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


Paso Robles is (Still) Insanely Beautiful, Fall Edition

Three weeks ago, with the first clouds in the sky and the vineyard starting to change into its autumn colors, I caught some of this new beauty and shared it in a blog. Since then, we've gotten three inches of rain, without a frost. The result has been a new color palette, with green grass growing while the autumn colors deepen to auburn. Because we usually get a hard freeze before we get significant rain, it's rare and beautiful to have this green and golden brown combination:

Newly green vineyard

But that's not the only change. The moisture has meant that we've had a series of lovely foggy mornings out here, water dripping off the vines and settling on the new grass, sunlight softly diffused:

Fog lifting over new planting

I keep coming back to the spot from which I took the final photo in my last session, at the center of the vineyard looking west over a section of head-trained Mourvedre, one of my favorite rock walls, a new area of Biodynamic plantings, and a big oak tree. I particularly love the lines of hills receding toward the horizon:

Sunset over the center of the vineyard

The colors of the vines vary, but Counoise is always some of the most colorful. I love the contrast with the big old live oak that grows in the middle of this block:

Counoise and oak tree in the setting sun

One of the things we've done since we finished harvesting our grapes was complete our one-day olive harvest. I didn't get any photos of that, but the grey-green of the olive leaves makes a great contrast to the brighter colors of the vineyard (in this case, Tannat on the right):

Sunset through olive trees

I'll leave you with one more sunset photo, the late-afternoon light illuminating Syrah's fall colors. 

Sunset over Syrah

How long we'll have with this landscape is an open question. We have more rain forecast for next Tuesday, which will be great. There's a chance of a frost the night before, which would put an end to much of this color, but if we dodge it there's not another one on in the forecast. Could we keep these colors all the way to Thanksgiving? I don't know. But I'm going to enjoy them while they're here. If you're visiting Paso Robles in the next few weeks, you're in for a treat.    


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


Harvest 2021 Recap: It May Be Scant, But It Should Be Outstanding

On Tuesday, with the bin of Roussanne pictured below, we completed the 2021 harvest. It went out in the same leisurely fashion that it began, low stress and spread out, as a below-average quantity of fruit distributed itself relatively evenly across an above-average 56-day harvest. And after some eye-openingly-low yields on some of our early grapes, the somewhat better results from grapes like Mourvedre and Counoise gave the cellar reason to celebrate. Our rock star harvest crew, with the last bin of the year (which turned out to be Roussanne):

Last Bin of 2021 Harvest

Graphing the harvest by weeks produces about as perfect a bell curve as you're likely to see. In the chart below, blue is purchased fruit for the Patelin program, and orange estate-grown fruit:

Harvest by Tons 2021 Final

Yields were down 26% overall off the estate vs. 2020, just below 2.5 tons/acre, trailing this century only the extreme drought year of 2015 and the frost years of 2011, 2009, and 2001. And yet that number was actually somewhat of a relief, as some early grapes, particularly whites, were down by nearly 50%. The complete picture:

Grape 2021 Yields (tons) 2020 Yields (tons) % Change vs. 2020
Viognier 11.9 18.8 -36.7%
Marsanne 7.6 13.0 -41.5%
Grenache Blanc 23.4 46.7 -49.9%
Picpoul Blanc 5.2 8.7 -40.2%
Vermentino 11.4 21.1 -46.0%
Roussanne 28.1 34.8 -19.3%
Other whites 8.3 7.9 +5.1%
Total Whites 95.9 151.0 -36.5%
Grenache 54.7 74.9 -27.0%
Syrah 37.6 43.8 -14.2%
Mourvedre 44.4 46.9 -5.3%
Tannat 11.1 17.6 -36.9%
Counoise 12.5 15.9 -21.4%
Other reds 8.4 7.2 +16.7%
Total Reds 168.7 206.3 -18.2%
Total 264.6 357.3  -25.9%

While it looks like our "other" grape varieties (which include Muscardin, Picardan, Bourboulenc, Vaccarese, Terret Noir, Clairette Blanche, and Cinsaut) bucked the trend of lower yields, that's mostly because so many of those blocks are in just their second or third harvest, and we always minimize their yields their first few years to allow the vines to focus on building trunks and cordons, and only gradually allow them to carry a full crop.

The yields picture is something of the reverse of 2020, when our early grapes came in high and then our later grapes lower as the vines started to wear down under the relentless heat and dry conditions. So the discrepancy between early and late grapes might be an echo of 2020's quirks as much as a statement about something unusual in 2021. But the low early yields do tend to support my hypothesis that it wasn't the drought as much as the late cold weather that we received that played the largest role in our low crop levels.

For whatever reason, we don't have many years with yields like these. Typically there's something catastrophic (like a frost) that pushes our yields around two tons per acre, or there isn't and we're somewhere between 3 and 3.5. The low yields without a direct cause has spurred us to take a harder look at some of our oldest blocks of Mourvedre, Roussanne, and Counoise. Even though they weren't down much this year, that's more because they were low last year too; these three grapes averaged just 2 tons per acre. We have planted some new acreage of all three this year (mostly on Jewel Ridge) and as those acres come into production we'll be looking to selectively choose weaker blocks to replant. I'll share more news on that as it happens. But for now, the lower yields on these key grapes will likely constrain our choices in blending; we will likely have to choose between making a normal amount of Esprit de Tablas and Esprit de Tablas Blanc but perhaps no varietal Mourvedre or Roussanne, or reducing Esprit quantities to preserve more gallons for varietal bottlings. We'll know more when we sit down with everything this spring, but I at least feel confident that what we have will be more than good enough to make the amount of Esprit we choose.

We had 110 harvest lots, a decline of just eight vs. 2020. The even ripening (and lighter quantity) meant we had to do fewer picks than last year, but we made up for part of that by purchasing more lots that will go into Patelin de Tablas. The estate lots are in fuchsia, while the purchased lots are green in our completed harvest chalkboard:

Harvest Chalkboard Final

Another way that you can get a quick assessment of concentration is to look at average sugars and acids. Since 2010, our average degrees Brix and pH at harvest:

Year Avg. Sugars Avg. pH
2010 22.68 3.51
2011 22.39 3.50
2012 22.83 3.65
2013 22.90 3.63
2014 23.18 3.59
2015 22.60 3.59
2016 22.04 3.71
2017 22.87 3.74
2018 22.80 3.62
2019 22.30 3.62
2020 22.14 3.62
2021 22.12 3.55

While 2021's sugar numbers are very similar to 2020's, we saw a noticeable bump in acids, with our lowest average pH since 2011. That's a great sign of the impact of the cooler harvest season, and of the health of the vines. In terms of weather, we saw something very different from 2020's sustained heat. Sure, we had warm stretches, most notably August 26th-30th (all highs between 98 and 102), September 4th-13th (ten consecutive 90+ days), September 21st-25th and finally September 30th-October 3rd. But our last 100+ day was September 8th, and we didn't even hit 95 after September 23rd. Most importantly, you'll notice that after every hot stretch we got a cool one. This allowed the grapevines to recover, kept acids from falling out, and gave us time to catch up in the cellar and sample widely so we knew what to expect next. 

Daily High Temps August-October 2021

In character, it's early to tell what things will be like, but I asked Winemaker Neil Collins to sum up the vintage based on what he's seen so far, and he was enthusiastic. That's significant, as winemakers are famously cautious in the aftermath of most harvests, with the memories of the challenges and frustrations fresh: "Sometimes a vintage comes along that is special, a bit beyond just different. Vintage 2021 is a special one. Varietals ripened out of their normal order, clusters were smaller lighter, so many oddities. Whites will be bright and yet rich, reds will be deep of character, complex and structured. But then I am just guessing!" Senior Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi had a similar take: "While the harvest was mild in tonnage and intensity, the fruit we brought in is anything but. We’ve seen beautiful color and aromatics from the reds and the whites feel luxuriant even at this early stage." We're looking forward to getting to know the wines of 2021 even better in coming weeks.

Of course, just because we've finished picking doesn't mean that we're done with our cellar work. There are still plenty of lots to be pressed off, tanks to be dug out, and fermentations to monitor. But it feels different than it does earlier in harvest, when you're emptying tanks to make room for the next pick. Now, when we press something off and clean a tank out, that's the last time of the season. We've already put a couple of our open-top fermenters outside, along with our sorting table and destemmer. That opens up space for barrels, which is great, because that's where the pressed-off red lots are going: 

Austin Taking Barrels Back into the Cellar

It seems like we got the fruit in just in time. Unlike the last few years, that saw late October and November mostly or entirely dry, we're looking at a forecast for a real winter storm on Sunday night into Monday. That would be an amazing way to start off the winter, and the earliest end to fire season we've seen in years.

With the rain in the forecast, we've been hurrying to get cover crop seeded and compost spread. The animals have been out in the vineyard for a few weeks, eating second crop clusters before they rot and spreading their manure, jump starting the winter soil's microbial activity.

All this feels strangely... normal, like something we'd have expected a decade ago. After the challenges of the crazy 2020 growing season, we're grateful. I'll let Chelsea have the last word: "There may not be a lot of fruit in the cellar, but what we have seems to be stellar."


Paso Robles is Insanely Beautiful Right Now, Fall Edition

The seasons are definitely changing, and earlier this year than our last few. It's been cool and breezy during the day. Nights have already dropped near freezing several times. The grapevines have been coloring up like they think they're in New England. And (wonder of wonders) we have clouds:

View between Mourvedre and olive trees

Combine the clouds, the vineyard colors, the lower sun angles, and a touch of humidity in the air, and you have a landscape which is dramatic and beautiful. Witness this view, looking west over our oldest Grenache vines into the setting sun:

Looking west through oldest Grenache block

Most people think of wine country in summer, when you've got a high-contrast color palette. Bright blue sky. Dark green oaks. Golden hillsides. Winter and spring are their own kind of beautiful, softer and more yellow-green as the season's rainfall covers hillsides with green grasses and wildflowers. I've shared how much I love getting out into the vineyard to photograph those seasons. Fall can be over in just a few weeks, if you aren't paying attention. All you need is one frost, which usually comes in November sometime, and the colors fade to brown almost overnight. But for those few weeks it's glorious:

Long view looking south over Grenache

It's not just the vineyard. The low sun angles enrich the colors of the grasses, as you can see from this shot of a picnic table we've put at the top of our tallest hill:

Picnic table at the top of the hill

Panning back a little more allows the oak trees (beautiful in any season) to be contrasted against the sky, layered gold and robin's egg blue from the clouds and the setting sun:

Looking west through oak tree

One last photo, my favorite of the session, and one of my favorites I've ever taken out at the vineyard. You're more or less in the center of the vineyard, looking west past many of our Biodynamic plantings of flowering herbs and fruit trees, vines to the left turning color while the lines of hills march toward the horizon:

Center of the vineyard with clouds

We may only have another week or so of this landscape. Our first winter storm is forecast for this coming weekend, and if we get any significant wind with the rain, the leaves will likely come off the vines. The rain will begin the vineyard's next transformation from gold back to green. And we'll all celebrate the end of fire season. But if you have the good fortune to be here over the next week, you're in for a treat. If not, hopefully I've captured some of it for you to enjoy from home. 


When All Roads Lead to Regenerative Organics: An interview with Tablas Creek's Harvest 2021 Interns

By Ian Consoli

Tablas Creek has a highly competitive harvest internship program every year. We receive multiple applications, and typically only two are selected to harvest alongside the regular cellar team. This harvest was particularly competitive as it marks the first Regenerative Organic Certified™ grape harvest in history. (You can read more about the significance of this event in this blog post by Viticulturist Jordan Lonborg from 2020).

So who did we select? I took the time this week to sit down with two individuals inspired by the promise of regenerative organics. Jennifer (Jenny) Wootten I know well, as we have worked together in the tasting room since she came on as a barback in 2019. Lauren Danna I have gotten to know as this harvest has progressed. Both are inspiring young women who have worked hard all harvest and are beginning to set their sights on their future. One, preferably, involving Regenerative Organic Certified.

I can't wait for you to meet them.

Who are you?

Jenny

I'm Jenny Wootten, and I'm a harvest intern at Tablas Creek.

Lauren

I'm Lauren Danna, and I am also a harvest intern at Tablas Creek for the 2021 harvest.

Jennifer Wootten and Lauren Danna sorting grapesJenny and Lauren on the sorting table

Where did you grow up?

Jenny

I grew up in San Diego, California, in a community called Scripps Ranch.

Lauren

I am from Yuba City, California, a smaller rural town in Northern California.

 

When and how did you get into wine?

Jenny

I got into wine in high school. My interest was piqued on drives through wine country. I had a mixture of interests in culinary arts, chemistry, and biochemistry. I ended up going to Cal Poly [San Luis Obispo] for wine and viticulture and stayed in the wine industry afterward.

Lauren

My interest started my junior year of junior college when I was living in Florence, Italy. I majored in Agriculture Business and was exposed to wine through a culture of wine class based on the Italian region that I was living in. That's where it sparked.

 

Is this your first grape Harvest?

Lauren

This is my first grape harvest.

Jenny

This is my second grape harvest, and my first one was in 2019 at Adelaida.

 

How did you hear about Tablas Creek?

Lauren

I heard about Tablas Creek through a simple web search. I am really interested in regenerative organics. So one day, I searched "regenerative organic wineries," and Tablas came up everywhere. I did a bit more research and happened to know some people that worked here, so I reached out to them, they filled me in, and I decided to apply.

Jenny

I've been working in the tasting room at Tablas Creek since May of 2019. One of my friends was an officer of the Vines and Wines club on campus, and she made an announcement that Tablas Creek was looking for other bar backs. I wanted to get more involved in the industry, so I started bar backing and eventually started pouring in the tasting room. I graduated this May with more of an interest in production and working in the cellar. So I thought I would go for it and see if they would have me as a harvest intern in the cellar to get a little more exposure.

Jenny in the CellarJenny Wootten in the cellar (Photo: Heather Daenitz)

How did you end up working harvest with us?

Lauren

After speaking with the couple of people that I knew, I connected with Neil and Chelsea. They were interested in hiring me. The timing worked out with when my lease in Denver, Colorado, ended. The stars seemed to align, so here I am doing a harvest!

Jenny

I reached out to Chelsea and asked if they were still hiring interns, and they ended up giving me an interview. They let me know they would be happy to have me on. They have helped me learn more about our production process, which is particularly interesting because I have been talking about the production process in the tasting room for a long time. It's an entirely different thing to experience it firsthand.

 

What routines do you have after long days to prepare for the next day?

Jenny

I like to meet up with friends after work and grab a beer or a cider. Then I go home, shower, and unwind, and try to fall asleep before 10:30.

Lauren

If there's still sunlight when I get home, I like to do something active because it helps me reset. If not, I'll go home, shower, and get prepped for the next day. Like Jenny said, trying to get to bed before 10 or 10:30, but that doesn't seem to happen too often. I feel like I always think I have time to get things done after work, and all of a sudden, I was supposed to be in bed an hour ago.

 

What has been your best memory from harvest 2021?

Lauren

Within my first two weeks here, I was helping fill barrels, and I was unfamiliar with the equipment I was using. On the little remote, there's a knob where you control the speed, zero is slow, and 10 is fast. We're filling a barrel, and I'm watching to make sure we fill it all the way to the brim. My coworker, Kayja, left me for just a second, and suddenly I realized it was getting full. She says, stop it. And instead of turning it to 0, I turned it to 10, and wine goes everywhere, spouting three to four feet up. I was drenched in wine.

Lauren in the CellarLauren Danna examining a tank (Photo credit: Heather Daenitz)

Jenny

A week before I was supposed to start working full-time as a harvest intern, I came in at 7am to work in the cellar before my tasting room shift. That might be one of my favorite harvest feelings because I was so excited to get into it. I got to load a press and do a bunch of other stuff. It was just super fun because I missed the cellar a lot.

 

How does it feel to be a part of the first Regenerative Organic Certified™ grape harvest ever?

Lauren

It's awesome. It's so exciting. Every day I am in disbelief. Especially because that's what initially attracted me to the winery. Seeing the cellar side of it and how it translates into the wine, not just the growing. It's awesome. And I'm so fortunate. It's been a really great experience.

Jenny

My excitement about Tablas Creek being the world's first Regenerative Organic Certified™ winery has been built up through working here for so long. I really want to pursue advocating for the spread of Regenerative organics in the wine industry. Being a part of this harvest has helped me build a passion and excitement for moving forward in my career.

 

What's your ultimate goal in cellar work?

Jenny

My ultimate goal in cellar work is to become more comfortable with all the heavy machinery and processes. In your first harvest, it's overwhelming when you're working with a lot of the new equipment. In your second harvest, it's still overwhelming because you don't use a lot of it most of the year and have to refresh on everything. As someone who wants to pursue winemaking as my future, my goal is to be comfortable in the cellar.

Lauren

I don't really know what my future holds in a cellar. Similar to Jenny, my goal is to continue becoming more familiar with the equipment we use.

 

If a genie said you could be head winemaker anywhere, where would you pick?

Jenny

I think Sardinia or Southern Italy. Before, I would've said Northern Italy because I think Italian reds are really cool. I love the structure they have, the brightness, acidity, and ageability. But recently, I've become a lot more familiar with Southern Italian and Mediterranean island-based wines, like Corsica and Sardinia. Working in that more Mediterranean circle in a unique environment would be super cool.

Lauren

No winery in particular, but a winery up in the Northern region of Italy. I just fell in love with the region when I lived there, and I just love the area and the people and the culture.

Jenny

And a place that follows regenerative organics.

Lauren

Yeah!

 

Best bottle of wine you ever had?

Lauren

2019 Tablas Creek Counoise! It reminds me of when I lived in Italy and had some Chiantis that I said, I can never part ways with this, but I'm going to have to, because I won't live here forever. I've really learned to love how we make wine and the style here, and it was so new. Definitely my favorite as of right now.

Jenny

I am really into trying new bottles from all over the world from different producers, so that's pretty tough. One bottle that is most memorable for me is this 2016 Madiran Malbec/Tannat blend. I think about it somewhat regularly, which is kind of nerdy, but I'm okay with that.

 

What's next for you?

Jenny

Within the next year, I'm going to start the OIB Masters of Science and Wine Management based out of the University of Montpelier. I need to learn French for it, which is a little daunting right now, but that's okay. Before that, I'm waiting for a couple Southern hemisphere opportunities to come about, possibly doing a viticulture internship.

Lauren

This is the question I asked myself pretty regularly. I'm not really sure what's next. I want to try so many other things, and maybe another harvest is in the cards, but that's another year away. I know that I want to be a part of some sort of production moving forward, although not necessarily grapes. I do plan to continue to be involved in Regenerative Organics. However that may be, I'm not sure, but that's kind of where my head is right now with the future.

 

Would you rather:

Fly or breathe underwater?

Jenny

I would rather fly because I'm a terrible swimmer.

Lauren

Fly so I could get to places so much faster, and I could just go whenever I want.

Cake or Pie?

Lauren

Pie

Jenny

Cake

 Old World wine or New World wine?

Jenny

Old World

Lauren

Old World

Be a winemaker or a viticulturist?

Jenny

Winemaker

Lauren

Viticulturist

Jennifer Wootten and Lauren Danna


The 2021 harvest winds down as it began, with outstanding quality but low yields

As the clock winds down on the 2021 harvest, the bigger picture is coming into better focus. My hopes that we would see a significantly improved yields with our later grape varieties don't seem to have come to pass. Mid-season grapes like Picpoul (down 40%), Grenache (down 28%) and Marsanne (down 42%) are showing results similar to the grapes we finished earlier. Mourvedre does look like we'll get close to our numbers from 2020, but Roussanne and Counoise both seem to be lighter. We won't have a full accounting of where we finished for another week or so, but we've passed the 90% mark, and there aren't many significant blocks left still unpicked. 

End of Harvest Chalkboard

On the positive side, we're becoming more convinced than ever that this year will produce memorable wines. The colors on the reds are deep and vibrant. The flavors are intense. The numbers are textbook. And it's not like we're totally bereft of grapes. We've harvested some 380 tons between our estate and the grapes we purchase for the Patelin de Tablas wines. Scenes like this one, with bins of Mourvedre spilling out of our crushpad onto what in other seasons is our staff parking lot, are everyday sights: 

2021 Bins of Mourvedre

Meanwhile, in the vineyard, it's getting harder and harder to find a block with fruit on it. The vines are starting to change colors, and the scene definitely feels more like fall than summer. That is only exacerbated by the chilly nights (down into the 30s!) and occasional clouds (very rare in summer) that we've been seeing the past few weeks.

Tractor in front of colorful Mourvedre

The only grapes still out are Roussanne (below left) and Mourvedre (below right). We should be done picking both by the end of next week.

Roussanne cluster Mourvedre clusters

Even in this lighter year, early October is the cellar's busiest time. But the steady pace of the harvest has meant that we've never felt overwhelmed. Looking at the weekly tonnages, you can see why; we haven't had a single week hit 90 tons, and we got a little break in mid-September that allowed us to press off most of what was in the cellar at that point and get ready for the final push:

Tons by Week Thru Oct 3rd

Although the work in the vineyard is winding down, it's still prime time in the cellar. Each day sees us measuring fermentations in every barrel and every tank (Chelsea, below left, is measuring Roussanne barrel ferments). We're also draining tanks that have reached the level of extraction we want, and then pressing off the berries (Craig, right, is draining a tank of Grenache). That work, plus the punchdowns, pump-overs, and Pulsair cap management that all our fermenting red tanks get twice daily, will go on for a few weeks even after we're done picking.

Chelsea tasting Roussanne from barrel vertical Craig draining a tank of Grenache

So, we'll enjoy the changing colors of the vineyard, and the changing feel of the season. There's a chance of some showers tonight, as our first winter storm makes its way down the California coast. We're not expecting anything significant, but we're hoping that it means that more and wetter storms are on the horizon. Meanwhile, we'll be enjoying the last few days of grapes on the vines, and storing up these sights and scents for the winter ahead.

Last of head-trained Mourvedre on the vine


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.


We reach the peak of the 2021 harvest... and it doesn't feel like a peak

Sometime in the next week, we'll pass the midpoint of the 2021 harvest. In terms of timing, that's pretty normal. Figure we start the last week of August (this year, August 24th). Harvest usually lasts about two months. So, it makes sense that we're just about at its midpoint. In terms of varieties, that's pretty normal too. We're done with the early grapes (Viognier, Vermentino, Syrah, Pinot Noir). We're largely done with the early-mid grapes like Grenache Blanc, Cinsaut, and Marsanne. We've made a start on the mid-late grapes like Grenache, Tannat, Picpoul, and Roussanne. And we're continuing to wait on the perennial stragglers like Mourvedre and Counoise. There have been days where we've been stashing grapes wherever we could find space because all three of our presses were in use at the same time.

Grenache bins in the cellar

So why doesn't it feel like we're in the thick of things? Blame the scarcity of the 2021 vintage, and the lovely weather we've been getting.

For yields, we now have two more data points beyond what we had two weeks ago, when I shared that Viognier, Vermentino, and Pinot Noir were down between 32% and 46%. With Syrah done, we see that our yields declined less than they did with the first three grapes, down 14% to about 37.5 tons. That's good news. But Grenache Blanc, with a few tons still to go, is currently down 52%. Assuming we get the couple of additional tons Neil is estimating, we'll end up down in the neighborhood of 47%. That's not good news.

As for our weather, it's been just about ideal both for people and for grapevines. Over the last two weeks, we haven't hit 100 once (max temp 96F). Seven days have topped out in the low 90s. Four more have hit the 80s. Three never made it out of the 70s. Our average nighttime low has been in the upper 40s. Those temperatures are a luxury for us. September can be scorching here in Paso Robles, and very hot temperatures force us to pick grapes to keep them from dehydrating or having their acids plummet. That has meant that we've been able to sequence out the harvest in an ideal way, without overwhelming our team or our cellar space. We actually have a bunch of empty tanks in the cellar right now, which feels like an unexpected treat. A few snapshots of what is going on. First, the daily work measuring the progress of fermentations (Kayja, left) and emptying tanks that have completed their fermentations (Gustavo, right):

Kayja measuring fermentations Sept 2021 Gustavo digging Syrah tanks Sept 2021

In the vineyard we're currently working on harvesting Tannat. Two of our three blocks got picked yesterday, with the third on tap for today. The photos below were taken on adjacent rows. The row on the left had just been picked, while that on the right was picked just after I snapped this photo. 

Tannat Picked 2021 Tannat on the Vine 2021

One more photo of the harvest, with the crew hard at work under the watchful eye of Pedro Espinoza, a 25-year veteran of our team here and current crew foreman:

Harvest Sept 2021

The Tannat looks amazing, dark and in beautiful condition in bins on our crushpad:

Tannat in Bins Sept 2021

The lovely condition of the fruit is also consistent with what we've been seeing in 2021. The combination of our second consecutive dry winter and our most frost nights since 2012 meant that all our varieties are coming in with smaller berries and thicker skins. The benign weather we've seen this growing season has meant that they're coming in with ideal numbers, with both sugars and acids a bit higher than we've seen in most recent years. That's a recipe for outstanding quality, and reminding me more and more of 2007.

We took advantage of the recent cool stretch to do some vineyard-wide sampling. It looks like we'll continue to see things sequence nicely. There's more Grenache and Marsanne on tap after today's Tannat. Then we'll finish up some of the blocks we've picked selectively. Then we'll dive into Roussanne in a serious way. I'm still hopeful that the later grapes, which suffered most from 2020's heat and which are likely to benefit most from this year's moderate temperatures, will be down less than what we've seen so far. Meanwhile we're going through those later varieties and dropping any second-crop clusters or grapes that don't appear to be coloring up as well as we'd like. You can see evidence of this work throughout the vineyard. This is in one of our Counoise blocks:

Dropped clusters Sept 2021

One good piece of news: we've been able to secure some really nice additional fruit for our Patelin de Tablas wines. That's always been one of the primary benefits for us of the Patelin program. In years where our own crop is plentiful, we use more Tablas fruit in those wines. In years where it's scarce, we reach out to the big network of growers who have our clones in the ground in Paso Robles and secure some more fruit to purchase. That should mean that even if many of our estate wines are scarce or can't be made in 2021, we'll at least have some wines for the pipeline. And all of that fruit has looked outstanding.

So, now we wait. We keep our fingers crossed that conditions remain good (the next week looks ideal). And we watch the harvest chalkboard fill up. Will the second half of harvest provide a new narrative? Stay tuned.

Harvest Chalkboard Sept 21 2021


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.