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


A Winery Carbon Footprint Self-Assessment: Why I Can't Give Us an "A" Despite All Our Progress

When you consider a winery's environmental footprint, what do you think of? Their vineyard certifications? Whether they're using recycled materials? How well insulated their winery building is? If so, you might be surprised to learn that the largest contributors to a winery's carbon footprint1 are the source of their energy, the weight of their bottles, the production of fertilizers and other inputs that go onto the vineyard, the transportation of the bottled wine, and the cover cropping and tillage decisions the vineyard makes.⁠

This fact was driven home to me by a series of really interesting conversations about wine and sustainability over on Twitter recently which barely touched on wineries' vineyard practices. Kathleen Willcox published a great article on liquor.com titled Why Packaging Is Wine’s New Sustainability Frontier in which she highlights what a large piece of the total environmental footprint of wine comes from its packaging. The same day, Johan Reyneke, the South African winemaker whose commitment to organic and biodynamic farming has made him an example in his homeland and around the world, shared a review by Jancis Robinson, MW which praised his Sauvignon Blanc but called him out for the dissonance of using a notably heavy bottle for a wine made with such environmental sensitivity:

Reyneke's owning of the criticism and pledge to do better produced a lot of questions from other posters wondering what the relative importance of inputs like bottles, vineyard practices, winery design, and transportation each produced. In response, Jancis shared the below graphic, taken from the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance's 2011 assessment of California Wine's Carbon Footprint

Carbon Footprint of CA WineThe graphic shows the huge importance of the glass bottle in a winery's overall carbon footprint, but also highlights other areas where a winery seeking to improve should look. It spurred me to go, category by category, and examine how we rate. In each case, I've estimated our own footprint compared to the "average California winery" benchmark noted in the CSWA graphic, with an explanation of how I got to my assessment. Our goal, in a perfect world, would be to get to zero, which would represent a 100% savings vs. the benchmark. It's good to have goals!

Note that these are self-assessments; we will be looking to do a third party carbon audit sometime in the next year. I'll be interested to know how my own assessments are contradicted or confirmed by the official ones. But this is at least a start. If you're interested in how I've assigned grades, I've given us an "A" if our own footprint in a particular category represents a better than 40% savings over the benchmark average. I've given us a "B" when our practices produce a savings between 15% and 40%. As it would in real life, a "C" represents an "average" performance, between a 15% savings and 15% extra footprint. A "D" represents between 15% and 40% extra footprint, while an "F" grade would be a footprint more than 40% greater than the benchmark.

In the Vineyard: Overall Grade A- (Benchmark: 34; Our use: 17; Savings: 50% vs. benchmark)

  • Bio-geochemical field emissions: B- (Benchmark: 17; our use: 13) The CSWA's footnote defines this category as "Footprint associated with greenhouse gas emissions that are a result of natural bio-geochemical processes and impacted by local climate, soil conditions, and management practices like the application of nitrogen fertilizers." As we do not apply any nitrogen fertilizers, our impact here is likely smaller than average. We know because of our Regenerative Organic Certification audit that our soils are adding carbon content to the soil. The reduction in tillage and the resulting deeper root systems and more complicated microbial systems that we have been able to accomplish in recent years thanks to our flock of sheep likely also puts our total below average. On the negative side, sheep are themselves sources of methane, which likely mitigates some of the other positive contributions they make. I will be interested to learn the balance here when we get our formal audit. Does being carbon-negative outweigh the environmental impact of the flock's methane? I am less certain of this grade than any other in this list. Are we doing "A" work? Maybe! Is it actually a "C"? I hope not!
  • Fuel production and combustion: D+ (Benchmark: 3; our use: 4) Although the sheep have allowed us to reduce tractor passes, organic farming still requires more tractor work than conventional chemical farming. We also use propane in the spring to power our frost fans, though we've been lucky that we haven't had many near-freezing spring nights in recent years. Our reduced tillage in recent years is a positive factor. But I'm guessing we're at or below average in this one category compared to the average California winery. Luckily, it's a small factor overall. 
  • Electricity consumption: A (Benchmark: 4; our use: 0) About the only use of electricity in the vineyard is to power our well pumps. Given that we irrigate minimally compared to most wineries and that more than a third of our vineyard is dry-farmed, I'm guessing our power draws are well below average. But, most importantly, we expect that the installation of our fourth bank of solar panels last month will get us to 100% solar powered. So, this (and our winery power needs) should be near zero.
  • Raw materials production: A (Benchmark: 10; our use: 0) Because we've been farming organically since our inception, our carbon footprint for the production and transport of materials like fertilizer and pesticides has always been low. What's more, we have been working to eliminate one outside input after another in recent years. Our sheep have allowed us to eliminate even the application of organic fertilizers or outside compost. Our cultivation of beneficial insect habitat has reduced our need to intervene against pests to near zero. We've even been producing our own Biodynamic preps on site. I think we've basically eliminated this category of carbon input at Tablas Creek.

In the Winery: Overall Grade A (Benchmark: 15; Our use: 2; Savings: 87% vs. benchmark)

  • Fuel production and consumption: A (Benchmark: 7; our use: 1) We've moved entirely to electric-powered forklifts in the winery, which means they're fueled by our solar array. Same with our refrigeration. Really the only fuel we're using in production now is the transport of grapes to the vineyard, and with our estate vineyards located at the winery and our purchased grapes representing only about 30% of our production, I figure that our use of fuel is 80%-90% less than the California average.
  • Electricity consumption: A (Benchmark: 7; our use: 0) The fourth bank of solar panels here, as in the vineyard, should reduce this to zero this year. I've said for a long time that if there is a natural resource that Paso Robles has in abundance, it's sun. This feels like an area in which every winery should be investing; there are good tax credits available to help with the up-front costs, and the return on the investment even without them is in the 15-year range.   
  • Other winery: C+ (Benchmark: 1; our use: 1) The CSWA footnote lists "transport of grapes from the vineyard to the winery, raw material production, refrigerant losses, and manufacturing waste treatment" in this category. We don't use much in the way of raw materials compared to the average winery (no yeasts, nutrients, etc., very few new barrels, no chemicals or additives). And our winery wastewater treatment is done using a wetland area that likely has positive carbon offsets from the water plants compared to an average winery wastewater facility. But I'm sure we have some refrigerant losses.

In our Packaging: Overall Grade B+ (Benchmark: 38; Our use: 25; Savings: 34% vs. benchmark)

  • Glass bottle: A-. (Benchmark: 29; our use: 17) I wrote a few years back about how our switch to lightweight bottles in 2009 saved more than 1.3 million pounds of glass in nine years. I'm proud of the analysis that led to that choice, and also of the aesthetics of the bottle that we chose. And bottles make an enormous difference. In the CSWA's analysis, they published a graph (below) showing that the switch to a lightweight bottle would save 10% on a winery's overall carbon footprint, all by itself. That is because glass bottles are energy-intensive to produce and add significant weight to the product, which increase transportation costs later. Our bottles are also produced in America, at a factory outside Seattle. Given how many bottles are produced either in Europe, China, or Mexico, with the added costs of transport to California, I feel good about this. I also give us a little bump in our grade for this metric because we have for the last decade been selling a significant percentage (roughly a quarter most years until 2020) of our Patelin de Tablas in reusable stainless steel kegs, which Free Flow Wines (our kegging partner) estimates results in a 96% reduction in that package's CO2 footprint. So why don't we get an "A"? Even though our bottles are quite light, there are now even lighter bottles available than our 465 gram bottle. And we don't use the bag-in-box 3 liter package (the best available package, in terms of CO2 footprint) at all. I'm investigating that more seriously, although a move to that format would come with some significant challenges... not least that we'd be a wild outlier in terms of price; even our Patelin de Tablas would be double the price of the most expensive 3L bag-in-box at our local supermarket. But still, while there is more to do, I feel good about how we score in this, the most impactful of categories.

    CO2 Impact by Bottle Weight
  • Corrugate case box: B- (Benchmark: 6; our use: 5) We do use corrugated cardboard case boxes, and haven't really dug into this as a potential source of savings. We do, however, use entirely 12-bottle case boxes, unlike many higher-end wineries. There were a few years in the late 2000s where we switched our Esprit de Tablas tier of wines into 6-bottle cases, which essentially doubles the amount of cardboard needed per bottle. We made the decision back in 2012 to go back to all 12-bottle cases, and I'm happy we did. 
  • Other packaging: C+ (Benchmark: 3; our use: 3) We don't do anything particularly unusual with other packaging. We use labels, capsules, and either corks or screwcaps. Our ratio of corks to screwcaps is probably about the industry average. At least we aren't using any synthetic corks, made from plastic in a manufacturing process. I feel like we can find some savings here with a little harder look.

Transport of Bottled Wine: Overall Grade D+ (Benchmark: 13; Our use: 16; Extra footprint: 23% of benchmark)

  • Transport of bottled wine: D+ (Benchmark: 13; our use: 16) I wish that the CSWA had broken this out in more detail. On the one hand, our lighter bottles give us savings here. On the other hand, the 65% of our production that we sell direct-to-consumer (DTC) means that a higher percentage of our wine than the industry average is shipped via UPS and FedEx. Those DTC shipments require extra cardboard in the form of sturdy pulp shippers, and are in many cases being shipped via air rather than ground. We don't feel we have a choice here given that wine is perishable and fragile, and it needs to get to our customers in good condition. But I worry about the environmental costs. We have started, for our wine club shipments, sending the wine that will go to customers east of the Rockies via truck to staging warehouses in Missouri and New York, from where they can be packed into shipping boxes and shipped ground. But that hasn't proven feasible for our daily shipping. I do give us some credit for eliminating styrofoam packaging more than fifteen years ago, but I think it's likely that any winery that sells two-thirds of their production direct is going to have an above-average carbon footprint from wine transport given that DTC sales made up just 10% of total sales of California wine pre-pandemic. 

Adding up my back-of-the-envelope assessments leads to a total footprint estimate of 60% of the baseline (18+1+25+16). Our lighter bottles and solar arrays account for most of that improvement.2 That's pretty good, but it's clear that we have additional work that we can be doing across our business. My biggest questions, which I hope that our audit will help answer, revolve around whether we can sequester enough carbon with better viticulture to offset a significant amount of what happens after the wine gets bottled. If we're going to get our carbon footprint really low, can we do that with our own property? Or have we made most of the improvements we can already, and will we need to look toward offsetting the carbon in a different way?

I don't know the answer to this yet, but I'm committed to finding out.

Final Grade: B+/A- (Benchmark: 100; Our use: 60; Savings: 40% vs. benchmark)

Footnotes:

  1. It is important to recognize that carbon footprint is just one measurement of care of the environment. Others, which I feel we do well on, include fostering of plant, animal, insect and microbial biodiversity; reduction of non-biodegradable waste; protection of habitat; and elimination of chemicals and toxins.
  2. If I were a winery starting fresh at looking at my carbon footprint, installing solar arrays and reducing the weight of my bottles would absolutely be my first avenues of attack. Both offer immediate returns on investment both environmentally and financially. 

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.


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

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

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

Closed TR Looking Toward Door

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


2020: The Year Climate Change Got Real for American Wine

As I write this, I'm staring out at a dim, yellow landscape, the indistinct sunlight filtered through a thick layer of atmospheric smoke. I have a sweatshirt on because the day has never really warmed up here in town. We had a couple of days this past week, prime ripening season in Paso Robles, where it barely made it out of the sixties. A photo, no filter applied:

Harvest Apocalypse

We're not really complaining; as apocalyptic as it looks, the air has been cool and fresh at the surface, and we got a chance to catch up on harvesting after what was a scorching hot previous weekend. And plenty is ready. Pretty much all our Syrah. The Vermentino and Marsanne. Our first lots of Grenache Blanc. The smoke has reduced actual temperatures from model forecasts by some 20 degrees, and if we'd had the mid-90s weather that was forecast for this week, it's possible that new blocks would have ripened before we could get through the backlog that the last heat wave produced.

This smoke layer, driven by the fact that six of California ten largest fires ever are currently burning, is only the most recent of a series of unprecedented things we've seen in the 2020 growing season. A week ago, we had a heat wave that crested with back-to-back-to-back days that topped out at 109, 113, and 111. The Paso Robles Airport broke its all-time high with a 117 reading. And San Luis Obispo hit 120°F, which appears to be the highest temperature ever recorded in a coastal zone anywhere in North or South America.

Last month, we saw a trio of fires in the Central Coast produce so much smoke at the surface that we closed our tasting patio for four days because the air quality was so bad. On August 20th, San Luis Obispo had the worst air quality in the world. Those fires were sparked by a surge of tropical moisture, the remnants of Tropical Storm Fausto, that moved up the California coast and produced thousands of lighting strikes on August 14th and 15th. The fires lit by those lightning strikes were fueled by another heat wave that pushed temperatures over 105°F each day between August 15th and 18th.

Paso Robles is hot in the summer. Summer days over 100°F have never been rare here. But the increased number and distribution of these days, the fact that records are falling more often, the earlier and earlier beginnings to harvest (and the shorter durations between veraison and harvest), and finally the new, tropical-influenced rainfall patterns, are new. A few data points that I look at:

  • Over our first 15 vintages, 1997-2011, we started our estate harvest in August 40% of the years. Since 2012, we have done so 78% of vintages. Similarly, in those first 15 years, there were six times we harvested into November, and another four that finished October 28th or later. Over the last 8 years, we haven't once harvested in November.
  • It's not just harvest. This year's gap between veraison and harvest was just 35 days, breaking our record of 36, set in both 2016 and 2019. Before that, the record was 39, in 2015. 2013 was the first year that we saw 40 or fewer days between veraison and harvest. So, in less than a decade, we've seen this critical ripening period shrink by 15%. Crucial growing periods are getting hotter. 
  • Our total growing season degree days, a rough measurement of the number of hours in which it's warm enough for grapevines to photosynthesize efficiently, shows that since 2000, our five warmest years have all come since 2012.

All those data points are indicative, but none of them are likely to on their own pose much of a threat to winemaking here in Paso Robles. But they feed into two phenomena that do: droughts and fires. I'll address droughts first. I wrote a 3-part blog series back in 2014 about our move toward dry farming as a part of being ready for what seems likely to be a drier future. In the research for that, I looked at EPA projections for rainfall showed that, depending on our success in reducing emissions, coastal California would see between 20% and 35% less precipitation annually by the end of the 21st Century:

Southwest-precip-change

That research has since been reinforced by studies of warming in the Pacific Ocean, which will have a complex series of consequences, including increased rainfall in places like northern Australia, the Amazon, and Southeast Asia, but less rainfall (and a later onset of the rainy season) in coastal California. This suggests that droughts, particularly the multi-year droughts like the one we saw between 2012 and 2016, will become more common.

Next, fires. It's not like California is a stranger to fires, but severe ones are definitely happening more often. I moved out here in 2002. The first time after that there was any smoke here was July 2008, when I wrote in a blog that two big fires to our north had burned some 73,000 acres in three weeks. (Note that that figure seems almost quaint now, with the horrific Creek Fire east of Fresno burning 160,000 acres in the first four days.) The second fire I noted in the blog was in 2016. Except for 2019, we've seen scary fires in California's wine country each year since then, and 2020 has already seen the most acres burned on record:

The fires are driven by a number of factors, including higher temperatures, lower humidities, poor utility maintenance, human encroachment into wildland areas, and accumulated fuel in the forests after a century of fire suppression. All of these encourage fires to be bigger, faster-growing, and more destructive than before. But what has set the worst ones off in recent years has been climate-related: either through dry winds spurring (and spreading) fires through downed power lines in periods before it has rained in California, or by tropical moisture that has sparked summer lightning.

The fires that impacted Northern California in 2017 and 2018 were produced by late-season (October and November) windstorms that spurred fires from an aging electrical grid. This is largely a governmental and regulatory failure. But while these windstorms aren't new, and don't particularly appear to be a function of climate change, thanks to climate change the time of year when these storms are common is more likely to still be summer-dry. That is why the climate change-driven later onset to the rainy season is a significant contributor to the number and severity of fires.

2020's fires in California have been different. The storms this summer that produced the first series of wildfires were driven by tropical moisture that was pulled into California. A warming climate produces more and larger tropical storms and hurricanes. 2020 has already seen so many tropical storms that I've begun to read articles about how NOAA might run out of names. The direct impacts of tropical storms and hurricanes on California are rare, and minor compared to their impacts in the Atlantic or the Gulf of Mexico. But the more of these storms that form, the greater the chance that tropical moisture can end up in unexpected places. These occasionally produce enough moisture to provide some short-term fire risk reduction (such as the July 2015 storm that dropped more than two inches of rain on us) but more often produce extensive lightning with only limited moisture. These sorts of storms introduce extreme fire risk. 

The combination of warmer days, dryer (and later-beginning) winters, and more frequent incursions of summer tropical moisture has combined to produce drastically more days with very high fire risk.

So, what to do? That's the hard part. Most of the response has to come at the governmental level. Investments need to be made to modernize utilities. Forest management practices could be improved to reduce the amount of fuel that builds up. Cities, counties, and states should adopt growth plans that reduce the human/wildland interface as much as possible, both to reduce the opportunities for fires to start and to minimize the loss of life and property when they do. But ultimately, if climate change itself goes unaddressed, all these initiatives (none of which are easy or likely to come without resistance) are likely to be overwhelmed by the growth in the number of extreme fire days and fast spread of fires that do start.

Here's where regenerative agriculture comes in. One of its tenets is that agriculture has an important and necessary role in the reduction of greenhouse gases (and especially Carbon Dioxide) in the atmosphere. And plants, after all, are the best engines we have in doing so, since photosynthesis uses CO2 as one of its inputs, turning that carbon into carbohydrates. But modern farming produces more emissions than the plants it grows consume. Some of that is the fertilizer, derived mostly from petrochemicals. Some of that is the fuel for the tractors and other machinery. And some of it is the processing of the agricultural products.

Regenerative agriculture leads the way toward building carbon content in the soil, through a combination of permaculture, cover crops, reduction in tillage, and the replacement of chemical inputs with natural ones like compost or manure. Soils with more carbon content also hold more moisture, which will help California wineries weather the droughts too. We showed in the application process for our new Regenerative Organic Certification that it was possible to increase our soil's carbon content while growing grapes even in a dry climate like Paso Robles.

Regenerative farming is not just for wineries. It's what all farms, from row crops to orchards to fibers to livestock, should be moving toward. But vineyards offer some of the lowest-hanging opportunities for better farming, because wine is a value-added product with the resources to invest, and the investments tend also to make higher-quality grapes and longer-lived vines, providing return on the investments.

I can't imagine how California, Oregon, or Washington wineries can live through the 2020 vintage without worrying about how climate change might impact their future. A small silver lining could be encouraging more of that community to move toward regenerative farming. Consumers have a role to play here too. Before this year, there wasn't an available standard for moving to, measuring, and being audited for being regenerative. Now, with the launch of Regenerative Organic Certification, there is. If your favorite wineries are not farming regeneratively, you should be asking them why not. It's one of the tools we as farmers have to take some control over what is likely to be an increasingly volatile and dangerous future that might look like last week a lot more often than any of us would want. 

IMG_6029


When we reopen post-Coronavirus, things will look different. But safe and fun aren't mutually exclusive.

Six weeks ago, I wrote a blog thinking about what reopening might look like post-Coronavirus. At that time it seemed far away. Now, we're getting down to the details of reopening, which I'm anticipating will happen sometime in June.

[Editor's Note June 9, 2020: We have received permission from the state and county to reopen. Our first day open will be Wednesday, June 17th. Thank you for your patience!]

When I wrote that blog, three weeks into most stay-at-home orders, the idea that businesses would reopen into a very different reality hadn't hit most people yet. The hope was that we could crush the curve in a month or two, and then reopen more or less as we were before. Now nearly every state has begun reopening, to some degree at least, and California has entered stage 2 of its Resilience Roadmap. In this stage, restaurants (and wineries who serve meals) can reopen for in-person dining under distanced guidelines.

At Tablas Creek, we're not a restaurant, and don't feel it's wise for us to try to become one just to reopen a few weeks early. Food, after all, changes how wine tastes. There's a reason that professional tasters don't evaluate wines over a meal. And great food (as well as great food service) is hard, particularly if you have to provide "bona fide meals" as specified in the state protocols.

If I thought we were looking at months before we could reopen, I might evaluate, but I really do think that we're in the home stretch, and reopening tasting rooms under new safety protocols is a matter of weeks away, not months. After all, as a recent letter from CA regional wine associations to the governor points out, if serving food and wine can be done with an acceptably low level of risk, serving just wine is (if anything) safer. There's less prep, fewer utensils, less cleanup. Less to sanitize.

Outdoor tasting - Flight

We don't know exactly when that will happen. But we do know that when it does happen, we want to be ready with plans that we're confident will provide a great experience, safely. So, what can customers expect? Much of what I predicted in my April blog, but a few additional things. Here's what we're planning:

  • Tasting by appointment only, so we can regulate traffic flow, make sure that we don't have people building up in our parking lots, and be sure that we can take great care of the people who do make the journey.
  • Get to know our patio. We'll be doing all our tastings outside for at least the next few months. We have a great patio space with several shaded levels, and we're making some alterations to ensure that everyone has their own space. Why outside only? I dive into why we think that's so critical below.
  • Plenty of time between groups to clean and sanitize spaces. We're leaving roughly double the time that we figure most guests take for a tasting with us between bookings. We want to make sure we have enough time for a relaxed tasting, and to clean and sanitize spaces, with no one having to wait.
  • All seated flight tastings. We're planning tastings of six wines, which we'll serve in two flights of three. We're getting cool no-touch carriers to bring the wines to guests' tables. That way we don't need to stay in guests' space as long. That level of spacing just isn't possible across a tasting bar.
  • No groups larger than six. Large groups in and of themselves encourage people to abandon physical distancing, even if you ask them to maintain it at your facility. Plus they're inherently chaotic at the winery. I feel like this is a part of not encouraging behavior that is likely to have negative consequences.  
  • Face coverings for us, and for you until you're seated. Our team will be wearing face coverings, and we'll ask guests to as well until they're seated at their tables. We'll have disposable masks for anyone who needs one.
  • Education and health checks for our team. We're working with our team to help them monitor their own health. No one who is showing any symptoms will be allowed to come to work. We have always granted paid sick leave for our team members, so they have no economic incentive to work while they might be ill.
  • No merchandise browsing or picnicking. We'll be restricting our merchandise to a few items that we can display on the wall behind our check-out table, and then getting items from boxed stock as requested. And because we'll be using our whole patio to properly space out our tastings, we won't be able to accommodate picnicking. We apologize!

As we learn about how Covid-19 spreads, it's clear that the most important thing to avoid is creating spaces where virus particles accumulate and stay. That's why the rates of outdoor transmission are so (happily) low, particularly with distancing guidelines observed. Earlier this month I shared on Twitter this terrific piece by UMass epidemiology professor Erin Bromage. In it, he investigates where significant spread occurs and where it doesn't. Because infection becomes much more likely as sustained contact with virus particles occurs, the risks are high in enclosed indoor spaces without much fresh air flow, low elsewhere. And while I love our tasting room, and feel confident in our cleaning protocols, it's not a space I'm comfortable welcoming guests in right now. There's not a ton of air flow. It's surrounded by our cellar (a space without much air flow, for obvious reasons). We only have one door. It's just not feasible to match the level of air circulation we can get outdoors.

Fortunately, we've got our patio. We did the math and figure that we can easily seat 50 people at a time, with plenty of distance between groups. Plenty of shade (and yes, we know there will still be some hot afternoons and are installing both fixed and portable misting systems to help ameliorate this).

Outdoor tasting - View from below

On our patio, with our other safety and cleaning protocols, I feel that we can open with exceptionally low risk to our guests and team. And that's critical. This is a marathon, not a sprint. I'm expecting that we'll need to operate in a Covid-19 environment for a long time. If you feel you can operate each day 99% safely, that sounds like pretty good odds. And if you're just open a few days, that's probably OK. But if you have to be successful every day for a month, your likelihood of zero mishaps drops to 74%. If it's six months, it drops all the way to 16%. A year, and your chances are just 2.5%. That's just the relentlessness of exponential math. But it drives home what the stakes are as we contemplate how to reopen. Each additional step that we can take to reduce our risk of catching or transmitting the virus, even if it's minor and incremental, makes a big difference over time.

Outdoor tasting - tables

For years, we've gotten requests for outdoor tastings. This wasn't the situation in which I'd hoped to add them to our lineup, but I do think it's going to be a great experience for our guests, and I'm confident that we can sustain it as long as we need to, safely.

What do you think? Are you ready to go back wine tasting? And under what conditions? Are there things you're particularly concerned with? Please share in the comments.⁠


Why we're going to be a better business after this Coronavirus shutdown

Last week, I made a small appearance in Eric Asimov's excellent assessment of how the various disruptions caused by the Coronavirus are impacting American wine producers. If you haven't read For American Wine Producers, Fear, Uncertainty and Hope go read it now. OK, welcome back.

New_York_Times_Jason_Haas_Apr10_2020
Jim Wilson/The New York Times

The article included a photo (right) from Eric’s last visit to Tablas Creek, in the depths of the 2012-2016 drought. The 2015 article that resulted noted that at Tablas Creek, "the vineyard has managed to thrive despite the drought." And that's true. We had a string of excellent harvests as the drought really took hold, with each of 2014, 2015 and 2016 producing memorable wines across three different vintage signatures.

Re-reading the article today, I don't think I emphasized to Eric enough that we made it through that drought not principally because of our location (though we do get more rain here than much of the Central Coast, thanks to our location at altitude, in the Santa Lucia foothills, and relatively close to the Pacific) but because of a series of extraordinary actions we took to reduce our demand for water.

These included rethinking how we planted new vineyard (much more widely spaced) so that we could set them up for success dry-farmed. It included new, deeper-rooting rootstocks. It included micro-emitters for frost protection. And it included investing in cover crops and a much larger animal flock. The flock and cover crop together increase our soil’s carbon content, which allows it to hold more moisture. In Paso Robles, we don’t have a water table at root-available depth, and it doesn’t rain for six months every year. The soil is our reservoir, if we allow it to be. [For a deep dive into how our farming changed during the drought, check out my 3-part series Dry Farming in California's Drought.]

Why mention this now? While the outside shock is different, we’re in the middle of another shock right now that is forcing us to rethink how we operate. Coronavirus is a demand shock rather than a supply shock like a drought, but we’re having to reinvent ourselves as a business the way we did as a farm last decade.

Without many of the ways we’ve always interacted with customers (tasting room, events, festivals) we’re investing in new technology. The first things we rolled out utilize the live interactive capabilities of our social media platforms. I've been hosting Instagram Live broadcasts every Wednesday at noon PDT, inviting a guest to dive into the world of Tablas Creek. Neil has started hosting weekly tastings on Facebook Live, also with a guest, of two wines each Friday at 5pm PDT. Our tasting room has launched virtual Zoom tastings, where customers can choose a pre-made pack of half-bottles, order wines they want to open and discuss, or just taste through wines they have on hand, led by one of our senior tasting room team members. We've ramped up our investment in video; we've been adding a deep-dive into a recently released wine to our Chelsea and the Shepherd series each week, and now have a YouTube channel to collect them all.

What do all of these initiatives have in common? We're meeting customers where they are, instead of asking them to come to us. We didn't really have a choice; with our tasting room and restaurants closed, and events canceled both here at the winery and around the country, the typical avenues through which we'd interact with our customers are unavailable. But I'm convinced that many or most of these new initiatives will remain valuable enough to keep doing them even once we can reopen our tasting room, resume pouring at festivals and reschedule those restaurant wine dinners that we'd planned to host this spring. After all, we’d discussed doing, or even made starts on, many of these new initiatives before the arrival of Coronavirus, but this crisis made us attack these new programs with urgency.

All of these new initiatives have in common that they are location-independent. Of course, when you're stuck in your house, it doesn't really matter whether Tablas Creek is 30 miles away or 3000. But I'm convinced that the lessons we're learning will allow us to better connect with customers near and far. Even our local customers weren’t making weekly trips to visit us. What's more, the majority of our current customers and an even larger share of our potential customers don't live an easy drive from Paso Robles. In the periodic surveys we do to former wine club members, we always see responses that they weren't able to take advantage of the events we offered because of their distance from Paso Robles. We think of limitations like that as constant, but they're really not. We weren't utilizing the tools we had to offer opportunities to learn about and become more connected to what we're doing. But we are now.

Jason on video chat with Sadie

After the drought ended, we realized that the new things we’d learned to do in the vineyard led to healthier vines, better fruit, and wines with more character even when they weren’t existentially necessary. I don’t think it’s coincidence that 2017-2019 is maybe our best-ever run.

I think we're going to see something similar here. Just as we emerged from the drought better farmers, so too will we come out of this crisis a stronger business and industry.


We're not about to reopen. Which means it's the right time to think about what that will look like.

Wherever you are and whatever you do for work, I hope you’re weathering the current storm OK. Here, even though as an agricultural enterprise we've been able to continue our farming and cellar work, we've had to begin reinventing how we work as a business. I feel good about the things we've added, including Instagram and Facebook live weekly broadcasts, virtual tastings over Zoom, and an increased investment in sharing what's happening here over video. We even have our own YouTube channel now.

New Tasting Room - EmptyAgricultural businesses are classified as essential, because we’re working with perishable products that often have only one harvest a year, and are the building blocks of the food and drink supply chain. But unless we want to risk infecting our workers and our customers, that status doesn't give us leave to operate as though the business environment were normal. When we were blending at Tablas Creek week-before-last, we made several changes to do what we could to minimize the risks that if one of us were infected but asymptomatic we might transmit the virus. I talked about some of those in last week's blog. With six people distributed around our big conference table, we all had plenty of space. We all pulled and washed our own glasses and dump buckets. The sample bottles were wiped down before they were poured, and only one person picked up and poured each bottle. We kept doors and windows open so there was air moving in the room. We'd all been quarantining at home the previous two weeks, and everyone was healthy. As we've started physically blending the wines, we've limited our cellar team to two people at a time.

Even as we're reevaluating how we can safely operate under current conditions, I've spent a lot of the enforced downtime thinking about how and under what conditions we and other hospitality-facing businesses will be able to reopen. At some point, the shelter at home Coronavirus restrictions will be lifted. I've come to the conclusion that it's very unlikely that we'll go back to pre-Covid status quo.

I'm clearly not the only one thinking about this. As discussions ramp up on lifting local and national restrictions, some of the heavyweights of the American business community are weighing in. The American Enterprise Institute, which you'd think would come down on the side of restarting the economy sooner than later, laid out some pretty rigorous preconditions in their report on how the economy might reopen:

"...when a state reports a sustained reduction in cases for at least 14 days (i.e., one incubation period); and local hospitals are safely able to treat all patients requiring hospitalization without resorting to crisis standards of care; and the capacity exists in the state to test all people with COVID-19 symptoms, along with state capacity to conduct active monitoring of all confirmed cases and their contacts."  

Similarly, JPMorgan Chase's Jamie Dimon, in the annual letter to his shareholders he published last week, predicted a complex series of events that would need to take place before the American economy could start to get back to normal, and ongoing restrictions once it does:

"It is hoped that the number of new COVID-19 cases will decrease soon and – coupled with greatly enhanced medical capabilities (more beds, proper equipment where it is needed, adequate testing) – the healthcare system is equipped to take care of all Americans, both minimizing their suffering and maximizing their chance of living. Once this occurs, people can carefully start going back to work, of course with proper social distancing, vigilant hygiene, proper testing and other precautions."

We won't be the only (or first) economy to figure out how to safely relax the restrictions that have allowed us to slow the spread of Covid-19. An article in the New York Times examined how a few European countries are going about restarting their economies. From their conclusion: “The gradual acceleration of economic activity is accompanied by strict new rules requiring people to cover their nose and mouth in shops and on public transport — and many more months of strict social distancing.

So, what will a winery tasting room look like once we can reopen, whenever that is? It won't, I don't think, look like it did over the last two decades. We will almost certainly face restrictions to the activities we can conduct, and even if we don't, we will need to operate responsibly. I'm thinking it may resemble the brief period after social distancing measures were announced but before all tasting rooms had to close. Restaurants removed tables. Our tasting room moved to tasting-by-reservation so we could keep six feet between groups. Everyone started cleaning and disinfecting much more rigorously.

This is the time, before we're faced with the imminent arrival of customers, when we should all be thinking about we can reopen safely. How many customers will we safely be able to welcome at a time? What sorts of events will we be able to hold? What will we need to do to make sure that our team is safe? I don't know, but am trying to plan for it. Assuming we'll just go back to status quo ante isn't smart.

This great article by Thomas Pueyo called "The Hammer and the Dance" was widely shared last month. We're all working on the hammer now. But there will be a longer period of the dance, where we've reopened but are constantly mitigating risks. Now seems like a good time for us all to start thinking about what that will look like, and examining the pieces of our business that will likely have to change.

I look forward to figuring this all out, as a community.


Are we really saying that wine can't compete with hard seltzer on... authenticity?

January is the season where the wine community gets together at events like the Unified Grape & Wine Symposium and the Direct to Consumer Wine Symposium. In preparation for these gatherings, some of the industry's most important thinkers and researchers pull together the data from the previous year and assess the state of the industry.  Two reports that I always read are the Silicon Valley Bank State of the Industry Report and the Sovos/ShipCompliant Direct to Consumer Wine Shipping Report. The keynote "State of the Industry" talk at Unified often provides the take-home messages that then make their way into print headlines.  

As you would expect, some assessments are more pessimistic, while others focus on the positive. This year, it seems like most of the headlines focused on the negative. An article that I thought threaded the needle pretty well to give a balanced assessment was Bill Swindell's piece in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat: US wine shipments increase slightly to 409 million cases in 2019 (although it's worth noting that the original headline was more pessimistic: "US wine shipments increase slightly, despite fears").

Bill points out in his article that despite slight overall growth there are major issues for certain segments of the industry. Lots of grapes went unharvested in 2019. Grape and bulk wine prices on the open market are down, squeezing growers. After years of strong growth, sales flattened in 2019. And younger drinkers (mostly the Millennial generation) have been slower to adopt wine as their beverage of choice than previous generations. So, what's the outlook?

I think it's complicated. The fact that growers are having trouble selling their grapes appears to me to be due to two things:

  1. There has been a ton of speculative planting in recent years. The 2018 California Grape Acreage Report (the most recent year available) shows some 637,000 acres of wine grapes in the state, including 47,000 planted in the last two years and therefore non-bearing. That's new acreage greater than the total acres in Paso Robles, planted just in the last couple of years, and growth of 21% since 2008. And most of this acreage isn't being planted by estate wineries. It's large plots, owned by growers hoping to sell grapes to wineries on the open market.
  2. By and large, the big American wine companies are struggling. According to the SVB Wine Report, the seven largest American wine brands saw a total sales decline of 3.09% last year. That may not sound huge, but as those brands amount to between 68% and 70% of the domestic market, that decline totals some 3.4 million fewer gallons (1.4 million fewer cases) sold. That's a lot of volume for small producers to soak up. And looking locally in Paso bears this analysis out. It’s growers who contracted with these behemoths who are hurting most, leaving grapes unharvested, while demand for premium vineyards has remained strong.

Of course, there are also the demographic challenges that the SVB Wine Report pointed out. Younger generations aren’t adopting wine as fast as the industry hoped they would, with Millennials' share of the wine market growing only from 14% to 17% in the last five years, even though that time frame saw the youngest millennials reach legal drinking age and the oldest approach 40. That said, although I haven't been able to find exactly the right data to prove my point, I'm pretty sure that they're drinking more wine per capita than previous generations were at their age. I'm right in the middle of GenX, I grew up in the wine business, and neither I nor my friends were drinking much wine at age 25. I think it's even less likely that baby boomers were drinking as much wine at age 25 as millennials are now. The peak of the boomer generation would have been 25 in 1980, when cocktails and beer were ascendant and the total American wine market was half the size it is now. Wine coolers? Maybe.

Importantly, things are still growing for quality producers. While wines with prices below $9 showed declines in both sales volume (between 3.5% and 4%) and value (around 2.5%), the picture looks better up the price spectrum. Wines between $9 and $12 were more or less flat in both value and volume. All the categories above $12 showed growth in both volume (between 7.5% and 8.5%) and value (between 4% and 8%). And direct sales from wineries — mostly toward the higher end of the price spectrum — grew 4.7% in volume and 7.4% in value.

What are we to make of all this? I think it's naive to assume that the wine market is somehow immune to the market constraints of supply and demand. Growers shouldn't be able to plant unlimited additional acreage and expect to sell it regardless of quality. Wineries shouldn't be able to muscle whatever production they make into the US market even if they have no path to market or way of connecting with customers.

As far as I'm concerned, that thinking is a relic. Producers need to be focusing on quality. And on responsibility. And on storytelling. And on transparency. If there’s something to learn from analyzing millennials’ buying trends, I think it should be to align your production with customers’ values. Last year’s darling category — hard seltzer — took lots of smart people by surprise. At the DTC symposium, a presenter pointed out that they're making a big deal about it being "pure", to the point that it's part of White Claw's motto. The White Claw home page lists carbs, calories, and alcohol, and the cans all bear a "gluten-free" logo:

White Claw Home Page

Wine is a natural product, made from a healthy raw material (grapes) with relatively benign farming inputs. But somehow hard seltzer has seized the mantle of the new "healthy" alcohol. Why are we as an industry allowing this to go unchallenged? It’s disappointing that the big national wine companies haven’t made any serious efforts at meeting this head-on. Are they just not wired this way? If I were in their shoes (and, let me be clear, I’m happy I’m not) that would be priority number one.

If transparency is at least part of the answer, it will require a major shift in how wine is marketed. The mystique and exclusivity that is a staple of most luxury wine marketing is, I think, part of the barrier that the wine industry has erected between itself and millennials, because it can often come off as elitism.

Back to the conclusion of the Santa Rosa Press article I linked in my second paragraph: “The people who are successful right now are the people who have focused on the quality of the wine and the quality of the experience”. That shouldn’t be shocking. But it's clear that, at least in terms of experience, there's improvement to be made. In a bombshell of a blog post last weekend, Silicon Valley Bank's Rob McMillan shared a letter he received recently from a friend who spent such a disappointing weekend visiting wine country with his GenX daughter — being ignored and taken for granted at one winery after another, all while spending thousands of dollars — that they decided next winter they'd visit the Grand Canyon.

In retrospect, I think we'll realize that lots of wineries have had it easy in recent years. The market was growing fast enough that it absorbed larger quantities and higher prices every year. New states were opening up through liberalized shipping laws, offering wineries direct access to customers and enticing millions of new vacationers to visit wine country. Premium wine regions and highly rated wineries saw enough demand that they didn't need to focus on customer service.

Whether 2019 was a blip or the start of a new era, I think this is a good time to refocus on providing great wine and great experiences, being transparent about how wine is made, and — most importantly — accelerating the improvements in industry practices so that the transparency shows a picture we're proud of. It seems like that would improve things both short and long term.

Are we really saying that wine, made from fruit in a natural process that is millennia-old, shouldn’t be able to compete on authenticity with hard seltzer, an industrial triumph of marketing, developed roughly 15 minutes ago? Give me a break. Let's have this conversation.

Tablas Creek Vineyard  Newly Pruned


Are the gloomy messages about the state of the wine industry warranted? I say not for wineries like us.

I've spent much of the last two weeks at wine industry symposia: first the Direct to Consumer Wine Symposium in Concord, CA, and then the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium another hour north in Sacramento. I spoke on panels at both, at the first on measuring ROI on winery events, and at the second on technical and market challenges and opportunities for rosés. But I also took advantage of being there already -- and the free passes that come with being a speaker -- to sit in on some of the other sessions. Both events began with "state of the industry" reports, with quite different outlooks.

DTC Wine Symposium SessionPhoto courtesy DTC Wine Symposium

The core message I took home from the DTC Symposium was mostly positive: that direct-to-consumer wine sales continue to grow at a healthy rate, with shipping totals topping $3 billion for the first time in 2018, and growth coming broadly across wineries of all sizes.  What's more, the tools that wineries have to capture, analyze, and fulfill these consumer-direct sales have never been better.  The take-home message from Unified was less positive, with worries about declining sales at restaurants and supermarkets, grape market oversupply, demographic challenges for wineries as their prime customer base (mostly Baby Boomers) ages, and challenges connecting with Millennials through traditional wine marketing. These have spawned some much-discussed articles (within the wine community, anyway) containing lots of hand-wringing about what the future might bring to California wine. A couple (click-bait titles notwithstanding) will give you a sense of the worries:

In a second piece, on his own blog (Millennials are talking but the wine industry isn't listening) Blake Gray identifies some of the barriers that may be keeping Millennials from gravitating toward wine, at least at this point in their lives: the industry's resistance to transparency in labeling, its steadfast promotion of just a small handful of grape varieties, and an inability (or unwillingness) on behalf of wineries to engage with the Millennial consumer. I'd add a few others, including the often high price of premium wines and winery experiences, which puts them outside the reach of many cash-strapped Millennials, the marketing of wine as elite (which often crosses the line and comes across as elitist, to an audience that prizes authenticity), and the dominance of shelf space in the wholesale and grocery markets by a handful of large wine companies, when what every study of Millennials indicates they want is 1) a closer relationship with real people behind the products they consume, and 2) confidence that those products are produced in a way that matches their values.

So, which is it? Are wineries in good shape, or are there dark clouds on the horizon? As is usual with complicated questions, it depends on where you're looking, and over what time frame.

Let's look at the negatives first. Some of the largest wine companies (including Bronco, Gallo, and Constellation Brands, all of whose sales skew toward lower-priced wine in chain retail) saw sales decline last year. Many traditional fine dining restaurants have closed or rebranded as consumer trends have shifted toward more casual experiences. Nielsen data showed that overall wine retail sales declined slightly (0.5%) by volume last year, at least in the 70% of retailers that participate in the Nielsen data collection.1 The combination of distributor consolidation and winery proliferation have made it harder for most small-to-medium wineries to sell through the wholesale channel. And tasting room visitation was down in many established regions in 2018, including Napa and Sonoma, even as tourism was up.2 So, if you are a small-to-medium winery who wants to sell their production through wholesale, a large winery whose sales skew toward the lower end of the retail spectrum, or a winery in an established region whose customer acquisition mostly happens in your tasting room, you likely have cause to worry.

On the positive side, winery direct-to-consumer shipped sales grew again in 2018, by about 12%, to more than $3 billion, a figure nearly triple what it was just in 2011.3 Wineries can now ship to 90% of the US population, with the right permits. The average price of a bottle of wine sold increased both in three-tier retail and in direct-to-consumer last year. Although tasting room visits are down in many areas, our experience is that people are spending longer when they do visit, are more interested than ever in learning the story and the practices behind the wines, and are happy to spend more: our average sale per visitor was up 8% last year. The price ranges of wine that saw sales declines were the under-$10 bottles (at which, I think it's fair to say, California does not excel) while all higher price points saw sales growth. And most importantly, total winery sales, when you take direct-to-consumer into account, grew 4% in 2018. That means that the pie continues to grow, and it seems like it's primed to continue to grow in the segments that most impact wineries of our general size (small to medium) and profile (producing wines between $25 and $60, with DTC providing the majority but not the totality of our revenue).

Some of what I see as more equivocal data has been painted in the most negative light. There are some demographic trends that wineries need to plan for. Wine's largest audience, for the last two decades, has been Baby Boomers, and with the average Boomer reaching retirement age -- the time at which, historically, cohorts start spending less on wine -- they will need younger generations to step in. And GenXers, of which I am a proud member, have been doing so. Will Millennials, who are a larger cohort than GenX, step up when it is their turn? It remains to be seen. But I think that the doom and gloom about them is pretty overblown. The median age of a Millennial is 30, but the Millennials at the peak of the demographic bubble are just 24. Were many Baby Boomers drinking wine at age 30, let alone 24? No. How about GenX? Not much. Millennials are drinking more wine than preceding generations were at the same age, which should be a positive enough trend. But I think the news is better than that, at least for wineries like us. They are also much more likely to drink craft beer or craft cocktails, to be interested in the source and making of the foods and drinks they consume, to have grown up in a wine-drinking household, and to be open to trying wines from new grapes and new growing areas.

Are many Millennials hamstrung by the poor job market when they entered the work force and saddled with student debt? Absolutely. But even if they never attain the buying power of earlier generations, it seems to me that the sorts of wines that Millennials are likely to embrace are the sorts of wines that wineries like Tablas Creek would like them to embrace: smaller family run wineries, from organically farmed vineyards, incorporating grapes that may be outside the mainstream but are good fits for their growing locations, and wines that offer value, at whatever price point.

Does that sound like a gloomy future? Not to me.

Footnotes:

  • 1. Note that there are some important retailers whose data is not included, most notably Costco, and that the Nielsen data also does not include winery DTC sales.
  • 2. All these data points are from (and beautifully explained in) the 2019 SVB Wine Report, the industry's gold standard for data collection and analysis. 
  • 3. This data point and the ones that follow come from the 2019 ShipCompliant Direct to Consumer Wine Shipping Report