Previous month:
February 2020

A Walk through the Vineyard, Poised between Winter and Spring

Even as we have implemented major changes to the business side of what we do, the vineyard continues its march through the seasons. The grapevines don't know that there's a shelter at home order. The cover crops aren't interested in quarantine details. Instead, they're paying attention to signals like soil temperature and hours of sun as their systems make the annual determination as to whether it's time to come out of dormancy yet.

We've finished the winter pruning work we needed to do, and we have six weeks or so before we're far enough into the growing season to need a large crew working on anything (the next big push will be shoot thinning). So, if we had to pick a time when it doesn't hurt us much to cut back on vineyard work and wait this out, this is a pretty good one.

I took a walk through the vineyard on Thursday to get a sense of where things were. After our nearly-entirely-dry January and February (just one storm, 1.11 inches total rainfall) it's clear that the rain we've received so far in March (4.16" across 13 different days) has made a significant difference. The ground is saturated. The cover crops have doubled in size. And the generally cool daytime temperatures (just 5 days this month that made it out of the low-60s, and only one in the last two weeks) and chilly nights (four have dropped below freezing) have delayed budbreak to a more-or-less normal time frame. Although it can't be long now, in my walk I didn't see anything that had pushed buds, even at the very tops of the hills and the very earliest varieties like Vermentino, Viognier, and Grenache Blanc.

What did I see? The wildflower season just beginning, with wild mustard the most precocious:

Dormant Grenache with wildflowers

I took one shot (through our deer fence) of the sign pointing to our tasting room if you were to approach the vineyard on Adelaida Road from the north. If you are used to seeing Paso Robles in summertime when everything is golden and in sharp relief, the softer springtime contours can be surprising.

Tablas Creek sign with wildflowers

The dormant gray vines (Vermentino here) make for a great contrast this time of year with the green cover crop and the early wildflowers:

Pruned Vermentino with wildflowers 2

The day, like most of last week, saw a shower pass through. You can see the clouds hanging over the vineyard in this shot, looking down over our oldest Counoise block:

Cover crop in Counoise

And finally, a shot looking up from more or less the middle of the vineyard over one of our Grenache blocks, a study in green, blue, and white:

Looking up Grenache block with clouds

If you'd like something more immersive than the still photos, I took a 20-second video in the middle of the vineyard too. I highly recommend turning on your volume.

Although we're not able to welcome you here in person right now, I'll look forward to sharing what the vineyard looks like more regularly over coming weeks. That way, you can follow along. And if there are things you particularly want to see or know more about, please leave a comment. Meanwhile, stay safe out there.


How to Help Your Favorite Wineries Survive the Coronavirus Pandemic

It's been a tough last week, on a lot of levels. Like most Americans, we've personally been adjusting to social distancing, school, and activity closures, while reevaluating our own life patterns and checking in with family members to make sure everyone is in a good place. On a business level, we've been worrying about how best to make sure we're operating in a way that is responsible while still hopefully continuing to operate, both to be able to support the great team we have working here and to be available to provide wine to our thousands of customers. We switched briefly over last weekend to tastings by-appointment-only to ensure proper distancing, and then closed our tasting room entirely this week in accordance with Governor Newsome's new directives and our own obligations (and desires) to do everything we can to slow the spread of the virus. 

Tasting Room Closed for Coronavirus

We're just one of hundreds of wineries in Paso Robles, and thousands of wineries in California, who've been navigating this new crisis. I know it's hit plenty of other industries hard. Restaurants are on the front lines. Tour companies, hotels, neighborhood shops... really the whole tourism infrastructure has been disrupted or shut down indefinitely. At the same time, the outpouring of phone calls, texts, and emails I've gotten from people has been really heartwarming. One thing so many of them have asked is "how can we help?" I've been answering everyone individually, but thought it might be timely and helpful to expand these into a blog.  

Order Wine From Us
OK, this is probably pretty self-explanatory. Wineries are seeing two of their primary revenue streams disrupted right now. Tasting room sales, the lifeblood of the majority of California wineries, are going to zero. And wholesale sales are going to be seriously impacted too, as restaurants are forced to close or toward takeout. But from what I'm hearing, people are still definitely buying wine. Who wants to be stuck at home with leisure time to plan and cook meals for several weeks without the wine to accompany them? Wine shops and grocery stores have been reporting sharply increased sales in recent weeks, and that's great. These sales do help wineries, and help keep the distribution channel functioning. But if you are able to buy directly from the wineries you patronize, that's a lot better for them. If you had to cancel a trip to wine country, consider joining a wine club or two with the money you aren't spending on hotels and travel.

Support Restaurants Who Are Staying Open by Ordering Takeout
Restaurants are the hardest-hit businesses in these socially distanced times. Some are closing entirely. But others are pivoting to offering their menu for takeout. This list includes big name restaurants that made news for doing so, like Canlis in Seattle, Spago in Beverly Hills, and Balthazar in New York. But it also includes local favorites here in Paso (each linked to their announcements or carryout menu) like The Hatch, Il Cortile, Thomas Hill Organics, BL Brasserie, and La Cosecha. Will there be enough local business to make up for all the lost visitors to the area? Almost certainly not. But we can all do our part. Many jurisdictions have also announced a new easing of rules and allowed restaurants to sell wine to go. As wine programs are typically a big piece of a restaurant's profitability, ordering wine with your gourmet to-go meal can have several benefits. It keeps restaurants going, which benefits the entire community, and it helps wineries by reducing the loss to their wholesale sales. Plus, we all want these restaurants to be open when we're out the other side of the crisis, for lots of reasons.  

Share Your Experiences and Recommendations
One of the most important things that we lose when we close our tasting rooms and cancel our events is the chance to reach new customers who don't yet know that they'd love us. You can help bridge that gap by sharing on social media the wines that you're opening at home. There's a ton of research that shows that peer-to-peer recommendations are the most trusted in this day and age. In an environment where most wineries will struggle to get in front of potential new customers, just sharing a photo of a bottle you opened and loved can mean a lot. And talking about wine encourages engagement and other people talking about wine. There's a lot of story to wine, generally more than there is to other alcoholic beverages, because wines have an association to place, and to year, that beer and liquor generally don't. Thousands of these stories would normally be told every week in tasting rooms around the state and country. Instead, start one of your own, tag your favorite winery, and see where it takes you.

Stay in Touch
I've sent two emails to our entire mailing list (37,000-plus) in the last five days, sharing the changes that we've been making here at Tablas Creek. I can't tell you how much it means that so many people have taken the time to reply to say some variation of "hang in there". I honestly wasn't expecting that, though I probably should have. We know that we're losing many of the easy ways that we have to share what's going on here and help our customers feel connected to our work, and so will be moving toward more digital ways of communication. When you see these, if you felt like participating and interacting, we'd love to know what you think. A virtual tasting? Let's try it. A live-streamed report from the blending table? We'll see. An Instagram Live vineyard walk? You bet. We're all going to be learning how to preserve social ties through a period when face-to-face contact is restricted. Wineries are no different. 

Buy Gift Cards
While most wineries are keeping their shipping departments open, not all are. And not everyone is in a place to take delivery of wine right now. Restaurants and local shops are in even tougher positions. Buying gift cards right now, and redeeming them when the crisis is over, is a way of helping these small, local businesses survive a period of zero foot traffic. 

Self-Isolate
Mostly, though, the best thing that you can do for us is to take these restrictions seriously so that we can get through to the other side of this without major breakdowns of our health care system and our economy. If you have the choice, please be serious and conscientious about your isolating and your virus spread mitigation. I'm not going to repeat the whole list that begins with washing your hands a lot and not spending time around other people if you're sick. But it's all true, and the extent to which we all make the changes we're told are important will make a meaningful difference not just in the societal response to this pandemic, but to how fast we can all safely get back to our raising a glass... together.


Introducing a New Idea: Seasonal Pour Wine Kegs

Readers of this blog know that I'm a fan of offering wine in keg. There are lots of reasons. It's great for the customer because every one of the roughly 130 glasses in a 19.5L keg is as fresh as the first (unlike wines served by-the-glass from bottle, where the last pours are often oxidized). It's great for the restaurant and wine bars that serve it because there's no wasted wine from ends of bottles, and no empty bottles to deal with. It's great for wineries because they're not paying for the bottles, capsules, corks, and labels. And it's great for the environment because the packaging that would otherwise be created for short-term storage of wine, and then (ideally) recycled never gets created in the first place. We were proud indeed in 2018 to get a "Keggy" Award from our kegging partner Free Flow Wines for having kegged enough wine over the years to eliminate 100,000 bottles from being created, shipped, and destroyed again: 

Keggy award in the cellarYes, that mini-keg is the Keggy award. No, there was never any wine in it.

For the last decade, we've had the same lineup of wines available in keg, and we've worked hard to keep these wines -- our Patelin de Tablas red, white, and rosé -- in stock year-round. As those three wines form the core of what of ours gets poured by the glass in restaurants around the country, that makes sense to us. And the growth has been impressive, from just a few hundred kegs (still replacing thousands of bottles) in the early years to the roughly 1000 kegs we sold in 2019. We're planning to continue that program, and look forward to seeing it grow.

At the same time, we felt that we could be doing more with our keg program. While the majority of accounts still are using keg wines as their principal by-the-glass options, by-the-glass programs themselves have changed over the last decade. Printing costs used to be higher, reprinting wine lists used to be rarer, and accounts prioritized wines that they knew would still be available in three, six, or nine months. While there are still plenty of restaurants who value stability, more and more treat their by-the-glass lists as a treasure hunt, reprinting on an office laserwriter whenever necessary, or (more and more) just erasing a chalkboard and writing in something new. Far from it being a disincentive that only a few cases of something cool are available, it's become a selling point in many restaurants and wine bars.

The same impetus has spilled over into the world of keg wines. Accounts looking to change up their lists regularly have been reaching out to us and other wineries asking if we'd do custom kegging for them, small-production things that aren't available elsewhere. That's not really feasible for anything other than local accounts, and it's not ideal for the wines, as a single barrel produces roughly twelve kegs, most accounts don't want twelve kegs for programs like this, and what to do with remnant wine at less-than-barrel quantities is a real challenge. We don't just have wine sitting around waiting for someone to ask us to keg it up. Some wineries do, I know, but that's not us. But we have a new idea we're excited about. We've decided to do three small-batch keggings this year, each in 45-65 keg quantities. These will go up to the warehouse we share with our national marketing partners Vineyard Brands, and be available for any of our distributors to order. When they run out, we'll be ready with something else.

What, you ask, will we start with? Vermentino! Vermentino has always been a grape that we've felt would do well in keg because of its freshness and how well it drinks young. We actually did a custom Vermentino kegging several years ago, and it was delicious and well-received (at least until the restaurant we did it for changed wine directors, the new director took the program in a totally different direction, and we had to scramble to find new homes for the kegs we made). We kept 250 gallons out of our recent Vermentino bottling, and sent it up to our partners at Free Flow, who filled 47 kegs. The first 25 kegs are in stock in California, with the balance waiting to go out to some other key markets.

2019 Vermentino in tank

What's coming next? Counoise, we think. Of all our reds, Counoise seems best suited to kegging because of its light body and refreshingly bright flavors. We only had 250 gallons of Counoise after blending the 2018 vintage, and we're planning to put it all in keg sometime in May.

After that, we'll see. We need to get through blending this year before we know what will suggest itself. But I'd love to do another obscure white in early fall, maybe something like Clairette Blanche or Picardan.

We're excited about this new program. If you run a wine-on-tap program and are interested, grab them while they exist. And if you see one in your favorite restaurant or wine bar, order a glass and let us know what you think. Just don't get mad at us if the next time you go back, something else is available. After all, when they're gone, they're gone. And that's a big part of the fun.


Introducing a new wine club: the Esprit Club

We've had pretty much the same collection of wine clubs for most of the last decade. They are (with links to the club pages on our Web site):

  • The VINsider Wine Club. This is our main club begun and kept in more or less the same format since 2002, and probably the most familiar to most people. We pick six bottles we love in the spring and fall, and send them out to members at our standard wine club discount of 20% below list price, plus shipping and tax. Members have the opportunity to choose classic (mixed), red-only, or white-only shipments. 
  • The VINsider Wine Club Collector's Edition. We augment the fall VINsider club shipment with six extra bottles of Esprit, including a few additional bottles of the newest Esprit and Esprit Blanc and a small collection of older Esprit and Esprit Blanc that we've been aging in our cellars. Because that shipment is a case, we bump up the discount to 25% (our case discount for VINsider members), and because it contains six or more bottles of Esprit wines, we include no-charge shipping. We've had a waiting list for this since its second year, and because we only have so much wine in our library, I suspect we always will have to cap membership.
  • The VINdependent Wine Club. For people who don't want preconfigured shipments or want a lesser commitment, all we require is that members purchase a minimum of six bottles per year. Because the commitment is less, the discounts are a bit less too: 10% from bottle one, and 20% on orders of a case of more. If members get to the end of the year and haven't met the 6-bottle commitment, we offer them a choice of three shipments: mixed (the default), red-only, and white only, or the opportunity to configure their own order. We let them know that if we don't hear back from them, they'll get the default shipment.

While I think we have something for almost everyone, there are a couple of sorts of fans for whom none of the above clubs are a perfect fit. One is the cohort of VINdependent Club members who really just want our flagship wines. They typically put together an order of Esprit (and sometimes Panoplie) once a year, to take advantage of the 20% case discount. But they reasonably point out that their order is more valuable to us than most VINsider orders, and wonder why they aren't getting the 25% case discount. The second is our super-fans, who are in the Collector's Edition club and often reach out to us to add additional wines (mostly Esprits) to their spring shipment to get to the point where their shipping is included. They reasonably wonder why they can't get the case discount on their spring club shipment (our software doesn't process club shipments that way).

At the same time, I've felt for a while that we don't do quite enough to elevate the Esprit de Tablas. When you think of Ridge, for all the wonderful wines they make, if you're asked to name a collectible wine, you likely choose Monte Bello. If you think of Justin, you likely think of Isosceles. If you think of Joseph Phelps, you likely recognize Insignia. From my conversations with our fans and our supporters among restaurant and retail buyers, the general consensus is that if it says Tablas Creek, they're going to like it, but that they don't distinguish all that much between the different blends we make. I can't tell you how many times I've had someone tell me they had one of our wines at a restaurant, I ask them which one, and they can't remember. (Or they say Panoplie when they mean Patelin, but that's another story).

Overall, I think this is a good thing. I'm very happy that whether it's Patelin, Cotes, or Esprit, people feel confident that a Tablas Creek blend will be great. But I also think this is a missed opportunity. We really don't think that all three of our main blends are equal. We blend first for the Esprit, and that wine is made up of the best 15%-20% of what we taste in our blending trials. And, the focus grapes of the blend are meaningful, as both Esprits are based on the signature grapes of Beaucastel. We feel that the Esprit is the most tangible connection in our work to the pioneering tradition personified by Jacques Perrin's pursuit of Mourvedre and Roussanne (and the quest to find and regenerate all the traditional varieties of Chateauneuf du Pape) in the 1950s. As my dad says in this video from 2017, it's the wine we came to California to make:

If you combine the fact that we want a club for our superfans, want to give collectors of the Esprit de Tablas wines a home, are looking to give the Esprit wines a higher profile in our marketing, and have noted that we're getting to the point where we're having to choose where to allocate out the limited amount of Esprit that we've got, it seems like an Esprit Club could do all of those things. So, here goes.

We have decided to keep the new Esprit Club simple. Members will get a case of the newest vintage of Esprit de Tablas (red) each spring, at a 25% member savings off of the list price and with no-charge shipping included. That's it. Easy. If our Esprit club members are also members of our VINsider Club they'll get that spring shipment at the additional discount and also with shipping included. Joint Esprit-Collector's Edition Club members (read: those superfans) will get the 25% savings and included shipping on both shipments, which only feels appropriate. 

Esprit Vertical

If you're interested in being a part of the inaugural year of the Esprit club and getting your case of the 2017 Esprit de Tablas, you can read the details of the club and sign up here. If you have feedback on the idea, or other things you'd like us to implement, please leave the suggestions in the comments.