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Our Favorite Stories of the Decade

Eli Haas with Galets - LargeFourteen years ago this month, I kicked off the Tablas Creek blog with a story about a family visit to Beaucastel. It wasn't much of a story, just two paragraphs and two photos of our then-6-month-old Eli in the vines (right) and the winery there. But it was the beginning of something that has proven, 855 posts later, to be one of our most powerful communication tools, and maybe my favorite piece of what I get to do. Two years later, as I felt like my writing for the blog had hit its stride, I wrote a post with seven pieces of advice for other nascent bloggers. I still stand behind all those recommendations, but there's one topic I keep coming back to. That item:

Write about what you're worried about.  In a blog environment, the core of writing something interesting is picking a topic that can arouse emotions.  In general, the pieces that I've found most fulfilling to write (and which have received the most comments, a sure sign that they've engaged their readers) are the things that are keeping me up at night, like my frustrations over organic labeling requirements or my reaction to a writer calling all Tablas Creek's wines "conspicuously expensive".

The end of a decade seems like a good time to go back and identify some of the pieces that I feel like were most successful. They tend to correlate with posts that got the most comments, but not always. I chose some because I've heard from readers that they found them meaningful in some way, and others because I find myself going back to them for insight or to recapture a perspective that I had at a certain point in our history. Some were things that literally kept me up at night. That makes this (necessarily) a subjective list. But isn't that what a blog is all about? Here's a baker's dozen of the posts that have stuck with me, in chronological order:

  • In Search of a Green(er) Wine Bottle (January 2010). When I wrote this blog, I thought we were looking for a lighter-weight version of the big, impressive bottle we'd moved to two years earlier. By the time I was done processing my readers' comments, I realized we were looking for something quite different. Ten years later, we've saved more than 1.3 million pounds of glass.
  • Investigating an Attempted Wine Scam (June 2011). Until last year's tribute to my dad's life, this piece had received more comments (32) than any other. I shared an email that I'd received, broke down why it wasn't legitimate, and even traced what would have happened had I responded. It turns out the scammer had cast a wide net, and I heard from lots of other grateful wineries who'd received a similar solicitation. Readers have turned it into something of a chronicle of scams, posting new solicitations they receive as a warning to others, which makes it the piece with maybe the longest relevant life span.
  • A tale of two Grenaches (December 2011). This piece came out of a talk I gave at the always-wonderful Yosemite Vintners' Holidays, where I broke down the California acreage statistics for Grenache by county to offer a different narrative than one I had been reading. Yes, we've declined from 20,000-plus to roughly 5,000 acres, but all Grenache acres are not created equal!
  • A great dinner, an amazing restaurant, and a wine that marks the beginning of Tablas Creek (May 2012). Maybe my favorite post ever, where Cesar Perrin and I stumble across the bottle that marks the first collaboration (in 1966!) between the Haas and Perrin families, and I discover its history. 
  • The costs of state alcohol franchise laws (April 2013). I always enjoy the posts that shine a light into the labyrinth of legislation a winery has to navigate to get its wares to market, and this was a favorite one. I still refer people -- many of whom have no idea that wineries are denied something as basic as the right to choose who represents you in a state -- to this piece, and every word is as true now as it was seven years ago.
  • Vintage Hollywood (January 2014). I felt like I was out on a limb with this blog, where I picked a male and female Hollywood star that I felt embodied the personality of each of our recent vintages. I'm not sure if it was fun or just nuts to match actors from Denzel Washington to Daniel Craig, Angelina Jolie to Julianne Moore with vintages, but I did it, and I've heard from lots of people since who told me it struck a chord.
  • Are direct-to-consumer sales really failing to lift the wine industry? (August 2014). I saw the headline "Direct to Consumer Sales Fails to Lift the Wine Industry" in a major industry journal, and took exception. Just because someone is given a platform in a major trade journal doesn't mean they actually understand the business from every perspective.
  • State of the Union, Wine Shipping Edition (January 2015). 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.
  • Customer Disservice: Nine Lessons from a Terrible Hertz Experience (June 2015). Sometimes, it's a choice between laughing at something frustrating and hitting someone. I was really happy with how I managed in this piece to tie a roughly chronological account of a customer service debacle I experienced with some useful take-home lessons for businesses, and even got a Seinfeld clip in there.
  • A 60 Year Career in a Bottle of Delaporte Sancerre (January 2016). I could have picked several pieces by my dad, but my favorite was one of his last, reflecting on opening a bottle of wine he'd first encountered (many vintages earlier) on his first buying trip to France. That same day, I'd been in the audience to listen to the original proprietor's great-grandson present the estate's newest wines to Vineyard Brands, the company my dad founded.
  • Should a Vermentino ever get 98 points? (June 2017). I don't talk much about press on the blog. By and large, it's not that interesting. We share it on Facebook and Twitter, post a link on the relevant wine's page on our Web site, and move on. But this score got me thinking about glass ceilings for certain types of wines, and I spent an afternoon sending queries into the Wine Spectator's review database to try to figure out the extent to which variety limits scores, and share what I found. 
  • Direct Shipping is not a Zero Sum Game (August 2017). We sell roughly the same amount of wine direct and through wholesalers, and I work hard to make sure that everyone feels treated fairly. But I feel like I spend an inordinate amount of my time pushing back against the knee-jerk reaction from many players in the wholesale world that direct sales are competition. To illustrate, I shared our sales data from ten states that recently opened to direct shipping. In the first two years after they opened, our wholesale sales rose 52% on average. Why? Fan cultivation. 
  • Robert Haas 1927-2018: A Life Well Lived (March 2018). This tribute to my dad got more comments (35) than any other post. I hope I was able to share some of what made him special.

For those of you who have been regular readers of the blog over recent years, thank you. I am honored and humbled that other people find this crazy project that we've now kept going for thirty years interesting enough to want to read my thoughts. If you have pieces that particularly stuck with you, for whatever reason, or that you found valuable, please share in the comments.


No, 100% tariffs on European wines won't be good for California wineries

This morning, I submitted comments to the Office of the US Trade Representative, in opposition to the threatened 100% tariffs on European wines that could be imposed as soon as February of 2020. While I believe in an open market and am (like most of the people I know who work for domestic wineries) a lover of wines from around the world, it wasn't for that point. I am convinced that these tariffs would have severely disruptive effects on the whole system that has been legislated to provide a pathway between wine producers, like us, and the consumers who eventually want to buy the wines.

Patelin Rose pallet behind bars
I'll share my comment, and then add some additional thoughts at the end of the blog.

December 23, 2019

I am writing to you to argue against the proposed 100% tariffs on European wines. As a partner in and General Manager at a California winery that just celebrated its 30th anniversary, it might seem surprising that I would opposed these tariffs. But I believe that the net effect that they would have on California wineries would be negative.

We sell about half our production direct, and half through a network of state-licensed wholesalers. This distribution system is mandated by law and known as the “3-tier system.” A producer like us cannot sell directly to restaurants and retailers in other states, and our ability to sell directly to consumers, while growing, is still restricted. So, our success is dependent upon the health of this distribution network. None of the 50+ distributors that we work with represents exclusively domestic wines; all have a diverse portfolio including wines that will be impacted by the proposed tariffs. Many get the majority of their business from European wines. For those distributors, the proposed tariffs amount to a death sentence. Sales will fall, in most cases dramatically, impacting their ability to represent our wines. In my experience, distributors react to the loss of a major supplier (a similar impact to these tariffs) by attempting to source new wines for their portfolio, rather than by selling more wine from their existing suppliers, many of whom are unable to increase production in the short term. If they do look for wines from other parts of the world, they will inevitably be distracted by the massive task of finding these new producers, integrating them into their portfolio, and educating their sales team on their new items. That will mean less focus for us, not more.

What’s more, the rising number of “franchise” laws, currently affecting wine sales in about 20 states, means that we don’t even have the freedom to leave a distributor who isn’t performing well (or isn’t able to maintain their sales team and delivery schedule because of a market disruption) to find another who could do a better job. In nearly half the country, if the work of our legally-mandated representatives is impacted by these tariffs, we have no recourse. Beyond the impact on wineries and distributors, other related businesses will be caught in the crossfire. Restaurants are famously low-margin businesses anyway. Increasing the costs of their wine programs will push some out of business, further reducing outlets for our wines. Wine retailers, too, including both independent and chain outlets, will be forced to source different wines (which comes with its own costs) or double the costs of their inventories. And American consumers will be faced with higher costs and fewer choices for products that they would like to buy, leaving less disposable income in their wine budgets.

Why wouldn’t the wine community just switch its sources to other, non-tariff countries? Wine is not a commodity, where a customer can simply swap in a wine, even one made from the same grape, from one part of the world for another and expect them to be comparable. Wines are products inextricably tied to the place in which they are produced. And the disruption of 100% tariffs on wines from the world’s oldest wine regions would have cascading impacts that would reach deep into a whole network of American businesses, investors, and consumers.

Even those of us who make wine in California.

Respectfully,
Jason Haas
Partner & General Manager
Tablas Creek Vineyard
Paso Robles, California

I'm not sure that most consumers realize how little option wineries have to get their wines to markets around the country. In most cases, it is neither practical nor legal for us to sell to restaurants and retailers directly. So, we have relationships with distributors in each state. These distributors are licensed by their state to purchase wine from suppliers (domestic wineries like us, and importers of wines from other countries) and to then in turn sell those wines to restaurants and retailers. Restaurants and retailers are licensed to sell the wines to customers. While a string of court decisions and state law liberalizations have allowed us to ship wine directly to consumers in many states, nearly a third of what we sell to consumers for home consumption, and essentially 100% of what we sell to restaurants, passes through these various distributors. 

Every one of the 50+ distributors who sells our wine also sells wine from countries around the world. Every one. There is no such thing, in my experience, as a domestic-only distributor. And for many of these distributors, a majority of their sales comes from European wines. These distributors would be devastated by tariffs that would slow that segment of their business to a trickle. Distributor salespeople, who are paid by commission, would see an immediate decline in their standard of living. Distributors would likely result by cutting sales staff and increasing the number of accounts each salesperson called on, reducing their ability to interface with accounts and sell the other wines in their portfolio.

But would there be a larger piece of the pie for California wineries? Not much of one, I don't think. At the low end, the likely substitute for European wines would be wines from other New World countries, like Chile, Argentina, and Australia, all of which do better in the under-$15 segment than American wineries. At the high end, there is really no substitute. An Oregon Pinot Noir isn't going to smoothly replace a Grand Cru Burgundy, nor is a California Nebbiolo going to replace a Barolo. High-end wines aren't commodities produced by formula from specific grapes, that could be grown anywhere. The places that they come from are inseparable from the wines' identities. My guess is that at the high end, there would be a period where restaurants and retailers scavenge inventory from warehouses around the country, and then sales would just decline as people wait and hope the tariffs are rescinded. In the middle? I'm not sure. There might be a few additional opportunities for wineries like us, but I doubt that these would amount to a net positive given the disruption in our distribution network.

What's more, I think there's every likelihood that European countries would retaliate with tariffs on American goods, including wines. While export markets aren't a huge piece of our business, they've been growing in recent years, and European countries like Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and France have been leading that growth. I would expect that piece of our market to disappear, as has our Chinese market since that particular trade war began a few years ago.

All of these economic costs are bad enough. The human costs would be worse. While our business would likely be OK, thousands of American jobs at restaurants and distributors would be at risk. The American consumer, who enjoys the world's most dynamic wine market, would see increased costs and decreased selection. And the cost to the European farmers and winemakers, many of whom have been farming their lands for centuries, would be heartbreaking.

What can you do? Submit a comment in opposition to the proposed tariffs:

Will it matter? There's no way to know. But the more voices they hear from, the better the chance.


Can rosé wines age? It depends on the grapes they're made from.

Over the weekend, I saw a really nice review of our 2017 Dianthus Rosé on Kerry Winslow’s Grapelive blog. I found it interesting that Kerry, although he loved it, felt like he needed to address it being a 2017, adding the comment that it "is last years wine, but still vibrant and the maturity hasn’t slowed down this fabulous wine". I don't think you'd find a caveat like this for a white wine, and a 2017 would be considered maybe even too young to drink for most reds. But it gets at a common perception of rosés: that they need to be drunk the year that they’re released.

Is it true? There are definitely some, maybe even many, rosés for which I'd say yes. But, and this is important, like reds and whites, the grape(s) that the wine is made with matters. The dominant model for rosés is that of Provence, which is based on Grenache, always an oxidative grape, and they tend to have very pale colors from minimal time in contact with the skins. In the cellar at Tablas Creek, we are careful to keep even red Grenache away from too much oxygen. We ferment it in stainless steel or large wooden tanks, and avoid 60-gallon barriques (what you probably think of as a “normal” wine barrel) for aging. And you'd expect a rosé made from Grenache to have a shorter aging curve. Tannins act as a preservative in wine. So, if you start with Grenache, already an oxidative grape, and pull it early off the skins, which are the source of a wine’s tannins, you're likely to end up with something that’s even less resistant to oxidation. My experience with most Provence rosés (and the American rosés that are modeled off them) bears that out. The wines are at their best the summer after they’re made. The best ones are still good the next summer, but they’ve already started to fade.

But it’s equally important to remember that Provence is not the world’s (or even France’s) only rosé tradition. Bandol, arguably the source of the world’s greatest rosés, uses Mourvèdre as the lead grape. And Mourvèdre is a very different beast from Grenache. In our cellar, we do everything we can to make sure we get Mourvèdre air. We ferment it in open-top fermenters. We age it in oak, and still have to make sure to rack it fairly often so it doesn’t get reductive. Some of that comes from Mourvèdre’s skins, but not all does. And it's worth mentioning that, depending on how your rosé is made, it's going to get at least some of the tannins (and their powers of preservation) from the skins. In the case of our Dianthus, the juice spends between 24 and 36 hours on the skins, giving it a deep pink color and providing a hint of tannic bite that brings counterpoint to the wine's lush fruit.

Two roses for Nov 2019 feature

I remember learning, to my surprise, that as recently as a decade ago many Bandol estates didn’t even release their rosés until the fall after harvest, because they felt that the wines took that much time to really open up and come into their own. I don't think that happens much any more. Producers in the (dominant) Provence model compete to be first into the market in the springtime to lock up the lucrative summer rosé placements, which has created a market and consumer expectation that you want the newest, freshest rosé you can find. That means that for a tradition like Bandol, even if the wine is better in the fall, a producer is likely to make a market-driven calculation that they should release the wine early.

Although the growth of the rosé market has meant that it's more of a year-round item on wine lists, there is still definitely a rosé high season in the spring and summer, and restaurants and retailers all look to feature the newest vintage. So, there are three significant disincentives against fall releases. First, you're releasing a wine into a market that is saturated with earlier releases (many of whom are likely looking to close out any remaining inventory with deep discounts). Second, you're releasing a wine into a category that is going off season. And third, by the time the season opens back up in the springtime, you look like old inventory compared to the new crop of the next year's rosés.

But those market realities don't change the fact that the fall release tradition gets at something important about rosés made from these oxidation-resistant grapes. They improve in bottle, are likely just reaching their peak in the cooler fall and winter seasons, and can be just as good or even better the next summer. Their deeper flavors also make for better matches with the richer foods of chillier seasons.

Dianthus in the snow

That’s why seeing a review like this for this wine makes me happy. It recognizes that these rosés can improve with time in bottle, and can be great winter wines. In our tasting room, we switch in October from showcasing our Patelin Rosé (which we poured for guests in spring and summer) to our Dianthus, which we'll continue to feature through the fall and into the winter, as long as it lasts. It also helps people learn that rosés are not a uniform category, and different base grapes produce different profiles and different life paths, like with reds and whites. For all the growth of the rosé category, the idea that rosés can be diverse is still something that’s not well enough understood.


Six inches of rain in two weeks begins the vineyard's winter transformation

California, when it rains, is a paradise. The landscape transforms from stark browns and golds to something softer, with blurred edges. Green appears, seemingly overnight, as grasses and broadleaf seeds that have been waiting for moisture sprout and push leaves above the surface. Puffy white clouds appear in the sky, which has unbroken blue for months at a time in the summer. The images aren't the same as those that summertime visitors love, but for me, they're even better. I'll share a few of my favorites from a vineyard ramble this morning:

Oak tree in the vineyard with fog

You can see that higher up in the vineyard, where this Counoise block is, we still have leaves on some of the vines. Although we've had several nights where our lower-lying areas have seen frost, we haven't had the hard freeze that will force the vineyard into dormancy top to bottom yet. This lower section is more representative. I particularly like the green that has already appeared:

Green grass and fog

The total lack of moisture in the summer has its own appeal, but the fog does give a better sense of distance, settling in the undulations of the hills:

Green grass rolling vineyard

The rain did us the favor of cleaning off our solar panels. Their modern regularity makes for a nice contrast with the sky and landscape:

Solar panels vineyard truck and blue sky

The rain itself came in nearly ideal distribution. Up through November 25th we'd seen zero precipitation this winter. In the 13 days since, we've had measurable rainfall 12 of the 13. But it was generally modest. We only topped one inch once (1.47", on December 4th). Five other days saw between one-half and one inch. And very wet days tended to be followed by days with less rainfall, allowing everything to soak in:

Rainfall Graph

So far, for the winter, we've totaled 5.88", which puts us at about 125% of normal at this point in the rainy season. Given where we were a month ago, that's pretty encouraging. It's also some validation to the research I did after that blog, which suggested that a dry beginning to the winter was only slightly correlated with a dry winter

What's next for us? A week, more or less, of sunny, dry weather. That's perfect, as it will give the new green cover crop a chance to get some growth in before the next rains come. After that, it's anyone's guess. Long-term predictions are still for a slightly drier than normal winter, but I feel a lot better about things given what we've banked already. As the mud on my boots suggests, there's plenty of moisture to work with, for now.

Muddy boots

I'll leave you with my favorite photo of the morning, sun partially obscured by the fog, solar panels in the foreground, olive trees and vineyard truck in the middle ground, and vineyard sloping away down toward Las Tablas Creek in the background. The fog has since burned off, but I look forward to more moisture over the coming days.

Solar panels vineyard truck and fog


Making Giving Tuesday Last all December Long

As regular readers of this blog know, we try to be involved in our community in a variety of ways. We give tens of thousands of dollars each year to support a range of local charities and arts organizations. Our people volunteer to coach and we sponsor youth sports, typically several local teams each year. We serve on nonprofit boards and donate our time and resources to support those organizations that can support us. We offer our facilities and our expertise to host events on topics that can help build a better environment and a better wine community, from dry farming to biodynamics to the Ovines in the Vines field day that our Shepherd Nathan Stuart will be helping lead later this week. And, for the last several years, we've donated a dollar from every bottle of wine we sell in December to must! charities. That's why I'm especially proud that we received the "community" California Green Medal from the California Sustainable Winegrowers Alliance a few years back.

If you are unfamiliar with the work that must! charities does, I can't do a better job of explaining it than the nonprofit's founders do:

The organization has made a huge difference in the lives of residents of San Luis Obispo County, especially the kids who live here. Must! has supported dozens of projects over the decade since it was founded, but its power comes from how it doesn't spread itself too thin, instead aggregating donations from the community, choosing a handful of worthy local organizations each year, and providing -- typically through multi-year commitments -- both financial support and organizational expertise so that it can help the organizations improve in lasting ways. This year, must! is supporting four projects: ECHO homeless shelter, with a primary goal of finding permanent housing for homeless families; the new Boys & Girls Club of Shandon, where nearly half the town's 200 elementary and middle school kids are already enrolled; CASA of San Luis Obispo, to help more children in the North County find safe, nurturing, and permanent homes; and the construction of a commercial kitchen at ECHO, providing both job training for its clients and a long-term asset for the organization.

At Tablas Creek, our primary support of must! comes in December, when we pledge to donate a dollar from every bottle we sell direct from the winery, whether in the tasting room, online, or by phone. And yes, gift packs and wine club packs count (one dollar per bottle included in either). So do the wines that we have on feature. And half bottles. Really... any wine we sell. Last year, we were able to donate $8,850. This year, we hope to top that. 

So, on this day that has been dubbed "giving Tuesday" it feels appropriate to share that this month, every day allows us to give a little more. Thank you for making it possible for us to make a difference. 

Must charities photo 2019 2