Last week, I made a small appearance in Eric Asimov's excellent assessment of how the various disruptions caused by the Coronavirus are impacting American wine producers. If you haven't read For American Wine Producers, Fear, Uncertainty and Hope go read it now. OK, welcome back.
The article included a photo (right) from Eric’s last visit to Tablas Creek, in the depths of the 2012-2016 drought. The 2015 article that resulted noted that at Tablas Creek, "the vineyard has managed to thrive despite the drought." And that's true. We had a string of excellent harvests as the drought really took hold, with each of 2014, 2015 and 2016 producing memorable wines across three different vintage signatures.
Re-reading the article today, I don't think I emphasized to Eric enough that we made it through that drought not principally because of our location (though we do get more rain here than much of the Central Coast, thanks to our location at altitude, in the Santa Lucia foothills, and relatively close to the Pacific) but because of a series of extraordinary actions we took to reduce our demand for water.
These included rethinking how we planted new vineyard (much more widely spaced) so that we could set them up for success dry-farmed. It included new, deeper-rooting rootstocks. It included micro-emitters for frost protection. And it included investing in cover crops and a much larger animal flock. The flock and cover crop together increase our soil’s carbon content, which allows it to hold more moisture. In Paso Robles, we don’t have a water table at root-available depth, and it doesn’t rain for six months every year. The soil is our reservoir, if we allow it to be. [For a deep dive into how our farming changed during the drought, check out my 3-part series Dry Farming in California's Drought.]
Why mention this now? While the outside shock is different, we’re in the middle of another shock right now that is forcing us to rethink how we operate. Coronavirus is a demand shock rather than a supply shock like a drought, but we’re having to reinvent ourselves as a business the way we did as a farm last decade.
Without many of the ways we’ve always interacted with customers (tasting room, events, festivals) we’re investing in new technology. The first things we rolled out utilize the live interactive capabilities of our social media platforms. I've been hosting Instagram Live broadcasts every Wednesday at noon PDT, inviting a guest to dive into the world of Tablas Creek. Neil has started hosting weekly tastings on Facebook Live, also with a guest, of two wines each Friday at 5pm PDT. Our tasting room has launched virtual Zoom tastings, where customers can choose a pre-made pack of half-bottles, order wines they want to open and discuss, or just taste through wines they have on hand, led by one of our senior tasting room team members. We've ramped up our investment in video; we've been adding a deep-dive into a recently released wine to our Chelsea and the Shepherd series each week, and now have a YouTube channel to collect them all.
What do all of these initiatives have in common? We're meeting customers where they are, instead of asking them to come to us. We didn't really have a choice; with our tasting room and restaurants closed, and events canceled both here at the winery and around the country, the typical avenues through which we'd interact with our customers are unavailable. But I'm convinced that many or most of these new initiatives will remain valuable enough to keep doing them even once we can reopen our tasting room, resume pouring at festivals and reschedule those restaurant wine dinners that we'd planned to host this spring. After all, we’d discussed doing, or even made starts on, many of these new initiatives before the arrival of Coronavirus, but this crisis made us attack these new programs with urgency.
All of these new initiatives have in common that they are location-independent. Of course, when you're stuck in your house, it doesn't really matter whether Tablas Creek is 30 miles away or 3000. But I'm convinced that the lessons we're learning will allow us to better connect with customers near and far. Even our local customers weren’t making weekly trips to visit us. What's more, the majority of our current customers and an even larger share of our potential customers don't live an easy drive from Paso Robles. In the periodic surveys we do to former wine club members, we always see responses that they weren't able to take advantage of the events we offered because of their distance from Paso Robles. We think of limitations like that as constant, but they're really not. We weren't utilizing the tools we had to offer opportunities to learn about and become more connected to what we're doing. But we are now.
After the drought ended, we realized that the new things we’d learned to do in the vineyard led to healthier vines, better fruit, and wines with more character even when they weren’t existentially necessary. I don’t think it’s coincidence that 2017-2019 is maybe our best-ever run.
I think we're going to see something similar here. Just as we emerged from the drought better farmers, so too will we come out of this crisis a stronger business and industry.