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March 2023
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May 2023

Are tasting room sales really falling off a cliff? Not exactly.

On Monday when I got into the office I was greeted with an alarming headline from, the wine trade's most-read publication: Are Direct to Consumer Wine Sales Falling off a Cliff? This headline was based on a report published by Community Benchmark, a company that aggregates winery tasting and sales data to provide insights to wineries, regional associations, and wine media. It had already gotten some high-profile attention over the weekend, with industry guru Paul Mabray presenting it as evidence on Twitter that wineries need to be thinking about other ways of customer acquisition beyond their tasting room:

It's a scary thought, that tasting room visitation was down 22% in March and 21% YTD across the nine regions Community Benchmark covers. And our own tasting room traffic was down 22% in March, exactly on trend with the broader community. But I think there's good reason to expect that data to improve, and fast. After the coldest, wettest winter in the last three decades, as the calendar turned from March to April, spring arrived here in California. But March was definitely more wintery than spring-like:

Winter Rainfall by Month vs Average 2022-23

There weren't many days that weren't rainy, and even those days weren't conducive to relaxing outside. March saw 20 days with measurable rainfall and an average high temperature of 56.9°F. There was only one weekend day with highs above 60°F and no rain. Combine that with headlines in every major California newspaper about extratropical cyclones, atmospheric rivers, levee breaches, and evacuation orders, and it's no surprise that people decided to hunker down at home rather than braving the highways in search of wine experiences. It's frankly a wonder our tasting room traffic held up as well as it did. This is in stark contrast to the spring of 2022, where we saw only six rainy days in January, February, and March combined. That wasn't ideal for the vines, but it was great for winery visitation.

This chart combines our high and low temperatures and the daily rainfall for each day since the beginning of March:

Temperature & Rainfall March - April 2023

The contrast between March and April couldn't be more dramatic. The rain ended. Average high temperatures have been 69.2°F, about 13°F warmer than April. This nicer weather has been reflected in the percentage of people who've chosen to sit outside for their tastings here. In March it was just 45% of people who chose to be outside. Since April began, that number has risen to 87%. And our tasting room traffic has rebounded nicely, up 1% over 2022 since the beginning of April.

Sure, there are potential threats to the tasting room model on the horizon, both short-term ones like inflation and the slowing economy, and longer-term threats like changing demographics of wine consumers and the high cost of wine country visits. But I don't think that's the primary cause of what we've seen so far this year. For that, just look to the skies. 

Poppies on our tasting patio

Happy spring, everyone.

We Celebrate a Meaningful Honor: the 2023 California Green Medal for Environment

Last week I made the long drive up to Saint Helena to speak at Napa RISE, the event created last year by Napa Green's Anna Brittain and Martin Reyes, MW to bring focus to the urgency and opportunity the wine community has to address environmental issues like climate change, resource scarcity, and inequality. The first paragraph of the event's mission statement resonates with me:

The climate crisis is no longer imminent. It is here. It is not someone else’s problem. It is ours. Fires, drought, heat spikes will continue to strike our industry. Coming together as sustainable winegrowing leaders is no longer optional, it is imperative.

It was a huge honor for me to be invited to give a keynote speech in the heart of Napa Valley on the work that we're doing at Tablas Creek. Given Napa's long tradition at the epicenter of American wine, it's more common that speakers and ideas travel the other direction. But I think it was a reflection that we've made a commitment to sustainability central to who we are and that we've been willing to share our experience with others. We have the ability (and, I believe, the obligation) to make positive changes on the 270 acres that we own. But the reality is that this is just a tiny fraction of the acreage used to grow grapes in California. If we can inspire other people to make changes, even incremental ones, across the 615,000 acres of wine grapes in our state, that's where the impacts really start to be significant. And if wine can help lead the way toward greater sustainability within agriculture more broadly, which I think is possible, that's even more impactful. This photo from Napa RISE, where I'm flanked by the event's two founders, was taken just after my talk (note the elated relief): 

Jason Haas at Napa RISE

The opportunity to share what we're doing with a wider audience is the reason I'm particularly proud of having received our second California Green Medal a few weeks ago. The Green Medal program was created in 2015 by the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance to encourage and spread the word about the state's wine-led push to make grape growing and winemaking more environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable. There are four awards given each year, one each for innovation in a winery's environmental efforts, in a winery's community involvement, and in its business practices, as well as an umbrella award for demonstrating vision and leadership in promoting sustainability in all three categories.

We received the Community award back in 2016, and this time around I was hoping for the Leader award. But I'm thrilled that we received the Environment award. The CSWA produced a beautiful video in which they announced us as the award winner:

The effort of distilling down the most important lessons from our 30+ year quest toward sustainability into a 40-minutes talk helped me group our efforts into four main areas:

Farming. We've been organically farmed since our inception (certified since 2003), farming Biodynamically since 2010 (certified since 2017) and Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC) since 2020. While we've continued the earlier certifications, what we love about ROC is that it is a rigorous and scientific but holistic look at the farm ecosystem. You are required to take actions that build healthy soils rich in organic matter (think cover crops, incorporating grazing flocks, composting, biochar, and reducing tilling) while also building biodiversity and developing natural controls over things like pests, weeds, and fertility. You are required to measure the impact of your choices to show that they're having the desired effect. And you're required to invest in your farmworkers -- the team that has their boots on the ground and their hands on the vines -- through paying living wages and providing ongoing training.

Resource Use. The resources that a vineyard and winery is most dependent upon are water and energy. We've invested in conserving both. For water, we've established roughly 40% of our planted acreage wide-spaced and dry-farmed, while weaning the older, closer-spaced blocks off of irrigation. In the cellar, we've converted most of our cleaning from water to steam, and capture our winery waste water in a wetland area that allows us to reuse it while providing habitat for birds and amphibians. Overall, even in a dry year like 2022 we use something like 80% less water per acre than the average Paso Robles vineyard. After a wet winter like our most recent one, we'll use even less. For energy, we've installed four banks of solar panels -- the first back in 2006 -- which together produced 402,906 kWh of energy in 2022, or 102% of our total energy use. After all, if there's a natural resource we have in abundance in Paso Robles, it's sun.

Packaging. The biggest revelation for me in the first carbon footprint analysis I did here was that packaging (and shipping, which is largely dependent upon your packaging choices) together make up more than half the carbon footprint of the average California winery. That realization is what has driven us to lightweight our bottles, to invest in kegs for wholesale and our tasting room, and to make our first forays into boxed wine. It's also why we've been looking harder at how we get our wine to our customers. The carbon footprint of air shipping is something like seven times greater per mile than ground shipping. So we've been looking to refrigerated trucks to bring our wine club members' wines to warehouses in Missouri and New York, from where they can go ground rather than air to members nearby, all without having the wines sit in transit. Win-win.

Advocacy. As I mentioned in my intro, we want to be the pebble that starts an avalanche. That means choosing to support organizations and events (like the Regenerative Organic Alliance and Napa RISE) that make inspiring change a part of their mission. It means hosting workshops here -- both for other growers and winemakers and for the general public -- where we share what we do. It means being a resource to other vineyards and wineries who are interested in following us down this path. And it means communicating why we're making the choices that we're making, whether that be here on the blog, in our consumer marketing through email and social media, or in the voices that we amplify through our partnerships and our conversations. It also means investing in the certifications, not just the practices, to help those certifications and the practices they support make it into the mainstream.    

It was interesting for me, after going back to how we communicated sustainability when we received our last Green Medal in 2016, to see how much the conversation around sustainability has changed. At that time, we essentially presented a laundry list of all the things we were working on in the categories they asked about: water use, soil & nutrition management, pest management, biodiversity & wildlife conservation, energy efficiency & greenhouse gas mitigation, human resources, solid waste management, and neighbors & community. Since that time, we've seen organizations spring up -- most notably for us the ROC program, but also the International Wineries for Climate Action and Porto Protocol focused directly on mitigating wine's contribution to climate change -- that are coordinating best practices and assembling coalitions so that membership means committing to a thought-out, coherent collection of practices. For example, anyone with an ROC seal on their label will have implemented gold standard practices within farming and resource management, as well as in animal welfare and farmworker fairness. You don't need to go through a checklist and wonder, for example, if they're conserving water as well as eliminating synthetic chemicals, or paying their workers fairly as well as embracing solar power. The rise of these organizations means we're not each making it up as we go along, and doing our best to communicate why this matters. We have a village at our backs.

One thing that hasn't changed: seven years ago, I commented that I thought the wine community was uniquely positioned to lead California agriculture toward sustainability. I still believe that's the case. Grapevines are very long lived, so vineyards can invest in long-term solutions. Most vineyards and wineries are family-owned, so there's the incentive to conserve for the future rather than just to chase the next quarterly profit. Wine is a value-added product, where the efforts we make toward sustainability -- which generally result in longer-lived vines and better grapes -- can be rewarded by higher prices in the marketplace. And the tools we have, through email, social media, and blogs like this one, give us unprecedented access to our customers and the chance to share why we believe that the sustainability investments we're making are important and offer value to them.

There are so many ways that a winery can move toward a more sustainable future. As I finished my Napa RISE talk by saying, that can feel paralyzing. But none of us should feel intimidated by all the ways that we can work toward sustainability, or even better, regeneration. No one should feel like they're failing if they don't invest everywhere. But there are no free passes, either. As Napa RISE reminds us, it's no longer optional. It's imperative.

California Green Medal 2023

Budbreak 2023: Another Reminder of Our Largest Variable, Nature

By Austin Collins

Since my last blog in December, we've had over 46 inches of rain and 60+ below-freezing nights, a harsh winter for us Californians. Although, as I write this, we are experiencing our first proper spring weather, three weeks after the spring equinox. With day temperatures in the high 6o's and 70's, and warmer nights, things have drastically changed here at Tablas Creek. The tasting room now has a bustling patio of people rather than being strapped down for another onslaught of wind and rain. Cover crops and annual grasses have doubled in size, and even though we still have flowing water in some parts of the of the property, most of the saturated soils have dried out enough to allow tractors to re-enter the vineyard.  The air is filled with the smell of mowed grasses and the sounds of some clearly excited birds. Soil temperatures have also risen due to the decrease in moisture, allowing buds to finally "break". Across the hilltops vines are leafing out at a rather hurried pace. With change all around us its hard to ignore our industry's innate connection with nature and its systems. Nature dictates EVERYTHING in this business. From newly planted vines to the wine your glass, the path is rarely straight and sunny, and you can count on it to never look the same:

Budbreak 2023 - Bourboulenc

Above is a Bourboulenc vine just bursting to life on April 12th, 2023. Below is a Bourboulenc vine in the same block, give or take a few rows and vines, on April 1st, 2022. Note the differences in shoot growth as well as the color and size of the cover crop beneath:

Budbreak 2023 - Bourboulenc 2022

The contrast in the above photos is stark, and this true of every inch of the property. This season (beginning July 1st of 2022) we have received 49.01" of rain. That is only .18" fewer than the previous three seasons combined! We've had twelve atmospheric rivers this season. During several of these my family and I were the only ones on the property, for days at a time. My work days consisted of dressing up like a fisherman and maintaining a few different water pumps in hard hit flooded areas. Those pumps ran for 48-hours straight before the water levels began to subside. It was fun while it was novel, but then each rainy day following (there were many) the water had no where to go, do it began to eat away at the soils and our wet weather enthusiasm.

Due to the weather our tasting room, office halls, and vineyard roads were empty for a total of six days, devoid of human sound and movement. All roads leading to and from the property were either washed out or simply impassable by car. We were an island in the Adelaide. I think its fair to say that most business are affected by extreme weather, but given our location we are slightly more vulnerable. As Jason mentioned in his last blog our foot traffic was down 19% this quarter, in comparison to 2022. The natural landscapes have held up well, with the visible damage mostly limited to areas scarred by man. Back in the vineyard we saw predictable spots get washed out, but considering the amount of water flowing through our humble hills, it has held up wonderfully. Now, we are able to continue our work as usual, because nature has allowed us to:

Budbreak 2023 - Newly mown Grenache

It's a spring situation in the vineyard right now, a situation we are very ready for. This is the first time we've had to wait until April for significant budbreak since 2013, making it the latest start in the last decade, about a month behind that average:

2022 Mid-March
2021: Last week of March
2020: Last week of March
2019: Second half of March
2018: Second half of March
2017: Mid-March
2016: Very end of February
2015: Second week of March
2014: Mid-March
2013: First week of April

After about six months of dormancy, lying in wait, now the vines are showing their eagerness to get this vintage underway and enjoy the sunshine:

Budbreak 2023 - Viognier

These two pictures are both taken in our second oldest Viognier block. The above photo was taken on April 11th, 2023, the one below was taken on March 29th, 2021. Again notice the differences despite the 2023 photo being taken two weeks later in the year:

Budbreak 2023 - Viognier 2022

Amongst the bustle of spring activities happening here at the vineyard is the preparation of frost protection. We are currently somewhat "safe", as the budbreak is mostly on the hilltops, which are less at risk of frost. Once vines leaf out in the frost-prone valleys and swales we then have to employ all of our efforts to keep the small vulnerable sprouts safe. Because I live here on the property it is my job to help keep an eye on night-time temperatures. When it drops to about 37 degrees (and still before 5 AM) I layer up and head out to turn on the frost fans and micro-sprinklers to battle the incoming ice. I do so alone, for I truly believe my dog Nina is afraid of the dark. Alas it is her loss, because there are few more beautiful moments in the vineyard. Ice crystals beginning to form on surfaces, sparkling in the light of my headlamp, while silence grips the landscape, everything seemingly too cold to move. From fan to fan my night carries on disrupting the once-enjoyable silence. But, it is not in vain, to see the new growth still green and pushing in the next morning's sun I look forward to the upcoming night and my fray with nature.

Another uncharacteristic element of this year's budbreak is the relative consistency among varietals. Typically we see certain varietals leaf out before others (e.g. Viognier and Grenache before Roussanne and Counoise). While many of those later varietals are still behind there is a lot more uniformity in regards to timing. That being said, Grenache leads the way this year with the largest growth thus far, using all its stored energy built up over the last six months. Like us, the vines have been unable to do their work because, like us, they are bound by the forces of nature. Now, it's go time, for all of us.

Budbreak 2023 - Grenache

Just Add Water: Looking at the Record-Breaking 2022-23 Winter at Tablas Creek

Sometime around 10:45am on Tuesday, March 14th, we blew past our previous record for our wettest-ever winter (42.85", if you're curious, recorded in 2004-05). By the end of that day, we were at 44.33". And we've had ten additional days of measurable rainfall since then. All told, we're at 49.01" of rain for the winter, roughly double our long-term average. After the last three dry years, it couldn't be more welcome. A quick visual comparison to past years since 1996:

Winter Rainfall by Year 1996-2023

The way in which the rain came has been just as remarkable as its total quantity. We've seen 69 separate days with measurable rainfall, and 18 of the 22 weeks since the beginning of November have seen at least some rain:

Winter Rainfall by Week 2022-23

Overall, the distribution of the rain has been fairly even, with either a break after a series of storms (as we saw in mid-December and again through much of February) or modest enough totals that the ground, creeks, and reservoirs were able to hold it (as through most of March). Of course, there is that spike in early January, where we saw nearly 20 inches of rain in three weeks, capped off by six-inch day on January 9th. That was when Las Tablas Creek burst its banks and the flooding in Paso Robles made national news.

In addition to being wet, it's been cold. OK, not New England cold, or upper Midwest cold, but cold for California. Over the last four months, since the beginning of December, we've had just three days where the high temperature has made it into the 70s. More than two-thirds of the days haven't even broken into the 60s. That's really unusual for Paso Robles. And we've had 63 frost nights, the most at least since 2010, which is as far back as the data I can easily access goes:

Frost nights by month  2022-23 vs average

But taken together, the inconveniences have been relatively minor, and the positive effects are likely to be lasting and significant. I'll dive briefly into the impacts, roughly from most negative to most positive.

The negatives

In the short term, we've had to be closed six days this winter either because the roads were closed by the county or because they were so awash that we closed preemptively to keep our people and our customers safe. Adelaida Road was washed out about four miles east of us, but the county did amazing work in getting it reopened in about a week. There was a short-term hit to our revenue from being closed. But all those days were in slow times of year, so the impact wasn't too bad. If your travel plans were impacted by our closures, we apologize.  

All the rain has depressed traffic to Paso Robles compared to what we expect. And I understand! I wouldn't want to drive the California freeways in a driving rainstorm either. That's weather for hunkering down at home. Even when it hasn't been raining, the chilly temperatures haven't exactly suggested relaxing on a terrace sipping wine. So it's not surprising that our tasting room traffic this year has been off 19% compared to 2022, or that the rest of our region would be reporting similar results. But given how scarce we are on wines after low yields in 2021 and 2022, it's not a terrible thing for us to have people delay their trips. 

The equivocal stuff

It's been so wet that there have been several stretches where we took the flock of sheep out of the vineyard so they wouldn't compact the soil. Unlike last year, when we were able to make three passes through the entire vineyard thanks to the early rain and the ample January and February sun, we're still working on our second pass. Of course, there will be more moisture than we've ever seen as we head into the growing season. We're expecting to be able to cut and bale more feed for our flock than we've ever done before. That, combined with the extra growth that we're sure to see in the forests and unplanted blocks, means we're likely to have plenty for the sheep to eat later in the summer, when forage is usually scarce.

Deep cover crop in dormant Tannat April 2023

The very wet soils have also meant that we've been unable to get our tractors into the vineyard and so can't begin the process of mowing or disking that's usually in full swing by April. Although we've been moving away from tilling in recent years, we still think it's a good idea to get the weeds out from amongst the grapevines and to mow the long grasses so that we get good flow of light and air through the rows (reducing mildew pressures later in the year) and allowing cold air to drain (reducing our risk of frost). That's just not going to be possible in the short term. Thankfully, budbreak (and the frost risk that goes with it) is delayed.  

The positives

Speaking of budbreak, the most important determining factor for when grapevines come out of dormancy is soil temperature. Wet soils hold cool temperatures better than dry soils, particularly when even the sunny days are chilly. And this year's budbreak is later than any year at least since 2012. Just in the last day or two, we've seen the first tiny leaves. But what we've seen isn't widespread enough to really make for a good comparison, so it's possible we'll even end up later than that year's mid-April start when it all comes down to it. Given that our weather station recorded a low temperature of 29.2F yesterday and 30.7F this morning, I'm happy things are dormant. A later beginning to the growing season can help in two ways, reducing the duration when you have to worry about frosts (a risk here through early May), and pushing harvest into what is likely a cooler time of year (say, mid-September through early November instead of mid-August through mid-October).

The hydrology out here in the Adelaida District is complicated. Unlike the east side of Paso Robles, where there is a single shared groundwater basin whose levels are fairly easily measured, under our limestone layers lies a network of underground rivers, lakes, and small aquifers. By the end of December, our well levels had risen back up to their maximums. That has happened just about every winter. But unlike in many recent years, the saturated soils are continuing to replenish those water resources at the same time that the delayed budbreak and the wet conditions have meant that the draws on these water resources have been lower. That will surely mean more water available later in the year, which is something we can all celebrate. A look in some of our lower sections shows just how much water is still seeping out of these hills:

Water seeping out of Cotes Maduena April 2023

We know that all this water will be invaluable later in the growing season. Paso Robles is a stressful place to grow if you're a grapevine. The summers can be hot and punishingly dry. But our calcareous soils, which offer an ideal mix of water retention and drainage, can help mitigate that stress. Their structure allows them to wick moisture from the surface down deep as it arrives, and then to transport it back from wetter, deeper layers toward the surface as those surface layers dry out later in the growing season. Knowing that the soils are saturated as deep as they go gives us the best possible starting point as we prepare for the growing season.

Finally, we know that vine health one year plays an important role in the bud development of the grapevines, which has impacts on the vineyard's productivity the next year. So all this lovely water and the robust cane growth we're expecting should have a positive carry-over effect on the 2024 harvest as well. Given that we're so short on wine that we're having to sacrifice some of our core blends this year and scaling back allocations of all of our estate wines, a couple of productive vintages in a row would be very good news indeed.

We only need to look back at the 2017 vintage for an example of what can happen when a rainy winter follows a multi-year drought. We saw outstanding cane and leaf growth, with some blocks looking like jungles. It was our most productive harvest in the last decade, but with excellent chemistry from the good vine health. And it has made some of our favorite wines in recent memory, excellent for both reds and whites.

It might be a while until we see another winter with rainfall like this past one. Sure, it's led to some inconveniences. But those feel minor compared to all the positives we're expecting. Now, we just need to dodge frosts for another month. Fingers crossed, please.

Winter Rainfall by Month vs Average 2022-23