missions, and some of its most sublime private homes.  But for me, the most spectacular venue they've chosen is Hearst Castle, which opens its doors to the festival one night each year for a reception and dinner on the Sea Terrace, followed by a chamber concert in Hearst's own theater.  This was the event at which we poured Tablas Creek on Friday.  The setting:

Hearst Castle 2012

Having such a beautiful and well-known landmark to yourself is breathtaking enough, but the food (catered by Hearst Castle's own chef) and the music pushed the evening over the top.  To our backs was the famous Neptune Pool:

TCV corkscrew at Hearst Castle

I spent the whole evening feeling like royalty, from when Meghan and I were waved on through the gate to drive up to the hilltop to bidding the guests farewell in front of the castle's majestic indoor pool.  Experiencing an event in such a unique venue really is unforgettable, and the fact that by donating wine for it we are not only bringing the arts into our community but also providing for the upkeep and restoration of one of California's most impressive landmarks just makes it all the better.

Reflecting on a decade of Esprit de Beaucastel

This week we're bottling the 2010 Esprit de Beaucastel.  About 2000 cases are going into national distribution. Another 1000 will go out to our wine club. 1500 will be allocated to our tasting room.  500 will go into our long-term library for later release.  Some of the cases, palletized and ready to be picked up this morning:

Esprit 2010 in 6-packs

This is our tenth vintage of the Esprit red, though it doesn't seem possible to me that it's been that long.  Of course, it doesn't seem possible to me that I just turned 39, either.  But reflecting back, a lot has changed in that decade.  When we bottled the first Esprit in the summer of 2002, Tablas Creek was in a very different place.

That summer we were coming to terms with the fact that for all our care in choosing our site, importing our clones, and making wine in a manner consistent with Beaucastel, we'd been wildly optimistic with our estimates of how easy our wines would be to sell.

Some of the challenges we faced, at the time:

  • Blends were still an uphill battle. Non-varietal wines, particularly those that weren't a traditional Bordeaux-style blend, were typically consigned to the "other" section of wine lists and the least desirable -- and often unlabeled -- locations in retail.  The fact that our first wines were called, rather unhelpfully, Rouge and Blanc didn't help things.
  • Rhone varieties, at least those from America, were still a very minor category.  Robert Parker's first comprehensive reviews of California Rhones didn't come out until February 2002 (Issue #139) when he declared "No wine category in California has grown as much as the appropriately named 'Rhône Rangers'". That same year, the Wine Spectator wrote a feature article titled "California Rhones Arrive", though the category was small enough that the accompanying "top scoring California Rhone-Style Wines" sidebar shows only 10 wines that topped 90 points.  Still, it took some time for the excitement about this new category to percolate down to the wholesale, restaurant, retail and consumer levels.
  • Paso Robles was still relatively unknown.  Parker had just visited the area for the first time in late 2001, and his first coordinated reviews of the area appeared in his Rhone Rangers piece in 2002.  In the Wine Advocate's first 138 issues, although the region had had the occasional wine reviewed, the words "Paso Robles" did not appear in a single article.

Despite the headwinds detailed above, we'd been working under the old-fashioned European model, where marketing was not a primary consideration for wineries, and tended to be left to agents or distributors.  We'd come to the uncomfortable conclusion that this model wasn't working, at least not when we grew beyond the few thousand cases of wine we made in our first couple of vintages.  In 2002, the year I moved out here, we sold a little over 4,000 cases of wine.  And we made about 12,000.  Of course, you don't sell wine the same year you make it, but if we were struggling to sell the 5,000 - 8,000 cases we'd made in recent vintages, it was clear that we needed to take a much more active approach in our own marketing. 

So we started pushing every way we could think of.  We opened our tasting room.  We started our wine club.  We began to participate in many more events, to spread the word about Tablas Creek to consumers.  We set up work with our distributors and agents around the country, to spread the word to the wine trade.  We reached out to our export agents.  And slowly, with help from many quarters, we turned things around.  A few of the key drivers:

  • The media came on board with Paso Robles in a serious way. Looking at Parker's annual reviews after his cautious beginning in 2002, you can feel him getting more and more excited about the region's potential, and by 2005 was confident enough to declare "there is no queston that, a decade from now, the top viticultural areas of Santa Barbara, Santa Rita Hills, and the limestone hillsides west of Paso Robles will be as well-known as the glamorous vineyards of Napa Valley." Other press would follow, with notable features on Paso between 2005 and 2007 in Decanter, Bon Appétit, Wine Enthusiast, Gourmet, Wine Spectator, Sunset, Decanter (again) and Food & Wine.
  • The Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance did incredible work in promoting the region.  Not only did they bring media into the area, they coordinated a road show that has brought scores of Paso Robles wineries to dozens of stops around the country and touched thousands of trade and consumers, and they began an advertising campaign that raised the region's profile tremendously.  I've written before on the impact of the PRWCA, and I think that it's worth reiterating that the way they've been able to raise the region's profile while keeping a diverse collection of stakeholders united has been remarkable.
  • The Rhone Rangers category has become much higher profile, and increasingly associated with the Paso Robles region.  The media, particularly Robert Parker, played key roles in this, of course, but two organizations have also had a big impact. The wonderful Hospice du Rhone festival, based in Paso Robles, brought exceptionally high profile media, trade and consumers to town each April, and created a strong association between Paso Robles and high-end Rhones.  And The Rhone Rangers have brought the word about Rhones to major markets around the country, including San Francisco and Los Angeles each year and regular stops in Seattle, Washington, DC and (this year) New York.  Over the decade I've been involved, Paso Robles wineries have grown from about 10% of the Rhone Rangers membership to its current level of nearly 40%.  This growth is reflective of real changes in what is in the ground in Paso Robles, driven at least in part by our own decision to settle here, but the region has also been successful at self-identifying with Rhones. Paso Robles wineries put together the first local chapter of Rhone Rangers, back in 2005.  Sadly, Hospice du Rhone announced recently that their 2012 celebration in Paso Robles would be their last, but I got the sense that one of the main reasons was a feeling on the part of its organizers that it had largely achieved what it set out to do.
  • The Sideways Effect.  Although we didn't see a direct benefit (we don't make Pinot Noir and we aren't in Santa Barbara Wine Country) we saw several powerful indirect effects.  The most important, in my opinion, was that the movie popularized and personalized the experience of going out wine tasting, which benefited wineries everywhere.  We also saw a surge of dedicated Southern California wine lovers who skipped the tourist-overrun venues of the Santa Ynez Valley in the couple of years after the movie's release and came, many for the first time, to Paso Robles.  Finally, the message that there are wineries outside of Napa and grape varieties other than Cabernet, Chardonnay and (of course!) Merlot helped all of us in California's less-well-known regions making California's less-planted grapes.

In those early days, I spent a lot of time on the road, showing people the wines, telling the story, encouraging restaurants and retailers to take a flyer on wines that they themselves would have to work to sell.  That so many did and have become regular customers still humbles me.  That we've moved from having to sell each case one at a time to having to allocate our cases so that they don't all get snapped up by a handful of accounts amazes me.

Thank you to all of you who have joined us on this journey.  A decade in, the best is still yet to come.  Cheers!

Bottling 2010 esprit 2