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Through the Wine Glass: Boozy Holiday Family Reunions

By Linnea Frazier

“Do you sell any Chardonnay at this winery of yours, honeycakes?” 

I resisted the urge to roll my eyes at my Great Aunt Beverley’s shout-level query over the din of our Thanksgiving table, plus I must admit I’ve never been one to be fond of the endearment “honeycakes.”

“No Auntie Bev, remember I told you earlier that a Chardonnay is from the Burgundy region of France? At Tablas Creek we offer Rhone varietals, from the South of France. I brought one of our Viogniers, which will be as similar as I can get you to a Chardonnay, but with the turkey how about I pour a Roussanne for you? I promise you it will hold up better with the bird.”

I began reaching for the Roussanne, hoping she wouldn’t halt my passive attempts at expanding her everpresent Chardonnay fixation.

“But you know I like my Chardonnays honeycakes, they just go down smoother than other wines. Probably all that butter you put in em!”

I faltered, “You mean butter-y, right Auntie Bev?”

“No no, the actual butter you add in the wine, that’s what people mean when they say it’s a smooth, buttery Chardonnay, right?”

As I felt myself blacking out, I felt a sharp kick under the table. My mom was glaring at me and shaking her head from over the table, knowing what was about to happen.

Turning to my dear, beloved Auntie Bev I leaned in conspiratorially, “Actually, at our winery we like to mix it up and with our “buttery” wines we actually use salted butter instead of unsalted. We feel that it gives it more depth. But it’s a trade secret so don’t be spreading it around, ya hear?”

Smiling smugly, she nodded, “Your secret is safe with me, honeycakes. And hell, pour me that Rouss-whatever you called it, I’ll give it a try.”

Chuckling, I poured for her and turned my attention back to the neglected gravy island that was my Thanksgiving plate, knowing that as much as I had somewhat won the battle, the war was far from over.

Holiday Post Pic 2

The last few months of the year can be a harrowing affair. With the holidays comes the inevitable Christmas music before Thanksgiving fiasco, the over-reliance on anything pumpkin spiced, the holiday office parties, the rise and fall of gingerbread house empires, and the boozing that happens to get people through it. When the leaves begin to turn we are all ready to let our ids run away with us. We give into the holiday fever for a few months, whether it takes the form of being okay with Granny’s heavy hand with the mulled wine, or as Christmas comes along the mass production and consumption of cookies that that one Aunt will always shell out. There’s a distinct joy in the overindulgence of the holidays, perhaps the influence of the warmth of winter fires with loved ones, and the ushering in of yet another year as the memory of the last one is tucked snugly under our belts. With that holiday-infused happiness, comes the family reunions.

As my favorite Auntie Bev has demonstrated for you, my family is a most delightfully raucous bunch. My American side of the family will come in from as far as snowy Minnesota to as close as San Diego and I admit that I don’t always recall everyone’s name at our 50+ family gatherings. Then throw in the Swedish side of my family that comes over for a “traditional American Thanksgiving” or an “80 degree California Christmas Eve” and it all descends into even greater anarchy. We have my six foot Nordic clan members towering over five foot nothing Auntie Bev, both parties attempting to outwit and outdrink each other (Auntie Bev normally wins if you were curious). So needless to say, the holidays keep us on our toes in the Frazier household.

Holiday Post Pic 1

Working in the wine industry, you see a whole other side of the holidays, which I’ll be honest with you, isn’t always stupendous. I have a fear of my liquored-up, wizened relatives pinching my cheeks just as much as the next gal, but my fear of the holidays is brought about by a different type of creature; the Guzzler. 

What pray tell is a Guzzler? A Guzzler is not my Auntie Bev, who just appreciates a good ole- fashioned buttery finish to her white, no, the Guzzler is something far beyond buttery Bev.

The Guzzler is a thing that indiscriminately destroys all bottles in its path, no matter the vintage, the year, the varietal, whose prized cellar it came from, how much thought went into selecting the bottle, not to mention the rarity and expense of the wine itself. The Guzzler can take any form. It could be your newly turned 21 year old college cousin who is eager to drink at the “adult table” but in reality couldn’t tell you if it was White Zinfandel Franzia or a 2009 Garrus Rosé in their glass. It could be your mopey uncle going through his now third divorce who’s sitting in the corner hoarding every bottle of Zin in the house. It could be your second cousins fiancee that you've been introduced to three separate times, that picks up any bottle in their vicinity, not even reading the label, and promptly upends half a 98-point Syrah in their glass to polish off within 15 minutes.

When I was younger, I didn’t understand wine beyond acknowledging the fact that I would wrinkle my nose at some less than others when my parents would encourage me to take a sip. So during the holidays of those nose wrinkling years, I would go strictly off of the expressions of my parents’ faces when identifying a guzzler. For example the whites of my Mom’s eyes as a drunk relative would tell her he was, “going down into our cellar to pick a ‘doozy’, or even just the smile crinkles around my dad's eyes as he would shake his head laughing when someone would sidle up and ask the inevitable question under their breath of, “you got any brandy around here to fortify this wine up a bit?”

And as for me? During the holidays I now find myself loitering by the wine table, inanely chatting with random relatives while at the same time desperately hoping that someone will come along and peruse for their next glass with a palatable purpose, and not the guzzling kind. In those people, I find my respite. I get to cease “chomping at the wine bit” as my brother jokingly says, and have a spirited conversation with someone. Maybe about the bottles they brought, or what they’re going to pair with my mom’s Christmas ham, any surprising finds amongst the open bottles they had a chance to try, and of course, to joke about the massive amounts of Port on the table.

Make no doubt, as much as I am prone to Guzzler-induced goosebumps, a part of me also adores them. Because there’s always that hope, that hope that they are going to pause a three-second chug and actually stop and take notice of the supple softness of the Grenache they’re drinking, or the warm spiciness of the Counoise in their glass, or the delightful surprise of an aged Nebbiolo. And if you can lead them to a wine that makes them take that pause it is all worth it. It is rare, but it happens. There is a distinct joy in watching people discover the wine that causes their paradigm shift. I can remember each specific wine with each specific family member that converted them to actually wanting to read the label of the wine they were drinking. These are the wines I track down and gift to them for their birthdays, anniversaries, or even simply make sure to bring to next year’s Thanksgiving or Christmas. So it is that hope that keeps me going during these holiday months.

Our families are the foundations from which we move forward in life. They are with us from the dawn to the dusk of our lives and we get to stumble through it all together, sometimes laughing at each other, and never failing to pick each other up and dust each other off. At the end of the day I wouldn’t change a thing about the borderline absurd nature of my family during the holidays. Because at the end of the day I’m pretty certain that I am just as absurd as they are, and I’m pretty content with that.

Shout out to the one and only Auntie Bev.

We celebrate the holidays with a vertical tasting of 16 vintages of Esprit Blanc

The holidays are a time of year when many of us reach back into our wine libraries to pick out a special vintage we've been saving for just the right moment.  We keep our vintage chart updated for exactly these sorts of inquiries.  But while there are some wines that we open fairly regularly, there are others that come across our tables more rarely.  And so we try periodically to choose a wine and taste through every vintage of that wine, in order to assess how each wine is tasting now, should someone inquire, but just as much to track the arc of development of each vintage and to step back and take a big picture look at how our thinking about that particular wine has evolved.

So, with that in mind, I decided to get our cellar team together and open all the Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc and Esprit de Tablas Blanc wines we've made, from the debut vintage in 2001 to the 2016 that we just bottled last week and won't release for another 10 months.  It made for quite a kickoff to the holidays:

Esprit Blanc vertical Dec 2017

Now many people don't think about aging their white wines.  But Roussanne has a remarkable ability to maintain its freshness while also developing interesting secondary flavors, and the Chateau de Beaucastel white wines are some of the world's most ageworthy whites.  The Esprit Blanc, modeled after the Beaucastel Blanc and predominantly Roussanne, is no different.  Joining me for this tasting were Winemaker Neil Collins, Senior Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi, Assistant Winemaker Craig Hamm, Cellar Master Brad Ely, Viticulturist Jordan Lonborg, and Assistant Tasting Room Manager Charlie Chester.  My notes on the wines are below.  If you want detailed technical information, professional reviews, or our tasting notes from when the wines were first released, I've linked each wine to its page on our Web site:

  • 2001 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (44% Roussanne, 22% Viognier, 18% Grenache Blanc, 16% Marsanne): As it has been the last several times I've opened this, just a revelation at age 16. On the nose, still so fresh: minty Bit-o-Honey, with richer flavors of pie crust but no apparent oxidation. On the palate, vibrant, with well integrated acidity, and flavors of honeydew melon deepening to marzipan on the finish. Craig commented, "for a 2001, this is just crazy". And Neil added "it's wines like this that are why, when people ask me how long a wine will age I have to answer that I have no idea. I never thought it would go this long."  Just lovely.
  • 2002 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (70% Roussanne, 25% Grenache Blanc, 5% Viognier): The nose shows more age (or perhaps its higher Roussanne content) than the 2001, with aromas of almond brittle, candied orange peel, and brioche.  On the palate, all our descriptors were sweet, though the wine is not: liquified cracker jacks, creme caramel, and vanilla custard. There is some noteworthy structure, almost a tannic feel, and chalky minerality that provides relief from the mouth-coating texture and rich flavors. The wine got fresher as it sat in the glass, and the finish of apple pie spices was my favorite part.  Still, the wine's density and power were its defining characteristics.
  • 2003 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (68% Roussanne, 27% Grenache Blanc, 5% Viognier): On the nose, butterscotch, clove-studded orange, fennel, and a little cedary spice that I thought came from some well-integrated oak. The mouth is livelier than the nose suggested: toasted marshmallow, white tea, and salty minerality.  Quite chalky, with a little pithy bite on the finish.  A first bottle that we opened was more linear, with a matchsticky sharpness that seemed less appealing.  A good reminder that even non-cork-tainted bottles can expect a fair degree of variation at age 14.
  • 2004 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (65% Roussanne, 30% Grenache Blanc, 5% Picpoul Blanc): The first year that we included Picpoul in the blend (see my note at the end) and Neil immediately commented that "it smells like what we now do".  There was a cool lychee minty savoriness on the nose, over beeswax and white flowers.  On the palate, preserved lemon (from the Picpoul?), clementine orange, and a steely minerality that led to a precise finish of sea spray and spice.  This made us all want food, and the table was debating between dover sole, halibut piccata, and soft-shell crab when I moved us along to the 2005.
  • 2005 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (70% Roussanne, 25% Grenache Blanc, 5% Picpoul Blanc): Powerfully Roussanne on the nose with burnt honey, green tea, mint julep, and some cedary oak. The mouth was quite ripe, with flavors of apricot tart set off by some pithy Grenache Blanc tannins and surprisingly bright acids that felt a touch out of keeping with the rest of the wine's personality.  Tons of power, but maybe not 100% resolved into what it will be at maturity. 
  • 2006 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (65% Roussanne, 30% Grenache Blanc, 5% Picpoul Blanc): A pretty, striking, youthful nose that reminded me of Chablis and Chelsea of Riesling: wet rocks, fresh pear, spruce forest and fresh herbs that Chelsea insisted were lemon thyme. The mouth was more youthful and more open than any of the vintages 2002-2005, with flavors of grilled pineapple, spun sugar, vanilla bean, and a lovely salty minerality that came out on the finish. Gorgeous and integrated.  Pretty clearly our favorite of the older vintages.
  • 2007 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (68% Roussanne, 22% Grenache Blanc, 10% Picpoul Blanc): The nose's tangy pungency reminded us of '02 or '05, with a little more age evident than the 2006: candied orange peel, cedar, a little mentholy lift, and a dense fruit, not altogether sweet, that Chelsea nailed as pineapple core.  On the palate, very rich and round, but with nicely integrated acidity to pull it through and a salty beurre blanc character that came out on the finish.  I thought the wine was begging for lobster: something unapologetically rich.
  • 2008 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (65% Roussanne, 30% Grenache Banc, 5% Picpoul Blanc): A different wine on the nose than any we'd seen before, so fruity that a couple of people commented that they'd have called it Viognier in a blind tasting: peaches in syrup, with complicating flavors of tarragon, lemongrass, and Bartlett pear.  The mouth is similar, though less exuberant, with flavors of apricot and key lime, medium body, and nice balance, with a briny salinity coming out on the finish.
  • 2009 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (62% Roussanne, 26% Grenache Blanc, 12% Picpoul Blanc): A dense nose on which cedary spice was the most dominant element, not particularly friendly, but impressive. On the palate, some surprisingly red fruit descriptors: red apple skin and strawberry, with spicy lacquer and maple sap elements, and a smoky acidity that reminded me of grilled lemon.  More power than subtlety, at least right now.  The last of a sequence of wines that had a similar character that went from '02 to '05 to '07 to '09, all our most powerful vintages of the 2000's. 
  • 2010 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (60% Roussanne, 35% Grenache Blanc, 5% Picpoul Blanc): A nose that manages to be bright and luscious at the same time: maple candy, sea spray, juniper, lychee, and honeysuckle.  The palate is soft and creamy, gentle compared to the 2009, like orange blossom honey with clementine notes.  Pretty and less evident structure than most of the earlier vintages, but with all of the pieces in balance.  Butterscotch comes out on the long finish.  I thought it a crowd pleaser; Neil thought it a little low-acid for his taste.
  • 2011 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (64% Roussanne, 26% Grenache Blanc, 10% Picpoul Blanc): A nose like the beach, with cocoa butter and sea spray. Brad compared it to Condrieu for its leanness yet its promise of power. On the palate, more savory than any other wine in the tasting, showing the effects of our coolest-ever vintage, with flavors of grilled lemon and flint and beeswax, yet with tons of texture and a finish of mineral and pear skin.  Not an easy wine, but one we all kept coming back to.
  • 2012 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (75% Roussanne, 20% Grenache Blanc, 5% Picpoul Blanc): A nose like honeycomb, with additional aromas of baked apples, graham cracker, and a little sweet spearmint. The mouth is lush and creamy, youthful, with flavors of honeycrisp apple and just enough saline to keep it savory.  Gorgeous, balanced, and pure.  Chelsea commented that "if you don't want Champagne, this is your New Year's Eve wine."
  • 2013 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (71% Roussanne, 21% Grenache Blanc, 8% Picpoul Blanc): A sweet resiny character on the powerful nose that broadens into lychee, crystallized pineapple and vanilla bean, with savory notes of dried sage and alpine forest.  The mouth is rich but savory, with flavors of salted caramel and preserved lemon, a cool, minty lift, and a finish that features sea salt, sweet herbs, and crystallized ginger. Gorgeous now, and a wine that we all thought would be fascinating to watch evolve.  On the balance, and amidst strong competition, our favorite of the younger wines.
  • 2014 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (72% Roussanne, 23% Grenache Blanc, 5% Picpoul Blanc): An explosively appealing nose with aromas of yellow peach, candied oranges, citrus blossom honey, vanilla custard, and pie spices. The mouth is structured but with an underlying note of sweet fruit, like orange creamsicle with a spearmint kick. The most floral of all the wines we tasted, with a beautiful jasmine note coming out on the long finish.  A close second to the 2013 among the young wines.
  • 2015 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (55% Roussanne, 28% Grenache Blanc, 17% Picpoul Blanc): Neil's first comment was that he was "running out of honey descriptors". And yes, even in its youth, the 2015 showed a smoky honey character, as well as kiwi and passion fruit and newly split firewood.  The mouth was less dramatic than the nose, pretty and savory and textural, some caramel and apple notes, and a drier finish of apple skin, beeswax, and briny minerality.  Still deepening, and as pretty as it is right now, we all thought it would be better yet with another six months in bottle.
  • 2016 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (75% Roussanne, 18% Grenache Blanc, 7% Picpoul Blanc): Just bottled last week, so our expectations were modest, but the wine already showed nicely, with a classically Roussanne nose of baklava, vanilla custard, Haribo peaches and sweet oak.  Clean and tangy on the palate, with a little salted pineapple and a yeasty character that reminded me of rising bread.  Still a baby, but should be lovely when it gets to its release in a little less than a year.

A few concluding thoughts:

  • The overall quality of the wines was exceptionally high.  I asked everyone around the table to pick three favorites, and the wines that got multiple votes were 2001 (2), 2006 (5), 2010 (2), 2012 (3), 2013 (4), and 2014 (2).  But there wasn't a single wine here that we thought people would be disappointed by if they opened it right now.  And I don't think, even with all of Roussanne's famous idiosyncrasy, that a single one of the vintages was is in a "closed" phase.  Yes, the wines change and evolve, and it's possible that you will prefer the wines old to young, or vice versa.  But they were all, we thought, showing well.
  • We are often asked, if we love Roussanne so much, why our flagship white wine isn't a 100% Roussanne.  The wines that we liked showed why, I think.  The vintages that were the most densely characteristic of Roussanne (2002, 2005, 2007, 2009) didn't receive many votes, as we found them a little one-dimensional, for all their power.  The lift that came from the Grenache Blanc and Picpoul were welcome counterpoints to the Roussanne power and density.
  • I still remember vividly the tasting in our lab in 2004 where we made the decision to switch from getting a little floral lift with Viognier to getting the same lift -- plus a lemony saline focus -- from Picpoul.  Tasting the blend, identical except for the 5% substitution of Picpoul for Viognier, was like cleaning your glasses when they are badly smudged.  You didn't realize how much more in focus the world could be, until it was.  And that lemony, briny thread that all the subsequent wines have is, I think, thanks to the addition of between 5% and 17% Picpoul.  Its contribution has been remarkable.
  • I very much like the direction the wines have moved in since 2010. Driven in part by what we learned in the cool vintages of 2010 and 2011, we have been picking our whites less ripe in recent years, and yet they show ample density and luscious textures.  But they are less structure-bound, and also show more high notes, with a fresher fruit profile.  More is not always better.
  • Anyone opening one of these wines with a meal over the holidays is in for a treat.  Happy drinking, everyone.

Petit Manseng: A Royal French Heritage and a New Life in the New World

Mostly, we grow grapes from the Rhone Valley.  But there are exceptions.  Vermentino, although found in areas near the Rhone (think Cotes de Provence, or Languedoc-Roussillon) isn't allowed in Cotes du Rhone or Chateauneuf du Pape, but has done great here at Tablas Creek.  So too has Tannat, whose home in the French province of Pyrénées-Atlantiques can't even claim a border with the Rhone.  In fact, it was Tannat's success here that sparked my dad's interest, nearly two decades ago, in the other grapes from southwest France.  One of the most interesting of these was Petit Manseng, a grape which was, in its day, so admired that it made the only wine used to baptize a king of France.

Petit Manseng LithographPetit Manseng in the Old World
Petit Manseng's ancestral home is in Jurancon, in the French department of Pyrénées-Atlantiques.  This a mountainous region includes a small stretch of the rocky Atlantic coast and a larger stretch of the Spanish border, and most of it is high in the Pyrenees mountains.  Culturally, it is a part of the Gascon community of Bearn, and borders the Basque-speaking region of Pays Basque that shares many cultural and historical ties to the Basque communities on the Spanish side of the border. Madiran, the main French home for Tannat, is just to the north-east.

There are three permitted grapes in Jurancon (Corbu and Gros Manseng are the others) but it is generally agreed that Petit Manseng is the finest of the three, and the most suitable for making the sweet wines that made the region famous.  This character was so valued that Petit Manseng is noted as the only wine used to baptize a king of France: Henry IV, the founder of the Bourbon dynasty, in his native Navarre.

After several decades of disfavor, the sweet wines of Jurancon have returned to fashion since about 1970, and the acreage of Petit Manseng has increased correspondingly, from less than 90 hectares in 1968 (90 hectares was the combined plantings of Petit Manseng and Gros Manseng) to 1019 hectares in 2009.1

SudOuest_FranceA map of the vineyards of South-West France, from Les Vins de Sud-Ouest's press kit

In addition to its ancestral home in Jurancon and the neighboring Pacherenc, Petit Manseng can be found in small amounts in Languedoc, Uruguay (brought by Basque settlers), Spain, and Australia.  That said, its second-largest footprint worldwide is in Virginia, where its resistance to rot and tendency to achieve high sugars and retain acidity is valuable in the hot, often humid climate.

Petit Manseng at Tablas Creek
In the early years of Tablas Creek, we were looking for a method to make dessert wines. The success we'd had with Tannat, another French Basque grape, piqued my dad's curiosity, and he made a visit to the Jurancon in 2003 to speak with producers and see if one of the grapes they use for their renowned sweet wines might be a good fit.  He was struck by both the wines and the landscape, and arranged for Petit Manseng to be brought into USDA quarantine later that year.  We received the vines in 2006, spent the next year propagating cuttings, and planted our first small vineyard block in 2007.

Jurancon vineyardOne of the Jurancon vineyards my parents visited in 2003

We were sufficiently intrigued by Petit Manseng's success in the early years that we planted another small block in 2011, although together they make up just 0.78 acres. Even in a productive vintage this light-yielding variety struggles to get to three tons per acre; the 2.18 tons we harvested in 2017 was our most-ever.

Petit Manseng in the Vineyard and Cellar
Petit Manseng is so named for its small berries (Gros Manseng has larger berries).  In the vineyard, it shows moderate to low vigor, with upright growth, and produces small clusters of small, loose, thick-skinned berries. Its superpowers are its capacity to achieve high natural sugar content without the benefit of botrytis while still retaining remarkable acidity, and its resistance to rot. Although the second ability isn't particularly useful here, in France -- where Petit Manseng is often left on the vine until December to achieve its high sugars -- and in Virginia -- where thunderstorms are a regular summer occurrence -- it's invaluable.  In Paso Robles, where fall moisture and rot are rare and heat and sun are givens, its ability to maintain almost inconceivably high acidity even after months of hot, sunny days is more relevant.  As an example, our first tiny harvest of Petit Manseng came in 2009.  We had forgotten about the small block and when we rediscovered it in early November and measured the grapes -- three weeks after a 10-inch rainstorm rolled through -- they tipped the scale at an incredible 37° Brix (roughly 50% higher than our average sugar concentration at harvest) and a normal harvest pH of 3.3.   We only had a few buckets worth of grapes, and didn't make that juice into wine that year.

The harvest numbers in 2009 would be ideal for making a sweet wine, but by the time we got our Petit Manseng into production, we had mastered the vin de paille technique for dessert wines, and instead decided to experiment with using Petit Manseng to make off-dry (semi-sweet) wines, which it's also used for in the Jurancon.  To that end, in more recent years, we have picked our Petit Manseng at higher sugars than we would for a normal white (in the 26°-28° Brix range) while the wine still had very high acids (pH of around 3.0). We ferment it until it has about 50 grams/liter of sugar left, typically with an alcohol around 13.5%.  Although that sounds like a lot of sugar, the very high acidity makes it taste much drier than the sugar reading would suggest, and the wines taste balanced.  If you're interested in the ebbs and flows of how our thinking on this grape have evolved, check out the blog post Wrapping our heads around Petit Manseng, from last year.

2016 Petit MansengAromas and Flavors
The flavors of Petit Manseng wines are rich but tangy, perfumed and tropical.  It's possible to identify key lime, pineapple, mango, lychee and honey, as well as white flowers and green herbs.  Due to its residual sugar and high acidity, Petit Manseng wines have tremendous ability to age.  For food pairings, the literature nearly always suggests foie gras, which makes sense to me.  Foie gras is hard on dry wines due to its richness, but unless the chef makes some very sweet accompaniment the sweet wines it's typically paired with can be overpowering.  A semi-sweet wine with excellent freshness like Petit Manseng is a natural fit. We've also very much enjoyed it with salty cheeses and fruit desserts.

We are just releasing the 2016 Petit Manseng, if you'd like to try it for yourself.  We only made 125 cases, not enough to send out to our club members, so you'll need to order it or ask the next time you're in our tasting room.  If you do open a bottle (or have of a recent vintage), please share what you think.


  1. Jancis Robinson, Wine Grapes, HarperCollins 2012

San Luis Obispo County: the Little County that Could

This week, the San Luis Obispo Tribune posted a nice article pointing out the terrific representation of San Luis Obispo County in the two most influential year-end "Top 100" lists published by the Wine Spectator and by the Wine Enthusiast.  The Wine Spectator included seven local wines in their Top 100, while the Wine Enthusiast added three more in their Top 100.  Let's stop and think about this for a moment.  That's 10 of the 200 wines represented in the two lists from our little county, or 5%.  And even better that most of the wines listed were toward the tops of the lists. Already pretty satisfying, right? It's actually even better than that.

Tablas Creek Long View 2014

How much wine does San Luis Obispo County make, compared to the rest of the state, country, and world?  In 2016, San Luis Obispo County ranked seventh in the state of California by bearing acreage according to the USDA:

  • San Joaquin: 68,210
  • Sonoma: 58,007
  • Monterey: 44,095
  • Napa: 43,589
  • Fresno: 37,831
  • Madera: 32,763
  • San Luis Obispo: 31,480

Overall, our county represents 6.8% of the 459,629 bearing acres in the state of California.  So, 5% doesn't seem like that great a representation.1  But of course, not all the wines in the two "Top 100" lists are from California. In fact, just 39 of the 200 wines in the two lists (17 in Wine Enthusiast and 22 in Wine Spectator) are from California.  So, that's 25.6% of the state's "Top 100" representatives that come from SLO County.  Not bad.

Perhaps you'd prefer to look at what percentage of American wine our little county represents?  Opening up the list to wines from Washington, Oregon, and New York adds an additional 22 wines.  That reduces SLO County's percentage from 25.6% to 16.4%, still well above the 3.45% of the country's total production that San Luis Obispo County represents.2

Or perhaps you're prefer to look internationally.  In 2015, the United States produced 10.48% of the world's wine.  So, San Luis Obispo County produced 0.36% of the world's wine: just one out of every 277 bottles made.  That means that in the two "Top 100" lists, the 5% that SLO County represents is overperforming by something like 14 times, measured as our percentage of world production. 

However you choose to measure it, we punched way above our weight class in 2017.

You go, San Luis Obispo County.

1. It's actually a little better than it sounds, since although SLO County represents 6.8% of California's acres, it represents something less than that of its production. That's because coastal regions like ours generally produce many fewer tons per acre than counties in the Central Valley.  Figuring out by how much is a little tricky, since production isn't tracked by county, only by Grape District.  In the California Grape Crush Report for 2016, District 8, which includes San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, and Ventura Counties, produced 224,584 tons.  If SLO County represents the same 67% of tonnage that it represents of the district's bearing acreage, which seems reasonable, it would produce 150,471 tons, or about 3.7% of the state's 4,031,000 total tons produced.

2. This calculation required a bit of cross-referencing, since grape acreage statistics in states outside California, Washington, Oregon, and Texas are hard to come by.  I used instead the tons estimate I calculated in the above footnote, and calculated the percentage of total national production based on the Wine Institute's data that California represents roughly 85% of the United States' total national production.

You can't evaluate what you don't measure

Tasting Room with People

Once we get into December, things really slow down for us.  The cellar, which has been on a three-month sprint, has put most of the year's wines to bed.  In the vineyard, the vines are going dormant, we've seeded the cover crop, and there's not much to do but hope for rain and wait until pruning begins in January. In the market, most restaurants and retailers have made their buying decisions for the holiday season and aren't really interested in seeing anything new.  Our tasting room, which might see 600 people a week in high season, drops to a third of that.  So, it's the time where I try to look back at what we've done for the year and evaluate how well we've done it.  I talk to other wineries, and industry experts, to see whether what we've observed is part of a larger trend, or if we're an anomaly.  In almost every one of these conversations, I hear the comment that we track data that most wineries don't.

Now, I'm something of a data geek.  I hate not being able to test a hypothesis out against real numbers.  And I hate it when I feel that the data that we're capturing doesn't represent the critical decisions that customers make.  Because that's the important thing about data: it lets you know, beyond anything anecdotal, whether you're doing a great job or not.  Are we taking great care of our tasting room customers?  Are we offering them wines they want to buy?  What about once they are club members?  Do they feel special?  And do we keep evolving along with the rest of the wine community?

I feel like many of the things we track are pretty fundamental, and am always surprised that not every winery feels the same way.  And, in fact, most of these aren't particularly wine-business-specific, and would apply to any retail business.  Here are the things that I think are baseline information:

  • Your real traffic. Most wineries track the number of transactions, the number of wine club signups, and the number of tasting fees.  Fine.  But there's lots of context in here that can slip through the cracks.  Do you track the number of people who don't pay a tasting fee, whether because they are club members, because their tasting fee is comped on a purchase, because they are industry members, or because they share a tasting?  You should be.  If you're not, how do you know how to evaluate a day where you make $1000 in sales to 20 customers?  If you only have 20 customers walk through the door, that looks a lot better than if you had 100.  Plus, traffic is remarkably consistent year-over-year, and knowing how busy certain times of year are helps you staff appropriately.
  • The percentage of your traffic that purchases.  For us, this is easy, since we comp the tasting fee on even a single bottle of wine.  And so far this year, just over 12% of our visitors have paid tasting fees.  I'm happy with this level.  But knowing what percentage of your visitors liked things enough to make a purchase (or, conversely, couldn't find anything that they wanted to buy) is a great indicator of how you're doing.
  • The percentage of your traffic that joins your club.  Absolute numbers of club members are, ultimately, what impacts the bottom line.  But percentages are more informative.  They are the best indicator of how often you really turn someone on to what you do.  And they help you know whether you're maintaining the quality of your experience when things get busier.  If you're not, check your staffing levels.
  • Your average sale per customer (or per transaction).  You can measure this either way, but knowing how much your average customer bought is critical.  Fundamentally, that's your report card on how well you did.
  • Where your sale originates.  Is a purchase made in your tasting room, by phone, or online?  Knowing that you've sold $20,000 in the last week isn't nearly as useful as knowing that you had $14,000 from your walk-in traffic and $6000 in response to an email you sent out to your mailing list.
  • How long your members stay members.  Or, conversely, your cancellation rate.  Now, every club is going to have a certain amount of turnover.  Customers get older, have health issues, lose jobs, and move overseas (or to states you can't ship to).  That happens.  And I'm really proud that our median duration of membership is nearly triple the industry average of 18 months.  But unless you know what your baseline turnover rate is, and are tracking closely enough to see a spike, you can't be quick about finding out why and addressing what you find.
  • What percentage of your emails get read.  If a customer hasn't opened one of your emails in some time, this is a red flag.  It could be that you don't have the right email address to reach people.  It could be that what you're sending out isn't compelling.  In either case, you should want to know.  Of course, also check on anyone whose email bounces back.  It's much harder and more expensive to make a new customer than it is to keep an existing customer.  Put in the time it takes to keep your lists current.
  • The percentage of your visitors from whom you capture contact information.  Becoming a club member is something that a small percentage, at best, of your customers will do.  Industry averages hover around 3%; we feel like with great wine and great service, you can push that up to around 10%.  But that doesn't mean that the other 90% of your customers are a lost cause.  Many of them purchase and would begin an ongoing relationship with you, if you can figure out how to do it in a way that would be welcomed.  An occasional email letting them know about a tasting or dinner near their home?  Or one that provides some useful insight into what's going on in the vineyards or at the winery?  Probably welcome.  Finding a way to start a conversation makes it more likely that they'll return to see you again on a future visit, that they'll want to buy the wines you make when they see them at their favorite restaurant, and that someday they'll become regular customers.  Do you have a mailing list in addition to your club list?  Do you provide information people want to read?  And do you segment your list by region so you can target emails properly and not overwhelm people?  You should. 

You'll note that most of these data points are percentages.  So without counting your traffic accurately, it's very hard to get the rest of the data right.  Consider adding a button on your register to ring up a visitor who doesn't purchase.  That means that the data is all contained in your point-of-sale system, and you don't have to reconcile paper tallies or Excel spreadsheets with your sales totals.

Whatever your method, having this information isn't just an opportunity to check yourself against your baseline.  It creates a shared vocabulary that will allow you to evaluate your performance against your peers, and to interpret the data that's available through industry associations, seminars, and articles. And more than that, it's how you know if you're succeeding at your fundamental goal: to create an experience, and an environment, where your customers want to begin, and sustain, a mutually beneficial relationship with you.