The quest for sustainability: wine's "yes, and" moment

In improv comedy, there's an important concept called "yes, and". In essence, it means that you're taking what your team has done previously and building on it. This is important in improv because it's unscripted: you don't know what's going to come before, but it's your job to keep up and build the momentum. The website of the famous Chicago-based comedy group Second City has a great summary of its importance in the improv world:

A large part of improv is that you are always there for your scene partner or partners, and, in turn, they are always there for you. This is the goal of “Yes, And”! By saying yes to your scene partner, you create something much more entertaining. If you start a scene by saying that you are an alien, and your scene partner completely commits to also being an alien, being abducted by an alien, etc., both of you know you can count on the other person. On the other hand, if you start by saying you are a puppy, but your scene partner says “Wait, I thought you were a cat!”, the scene is compromised. Not only do you feel less confident, but also the audience is less entertained.

As the same page points out, "yes, and" has applications in real life as well, to the point that it's become a business school staple. I was reminded of the concept's relevance twice recently. The first time was when I shared on my various social channels my excitement at the news of Karen MacNeil's announcement that she was no longer going to accept wine packaged in heavy bottles for review. The responses fell along the lines that you would probably predict. The significant majority (about 80%, by my rough count) cheered the decision as an important step for a writer using her platform to nudge a tradition-loving industry in a positive direction. I got a few responses from the right wing fringe (maybe 5%) complaining that this was nothing more than virtue signaling and that things like carbon footprint and climate change were a hoax. But I also got some responses that while this was positive, it was of secondary importance to other environmental issues in grapegrowing, winemaking, or wine marketing. A few of the issues mentioned in these comments were pesticide use, the carbon footprint of wine tourism, and the prevalence of single-use packaging.

Now it's possible that these weren't good-faith comments in the first place. Deflections to other problems have become a favorite tactic of the anti-environmental lobby in recent years, with the goal of muddying the discussion of any particular solution and forcing proponents to defend their proposals against one idea after another. But these responses got me thinking. 

The second occasion recently where I was reminded of the importance of "yes, and" was at last week's Tasting Climate Change Conference in Montreal. The event was inspiring. We heard from experts in viticulture, resource use, and the soil microbiome; discussed the changes that wine regions have already observed and the best projections for what things will look like in another generation; and debated the best way forward for packaging, certifications, appellations, and grape varieties. I sat on a panel with a local importer and a representative from the SAQ (the province-wide monopoly on wine and liquor sales) to discuss the role that producers, importers, and retailers can play in moving the wine community toward a more sustainable future. A core piece of what I discussed was our experiment in recent years in releasing a high-end boxed wine due in large part to its more-than-80% reduction in the carbon footprint of the package compared to four glass bottles and the capsules, corks, and labels they require.

JH Speaking at Tasting Climate Change

To begin my presentation, I wanted to establish that this experiment was not done in isolation, but instead part of a fundamental approach to how we conduct our business. Across our departments, we focus on making choices that have the fewest possible negative repercussions and the greatest possible positive impacts on our people, our land, our community, and the broader environment. I've written about most of these initiatives here on the blog, including: our longstanding commitment to organic and biodynamic farming; our move to lightweight glass; our embrace of kegs in our wholesale sales and our tasting room; our replacement of plastic water bottles with reusable canteens; our reduction in tillage; our move toward dry farming; the growth of our composting and biochar programs; and the installation of a wetland to treat our winery wastewater. One of the reasons we love the Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC) program is because it's both rigorous and comprehensive, with meaningful requirements in soil health, biodiversity, resource use, animal welfare, and farmworker fairness. I fielded as many questions about our farming approach, or our commitment to our people, as I did our packaging.

That's why, to me, the deflections about there being other pressing issues in the world of wine beyond carbon footprint ring hollow. Addressing one issue doesn't mean not addressing another. Should you be using lighter bottles? Absolutely. Your customers will appreciate it, you'll save your winery significant money, and you'll reduce your overall carbon footprint by between 10% and 20% depending on the bottle you were using previously. But should you also move from conventional to organic farming, or from organic to biodynamic or regenerative farming? Also yes. You'll feel better about not exposing your land, your people, and your neighbors to chemicals. You'll improve your soil's resilience and its ability to withstand extreme rain events, heat spikes, and drought. And you'll almost certainly make better wine. How about coming up with new ways of connecting with your customers that don't require you to fly all over the country or them to fly out to see you? Also also yes. You'll save money and realize that the initiatives that you came up with allow you to reach a much higher percentage of your current (let alone potential) customers than you were able to before. I could go on.

If you don't believe that carbon footprint matters or that businesses have a responsibility for the carryon effects of their choices, I'm not sure that any of this will matter to you. But for the rest of us, this isn't a time to think of these challenges as either-or choices. Adopt a more comprehensive approach. Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Get started, and adjust as you learn more.

Yes, and.


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

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

WE Twitter Paso Robles

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

Tasting Fees in Paso Robles  by Number of Wineries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Assessing the 11 Paso Robles sub-AVAs after their first decade

In September of 2013, the TTB published a notice of proposed rulemaking that gave a preliminary stamp of approval on the Paso Robles wine community's proposal to subdivide the Paso Robles AVA into 11 new sub-regions. I celebrated this milestone with an article on this blog where I laid out why I thought it was such an important development for our region. It's worth remembering that at the time there was some resistance to the proposal as being disproportionately complex given that up until that point everyone had used just the single overarching Paso Robles AVA. I tried to summarize why I thought it was important:

These new AVA's will be a powerful tool for wineries to explain why certain grapes are particularly well suited to certain parts of the appellation, and why some wines show the characteristics they do while other wines, from the same or similar grapes, show differently. Ultimately, the new AVA's will allow these newly created sub-regions to develop identities for themselves with a clarity impossible in a single large AVA.

The proposal was ultimately approved in October of 2014, and we started using our own sub-AVA (the Adelaida District) on the labels of our estate wines with the 2014 vintage. Our Patelin de Tablas wines, which are sourced from several of the sub-AVAs, continued to use the umbrella Paso Robles AVA. Of course, there was no requirement that wineries use these sub-AVAs. From my conclusion of that 2013 blog:

Wineries who wish to continue to use only the Paso Robles AVA are welcome to. And many will likely choose to do so as the new AVA's build their reputation in the market. Not all the AVA's have a critical mass of established wineries, and it seems likely that a handful of the new AVA's will receive market recognition first, while the reputation of others will take time to build. But I believe that it will be several of the currently less-developed areas that will benefit most in the long term, through the ability to identify successful winemaking models and build an identity of their own. We shall see; having a newly recognized AVA is not a guarantee of market success, just a chance to make a name for yourself.

All this came back to me last week when I fielded a call from veteran writer Dan Berger, asking my thoughts on the success of the AVAs given that most of the big Cabernet producers he sees haven't been using them. To my mind, that's neither here nor there, since those producers are typically large enough that they're sourcing grapes from multiple sub-AVAs and therefore can only use the umbrella Paso Robles AVA anyway. And there are exceptions even to this, most notably Daou, which uses the Adelaida District AVA on all its estate wines. But it did make me wonder the extent to which the different AVAs were appearing on labels and therefore being presented to consumers as a point of distinction. 

The best way to measure this would be label approvals from the TTB, but I don't think there is a way to search their publicly available database by AVA. Origin, sure... you can search, for example, by California. But not by Adelaida District. But there are proxies available that can give a good indication: the major publications to whom wineries submit thousands of wines each year. So I dove into the review databases at Wine Enthusiast, Wine Spectator, and Vinous. Because each publication receives and reviews a different subset of the wines that are produced, I've included a summation of all three, with the number of reviews that a search for each sub-AVA produces for vintages since the new AVAs were announced. The total for the Paso Robles AVA (reviews that don't list a sub-district) is at the bottom:

Paso Robles Wines Reviewed, by AVA, 2013-2022 vintages
  Wine Enthusiast Wine Spectator Vinous Total % of Total
Adelaida District AVA 611 249 773 1633 16.8%
Willow Creek AVA 427 261 674 1362 14.0%
Templeton Gap AVA 154 26 115 295 3.0%
Santa Margarita Ranch AVA 49 33 38 120 1.2%
Geneseo District AVA 34 5 55 94 1.0%
El Pomar AVA 45 2 40 87 0.9%
Paso Robles Highlands AVA 44 9 27 80 0.8%
Estrella District AVA 28 2 49 79 0.8%
Creston District AVA 8 0 25 33 0.3%
San Miguel District AVA 5 0 14 19 0.2%
San Juan Creek AVA 0 0 0 0 0%
Paso Robles AVA 3531 709 1691 5931 60.9%

So, nearly 40% of all the wines reviewed by these publications carried one of the 11 new AVAs on their label. Is that surprising? I'm not sure, but I do think it's an encouraging sign that the producers here think that the AVAs are or will become meaningful in the marketplace. When you figure that many of the rest of the wines (like our Patelins) weren't eligible for one of the sub-AVAs, the clear implication is that most Paso Robles wineries are using the smaller, newer designations when they can. Even J. Lohr, whose founder Jerry Lohr was quoted in Dan's article as saying "We’re not selling our Cabernets based on the sub-appellations," has used the El Pomar AVA on at least three wines, the Adelaida District on at least three others, and the Estrella District on yet three more.

And yet, while all the new AVAs except San Juan Creek have appeared on labels, it's worth considering why more than three-quarters of the wines that use the sub-AVAs are coming from the Adelaida and Willow Creek districts. Some of that is the profile of the wineries who have settled in these two AVAs, which include many of Paso Robles' highest-end producers often making dozens of small vineyard-designated bottlings each year. Willow Creek wineries -- including Saxum, Denner, Epoch, Caliza, Paix Sur Terre, Thacher, and Torrin -- and Adelaida District wineries -- including Daou, Alta Colina, Adelaida Cellars, Law, Villa Creek, and Tablas Creek -- account for a much more significant percentage of the wines reviewed in these databases than they do the percentage of production within the broader Paso Robles AVA. The choice that these high-profile wineries have made to put their AVAs on their labels encourages their neighbors to do the same.

Will the other districts -- many of which have more planted vineyard acres than Adelaida and Willow Creek -- eventually catch up? I'm not sure. As long as much of that acreage is going into wines whose production is measured in the hundreds of thousands or millions of cases, and therefore being sourced from multiple sub-AVAs, maybe not. But I've always thought that some of the AVAs with the most to gain are ones like El Pomar and Creston whose cooler climates and higher limestone soil content makes them more akin viticulturally to the more prestigious regions to the west, but whose location on the east side of the river tends to get them lumped in with warmer, sandier regions like Geneseo and Estrella to their north.

Paso Robles AVA map - PRWCAPaso Robles AVA map from the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance website

Ultimately, time will tell whether more of the 11 Paso Robles AVAs join Willow Creek and the Adelaida District as something that people look for on their labels. Meanwhile I think it's healthy that Paso Robles as a region remains centered in people's awareness. Although in Dan's article Gary Eberle implies that the decision to advance a conjunctive labeling law -- which requires that Paso Robles be used on the label alongside whatever sub-AVA is used -- was a controversial one, I don't know any producer here who opposed it. It's a good thing that the recognition for Paso Robles continues to grow even as people start to understand what makes the different parts of the broader AVA unique. And promoting Paso Robles isn't incompatible with also building recognition for the diversity within it -- in fact, doing so will help consumers understand why the wines that they love have the character that they do, and give them guidance for how to further explore this region.

What it comes back to, for me, is that the science for subdividing the Paso Robles region is pretty conclusive. This morning's Paso Robles agricultural forecast, as an example, shows different weather stations within the region recording high temperatures yesterday ranging from 74.2°F to 92.9°F, low temperatures yesterday morning ranging from 42.9°F to 55.7°F, and heat accumulations for the growing season from 1533 growing degree days to 2510. Vineyards in Paso also vary by elevation (between 600 feet and 2400 feet), rainfall (between 7 and 30 inches annually) and soils (a dozen major soil types encompassing everything from high pH calcareous to low pH alluvial and loam).

The roughly 60 local vineyards and wineries who together commissioned and funded the Paso Robles AVA proposal -- which included both Gary Eberle and Jerry Lohr -- agreed, as a region, to bring scientists in from UC Davis and Cal Poly, and to defer to their findings as to where the lines should be drawn between the different AVAs. We knew at the time that this would likely mean that there would be AVAs drawn that didn't have a critical mass of wineries yet to help spearhead that sub-AVA's recognition. And we decided that this was OK. If the lines were drawn in the right places, over time, the AVAs that were capable of doing so would achieve recognition in the marketplace. Back in 2015, I laid out in a blog why the wisdom of this decision would only play out over time. A decade in, I think that we're well on our way.


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

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

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

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

Jason Haas at Napa RISE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

California Green Medal 2023


Congratulations to Ian Consoli, Paso Robles Wine Country's "Master Marketer" of 2022!

Yesterday afternoon, several of the Tablas Creek team joined some 200 members of the Paso Robles wine community at the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance's mid-year meeting. We got updates on the work of the PRWCA and a presentation from Assistant City Manager of Paso Robles Chris Huot, who highlighted the results of the wine community's partnership with our city and shared the city of Paso Robles' five-year plan. The PRWCA also gave out three awards, for "Unsung Hero", "Good Neighbor", and "Master Marketer". We are excited that our own Director of Marketing Ian Consoli was voted by his peers the recipient of this last award! You can read the official announcement from the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance. 

Ian Consoli award winner

When we hired Ian (as Marketing Coordinator at the time, back in 2019) one of the ways we introduced him to people is by having our last Marketing Coordinator interview him. If you haven't read that piece on the blog, it's a great introduction to who he is. But he's come a long way since then, and really taken the reins of our marketing at a period when it was more important than ever before, thanks to the pandemic-induced closing of our tasting room and curtailing of the festivals, seminars, and tastings where we used to tell our story to new customers and reconnect with existing ones. In recognition of his growth I promoted him to Director of Marketing early last year. He's the first person to hold that title here since I had it in the early 2000s. I caught up with Ian to ask him a few questions about how he got here and what the award meant to him. If you see him in the next few weeks, give him a high five!

Congratulations, Ian! Can you bring people up to speed on who you are and how you got here?
Thank you! Sure. I am a local boy, a graduate of Templeton High School in 2007. I have a short list of local accomplishments, including homecoming king, supporting roles in various school plays, and a CIF championship with the Templeton tennis team in 2005. Now I get to add one more accomplishment to that list! I picked up a marketing degree from Cal State Fullerton and did sales in various industries. I developed my marketing skills when I became the Marketing Director for a small social enterprise in Los Angeles, CA. I had given all I could to that company, was feeling burned out, and decided to move home while I planned my next step. I ended up pouring one day a week in the tasting room at Tablas Creek. The tasting room manager, John Morris, saw my potential, gave me a full-time position, and convinced me to stick around because he thought the marketing role would open up. He ended up being right. Working as the Marketing Director at Tablas Creek is the most fulfilling role I have ever held.

Please talk a little about what this award means to you.
It's a pretty big deal. In my acceptance speech of the award, I said it was the greatest honor of my life thus far, and I meant it. I have dedicated my whole professional life to sales and marketing, and it is a true honor to be recognized by my peers. I consider myself very fortunate to have chosen marketing as my focus in college and have intentionally moved towards this position ever since. I remember sitting in the audience when last year's winner accepted the award and thinking, I'm going to win that next year. I set my intention, worked towards it, and it worked out!

As you look back on the different marketing initiatives that you've spearheaded for Tablas Creek, can you pick three that stand out as meaningful to you, and explain why?
The most fun I ever had was producing the Chelsea and the Shepherd series. It felt original and right for the time. I wrote a whole blog on that creative process.

Sitting side-by-side with Neil Collins for the Tasting with Neil series on Facebook and YouTube Live was also awesome. I got to be a fly on the wall these conversations between legendary winemakers while tasting all of the wines. It was epic, and I look forward to returning to that series.

Getting the word out about ROC stands out as well. We had to come together as a team and send the message on multiple channels from PR, social media, email, print, hosting groups, and participating in seminars. It was an all-hands-on-deck initiative, and it was cool to see everyone come together.

Do you feel like your approach to marketing has changed because of the pandemic?
I think so. When the pandemic hit, I realized we were losing our most vital outlet for interacting with customers, our tasting room. We had to fill that gap through our marketing efforts. Thanks to our loyal customers, we successfully did so. It left me wondering why we hadn't put that much work into staying in contact with people the whole time. I bring the same intensity (as if the tasting room were closed) to my marketing efforts daily.

Can you give a shout out to a couple of other wineries whose marketing you admire?
You can't bring up wine marketing without talking about Wine Folly. They are incredible, and I'm happy the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance is partnering with them to educate customers on our region further.

Tank Winery always feels cool to me. They know who they are, brand well, and their GM, Ed Feuchuk, does a good job of making sure he's on panels and participating in the wine community.

Fetzer and Bonterra as well. Their branding and messaging are clean, and so is their wine. It's exciting to see Fetzer come onboard for ROC as well.

So what's the next challenge you're looking forward to tackling?
Social media is changing. Pictures are on the way out, if not already out. Scroll through Instagram and all you'll see is videos. I'm looking forward to digging in on video creation and editing in a big way over the next few months. I just hired a marketing intern, a recent graduate of Cal Poly SLO. Our conversations surrounding trends and content creation make me excited about our feed's future. I'm also excited to complete my MBA in Wine Business from Sonoma State in August. I look forward to continuing to apply everything I learned to my position at Tablas Creek.


The Esprit de Tablas Blanc is having a moment

I know, you're supposed to love all your children equally. But it's an open secret to the people I work with that year in and year out, my favorite wine that we make is our Esprit de Tablas Blanc. That's not an indictment of any of our other wines. And it's not even that I open more bottles of Esprit Blanc than I do anything else (that honor goes this year to our Vermentino). But I feel like the Esprit Blanc is a wine that year after year we can stand up against the best examples of rich, textured whites made anywhere in the world, from any number of different grapes, and have it shine.

Esprit Blanc bottles

So, it's pretty cool that in this end-of-year holiday season the Esprit Blanc (both 2017 and 2018 vintages) has been getting some serious love from writers. I don't usually write much about the press we receive here on the blog, but I thought it was worth highlighting some of the honors it's received in the last few weeks. Roughly in the order in which they were released:

2017 Esprit Blanc in Wine Enthusiast's "Top 100 Cellar Selections of 2020"
There is a visceral assumption in America that white wines (or at least dry white wines) should be drunk young. This may be true for many white grapes, but there is a long list of exceptions. Still, Wine Enthusiast deserves serious kudos for including so many whites in this year's Top 100 Cellar Selections list: 20 dry whites in all, not counting five sparkling wines and two sweet whites. Those selections are drawn from grapes you would expect (Riesling, Semillon, and Chardonnay, from multiple regions) as well as those you might not (Gruner-Veltliner, Albarino, and Garagnega). And it's great to see the 2017 Esprit de Tablas Blanc bringing Roussanne and Rhone-style to that party. This summer, we opened and tasted every vintage of our Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc and Esprit de Tablas Blanc for our annual summer vertical tasting, and the longevity of the wines really stood out. In my notes from the tasting, I shared that the list of favorites spanned nearly two decades:

I asked everyone around the table to pick four favorites, and the wines that got multiple votes were 2001 (3), 2006 (3), 2009 (3), 2013 (2), and 2017 (5). But there were wonderful vintages that didn't get "favorite" votes too. The wines do change and evolve, and you should do your best to explore if you prefer your Esprit Blancs older, younger, or somewhere in the middle. But across the board, we thought that they were great showcases for the texture, richness, structure, spice and minerality we think this property imbues in our white wines.

Rhone-style whites can age well, as a rule, but do so a little differently than many of the whites that are famously ageworthy. Grapes like Riesling or Chablis-style Chardonnay age based on their acidity, with texture playing a secondary role. Rhone whites, particularly Roussanne, age based on their texture, with acidity almost irrelevant. The 2017 Esprit Blanc is intensely Roussanne in character, with density, structure, and texture galore, and flavors of honey and mineral that we expect to deepen into caramel and nuts over time.

2018 Esprit Blanc in Wine & Spirits "Top 100 Wines of 2020"
Wine & Spirits Magazine does their Top 100 a little differently than most. In addition to a list of wines, they publish a list of Top 100 Wineries. We were proud to be a part of this year's list. And in their list of wines (which I can't find online anywhere, though there's a link to the issue in which it appears) they don't rank them. Instead, they choose the best wines from various categories throughout the year. That ensures that instead of a list with a dozen Napa Cabernets, or white Burgundies, or German Rieslings represented, a broad range of types of wines and regions of origin is represented.

We were excited to see one of our wines make the list for the second year in a row. Last year it was the 2016 Esprit de Tablas. This year, it was the 2018 Esprit de Tablas Blanc honored as "Best California White Blend". As I find generally true of Wine & Spirits' reviews, Patrick Comiskey's tasting note is almost lyrical:

Tablas Creek's top white has been roussanne-dominant for several vintages now, and they've learned how to capture the variety's elegant fleshiness without letting it get blowsy, propping it up with higher-acid whites, like grenache blanc, picpoul, clairette, and picardan. This wine smells of apple pulp and honey at first go, giving up little but seductive texture. On the second day open, the wine becomes grand, the weight of roussanne comfortable and powerful, with a lemony, crisp apple contour.

94-95 point Reviews for 2018 Esprit Blanc from Vinous, BevX, Owen Bargreen, and Blue Lifestyle
Sometimes a wine will really resonate with one reviewer, but not so much with others. It's been noteworthy to see the consistency of the reviews that the 2018 Esprit Blanc has gotten. The 93 from Wine & Spirits Magazine (a famously conservative grader) was good enough to get it into their Top 100 wines of the year, and the other recent scores the wine has gotten have been a point or two higher. Each reviewer pulls something different out of the wine, but the consistent mid-90s scores that the wine has received the last couple of vintages feels like a small but significant step up from what we've seen before. I won't bother repeating the different notes, but if you're curious, they're all linked from the 2018 Esprit Blanc's page on our website.

2017 Esprit Blanc in Bloomberg's "Top 10 Wines of 2020"
Top 100 is great. But top 10? That's new territory for us, for any of our wines. So when we saw that the 2017 Esprit Blanc had made Elin McCoy's Top 10 Wines of 2020 list for Bloomberg, alongside icons like Krug and Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, we were floored. Even better, her description of the wine and of Tablas Creek encapsulates maybe better than any other short profile we've gotten what we're all about:

This showstopping California blend of five white Rhône varieties from Paso Robles is a vivid reminder that you don’t have to compromise on quality to support wineries consciously working to make the world a better place. The stunning Esprit de Tablas white has salty minerality; zesty acidity; rich, complex flavors; and serious aging potential—a grand wine for a reasonable price. Tablas Creek became the world’s first Regenerative Organic Certified winery this year, embracing a new comprehensive program that includes social responsibility for its workers.

A "grand wine for a reasonable price"? That's an epitaph any wine would want on its Hall of Fame plaque. And from my perspective, it couldn't happen for a more deserving wine we make, or at a better time.

Cheers, everyone.


Can rosé wines age? It depends on the grapes they're made from.

Over the weekend, I saw a really nice review of our 2017 Dianthus Rosé on Kerry Winslow’s Grapelive blog. I found it interesting that Kerry, although he loved it, felt like he needed to address it being a 2017, adding the comment that it "is last years wine, but still vibrant and the maturity hasn’t slowed down this fabulous wine". I don't think you'd find a caveat like this for a white wine, and a 2017 would be considered maybe even too young to drink for most reds. But it gets at a common perception of rosés: that they need to be drunk the year that they’re released.

Is it true? There are definitely some, maybe even many, rosés for which I'd say yes. But, and this is important, like reds and whites, the grape(s) that the wine is made with matters. The dominant model for rosés is that of Provence, which is based on Grenache, always an oxidative grape, and they tend to have very pale colors from minimal time in contact with the skins. In the cellar at Tablas Creek, we are careful to keep even red Grenache away from too much oxygen. We ferment it in stainless steel or large wooden tanks, and avoid 60-gallon barriques (what you probably think of as a “normal” wine barrel) for aging. And you'd expect a rosé made from Grenache to have a shorter aging curve. Tannins act as a preservative in wine. So, if you start with Grenache, already an oxidative grape, and pull it early off the skins, which are the source of a wine’s tannins, you're likely to end up with something that’s even less resistant to oxidation. My experience with most Provence rosés (and the American rosés that are modeled off them) bears that out. The wines are at their best the summer after they’re made. The best ones are still good the next summer, but they’ve already started to fade.

But it’s equally important to remember that Provence is not the world’s (or even France’s) only rosé tradition. Bandol, arguably the source of the world’s greatest rosés, uses Mourvèdre as the lead grape. And Mourvèdre is a very different beast from Grenache. In our cellar, we do everything we can to make sure we get Mourvèdre air. We ferment it in open-top fermenters. We age it in oak, and still have to make sure to rack it fairly often so it doesn’t get reductive. Some of that comes from Mourvèdre’s skins, but not all does. And it's worth mentioning that, depending on how your rosé is made, it's going to get at least some of the tannins (and their powers of preservation) from the skins. In the case of our Dianthus, the juice spends between 24 and 36 hours on the skins, giving it a deep pink color and providing a hint of tannic bite that brings counterpoint to the wine's lush fruit.

Two roses for Nov 2019 feature

I remember learning, to my surprise, that as recently as a decade ago many Bandol estates didn’t even release their rosés until the fall after harvest, because they felt that the wines took that much time to really open up and come into their own. I don't think that happens much any more. Producers in the (dominant) Provence model compete to be first into the market in the springtime to lock up the lucrative summer rosé placements, which has created a market and consumer expectation that you want the newest, freshest rosé you can find. That means that for a tradition like Bandol, even if the wine is better in the fall, a producer is likely to make a market-driven calculation that they should release the wine early.

Although the growth of the rosé market has meant that it's more of a year-round item on wine lists, there is still definitely a rosé high season in the spring and summer, and restaurants and retailers all look to feature the newest vintage. So, there are three significant disincentives against fall releases. First, you're releasing a wine into a market that is saturated with earlier releases (many of whom are likely looking to close out any remaining inventory with deep discounts). Second, you're releasing a wine into a category that is going off season. And third, by the time the season opens back up in the springtime, you look like old inventory compared to the new crop of the next year's rosés.

But those market realities don't change the fact that the fall release tradition gets at something important about rosés made from these oxidation-resistant grapes. They improve in bottle, are likely just reaching their peak in the cooler fall and winter seasons, and can be just as good or even better the next summer. Their deeper flavors also make for better matches with the richer foods of chillier seasons.

Dianthus in the snow

That’s why seeing a review like this for this wine makes me happy. It recognizes that these rosés can improve with time in bottle, and can be great winter wines. In our tasting room, we switch in October from showcasing our Patelin Rosé (which we poured for guests in spring and summer) to our Dianthus, which we'll continue to feature through the fall and into the winter, as long as it lasts. It also helps people learn that rosés are not a uniform category, and different base grapes produce different profiles and different life paths, like with reds and whites. For all the growth of the rosé category, the idea that rosés can be diverse is still something that’s not well enough understood.


So, what makes people join a wine club, anyway?

I had a first for me a couple of weeks ago: I closed the deal on a wine club signup via Twitter:

Twitter thread club signup

This wasn't a Herculean feat; it sounds like Amber LeBeau, who writes the SpitBucket.Net blog, was interested already.  I just connected the last few dots.  But I was fascinated to read the blog that she posted the next day, about why she signed up.  After all, there are thousands of American wineries, most of whom have wine clubs, and thousands more clubs available from retailers, magazines, newspapers, and even NPR.

Now we spend a lot of our time thinking about how to make our wine club (or, more accurately, wine clubs, since we offer three different flavors) as appealing as possible.  We research how other wineries who we respect craft their club offerings.  And we try to listen (and to ask) our own customers about what they want out of a club.  Still, each customer's reason for joining a club is ultimately personal, and what may be appealing to one customer may matter only a little to another. In Amber's piece, she outlines three main factors she uses in deciding whether to sign up for a club or not:

  • How easy can I get your wines at home?
  • How many bottles am I committing myself to?
  • How likely is the style of wine going to change?

Happily, we fared well on all three factors. While some of our core wines are available in Amber's hometown of Seattle, we make more than a dozen wines each year that don't make it into distribution, many of which are exclusively available to wine club members.  We think of our wine club as an introduction to our wines, not a means to move large quantities, and so typically send out twelve different bottles per year, six in the spring and six in the fall.  And we are family-owned, with so much continuity in our philosophy and winemaking team that we've had the same winemaker for more than two decades. So, we passed. (Thank you, Amber!)

Still, because of this conversation and the blog that resulted, I've spent more time than usual recently thinking about what makes for a great wine club.  I thought I'd put my thoughts down here, and encourage you to chime in in the comments if you think there are things I've under- or over-emphasized, or that I've missed entirely.

  • Wines that you love, consistently. This is, I think, the core of it all. If a winery makes wines that you love across the board the chances of you loving what they choose to send you is a lot greater than if you like a few wines a lot and others less.
  • Wines you otherwise can't get. I think it's important that there be wines that are made especially for club members (or, at least, set aside exclusively for club members). When we started, and our wine club was small, this was easy. Now, we have to plan for it, and make wines that we know are going to be dedicated to our members.  This can be lots of fun. [Read, if you haven't, our blog from last spring about making a new wine around Terret Noir for our club members.]
  • Savings. Now, maybe if your wine is otherwise unavailable (i.e. all sold on allocation) this isn't a key.  Getting the wine at all is the important thing.  But for most wineries, you don't have to be a member to get their wine.  Making sure that club members get good prices on what they buy is really important.  There's not much that will make a member into an ex-member faster than seeing your wine sold cheaper than they can get it at a nearby store.
  • Special treatment. I think "club" is the key word here.  You want to know that when you visit a place where you're a member, you'll be treated like an insider.  There's not one specific way in which this has to be done.  But knowing that you'll get more than the basic experience everyone else gets is important.
  • Flexibility & convenience. I've lumped these two things together, because while they're probably not positive decision factors, they can definitely be deal-breakers. A shipment every two months? Probably not a convenience if you have to be home to sign for the packages. A single set configuration which can't be adjusted depending on your likes? Probably ditto (though less so if you really love all the wines). And any particular wine in quantity? Probably less appealing than a variety.
  • Fun other opportunities to connect. Whether this includes member-only days at the winery, excursions (hey, how about a Rhone River cruise?), or just making the point of sending out information and invitations to club members when you're doing an event in their neck of the woods, opportunities to connect outside the tasting room can be lots of fun for everyone.

We are always honored when someone joins one of our wine clubs. It's a meaningful gesture of faith in what we do that a customer will give us their credit card and say, in essence, we trust you to pick some wines we'll love. We want always to make sure that we're worthy of that trust, and are proud that our wine club members stay members for more than three times the industry average. If you have things that you particularly value in a club membership that I haven't mentioned, or another way you look at value, please share it in the comments.

And, once more, to any members out there, thank you.


San Luis Obispo County: the Little County that Could

This week, the San Luis Obispo Tribune posted a nice article pointing out the terrific representation of San Luis Obispo County in the two most influential year-end "Top 100" lists published by the Wine Spectator and by the Wine Enthusiast.  The Wine Spectator included seven local wines in their Top 100, while the Wine Enthusiast added three more in their Top 100.  Let's stop and think about this for a moment.  That's 10 of the 200 wines represented in the two lists from our little county, or 5%.  And even better that most of the wines listed were toward the tops of the lists. Already pretty satisfying, right? It's actually even better than that.

Tablas Creek Long View 2014

How much wine does San Luis Obispo County make, compared to the rest of the state, country, and world?  In 2016, San Luis Obispo County ranked seventh in the state of California by bearing acreage according to the USDA:

  • San Joaquin: 68,210
  • Sonoma: 58,007
  • Monterey: 44,095
  • Napa: 43,589
  • Fresno: 37,831
  • Madera: 32,763
  • San Luis Obispo: 31,480

Overall, our county represents 6.8% of the 459,629 bearing acres in the state of California.  So, 5% doesn't seem like that great a representation.1  But of course, not all the wines in the two "Top 100" lists are from California. In fact, just 39 of the 200 wines in the two lists (17 in Wine Enthusiast and 22 in Wine Spectator) are from California.  So, that's 25.6% of the state's "Top 100" representatives that come from SLO County.  Not bad.

Perhaps you'd prefer to look at what percentage of American wine our little county represents?  Opening up the list to wines from Washington, Oregon, and New York adds an additional 22 wines.  That reduces SLO County's percentage from 25.6% to 16.4%, still well above the 3.45% of the country's total production that San Luis Obispo County represents.2

Or perhaps you're prefer to look internationally.  In 2015, the United States produced 10.48% of the world's wine.  So, San Luis Obispo County produced 0.36% of the world's wine: just one out of every 277 bottles made.  That means that in the two "Top 100" lists, the 5% that SLO County represents is overperforming by something like 14 times, measured as our percentage of world production. 

However you choose to measure it, we punched way above our weight class in 2017.

You go, San Luis Obispo County.

Footnotes:
1. It's actually a little better than it sounds, since although SLO County represents 6.8% of California's acres, it represents something less than that of its production. That's because coastal regions like ours generally produce many fewer tons per acre than counties in the Central Valley.  Figuring out by how much is a little tricky, since production isn't tracked by county, only by Grape District.  In the California Grape Crush Report for 2016, District 8, which includes San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, and Ventura Counties, produced 224,584 tons.  If SLO County represents the same 67% of tonnage that it represents of the district's bearing acreage, which seems reasonable, it would produce 150,471 tons, or about 3.7% of the state's 4,031,000 total tons produced.

2. This calculation required a bit of cross-referencing, since grape acreage statistics in states outside California, Washington, Oregon, and Texas are hard to come by.  I used instead the tons estimate I calculated in the above footnote, and calculated the percentage of total national production based on the Wine Institute's data that California represents roughly 85% of the United States' total national production.


Should a Vermentino ever get 98 points?

Yesterday, we posted to our Twitter feed a great review that our 2016 Vermentino received from the trade publication BevX:

I then had a brief exchange on Twitter with Sean Ludford, who runs BevX:

This got me thinking.  What is it about certain grapes or styles that allows them to be great?  I wondered how many Vermentinos had received 90+ scores from larger publications, so I looked in the Wine Spectator's database. They've scored 430 Vermentinos over the years. Of those, 17 have received 90+ scores, including just two 91s and one 92.  That's less than 4% of the Vermentinos reviewed (which, presumably, are the better ones) that received an "outstanding" or "classic" score.

Thinking about other grapes that fit a similar profile (bright, crisp, generally best drunk young) I looked up Picpoul. Of the 60 that they tasted, only one (from our neighbors here in Paso Robles, Adelaida Cellars) got a 90.  That's 1.7%.

Going more into the mainstream, Chardonnay returns 25,485 results in the Wine Spectator database.  Of these, 5,206 have received 90+ ratings (20.4%).   Sauvignon Blanc returns 10,706 results, with 935 (8.7%) receiving 90+ scores. Pinot Grigio returns 2,204 results, but only 82 90+ scores (3.7%).

Rhone whites as a whole score well.  Take Roussanne, for example.  Of the 456 Roussannes reviewed by the Wine Spectator over the years, 70 (15.4%) received 90+ ratings, with our 2014 Roussanne being one of three that topped the list at 93 points. Viognier has 362 90+ wines out of 2,404 (15.1%).  Marsanne has 33 90+ scores out of 269 wines (12.3%). And Grenache Blanc, which only returns 212 results, has 24 90+ scores, four of them ours (11.3%). Only Picpoul is an outlier here.

So, what does it mean that 20+% of Chardonnays can be "outstanding" or "classic", 11-15% of most of the Rhone whites, but only 4% of Vermentinos?  I think there are a few factors at play.

  • Ageworthiness. I do think that reviewers put a premium on wines that can be aged into something greater than they were in their youth. This makes some sense to me. A truly great wine should be interesting over time, and assume different personalities. Just as a great book is something that you want to return to at different stages of your life, and from which you can gather different insights depending on your own life experiences. Vermentino, as beautiful as it can be, is not a wine that we think improves with time in bottle.
  • Richness. There also seems to be a correlation between a wine's body and high scores.  Most Rhone whites (with the possible exception of Grenache Blanc) show a lot of body. And even Grenache Blanc can have plenty of body; it's just balanced by high acids.  But grapes that are lighter in body, like Picpoul or Pinot Grigio (or Vermentino) tend not to be treated the same way.  Sauvignon Blanc, which can be made richer but is typically bright and lean, falls somewhere in between.  If we were able to taste the styles of the highest-rated wines in the category, I would guess that they'd tend toward the richer side of the grape's spectrum. Here is a case where I think there's room to debate. Is there a place for rich wines? Of course. But I know that I value refreshment in wine as much as I do power. And yes, great wines should offer at least some of both.
  • Oak. What else distinguishes white wines with more body from those with less? The more substantial wines are more likely to have been fermented in oak, and to have a higher percentage of that oak be new. Does this mean that a category that typically isn't made with oak has to be oaked to get high scores? I hope not. You're starting to see this with some luxury rosé cuvées, most visibly Chateau d'Esclans, whose top-of-the-line Garrus rosé, aged in new and one-year-old French oak, has on its Web page a litany of reviews calling it the "best rosé in the world". But is the wine better, or is it the oak that tells people they should value it more? I think it's at least partly the latter. I tasted Garrus along the other three tiers from Chateau d'Esclans, and I preferred the freshness of the less expensive wines to the creamy oakiness of the elite levels, not least because the oak to me worked against the freshness and charm that I look for in rosés. That said, the richer style clearly has its adherents. A grape like Vermentino is not likely to be put into new barrels, and thank heavens for that. But the sweet spice and weight that new oak brings to a wine is at least a part of what cues reviewers to identify wines as elite.
  • Provenance. Looking at the scores, the percentage of high scores is correlated with the percentage of each wine that is made in California. Now, before I dive into this potential land mine, let me make it clear that I do not believe that California wines are held to a different (lower) standard, that the Wine Spectator is biased in favor of California, or that all California wines are better than wines from the Old World.  That said, I do believe that California winemakers have taken a new look at many grapes which in the Old World were made in a certain way by tradition.  Take Picpoul:
    • In France, the Picpouls (mostly from the Pinet region, in Languedoc) are generally produced plentifully, harvested early with modest sugars, fermented fast and bottled young to showcase the wines' bright acids.  And they are all so cheap (generally under $10 retail) that there is little opportunity or incentive to innovate.
    • At Tablas Creek, we farm the same grape at lower yields, in a climate with colder nights, and those combine to produce wines with just as much acidity, but more concentration and texture than the French versions.
    • It's noteworthy that just 9 of the 70 Picpouls are from California, and yet most of the ones that received the high scores were. Same with Vermentino: just 9 of the 430 reviews are for California wines (6 of these are ours).
    • Are the wines principally different because of climate? Sure, in part. But I think it's at least as much in the freedom that we have from tradition, and the higher price point of most California wines, that has encouraged and rewarded a new approach to these formerly unfashionable grapes.
    • The wines with longer histories in California have more reviews but tell the same story; thirty of Roussanne's seventy 90+ scores come from California.

Ultimately, the ceiling score for wines is determined by the accumulated reputation of a category over the years.  And I don't think this is a bad thing, or that all grapes are created equal. Cabernet, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir command the world's highest prices and the lion's share of many magazines' top scores because the market has decided that their best examples are worth the high prices they command. Is there an extent to which this is tradition? Sure. But these are great grapes, which have proved their value and reputation over generations. There is a reason why I reach for a Chardonnay a lot more often than I do for a Pinot Grigio, and I don't want to suggest that the same percentage of every grapes should receive 90+ scores.

That said, remember that loving unfashionable grapes is a tremendous opportunity to enjoy a category's great examples on the cheap.  What the best Chardonnays from Montrachet or Cabernets from Napa Valley will set you back can be measured in hundreds or thousands of dollars.  This 98-point Vermentino?  $27, and less since June is the month it is our featured wine.

In the end, I find it refreshing to think that a grape can be celebrated for being outstanding in its own right and not bump up against some glass ceiling of worthiness. Is there really no such thing as a "classic" Vermentino"? Maybe not, if the definition of a classic is one that will stand the test of time; I know I'm going to try to drink all my 2016 Vermentino before the 2017 is even picked. But I hope there is the opportunity to identify a wine that is outstanding at a moment in time, even if (especially if) it's now the best it will ever be.  And as Sean Ludford said in his last tweet, "excellence is excellence".  Amen to that.