Previous month:
May 2015
Next month:
July 2015

Through the glass doors: 360° views of Tablas Creek Vineyard, courtesy of Google

By Lauren Phelps

When you have a limited amount of time to visit a new place for example, how do you decide where to visit?  If you’re anything like me, you type the name of the location into Google and see what pops up.  Well, today if you Google "Tablas Creek Vineyard", a new feature is available that gives you an insider's look (literally) into the tasting room, tank room and surrounding grounds which should help visitors fine-tune their itinerary.

The new tool is a part of Google Maps, which has expanded beyond the basics of maps and directions in recent years.  First they added reviews of the businesses, through Google+.  Then, they added the option to "see photos", which are taken from our Google+ business page.  Now, they've added a new option, to "see inside":

Search Result_475

Once you've clicked on this option (try it here full screen, or use the smaller windows below), you can cruise virtually around the main tasting room, venture into the private and semi-private tasting rooms, and even wander our patio.  You can rotate your view 360° in any of the rooms or locations.  It's a fun and novel way to get a sense of what you'll see when you visit.  An interior view:

From the outside:

Another benefit of creating the virtual tour is the still photography that the team that Google sent out (Evolving Photography) took and uploaded to our Google+ account.  A few of my favorites are below:

Tablas Creek Vineyards 17
Tablas Creek Vineyards 27_475
In many ways, what Google did overlaps the Virtual Tour that we produced in-house a couple of years ago, though the virtual tour takes people out into the cellar and vineyard, and adds narration by our Winemaker, Neil Collins.  But the benefit of having this tour be a part of the Google page where people searching for us land is enormous.  Even though we love it, we've struggled to get more than a few dozen views per week on our virtual tour.  We're hopeful that lots more eyes will see Google's "see inside".

Our new view is part of a concerted effort by Google; Wine Spectator posted an article today noting that we're one of 78 wineries (and 10 breweries) in California for whom Google has completed this expansion of their "street view" footprint.

We hope that the Google Tour will join our Virtual Tour as interesting and useful tools that will give potential visitors another reason to visit Tablas Creek Vineyard.  Please, let us know what you think.

On the Road: a Rhone Pilgrimage

By Darren Delmore

I had the distinct pleasure of tagging along last week on a trade visit to the Perrin family's holdings in the Rhone Valley.  Our odyssey began with our thirsty quintet of wine professionals packed into an undersized rental car like foie gras terrine as we traversed from Dijon to Valence. I sat shotgun with GPS in hand and snails in my belly as we watched the landscape change from the sunflowers and Charolais beef pastures of Burgundy to the lavender fields and olive groves of the Rhone.

I had been on three surfing expeditions to the old country -- relic of an earlier life -- but I had never visited an AOC. I had been waiting years to see the land where my favorite grape varietals hail from and experience the Tablas Creek mothership of Château de Beaucastel for the first time.

An hour into the southward drive, Côte-Rôtie stretched out to the west, with its expansive south facing range planted densely with vines. Between the hills and our American automatic transmission predispositions, our unfortunate rental car received the name “Le Clutch Fumé” about this time.  “The Hill of Hermitage should be popping up like a Jack in the Box next,” our driver advised.


We were first scheduled to meet with Nicolas Jaboulet and taste the wines he is making and selecting for Maison Nicolas Perrin. Having the last name of Jaboulet in a burg like Tain-l'Hermitage is like living in Hollywood with the surname of Hitchcock: it’s billboarded on the hill of Hermitage itself, which at one time his family owned a coveted 30 percent of. When he started Maison Nicolas Perrin (in partnership with the Perrins) in 2009, he used his many key connections to source fruit and wine for the project, the range of which includes Hermitage, Côte-Rôtie, St. Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage, and Condrieu. We met up with Nicolas at a brand new tasting bar in the main square of Tain-l'Hermitage, where you can buy all of the Famille Perrin wines and taste a range of them too. 

IMG_0719Nicolas Jaboulet

“Crozes-Hermitage is the wine we want to be known for,” Nicolas pointed out during the tasting. His 2013 certainly makes a case for it. We learned that 85% of the Crozes-Hermitage plantings are Syrah, with the balance being Marsanne and Roussanne. “Many growers have taken out Roussanne,” he said. “They only wanted Roussanne if it could be co-harvested and fermented with Marsanne. Growers didn’t want to wait to have two different picking dates for the whites.” 

IMG_08312014 Nicolas Perrin wines resting in foudre and barrique.

At the tail end of the tasting we met Benoit Busseuil, Nicolas' assistant winemaker. He drove us up onto the top of Hermitage to see the labyrinth of Syrah plantings stretch out below us to the banks of the Rhone river. Seeing the tiny parcels and gnarled vines, the price tag on the rare bottles to hail from the hill instantly made sense to us. 

Benoit  - 1Benoit and Syrah vines in Hermitage.

We piled back in the car and headed south where Nicolas met back up with us and treated us to lunch at Michel Chabran in Pont de l’lsére. The wiser of us followed Nicolas’ lead and opted for the Tapas Dégustation menu, along with tastes of the 2013 Hermitage Blanc, 2012 Cote-Rotie, and a rare 2013 St. Joseph Blanc from Domaine Bernard Gripa. 

Northern rhone lunch - 1Lunch at Michel Chabran                                                           

*    *    *

In a way, the region of Vinsobres reminds me of Mendocino County in Northern California. The most northernmost appellation in the Southern Rhone, the vines perch on hills up to 1200 feet elevation with plenty of wooded areas between the steep hillside plantings. Vineyard blocks of all different sizes, unmarked and unfenced, with little trellising, must require institutional knowledge or government intervention to keep straight who owns what.

Vinsobres - 1Vinsobres' name originates from the Latin words "vin sobre" meaning "dark wine". The dark color comes from the high percentage of Syrah in the appellation: higher than any other in the southern Rhone.

In a small cluster of houses -- might we call it a Patelin? -- a few kilometers outside of the village of Vinsobres, the Perrin Family guest house is notoriously difficult to find.  That said, I take full responsibility for typing in the incorrect address on the GPS.  We pulled up at the wrong house, unloaded our bags and even entered a place that kind of looked like it could be the Perrins' house (with the exception of dirty dishes in the sink, shoes and socks at the door and a desk with documents and an adding machine in place). Paul drove off to see if we’d overshot the address, leaving four of us to roam the grounds. Soon an engine sputtered its way up the drive and I encountered a 60-something couple and their terrified faces upon the sight of four dudes and my beard in particular, plus all of our luggage sprawled out on their driveway. They handled it well enough, especially since they had no idea what we were saying and vice versa. Paul reappeared with word that we were two kilometers short of the destination. We hoped they didn't lose much sleep over the knowledge that we were still somewhere in the vicinity.

IMG_0762The real Vinsobres house.

The Perrin guest house at La Vielle Ferme de Vinsobres would have author Peter Mayle reaching for an advance. They carefully restored this centuries-old five-bedroom farmhouse over a decade, adding a modern kitchen, bathrooms, swimming pool and wi-fi.  Well-manicured lavender and rosemary line the property, with old vines above and below and no neighbors in range. A well stocked wine cellar on the ground floor awaited us, and we’d shopped heavily in Tain for the night’s provisions, which one of my fellow travelers (a chef in real life) attacked with aproned vengeance.


With Merguez sausage from the grill, steak, cheese and jambon d’Ardeche, plus the biggest salad we’d ever seen, we enjoyed an extended evening on the outdoor balcony, eating and raving about the day, with some major anticipation for the next day's agenda. 

IMG_0765 Five bottles of Famille Perrin for the five of us… seems about right!

*          *          *

Kirsty Manahan is the hospitality director for Famille Perrin. Born in England but raised in the south of France, she arrived the following cloudy morning with the property caretaker Mohamad to guide us around. The weather had changed dramatically, and she pointed out that we were due for a code orange weather day, which includes heavy rain, thunder and some lightning. As we took our positions in Mohamad's pickup truck for a vineyard tour, the luckier ones got in the four-seat truck cab, while the rest of us hopped in the back of the pickup with two umbrellas. A roar from the sky above had us looking at each other as "Momo" hit the gas. The drops soon followed. 

Truck tour - 1Code Orange storm tour of stony Vinsobres via pickup truck.

We bounced up along a clay terrace and climbed a good 400 feet past Syrah vines and an interesting patch of Clairette Gris. It wouldn’t have taken much to roll right off of the tailgate with the speed and rocks we were pounding along. The landscape would vary from cobblestones to fluffy clay then to pure pink sand. At the top of the hill the gusts of wind whipped away at us and in spite of the umbrellas, we were now officially soaked, even before a gust imploded one umbrella, leaving it looking more like a weapon than anything useful in the rain. For the last half hour left on the tour, our wonder at the rugged scenery provided our only shelter from the elements. 

Umbrella - 1Our ex-umbrella. 

Once we thawed and dried out, we followed Kirsty to Gigondas for a tour of Clos des Tourelles. In my previous life as a cellarhand, this micro, single vineyard operation would be my dream winery. Built to only produce the one estate wine, it’s compact, clean, historic, and simply appointed with open-top cement tanks for fermentations and French oak foudres for the aging process.  The Clos des Tourelles is the only clos (walled vineyard) in Gigondas, and the Perrins have been rehabilitating the buildings since they bought it a few years ago.  Construction was actively going on, with the goal of making it the centerpiece of the Famille Perrin holdings. The views are incredible, and the tasting room and guest rooms (scheduled completion: 2016) should be an instant landmark when they open.

IMG_0799Clos - 1
16th Century architecture at Clos des Tourelles | One of a mere four foudres in the cellar.              

From the Clos you can walk directly up to L’Oustalet which is the hotel and restaurant the Perrins opened a couple years ago. 

IMG_0801L'Oustalet in the village of Gigondas.

The sleek restaurant was fully booked for lunch service and chef Laurent Deconick was in the house. We started with a splash of Miraval Rosé then had an incredible menu of Mushroom Risotto with 2011 Beaucastel Vielles Vignes Roussanne, chicken prepared three ways with a dense, powerful Famille Perrin L’Argnee 2010 Gigondas, and then -- we still had work to do, after all -- Rhubarb sorbet and espresso. I made a mental note to spend a few more days in Gigondas next time around. 

IMG_0821Ancient Grenache vines for L'Argnee in Gigondas. 

L'oustalet lunch - 1A very happy table at L'Oustalet.

The clouds clamored as we approached the four o’clock hour and the town of Courthézon near Châteauneuf-du-Pape. In case we were uncertain of its historic significance, there was actually a sign for Beaucastel on the main roundabout along with major cities and highways. People were snapping pictures outside of the Château as we parked. This was it. We’d finally made it to mecca. We took turns taking cell phone glory portraits of us standing on the stones while Kirsty gave us some backstory on the viticulture laws in the region (no irrigation, head trained low to the ground). 

IMG_0846Chateauneuf's famous galets (river stones) in the vineyards at Beaucastel.

We toured the cellars and I wasn't entirely surprised to see the same bladder presses, destemmer and French oak foudres that we use at Tablas Creek. Cesar Perrin -- who worked harvest at Tablas in 2011 -- appeared at one point pushing a bottle cart to collect some wines to label for sale. In the foudres, 2013 and 2014 lots of Coudoulet de Beaucastel and Château de Beaucastel slumbered, while the rain hammered on outside.

Seguin Moreau Troncais Forest oak foudres.                                                                                                                      

IMG_0858  Bottles of 2012 Château de Beaucastel Rouge. 

Kirsty had arranged an impressive array of Famillle Perrin wines to taste above the cellar, starting with 2014 Les Sinards Blanc, followed by Coudoulet de Beaucastel Blanc and Rouge, three wines from Gigondas, and a powerful foudre sample of 2013 Chateau de Beaucastel Rouge. "And I have some surprises for you," she announced near the end, as if the tasting needed surprises to keep our interest. These treats included a stellar 2001 Hommage à Jacques Perrin, a lively and ethereal 1970 Beaucastel Rouge, and a 1985 Vieilles Vignes Roussanne that at 30 years old was clear, precise, and full of life.

IMG_0862The Southern Rhone, only slightly abridged. 

It was clear to all of us in two days of touring that the Perrins are not only the ambassadors of the Rhone Valley, but they have achieved that difficult balance between tradition and modernity with their wines. Their vision, their experience with their terroir, and their commitment to making wines of place have produced a range of different village cuvees, each with its own identity and well-defined personality. And their commitment to converting each parcel they take over to organic farming means that over time these personalities will only become clearer. 

For our last hurrah, we met Marc Perrin afterward for an early dinner in the village. He arrived from Provence where he'd been meeting with Brad Pitt and looking at vineyards and sources to grow the Miraval brand. Why not? If we needed a reminder of how the Perrins are always looking for new good ideas, Marc provided it. One of the guests brought up at dinner that they thought Miraval rosé half bottles -- which haven't been produced yet -- would have potential in the Los Angeles market. As if Marc didn't have enough going on in both the Northern and Southern Rhone, his eyes widened with interest at the suggestion, and you could see his mind immediately begin working. "If I can find the glass, we will try it," he offered. I can't wait.

Tablas Creek is a 2015 Wine Blog Awards Finalist!

WBA-Finalist-Industry-2015I was excited to learn today that we are a finalist for the 2015 Wine Blog Awards.  These awards were created in 2007 (Thank you, Tom Wark!) to honor the growing number and quality of wine bloggers, and have been awarded each year since.  I'm even prouder that of the nine years the award has been given out, this is our seventh time being a finalist.

Blogging isn't easy to sustain.  It takes commitment to persevere through the start-up phase, when no one much sees what you're writing and you may go months between comments.  And it's a challenge in what is an annual endeavor (making wine) to continue to find new things to talk about.  I'm proud that we've been able to keep it fresh, and feel like what we've done the last year has been particularly good.

This year, the folks running the awards combined two categories (Best Winery Blog and Best Industry Blog) into one, making it that much harder to make into the five finalists.  The others in our category are all deserving, including a two-time winner and another three-time winner.  I hope that you will take some time to explore the many great blogs that made it to this stage in the process.  If, after doing so, you'd care to vote for us, we'd be honored.  The winner will be determined half by the voting of the judges, and half by the votes of the public.  Voting ends June 26th.

If you're new to what we do, or have been only an occasional visitor over the last year, here are eight of my favorites of the 67 entries we've posted in the last year, with a little about why each has stuck with me:

  • Customer Disservice: Nine Lessons from a Terrible Hertz Experience: Sometimes, it's a choice between laughing at something frustrating and hitting someone.  I chose to laugh, but it was a near thing. Hopefully, even if it won't be Hertz, someone will learn a useful lesson or two!
  • Dry-Farming in California's Drought: Everyone I see, anywhere around the country, asks me first how we're faring four years into our drought.  Most are surprised to learn that a critical reason why we think we're OK is that we've been increasingly investing in dry farming over recent years. In this three-part series, I try to explain why.
  • Is Facebook Even Worth It Any More?: It's hard to get a social media scoop. But the comments I got from people around the industry after I published this blog in February suggested that many wineries were aware that their posts were reaching fewer fans, but unaware to what extent, or that Facebook has been very clear that this is part of their long-term strategy.
  • State of the Union, Wine Shipping Edition: In honor of the real State of the Union, I broke down the 51 markets we ship to by tier, from relatively straightforward to incredibly convoluted and expensive. I always try to make sure posts are topical and timely, but only succeed to this extent a few times a year.  If you think that wine is a free market product, read on.
  • Worried about preserving an opened bottle? Just stay cool.: I find I often have the most fun with blog posts that answer the questions I get from consumers.  This one gave me the chance to dust off some chemistry in pursuit of an answer that may be surprising to many people.  It also spurred me to collect all these sorts of posts in a Practical Wine Advice archive.
  • The Enduring Effects of Sideways, 10 Years Later: We weren't in Sideways. Nor was Paso Robles, to any significant extent. But this quirky movie's impacts on us and the communities we're a part of have been significant and long-lasting nonetheless.  It's hard to believe it's been ten years!
  • Are direct-to-consumer sales really failing to lift the wine industry? I saw the headline "Direct to Consumer Sales Fails to Lift the Wine Industry" in a major industry journal, and took exception.  Lots of great comments to this one!
  • Finding Closure(s) in Portugal: I always love the articles that Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi writes, which are all funny, thoughtful, and beautifully documented. She reports back here on a trip she took last summer to the cork forests of Portugal.

Thank you all for following along on this journey with me and with us: 598 posts and counting since we began the blog in November of 2005. It's wonderful to hear, as we get ready for our tenth anniversary, that the experts who filtered down the hundreds of nominated entries to the five finalists in our category think we're still going strong.

Shatter explained: A perfect flower, but not a perfect bloom

By Levi Glenn

Every year there is a one- to two-week period when the vineyard smells wonderful. That's when you know bloom has arrived. It's not the unbelievably effusive smell of an orange grove in full blossom. Or the sweetly intoxicating blue bush lupine, a beautiful native wildflower we see each spring. The scent of a vineyard in full bloom is a bit more understated, elusive even. It's got a sweet floral note underscored by a deeper earthy character. The smell is fleeting, as is bloom. At least in most years.

Mourvedre in full bloom
A Mourvedre cluster in full bloom

Simply put, bloom is the window of time in which each individual flower pollinates itself. Grapevines have what is referred to as a perfect flower. Many crops require both male and female plants to produce fruit. A male flower's pollen is moved by wind (and often aided by honeybees) to help find its way to a female flower. Perfect flowers -- including grapes -- can self-pollinate. That is, unless something goes wrong. 

In our area, weather during bloom is typically optimal for even fruit set: warm, dry, not too much wind. 2015 has been a bit different. After a historically warm first four months and a correspondingly early emergence from dormancy, May was unseasonably cool. We had quite a bit of wind, and the fog produced by the onshore flow seemed relentless. There were even a couple light rain events. Wind can blow the pollen away, and rain or fog can make the flower cap stick. Both result in an unfertilized flower. With optimal conditions, bloom can be as fast as a week. This year, we have seen some blocks take close to a month to complete flowering. When a flower doesn't turn into a berry for whatever reason, we call that shatter (or coulure in french). When this is widespread over a vineyard, crop loss can be severe. The two examples below are the two ends of the spectrum.

 Full Grenache Cluster
A fully-fertilized Grenache cluster

Shattered Grenache ClusterA Grenache cluster with lots of shatter

Aborted BerriesUnfertilized Grenache berries

In addition to the Grenache -- which is known as a shatter-prone variety -- we have seen some shatter in Syrah.  But it's not even across the entire vineyard.  Grenache from warmer blocks that flowered first, during warm weather in late April, set quite well. Grenache from cooler, lower-lying parts of the vineyard that didn't get around to flowering until May show more shatter.  The Mourvedre and Roussanne that are finishing in our warm weather now don't show any signs of shatter. 

The conditions during bloom can dictate crop levels not only for this year, but also for next year. The 2016 inflorescence (cluster) is being formed right now whithin the bud located inside this years shoot. Growing conditions this year can affect how many clusters (typically one to three) will be inside next year's buds, and what size they will be. As an example, weather during the 2014 bloom period was ideal, so we saw some shoots with three clusters on them this year.

Mild-to-moderate shatter in a variety like Grenache isn't always a bad thing. This variety tends to produce large, often dense clusters. The berries that are on the interior of the cluster aren't exposed to sunlight and can therefore stay pale in color, producing correspondingly lighter wines. With some shatter, the more open clusters receive more even light exposure, creating darker and more concentrated wines.  Looser clusters also reduce clusters' susceptibility to mildew, to which Grenache can be prone.

And, of course, bloom is just the beginning.  Crop level and quality are affected by the full season's weather conditions, and we adjust what we do in the vineyard depending on what we see.  Blocks with shatter, or fewer buds per shoot, will need less, or even no, thinning to produce top quality fruit.  The more productive blocks give us more options, but are also more work.

Overall, our unusually cool May appears to have reduced the amount of crop in some varieties, but crop levels on average don't look that different from 2013 or 2014. Given that our last two years produced perhaps the highest-quality back-to-back vintages in our history, knowing that crop levels this year are comparable is a good early indicator of quality.  Stay tuned.

Introducing the wines for the 2015 Collector's Edition shipment

Each June, I have the pleasure of tasting through library vintages of our Esprit de Beaucastel and Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc to choose the wines for the upcoming VINsider Wine Club Collector's Edition shipment.  [for the origin story of the Collector's Edition, from 2009, click here.]  This club gives us a chance show off the ageability of our flagship wines, and it's been a great success, generating a waiting list each year since we started it.

This year, Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi and I tasted the 2007 and 2008 reds, and the 2009 and 2010 whites.  I wrote a couple of weeks ago about why we didn't choose the 2007 Esprit, and because the 2008 was showing so well, it made the choice easy.  As for the whites, the choice was made for different reasons, but equally clear-cut.  I have always loved the 2010 Esprit de Beaucastel.  I bought two cases of it myself when it was released, thinking I'd drink one and let the other one develop.  I ended up having to buy a third case because I couldn't keep my hands out of the one that I was supposed to be laying down.  But in tasting it again this year, we felt like it was nearly unchanged: still high-toned and juicy, fresh and clean.  Delicious, but not showing enough signs of evolution to be really interesting as a library offering.  The 2009, on the other hand, was fascinating.

One quick note, before the tasting notes.  If you find the idea of an aged white wine surprising, consider that Roussanne acts in many ways -- in the vineyard, cellar, and bottle -- like a red wine.  It has big structure that takes time to come into balance, it is resistant to oxidation, and the secondary flavors that it gets with time in bottle, including hazelnut and caramel, fit well with Roussanne's more youthful flavors of pear, honey and mineral. The wines:

CE Wines 2015

My tasting notes:

  • 2009 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc:  Rich and broad on the nose, with flavors of marzipan, creme caramel and hazelnuts, lifted by a little tarragon.  Chelsea commented that it "tastes like a gala event". The mouth is more youthful, with a rich texture, flavors of yellow pear and grilled peach, good acids, and a little tannin, like toasted walnuts, on a long finish lifted by a minty, citrus zest note.  The wine got more and more interesting as it sat in the glass, so a decant wouldn't be a bad idea.  And definitely serve it at cellar temperature, not too cold.
  • 2008 Esprit de Beaucastel: An immensely appealing nose of red fruit, pine forest, sea spray, boysenberry and mint.  The mouth is bright with crunchy red fruit (Chelsea nailed cranberry) and deeper flavors of semi-sweet chocolate and baking spices.  The finish is darker, with macerated cherries and a spicy, brambly note.  The 2008 is a graceful and elegant wine that is at the beginning of what should be a long peak lasting another decade or more.

A few bits of housekeeping: we will be adding to the Collector's Edition membership, subject to available space, in the next week.  Members of the waiting list should look for an email with news, one way or the other, of whether they've made it on.  We add members, once a year, in the order in which we received applications to the waiting list.  If you are currently a VINsider member you can upgrade to the Collector's Edition online.  If you are not currently a member, you can indicate that you would like to join the Collector's Edition when you join the VINsider wine club.

Customer Disservice: Nine Lessons from a Terrible Hertz Experience

No one, as far as I can tell, likes the customer experience much when they rent cars. Between the waiting around at the end of a travel day when you're already tired and the relentless upselling, I have to figure that renting a car must be among the most consistently unpleasant sales transaction categories. So with such a low bar to clear, it should be hard to stand out for doing poorly. And yet, last week the Hertz at Chicago O'Hare Airport managed to botch my experience so completely that doing the opposite of what I found could serve as a lesson for anyone in the business of customer service, winery or not.

I was in town for the successful Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance Grand Tour visit, but I visit Chicago at least once a year anyway. I typically book my rental cars through Hotwire, since the rates are enough less than what you get by going direct to a rental car company's site, and I don't particularly care which rental company I patronize. I was pleased when I got Hertz -- it's a rarity, in my experience, to get a category leader, rather than one of the budget rental agencies. When I left, nearly an hour later, I was determined never to do business with them again. How not to go similarly wrong, in nine simple steps:

  • HertzStaff adequately. First sign I was in for trouble: when I arrived, the rental agency had only one person behind the counter. Even worse, he was tied up with an obviously-bewildered customer who spoke only broken English, to whom he was loudly trying to sell a higher class of car than had originally been reserved. Between the language barrier and the obvious confusion of the customer as to what he was getting, it was fully 15 minutes before he even acknowledged the rest of us in line. That the acknowledgement he gave was a mumbled "be right back" after he walked away from the counter, leaving it unmanned for another 10 minutes, rubbed salt into the wound. It should be obvious that you don't want to make your customers wait to transact with you, and no business that didn't have a captive audience at the end of a one-way shuttle ride would be so blatant about it. That said, I still see many wineries lose sales because people don't want to wait while other customers check out, and tasting rooms staffed with their average traffic in mind, rather than their peak traffic. Yes, staffing for your peak times will mean you're overstaffed much of the time, but consider the alternative: when the greatest number of your customers are around, you're taking the worst care of them.
  • Use smart technology. With our lone customer service rep off the floor, a few of us decided that we might have better luck using the bank of automated check-in kiosks next to the counter. Two of the four were out of service. The other two presented a blank screen, an old-fashioned phone handset, and a message instructing us to pick up the phone to complete our check-in. I've used automated rental-car check-in machines at other companies, and it is possible to have customers swipe their drivers' licenses and credit cards, select their desired insurance coverage, sign on-screen, and be sent on their way with their contract (keys in the car). But no: these screens required that we be connected via video-link with a customer-service representative before we could proceed. Think about this from the perspective of your business. What does the technology you choose say about you? Does it help your customers get what they want from you, or stand in their way? Are you keeping up with your competitors? Are you sure? (The only way that this makes any sense to me is that full automation was seen by Hertz as a missed upselling opportunity. But wow, what an aggravation.)
  • Set expectations and then exceed them. When I picked up the receiver at my kiosk, an electronic message came up on the screen indicating a projected wait of 2 minutes. OK, reasonable enough. At the end of the countdown, a new message appeared, that it was taking longer than expected and suggested another 2-minute wait. This message returned four times, producing what felt, at that point, like the longest 10 minutes of my life. I had just decided to head back to the airport and find another company when my customer service rep appeared on screen. Proper expectation-setting can do wonders for you. Disney parks are great examples of this: their wait times are always posted clearly, and you always wait a little less long than they predict. And just knowing reasonably well what to expect does wonders for your satisfaction (it is because unpredictable waits greatly raise stress levels that highway signs post expected commute times). In your business, are you setting reasonable expectations? And are you then overdelivering? You should be.
  • Empower your customer service people. My video-linked customer service rep, when she came on, was nice enough. But after walking me through my reservation and having me (finally) swipe my license and credit card, she asked me, a little diffidently, if a Ford Focus was all right with me. I had pre-paid for a standard car, and I asked her if that was a standard car at Hertz. She said it wasn't, but that she didn't have any standard cars. I suggested to her that it was customary to put a customer in a larger car when the reserved size wasn't available.  She replied that she didn't have the authority to give a courtesy upgrade. I resisted the temptation to ask her if she had the authority for the courtesy downgrade. Think about this from the perspective of your business. Your managers are probably not the people you have as your primary points of contact with your customers. Do the people you have in those positions have the authority to make your customers happy? If not, why not? Are your managers always available (hers, she reported, didn't pick up on any of the three phone numbers she had)? At best, it's inefficient. More likely, customers are leaving unhappy and you are demoralizing your staff.
  • Make sure your systems are up to date. Eventually, it became clear that the problem was compounded by the fact that my rep didn't know what cars were on the lot and what weren't. She asked me if there was anyone free at the office who could get on the phone with her to let her know about recent returns (there wasn't or else I wouldn't have called her). She told me that she sees the inventory for only 2 of their 5 lots, and not for recent returns. How about in your business? Are your systems real-time? Do you know where all your inventory is? Does the person who picks up your phone, and the one at your front desk?
  • Make (all) your customers feel welcome. The three lots that my rep couldn't see, she said, were the lots where the Hertz #1 Club Gold members' cars were parked. We had been bused past these cars, where members' names were on a big board, directing them to a specific pre-reserved space. Now I understand loyalty programs. You want to make sure that your best customers feel appreciated. But I have to think that there's a way to show that appreciation without making the non-members feel quite so much like you couldn't care less about them. In the winery world, the equivalent would be focusing on your wine club members to the exclusion of the other customers. As most customers don't start out as members, this has always struck me as short-sighted. Sure, I was jealous of the #1 Club Gold customers, but did I want to become one? No. I wanted to leave and give my business to a competitor. And particularly in this age of user-reviews and social media, remember that a dissatisfied customer tells many times more people than a satisfied one. A look at the scathing reviews of the location on Yelp indicates why, perhaps, they had cars left over to rent on Hotwire. The take-home: do everything you can to avoid creating dissatisfied customers.
  • Own up when something goes wrong. This goes back to the pre-paid reservation for the standard car. Do I have anything against a Ford Focus? No. I've rented one many times. Do I have an issue with the company taking a reservation that they couldn't fill? Somewhat. (Cue the classic Seinfeld scene below.) But what really bothered me was the total lack of recognition that this was their responsibility. My video agent excused their lack of the car class I'd reserved because "sometimes people don't return their cars when they say they're going to". Um... OK. I know that happens sometimes. But when it does, you have both the obligation and the opportunity to make a reasonable accommodation for the customer. Instead, she asked me, as if looking for sympathy for her plight, if I had experience in customer service.

  • Don't chisel. The hard-sell for upgrades and overpriced insurance is pretty much standard practice in the rental car world. Still, the experience is never a pleasant one. And it was performed with such grim determination that I have to believe that she was being graded on the percentage of customers to whom she could sell extras. After asking whether I wanted "full coverage or just coverage on the vehicle" (in itself a pushy sales trick, which I declined), typically a rental agent will let it go. Instead, I was asked if I was sure, and when I said yes, I was read a statement from Hertz's attorneys as to my liability. Does that last grasping attempt at the upsell succeed often enough to offset the unpleasant memory for the unwilling customer? It seems short-sighted to me even in for a car rental. If a customer in a more discretionary transaction (think: encouraging someone to sign up for a wine club) were pushed the same way, I have to believe it would backfire. How you incentivize your staff does have an impact on the customer experience.
  • Be careful who you partner with. I didn't choose to do business with Hertz. I chose to do business with Hotwire. It's a service I use fairly often, and while I understand I'm giving up some control, I have usually been happy with the results. Will I use Hotwire again when I go back to O'Hare? I doubt it. Similarly, be careful putting your reputation in the hands of a partner over whom you have no control. If you're a winery, and a hotel offers to give you a special rate that you can share with your customers, you should know that the hotel is going to offer a good experience before you promote it. If you're going to agree to do a wine dinner, you should be confident in the quality and the experience of the restaurant with whom you're partnering. If you outsource your shipping, no one cares that it wasn't you who made a mistake when the bottle broke before delivery. It all reflects on you.

None of this is rocket science. It's common sense to listen to your customers, to do what you can to move them efficiently through their transactions, to try to give them what they are expecting or more, and to have them leave happy with their experiences.  But if a company worth nearly $10 billion can fail so spectacularly, it's evidently not universal.

Here's a hint: if, upon leaving you, the first thing a customer wants to do is to write a 2000-word blog post about their terrible experience, you might want to reevaluate your practices.

What We're Doing Now: Shoot Thinning

This time of year in the vineyard is a combination of catch-up and get-ahead.  Catch-up because we're still getting the last of the cover crops tilled into the soil, and there are stray blocks, where the work hasn't been completed, whose wildflowers and tall grasses look like remnants of April.  Get-ahead because the work that we do now in limiting the number of shoots a vine has to grow can make a significant difference in both the quality of the fruit that comes off that vine, and in the amount of work we have to do later.

I caught up with Vineyard Manager David Maduena this week to talk about this shoot-thinning work, in a block of Mourvedre whose limited growth (the shoots are only out about eight inches) is a reflection of the cold part of the vineyard in which it lies. You can see the thinned shoots on the ground.

David shoot thinning

All our blocks get their shoots thinned.  We remove lateral shoots (those that are growing out horizontally rather than up vertically) so that air and sunlight can penetrate to where the fruit will hang.  Some blocks, like the Mourvedre block above, also get their numbers of shoots limited if they are showing signs of either weakness or lateness.  Having fewer shoots (and therefore less fruit) means that the vine can ripen the remaining clusters more easily, and with less stress on the vine.  Together, these improve the grapes' concentration and make it more likely that the vine will carry vigor over into the next year. [If you'd like a more thorough and technical explanation of shoot thinning, check out the blog from 2011 where Levi explains the shoot-thinning process.]

Doing this work now, rather than later in the summer, allows the vines to focus their energy on the canes and clusters that will be carried into harvest, rather than wasting resources on growth that will be sacrificed later.  It's also less work, in the same way that weeding a garden when the weeds are small is less work than waiting a few weeks later, at which point they've established themselves.  For contrast, check out the photo below, from July 2011, not long after we hired Levi Glenn as our Viticulturist.  That year was particularly challenging due to the spring frosts, which delay and confuse the vines, and push work that we'd like to be doing now later in the year:

Levi shoot thinning in 2011

Improvements like these in our vineyard practices that Levi, David and Neil have made over recent years are a large part of the reason why I think the fruit that we're getting -- and not coincidentally, the wines that we're making -- has never been better.  2015 looks like it's off to a great start.