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The importance of multi-channel marketing (AKA yes, print will be seen by more eyes than email)

This month, we launched the VINsider Wine Club Collector’s Edition, which gives its members access to library vintages of Esprit de Beaucastel and Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc that we’ve aged in our cellars.  As we have held back only a limited quantity of our older wines, we announced an initial limit on numbers for 2009 to 250.  With about 3600 wine club members, I was fairly confident that we’d get to our maximum, and in fact we have.  We’ve reached our 250 and will be cutting off any further registrations at the end of this week.

What has been interesting to me was the relative effectiveness of the different effort we've used to promote this new club.  We have let our club members know four different times about this opportunity. 

  1. July 28th: a mention as a part of our regular end-of-month email for July 
  2. August 9th: a paper letter which we sent out on letterhead
  3. August 17th: a column in our fall newsletter
  4. August 25th: a prominent mention in the end-of-month email for August

I was expecting the greatest response to be from the first email mention, but this was not the case. In the five days after we sent out the email (about the limit, in my opinion, of the impact of a piece of email communication) we netted 27 registrations.  It was the paper letter that had the most impact.  On August 10th, the first day anyone could have received it (realistically, just Southern California) we received 29 registrations.  The next day brought in 49.  In total, in the week after we sent out the letter, we received 147 responses.  The column in the newsletter produced 37 in the next week.  And this last email, which went out not even 36 hours ago, has netted another 44 registrations so far, with more coming in.

I plotted the registrations by day on a graph, with the different marketing events noted:

Collectors Edition Registrations by Day

Our experience launching this program has been for me a salient lesson in multi-channel marketing.  If you send out a regular email (as I think any winery, or really any business with direct customers, should) you should expect that a significant percentage of its recipients are going to ignore or skim the letter.  Of course, some people may just toss a printed letter too, but these days, a physical mailing, if it’s nicely done, is unusual enough that I think it commands more attention.  Of course, a print mailing is more expensive to produce and send out than an email by a factor of something more than 100.  But if what you are promoting is sufficiently valuable, it’s important to remember that it will see a lot more eyes than an email.

As for emails, we saw very different response rates between the initial email that announced the Collector’s Edition program, which saw only a small bump in registrations, and the one that went out yesterday, which produced more response in the first day than the earlier email did in a week.  I think there are three factors at play here.

  1. Position within an email matters.  In the initial email, we soft-played the section promoting the Collector’s Edition.  I didn’t want to steal the thunder of the letter that was coming soon, and so we put the mention toward the end of the email.  We do organize our monthly emails consistently, with -- in essence -- a table of contents at the beginning, so customers can scan the email quickly, but I still think that many people don’t make it past the first or second point in an email.  In the recent email, the announcement about the Collector’s Edition was the first section.
  2. An announcement at the end of a limited time promotion tends to see more response than one at the beginning.  We feature a wine each month, and typically see more orders at the end of this monthly feature than at the beginning, even though we often sell out of the featured wine before the end of the month.  Of course, communicating urgency -- in this case that there were only 25 spots left in the program -- helps.  At the same time, it’s important not to underestimate your customers, and save urgency for when it’s real. 
  3. There is a cumulative effect to repeat marketing by different channels.  Each mention, as long as it feels natural and unforced, raises people’s curiosity and makes it more likely that they will investigate further.  By the end of the month-long program, I’d hope that nearly all our wine club members would have at least heard about and considered briefly our new program.

None of this should be a revelation to marketers.  Still, I spend more of my time working on marketing than I do on any of the many other pieces of my weekly job, and I was taken by surprise at some of our results.  A few general lessons for any winery doing this sort of promotion:

  • Think about print as a complement to email marketing for anything special
  • If you’re going to use email marketing, make sure that your most important items are in the beginning of your email.  Better yet (if you can do it without overwhelming your customers with too much mail) make it the sole focus of an email.
  • Don’t be afraid, if you can do so within your established patterns, to mention an important program in more than one email.  A customer who may be distracted or buried when one mention comes in may have time to read the next one a few weeks later.
  • Expect to receive most of the results of an email within 48 hours.
  • Marketing the same program through multiple channels can have a cumulative effect.

Oh, and as to the immediate item at hand?  We have enough wine allow a slightly larger membership in the Collector’s Edition club, and felt that doing so was fairer than cutting it off arbitrarily less than a day after our “last call” announcement.  So, we’re going to accept any additional registrations through the end of this week.  Anyone who misses that cutoff will be put onto a waiting list for 2010, when we expect to be able to expand the program a little more. If you're interested in this year's shipment, which I think is exceptionally cool, act soon.

Andalusian Gazpacho Recipe

08_Rose_revised There is no food that is more evocative of summer than gazpacho.  In the late summer, when local tomatoes are plentiful around most of the country, it's one of the easiest, most impressive ways to begin a summer meal.  With the richness of the pureed bread, it can even be a light meal on its own. 

Those of you on the Tablas Creek mailing list will see this recipe in our summer newsletter (due in mailboxes in the next week or so).  I thought I'd give followers of the blog an advance taste.  It's an absolutely knockout pairing with the 2008 Tablas Creek Rosé. We'll be having this ourselves this evening.

Serves 4-6


4 slices country-style white bread, about 1 inch thick, crusts removed
4 small cucumbers, peeled, seeded and chopped
4 lbs. very ripe tomatoes, seeded and coarsely chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
1/2 cup sherry vinegar
3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 cup water


  • Soak bread for 30 minutes in a small bowl in water to cover. Squeeze out moisture with your hands.
  • Puree bread, cucumbers, tomatoes, garlic, vinegar, olive oil, and water with an immersion blender until very smooth. If the soup is too thick, add a little more water.
  • Season to taste with salt (and additional vinegar if necessary).
  • Cover with aluminum foil and chill gazpacho in refrigerator.
  • Adjust seasonings and serve in individual glasses or soup bowls.

Corks and Screwcaps Revisited: Results from a Blind Tasting

About two years ago, I wrote a post called “Corks and Screwcaps: Not an open and shut case” that got a nice nod from Eric Asimov in the New York Times and brought a slew of new readers to the Tablas Creek blog.  In it, I made a case that the polemics on either side of the screwcap/cork debate were both a little silly, and that certain wines performed best under one closure and other wines better under the other.  This assertion was based on the trials that we have been doing at Tablas Creek since the 2002 vintage, bottling the same wine in cork and screwcap and watching how they evolve over time.

Late last year, I speculated that even the above conclusions were too simplistic in the blog post Bottle Variation, Very Old Wines and the Cork/Screwcap Dilemma.  I speculated that while some wines would be better from the beginning in screwcap, even some of the wines that would benefit in the short or medium term from the cork finish might over the very long term benefit from the freshness that the screwcap provides.

Two weekends ago, we opened up the experience of tasting the same wines in cork and screwcap to the public for the first time.  For an audience of about 60 attendees (most of them Tablas Creek wine club members) we tasted twelve wines in two flights.  The first flight consisted of two white wines and one rosé, cork and screwcap versions of each.  The second flight consisted of three red wines, again cork and screwcap versions of each.  All were the same vintage except for the Bergeron, where we tasted the 2004 (bottled under screwcap) and the 2005 (bottled under cork).

Overall, the results tended to validate the choices that we’d made, as the whites and rosé tasted brighter and fresher under screwcap (and were generally preferred by the group) while the reds tended to taste softer and lusher under cork (and were generally, though not universally, preferred by the group).  I made sure I wasn’t involved in pouring the wines so I could approach the tasting truly blind.  Some conclusions later; first, my tasting notes:

White/Rosé Flight

  • 2003 Vermentino A: nose quite aromatic, slightly skunky, a little gunpowdery, very classic Vermentino; in the mouth mineral, with good length and a slight plasticky note on the finish (turned out to be screwcap)
  • 2003 Vermentino B: a little more subdued and oxidized on the nose, tastes a little older and sweeter.  Longer on the finish (turned out to be cork)
  • Bergeron A: nose of old honey and mint, but also a note of oxidation.  Lemony in the mouth but fresher than the nose.  Relatively short finish. (turned out to be 2005, in cork)
  • Bergeron B: bright, spicy, herby nose.  Young and fresh in the mouth, a bit less sharp acids.  A touch richer and much more pure on the long finish (turned out to be 2004, in screwcap)
  • 2003 Rosé A: fairly muted and alcoholic on the nose; mouth much better, with nice sweetness and length, and lots of cherry; nice long finish (turned out to be cork)
  • 2003 Rosé B: brighter strawberry and mineral nose; similar in mouth to “A”; also a very long finish with lots of cherry/berry (turned out to be screwcap)

Red Flight

  • 2002 Las Tablas Estates “Glenrose Vineyard” A: bright nose, a little vinegary, and a little plasticky.  Mouth moderate depth, some spice, a little short on finish (turned out to be screwcap)
  • 2002 Las Tablas Estates “Glenrose Vineyard” B: a little darker and more olivey on nose; richer and woodsier on the palate than “A”; nice balance and longer finish (turned out to be cork)
  • 2005 Cotes de Tablas A: bright, spicy nose with a touch of alcohol showing; mouth nice balance, spicy and vibrant, mid-length finish (turned out to be screwcap)
  • 2005 Cotes de Tablas B: sweeter and more caramelly nose showing more darker tones than “A”; sweeter and more mature in the mouth, but feels more substantial too; longer finish (turned out to be cork)
  • 2006 Cotes de Tablas A: bright and clean nose, showing high-toned red fruit (lots of strawberry); in mouth bright but somehow less substantial than “B” (turned out to be screwcap)
  • 2006 Cotes de Tablas B: first sample corked (a dead giveaway); second sample bigger and darker than “A”, more tannic, longer finish (turned out to be cork)

I correctly identified in all six pairings which wine was under which closure, which I wasn't sure I would.  This rebuts the argument I hear more and more, that closures are essentially irrelevant except as to which has the lowest failure rate.  The closure does impact the taste of the wine even if it is not flawed.  I remember a tasting in the cellar we did a few years ago where Cris Cherry of Villa Creek Cellars correctly identified all the cork-finished wines, commenting that he could taste the cork.  I was impressed but not convinced at the time.  I am now.

Looking back through the notes, I see a few threads that are consistent.  The cork, on the positive side, seems to add darker tones to the wine, give a sense of sweetness, and lengthen the finish.  On the negative side, the whites and Rosé under cork all betrayed a hint of oxidation.  Granted, none of these were meant to aged long-term, but there was a heaviness in the cork version that there was not in the screwcap.  The screwcap, on the positive side, maintained a brightness and freshness in everything.  On the negative, it tended to shorten the finish and make (keep?) a wine less complex, and a few of the wines under screwcap betrayed a plastic character that I didn’t find appealing. 

Where does this leave us?  I’m not sure.  Here are some things I think I do know:

  • For the aromatic whites and the Rosé, I think it’s a no-brainer to bottle in screwcap.  
  • I know that we’ll be bottling the Bergeron in screwcap from now on (we’ve gone back and forth). 
  • I have some doubts about our decision to bottle the Cotes de Tablas primarily in screwcap starting with the 2007 vintage (but not enough doubts to change my mind about what we decided).  While the 2006 Cotes de Tablas tasted darker and deeper under cork, the 2005 screwcap version was already showing a brightness and spiciness that the cork version seemed to have lost.
  • I feel increasingly confident that we are making the right decision maintaining the Syrah- and Mourvedre-based reds under cork.  

But what about Roussanne?   The 2004 Bergeron under screwcap was among the most universally preferred wines, tasting much fresher than the 2005 Bergeron under cork (and we’ve generally thought of 2005 as the more ageable and substantial of the two vintages overall).  What would we see with the riper, denser Roussannes that we let reach full maturity?  I’d like to bottle a few cases of our 2009 Roussanne (or Esprit Blanc) in screwcap to see.

Overall, the experience was fascinating, and fun to be able to open up the experience to the public.  We’ll do it again.

A Response to Michael Pollan: It's Cool in the Kitchen Now

This past Sunday, Michael Pollan contributed a fascinating article to the New York Times Magazine called "Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch" in which he tied together the rise of cooking shows on television and decline of cooking as an everyday part of life.  The basic facts on which he bases his conclusions are that the amount of time that Americans spend in food preparation has dropped about 40% in the last four decades, and that the number of takeout meals has nearly doubled in the last 25 years, while television shows about cooking and eating have proliferated enormously, particularly since the foundation of the Food Network in 1993.

Pollan regards this as (yet another) sign that we are losing the battle with the food processing industry and builds a case that this loss of cooking skill can has contributed to all manner of unhealthy behavior by encouraging unhealthy eating, overconsumption of high-fat dishes, loss of family cohesion and the family meal, and the triumph of the food processing business.

What he does not address in this article is the promising trends that are developing simultaneously, in many cases in response to the same stimuli that he proposes.  I would submit that you can make a different argument that casts the changes in America's relationship with food and cooking over the last half-century (well, three decades; I agree with him that much was lost and not much gained in the 50's and 60's) in a much more positive light.

Note that while I disagree with many of the contentions of this article, I tend to agree wholeheartedly with his aims.  I thought that his open letter to the next "Farmer in Chief" from last October was one of the most compelling arguments I've ever read for a comprehensive revision of America's food policy.  But in this Sunday's article, I think he wandered off course.

For all human history, until fifty or so years ago, every family had to process its raw foodstuffs before they would be edible, unless they had the means to hire or compel someone else to do so.  But just because cooking was time-consuming did not inherently make it valuable or valued.  In my parents' generation -- though thankfully my parents were exceptions, both excellent cooks, and my mom, particularly, an avid cook and gardener who loved to share her own love of food -- cooking was generally considered drudge work.  (I'm thinking of the 1960's and 1970's, which Pollan offers as a contrast to today.)  Yes, most households had someone, usually a woman, who cooked every day, but American culture showed comparatively little excitement about food.  Lots of my friends grew up in families where they ate the traditional "a meat, a potato, and a vegetable" for each dinner, but the menu was relatively unvaried and preparation never done as a family.  Now, at least in the experience of my circle of friends, cooking, even if done less than every night, is celebrated... often undertaken together as a couple or with and for friends, and the range of foods that are prepared is exponentially greater than a generation ago.  Perhaps having been freed from having to cook every night has reinvigorated (many) Americans' joy of cooking.

Another positive trend is the rise of farmer's markets.  There are now, according to the USDA, nearly 4900 farmer's markets in the United States, up 71% from the year 2000.  The customers who patronize these markets are not doing so because they are more convenient or less expensive than their local supermarkets; farmer's markets have become both a social opportunity for community members and a chance to support local, particularly organic, agriculture.  This support helps shape the new food system for which Pollan is the country's most eloquent spokesperson, and would be impossible without the community of food-lovers in whose ranks I have found cooking shows' most avid audience.

In large part due to the increased societal focus on eating locally-grown produce, our supermarkets have made real strides toward bringing in more food that is locally produced and more appealing options.  When I was growing up, supermarkets had two types of apples: green and red.  The greens were probably Granny Smith, and the reds perhaps Macintosh, but in general you didn't know.  Now, in the fall, our local Albertson's has a dozen different varieties of apples, and publicizes where each was grown.  Same thing with tomatoes.  The idea that a supermarket should have heirloom tomatoes in addition to the pale red ones with the texture (and taste) of styrofoam is a relatively new, and promising, development.  Plus, I've noticed that just in the last year, both our major national supermarket chains (Albertson's and VONS) have started putting little "local" tags up next to produce that is grown within a few hours of here.  It's entirely possible that this produce that was grown in the Salinas Valley was shipped to Boise (where Albertson's is headquartered) and back, eliminating the environmental and freshness benefits of eating locally and making the note purely marketing, but that they feel it is important to put it up at all is to my mind a positive development.

Cooking (and food) is much more multicultural than it has ever been before.  It is striking how quickly this change has happened.  I have a book of recipes that my mom produced for me when I first moved into my own apartment.  It contained a few dozen family favorites, including some recipes from Craig Claiborne's wonderful The Chinese Cookbook (published in 1976).  In these recipes, ingredients like ginger, soy sauce, and bamboo shoots are marked with an asterisk that notes that they are "available in Chinese markets and by mail order".  That these relatively commonplace items would be so rare as to require a footnote underlines how much more diverse American food is than it was just one generation ago.  Paso Robles, a town of 30,000 people with little non-Hispanic ethnic population, has four Japanese restaurants, a Thai restaurant and three Chinese restaurants.  We had an Indian restaurant until it closed a few years ago.  These restaurants are patronized by local residents.  The increased accessibility of food from an ever-wider collection of non-native cultures has dramatically changed American tastes.  No home chef could be expected to learn food preparations from dozens of different cultures in order to be able to enjoy the culture's food.  I'm not convinced this is a negative.

There is a greater focus than ever on food quality, at least at the high end.  Zagat's, Michelin, and a host of newer online services provide increased information on restaurants' quality, and patrons of these restaurants have very high standards.  It's only logical that as consumers develop higher standards, they will begin to apply these home standards to their home dining.  Pollan acknowledges that American culture has begun to celebrate food, but he calls this phenomenon the "fetishization" of food and lays much of the blame at the feet of unrealistic food preparation dramas like Iron Chef.  I don't see it as pernicious.  First, I don't see the rise of the foodie culture as a result of television cooking shows, but rather the interest in cooking shows as a natural outgrowth of our increased interest in and knowledge about food, combined with a peculiarly American fascination with competition.  And, even if they can somehow be correlated, I don't think that it's possible to convincingly argue a causal link between increased watching of cooking shows and the decline of cooking.

Pollan mentions in passing gender roles in food preparation (mostly with respect to the differences in average food preparation time between families with two working parents and those with a stay-at-home mom) but does not address the positive aspects of the changes in cooking's gender roles over the last few decades.  In my circle of friends, it's as likely that the husband/boyfriend will be the primary cook as the wife/girlfriend.  The ability to cook is seen as a point of pride for men.  The relative leveling of societal expectations about gender and food preparation ability has opened up another half of the population to the skills and wonders of cooking.  Even if these men don't choose to cook every day, their added enthusiasm for and understanding of what it takes to make good food has played an important role in elevating cooking from chore to shared pleasure.

How does this tie into wine?  Wine is a beverage that is generally enjoyed with food and with other people... and generally not with fast food or on-the-go.  Cultures that drink wine tend to be healthier and live longer than those who drink beer or liquor.  And, over the period that Pollan discusses, wine has become a much more integral part of the American lifestyle.  Since 1960, American wine consumption has increased from 163 million gallons per year (less than one gallon per person) to 753 million gallons per year (about 2.5 gallons per person).  And consumption in the United States is continuing to grow, projected to rise 20% in the next five years, which will make us the largest consuming nation of wine in the world.  At the same time, beer sales have stagnated or declined slightly in recent years.  I wrote a blog post last fall on American wine consumption and production trends in which I asserted that consumption trends all pointed to wine becoming a greater and greater part of American culture.  I think that these trends are being reinforced by the proliferation of wineries all over the country and the increased proximity that most of the American populace has to wine-producing regions.  Increased wine consumption should continue to play a role in the promotion of a healthy relationship with food and eating.

I am not arguing that all the developments are positive.  I think that it is incontrovertible that there are portions of the American populace, particularly at the lowest income levels, who are very poorly served by the current food distribution system.  The ubiquity of fast food has negative consequences for our waistlines and our food system.  It is a travesty that in many inner-city neighborhoods, supermarkets will not open, leaving residents with only convenience stores and fast food outlets for their daily food.  And the shift of the American population from essentially rural to essentially urban and suburban in the last hundred years has dramatically cut people's understanding of where food comes from and how it is grown.

I'm also not sure the extent to which the changes that I see have pentrated outside of my own demographic (essentially college-educated, liberal, generation X and Y).  I'm sure that it also varies by ethnic group and income level.  But, whether they have migrated throughout the culture yet or not (I suspect not) movements have to start somewhere.

In conclusion, I feel that Pollan paints only half a picture.  If we're cooking less often (but enjoying it more), eating more diverse foods (some of which we'll eventually attempt to make) and focusing increasingly on from where our food comes and how it has been processed (whether we're cooking it or not) we are contributing to a better agricultural system and more diverse and interesting society.  This society will be, if it is not already, more aware of the links between food and health, and of the impacts of our food policies on our food systems.  And if cooking is becoming cool and chefs are becoming celebrities at the same time?  Every movement needs its mascots.