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Gustavo's Garden: Benefits for Our Vineyard... and Our Team

By Ian Consoli

The first summer I worked at Tablas Creek, I was pleasantly surprised to find a constant stream of fresh fruits and vegetables appearing in the kitchen. It didn't take long to find out that the man delivering these treats was Gustavo Prieto. Gustavo has worked in our tasting room, vineyard, and cellar; you can learn about his many talents in an interview we published in 2017.

Another summer is here and, once again, fruits have started making their appearance in the lunchroom. Having enjoyed the fruits of his labor this long, I sat down with Gustavo to hear his philosophy on gardening, how it got started, how his work in the staff garden also benefits the vineyard, and what advice he has for home gardeners.

Gustavo standing in the garden

Please remind our audience where you grew up and how you came to be at Tablas Creek.

I was born and raised in Chile. I went to college at Cal poly San Luis Obispo. I earned a degree in fruit science, which brought me into agriculture. I went back to Chile after earning my degree and worked in produce imports and exports. I moved back to the central coast later and decided to switch careers, venturing into the wine business. A couple of years in, I started hearing about Tablas Creek. Pretty much all the roads lead to Tablas, you know? Every single person that I talked to said, just go to Tablas. So I came one day and tasted the wine, and that was it for me; I applied for a job and started in the tasting room. That was my beginning 14 years ago.

What is your role at Tablas Creek?

I run the biodynamic program at Tablas and keeping it moving forward. That's my primary responsibility, but I also work in the cellar during harvest and various projects in the vineyard. I'm in charge of all the fruit trees, watering, pruning, harvesting, et cetera. In the summer I plant a garden to be enjoyed by the employees.

And that is why we're here, to talk about that garden. Did you have a garden growing up?

Not at my house, but my grandparents'. Both of my grandparents were farmers in Chile. I remember seeing these beautiful, huge gardens, a couple of acres planted with everything from corn to strawberries, cherries, apples, peaches; you name it. Also, greens and summer stuff like squash and zucchinis. Their gardening actually fed a big family, so it was needed and provided fresh fruit and produce for a large number of people. That's the way things were done at the time. From since I can remember, I was working in the garden early in the morning, with the dew on the ground, getting my feet wet, and plucking the strawberries fresh from the plant. I think that planted the seed early on for me to decide to study agriculture.

Do similar crops grow here to Chile, are there some that grow better there than they do here and vice versa?

It's basically the same because we share the same climate due to being in similar latitudes. It is a Mediterranean climate like we have in California, so we can grow the same things here that they can grow there. We're pretty big in avocados, table grapes, and apples.

What do you have growing right now?

We have a lot of tomatoes, which is great, they look absolutely beautiful; lots of corn also. Corn and tomatoes are some of the main things that we grow here. We have different kinds of chili peppers, squash, zucchini, melons, watermelons, a little bit of basil, and pumpkins so that they will be ready for Halloween. Basically, summer crops, plants that do well with the soils and need a lot of heat.

Gustavo picking in the garden

Is there anything that grows particularly well?

From my experience, corn is beautiful every year. Tomatoes do fantastic. Zucchini grows well everywhere; that's not a secret. Squash is the same; they thrive in this dry heat. I planted garlic early this year, very beautiful garlic with nice big heads. I found onions do quite well in these soils. Last year was our first year planting them, and I was impressed by how well they dealt with the temperature. They kept growing through the summer, which they're not meant to, but they did well, and we enjoyed them throughout the season.

How much of the land is dedicated to growing crops?

A quarter-acre.

What do you do with all the crops you grow?

Everything is for the consumption of the employees at Tablas. We distribute everything when they're ready. We just harvested the last of the cherries, and most of the employees got a handful to take home. We'll bring some peaches next and maybe our first nectarines, but the whole idea is to share with everybody.

How does having a garden benefit the vines at Tablas Creek?

It helps bring more diversity to the farm. We're biodynamic, organic, regenerative, and the garden is another level to complement what we've already been doing. The fruit trees, for example, have been planted for many years now, olive trees, fruit trees, et cetera. It also creates a habitat. When corn blooms, the bees go crazy. Everything else blooms and attracts bees, beneficial insects, and different pollinators, bringing more and more diversity to the farm.

What advice do you have for aspiring gardeners to start?

Go for it. Be curious and try things. You will learn from others by asking questions, like what grows best in your area and potential issues. The resources are out there as well. You can get help from the local ag commissioner and farm advisors; all of those people will be glad to help you. Also, don't be intimidated by it. Some people say they don't have a green thumb, but it's like driving; you learn, you mess up a little bit initially, but stick with it, and you will get it.

Any closing thoughts?

Yes, my wife, Heidi Peterson, is a big inspiration for me. My first personal garden was here in California, and she was the one that inspired me to start. She has been gardening forever and shared her local knowledge with me. She really taught me a lot. Putting what I learned growing up in Chile with what Heidi had to offer has allowed me to run the garden here at Tablas Creek.

Gustavo smiling in the garden


A Summer Solstice Vineyard Tour

Over the last year, I've probably spent more time taking pictures in our vineyard than ever before. Part of the reason is because I'm here all the time; in pre-Covid times I would usually be on the road a week or two each month. I've barely left the county since last March. But more importantly, the pandemic has reinforced to me the value of bringing the experience of the vineyard to people wherever they are. Even as our tasting room gets back to normal (we're re-opening indoors July 2nd, if you haven't heard) the reality is that only a tiny percentage of our fans will visit us any week or month. If I can make the experience of being here tangible to people, wherever they are, that's an effort worth making.

June doesn't see the landscape change much, but the grapevines are developing quickly. The vine leaves are at peak lushness and greenness, and the berries are growing by the day. A month ago, we were just in the middle of flowering. Now the berries, on the most advanced grapes like Viognier, Syrah, and Grenache (below) are growing fast:

Grenache Clusters

A photo of Bourboulenc gives a sense of just how bushy and exuberant the vines are right now. We've since been in to shoot-thin this jungle, opening up the canopy to light and air, but the vineyard's health is evident from scenes like these:

Bourboulenc block

We've been using the mild early summer weather to get a few new insectaries established in our low-lying areas. These sections will be home to a handful of species of flowering plants that attract beneficial insects. We'll keep them blooming all summer, so the insect population can get and stay established: 

Beneficial insect planting

I took a swing through our Muscardin block. We harvested a tiny Muscardin crop last year off of the 200 vines that we grafted over in 2019, which amounted to just a single carboy (five gallons) in the cellar. We grafted another 750 vines last year. We'll get some fruit off those new grafts, and a much healthier crop off of what we grafted that first year. You can see how well the grafts have taken (below left) and the nice crop level (below right). We're excited to have enough Muscardin in 2021 to maybe even bottle.

Muscardin grafts year 3 Muscardin canopy

One initiative that we've been focused on this year has been to reduce the tillage in our trellised blocks. We don't feel we have a choice in the dry-farmed blocks, but this Syrah block is a great example of where we just mowed and baled the cover crop for our flock, but left the roots of the grasses undisturbed between the vine rows. We're expecting this to have a positive impact on both the sprouting of next year's cover crop and the microbial health in the soil, all while reducing carbon emissions.

Syrah block

Another is our estate biochar production. We've been collecting the canes, vine trunks, and fallen wood from the creekbed and have been using an old stainless steel tank as a biochar kiln. Biochar is a remarkable soil amendment, and has additional benefits in water retention, carbon sequestration, and air quality, as its production eliminates the need for burn piles:

Biochar

We're also replanting. In the photo above, you can see in the background a hillside that we pulled out three years ago because we'd lost so many vines to gophers, virus, and trunk disease. It's been sitting fallow ever since, until now. Just last week, we planted new rows of Grenache and Syrah, alternating rows because we're planning to try something new: trellising the Syrah high and vertically so that they can help shade the Grenache and keep it from being bleached by the sun. But that's for next year; these vines just went in the ground:

New plantings - Cote Maduena

Not every grape is as advanced as the Grenache in the first photo. But everything is making good progress. You can see the contrast between Syrah (below left) which we expect to harvest in early September, and Counoise (right) which likely won't come in until mid-October:

Syrah clusters

Counoise clusters

Although we're still two months or more away from harvesting any grapes, many of the fruit trees that we have interplanted in the vineyard are getting closer to their own harvests. We've been enjoying cherries the last couple of weeks, and this quince is one of several trees with a heavy crop. The main goal of these trees is to support the different species of insects and microorganisms they attract, but we're also looking forward to the fruit that will land in the winery this fall.

Quince tree

I'll leave you with one last photo, of the new dry-farmed Cinsaut block that we planted two years ago in the site of one of our old rootstock fields. It's looking great, with clusters on many of the vines. In the background is our oldest Syrah block, which I wrote about earlier this spring because we're trying to build its vine density through layering. In between is our compost pile, and behind that our biochar prep area. This one photo encapsulates our past and our future. We're excited about both. 

New Cinsaut block


Tasting two decades of Tablas Creek Roussanne, 2001-2020

There are two ways that we try to work systematically through the collection of wines in our library. At the beginning of each year, we taste every wine we made ten years earlier. These horizontal retrospectives give us an in-depth look at a particular year, and a check-in with how our full range of wines is doing with a decade in bottle. I wrote up the results from our 2011 retrospective tasting back in January. We supplement this detailed look at a single vintage each summer with a comprehensive vertical tasting of a single wine, where we open every vintage we've ever made and use that to assess how the wine ages and if we want to adjust our approach in any way.

I was inspired to choose Roussanne for this year's vertical tasting by having opened the 2001 Roussanne as research for a blog from February about the origins of our varietal wine program. The wine was a revelation, a reminder of just how compelling this often-difficult grape can be. So it was with anticipation that our cellar team and I joined together and opened every vintage of Roussanne, from that first-ever 2001 to the 2020 that we blended recently. It made for quite a morning:

Roussanne Vertical Tasting

If you find it odd to think about aging Roussanne, remember that it's the rare white grape with the structure and richness (and just enough acidity) to evolve in an interesting way for decades. Beaucastel's white wines, and particularly their Roussanne Vieilles Vignes, are renowned for lasting generations. Joining me for this tasting were Winemaker Neil Collins, Senior Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi, Assistant Winemaker Craig Hamm, and Cellar Assistant Austin Collins. My notes on the wines are below. I've linked each wine to its page on our website if you want detailed technical information, professional reviews, or our tasting notes from when the wines were first released.

  • 2001 Roussanne: If a touch less pristine than the bottle that we opened in February (a good reminder of the old adage that there are no great wines, only great bottles) it was still really impressive. Medium gold. A nose of marzipan, lacquer, ginger, lemongrass, and sweet green herbs. On the palate, lovely, with rich creme caramel flavors, sweet spices, and a little minty lift cleaning things up before a long finish of candied orange peel and hazelnut. Rich and decadent without being heavy. Showing just a touch more age than the bottle we opened in February, but still in a very nice place.
  • 2002 Roussanne: Lovely vibrant gold with a hint of green. Quite different on the nose, with a little flinty, spicy, pungent note on the nose that we all thought was reduction, as amazing as that sounds in a cork-finished 20-year-old white wine. That pungency blew off to reveal notes of crystallized ginger, lemongrass, grilled pineapple, and crushed rock. On the palate, absolutely lovely. Youthful honeydew melon, white pepper, and dried mango, vibrant acids, and a long, spicy finish with notes of cedar and honey. Chelsea commented that this wine was a great demonstration of the potential value of decanting old white wines.
  • 2003 Roussanne: A darker gold. Burnt sugar on the nose, also a piney, resiny lift, over aromas of white tea and straw. The mouth is rich and decadent, creme caramel, buttered popcorn, and a savory flavor Neil identified as saffron. Mouth-coating and rich, apparently low in acid but becoming more savory on the finish, with lingering flavors of mint and preserved lemon. Seems like it's at the end of a long, lovely peak.
  • 2004 Roussanne: Medium gold. A spicy nose of bay leaf and lanolin over butterscotch pudding and quince paste. The mouth is lively and bright, with juicy flavors of baked green apple and lemon pound cake. The vibrant acids and a little tannic bite balance richer notes of caramel and baking spices on the long finish. Seemingly still at peak.
  • 2005 Roussanne: Medium gold. A higher-toned nose than any of the previous vintages, featuring notes of red apple, pine forest, and baking spices. The palate was also vibrant, leading with new-pressed cider, then deeper caramel notes, then brighter again to white grapefruit and pithy lemon zest. Clean and long on the finish, with a hint of nutty sherry character the only sign of its sixteen years of age. 
  • 2006 Roussanne: Medium gold. A vibrant nose of beeswax, pine sap, preserved lemon, and white tea. The mouth is lovely: sweet fruit, like dried pineapple and fresh green fig, plus an appealing floral elderflower note. And as sweet as that sounds, it's dry, with a pithy orange peel note coming out on the finish. I left this in my glass for a few wines, and when I revisited it, it had also developed an exotic almost Gewurztraminer-like combination of lychee and tropical flowers. One of my favorites in the whole lineup.
  • 2007 Roussanne: Light gold. On the nose, a minty citrus leaf character over gingersnap, pine forest, and white miso. The palate is bright, like lemon custard and fresh nectarines. It's clean and pure, with a pretty white flower note, but the finish was a little short and the wine less dramatic than I was expecting from this blockbuster vintage. It's possible that it's going through a phase and may still be on its way up.
  • 2008 Roussanne: Medium gold. A little more age on the nose than the last few wines, toasty oak and pear syrup, anise liqueur and baked earth. The mouth is lovely, creme brulee, lemon marmalade, and roasted hazelnuts. Just enough acid to keep it together, with a little pithiness helping on the finish. Decadent and fully mature.
  • 2009 Roussanne: Deep gold. An elevated nose of quince, hoppy spice and white flowers and pine resin. There's also a little medicinal note I didn't love. The mouth was quite different than any previous wine, cumquat and lemongrass, a little yeasty in a way reminiscent of sour beers. Unusual and very savory, with less richness than the wines around it. Not sure if it's a phase or just vintage character. 
  • 2010 Roussanne: Vibrant light gold. A youthful nose of sweet green herbs, new honey, and citrus blossom. The palate shows a clean, sweet attack of spun sugar, fresh vanilla, and white tea. Medium-bodied (lighter than most previous vintages) and fresh, with flavors of lemon shortbread, fresh pastry, and chalky minerality. This hit a sweet spot for me, and showed great character of the cool year. My conclusion: I'd happily trade some power for this level of elegance.
  • 2011 Roussanne: A slightly hazy medium gold. A savory nose of mint, lemongrass, coriander seed and straw. Like the 2009 in many ways, also reminiscent of a sour beer, with flavors of preserved lemon and tandoori spices. Very rich but very dry too, with briny minerality and citra hops cutting the textural weight. I liked this better than I liked it when we had it in the 2011 retrospective in January, but it's still an atypical wine and I'd imagine it would be a bit of a puzzle to most Roussanne lovers.
  • 2012 Roussanne: Pale gold. A pretty nose of white honey and citrus leaf, with a sweet/spicy wintergreen note floating over top. The initial impression in the mouth is of sweetness: spun sugar and white tea, then deepened by a little bite of gentle tannin, then opening into a long, soft finish of sarsaparilla, vanilla custard, and crystallized ginger. Softly pretty, and a crowd pleaser for sure.
  • 2013 Roussanne: Medium gold. A more intense nose than the vintages around it, with a little more nutty aged character: marzipan, menthol, and clove-studded orange. Almost quintessentially Roussanne. On the palate, richly textured and absolutely classic. Creme brulee, orange peel, and vanilla bean. Nice acids. Feels like a throwback to the style we made in the mid-2000s.
  • 2014 Roussanne: Pale gold. A lovely exotic nose of elderflower, lychee, and rose water. The mouth is clean and fresh, with flavors of sweet green pear, spun sugar, preserved lemon, and wet stone. Medium bodied and refreshing. The first wine that didn't show any signs of age, and a lovely hybrid between the classic Roussanne richness and the exotic florality we saw in a few years. A consensus favorite.
  • 2015 Roussanne: Vibrant green-gold. A pungent nose of white flowers, lemongrass, watermelon rind, and chalky mineral. The mouth is classically Roussanne, but savory: pear skin and mandarin peel. Nice acids. A little short on the finish and I would have liked to have seen a little more textural richness. This was from the depths of our 5-year drought, and the Roussanne was really struggling to ripen, which I felt like I could feel (if not taste).
  • 2016 Roussanne: Pale gold. A quieter nose, showing a little lacquered wood, lemongrass, and ginger. The mouth showed a nice sweet/tart attack, like just-ripe pear, then softened into a feel that reminded me of rice pudding, then turned more savory with flavors of beeswax and lemon curd on the medium-length finish. Classic but still needs time to unwind, I thought.
  • 2017 Roussanne. Pale gold. A lovely nose, again on the exotic lychee/rose water spectrum that reminded us of Gewurztraminer, crossed with preserved lemon. The mouth started out vibrant, with lemon bar brightness, then deepened to a butter pastry texture, then finished soft and generous with baking spices and golden delicious apple. Still filling out; it too should deepen with more time. 
  • 2018 Roussanne: Pale gold. A very youthful nose of white flowers, lanolin, and sweet wintergreen. The mouth is fresh but mouth-filling, with flavors of white tea, vanilla custard, cream soda, and Haribo peach. Pretty, pure, and fresh... something close to quintessential young Roussanne.
  • 2019 Roussanne: Pale gold. Sort of hits the midpoint on the nose between 2017 and 2018, some exotic tropical aromas over fresh peach and vanilla bean. The mouth shows nice richness: pineapple upside-down cake, with a little mandarin peel pithy bite, and excellent length. Really pretty already and should be even better if people want to lay it down. And a treat to show people who think that a wine with lower alcohol (this is just 12.5%) can't have noteworthy richness.
  • 2020 Roussanne: Just blended and sitting in foudre. A slightly hazy green-gold. So young on the nose, with tart candy aromas of lemon drop and green apple Jolly Rancher. The mouth is pretty and fresh, with flavors of nectarine juice and a little hoppy herbiness. Lively and so young. It will be fun to watch where this goes.

A few concluding thoughts:

  • The overall quality of the wines was exceptionally high. I asked everyone around the table to pick four favorites, and the wines that got multiple votes were 2001 (2), 2002 (2), 2010 (2), 2014 (4), 2017 (2), and 2019 (3). Five other vintages (2004, 2006, 2008, 2013, and 2018) got one vote. That's eleven of the twenty vintages that got a "favorite" vote, and there were several others that we loved. That is a great testament to the Perrins' dedication to this quixotic grape, and a great reminder of why we live with its late and uneven ripening, its susceptibility to drought and virus, and its low yields. Through it all, it makes delicious wines.
  • There is not a linear relationship between richness and alcohol. The alcohol levels on our Roussanne have dropped steadily from the mid-14s in our early years to the mid-13s in period around 2010 to the mid-12s in recent vintages. And yet there were notably richly textured wines from every period. So you should resist the temptation to equate higher alcohol with texture. There's more to it than that. 
  • Roussanne really does age beautifully. There wasn't a wine in the lineup that we thought was over the hill. That doesn't mean that everyone would necessarily prefer the wines in their older marzipan-and-creme brulee phase than in their more youthful honey-and-pear phase. But if you're looking for a white wine that will consistently, year-in and year-out, continue to evolve and show new facets, Roussanne is the grape for you. I dove more deeply into the phases of how Roussanne ages in a blog from 2019, if you're interested in a rough timeline of what to expect.
  • Don't forget the vintage chart. We update this chart several times a year based on the results of tastings like these, wines we open in the normal course of life, and feedback we get from customers and fans. It's there whenever you want it.

California Re-Opening: How COVID Changed our Tasting Room Model Going Forward

[Editor's Note: thanks to Director of Marketing Ian Consoli, who contributed many of the ideas we're implementing, including an early draft of this blog and its photos.]

Sometimes, it takes a crisis to spur you to change something fundamental to your business. So it was when we got the news on March 18th, 2020 that we’d have to close our tasting room for the foreseeable future. When we were allowed to reopen in June, we were challenged to think of how we could give guests (and our team) the safest possible experience while also continuing our mission to educate them and showcase the great work our vineyard and cellar teams were doing. It’s only gradually that we’ve realized that the changes we made actually produced a superior experience to the one that we had been offering before.

Pre-pandemic, we were experiencing significant growth in our tasting room. It had reached a point where on busy Saturdays and holiday weekends, we were seeing 250 people or more per day. We always did what we could to make space for everyone, hiring more staff and even setting up tables in our cellar, but it was often a challenging environment to tell the story of Tablas Creek. You might squeeze into a bar space, next to someone already mid-way through their tasting, hear snatches of the story, get served a wine that you might not know, have your pourer try to quickly give you the overview of the property and a wine, all with four other groups at the bar at different points in their tastings. Not ideal for the customer experience, nor the wine educator. Our tasting room staff prides themselves on sharing the information they have spent hours learning and translating to customers. I remember hearing from some of our best tasting room folks who would feel dejected when the end of the day arrived and they realized they hadn’t connected with one individual or group because of the crowds.

Enter May of 2020. As we started to think about what a reopening plan might look like, we knew we wanted to be outdoors, socially distanced, in control of our traffic flow, with reduced contact between the wine educator and the wine taster. A few of the key choices we made were:

  • Tastings by reservation. We didn’t know what the demand would be for wine tasting when we reopened. But we did know that we didn’t want lines or crowding. Reservations were the solution, because they allow our staff to know who is coming, and to limit the traffic to the number of seats we have. But they have a value beyond that. We can prepare for a wine club member and greet them by name when they arrive. Or we can know what wines they have enjoyed in the past, or who referred them. They have value for customers too, who know they have a table waiting for them and dedicated to them, and know that the winery will be properly staffed.
  • Outside only. At the beginning of the pandemic, it wasn’t yet well understood how Covid-19 was transmitted. But the research that we did suggested that airflow was key to reducing transmission. So we opened outside only, even though the state had OK’ed wineries to reopen inside. When the regulations caught up with the science and forced wineries (and restaurants) to be outside-only a month later, we felt like our research had been vindicated. And the fact that not a single member of our tasting room team contracted Covid through the duration of the pandemic provided validation that we were able to create a safe environment.
  • Tables, not bars. We talked at the beginning about trying to move our tasting bars outside. But we worried that people really didn’t want contact with people outside of their group. Instead, we repurposed the tables we’d set aside for picnickers as our main pouring areas. Everyone who reserved got their own table for two hours. We made sure the tables were well distanced from each other. That was for safety and comfort reasons, but we realized that it had other benefits. Each of our hosts had a maximum of three tables at a time. That allowed our wine educators to judge how much attention each group wanted. The taster benefits from this individualized experience. The wine educator benefits from the opportunity to build a relationship with the group at each table.
  • Flight tastings. In our “before” tasting room setup, a guest was given a glass when they arrived, and poured a tasting. To move on to the next wine, they had to finish or dump out the previous taste. The complexity of this process and the number of people in front of any host meant, in practical terms, that we had to have a single tasting list for everyone. We would customize it a bit, offering some extra tastes or wine club exclusives as appropriate, but it was still the same basic lineup. Flights offer tasters a new way of experiencing a collection of six wines. We served them in groups of three, and guests could compare, contrast, and hop back and forth. We poured the wines inside and then carried them out with these cool touchless wine caddies. When we came with the second flight of three, it gave us a chance to check in with the guests and tell a little more of the story, but they never had to dump anything. The whole thing felt more elegant, more intentional, and less hurried.
  • Options for everyone. When everyone is getting flights, and they have the time and space (and menu) to navigate them, it opens up the options of customization. We gave visitors a choice between our classic (mixed red and white) selection, our red wine selection, and our white wine selection. During wine club shipment times, we made flights of the recent shipment, to help make up for the fact that we weren’t able to host an in-person pickup party. These options help encourage comparison and discussion; it’s not at all unusual to have each guest at a table pick a different option so that they can try the maximum number of wines. At a place like Tablas Creek, where we make upwards of 25 wines each year, that’s great for everyone. It also gives us the chance to do fun things like component tastings. In our current white wine flight, for example, a customer can try Viognier, Marsanne, Roussanne, and our Cotes de Tablas Blanc, which is composed of those three grapes (plus Grenache Blanc). It’s a made-to-order educational seminar.

We reopened with a significantly reduced capacity. Because of the time we gave people to enjoy their tasting, and the number of seats we had, distanced, around the tables on our patio, we were able to welcome a maximum of about 120 people per day, less than half what we saw on an average pre-pandemic Saturday. We expected to see our traffic decline on Saturday and Sunday, which it did. What we didn’t expect was that guests who tried to make a reservation on a weekend day and saw it fully booked instead visited on other days. Our traffic on weekdays actually went up, and our weekly traffic was only down by about 30%, from roughly 700 guests to an average of around 500. Even more interestingly, our average weekly tasting room sales were almost identical to those of a pre-pandemic week, which means that our average sales per customer were up nearly 50%. Our wine club conversion percentages went up similarly.

Why? We’re convinced that it was because we were giving people a better experience.

Of course, there are other factors involved. The outpouring of support from our wine club members and long-time regulars was amazing and heart-warming. Just getting out to go wine tasting was a little slice of normalcy in an incredibly challenging and stressful year. But we feel confident it was more than that. For years, our average rating on Yelp and TripAdvisor hovered between 4.3 and 4.5, with about half our reviews being 5-star reviews. That’s pretty good, and puts us in the top quarter of local wineries. But it was noteworthy that a decent number of the lower reviews mentioned that the tasting room seemed busy and impersonal. Every one of these lesser reviews that we could tie to a specific date had visited on a weekend. During Covid, the percentage of our 5-star reviews rose to 83%. That’s a massive jump. We really don’t think that it was just pandemic goodwill that was leading to the higher sales and club signups. It was that we were doing a better job.

So what does all of this mean for our tasting room?

Last month, we received the OK to move back inside as the county moved to the orange (moderate risk) tier in the state’s recovery roadmap. But by that point we’d already started preparing to bring that experience we’d offered outside over the last year to our indoor guests. The challenge was that our tasting room, built ten years ago, was designed around the traditional “belly up to the bar” experience. The bars are built into the room, and located around the outside of the space that looks into our cellars. There’s a big built-in merchandise display space in the middle of the room. It wasn’t going to be as simple as just putting some tables inside. The space wouldn’t work for that. It was Tasting Room Manager John Morris who zeroed in on the option that we settled on: keep the bars, but retrofit them for seating.

John contacted the same local craftsman who custom-built our concrete bar tops ten years ago and commissioned him to update the bars with new, wider tops that provided room for guests’ knees. He ordered comfortable bar stools for the guests. Those bars were installed last week:

TR Construction Jun 2021 New Semi-Private Bar

This process adds twenty-eight seats to our offered reservations. We’ve also added a few additional tables outside. Overall our maximum seated capacity will be more like 100 than the 65 that we had before. Guests will be able to reserve a bar seat inside, or a table outside. All guests, inside or outside, will have their own dedicated space and host, and be able to choose from our selection of flight tastings. And each will give a different level of interaction; think of it like being able to choose a seat at the sushi bar vs. a seat at a table. As we’ve learned, giving people a choice in their experiences has lots of other benefits.

All that will be welcome, we think, year-round. But having an indoor space will be critical on the occasional Paso Robles days where the weather is unfriendly. Last year we had to close entirely five days because of smoke or rain, and an additional twelve days had to close early when even with fans and misters we felt that the heat made the tasting experience unpleasant or even dangerous. Each time, we had to call customers to explain and try to reschedule, or if necessary cancel their appointments. That’s always hard. Going forward, while it may still be an issue with our outside seats, we’ll at least be able to move many of the guests inside. It gives us options. Seventeen days may not seem like much, but we got lucky. There have been plenty of years where we’d have had to close dozens of times if we were outside only.

When can you expect to see this new indoor space? We’re targeting July 2nd. That should get us an inside option before the full heat of the summer is upon us. It also gives our whole team the chance to get fully vaccinated, which we felt was important before we moved back inside. You’ll be able to book the tasting of your choice directly from our visiting page.

This decision isn’t without downsides, which we recognize. It will mean that, unlike in the times pre-Covid, a visit to Tablas Creek will require some advance planning. It will mean that if you go to a neighboring tasting room and ask them for recommendations, it might not be possible to just show up at the place you want to discover and have a space waiting for you. But we’re hopeful that with our additional capacity we’ll be able to take more walk-ins, and visitors know that it’s not only us who are making this decision to keep our visits by reservations. A visit to Paso Robles Wine Country may be less spontaneous, but it will be more relaxed and much more reliable.

We are very excited about how the tasting experience at Tablas Creek has evolved. We hope you are too. We can’t wait to welcome everyone inside in July. See you all soon!

TR Construction Jun 2021 New Long Bar