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Is it possible that we just released the first varietal Vaccarese bottling... ever?

Have I said recently how much I love my work? 

Vaccarese 2019 bottle against limestone wallThis week, we got to release our 2019 Vaccarese, the first bottling of our first vintage of this obscure Rhone red grape. I dove into its history in the blog Grapes of the Rhone Valley: Vaccarese last year, so I'm not going to rehash its full history here. If you'd like to refresh yourself on it, take a moment now. OK, welcome back.

But in getting from growing the grapes to making and bottling the wine to now, finally, getting to share it with our fans I've spent a fair amount of time looking for literature on Vaccarese. It barely exists. In her seminal and comprehensive Wine Grapes, Jancis Robinson dedicates barely three-quarters of a page to it (under its synonym Brun Argenté) and in the subheading calls it a "very minor southern Rhone variety". At just 12 hectares (about 30 acres) in France as of 2012, it's scarce. Most of that, Jancis reports, is in Chusclan, a minor appellation in the Gard, where it is known as Camarèse. (Yes, this grape is old enough that despite its scarcity now and as far as we can tell forever, it goes by three different names. Welcome to the challenges of being a grape ampelographer.) In Chusclan, it is generally blended with Grenache to make rosés. But its percentage is capped at 20%. So, you're not going to find a 100% Vaccarese from Chusclan.

How about Chateauneuf-du-Pape? Very unlikely. According to Harry Karis in his 2009 Chateauneuf-du-Pape Wine Book, there were 4.1 hectares (about 10 acres) in the entire appellation, representing just over one tenth of one percent of the 3,231 hectares planted. [Editor's note April 29th: It appears there may be one! See the comment below from Robert Parker Wine Advocate contributor Joe Czerwinski, reporting on a special cuvee from Chateau des Fines Roches called "Forget Me Not". The wine's page on the producer's website lists a blend of 90% Vaccarese and 10% Grenache. That's the closest we've yet found!]

For confirmation, I checked the Wine Searcher Pro, the industry-leading wine search engine, to see if any Vaccarese bottlings were listed. A global search returned just three results, one Cotes du Rhone for sale in Switzerland and two Chateauneuf-du-Papes, one for sale in Austria and another in Massachusetts. But in all three cases Vaccarese was the fourth or fifth variety in the blend. How rare does this make Vaccarese? Compare the limited results to a grape like Picpoul, which returns 2,720 listings. Grenache Blanc, rarely found on its own, returns 1,670 listings. Even Counoise returns 185 results. 

How about historically? It seems unlikely. Although the grape comes in for praise in Pierre Galet's 1990 ampelography Cépages et Vignobles de France, it's for its blending value. He quotes a winemaker who finds it "particularly interesting for moderating the alcoholic power of Grenache in the rosés of Chusclan and the red wines of Chateauneuf-du-Pape" (my translation). And while there was more acreage in 1990, according to Galet there were still just 40 hectares (100 acres). Going back to the Viala and Vermorel's 1901-1910 Ampélographie doesn't help. They don't have an entry for Vaccarese, instead listing it and a few alternate spellings in the index as "nonspecific names given to grape varieties in the Vaucluse". Brun Argenté is dismissed equally briefly in the index: "a grape variety from the Vaucluse, poorly described ampelographically" (both translations mine again). Camarèse doesn't even get an appearance in the index. So, it's pretty clear that at least for the last century Vaccarese has never been widely planted, or been a lead grape where it was.

So, where does that leave us? Forging our own way. And based on our experiences this week, where we've released the 2019 Vaccarese to our club members and been tasting the 2020 Vaccarese around the blending table, the grape has potential. My (brief) notes on the 2020 out of barrel were "Lovely dark color. Nose herby and savory. Mouth medium-weight, blackberry and chalk, rose hips and leather. Structured." It was good enough that we're going to use a portion of it in our 2020 Esprit de Tablas, in just its second year in production. That's rare for us. For more on that story, stay tuned for next week's blog, on this week's blending. But we'll still have enough to bottle perhaps 100 cases on its own, which I think is important for such a new grape. After all, we want help from other people wrapping their heads around this grape which is so new and so rare.

If any of you have ever had a 100% Vaccarese from anywhere, or even a Vaccarese-led wine, will you please let me know? We'd love to try it as a comparison. If not, and ours if your first, please let us know what you think!      

Vaccarese in row with sign

Have I said recently how much I love my work?


Virtual Wine Club Events are Awesome, and Everyone Should do Them

By Ian Consoli

This past weekend we completed our second virtual Wine Club pickup party at Tablas Creek, and I am fully convinced that everyone should be doing them. We have connected with hundreds of wine club members across the country, without leaving the vineyard and with minimal expenditures of time or money. The positive reviews from members keep pouring in, and, honestly, we’ve had a lot of fun doing these first two. So yes, we’ll continue to do these virtual events even when we feel comfortable hosting events at our tasting room. I think the rest of the wine industry should do the same.

Virtual Wine Club Event

We invite our wine club members out to the winery for club pickup parties twice a year in normal times. We close the tasting room to the public on a Sunday and cap out at ~450 members (four different time slots, 115 per session). We offer a glass of something seasonal on arrival. Jason gives a ~15-minute update on what we’ve been working on over the last six months, and then we invite members to find a pouring station where they get to try each of the wines in their wine club shipments. A chef (usually our friend Chef Jeff Scott) prepares two bite-size dishes, one each for the red wines and the white wines, for everyone to enjoy during the tasting. The events are a lot of fun, and we enjoy getting to see so many members in a single day.

Cue the summer of 2020. We skipped the Spring 2020 pickup party due to the Coronavirus. It was all we could do in April just to unite our members with their wines, given that nearly everyone was in a new situation and we were all working from home. But by summer, Wine Club Director Nicole Getty and I decided we wanted to do something for our members in the fall. With no template or examples that we could find, we put our heads together to come up with a virtual wine club pickup party based on our in-person events. We came up with this structure:

A virtual event hosted by General Manager Jason Haas and Winemaker Neil Collins. Members could either open one or more of the bottles they’d received or order an optional tasting half-bottle kit of our Esprit de Tablas and Esprit de Tablas Blanc. Recipes developed by Chef Jeff Scott and distributed by us to members in advance of the event for them to prepare at-home and enjoy along with the tasting. We would simulcast on our Facebook Live and YouTube channel so that members who didn’t have a Facebook account could still participate. During the broadcast, Jason and Neil started with an update on Tablas Creek, then tasted through each of the six wines with guest appearances from Chef Jeff to explain his recipes and why he paired them with each of the select wines. After confirming recipes and attendance from Chef Jeff, we were ready to go.

The turnout at the event in the Fall of 2020 was shockingly good. Not because I didn’t expect it to work, but because I had been producing live shows for months and typical viewership was in the 20-50 screen range. We were at 80 screens within 2 minutes and crested the century mark for most of the broadcast. I remember watching the number of live viewers climb and climb and thinking, here we go! By the end of the event, we had reached 1300 screens. Jason, Neil, and Jeff were incredible. The content of their conversation was informative, and their personalities were on full display. We estimated the broadcast would last an hour; it lasted two and just flew by. We heard Chef Jeff talk about food like Steve Jobs introducing the first iPhone. Sitting behind the dashboard was a true pleasure, and comments from the audience echoed that sentiment.

After that first success, we knew we were on to something. We analyzed the event’s benefits and think they mostly fall into three items: access, intimacy, and convenience.

  • Access. We offer multiple opportunities throughout the year to meet our owner, winemakers, and viticulturist through onsite events like the pickup party, horizontal tastings, vertical tastings, and our annual pig roast. In addition to these onsite activities, we participate in winemaker dinners around the country to provide that same access. Virtual events allow your fans unprecedented access to whoever you choose. In our case, that meant our proprietor, our winemaker, and the chef who made the recipes specifically for the wines our members were tasting.
  • Intimacy. Jason often jokes that more people have seen his living room in the last year than in the previous two decades. Virtual events offer a face-to-face experience for members. With a chat box in front of them, members can ask your owner and winemaker whatever questions they have, and they will get a response. Wondering why vine quarantines take so long? Just ask. That question you’ve been dying to ask the winemaker about his use of native fermentation? Here’s your chance. Been wondering what kind of truffle oil to use? Don’t know what truffle oil is? Ask the chef. And know that members will remember this intimacy.
  • Convenience. Don’t forget the importance of For all our effort in participating in festivals and dinners around the country, winery events generally require your fans to travel to be where you are. Wine club events even more so. We ship to 40 states, and we have members in every one of them. Even the majority of our California members don’t make it to Paso Robles annually. And the 450+ members who attend each of our pickup parties only represent about 5% of our membership. So, how do you maintain and build your connection to the vast majority of members who don’t visit? Based on these comments, it looks like we’ve found a solution:

Where are they from_

Fast forward six months, to our recent (April 16th) Spring VINsider Virtual Pickup Party. We learned a lot from our first experience, and while most things stayed the same, we realized we wanted a better solution to get wine samples to members who didn’t want to have to open the bottles they’d received. We had the half bottles of Esprit and Esprit Blanc on hand for our fall shipment, making it a relatively easy decision to package them, but even so, having only two of the six wines available as half-bottles wasn’t ideal. Given we don’t bottle any of the wines in the spring shipment in half-bottles, that wasn’t an option anyway. But we like the solution we came up with. We partnered with Master the World, a company founded by two master sommeliers dedicated to providing blind tasting kits for somms-in-training, to make 100 sample packs of all six wines in the Spring Classic wine club shipment. These came in 187ml bottles (quarter-bottles), and we were able to make them available to members, shipping-included for $99.

With the same format, new wines, and a new sample kit, we aired on Friday, April 16th. The results were even better than for the fall event.

Virtual Pickup Party Live Results

A lot is going on here; I’ll summarize my key observations. Between Youtube (YT) and Facebook (FB), our peak live viewership was 138 screens. I emphasize screens because we likely have multiple people on each screen. At just two people per screen, that’s 276 viewers, but I believe that number is conservative. While I focus on the live viewership numbers because it shows how engaging the content is, it’s important to note that our reach was a cumulative 1851 screens, or a low-end potential of 3700 sets of eyes on the broadcast (or 7400 individual eyes)! Total Live minutes viewed on FB was 5300. That means 88 hours of view time on our FB page. Total comments were 234, total reactions (likes, laughs, and loves) were 99. That’s a lot of members taking advantage of this intimate environment!

Between total attendees and their participation in the event, it’s easy to see that people were happy to be there.

But does it sell wine? The short answer is we’re sure it does, although it’s hard to measure. We did see a surge in online and phone orders around the event. Of course, the baseline level of orders is higher now than it was before the pandemic, but still, we know that some of the people who attended and were commenting on the live event placed orders in the next few days. It’s worth remembering that the principal goal of our member events has never been sales. These are club members who are buying every six months anyway. Our main objective has always been to reinforce their connection with us through these events. And we feel sure that we were successful in this goal. It’s also worth noting that if you’re comparing it directly to an in-person event that there are many fewer direct and indirect costs of putting on a virtual party. You don’t have to close your tasting room. You don’t have to prepare or serve food. And the demands on your staff are much less.

Conclusion

We’re excited to continue to host this kind of event in the future. We’re meeting our members where they are, we’re teaching them new recipes, and we’re giving them the opportunity to interact with the proprietor, winemaker, and chef.

We face new questions come October. It seems like we will be able to host an in-person pickup party for the first time since 2019. If we do, will the virtual version still see a large attendance? Will the sales of one cannibalize the sales of the other? Will members choose to go to both? We don’t have the answers to these questions right now, but we’ve seen enough value on several levels to give it a try. It sounds like members are excited about that; here is a selection of the comments we received at the end of the broadcast:

What did they say

Best Practices

I wanted to leave a few tips and tricks we’ve learned along the way for any of our winery friends who are thinking of doing events of their own. You can also contact me directly, as I’d love to share our methodology. ian@tablascreek.com.

  1. Start with an intro video: average viewership numbers start at four minutes. Pick a five-minute song or video to play while viewership populates.
  2. Pay an artist: pick a local band to get that intro song from and pay them for their work. The pandemic has struck artists pretty hard.
  3. Drink wine early and often: we’ve started the last two broadcasts with a 30-minute update before talking about wine. After feedback, we’ll be shifting that model to shorten the intro, start tasting earlier, and sprinkle the updates between the wines.
  4. Use streaming software: we use Be.live, but Streamyard is another excellent alternative. This allows us to stream on multiple platforms and build in visuals.
  5. Have a dedicated producer: let the people on-screen focus on what they’re doing and have someone selecting questions to show on-screen.
  6. Encourage questions: that’s what it’s all about! And be sure you are answering them.
  7. Two people on screen: it’s much more conversational and flows much better than one.
  8. Celebrity guests: adding that third or fourth person from time to time keeps interactions fresh and engaging.
  9. Prepare for things to go wrong: you are working with technology, something will always go wrong, stay on your toes for the whole broadcast and be prepared to troubleshoot.
  10. Have fun: your hosts are drinking wine on camera, guests are drinking wine at home, and the producer drinks wine behind the camera. It is a fun evening with plenty of memories to be made at the end of the day.


Paso Robles is (Still) Insanely Beautiful

In late February, with the vineyard turning greener by the day, I wrote a blog Paso Robles is Insanely Beautiful Right Now. Breaking news - it's still gorgeous. That late-February time frame marked the beginning of a period of explosive growth in the cover crops, with plenty of moisture in the ground from our massive late-January storm and steadily lengthening days. With March came warm weather, and those cover crops have been joined by bursts of color from wildflowers like the mustard below:

Green April 2021 - Tall cover crop and mustard

As if that weren't enough, the grapevines themselves have gotten into the act. Not every variety is very far out, but Grenache is putting on a show, the new leaves an electric yellow-green:

Green April 2021 - New Growth Grenache VF

Another view (Grenache again) against the darker green of the oaks is even more dramatic:

Green April 2021 - New growth Grenache C

Speaking of the oaks, the ones in the vineyard provide a great counterpoint to the geometry of the vine rows. I particularly like this one in the middle of our original Counoise block. Here are two views, the left taken from below, and the right from above:

Green April 2021 - Oak tree in Counoise from below

Green April 2021 - Oak tree and Counoise from above

These photos all make it look like it's all blue skies and sun, but when I took these out in the vineyard yesterday morning, it was 42 degrees and wet after a foggy start to the day. The block and tree in the below photo is the same as in the two previous ones, but in this one I was looking east, toward the rising sun:

Green April 2021 - New growth in Counoise

That moisture is visible too in this photo of our straw-bale tractor barn, with a new Cinsaut block in the foreground:

Green April 2021 - Straw Bale Barn

Maybe my favorite photo of the day was another one looking east, this one over our oldest Grenache block (planted in 1992) down a hill and back up on the other side to a slightly younger Grenache block (planted in 1997), new growth glowing in the sun:

Green April 2021 - New growth Grenache AV

I'll leave you with one last photo, of a long view south from the top of that Grenache block visible in the background of the previous photo. It's all on display: the rolling hills, the riot of green, and the newly-sprouted vines, all set off by the rows of dirt where we've begun to task of taming that cover crop so it doesn't compete with the vines for water:

Green April 2021 - Long View in Grenache

If you're coming for a visit in the next few weeks, you're in for a treat.


Grapevine Layering: An Age-Old Vineyard Technique, Revisited

One of the challenges of having a vineyard that is approaching middle age is the accumulated toll of vine loss. In our oldest blocks, which are approaching 30 years old, the combined impacts of gophers, trunk diseases, virus, and our stressful environment means that we've lost between 10% and 40% of the vines. And it doesn't take anything catastrophic to get to those numbers. Imagine a 2% vine mortality (one in every 50 vines) per year. After 10 years, you've lost 18% of your vines. After 20 years, you've lost 33%. And after 30 years, you've lost 45%. That's just math.

Replanting missing vines among those that have survived is usually an unsatisfactory response to this vine loss, for a couple of reasons. The roots of the vines that survive tend to encroach into the space of any missing vines, which makes it difficult to get the new vine established. And because we're trying to dry-farm our mature blocks, getting the new vines the water that they need to get established tends to work at cross-purposes to the vine training that we're doing, encouraging surface root growth from established vines, which is a waste of their resources. 

The difficulty in getting new vines established among the older vines has meant that we've lived with lower and lower vine density in our older blocks. That comes through in lower yields. Looking at the yield per acre the last few years on these varieties compared to our average in the 2000's shows the cumulative impact. Last decade, Mourvedre averaged 2.8 tons/acre. Over the last five years it's averaged 2.2. Counoise in the 2000's also averaged 2.8 tons/acre but has declined in recent years to 2.5. Syrah has declined from 3.4 tons/acre to 2.6. And even Grenache, typically the most vigorous and productive, has seen average yields decline from 4.3 tons/acre last decade to 3.9 over the last five years. 

Because of the challenge of establishing new vines among the old, we're left with the difficult choice of when to pull the plug and pull out an entire block to start fresh. If the surviving vines are struggling, or the blocks were planted to the wrong variety or on the wrong rootstock, it's worth the sacrifice to pull them out and replant. We're in that process in a few blocks. Each has its own story.

  • One was originally a Viognier block that we planted in an area that turned out to be one of our frostiest. By the time that we realized that and grafted the block over to the late-budding Mourvedre, even the vines that survived were weakened by the years of frost damage.   
  • Another was a block that had originally been planted in 1992 to California-sourced Mourvedre (Mataro) clones. We decided in 2003 because of dissatisfaction with the ripening of these clones to graft the block over to our French Mourvedre clones, but that didn't fix the issue. It might have been a rootstock incompatibility issue, or a virus problem. In the end, we decided to start fresh.
  • Finally, the third block that we pulled out included Syrah that we made the mistake of pruning during wet weather one year back in the 1990s, and we've been struggling with fungal trunk diseases ever since. We lost some vines, but even the ones that survived were weakened. Again, it seemed to make sense to start from scratch.

Layering diagramBut what to do about a block that's missing 40% of the vines, but still making some of our favorite wines? We're trying out a new technique to build vine density in a couple of these blocks. It's called layering. Really, it's an old technique, and takes advantage of the fact that grapevines have the ability to reproduce asexually. If you bury a grapevine cane, each bud has the ability to sprout roots. The connection to the parent vine helps nourish the new vine while those roots get established. Eventually, you can cut the connecting cane and the new vine will grow on its own. Wikipedia has a simple diagram of the process (right).

A few pictures of how we're doing this at Tablas Creek will help illustrate. First a photo of the block where we're trying this: an old Syrah block, planted in 1992 and 1994. You can see that we're missing a lot of vines, probably close to 40% overall:

Syrah block with layering

What we've done is to extend an extra cane, beyond what we're using for the vine to produce fruit that year, from a healthy vine, and then bury it underground and bring it back up in the position of a missing vine:

Syrah block - Layering burying

Those vines are now sprouting:

Syrah block layering new growth

Those new vines will grow, supported by the established root systems of their parent vines, for another couple of years. At that point we can choose to cut the connecting cane or leave it. This can in theory be done infinitely: one vine being layered into another, into another, and another. We've heard stories about entire acres being propagated in this way from a single starting vine. We don't plan on anything so extreme, but if we can rebuild the vine density in some of our favorite old blocks without having to pull out our old vines, that's a huge win for us. We'll be looking at the success of this effort in this Syrah block, and if it works, applying it to other blocks that might benefit. Stay tuned!

Syrah block - latering sprouting