What we've learned about making box wine, six months and three colors later

Back in February, I published a blog that created a bit of a stir. In it, I made the case that boxes of wine (the cardboard kind normally found on grocery store shelves, not the wooden kind found in fancy cellars) deserved another look from higher-end producers. It had become stigmatized in the market, the container for what people assumed would be cheap plonk. But I asserted that there were compelling reasons to shift certain wines into boxes, most notably that it offered advantages in preservation (it can last weeks in your fridge after being opened), storage space (glass bottles are bulky, and the packaging needed to cushion them takes up yet more space), and portability (a full 3L bag-in-box weighs seven pounds while the same volume in bottles weighs eleven). Plus, and probably most importantly, because glass bottles are heavy and require lots of energy to melt and mold, a 3L wine bag-in-box offers an 84% carbon footprint reduction vs. the four glass bottles that would contain the same wine.

The blog got 54 comments, more than any other we've ever published. It spurred stories in Wine Searcher, Forbes, and even the Robb Report. I was invited to speak about the decision at the WiVi tradeshow and on the XChateau Podcast. More recently, the New York Times published an article in which wine columnist Eric Asimov pointed to our experiments with the wine boxes as a productive step forward for wine producers grappling with the environmental impact of our default package. The initial batch of 324 boxes of our Patelin de Tablas Rosé sold out four hours after we announced their release in an email to our wine club and mailing list. We made more (522 boxes) of the Patelin de Tablas Blanc in June, and despite releasing them in a much less shipping-friendly season sold them out in less than a month. This week, we put our first red into box, the 2021 Patelin de Tablas. We're planning to release it soon, and I expect it to go fast.

Cellar team making Patelin red boxes Chelsea filling Patelin red boxes

The response from our customers has been amazing. I was hoping that we'd sell out of the Patelin Rosé boxes in a month, so being out in four hours was definitely above my wildest aspirations. And the feedback we've seen from customers either directly or online has been terrific. But I've been most gratified to hear from so many other producers who are also looking to explore this lower-carbon package and want to know what we've learned. A few have even jumped in and done it, including Kobayashi Winery, who released their high-end Roussanne/Marsanne blend in a $195 box.

In the spirit of using the blog to answer the questions I get every day, here's a quick summary of what we've learned after six months:

  • The public is more open than they've ever been to alternative packaging. This first hurdle, which I assumed would be the biggest one, turned out to be no big deal. Granted, we have a direct relationship with the customers on our mailing list and in our wine club. But so do other wineries. And based on the number of people who let me know that this was their first-ever purchase of a boxed wine, we weren't dealing with people who were already converts to the package. That's amazing. And it's not just boxes. Writers as on platforms as diverse and distinguished as JancisRobinson.com, SommTV, San Francisco Chronicle, and Wine Enthusiast have recently published pieces in support of lighter-weight, lower-waste wine containers like boxes, cans, kegs, and bottles made from paper, resin, and plastic. 
  • The wholesale market is likely to be slower to adjust. When I published that February blog, I heard from a few independent retailers around the country asking if they could buy some of these boxes. We didn't make enough this first go-around to sell them in the wholesale market, but I put out some feelers with our wholesalers for next year. Although there were a few exceptions, the responses I got were not generally enthusiastic. Most boiled down to some version of, "You want people to spend how much for your box of wine? That won't work with our current box wine outlets." And I get this. A quick search on the shelves at our local Albertsons revealed a decent array of box wines... all selling for between $20 and $35. Doing the math, that translates to between $5 and $8.75 per 750ml. Our Patelin boxes, priced at $95, work out to $23.75 per 750ml bottle. I submit that this is still a great value -- bottles of Patelin sell for $28, after all -- but I could easily imagine the sticker shock of a grocery store customer wondering what this outlier was doing on a shelf at triple the price of the next-most-expensive box. If someone knows and trusts Tablas Creek already, great. That's easy to overcome. But are those people looking in the box wine section of their local retail store? Perhaps not. However, I still think that there is a market for high-end box wines in wholesale. It's just not at the traditional grocery and retail chain outlets. The sweet spot, I think, would be to market this to smaller, independent retailers who talk to their customers and would be excited to share the advantages of boxes. And to hip restaurants who don't have keg systems to pour wine by the glass. After all, the preservation and waste-reduction advantages offered by boxes could prove incredibly valuable at a restaurant level. No more pouring out the oxidized ends of bottles after two days. No more bins full of empty glass.    
  • The infrastructure to support small producers packaging in bag-in-box has a long way to come... but it could happen fast. There is a supply network that allows small- to medium-size wineries to operate with reasonable economies of scale. These include brokers who consolidate the offerings of vendors of bottles, capsules, labels and corks; mobile bottling lines that allow a winery to bottle a few weeks a year without having to invest in a line that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars; and warehouses who ship wine for hundreds of wineries and can negotiate on reasonable footing with common carriers like UPS and FedEx. All those pieces still need to be developed for boxes of wine. We had one off-the-shelf option (thank you AstraPouch!) on the open market for sourcing our boxes and the bags that go inside. That's fine; you don't need to make millions of boxes to contract with a printer to make your own. We're leaning toward doing so for future runs. But if you were wondering why for this year we used the plain craft cardboard box with our label stuck onto it, well, that was the only option available. For the filling, we had a similarly restricted set of options. There are no mobile boxing lines in California. There is one in Oregon, but the minimum commitment to have them drive all the way down here was in the tens of thousands of boxes. There is a custom boxing line in the Central Valley at which you can rent space if you can bring your wine and materials to them, but their minimums were similarly high. So we were left with renting (and eventually buying) a semi-automated bag filler from Torr Industries and building all the boxes ourselves. That's time consuming (see below) and not very scalable. Finally, on the shipping end, we work with the largest fulfillment house in California to ship our wine to our consumers. They didn't have a package for boxes because they'd never done it before. We had to do a bunch of trial and error, and still aren't 100% satisfied with where we ended up. What's more, neither FedEx nor UPS have approved shipping boxes for wine in box, which means they won't take any responsibility that the product arrives intact.
  • It's time consuming doing the box construction and filling yourself. As I mentioned in the last point, because of the lack of availability and prohibitively high minimum quantities for automated box-filling lines, we had to set up a little assembly line and do it ourselves. You can see the process in the pictures at the beginning of the piece. Someone has to attach the bag to the filler, start the fill, then when it's done detach it and repeat. Meanwhile, someone else has to be assembling and taping the top of the boxes, while yet another person puts a bag into that half-assembled box and then closes and tapes up the bottom. Finally, someone has to carefully stick on the label, then put the box into its "master" case box that holds six of the finished 3L packages. Each stage takes time, on average 30 seconds to fill, 20 seconds to assemble the top of the box, 24 seconds to put the bag into the box and tape up the bottom, and 16 seconds to stick on each label. That's 90 seconds per box of labor. To make 400 boxes, as we did Monday, it takes 10 hours of work time, not counting the time it takes to set up and calibrate the machine, unpack the shipments of materials, or close up finished master cases and prepare them for transport. For our cellar team of four, making 400 3L boxes was an afternoon's work. That's a lot slower than bottling using a mobile bottling line. How much slower? We normally can bottle 2000 cases in a full day of work. The 400 3L boxes is equivalent to 133 9L cases. So if we'd done a full day, we might have finished the equivalent of 275 cases... less than 15% of the volume we could have put into bottles in that same time. That's a huge disincentive to scale up a boxed wine program.
  • The package itself is even better than we'd thought. For all the challenges, we're believers in the package. We're now roughly six months out from our first batch of boxes, and the wine is still showing beautifully when we open a new box, indistinguishable from a newly-opened screwcapped bottle. We've tried the wine after having it be open two months and four months in a fridge, and it showed fresh and pure. We'll keep testing and will know more after a year, but as far as the integrity of the wine in the box, we've been happy.

So, where does this leave us? Not all that far from where we began. We think the package is good for the wine and now have confirmation that consumers are willing to give it a try even at a higher price. We have learned that the infrastructure to support smaller producers who want to move to bag-in-box is limited. We have learned that there are lots of other wineries out there who are interested, but that many are stymied by the lack of infrastructure. And we know that the wine press is focused like never before on bigger picture questions on the sustainability of wine and the containers it comes in.

All this together seems to me like it will result in changes coming sooner than later that will make it accessible for smaller wineries to offer boxes of their wine to customers. After all, it's a business opportunity, as well as a chance to help move the wine world to a lower-carbon future. Now we wait.

Patelin Red Boxes


Why is Glass Recycling in the United States So Dismal?

Glass is a product with a number of inherent advantages. It's made from a readily-available and non-toxic source (sand). It's exceptionally stable and nonreactive, and so provides a terrific vessel for containing products like wine that you might want to store for decades. And it can be melted down and reused without any degradation of its quality, so it's a perfect product for recycling. And yet, in the United States, it's recycled less than a third of the time. This fact is one of the main reasons we've been exploring alternative packaging like the bag-in-box that we debuted for our Patelin de Tablas Rosé earlier this year. But it doesn't have to be this way. Other countries recycle a much higher percentage of their glass than we do here. I found our depressingly low rate of glass recycling eye-opening enough that I have spent a fair amount of time over the last few months researching why. The conclusions say a lot about what our society and industry values right now. I'm guessing and hoping that this information might be eye-opening for you as well.

Before we start investigating why, a quick review of the facts. According to the EPA, in the United States our glass recycling percentage is 31%, and non-recycled glass represents about 5% of the waste that goes into American landfills each year: 7.6 million tons of glass annually. Our recycling rate is less than half of that in Europe (74% overall) and one-third of the best-performing countries like Sweden, Belgium, and Slovenia (all over 95%). And it's actually worse than those numbers appear, since a significant percentage of the glass that is collected and classified as "recycled" in the United States is in fact crushed up and used for road base rather than melted down and used to make new glass.

The stakes are significant. Recycling glass has positive impacts not just on the waste stream, but on energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. According to the Glass Packaging Institute, making new glass containers from recycled glass saves between 20% and 30% of the energy, roughly 50% of CO2 emissions, and offsets a greater-than 100% requirement for inputs, compared to working from raw materials. What's more, according to a 2017 survey by the Glass Recycling Coalition, 96% of Americans want and expect that glass be included in their recycling options.

So why, if waste glass is a usable commodity, if consumers expect to recycle it, and if doing so saves on cost compared to working from raw materials, isn't the picture here better? The consensus among experts is that it boils down to three main factors.

  • The most widely adopted recycling system in the United States is problematic for glass. Single-stream recycling, in which glass, plastic, and paper are co-mingled in a single bin for pickup and transport to a materials recovery facility (MRF), is overwhelmingly the most common community-sponsored recycling system in America. It is convenient for households, who can toss all their recyclables in one place, and for solid waste companies, who can pick them up with one truck. However, while plastic and paper are unlikely to be damaged in the collection process, glass is fragile and often shatters in the collection process, becoming difficult to sort and also contaminating the other recyclables. Plus, single-stream recycling systems encourage “wish-cycling” where consumers throw nonrecyclable products like light bulbs, plastic bags, soiled cardboard, and Styrofoam into their bins figuring that it’s better to over-recycle than to throw away something that’s recyclable. Doing so adds cost to the recycler and sometimes leads to it being less expensive to send loads to the landfill than pay the cleaning and sorting costs. By contrast, multi-stream recycling systems, in which glass, paper/cardboard, and plastic are placed in different receptacles and collected separately, bypass the MRF entirely and can usually go straight to a processing facility. The downside of these systems is that they cost more for the municipality and solid waste companies, and there is often not the political will to pass along these costs to taxpayers. But the difference is outcomes is stark: just 40% of the glass that goes into single-stream recycling systems ends up getting recycled, compared to 90% from multi-stream recycling systems.

Trash and Recycling

  • The United States is big. There are roughly 400 MRF facilities around the country. But there are many fewer glass processing facilities, which turn recycled glass containers into cullet, or usable fragments often sorted by color: just 63 nation-wide, in 30 states. There are even fewer glass manufacturing facilities: just 44, in 21 states. Processing facilities are often far away from population centers where glass is collected and MRFs built. Glass is heavy and bulky, which means that the transportation costs from MRF to processing facility can, absent other incentives, raise the price of the cullet that results high enough to outweigh the savings from using recycled glass.
  • Transparency is low, both pre- and post-consumer. First, from the post-consumer end. Most people don’t know what happens to their recyclables once they’ve been collected. Consumer surveys show that residents overwhelmingly want their communities to recycle, and reasonably assume that if they do their part their municipality will take care of the rest. But municipalities have little incentive to report on what happens after the recycling is collected. Do you know where your town’s recyclables are sorted? Or what percentage is sent to the landfill? Do you know whether the process makes or loses money for the community? I didn’t. And communities, which have largely chosen a recycling system that gives consumers a false sense of effectiveness, don’t have the incentives to make this information easy to find. Second, from the pre-consumer end. Have you ever seen a wine label display the recycled content of their glass? I don’t think I have. That’s an indication that wineries don’t think that their customers care about this information, or at least don’t care enough to displace other content in what is valuable and scarce label real estate. And bottle suppliers don’t seem to think that wineries care about this information. We pushed our glass supplier TricorBraun to get us bottles with the highest-possible percentage of recycled glass. Our antique green bottles are made with between 60% and 70% recycled material, and our flint (clear) bottles made with 35-50% recycled material. That’s the most that’s available for domestically-produced wine bottles. But that information isn’t easy to find. If you look at TricorBraun's selection of Burgundy-shaped bottles, each listing includes information about their weight, base diameter, color, neck size, height, punt height, mold number, capacity, finish, and style. But there’s no information on the bottle’s recycled content. That’s surely an indication that bottle suppliers either don’t see this as a point of differentiation or don’t have recycled content widely enough available for the resulting information to be worth sharing. And wine isn’t unique. Glass containers, whether for beverages, food, or household products, don’t typically disclose the amount of recycled content. All this makes it difficult for a consumer to make informed purchasing decisions. 

So what’s the way forward here, for consumers and wineries? I see a few possible avenues that could help.

  • Wineries: ask your bottle brokers and manufacturers about the recycled content of the bottles you buy, and demand bottles with as high a recycled content as possible. It’s clear to me that bottle producers and brokers are not sufficiently focused on increasing the recycled content of their products. If that’s the case, it’s because it isn’t being asked of them by their customers. Wineries of all sizes, but particularly larger ones, have significant market power. We’re not a large winery, but we will still buy something like 350,000 bottles this year. The larger the winery, the more power you have to move the needle. And for wineries who are a part of organizations like International Wineries for Climate Action (IWCA) and committed to achieving meaningful carbon footprint reductions by 2030, increasing the recycled content of your glass bottles should be a piece of the solution you’re pursuing, along with reducing the weight of those bottles and exploring alternate packaging. Because the glass bottle accounts for more than half the carbon footprint of the average California winery, it also offers the most important target for improvement. 
  • Sustainability certifiers: Add a recycled glass component to your winery metrics if you haven’t already. Most California wineries are a part of a sustainability program. But at least our local program (SIP Certified) doesn’t appear to have any mention of using recycled glass in your bottles in its protocols. I have my issues with sustainability programs, which I’ve shared at length here and elsewhere, but they remain a powerful tool in incentivizing the high percentage of wineries who participate in them to make incremental positive changes. (And wineries, if you’re a part of a sustainability program that doesn’t include anything about this, ask them why.)
  • Consumers: Ask the wineries that you patronize about the recycled content of their bottles. If you have a direct relationship with any wineries, reach out to them directly. Wineries are unusual consumer products in that most do have direct relationships with many of their customers. But if you don’t, ask your local retailer. If they don’t know, they can ask the distributor. The more people along the supply chain who are inquiring about this information, the more pressure there will be on bottle suppliers to use more recycled content, the more market there will be for recycled glass, which will make it more attractive for communities to recycle their waste glass rather than sending it to the landfill.
  • Everyone: Push your communities to be more transparent about the outcomes of their recycling programs. This is particularly important if you’re a part of a single-stream recycling system. If the recyclables are being sorted and used at a high rate, that’s great. But it’s likely not. If not, push for multi-stream recycling, or at least better education on why materials aren’t being used. Is it because of contamination? If so, encourage your community to share information about the costs of “wish-cycling”. Is it a cost decision? Find out what it would take to implement a multi-stream recycling program. There are real challenges here, particularly with the market for recycled commodities still developing. But the status quo, where local governments are quietly misleading their citizens about the efficiency of their recycling programs, isn’t viable.

We know that we can do better, because European countries have shown the way, typically with a combination of multi-stream recycling (to produce good supply) and industry mandates for recycled content (to ensure that there is demand). Neither of those are impossible here; they're just a question of focus and political will. Yes, distances are shorter in Europe; the more densely populated continent means that the shipping costs between consumer collection and glass processing are less. But that’s an incremental difference. If there were more demand from consumers and beverage producers, there would be more recycled glass products available. And that would create a positive feedback loop that would encourage better recycling decisions at the community level.

Glass RecyclingPhoto modified from the original on Wikimedia Commons by user Ecovidrio

We can do the same, or something similar, here. Let’s get to work.


Wine marketing doesn't look like most consumer marketing... and it shouldn't.

I got involved in one of my more interesting Twitter conversations in a while this week. It began with a post from Robert Joseph, wine producer, writer, critic and consultant, sharing a 2019 Harvard Business Review article that talks about how wine has leveraged education marketing to create lasting connections with consumers. I shared the article with my own thoughts in a Tweet:

The conversation that followed was one of the reasons that I find such value in wine Twitter. Wine experts across borders and roles (including Robert himself) weighed in to give their thoughts on the piece, expand on which sorts of wines benefit from this marketing, and which don't. The consensus of the conversation seemed to be that wineries who have good exposure in the direct-to-consumer world can use this sort of marketing to great effect, but it's harder to leverage for the wines that are sold wholesale, except to the extent which that sort of marketing impacts the opinions of writers and reviewers.

That distinction between direct marketing to consumers (for direct sales and relationships) and "influencing the influencer" marketing for a cumulative impact on harder-to-reach restaurant and retail sales makes intuitive sense to me, probably unsurprising given that it's how we have approached our own marketing at Tablas Creek. One of the first things I realized when I joined my dad out here twenty years ago was that we'd set ourselves a major challenge in making wines that were blends (which didn't have a category in most outlets) from grapes that people didn't know and couldn't pronounce, made in a part of California they'd never heard of, with French names that mostly didn't mean anything to them. That was at least four strikes against us. As I wrote a few years ago here in a piece I titled 30 Years of Tablas Creek: 10 Things We Got Right (and Wrong) we decided that our only viable way forward was to do our best to bring people into our world by pulling the curtain back on our own decision-making. And little by little it worked. We opened our tasting room and took as many people as would join us on tours into the vineyard and winery. We started an educational seminar series here and prioritized outside events where we could be up on stage telling our story. We wrote newsletters with pieces researching the grapes we grow and the way that we grow them. A few years later, I started this blog. Over the last decade, social media has given us ever-more-powerful tools to connect the educational content we've been producing with customers and key people in our distribution chain. 

Fast-forward twenty years. We have gone from struggling with built-up inventory, slow-growing sales, and little market presence to sustained success. We have direct relationships with 11,000 wine club members and another 30,000 mailing list members. Our retention rate in our wine club is somewhere between two- and three-times the industry average. The same wines that were a struggle to sell in wholesale two decades ago (heck, even one decade ago) are easier and easier. And our relationships with the writers, sommeliers, and influencers out in the world have grown with our profile. So, I'm predisposed to agreeing with the sentiment in the article, but it's not just us. We're part of a larger trend, where in just the last decade direct-to-consumer sales, the lifeblood of most smaller wineries, has nearly tripled (graph from the 2021 Sovos DtC Wine Shipping Report):

DTC Sales by Year

The set of characteristics that make wine particularly fertile ground for education marketing are well laid out in the HBR article:

Consumers looking to buy a bottle of wine confront thousands of choices. In fact, many of the shoppers we spoke to described the experience as stressful; they were fearful of making a poor choice and looking ignorant or of missing an opportunity to make an evening more special.

While our own experience has convinced me that making an investment in educating your customers and those who might be in a position to reach new customers can work, I'm more interested in what it is about wine that dictates a different sort of marketing from most consumer products. I would submit that it boils down to three things.

Wine Can Be Complicated and Intimidating
Although wine has been a routine part of many societies for millennia, the modern wine world can be daunting. A bottle of wine in a neighborhood wine shop might come from any of 100 regions and 50 grapes in 25 countries. Some wines are named by the place they come from. Others are named by the grapes they contain. Yet others are fanciful names. Wine labels are famously arcane and many of the words foreign. What's more, wine in popular culture (think the "Somm" series of films) often celebrates the competitive, arcane memorization of obscure facts or the remarkable challenge of identifying wines through blind tasting done to achieve wine certifications through the Court of Master Sommeliers or the Master of Wine program. Those feats of deductive logic all paint a picture of wine as something to be mastered through obsessive study, and I would submit make most people less confident in their own judgments. I get wine lovers every week telling me, apologetically, "I just like what I like". Why should this be something you need to apologize for? Giving people a vocabulary to explain what they like, or an understanding of what goes into a wine they love, helps people feel like they have a safe harbor in what can feel like a big, rough ocean of wine. No wonder it's a good way to foster loyalty.

What's more, traditional marketing requires broad penetration into markets. For a winery like Tablas Creek, which does have at least nominal distribution in all 50 states, you might think that advertising or product placement or some other sort of broad approach that might touch hundreds of thousands or millions of people would be effective. It's not. We're not big enough to be on even a small fraction of the 100,000+ restaurant and retail outlets in the country. Last year, for example, we sold wine to about 800 different shops and restaurants around the country. That's less than a 1% penetration of the possible places one might find wine. All but the largest wineries will struggle to be in 10% of the available outlets. Compare that to, say, beer, where a larger brewery might expect to be in most retailers and a decent slice of restaurants. Or to one of the many products (think consumer electronics, or cars, or cereal) where there are perhaps a few dozen options, all of which are distributed pretty much everywhere in the country. And for a small winery, who sells most or all of their production direct from their tasting room or website? Forget about it. That means that small, targeted campaigns that reinforce your existing customers' connection with you -- and put them in a position to recommend you to friends and family with confidence -- are likely to be more rewarding.

While Most American Wine Is Made by Big Wineries, Most American Wineries Are Small
There are more than 10,000 wineries in America now, in all 50 states. Well over 90% of these wineries are our size or smaller. And yet the distribution channels are dominated by a handful of large wine companies; estimates are that the three largest wine conglomerates produce half the wine sold in America each year and the twenty largest firms account for 90% of the market. For these very large wine companies, or at least their largest brands (because it can be a full-time job keeping track of the many, many brands that these large companies make) the marketing choices probably are similar to many other consumer products. But it's a different story for most wineries. The rise of wine country tourism as a regular recreational activity has brought more customers to more wineries than ever before, accounting for 43 million visits from more than 13 million tourists annually. Combine these opportunities with  the challenge of breaking into a national wholesale market dominated by big players, and you give small wineries both the motive and the opportunity to come up with new and creative ways to differentiate themselves. Education is one of the tools, with the winery tasting room an ideal environment to build lasting connections with new customers. Again from the 2021 Sovos DtC Wine Shipping Report:

Wineries by Size 2020

Plus, no winery is in this alone. Wine buying is not zero-sum like car buying, where if someone buys a Mazda they're not also buying a Volkswagen. Most wine lovers don't drink a single brand or single grape, but instead use things they love as gateways into discovering other things they might want to try. Think about it this way. If someone buys a Rhone blend from another California producer, does that make them less likely to buy a bottle of Tablas Creek? No, I would assert that it makes it more likely. If they buy a bottle of wine from a different Paso Robles producer, same thing. So we're not competing with Bonny Doon, or Qupe, or Halter Ranch, or J. Lohr. The community of California Rhone producers works together to establish the category (see: the Rhone Rangers, or Hospice du Rhone). The Paso Robles community works together to establish the region (see: the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance). This changes the incentives for wineries. We're likely to be working alongside other producers in our category to educate people about the category we share. We're happy to recommend other wineries to people who ask, because the success of our neighbors helps ensure our own. These sorts of relationships create a positive feedback loop that builds community but also incentivizes educational approaches because doing so makes your neighbors more likely to recommend their customers to you, because the more you know about the category the more likely you are to return.

Wine Buyers Are Just as Heterogeneous as Wineries
Did you know that Consumer Reports used to review wine? They don't any more. The idea that there is a single "right" style or category of wine feels hopelessly out of date. Some people love lush, oaky Chardonnays. Others prefer aromatic reds, or sweet wines, or funky natural wines that might be bottled cloudy. We each have our own preferences, which is great. But how do we learn which sorts of wines we're likely to love? That's where wineries have some control over what happens next. And it turns out wine is the perfect product for long-tail marketing.

There are something like 77 million regular wine drinkers in the United States. At Tablas Creek, we make around 30,000 cases (360,000 bottles) each year. We don't make enough wine for even 1% of the regular wine drinkers to open once a year. And our true number of customers is surely a lot less than that, given that many of our fans will buy multiple bottles per year. How many fans do we need to be successful? 50,000? 30,000? 11,000 (the number of our wine club members)? Whatever the number is, it's smaller than one tenth of one percent of the American wine drinking population. If we can thrive reaching less than one one-thousandth of American wine drinkers, and most wineries are even smaller than we are, most of us don't need to be chasing the same audience. We just need to be consistent in the style of wines we make and do our best to educate the consumers, trade, and media on who we are so they can help the people who might love us find us. It is for that reason that I think that you don't see smaller wineries chasing the current style or grape varieties that happen to be popular right now. Leave that to the big guys. For the rest of us, just let us find our niche and do everything we can to keep the customers who find us happy.

And the best tool for that? Education.

Rows of Tablas Creek glasses


Lessons from a Plague Year: Seven Ways Covid Has Made Us a Better Business

It's a commonly accepted tenet in business that times of change spur innovation. Covid was no exception. Its restrictions on travel and limitations on gatherings forced us to rethink how we share Tablas Creek with our customers and how we work together as a team. Now, eighteen months later, though it's not like Covid is entirely in the rear-view mirror, I feel like we've settled into another equilibrium that includes a renewed flow of visitors to our tasting room. Larger events are restarting, albeit often at reduced capacity and with new restrictions to limit the risks to their attendees. And wineries, for all our fears as we entered the pandemic, have thrived. One of the revelations from the preliminary results released from the annual Silicon Valley Bank survey of Wine Industry Conditions was that nearly a third of wineries surveyed are projecting their best year ever, financially, in 2021:

SVB Wine Survey - How was 2021

I've spent a lot of time thinking in recent days about how much we learned over the last eighteen months. I thought I'd share my principal take-home lessons here.

  • Safety and a great customer experience aren't mutually exclusive. When we reopened our tasting room in May of 2020, we chose to open outside-only. In order to maintain distancing, we gave each group their own table, for a full two hours. To keep the number of times we had to be in the customers' space modest, we moved to serving wines in flights of three. We restricted the maximum group size to six. To make it reasonable given the larger physical space, we reduced the maximum number of tables that any one of our tasting room hosts had to cover to three at a time. All of these changes resulted in a more relaxed experience, with better time to connect to the person pouring the wines, and the opportunity to compare and contrast the wines in each flight. It's probably unsurprising that we saw our average sale per customer and the percentage of customers who signed up for the wine club rise 30%-50%. At first, I attributed this to goodwill from guests grateful for a safe, appealing experience in a time when so many of those were unavailable. But even as things have reopened, that increase has held up. I just think that the experience we're offering now is a superior one to the tasting experience we offered before Covid. That's why when we reopened our indoor tasting room, we tried to apply these lessons to create a similarly appealing customer experience.   
  • A great tasting experience means controlling your flow of customers. Equally important, I think, to the changes we made once customers got here was the implementation of reservations. At the outset, we didn't have a choice. We had twelve tables. If we hadn't required reservations, we would have had lines of dozens of people on weekends. We couldn't have kept people distanced. We couldn't have kept people cool while they were waiting. It would have been miserable, and frustrating, and unsafe. But we also realized that knowing how many people would be coming allowed us to always be appropriately staffed. It meant that our guests never had to wait, and that their tastings were never interrupted by us making room for another group that would then be at a different stage of the tasting, interrupting the logical flow of information. And we found that people redistributed themselves more evenly across more times and more days, instead of 40% of our weekly traffic arriving between 1pm and 4pm on Saturdays, as often happened pre-Covid. We learned that people who see that Saturday reservations are full will often make reservations on Friday, or Sunday, or earlier in the day. This is why even when we added capacity on our patios and reopened indoors, we kept tasting by appointment, with the option of accepting walk-in customers if we have space and staff to take care of them. That seems to me to be the best of both worlds.
  • It's powerful to bring your marketing to where the people are. Before Covid, one thing that most winery marketing had in common was that it required customers to come to where the winery or winery representative was physically located. Whether that was a visit to the tasting room, going to a wine dinner, or stopping by a table at a retail tasting or a festival where a winery was pouring, we required customers to come to us. By contrast, most of the things we started doing during the first shutdown, from virtual tastings to live broadcasts to on-demand video, had in common that they could be accessed and participated in equally independent of location. Think how powerful (and how much more scalable) options like this are. Pre-Covid, 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 have done to former wine club members, we regularly saw 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. And those tools, from Zoom to Instagram and Facebook Live, are much more robust now than they were before the pandemic.
  • Technology is often a great alternative to travel. Over recent weeks, I've been enjoying getting back out in the California market, visiting restaurants and wine shops and spending in-person time with the distributor reps and Vineyard Brands managers who represent us in the wholesale marketplace. In two weeks I'll host my first Covid-era wine dinner, at Mama Shelter in Hollywood. That should be great fun. Those sorts of experiences are hard to replicate using virtual tools. Other sorts of experiences, however, are at least as effective over Zoom or its equivalent. If I never have to go to another in-person board meeting, that would be fine with me. Spending several hours driving to and from a central location for a meeting of an hour or two is inefficient to start with. Add to that the restrictions that this places on who can attend and from where, and the challenges of integrating people who can't make it via polycom phone... no thanks. Give me a Zoom meeting I can do from my office any day. Similarly, those distributor sales meeting presentations, where you have 15 minutes in front of an often-distracted sales force, and you're the 11th of 15 suppliers they're hearing from that day? And you have to travel to wherever they are to do this? Zoom is 95% of the experience at a tiny fraction of the cost, time, and carbon footprint of attending in person. For the companies and reps too, think of the efficiencies. Instead of having to coordinate 80 people's travel from all over the state, rent a hotel ballroom and arrange for AV, losing a full day of sales because of travel, and likely paying for hotels for the farthest-flung reps, a company can knock out the meeting in the time it takes to meet, then have the reps out in the market for the rest of the day. It's a win-win. What's more, identifying areas like this where there are viable alternatives to travel, particularly air travel, is going to have to be a priority as we all try to lower the carbon footprint of our business activities.  
  • Having multiple ways to experience an event pays off. Just because people can start traveling again doesn't mean that all your customers will be able to come to you on your schedule, or that you should discard the virtual and on-demand pieces you've added over the last year. Our VINsider pickup party is a good example. We have about 8,000 VINsider Wine Club members. Twice a year, for nearly two decades, we have closed our tasting room on a Sunday just after wine club shipments have been sent out and invited any club members to join us. Once there, they get to taste the new wines, see and hear about what we've been working on, and enjoy some unhurried time with our team. Those events are great, and have attracted some 400 people to most recent sessions. But... 400 people (typically more like 200 couples) represents less than 3% of our members. And that was pre-Covid! During Covid, when we couldn't host gatherings, we pivoted to hosting a virtual tasting, where members could join me, Neil, and Chef Jeff Scott live on Facebook and YouTube to learn about the wines and our ongoing projects. The last two shipments, we worked with Master the World to give people the option of ordering tasting kits of 187ml bottles to accompany these tastings. And there's nothing about this that conflicts with an in-person event. This fall, when we resumed hosting an in-person pickup party, we still got about 500 people to join us live for our virtual tasting. Because the discussion gets archived, people who couldn't make it can still participate; the archives have received another 1,000 or so views. Finally, for four weeks after shipments went out, we gave members the option of tasting the wines in their most recent shipment if they visited the tasting room. We had another several hundred members take advantage of that. So instead of touching 2-3% of our membership after a shipment, we were able to interact with more than 2000: 350 members in person plus 500 members live virtual plus 1000 members archived virtual plus 600 or so members who came to the tasting room in those four weeks. I don't think it's a coincidence that our wine club cancellation rates over the last 18 months have been the lowest in our history.
  • It's a big risk relying on just one or two sales channels. The pandemic produced unprecedented changes in the types of outlets in which wine was sold. Restaurants closed around the country, and when they reopened were often restricted to outdoor service or limited capacity either by mandate or by staffing challenges. Tasting rooms had to close for a stretch too. Many larger retailers saw increases in business, while smaller retailers often struggled unless they had built up a robust mailing list and e-commerce capability. And wineries had the challenge and the opportunity of an unprecedented surge in requests for shipped orders. By the end of 2020, it was clear that two sorts of wineries really struggled: those who were relying on foot traffic but had never translated that traffic into an effective mailing list or wine club strategy, and those who didn't have a robust direct sales business but instead traditionally focused on sales to restaurants and independent retail. I'm guessing that most of the 10% of wineries in the "Most Difficult Year in Our History" and "One of the Most Challenging" categories in the chart at the beginning of this piece fell into one of those two camps. And we saw challenges too from losing so much restaurant business and having to close our tasting room for more than four months. I've long been a believer in having wine available in different channels, because I'm convinced that each plays a role in reaching different customers and increases our chance of developing new fans. And that diversity proved to be a huge driver in our success over the last year and a half. Though we're a small player, we already had limited relationships in a couple of larger retail chains like Whole Foods and Total Wine, and were able to shift some of the wine we'd otherwise have intended for restaurants to the grateful retail outlets that were seeing a surge in business last spring. Although our tasting room was closed, we were able to work with our wine club and mailing list to offer out these wines to our fans, and with the shipping house we've worked with to handle the increases in volume. And now that restaurants are back up and going, we're poised to have our best sales year ever this year.
  • It's all about connecting. I am sure that over the last year, many more people have seen the inside of my office, my back yard, or my living room than ever before. There is an intimacy to these sorts of virtual meeting platforms that so many of us experienced for the first time during the pandemic. These tools help address one of the areas where winery marketing is often weakest: establishing meaningful connections between the winery and the customer. You might buy a wine off a shelf at a retailer, or a list at a restaurant, whose connection to the winemaker or winery proprietor is third-hand at best: the winery sells the wine to a distributor, its national sales manager tells the story to the distributor sales team, a sales rep shares the wine with the buyer for that restaurant and retailer, and only then does the customer see it. These live virtual tools cut out all the layers between the producer and the customer, allow for direct interactions in ways that would previously have been rare, and give the customer a chance to really get to know the people behind the wines they love. That's a dream scenario for a business. The fact that it took a pandemic for us to learn to use these tools is a source of some embarrassment to me. But much better late than never.     

Last July, roughly three months into the pandemic, I took a crack at predicting which of the Covid-inspired changes to the wine business were likely to endure and which to fade away as businesses were allowed to reopen. Rereading that list, I feel pretty good about my predictions at the time. But what I don't think I could have predicted was the extent to which I'd feel like we were a better business as we emerge from this pandemic than we were entering it. From the Silicon Valley Bank survey, it doesn't seem like we're the only ones. I'm proud that we've been able to do this while keeping our team and our customers safe, taking care of the vineyard and the wines during two different (and as far as we can tell, outstanding) vintages, and continuing our commitment to be on the leading edge of responsible farming, resource use reduction, and farmworker equity.

It seems like one last thing I've learned is to expect that my desk will look like the below photo fairly often in the future. I can live with that.

Office with lots of wines and Zoom


What do you do with a vineyard flock when it can't be in the vineyard? Regenerate your forests.

In the winter, when the cover crops are tall and green, having sheep in the vineyard is pretty easy. There's plenty of food for them. The dormant vines aren't of interest to the flock, who focus on the grasses and weeds. You build up your soils without having to bring in outside fertilizer. You minimize your tractor passes and the soil compaction and diesel exhaust that come with them. This scene, from a few years back, is typical:

Losing the sheep in the cover crop - Roussanne block

The cumulative impact of the sheep, year after year, has been transformational for our soil. The roughly 200 sheep we have drop some 750 pounds of manure per day. All that organic matter provides nutrients to the vines, but also increase the soil's water-holding capacity. Given that we don't have a water table at any depth that roots can get to, our ability to dry-farm is dependent upon how much water our surface layers can hold. The calcareous soils that led us to choose this property are a great start. But the sheep have been a big help here too, and are key to our ability to farm regeneratively, pulling carbon out of the atmosphere and fixing it in the soil.

The challenge comes in the summer months, when they can't be in the vineyard because they would happily eat the leaves and fruit off the vines. Plus, it stops raining in April and as the grasses dry out the flock's food gets scarcer. If you have to bring in feed from offsite it can get expensive. Plus, sheep are natural wanderers, and can develop health problems if they're kept in the same small area day after day. So, what to do? For most of the past decade, they summered on the block we call Jewel Ridge, which we purchased in 2011 but hadn't started planting until recently. But over the last two years we planted about 25 acres of the 60 or so that were cleared there, reducing our summer grazing space by nearly half.

One resource that we do have is our forest land. It's harder to run sheep in the forest than it is in an open space, because setting up the fences requires more work. But there's nothing about sheep that makes them less happy to be in the forest, and nothing about the forest that makes sheep an unwelcome addition to the ecosystem. Far from it. According to our Shepherd Dane Jensen, hundreds of years ago the forests in California's Central Coasts would have been home to massive herds of grazing animals like deer and elk, and those grazers played a big role in keeping the forests healthy. Rather than let grasses and shrubs accumulate, competing with the larger trees, grazers turned that biomass into manure, which got incorporated into the soil. With the arrival of European settlers, land was subdivided and fenced off, the migratory herds of grazing animals hunted for food, and fires (another natural part of the ecosystem) repressed. Forests got denser and shrubbier, which in the 21st Century combine with the warming climate to make the fires that do start more dangerous and destructive than ever.

Re-enter our flock of sheep. Last summer we started grazing them in some limited forest areas that we could enclose. This summer, we've started cutting fence lines through the denser growth so they can get into areas we couldn't touch last year. It's been amazing watching them work. They clear the invasive grasses, the shrubs, even the poison oak. This photo shows them in their first day in a new block, attacking the poison oak with gusto:

Sheep grazing on poison oak

After a few days, they've turned those dry surface plants into manure, and eliminated some of the competition for the oaks. Plus, their work will help that land absorb more of this winter's rains, which will further strengthen the oaks. Check out this "after" photo of the flock in a forest block, with Bjorn the Spanish mastiff typically sleepy as he usually is in daytime. At night he's on high alert, protecting his flock from mountain lions and coyotes:

Sheep grazing in the forest with Bjorn

In the vineyard, we move the flock daily, mimicking the natural patterns where herds or ruminants stay together for safety (the origin of the term "mob grazing") but migrate based on the pressure of predators so that they don't stay anywhere long. In the forests, we enclose a somewhat larger area of a few acres at a time, but still move them every few days, making sure we don't over-graze any section or neglect any others. We know that doing so is good for the forests, and just as importantly, good for our fire risk.

Based on the questions I get, I think that a lot more wineries would have sheep to help with weeding in the winter if they could think of what to do with them in the summer. Here's one suggestion: look to your forests.


Aspen-inspired reflections on what it means to be a sustainable winery

This past weekend I flew to Aspen to participate for my first time in the Aspen Food & Wine Classic. It was my first work flight since January of 2020 and the only out-of-state visit and only wine festival I have planned this year. I've been cautious in this ongoing pandemic both what I commit Tablas Creek to and what I choose to participate in myself. But this seemed like an opportunity I couldn't pass up.

I'd been invited by Food & Wine's Executive Wine Editor Ray Isle1 to join him on a panel with the title "Wines for a Healthy Planet". It was a chance to talk through the many permutations of sustainable, organic, Biodynamic, Regenerative Organic, natural, and more, in front of as high a profile audience as any in the world of wine. We've been a part of (or at least adjacent to) most of those categories over the years, and I had a chance to have a real conversation with Ray about what it means to be a responsible winery in this day and age. And yet because of the many different ways in which the wines Ray chose advance the goal of a healthier planet, the discussion went places that I hadn't expected, and I come back to California with some new inspirations on how we might continue to evolve our farming and our operations. I wanted to share those thoughts while they're fresh in my mind, and encourage any readers to share other innovative ways that have come across their radar that might go beyond a farming certification.

Jason Haas and Ray Isle at Aspen Food & Wine 2021

I'll follow Ray's lead and share the eight wines in the lineup, in the order in which we tasted them, with some thoughts on how each advances the discussion.

  • 2019 Frog’s Leap Rossi Reserve Sauvignon Blanc. John Williams, Proprietor and Winemaker at Frog's Leap in Napa Valley, is an inspiration of mine, famous for his early adoption of organic farming, his no-nonsense approach to what really matters in Biodynamics, and his embrace of dry farming. He's been outspoken about how all three are how he's made wines of soul and balance in an era when most of his neighbors were chasing power unapologetically. As a pioneering advocate for natural ways of making wine, John's Sauvignon Blanc was a great way to start. [Note, if you haven't read John's lovely piece "Thinking Like a Vine" you should.]
  • 2019 Tablas Creek Esprit de Tablas Blanc. I got to debut our newest vintage of Esprit Blanc next. I've spoken plenty about our own approach to farming and to building a responsible business, but focused in my remarks at the seminar to explaining the significance of the Regenerative Organic Certification that we received last year. More on this in a bit.
  • 2016 Pyramid Valley Field of Fire Chardonnay. New Zealand has been a world leader in sustainable farming practices, with 96% of its acreage included in its nationwide sustainability program. Pyramid Valley takes that one step further by implementing Biodynamics, producing this brilliant Chardonnay from their limest0ne-rich site in North Canterbury. You could taste in the vivacity of the wine the health of the vines and their expressiveness of their soils. 
  • 2019 J Bouchon Pais Salvaje. OK, here things got weird and even more fun. Pais (known in America as Mission) is an ancient grape variety, likely Spanish in origin, that was brought to the New World by Spanish missionaries to produce sacramental wine five centuries ago. It has largely lost favor in recent decades as new varietals arrived here, but this wine was unique in my experience. Made from wild grapevines more than a century old, seeded (presumably) by birds and growing as a wild grapevine would, climbing trees in a riverbed in southern Chile, these vines have never been cultivated, irrigated, pruned, or otherwise intervened with. They're picked by workers on tall ladders leaned against the trees. Their website has a photo. Truly a wine made without impacts on its environment! The wine itself was bright and spicy, showing its 50% carbonic fermentation, rustic and refreshing. 
  • 2018 Cullen Red Moon Red. From the Margaret River region in Australia, Cullen has been organic since 1998 and Biodynamic since 2003. Beyond that, they're the first winery I know of to be certified as carbon-neutral, achieved both by reductions in their own footprint (the glass bottle they use is the lightest I've ever felt) and through the funding of reforestation programs and a biodiversity corridor project. The wine, a blend of Malbec and Petit Verdot, was minty, spicy, and light on its feet, about as far away from the jammy stereotype of Australia as it's possible to get.   
  • 2018 Tenuta di Valgiano Palistorte Rosso. Made in Tuscany from a blend of Sangiovese, Merlot, and Syrah, like many of the other wines the Tenuta di Valgiano was organically and Biodynamically grown. But unusually, it was made from a vineyard entirely surrounded by forest, isolated from other vines that might have been treated in a more industrial way. The idea of chemical drift isn't one that gets talked about much in grapegrowing, the wine gave Ray a chance to share stories of other vineyards that saw their border rows of vines defoliated by herbicide sprays.
  • 2016 Torres Grans Muralles. The Torres family of wineries, stretching from Spain to Chile to Sonoma, is one of the world's largest family-run producers. They're also leaders in sustainability, particularly in their work co-founding International Wineries for Climate Action (IWCA), whose participants commit to reducing their carbon footprint 50% by 2030 and 100% by 2050. This wine shows another piece of their commitment to how wineries can have positive impacts on their communities, sourced from ancient vineyards in the Spain's Conca de Barberà region discovered as a part of a conservation effort Familia Torres began in the 1980s, in which they placed ads in small-town newspapers looking for farmers with plots of old, overgrown grapevines. This led to the discovery of two heritage varieties (Garró and Querol) which combine with Garnacha, Cariñena, and Monastrell to produce this unique wine.
  • 2017 Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon. We finished with a classic. Spottswoode was one of first wineries in Napa Valley to begin farming organic in 1985 and has been certified since 1992. They're now Biodynamic certified as well, a B Corp (the first, winery, I believe, to achieve this), and participants in programs like 1% for the Planet and IWCA. Their "One Earth" list of initiatives is an inspiring example of how a winery can make a positive impact in multiple ways. But just as important is the example they set. Far from environmental sensitivity being something for the fringes of wine, all these efforts help them make a superlative version of America's most famous and popular grape.

I asked Ray for how he chose this diverse collection of wines. His reply emphasizes that while farming is important, it's not just about that:

“I did this seminar because I wanted to highlight how wineries around the world—literally in every wine region—have become more and more invested in agricultural and winemaking practices that are good for the environment, rather than potentially detrimental. Whether that’s through organic viticulture, regenerative agriculture, biodynamics, or climate-conscious programs for reducing a wineries’ carbon, water or energy footprints, there’s a global shift in wine right now towards this sensibility. I feel like the producers I chose—Spottswoode, Pyramid Valley, Frog’s Leap, Tenuta di Valgiano and others, including of course Tablas Creek—are at the forefront of these efforts. Plus, they all make excellent wine; that’s pretty vital, too.”

I come away from this experience convinced that the biggest sustainability challenge for the generation of wineries that, like us, have adopted organic or Biodynamic farming in the last few decades is going to be to improve our business practices. We will of course continue to invest in our farming. I'm proud that Tablas Creek is helping lead the way on some of these initiatives, specifically the work that we've done to achieve Regenerative Organic Certified status. But as I wrote when I published the results of a carbon footprint self-audit in May, the challenges of improving packaging and energy use and water conservation will loom large over the wine community in coming years.

After being a part of this seminar, I have a bunch more ideas running around in my head. Thanks, Ray.

Footnote:

  1. If you'd like to get to know Ray a little (and you should) he was my guest in one of my Instagram Live conversations this summer. Our archived conversation can be found here.

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.