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March 2008
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May 2008

A bullet dodged: only minor vineyard damage from a serious California-wide frost event

California was badly zapped last week by a deep trough of cold air that spread south from Canada and brought freezing nights from Mendocino to Santa Barbara.  The perils presented by this frost were made more severe by the fact that it followed a week of unusually warm weather, where it neared 90 degrees at Tablas Creek and was well over 90 in downtown Paso Robles.  Nearly the whole vineyard had sprouted, in many cases 6 inches or more.

As the frost approached last weekend, forecasts looked terrifying.  On frosty nights, the weather station at Tablas Creek is typically the coldest in Paso Robles, and it is not even in the coldest spot on the property.  Forecasts were suggesting that temperatures would range from 26-33 degrees in the appellation, which we usually project to temperatures as low as 23 or 24 in our coldest spots.  When it's this cold, the frost prevention fans that we use aren't effective; the only way to save the new growth is with overhead sprinklers.  And we don't have enough water for those.

We did indeed have three cold nights in a row.  The nights of the 21st, 22nd and 23rd of April all registered lows at our weather station between 28 and 29 degrees.  But, in an unusual reversal, it was colder on the east side of town than out at Tablas Creek.  And, Paso Robles seems to have been less heavily hit than other regions; Napa, Sonoma and the Sierra Foothills all report significant damage, and even vintners I've spoken to in Santa Ynez see more damage than we do.

In driving around the vineyard this afternoon with my dad, we'd estimate maybe 5% of new growth has been damaged by this frost.  A typical section is below, with some vines at the very bottom of a swale showing browning, but the vast majority of the vineyard looking fine:


As always, the frost damage is curiously selective, with damaged shoots just inches away from others that are fine.  Still, given how scary things looked a week ago, we're counting ourselves very lucky.

We hope that we're largely out of the danger zone now; it hit 90 degrees here both days this weekend.  And we always figure that once we get into May we're pretty much safe.  And we're ready for a break.  We ran our frost fans seventeen nights this spring, nearly double our annual average.

Earth Day thoughts on sustainability in the world of wine

Today is the 39th annual Earth Day celebration, and a great time to assess wine's progress on its quest for sustainability.  Wine, like any other agricultural product, has environmental impacts from its vineyard and winery practices, and additional impacts from its packaging and marketing (Tyler Coleman had an interesting op-ed piece in the New York Times on wine's carbon footprint).  It's great that so many wineries are talking about their efforts toward sustainability.  It's less clear to me (as I pointed out in a post from last spring) that the actions of many of these wineries match their rhetoric.

Last weekend, we participated in the Earth Day Food & Wine Festival here in Paso Robles.  This event is organized by the Central Coast Vineyard Team, who is (in their own words) "a non-profit collaboration of agriculture and natural resource professionals with a shared dedication to sustainable winegrowing".   The event was great, very well attended and organized, with attendees exceptionally interested in how each exhibitor was practicing sustainability.  When we told the people who came by our table that we were, in fact, certified organic, many were surprised that we needed to make a point of that.  They had assumed that everyone there, or most everyone, was organic.  In fact, there were only three wineries (of the fifty or so there) who are certified.

There are lots of ways that wineries can be sustainable without being organic, and I don't want to denigrate the efforts that many of these wineries are making.  Any approach that reduces any negative environmental or social impacts that a business may foster needs to be encouraged.  I think that Brian Talley of Talley Vineyards deserves particular credit for expanding the understanding of sustainability to encompass the quality of life and affordable housing through his Fund for Vineyard and Farm Workers

Wine is one of the best agricultural crops, on many levels, in terms of environmental impacts.  Vines are planted and left for decades, so you don't have topsoil loss and erosion from annual tilling.  Wine grapes are generally watered very little, and with high-efficiency drip irrigation, so they're low-impact on water use or runoff.  Similarly, the best vineyards tend to be nutrient-poor, so there is little incentive to fertilize heavily.  There are very few devastating grapevine pests, so most vineyards are rarely sprayed with pesticides.  And vineyards are a sufficiently value-added commodity that once a vineyard has been planted the land is rarely redeveloped for housing or other higher-impact uses.

Still, there's a wide range of practices in the world of wine.  Most vineyards do have some pesticides applied.  Most also spray with herbicide under the vine rows to prevent competition with weeds.  Commercial fertilizers, too, see some application.  Enormous quantities of water are used in the cellar for the production of wine, as tanks, barrels and crush equipment need to be cleaned after each use.  And the environmental impacts of packaging, shipping and marketing wine are significant.

Even out in our neighborhood, you can see wineries who preach sustainability but whose practices speak of expediency.  And it's a shame.  Wine grapes have to be one of the easiest products to grow organically, as they don't require much fertilization or pest control, and weed control can be conducted mechanically (see an earlier post on organic weed control).  Winery wastewater can be recaptured and used for other purposes (as in our wetlands area).  Particularly surprising to us is that more people haven't made the plunge to get the added intensity, flavorfulness, and character of place in organically farmed wines.

I think it's great to celebrate the progress that the wine community has made in environmental consciousness, but I also think it's too bad more haven't taken the plunge to become fully organic.  And, it's high time we created objective, enforceable criteria for the designation of "sustainable" so that wineries have standards to meet and so that the designation does not become diluted into meaninglessness.

Vineyard Photos of New Growth

I love going out into the vineyard at this time of year to take pictures.  The yellowy-green color of the new growth is beautiful, and the cover crop is in full flower.  Plus, the hills are gorgeous.  Note that you can get full-screen images of all the photos on this post (and, for that matter, this blog) by clicking on the thumbnails.

A hillside of Grenache is well out, with a small block of Mourvedre visible to the back right barely sprouted:


The trick for me in catching these shots is being able to get the position of the sun correct.  In order to really showcase that yellow-green, you need to be taking the photo into or at an angle into the sun, but without getting glare.  A Chardonnay vine (from our small block for our Antithesis Chardonnay) glows with sunlight:


The other thing I try to get in the photos is a sense of (for lack of a better term) near and far.  Using a zoom to shorten the field of focus helps.  The photo below is of the same Grenache block as the first photo.


Finally, a more traditional view, looking east over a hillside of newly-sprouted Roussanne back toward west-facing Scruffy Hill, still in shadow in the early morning:


Usability Lessons for Winery Web Sites

I come at Web site design a little differently than most winery principals.  My background is in high tech; before moving out to Paso Robles in 2002 to help manage Tablas Creek, I was a Senior Training Manager and Curriculum Director at WestLake Internet Training, which developed and taught classroom-style training courses on Web development, Web design, and database management.  Near the end of my tenure there, we started focusing on some of the softer skills associated with Web development projects, including information architecture, project management, and writing for the Web.  The experience of researching and writing these classes has unalterably colored the way that I view Web sites.

The concept that we felt was of paramount importance for the success of a Web site was usability.  Usability may be an ugly, inelegant word, but the concept it represents - that design needs to be focused on helping the end user complete the task for which he or she has visited the site - is crucial.  This may seem obvious, but very few Web sites (in any field) really think about usability. The creators of Web sites have a story they want to tell, and far too many of the sites focus on that story instead of the needs of the site's visitors. 

Much of the blame can be laid at the feet of graphic designers, for whom Web design is often a secondary job after print design.  Look at the Web sites of graphic designers:  too many are totally unusable, full of design for the sake of design taking up space and download time, and missing or cryptic sign posts to crucial information (what is this designer's message?  how do I contact them?  who are their clients? what are their prices?).

The same story is true of too many winery Web sites.  Many appear to have taken their model from a print marketing piece, where information is presented in a linear fashion, and without enough attention to the concerns that too many large or high-resolution images inhibit anyone using the site.  Or, the site may be created to satisfy the story that the winery wants to tell.

I'll list some of the cardinal sins of usability.  These are ones that I encounter most often, and tailored to the specifics of wineries; there are plenty of other mistakes to be made, and the lessons are applicable to any business seeking to market itself and ultimately sell a product:

  • Splash pages. These introductory pages, often produced and animated with Flash, take time to load and make users wait to even start their search for the information they need.
  • Sound files on the front page. Many viewers may be visiting your site in a work environment, and presumably don't want this fact called to attention when their computer starts singing.
  • Hard-to-find contact information. Most studies suggest that over 25% of visitors visit Web sites for no other reason than to get a phone or fax number, an email, or a physical address for the business.
  • Too much unnecessary photography.  I'm certainly not suggesting that Web sites be text-only, or that photography does not have a place on winery Web sites.   Still, photographs are memory-intensive, and take far longer to download than text.  Only half the US population has broadband access at home.  Don't force people to wait to download big files just to get the answers they want.  Put your larger photographs in archives in well-marked locations and let the people who want to explore them do so without impacting the usability for everyone else.
  • Out-of-date information. Out of date information has two problems. First, as with typos or ungrammatical sentences, you compromise your credibility as a legitimate business.  Second, people expect the Web to be constantly up to date.  If your site is not, and you force people to go to a second source (calling, for example) to get current information, you give the impression that your Web site is of lesser importance and reduce the credibility of the rest of the information contained there.
  • No search option.  You may think that your navigation is clear, but different people filter information in very different ways.  Having a search option helps unite visitors with their specific need and reduces frustration.
  • Lack of backward-looking information.  Many sites replace older vintages with information about newer vintages.  What about your customers who have an older bottle and want to know about it?  Remember that you're making a product that people may return to any time over the next few decades, and do your best to maintain (and, even better, update) the information on these older wines.
  • Missing or inaccurate page titles. Page titles appear in the title bar of your browser and on the tabs of tabbed browsers.  They also are the primary information displayed by search engines and contribute enormously to search engine rankings.  A good page title is a headline that describes what the page contains.  A great page title also gives you information about where that page sits in the site's hierarchy.

As I can figure it, there are a handful of discrete questions that might lead people to a winery's Web site.  The site has every interest in making the answers to these questions as apparent as possible.  How well does your site do?

  • How do I buy a wine I had and enjoyed?  Most wineries have order forms where consumers can go to order wine direct from the winery.  However, it's important to remember that many people don't live in states to which wineries can ship, and you may also have restaurants and retailers (or importers) interested in buying wine through the appropriate channels.
  • I have a particular wine.  Is it ready to drink?  What should I serve it with?  Should I decant it?
  • How do I visit the winery?
  • Who is behind this winery?  Who is its winemaker?  Where do its grapes come from?
  • How do I contact a real person to answer a specific question?

One technique that is always illuminating in analyzing your site's usability is to take someone not already familiar with your site and give him or her a set of tasks to complete.  Sit and watch (and take notes on) how he or she clicks around the site, but don't offer advice.  If it takes several clicks before he or she finds the information, note that issue.  It's amazing how little we analyze the sites that we're familiar with, particularly ones that we've helped create.  Watching someone else struggle is illuminating and humbling and a great source of ideas.

A few other resources that you may find helpful:

  • Winery Web Site Report.  Mike Duffy has a company that focuses specifically on helping wineries design and analyze their Web sites.  I haven't used his services, and have no affiliation, but he maintains one of the great industry blogs in which he shares lots of good information for free. 
  •  Jakob Nielsen is the leading guru of the usability movement, and on his Web site he publishes weekly articles focusing on Web usability.  He's so extreme in his advocacy of usability over design that his Web site is very bare-bones, but his research is the industry standard.
  • Web Pages that Suck.  This venerable site has been highlighting the worst of the Web for 12 years, and its content and approach are still fresh.  Check out their worst-of-the-year lists.

So... I hope this has been helpful. I'd love any comments on particular wishes people have for winery Web sites, or anecdotes of particularly good (or bad) emphasis on user-focused design.

Planting new vineyard: getting ready for more Mourvedre, Grenache Blanc and Vermentino

We realized a few years ago that our demand was growing, and (as we took a break in planting after 2000 to get our marketing in order) that if we didn't start planting soon, we'd start running dangerously short on wine.  It takes three years in a best-case scenario to start getting crop off of a new planting, and the thin soils, dry summers and high diurnal swings in temperatures make the best-case scenario rare.  So, we analyzed the 30 or so acres that we had left to plant and decided to plant five acres a year for six years.  Our demand is growing at about 1000 cases per year, and 5 acres produce (at our yields of about 3 tons per acre) roughly 1000 cases of wine.

We started our new round of planting in the winter of 2005-2006 on what we call "Scruffy Hill" on the far side of Tablas Creek (I posted on this in January 2006).  In that roughly 11-acre block we planted head-pruned, non-irrigated Mourvedre and Grenache along with small amounts of Syrah, Tannat and Picpoul.  Planting head-pruned without irrigation is much less intensive in the amount of work and expense involved, so we figured we'd start there.

With Scruffy Hill planted, we're now looking to a gorgeous block to the west of the property, with two ridges that run north-south surrounding a shallow valley.  The ridge slopes give us nice east- and west-facing hillsides, and the ridge tops are just packed with calcareous deposits:


This has the potential to be one of the best blocks of vineyard we farm.  The first stage in planting is to hammer the end posts for the trellises into the ground.  I loved the photogenic geometry of these half-finished tasks:


The second stage is digging the trenches that we'll need for irrigation.  These are at the tops of the ridges so that the water can flow downhill through the drip irrigation tubing. The two irrigation ditches (east on the left, west on the right):


The third phase is adding the interior posts and stringing the training wires, and only then do we get to plant the vines.  The vines that we've decided on are Vermentino and Grenache Blanc for the east-facing slope, and Mourvedre for the south-facing slope.  Finally, two more views of the new property.  First, the east-facing slope:


And second, the valley, with a view into the Santa Lucia Mountains behind:


Congratulations to Mark Royer

Congratulations to Mark Royer, from Menlo Park, CA, the winner of the third annual Tablas Creek VINsider NCAA Tournament Challenge!  His bracket correctly predicted 6 of the Elite Eight, all of the Final Four, both of the finalists, and the Kansas Jayhawks as champions, placing him in the 99.1st percentile in ESPN's national brackets.

He edged out second-place finisher Davies Wakefield, from Maribel, WI, and in third place (embarassingly for me) my mother-in-law Sally Dunn, from Baltimore, MD, who rarely watches college basketball but routinely ends up winning the family tournament pool. 

As we have seen each year, our VINsider club members overall score above the national average (we knew there was a reason you liked us!).  This year, the average VINsider bracket scored in the 52nd percentile, with an impressive 15% picking Kansas to win it all.  My results?  A very mediocre 54.7th percentile, as North Carolina failed to beat Pitt in the final.  Anyone interested can look at the complete brackets and results of the VINsider pool on the ESPN Web site.

Frost Damage

As I'd feared when I posted about the early budbreak a week or so ago, we got a frost Sunday night.  And not a little one, either.  It got down to 27 degrees at the weather station in the center of the vineyard, which means that the coldest spots were a couple of degrees colder than that.  Fortunately, much of the vineyard wasn't out yet, but we did see some damage in all the sections of the vineyard that had sprouted.  Even the tops of the hills, which normally avoid our radiation frosts, saw some damage.  A photo of some Grenache vines shows the quirky nature of frost damage.  One sprout can be frozen while another a few inches away is fine:


Overall, we'd classify this as having a mild to moderate impact.  We'll see some effects from this throughout the growing season, but it doesn't look like it will seriously cut down either on production or on the quality of the growing season this year.

Of course, we still have over a month to go before we can relax... but we look pretty safe this week, with rain forecast for tomorrow and then a warming trend for the rest of the week.