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”:

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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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