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October 2020

What We're Drinking with Thanksgiving 2020

I am, in normal times, a big fan of Thanksgiving. It's a holiday that brings extended family together for a day of cooking, eating, and reflecting on what we're grateful for. Of course, 2020 is not a normal year. This year, family gatherings will (really should!) be smaller. If you're not traveling to help curb the spread of Covid, thank you. It's a sacrifice. Traditions are important markers in our lives, and choosing to break a tradition that is meaningful is hard. But it's also essential this year, with case rates already surging around the country and a vaccine coming in the not-too-distant future. We've made it most of the way through this marathon. Let's not stumble on the home stretch.

Because of the smaller gatherings, some of the traditional Thanksgiving meals are likely to be less common. What's a family of four going to do with a turkey? In some ways, that is likely to make pairing easier. 2020 Thanksgiving meals are likely to be less sprawling, with only a few side dishes rather than the near-dozen I know we've had in recent years. And really, no wine goes particularly well with sweet potato casserole or brussels sprouts. But if arriving at a perfect pairing isn't a realistic goal in even a normal Thanksgiving, it's definitely not the point in 2020. I loved Dave McIntyre's Thanksgiving column in the Washington Post that suggested this year you open a wine that had meaning not because of what it tasted like, or what you spent on it, but because of a memory you have about how it came to you. That's also a good reminder not to be too precious about the pairing. Open a range of wines. Expect each of them to sing with a dish or two, coexist peacefully enough with another, and maybe clash with something. That can be fun, and instructive. Don't feel bad about having wine leftovers, along with your food. You'll likely learn something, and have fun along the way. And if you're still stressing after reading all these recommendations, I refer you to the 2016 piece on W. Blake Gray's blog where he set up a simple 5-question quiz to answer the question "is this wine good for Thanksgiving". I'm sure I haven't gone through every possible combination, but I've never gotten any answer other than "yes".

OK, now that I've told you any choice is perfectly fine, it's only fair that I acknowledge my own preferences. After all, there are wines that I tend to steer clear of, like wines that are powerfully tannic (which tend to come off even more so when they're paired with some of the sweeter Thanksgiving dishes), and wines that are high in alcohol (which tend to be fatiguing by the end of what is often a marathon of eating and drinking). But that still leaves you plenty of options. With a traditional turkey dinner, I tend to steer people toward richer whites and rosés, and fruitier reds relatively light in oak and tannin. Plenty of Tablas Creek wines fit these broad criteria, so if you want to stay in the family, you could try anything from Marsanne and Esprit Blanc to Dianthus Rosé to Counoise or Cotes de Tablas. Richer red meat preparations open up a world of Mourvedre-based reds young or old, from Esprit de Tablas to Panoplie to En Gobelet, which just (say it out loud) sounds like something you should be drinking at this time of year.  

But I'm just one person. As I've done the last several years, I reached out to our team to ask them what they were planning on drinking this year. Their responses are below, in their own words, in alphabetical order.

Roast Chicken with Volnay

Janelle Bartholomew, Wine Club Assistant
As we approach Thanksgiving this year, I am reminded how fortunate my family is to be able to share this day together. As many people across the globe have endured such hardship in 2020, my gratitude for a healthy family is immense. People are spending this holiday season quarantined, and possibly without loved ones by their side. If anyone reading this has endured hardship this year, my thoughts and heart are with you all. On our table for the very first time I get to enjoy my rare (and only) bottle of Tablas Creek Bourboulenc!  When I tasted the wine for the first time last spring I thought it would be great for Thanksgiving. In addition to the Bourboulenc, I decided on a Domaine de la Voûte des Crozes Côte de Brouilly, Beaujolais. Whether you are enjoying the holiday surrounded by family, or laughing with family via Zoom, I hope everyone has a happy Thanksgiving.

Charlie Chester, Senior Assistant Tasting Room Manager
In these weird times my Thanksgiving day plans have been up in the air. I am pretty sure Brandon and I are traveling down to Carpinteria to spend time with my sister and my 9 and 11 year old nephews. It should be a good time watching the kids play.  We most likely will not go through too much wine because it will be just my sister and I drinking because my brother in law will be working at the fire station and my dad has opted out due to COVID and will be playing it safe with his wife and her 95 year old mother. I am thinking of bringing two bottles, 2012 Esprit Blanc, my favorite vintage of this wine. I remember Roussanne shining through with its wonderful honey characteristics.  And just to balance things out I will bring a 2016 TCV Grenache another one of my recent favorites.

COVID sucks and family gatherings are not what they used to be.  Don't get me wrong, a mellow Turkey Day is fine with me and seeing my four and a half year old son bonding with/tormenting his older cousins is something I am looking forward to indeed.

Austin Collins, Cellar Assistant
Due to the "complexities" of this year the holidays bear a somewhat hollow feeling. Nonetheless, the drinking must continue. Original travel plans have been cancelled and backcountry maps have been unfolded. For this year, Thanksgiving will be spent in the woods. Exact locations are not specific but, the beverages need be. Lugging 750 mL glass bottles for miles and miles on your back is not really ideal. Thus, I am opting for the canned wine option this year. I will be bringing a selection of canned wines including but not limited to, a HYKIT Wines 4-pack, that should be sufficient for the adventure. But, once the trek is complete and the bags unpacked yet again there is one wine that must always make an appearance at Thanksgiving, a final stamp of completion. One, or maybe two, magnums of Domaine Dupeuble Beaujolais Nouveau. Happy Thanksgiving!!!

Neil Collins, Executive Winemaker
Well as always there will be a healthy supply of Bristols Cider on hand. I think we will begin with some Lone Madrone Pet Nat of Chenin Blanc. Moving into a rosé from Gros Noré, a Fixin Burgundy from Domaine Mongeard-Mugneret, and of course a magnum of 2015 Esprit De Tablas!! I opened a bottle this week to try and it was singing!!! Maybe a Warre's Otima around the fire at days end. Happy Thanksgiving all, be safe and be thankful.

Ian Consoli, Media and Marketing
This year my family will be having a bottle of the 2017 Esprit de Tablas Blanc with our Thanksgiving meal. It has been tasting phenomenal in the tasting room of late and I can fully imagine it melting into a forkful of turkey dipped in mashed potatoes and Mama's gravy. I'm still up in the air about a red. I drank through my supply of Counoise (a turkey day go-to) so looking at possibly a Thacher Cinsault to take its place.

Darren Delmore, National Sales Manager
Over the past couple years I've developed a slight interest in natural wines - meaning wines that are grown organically and receive no added yeast, acid, fining, filtration and often no sulfites. Finding one that didn't look like a hazy IPA or wasn't capable of removing toenail polish put me off in the beginning, but the best producers around the globe are now taking pride in producing cleaner, faultless versions. I curbside picked-up a bottle of Matassa 2019 Cuvee Romanissa Rouge from Domaine LA, made by natural wine god Tom Lubbe in the Cotes Catalanes zone of southern France. It's a light-colored blend of Carignane and Lledoner Pelut, an obscure grape that loosely translates as ‘hairy Grenache’. Maybe Neil and the boys will have to dust off the grafting station to bring that furry varietal into the Tablas mix! 

Chelsea Franchi, Senior Assistant Winemaker
I always love Thanksgiving; spending time with family to take pause and reflect on the gifts in our lives, but this year, my gratitude is too immense to do anything but let it wash over me.  I’ll be spending the holiday kissing the ten tiny fingers and ten tiny toes of our new baby girl and trying to understand how I could have ever become so fortunate. 

I usually try to open bottles from other wineries during the holidays, but this year, it’s important to me to drink Tablas Creek.  Not only to feel a little closer to all the wonderful  coworkers I’ve been missing during maternity leave and the crazy whirlwind that has been COVID, but also to appreciate how lucky I am to work for such an upstanding organization that takes care of its people and its community. We’ll be foregoing the turkey this year in favor of prime rib, and will be opening a bottle of 2007 Panoplie that we’ve been patiently waiting to open.  What better time than 2020 to open the good stuff you’ve been holding onto?!  

Eddie Garcia, Logistics
In our household, I have people who enjoy great wine. And all though this year has been what it has been, Thanksgiving is going to be a time where we all can sit at the table and toast to what we have going on in our lives. Health and family. And to be honest, I’m ready to enjoy this time together. I have a couple bottles that I have set aside for dinner that night including a 2015 “Chapter One” Napa Valley Cabernet from Ernest Hemingway Vineyards.  And a 2016 Brecon Feral Underclass. Both are no doubt not going to disappoint! Have a happy, healthy, and safe Thanksgiving!

Jody Gomes, Accounts Payable & Compliance
For my small family of four, Thanksgiving 2020 isn’t looking too different than in previous years. My parents, my fiancée, and I will spend all day in the kitchen cooking up a lavish meal which will be consumed in roughly 30 minutes. The highlight of the meal will of course be the wine selections. Since 2020 has been a rough year for everyone, why not open up some bottles we have stashed away. While the turkey is browning in the oven my Dad and Fiancée will have their regular Tanqueray on the rocks with olives while my Mom and I will open a bottle of 2012 Domaine Carneros Le Reve, my personal favorite sparkling from California. As a rule of thumb, sticking to a lighter and low alcohol wine usually pairs best with the heavy dinner courses. The Counoise from Tablas Creek has been a staple on my table for the last several years. The notes of bright fruit and subtle spices make for a delightful medium bodied wine that pairs perfectly with every dish on the table. Historically, one bottle of wine is never enough, we will also open a bottle of 2017 Pinot Noir from Odonata Wines. One bottle in particular I am anxiously looking forward to opening will be served after dinner where I can relax and appreciate each sip. This 2008 Petit Verdot from Geddes Wines in McLaren Vale, South Australia, was gifted to me by the Winemaker/Owner during a visit to their cellar door several years ago with my now Fiancée. It was a special trip filled with lots of wonderful memories, it is only fitting I share those memories and wine with my family during a year that has lacked memories.

I am looking forward to spending time with my small family, sharing stories and laughter. I hope everyone has a great Thanksgiving holiday filled with good times and even better wine! Cheers!

Barbara Haas, Founder
Rebecca will go down to the cellar and choose an "oldie-goldie" Burgundy for the dinner, and we will hopefully have a Dianthus for aperitif and add a nice Tablas white to the Thanksgiving table to bridge the gap between roaster chicken with chestnut stuffing and cranberry jelly and Brussels sprouts and potato and celery root puree. We might open a sweet wine with dessert when we decide on what we're having. This is not the most obsessive, buttoned-up Thanksgiving dinner ever.

Ray King, Tasting Room
I’m planning on bringing the Patelin Rosé, Cotes rouge, Cotes Blanc, Esprit rouge and Esprit Blanc for my family’s outdoor Thanksgiving celebration. Cheers, Ray

Monica O'Connor, Direct Sales Manager
Well, I was very excited looking forward to opening my 2009 Nuits-St-Georges “Les Plateaux”, which I’ve been saving for a special occasion such as what this Thanksgiving might have been.

But alas, there will be no gathering as planned, so I’ll be opening a Gruet Brut (375ml) and toast over Zoom with far-flung with friends and family on the east coast. After which I’ll be curling up with my new book, A Promised Land. Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Gustavo Prieto, Cellar, Vineyard, and Tasting Room
Well, this Thanksgiving is going to be different, less people at the table, eating outside. And for the wines, we’ll start with something fresh, a cremant de Loire, Amirault NV, followed by one of my favorite wines, the Esprit de Tablas Blanc. The vintage? I haven’t decided. For its richness and texture it can take on almost any food, especially for thanksgiving with the mix of flavors. And for the red I’m thinking a bottle of Counoise 2017, with its bright fruit, good acidity and medium body it’s definitely a wine that can complement many foods. Happy Thanksgiving!

Amanda Weaver, Cellar Assistant
Usually I have 3 to 4 bottles in my bag when I show up to Thanksgiving dinner, ready to share with relatives and friends alike, but this year with our gathering being so small I think 3 to 4 bottles might be a tad too ambitious. So instead I think I will pare it down to 2 bottles, a white and a red. For the white I tend to gravitate toward something bright and zippy to get the palate refreshed and ready for the onslaught of gravy covered mashed potatoes, stuffing, and nut loaf (I should probably mention our meal will be Vegan, hence, nut loaf). In keeping with that idea, 2018 Domaine Hippolyte Reverdy Sancerre will be joining the festivities. I came across this producer while in Sancerre, a quiet vineyard tucked into one of the many side roads of the village. Luckily, Julie Guiard was hanging about when we arrived and took us through the entire story of her family’s vineyard and how she herself was now taking the reins and hoping to leave her mark on this new generation of wines. Needless to say, I got out of there with half a case of her wines! And lucky for you, Kermit Lynch is an importer for Domaine Hippolyte Reverdy so you don’t just have to take my word, you can get out there and enjoy it yourself! Okay, onto the red! For reds I have to go with another favorite of mine, 2016 A Tribute to Grace Shake Ridge Ranch Grenache. Honestly, any Grenache from Angela Osborne would be a stunning addition to good food and good company, but this specific bottle sticks out to me for its complexity. Her wines have a lovely softness without being a pushover, they stand their ground while still invite you to explore deeper. I highly recommend visiting her tasting room in Los Alamos to really wrap your head around how cool these wines are!

And with that I leave you to ponder your own wine pairings and what you are most excited about and thankful for this season! Cheers!

Lizzy Williams, Tasting Room
This year I'm spending Thanksgiving with my husband and five dogs, hiking on the 90 acres we live on. We will have a picnic, hopefully with most of the traditional Thanksgiving sides. When it comes to opening a drink, I have a bottle of aged Esprit Rouge and a couple of '18 Cotes Blanc; however, I couldn't justify opening my favorite wines on a hike. We will be having the Castoro Zinfandel and Merlot grape juice. The nice wine will be saved for the next chance I have to share with friends.

And as for me...
Typically, my choice is to open the largest bottle I have to hand at Thanksgiving gatherings. There's usually a story behind a big bottle, and the randomness of "just open it" adds a certain amount of pleasurable discovery to the gathering, as well as the festivity that large bottles bring. But with just three adults, that doesn't seem like a great idea. So, I'll try to follow Dave McIntyre's advice and pick wines that make me want to remember 2020. Maybe the 2019 Bourboulenc to start, helping celebrate that 2020 was the year we got a harvest off all the 14 grapes of the Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape collection for the first time. Plus, with its bright acids and nutty flavors, it seems like a great match for the capon we're cooking in lieu of a turkey.

As for reds, I'm leaning toward bookends both inspired by the California Wine Institute's Behind the Wines series I had the pleasure of being a part of twice this year, early on with Bob Lindquist and then in the finale with Morgan Twain Peterson. I think I'll open a bottle of Bob's Lindquist Family Wines Grenache, all bright fruit and translucent elegance, and a bottle of one of Morgan's Bedrock Heritage Vineyard blends. Mostly Zinfandel, but (as I learned in the lead-up to our session) with grapes as diverse as Mataro, Grenache, Carignane, and even Vaccarese in the blend, it seems like an appropriately American combination for this quintessentially American holiday. Plus, it's full of character, spicy and fruity, earthy and intriguing without being heavy-handed in any way.

It feels right, in the uncertainty and challenges of 2020, to celebrate the community of American wine. As Bob and Morgan demonstrate in their own ways, there is inspiring work being done in American wine on many fronts. We're fortunate to still have Bob, one of the founders of the Rhone Rangers movement we inhabit, making wines that are as soulful and expressive as anything he's ever done. And we're fortunate to have Morgan diving into the heritage vineyards that helped establish California wine, sharing what he's learning, and using that to make quintessentially American wines of balance and character. I am thankful for this community I get to be a part of and, in a weird way, for the opportunities we've had because of 2020 to interact in new ways with the inspiring people in my own sphere, and with new fans around the country and world. It's a privilege to be a part of such a rich tradition, and to help shape its future.

Wherever you are, we wish you a happy, healthy Thanksgiving, and that you are able to find things to celebrate.


Down to the Roots: The Appeal of Biochar

By Jordan Lonborg

For those of you who are tapped into the world of regenerative farming, or if you are a scholar in the study of ancient Amazonian agricultural farming tactics, biochar is probably a familiar term. If not, let me explain. Biochar is an ancient tool used to increase the fertility of the soil that has started to make a comeback in today’s regenerative farming world. At its essence, biochar is essentially a form of charcoal that is incorporated into compost or directly into the soil profile as a means of storing carbon and nutrients and increasing your soil’s moisture holding capacity.

One of the reasons biochar is making such a huge comeback in today’s regenerative farming world is that it is fairly easy to make. You start with a biomass, in our case, grapevine prunings and fallen logs and brush that we’ve collected while cleaning our forest understory to keep our fire risks down. Add some kind of receptacle, or even just a cone-shaped hole in the ground. You then light the fuel on fire burning the material from the top on down. The gases that are contained in that biomass beneath the fire combust and burn off, but leave almost all the carbon behind. If done properly, there is very little Carbon Dioxide released into the atmosphere (imagine a smokeless fire if you will). Once the fire has burned through your pile of biomass, you are left with a form of nearly pure carbon or biochar. This would be the simplest way of creating biochar for small producers. There are many other forms of production as well. There are larger kiln style burners all the way to industrial style setups that companies like Pacific Biochar are using. But in all cases, the idea is that you are turning raw fuel into a stable form of carbon as efficiently as possible.

Biochar - piles

Beyond its carbon capturing ability, biochar improves your soil in several ways. Because of its crystalline structure, one gram of biochar can contain – conservatively – over 2000 square feet of surface area. That surface area has the ability to hold on to both nutrients and water molecules and release them slowly, over time as needed. These properties are very similar to those of limestone. Both limestone and biochar are essentially banks and whenever our grapevines need a little cash, they are able to access the needed resources easily. A recent 3-year study conducted by Monterey Pacific Inc. showed that using biochar in conjunction with compost increased both grapevine yield and soil water holding capacity.

Last year, we ran a biochar trial very similar to Monterey Pacific’s here at Tablas Creek. We incorporated ten tons of biochar into some of the compost we made here on the property. We then took that biochar/compost mix and spread it out on the ground of our pig pen. Next, we moved our sheep into that pen and fed them feed harvested from the property on top of the mix for 3 days:

Biochar - Grazing sheep

We gathered that compost/biochar/manure mix and spread in our trial block. In the trial block we left 2 rows untreated, treated 2 rows with just compost, 2 rows with compost/biochar mix, and 2 rows with the compost/biochar/manure mix, repeated 3 times (18 rows total). We then seeded all rows with cover crop. It did not take a trained eye to see the difference between the rows that were treated and those that were not. The cover crops were happy in all the rows, but those that had the bio-char and compost mix (like the row on the left in the photo below) had a cover crop that was considerably taller than the rest of the block.

Biochar - Growth from application
Beyond the fact that biochar has the ability to increase yields of grapevines and soil moisture holding capacity, onsite production of biochar provides an alternative to the burn piles that pollute the air in many farm areas while also releasing massive amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. Every farming property has to deal with biomass collected from the previous growing season. But choosing to produce biochar with that biomass is a win-win, creating a product that helps our vineyard while significantly reducing air pollution and CO2 release.

Up to this point, we’ve been purchasing biochar for our experiments. In the next couple of months, we’ll be designing a small kiln to trial here on the property. We want to get a feel for the cost, safety, and efficiency of the process. But we feel great about the prospects for this experiment. Whatever canes are left after chipping what we need for our compost program, we will turn into biochar. Whatever wood we collect while clearing the understory of the property to reduce fire hazard and improve access for our flock, we will turn into biochar. The biochar we create will be incorporated into our compost, aerating the pile and helping the composting process, which proceeds better in the presence of oxygen.

So, what do we think the impacts of biochar will be? Better soil fertility and water-holding capacity. A healthier compost pile. Reduced fire hazard and more grazeable land for our herd. Good conditions for the re-growth of native vegetation. More carbon in the soil and less (perhaps dramatically less) CO2 produced. Win-win-win-win-win.

Farm Like the World Depends On It

Biochar - overview


Tracking the Changing of the Seasons: November Brings Transformation

There are long stretches of the year when the look of the vineyard doesn't change much. Can you tell August from May? Not easily. Some of the grapes will have changed colors. The leaves of the vines might not be quite as vibrant a green. How about March from January? Maybe in the length of the cover crop, unless our sheep have been through. Maybe in the quality of the sun. But it's subtle. Not November. That's a month of rapid, visible transformation, as we get our first frosts, the vine leaves go from green to brown to missing, and (hopefully) we see the first shoots of green, with the arrival of our winter rains.

I took a long walk around the vineyard yesterday to gather material for my Wednesday Instagram Live broadcast, and was struck by how different things looked after three nights of lows in the 20s than they did just a week ago. Check out this side-by-side, from between the same rows of Syrah. The photo on the left was from a week ago, and the photo on the right from yesterday:

Syrah rows before frost cropped Syrah rows after frost cropped

Before you start worrying, this is totally normal, and healthy. Frost is a signal to the grapevines that they don't need to expend any further energy maintaining leaves and ripening fruit, and instead should store carbohydrates in their root systems for the next year. Years where we don't get a hard freeze before it starts raining can be a problem, as vines expend energy that they should be conserving for the next spring in new growth that will just get frozen later.

Although we got a little rain last weekend, the two-tenths of an inch didn't have any impact that I could see other than having cleaned off our solar panels. But with more rain forecast for next week, it was a good reminder that we needed to get the vineyard put to bed. One of the pieces of this effort involves laying out straw on the hillside roads (which are less porous than the vineyard, and therefore erosion risks) so they don't become seasonal creekbeds:

Straw on vineyard road

We're also getting ready for the winter's planting. It's going to be a big year for us, with some 15 acres scheduled to go into the ground. One of the blocks we're most excited to get replanted is the block below, which was the site of our original Mourvedre vines, planted from American-sourced cuttings in 1992. It's a terrific site, just below the top of our tallest hill, but the clones themselves were weak, and even grafting French cuttings onto them some 15 years ago didn't produce wine of the quality of our other top blocks. So, two years ago we pulled it out, and have left it fallow until it will get new, high quality Mourvedre plants this winter. It's not even quite two acres, but we have high hopes for it:

Cleared ex-Mourvedre AV

Maybe the most exciting development each November is the beginning of lambing season. We try to time it so that they're born just before the cover crop sprouts, so that when they're growing the food is at its most plentiful. We're still supplementing with the fodder we harvested and baled last winter, but hopefully not for much longer. I hope you're ready for lots of baby lamb pictures over the next few months.

First lamb of 2020

I'll leave you with my favorite photo that I took yesterday, looking down through our oldest Grenache block, over Counoise (to the right of the row of olive trees) and Tannat (on the valley floor), and to Roussanne and eventually Muscardin on the far hillside. The color palette is unique to November, with golds and browns and oranges, not much green to be found, the overcast sky we only see in winter, but subtle and beautiful in its own right. Bring on winter.

Long Autumn View from Top of Vineyard


How to reopen tasting rooms indoors (more) safely... and why we won't be, at least at first

Since we reopened our tasting room in June, we've been operating outside only. Why? It's much, much safer. Even though in June we could have chosen to open indoors, we decided outdoors was the only way that we were comfortable. The state of California, a month later, made the same determination, and has required outdoor-only operation for winery tasting rooms ever since.

Fast forward five months. California's reopening plan has evolved as more science became available, eventually settling where it is now, with four different color-coded stages measuring county-level Covid risk, from yellow (minimal) through orange (moderate) and red (substantial) to purple (widespread). Since the plan was released, all the wine country counties have been in purple or red, both of which limit winery tasting rooms to outside operation only. But with San Luis Obispo County approaching the threshold of orange (moderate) Covid risk, and Napa and Marin counties already there, we're again in a period where wineries will have the option of choosing to offer indoor tastings. But should we? I am skeptical. 

Closed TR Looking Toward Door

There is a terrific interactive graphic in El Pais that models the likelihood of Covid transmission under various indoor environments, including private living rooms, bars, and schools. These models are based on research by José Luis Jiménez, an atmospheric chemist at the University of Colorado and an expert in the chemistry and dynamics of air particles. It makes for fascinating and helpful reading, whether you're a business owner thinking of how to design the safest-possible spaces, a customer deciding what sorts of businesses are safe to patronize, or a government administrator determining which sorts of businesses can safely reopen.

Jiménez's research demonstrates that it is ventilation first, and proximity second, that is the most important determinant of transmission. The analogy in the piece that I found most helpful was to think of the aerosol clouds that are the principal form of Covid transmission as like smoke. If a room doesn't have good air flow, and people are in it for an extended period, whether you're within a few feet or across the room won't make much difference. The clouds of aerosols will permeate a space, and eventually even render masks ineffective. Actions like shouting or singing, or not wearing masks, increase the speed with which those aerosols are produced and enter the environment. The flow of fresh air determines how fast those aerosols dissipate. 

The fact that your risk of infection is determined by the viral load you inhale means that it's not a binary do-you-come-into-contact-with-a-Covid-particle question. It's a how-much-virus-do-you-come-into-contact-with question. This is why outdoor activities carry very low risk unless you're right next to an infectious carrier for an extended period: fresh air keeps the concentrations of potentially infectious aerosols low. So, if a winery is considering moving back into their indoor tasting room, what should they do?

  • Maximize air flow and ventilation. First and foremost, I would be doing everything I could to keep outside air moving inside. Open doors and windows, and make sure the air is flowing in, with fans if it's not moving naturally. This isn't just for your tasting room; when I get into our office I make sure we have as many windows and doors open as possible, and I ask the rest of our team to do the same.
  • Install high quality purification HVAC systems. Not every room has great access to outside air. And that definitely increases the risks. But there are still ways that you can keep fresh air flowing in an interior room. At Tablas Creek, to protect everyone in our offices as best we can, we've put in UV air purifiers as a part of our HVAC system. You can get a similar protective effect from filters, though because the filters that can filter out aerosol particles are quite dense, they may require upgrades in fans and these filters need to be changed regularly. HVAC systems have been shown to spread Covid if not upgraded, so it's not as simple as just making sure that existing fans are on. 
  • Focus on seated tastings. Bar tastings are problematic for the same reason bars are problematic. The format puts your customers face-to-face, unmasked, in close proximity to your staff. In that situation, even increased fresh air flow may not be enough to protect them. A seated tasting, like an encounter at a restaurant, makes maintaining distance easier. It also means that the amount of time spent in close proximity (remember, accumulation of exposure matters) is less.
  • Limit the number of people in a room at once. Obviously, the fewer people you have in your space, the lower the chances that anyone, at any time, is infected. It's also essential if you hope to maintain distancing. But beyond those considerations, it also reduces the volume at which everyone has to speak to make themselves heard. Because shouting releases something like five times as many aerosols as speaking in a normal voice, reducing the ambient noise level is an important consideration. If you can also install noise-reducing insulation, that's worth considering too.
  • Make sure people are wearing masks consistently and properly. This is especially important for your own team, and for guests when they're moving around your space and past other guests. If your air flow is good, you're just trying to make sure that no one ever gets a blast of infected aerosols or (god forbid) the larger respiratory particles that the CDC was initially most concerned with, and which spurred the 6-foot social distancing guideline. Masks are great at slowing and minimizing aerosols, and almost totally effective at eliminating respiratory droplets.   

So, given all that, what would the safest indoor tasting look like? It would be a seated tasting, given plenty of space, in a room with good outside air flow. Honestly, not all that different from what most of us have been doing outside, except inside. But I still don't think we'll be moving inside as soon as the state says we can.   

Why? Our space isn't ideally set up for that sort of optimally-safe indoor experience. We designed our tasting room to be surrounded by the cellar, with big windows that show the work that's going on. The two exterior doors are pretty close to one another, both toward the same corner of what is essentially a big, square room. It wouldn't be easy to get the air from outside into that space. And the cellar spaces are designed to be well-insulated, exactly the opposite of the well-ventilated rooms we would want.

There's also the question of the physical space. Our main tasting room has built-in bars around the outside and a permanent merchandise installation in the middle of the room. Because I feel that standing bar tastings are an unacceptable risk, we'd be left with a room that's unsuited to the sort of tasting we'd want to offer. I could see us using our smaller semi-private room (which we previously reconfigured for seated tastings) because the space works and we have big doors to our patio we could open. But that's only big enough for maybe 3 tables, distanced, and right now it's also the space we're using to stage all the glasses and bottles we're using in the flights we're offering, because it's closest to the patios where everyone is sitting. Putting tables in there would make it harder to serve the (much larger) patio spaces.

Plus, and I keep coming back to this, wine tasting is a non-essential activity. Sure, it's a fun and pleasant activity. And it's good for our bottom line. But I don't think that's enough: our risk has to be exceptionally low in order for me to feel comfortable with us operating. That's a high threshold. As we're operating now, outdoors only, well spaced, with good cleaning and sanitizing protocols, groups limited to 6 or fewer, and with all our people masked (and our guests masked unless they're seated at their tables) I think we clear that threshold. The fact that we haven't had a single case of Covid among any of our tasting room team, over thousands of interactions over the last five-plus months, bears that out.

But as the evolving Covid safe-operation guidelines have shown, just because the state or county (or even the CDC) says you can do something, doesn't mean that it's a good idea. We opened outdoors-only in June, even though the state said indoor tastings were allowed. A month later, they changed their guidance and everyone had to move outside. I am still committed to a cautious approach. We've invested in heaters and will be covering over the rest of the top level of our patio so we have more space that's available to us if it rains. Most winter days in Paso Robles are nice enough that with a little extra heat, being outside is a pleasure. If we have to close a few days because it's stormy, I'm willing to do that. It's better than opening in a configuration that puts us, and our guests, at risk.

So, if you're looking forward to visiting Tablas Creek this winter, bring a jacket, and plan to check the conditions. It will most likely be lovely; winter here is my favorite season. And at the very least, you can be confident you'll be enjoying a social activity that doesn't put yourself or anyone else at risk.