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Harvest 2023 update: a deep exhale as warm weather brings the finish line in sight

Three weeks ago we were all pretty nervous. We'd had the coolest September in our history, and not just by a little. High temperatures were more than 7.5°F cooler than average, which on top of the delayed growing season meant that as the calendar flipped to October we'd only finished about 10% of the harvest off the estate. With el nino brewing in the Pacific, we were facing a real risk of serious rain coming while significant quantities of our fruit were still out on the vine. We were hoping that the warmer weather that began with the onset of October would stick around long enough to have a real impact on the ripening of our grapes and the timeline of our harvest. Spoiler alert: it did.

Harvest chalkboard October 24th

Not only have the last three weeks been warmer than normal, they've been nearly as warm as we'd expect September to be. In essence, the months have flipped places. While September's average high was 80.9°F, since October 1st our average high has been 84°F. This has reversed the trend in Growing Degree Days and brought 2023 back up away from the record-cool years of 2010 and 2011:

Growing Degree Days 2010-2023 thru 10-23

Even better, that warm weather has come just the way we prefer it. Although we've had eight days in the 90s, the highest high temperature was just 96.4°F. Both of the warm stretches (October 4th-8th and October 18th-20th) were followed by at least three days that topped out in the 70s. That meant that the grapevines could continue to build sugars without losing their acids and without being under an unhealthy amount of stress. And as often happens when a delayed harvest finally gets some heat, the fruit came rolling in. Most days we've had a lineup of bins in our parking lot, waiting to be processed, as we're running presses of newly-harvested whites and newly-fermented reds. The dance of the forklifts is something to behold.

Bins of grapes everywhere

These harvest days start before sunup and finish after dark, with what seems like endless rounds of washing in between. After all, every tank we have will get used five or six times this year. Every press gets used three or four times each day. And all the equipment gets cleaned up and put away every night. I love this photo I got of Gustavo cleaning the red press today as the sun was setting:

Gustavo washing the press

The fruit that we've been getting, and the young wines that we've been tasting, look tremendous. We're seeing some of the deepest colors we can remember. The grapes have lovely freshness and lift. I spoke to Chelsea last week for an Instagram Live harvest update, and she described what we were seeing as "dream chemistry". Now maybe you have to work in a winery cellar to dream about chemistry at this time of year, but it gives you a sense of the lovely balance of sugars and acids that we're seeing.

We don't have to look far to know that the clock is ticking. The fall foliage colors on the vines, like this Counoise block below, are telling us that the end is near: 

Fall colors in Counoise

Still, the grapes that are still out on the vines are there because they need this time. The two clusters below (Counoise, left, and Roussanne, right) are looking and tasting great, but they're sitting only at about 20° Brix and will benefit from another week or two out in the sun:

Counoise cluster cropped Roussanne cluster

The mornings are usually starting with a little low-lying fog:

Fog lifting between Counoise rows

Walking around the vineyard, there are more blocks where the grapes have already been picked than there are with crop still hanging. That gives us the chance to give some of the younger vines (like this three-year-old Syrah) a little post-harvest drink:

Post-harvest irrigation

We're also giving a little sigh of relief because it looks like yields are significantly recovered from last year. It's most dramatic in the varieties that were frozen last year; we've harvested double the quantity of Grenache Blanc that we did last year and Vermentino is up 49%. But even grapes like Viognier, Marsanne, and Syrah, none of which were impacted by last year's frosts, are seeing crops something like 10% higher than last year. We've already picked 30 more tons of Grenache than we did in 2022, with a couple of blocks still to come. And it seems clear that Roussanne will come in with higher quantity than last year, when it finally gets ripe. Now our biggest unknown is Mourvedre, and when I saw Neil today he sounded more relaxed than he has in weeks. We're no longer worried about whether the fruit will be good, or whether it will get ripe. Now we're just worrying about where we're going to put it. And that's a huge relief.


Tablas Creek can now ship to Connecticut and South Dakota! Why did it take so long?

In 2021, I wrote a Wine Shipping State of the Union, in which I broke out the 50 states and the District of Columbia into seven tiers based on the cost and convenience for a winery to ship to that state's consumers. If this isn't something you follow, you might be surprised that it can vary so much from state to state, but blame the 21st Amendment, which repealed Prohibition. That Amendment, intended so that states that wished to remain "dry" could do so, gives states broad leeway to regulate the sale of alcohol within their borders, and this has meant that no two states are alike in the licensing, fees, reporting, and restrictions that they've put in place.1

Each winery makes a different calculation as to which states are worth the costs of doing business there. Some smaller wineries only ship to their home state, but most wineries with significant direct-to-consumer business ship to most of the 33 states that I put in my tiers I - III. There are another 12 states (my tiers IV - VI) in which shipping is possible for most wineries, if they're willing to absorb the costs and jump through the right hoops, and 6 to which it's essentially prohibited (my tier VII). At the time, we shipped to 8 of those 12 in tiers IV - VI. I am pleased to announce that we've done the work to add two more shipping states to our list: Connecticut and South Dakota. Our new shipping map:

New Shipping States October 2023

What do South Dakota and Connecticut have in common? They're both states with label registration requirements. You might think that the federal label registration that we have to go through to sell our wines in America would be enough, but these two states have seen a potential revenue opportunity, and ask any winery that wants to sell its wines in that state to individually register each label with the state government. For South Dakota, it's $25/year for registering the first label and $17.50 for each subsequent label, paid to the South Dakota Secretary of Revenue. For Connecticut, it's $200/label, with each registration lasting three years and being transferrable across vintages, as long as you don't change the varietal mix or need a new federal label approval.

A quick look at our online order form will show our challenge: we currently list 34 different wines, and if you count different sizes and vintages there are a total of 51 different products listed. Each vintage of our blends is a little different, and we believe that it is important that our labels reflect that. All that leads to a lot of additional expense and hassle for the states which require us to register labels. The biggest reason that we haven't worked with those two states to date has been our worry that something will slip through the cracks and we'll get in trouble for sending wine we aren't registered to sell, as well as the burden this places on our back-office team. But I'm generally a believer that we need to do everything we reasonably can to make our wines available to the customers who want to buy them, even if the costs of doing so are high. So, we've jumped through these hoops2 and I'm pleased to announce that customers from Connecticut and South Dakota who wish to order wine or sign up for one of our wine clubs can now do so.

That said, I still hope that these two states see reason and realize that the amount of revenue that these registration requirements bring in is a drop in the bucket of their state's budget. I don't know how it compares to the amount that they have to pay staff to administer the programs, but I'm guessing it's a wash. And like most state protectionism, it's ultimately the state's citizens who lose by paying higher prices and having less selection. 

The next state in our sights is Alabama. The state legislature there passed a shipping law in 2021, but it included some unworkable provisions that needed to be ironed out by the state ABC board, mostly owner citizenship and residency requirements that were unworkable for wineries with foreign partners like us. It appears that's been done. Stay tuned. Meanwhile we've at least found a work-around for Alabamans: while we can't ship to private homes or businesses yet, we can ship orders to a state ABC store for pickup. If this is something you'd like to try, please give us a call

Every time I dive into the arcana that is our alcohol regulatory framework, it drives home the wisdom of the founding fathers in including the Commerce Clause into the US Constitution. This clause prohibits state interference in interstate commerce, which means that the producers of most products don't have to hire compliance companies or dedicate staff members to making sure that all the different licenses, reports, and remissions are done properly. That clause is probably most eloquently explained in the 1949 Supreme Court decision H.P. Hood & Sons vs. Du Mond:

"Our system, fostered by the Commerce Clause, is that every farmer and every craftsman shall be encouraged to produce by the certainty that he will have free access to every market in the Nation… Neither the power to tax nor the police power may be used by the state of destination with the aim and effect of establishing an economic barrier against competition with the products of another state or the labor of its residents."

We may not be close to "free access to every market in the Nation"... but at least we've increased the number of those markets from 41 to 43. Number 44 is on the horizon. That's something to celebrate.

Footnotes:

  1. If you'd like to get involved in the push for more open direct shipping laws, the nonprofit Free the Grapes, on whose board of directors I serve, has information, resources, and templates for contacting state representatives. 
  2. Thank you to the Wine Institute for intervening with Connecticut to help us overcome the largest hurdle: that because we sell our wine wholesale through Vineyard Brands (an importer with a wholesaler network in all 50 states) instead of directly to a wholesaler there, the state needed to make accommodation for the same winery to have its labels registered by two different companies. Until recently, this wasn't possible.

That Wine Enthusiast headline about $50 average tasting fees in Paso Robles is… just not true.

Last week, the Wine Enthusiast published a piece by Matt Kettmann celebrating the recent decision by Matt Trevisan to lower his base tasting fee at Linne Calodo Cellars from $40 to $20 in order to entice newer wine drinkers to experience his wines. I applaud Matt (Trevisan)'s decision, and think it's great that Matt (Kettmann) decided to write about it. In his intro, Matt (Kettmann) says "Tasting room fees have jumped to more than $50 per person at many wineries, even reaching $100 in some cases, triggering alarm amongst tourists and industry folk alike." While I'd quibble with his characterization of there being "many" wineries in Paso with $50+ tasting fees -- I'll share the actual numbers shortly -- that's a judgment call. But then the Wine Enthusiast made a much more inflammatory claim on social media. Do you notice it?

WE Twitter Paso Robles

The authors of articles don't generally write their headlines, let alone the copy that's used to promote the articles over social media. But saying that many fees are high is a far cry from saying that the average tasting fee is that high. And (spoiler alert) this second claim just wasn't true. This information isn't hard to find or verify. According to the 179 listings on the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance winery guide, the most common tasting fees are between $20 and $29.99, with an average of $24.36. Eight wineries (4.5%) show tasting fees of $50 or more:

Tasting Fees in Paso Robles  by Number of Wineries

I became aware of the controversy through British wine writer Jamie Goode's Twitter post, which has as of this morning received 49 replies, 21 re-tweets, and 176 likes. I was sure it wasn't right, given what I see around town, and made a quick response, breaking a self-imposed Twitter hiatus to do so:

The reaction to the Wine Enthusiast's posts was predictable. There was a chorus of voices saying, essentially, "California wineries are all greedy and overpriced" while another chorus of people with connections to Paso Robles pointed out, with varying degrees of outrage, that this data didn't seem right. A few of the 49 comments to the Wine Enthusiast's Facebook post will give you a sense:

WE FB Paso Robles Comments
Finally, this morning, there was a correction posted to the Facebook post, adding "UPDATE: A previous version of this post indicated that average tasting room fees jumped to over $50 per person. This was misleading and has adjusted accordingly." No correction yet on Twitter that I can find. But to my mind, the damage has already been done. The original characterization became a lead story in the widely-distributed industry news roundup Wine Industry Insight and continues to echo around the wine ecosphere:

Wine Industry Insight Paso Robles Fees
To what extent does this color the general perception of a place like Paso Robles? It's not insignificant, I don't think. The Twitter post got something more than 34,000 views. Facebook doesn't make view counts public, but given Wine Enthusiast’s 417,000 fans and the number of comments, reactions, and shares their post got, it's probably even more. And then there's the reach of the emails, which mostly go out to people in the business and in a position to further influence consumer behavior. I suggested to the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance that they ask for a public retraction, but don't know if they will.

All this matters because it plays into a narrative that is convenient and ultimately destructive. The Lettie Teague article Who Can Afford Napa Now? Not This Wine Columnist in the Wall Street Journal last April -- to which I wrote a response on this blog -- is probably the highest-profile such piece. The temptation is to look at the most expensive options in a region and conclude that those are representative. But they are no more representative than the least expensive, such as the local example that Eberle Winery still doesn't charge a tasting fee. And wine is always susceptible to claims of elitism, given its historic association with aristocracy and the way it's often portrayed in popular culture. Perception drives customer behavior, and if people think that Paso Robles (or Napa) has gotten too expensive, they'll decide to go elsewhere. 

All this is why I think that what Matt Trevisan is doing is such a good thing. I wrote about the dilemma wineries face in my response to Lettie Teague's piece:

Do they raise their prices to keep up and risk losing their historic audience? Do they keep their prices and risk being seen as less elite than their neighbors? Or do they try to split the difference (as, if I read between the lines in the article, it seems that the lovely, historic Spottswoode Winery has done) and feel guilty about it? Unfortunately there's not a great solution once a critical mass of wineries has set dramatically higher prices for themselves.

But the same way that having a critical mass of wineries raising prices on visits puts pressure on their neighbors to do the same, having wineries publicly cutting those prices leaves room for other wineries to forge their own path. That's likely to keep visits to Paso Robles approachable, which should help set us up as an appealing destination whether you're a first-time visitor to wine country or a regular who makes several trips a year.

So, kudos to Matt. Go visit Linne Calodo. And thanks to all of you out there who stuck up for Paso Robles over the last few days.


Harvest Update: After a Record-Cool September, Things Heat Up (Thankfully)

This week, we got our first Grenache off of Jewel Ridge, from an early morning pick. The fruit was lovely, as was the view west over the lines of hills:

IMG_5825

Even a few days ago, a view like this would have been hard to come by. We've had consistently chilly, often foggy nights, and a string of days where temperatures have been well below average. For the month, 25 days were below average, with only two above our norms and three others almost exactly average:

High Temperatures September 2023 vs Average

And it's not like it was only a little cooler than normal. The daily highs in September were a full 7.5°F cooler than average, meaning that this September has seen temperatures about what an average October would bring. A good way of measuring heat accumulation is Growing Degree Days (GDDs). The average year 2010-2022 saw September accumulate 558 degree days, with a high of 655 in 2020 and a low of 505 in 2013. September of 2023 looks like it's a data error: just 393 GDDs. This has meant that our overall heat accumulation (the dotted red line) is trending away from average, back down toward the very cool years of 2010 or 2011:

Growing Degree Days 2010-2023

All this explains why, two days before we finished harvest last year, we're only about one-third of the way done, and still working on early-ripening grapes like Viognier, Syrah, and Vermentino:

IMG_5821

Still, at around 200 tons picked (roughly one-third of our projected total) there's still lots of activity in the cellar. All that Syrah is getting processed, with the portion that's being fermented whole-cluster needing to be foot-treaded twice daily:

Cellar 3

Samples are being pulled in all our blocks that look like they might be getting close, with sugars and acids measured and flavors and colors evaluated:

Cotes Maduena - Sample

Once Neil and the team in the cellar have decided that something is ready to pick (in this case, the first Grenache from Jewel Ridge) we cue up our crew and get them out early in the morning so that the pick is comfortable and the fruit is cool when it goes into the bins:

Jewel - Bins

Its next stage brings it to the sorting table, where any leaves or other unwanted material is removed before the grapes are de-stemmed and sent to a tank to ferment:

Sorting Table

So even though we haven't reached harvest's peak, there's still plenty going on. But we're still grateful for the warmer weather we got this week. If we continue on at the pace we've seen so far, we will surely be picking into mid-November, and with el niño building out in the Pacific, that gets risky. Plus, with the moisture in the ground and the lack of hot weather, we're seeing little pockets of botrytis, a form of rot typically rare in California. While some regions (most notably Sauternes) have harnessed botrytis to make sweet wines, we would definitely prefer to get our fruit in unaffected. And the last few days have delivered. It hit 90 yesterday for the first time since September 10th, surpassed that today, and is supposed to stay warm over the weekend. Typically, if it's been cool late in the growing season, even a short warm-up has a big impact on grapes that are nearly ready. We're expecting a wave of Grenache Blanc, Syrah, Viognier, and even Muscardin off our estate next week, as well as more Patelin components for red, white, and rosé.

If you'd like the detailed version, I decided to change things up with my semi-weekly Instagram Live broadcast and instead of bringing in a guest from outside, to sit down with Neil and have him share what he's seeing. That half-hour conversation is on our Instagram feed or embedded below:

One thing that I thought was memorable in my conversation with Neil was his comment that a cool harvest and long hang time is great... until it isn't, because you get rain. Everything that we've gotten in so far looks outstanding. We should hit harvest's midpoint next week. The forecast going forward looks great. Still, that only takes us about 10 days. Harvest will likely last another five weeks. We're optimistic, but still, it's been a while since we had a year that pushed us into November and even longer since it did so in conjunction with an el niño. If you see any winemakers out there looking nervously over their shoulders, that's why. Fingers crossed, please, everyone.