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January 2020
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March 2020

Are we really saying that wine can't compete with hard seltzer on... authenticity?

January is the season where the wine community gets together at events like the Unified Grape & Wine Symposium and the Direct to Consumer Wine Symposium. In preparation for these gatherings, some of the industry's most important thinkers and researchers pull together the data from the previous year and assess the state of the industry.  Two reports that I always read are the Silicon Valley Bank State of the Industry Report and the Sovos/ShipCompliant Direct to Consumer Wine Shipping Report. The keynote "State of the Industry" talk at Unified often provides the take-home messages that then make their way into print headlines.  

As you would expect, some assessments are more pessimistic, while others focus on the positive. This year, it seems like most of the headlines focused on the negative. An article that I thought threaded the needle pretty well to give a balanced assessment was Bill Swindell's piece in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat: US wine shipments increase slightly to 409 million cases in 2019 (although it's worth noting that the original headline was more pessimistic: "US wine shipments increase slightly, despite fears").

Bill points out in his article that despite slight overall growth there are major issues for certain segments of the industry. Lots of grapes went unharvested in 2019. Grape and bulk wine prices on the open market are down, squeezing growers. After years of strong growth, sales flattened in 2019. And younger drinkers (mostly the Millennial generation) have been slower to adopt wine as their beverage of choice than previous generations. So, what's the outlook?

I think it's complicated. The fact that growers are having trouble selling their grapes appears to me to be due to two things:

  1. There has been a ton of speculative planting in recent years. The 2018 California Grape Acreage Report (the most recent year available) shows some 637,000 acres of wine grapes in the state, including 47,000 planted in the last two years and therefore non-bearing. That's new acreage greater than the total acres in Paso Robles, planted just in the last couple of years, and growth of 21% since 2008. And most of this acreage isn't being planted by estate wineries. It's large plots, owned by growers hoping to sell grapes to wineries on the open market.
  2. By and large, the big American wine companies are struggling. According to the SVB Wine Report, the seven largest American wine brands saw a total sales decline of 3.09% last year. That may not sound huge, but as those brands amount to between 68% and 70% of the domestic market, that decline totals some 3.4 million fewer gallons (1.4 million fewer cases) sold. That's a lot of volume for small producers to soak up. And looking locally in Paso bears this analysis out. It’s growers who contracted with these behemoths who are hurting most, leaving grapes unharvested, while demand for premium vineyards has remained strong.

Of course, there are also the demographic challenges that the SVB Wine Report pointed out. Younger generations aren’t adopting wine as fast as the industry hoped they would, with Millennials' share of the wine market growing only from 14% to 17% in the last five years, even though that time frame saw the youngest millennials reach legal drinking age and the oldest approach 40. That said, although I haven't been able to find exactly the right data to prove my point, I'm pretty sure that they're drinking more wine per capita than previous generations were at their age. I'm right in the middle of GenX, I grew up in the wine business, and neither I nor my friends were drinking much wine at age 25. I think it's even less likely that baby boomers were drinking as much wine at age 25 as millennials are now. The peak of the boomer generation would have been 25 in 1980, when cocktails and beer were ascendant and the total American wine market was half the size it is now. Wine coolers? Maybe.

Importantly, things are still growing for quality producers. While wines with prices below $9 showed declines in both sales volume (between 3.5% and 4%) and value (around 2.5%), the picture looks better up the price spectrum. Wines between $9 and $12 were more or less flat in both value and volume. All the categories above $12 showed growth in both volume (between 7.5% and 8.5%) and value (between 4% and 8%). And direct sales from wineries — mostly toward the higher end of the price spectrum — grew 4.7% in volume and 7.4% in value.

What are we to make of all this? I think it's naive to assume that the wine market is somehow immune to the market constraints of supply and demand. Growers shouldn't be able to plant unlimited additional acreage and expect to sell it regardless of quality. Wineries shouldn't be able to muscle whatever production they make into the US market even if they have no path to market or way of connecting with customers.

As far as I'm concerned, that thinking is a relic. Producers need to be focusing on quality. And on responsibility. And on storytelling. And on transparency. If there’s something to learn from analyzing millennials’ buying trends, I think it should be to align your production with customers’ values. Last year’s darling category — hard seltzer — took lots of smart people by surprise. At the DTC symposium, a presenter pointed out that they're making a big deal about it being "pure", to the point that it's part of White Claw's motto. The White Claw home page lists carbs, calories, and alcohol, and the cans all bear a "gluten-free" logo:

White Claw Home Page

Wine is a natural product, made from a healthy raw material (grapes) with relatively benign farming inputs. But somehow hard seltzer has seized the mantle of the new "healthy" alcohol. Why are we as an industry allowing this to go unchallenged? It’s disappointing that the big national wine companies haven’t made any serious efforts at meeting this head-on. Are they just not wired this way? If I were in their shoes (and, let me be clear, I’m happy I’m not) that would be priority number one.

If transparency is at least part of the answer, it will require a major shift in how wine is marketed. The mystique and exclusivity that is a staple of most luxury wine marketing is, I think, part of the barrier that the wine industry has erected between itself and millennials, because it can often come off as elitism.

Back to the conclusion of the Santa Rosa Press article I linked in my second paragraph: “The people who are successful right now are the people who have focused on the quality of the wine and the quality of the experience”. That shouldn’t be shocking. But it's clear that, at least in terms of experience, there's improvement to be made. In a bombshell of a blog post last weekend, Silicon Valley Bank's Rob McMillan shared a letter he received recently from a friend who spent such a disappointing weekend visiting wine country with his GenX daughter — being ignored and taken for granted at one winery after another, all while spending thousands of dollars — that they decided next winter they'd visit the Grand Canyon.

In retrospect, I think we'll realize that lots of wineries have had it easy in recent years. The market was growing fast enough that it absorbed larger quantities and higher prices every year. New states were opening up through liberalized shipping laws, offering wineries direct access to customers and enticing millions of new vacationers to visit wine country. Premium wine regions and highly rated wineries saw enough demand that they didn't need to focus on customer service.

Whether 2019 was a blip or the start of a new era, I think this is a good time to refocus on providing great wine and great experiences, being transparent about how wine is made, and — most importantly — accelerating the improvements in industry practices so that the transparency shows a picture we're proud of. It seems like that would improve things both short and long term.

Are we really saying that wine, made from fruit in a natural process that is millennia-old, shouldn’t be able to compete on authenticity with hard seltzer, an industrial triumph of marketing, developed roughly 15 minutes ago? Give me a break. Let's have this conversation.

Tablas Creek Vineyard  Newly Pruned

Tasting the wines in the Spring 2020 VINsider Wine Club shipments

Each spring and fall, we send out a selection of six wines to the members of our VINsider Wine Club.  In many cases, these are wines that only go out to our club.  In others, the club gets a first look at a wine that may see a later national release.  About 6 weeks before the club shipments will be sent out, we open them all to write the tasting and production notes that will be included in the club shipments.  In many cases, this tasting is our first post-bottling introduction to wines that we'll come to know intimately in coming months and years. In some cases (like this time) where the shipments contain wines that aren't yet even bottled (they will be the last week of February) it's a chance to get to know wines that are newly finished.  I always think it's fun to give followers of the blog a first look at these notes.

These shipments include wines from the 2017, 2018, and 2019 vintages.  Tasting three vintages together is a great way to get a handle on their relative personalities, and typically my first chance to do a personality assessment on the newest vintage, which we haven't even started blending trials on yet. My quick thoughts, after the tasting, are that 2017 is a blockbuster, where every wine shows density and lushness, with powerful fruit but the structure to age. I feel like I can taste the health of the vineyard from the 43 inches of rain we received. 2018 is noteworthy for its vibrancy. It's a vintage whose whites have some of the highest acids we've seen in recent years, yet the balance between fruit, acid, and mineral gives the wines a purity and varietal expressiveness that reminds me of 2015 (but with a bit more concentration). Finally, the 2019s, as much as one can tell from tasting two wines, seem to strike a midpoint, with plenty of concentration, good acids, and lovely texture.  I'll start with the classic mixed shipment, and then move on to the red-only and white-only shipments, noting which wines will be included in each. I was joined for the tasting by Winemaker Neil Collins, Senior Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi, and Tasting Room Manager John Morris.

Spring 2020 VINsider Shipment Group

The classic shipment includes six different wines:


  • Production Notes: Our eighteenth bottling of this traditional Mediterranean varietal, known principally in Sardinia, Corsica, and Northern Italy. It is also grown in the Mediterranean parts of France (particularly Côtes de Provence) where it is known as Rolle. The Vermentino grape produces wines that are bright, clean, and crisp, with distinctive citrus character and refreshing acidity. To emphasize this freshness, we ferment and age Vermentino in stainless steel, and bottle it early, under screwcap.
  • Tasting Notes: An absolutely classic Vermentino nose of citrus leaf, marzipan, sea spray, green herbs, and maraschino cherry. The palate shows vibrant acids with flavors of lime juice, wet rocks, and a floral gardenia note. A quinine-like pithy note lingers on the long, zippy finish. Drink now and over the next few years.
  • Production: 1510 cases.


  • Production Notes: For our Dianthus rosé, whose name was chosen for a family of plants with deep-pink flowers, we aim for a style between that of Tavel (deeper pink, based on Grenache) and Bandol (less skin contact, based on Mourvedre). This year's blend is 52% Mourvèdre, 33% Grenache and 15% Counoise, bled off or pressed off after 24-36 hours on the skins. The wine was fermented in stainless steel and will be bottled later in February. This is a deeply colored, flavorful rosé, ideal with complex, powerful foods.
  • Tasting Notes: An electric fuchsia. The nose shows powerful strawberry and guava fruit, deepened by sweet tarragon and rose petal notes. The mouth is vivid, with plum skin acids and a line of passion fruit tropicality. Tons of texture leads into a long finish with flavors of strawberry and lemon drop. A rosé to convert people who think that pink wines can't be serious.  Drink before the end of 2021.
  • Production: 900 cases


  • Production Notes: The Cotes de Tablas is our chance to let Grenache shine, as it does in most southern Rhone blends. Grenache had remarkable vibrancy in 2018 with mostly high toned fruit, so we used a relatively high percentage of Syrah for depth and balance as well as small additions of Mourvedre and Counoise for earth and spice. The final blend (45% Grenache, 33% Syrah, 12% Counoise, and 10% Mourvedre) was assembled in June 2019 and has been aging in foudre in anticipation of its upcoming bottling later in February.
  • Tasting Notes: A deep nose, powerfully reminiscent of Syrah and the Rhone, with notes of soy marinade, black pepper, chocolate, and fig. On the palate, equally balanced between Grenache's red fruit and acid and Syrah's dark fruit and power, with flavors of kirsch, bittersweet chocolate, black cherry, and chalky tannins. A serious, powerful Cotes de Tablas that is already delicious but with the stuffing to age. Drink now and over the next decade.
  • Production: 2140 cases


  • Production Notes: Our sixteenth bottling of this traditional varietal from South-West France, known principally in the Pyrenees foothills appellation of Madiran, but originally native to the Basque region. Tannat typically has intense fruit, spice, and tannins that produce wines capable of long aging.  As we do many years, we blended in our small harvest of Cabernet Sauvignon, making the wine is 96% Tannat and 4% Cabernet. We aged it in one foudre and a mix of new and older smaller barrels for nearly 2 years before bottling it in April 2019, and then aged it another 10 months in bottle before release. 
  • Tasting Notes: On the nose, spicy licorice and black pepper, with a savory spruce forest note over black plum and elderberry fruit. The mouth is dense and richly tannic, packed with flavors of fruitcake and sugarplum and Tannat's characteristic (and welcome) floral undertone that always reminds me of violets. The finish is approachable for a Tannat at this stage, with tannins cloaked in sweet fruit. A wine to drink any time over the next two decades.
  • Production: 1110 cases


  • Production Notes: Just the second vintage of our first new blend in a decade, celebrating the kinship (Le Complice means, roughly, "partners in crime") between Syrah (67%) and our newest red grape, Terret Noir (12%). Although Syrah is dark and Terret light, both share wild herby black spice, and Terret's high acids bolster Syrah's tendency toward stolidity. We added some Grenache (21%) for mid-palate fleshiness. The wine was blended in June of 2018, aged in foudre, bottled in April 2019, and has been aging in our cellars since.
  • Tasting Notes: Syrah-driven darkness on the nose: iron, pencil lead, and black fruit, with a pickling spice note of bay, green peppercorn, and star anise that I think came from Terret. The mouth is meaty, like Korean ribs, with dark fruit of dates and figs. The rich texture continues on to the finish, with savory notes of soy, balsamic, and fig. We don't know for sure, but suspect it will drink well for two decades.
  • Production: 880 cases


  • Production Notes: As always, Panoplie is selected from lots chosen in the cellar for their richness, concentration and balance, always giving pride of place to Mourvedre's rich meatiness and firm structure. Each lot was fermented individually before being selected, blended and moved to foudre to age in July 2018.  Mourvedre was typically outstanding in 2016, and our blend reflects that (69%), with roughly equal portions of Grenache (17%) for lushness, sweet spice, and vibrancy and Syrah (14%) for black fruit, density, and tannic richness. The wine was bottled in July 2019 and has been aged in bottle in our cellars since then.
  • Tasting Notes: A deep, lovely Rhonish nose of dark red currant fruit, sandalwood, new leather, and a licorice note that echoed between red and black. The mouth is luscious and generous with flavors of red plum, loamy earth, clove spice, and baker's chocolate. Rich texture, full, long, and complex, with a finish that lasted for a full minute. A delicious wine with a long life ahead; we predict two decades of life, easily.
  • Production: 850 cases

Spring 2020 VINsider Shipment Wines

There are three additional wines (2018 Viognier, 2018 Marsanne, and two bottles of 2019 Roussanne as well as a second bottle of the 2019 Vermentino) in the white-only shipment:


  • Production Notes: The vibrancy of the 2018 vintage allowed us to produce a varietal Viognier that we loved. Viognier, known more from the northern Rhone than the area around Chateauneuf du Pape, sprouts first of all our grapes, making it the most prone to frost, but was spared in 2018. The chilly nights maintained its acids and kept it on the vine into September. It was whole cluster pressed and fermented in stainless steel, then blended and bottled in May 2019 in screwcap, to preserve its brightness. 
  • Tasting Notes: An incredibly appealing nose, classic Viognier with fresh apricot, meyer lemon, and citrus flowers. The mouth is luscious without being at all heavy: white peach and sweet spice with a tangy pineapple note that becomes more pronounced on the long, lively finish. This should hold for a few years at least, but really, I can't imagine it being any better than it is right now.
  • Production: 430 cases


  • Production Notes: Like Viognier, Marsanne is best known from the northern Rhone and many summers here are too warm for us to be happy bottling it on its own. Not 2018. As in Hermitage, where it is renowned for making some of the world's most ageworthy white wines, we picked our Marsanne in mid-September, fermented it after a whole-cluster press, and selected the varietal bottling from a single lot with unusually good acids. Just our sixth-ever varietal bottling of Marsanne, bottled in June 2019.
  • Tasting Notes: A classic Marsanne nose of honeydew, quince, crushed rock, and a sweet note like freshly harvested wheat. Soft and delicious on the palate, with flavors of vanilla custard, chamomile tea, candied lemon peel, and chalky minerality. Medium-bodied, refined, and pretty. It's so appealing now that I'm guessing a lot of it will get drunk young, but it should evolve in an interesting way for a decade at least.
  • Production: 395 cases


  • Production Notes: Roussanne yields were low in 2018, and the 630 cases we made as a varietal wine is our smallest production in a decade. But the Roussanne we got was powerfully characteristic of the grape, and we chose lots for our varietal bottling that came roughly 55% from foudre, 35% from neutral oak puncheons, and 10% in small new barriques. The selected lots were blended in April 2019 then aged in foudre through the subsequent harvest before bottling this past December.
  • Tasting Notes: A powerful nose of lacquered wood, new honey, dried orange peel, cardamom, and aromatic bitters. The palate is classic, with flavors of caramel and ripe pear, a little sweet oak, and a little bit of tannic bite that cleans the wine up on the long finish. The wine has only been in bottle for a few months, but it's already drinking well. Drink in the next 3 or 4 years for a more luscious, fruit-driven experience, or hold it for 8-15 years for a flavor profile of caramel, wet rocks, and hazelnut.
  • Production: 630 cases

Two additional reds join the Panoplie, Tannat, Cotes de Tablas, and Le Complice in the red-only shipment:


  • Production Notes: Grenache yields recovered in the healthy 2017 vintage, although for whatever reason the paler color we came to expect during the five-year drought persisted. But don't fear; this is a wine whose intensity of flavor belies its color. For our varietal bottling we as usual chose lots that emphasized Grenache's freshness and avoided riper lots that tend toward higher alcohols. The lots were blended in June 2018 and aged in neutral 1200-gallon oak foudres until bottling in April 2019.
  • Tasting Notes: A wild, brambly nose showing raspberry fruit and an herby, rocky undertone. The palate is generous, with vivid wild strawberry fruit, flavors of cola and sweet spice, great acids, and a savory sarsaparilla note vying for primacy with foresty wildness on the finish. This has been deepening nicely over recent months. If you prefer your reds crunchy and vibrant, don't feel bad about opening it now. If you prefer to wait for more subtle flavors, drink any time in the next six-to-ten years.
  • Production: 530 cases

2017 SYRAH

  • Production Notes: The productive, high-quality 2017 vintage gave us the opportunity to make our first varietal Syrah since 2014. For the varietal bottling, we chose Syrah lots that led with a dark, meaty, savory note, but carried plenty of dark fruit underneath. These lots were blended in June 2018, aged in a new foudre until bottling in April 2019, and then have been aging in our cellar ever since. 
  • Tasting notes: A meaty nose reminiscent of pancetta, with graphite and iron mineral notes, black spice, and tobacco leaf. The mouth is savory, with Syrah's classic meat drippings and green herbs, like a roasted porchetta, a little juniper mintiness, and dark boysenberry fruit. A serious wine, on which patience will be rewarded. Give it a good decant if you plan on drinking it soon, or cellar it up to two decades.
  • Production: 420 cases

If you're a wine club member, you should make your reservation for our shipment tasting party, where we open all the wines in the most recent club shipment for VINsiders to try. This spring's party will be on Sunday, April 5th.  If you're not a wine club member, and you've read all this way, then why not join up, while there's still a chance to get this spring shipment? Details and how to join are at

Congratulations to Winemaker Neil Collins, Paso Robles Wine Industry Person of the Year for 2019!

At the end of January, nearly 30 of the Tablas Creek team joined some 200 members of the Paso Robles wine community to celebrate our long-time winemaker Neil Collins, who was voted by his peers the 2019 Paso Robles Wine Country Person of the Year. You can read the official announcement from the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance. 

Tablas Creek Winemaker Neil Collins - Landscape

With one exception -- the 1997 vintage, during which Neil was working at Beaucastel -- Neil has had a hand in every vintage of Tablas Creek. We first met him in 1994, when he was Assistant Winemaker at Adelaida Cellars, where we rented space to make our first few vintages of practice wine. By the time we'd gotten our French clones into production and built our winery in 1997, we'd become so impressed with Neil's work that we offered him our winemaking position and the opportunity to spend a year working at Beaucastel. We're honored that he's been here ever since. 

Along the way, Neil created two other businesses here in the Paso Robles area, and this award recognized these contributions at least as much as his winemaking at Tablas Creek. He started the Lone Madrone label with his wife Marci and his sister Jackie in 1996, through which he has championed dry-farmed vineyards on Paso's West side while focusing on heritage grapes like Zinfandel and Chenin Blanc, along with (of course) Rhones and the occasional parcel that was too good to turn down. Nebbiolo, anyone? And as if that wasn't enough on his plate, for the last decade he's been leading a Central Coast cider renaissance through his Bristol's Cider label and the Bristol's Cider House in Atascadero.

When my dad and Jean-Pierre and Francois Perrin started Tablas Creek, they felt pretty confident in their abilities to grow, make wine out of, and sell Rhone grape varieties. (As it turned out, that assumption was probably a little optimistic, but what great adventure ever gets started without a little unwarranted optimism... and anyway, that's a story for another day.) What they found in Neil, in addition to a man with relentless curiosity and legitimate hands-on winemaking chops, was someone who was steeped in Paso Robles. Although he's not a native, he spent his whole winemaking career here, from its early days with Ken Volk at Wild Horse through his extended stint with John Munch at Adelaida. I know that it meant a lot for him to have Ken, who gave him his first job in wine, be the one who presented his award at the Gala. I videoed the presentation speech:

You might well ask how he's able to run what is in essence three separate businesses while still holding down a full-time job here at Tablas Creek. That's part of what makes Neil special. He has a great ability to get things rolling, empower the people who work for him, and then keep tabs on the status of the many projects he's working on without having to (or, just as importantly, feeling like he has to) do everything himself. But it's not that he's content with the status quo. Far from it. His relentless experimentation is one of the things that has allowed Tablas Creek to grow and thrive the way it has under his watch. And it's one of the reasons why his lieutenants here at Tablas Creek tend to stay for the long term. I asked Senior Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi, who's been here more than a decade herself, to share her thoughts on Neil, and I loved what she told me: "One of the things I love most about working with Neil is watching him build community and having the chance to be part of it. You see it in his close-knit family for sure, but it extends well beyond that. His groups of friends and colleagues, the family he's built in the Tablas Creek cellar team, his employees from Lone Madrone and Bristols - it's a true delight to be near someone who cares deeply about the humans around him."

I think you'll get a good sense of why people want to work with and for Neil from his acceptance speech:

It's an honor to call Neil a colleague and a friend, and I couldn't be more excited that he received this recognition.