Celebrating 25 years of Dianthus… and the return of rosés with color

A couple of weeks ago, I got an email from two of my wine writing heroes, Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher, long time wine columnists for the Wall Street Journal, creators of “Open that Bottle Night” and authors of Love by the Glass1. They had brought a bottle of our Dianthus to New York’s Central Park to enjoy with the recent solar eclipse. They were sufficiently intrigued with the wine to reach out to learn its story. We talked for a half-hour, and our conversation became a really fun article on their site Grape Collective.

There’s a lot to talk about with regards to the Dianthus, not least because it is an anomalous rosé, at least according to current style. Much more popular and commonly seen are the rosés from or inspired by Provence, typically very pale copper-pink. These are rosés that are made essentially like white wines, where the character is determined by the flesh of the grapes with only minimal influence from the grape skins. Our Patelin de Tablas Rosé follows this model. But not the Dianthus.

Two 2023 Roses

Instead, the Dianthus looks to a different model, which also originated in the south of France. Just across the Rhone River, to the west of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, lies the rosé-only appellation of Tavel. Tavel’s wines, made from a list of grapes very similar to that of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, typically receive 24 hours or more on the skins and have a deeper pink color than anything you’d find in Provence. After all, the Tavel region is warmer than the more coastally-influenced Provence, and with that warmth comes weight and richness. To balance that richness, wineries traditionally leave the grapes on the skins for longer, to take advantage of the tannic bite present in skins but not the grape flesh. This skin contact produces a different suite of flavors, typically more red fruited and with richer texture than Provence-style dry rosés, which tend toward citrus fruit and lighter body. That textural complexity also lends itself to pairing with food2, while Provençal rosés tend to be enjoyed more solo. 

We began making the Dianthus 25 years ago, back in 1999, thanks to my mom. She decided that it was crazy that we were growing these grapes that made such lovely rosés in France and not at least making some to drink ourselves. This was before there was any significant market in the United States for dry rosé. The whole category had been so thoroughly kidnapped by white Zinfandel that the baseline assumption was that if a wine was pink, it was sweet. I remember pleading with guests who visited our tasting room in those early days to just try the rosé, that it wasn’t going to be sweet, and that it was included in the tasting. I usually had to tell the whole story about how we started making it (thanks, Mom) and how rosé was as important a part of the production of the wines of the Rhone region as whites or reds. Gradually, over the course of the 2000s, dry rosés from France started to make inroads into the American market, and by the early 2010s the Provençal model was dominant, in part because its exceptionally pale color signified to people that it was dry and not sweet. Darker pink rosés became rarer and rarer. We introduced our Patelin de Tablas Rosé in 2012, and within a few years its production had outstripped that of the Dianthus. But we kept making Dianthus, which I think more than a few people thought was crazy. Making one dry rosé in California was progressive enough. I’m not aware of any other California winery that has a decade of history making two.

I myself can go months without spending much time thinking about Dianthus. It gets a flurry of my attention around our spring VINsider Wine Club shipment, when we typically release it to members. We allocate a little for wholesale as well, but that quantity is so small (this year, it was just 112 cases) and it tends to sell out so fast that I don’t often overlap with its presence on my trips to work with distributors in our key markets. But it happened that I spent a lot of time with the 2023 Dianthus over the last week. I started the week with three days of market work in and around Seattle and finished it at Hospice du Rhone, which was held in Walla Walla this year. Our Washington State distributor chose to bring in a few of those 112 cases, so we were showing it alongside the 2023 Patelin de Tablas Rosé. At Hospice du Rhone, the Dianthus was one of the six wines Neil and I chose to pour:

Jason and Neil at Hospice du Rhone 2024

The reactions that the Dianthus received were fascinating. During my three Seattle days, it generated more questions than any other wine in the lineup we were showing, and we had to pull it out of what we were presenting on Thursday because we’d already taken enough pre-orders on Tuesday and Wednesday to exhaust what the distributor had ordered. The general consensus was that it would be a hand-sell to customers, but the restaurants and wine shops were so intrigued by the wine’s food-pairing possibilities that it was a wine that they wanted to make the effort to get into people’s hands (and mouths). At Hospice du Rhone, which included a master class and rosé lunch featuring the wines of Tavel, the color and style of the Dianthus didn’t even raise much commentary. For that audience – always a bellwether for where the most committed Rhone lovers are going – the deeper color and richer flavors were taken in stride. If someone did ask about it, a quick reference to Tavel and a reminder that Tavel is a lot closer to Chateauneuf-du-Pape than Provence is usually helped the taster wrap their head around what we were going for. And I think that the Dianthus got the most re-tastes of anything on the table except the 2005 Esprit de Beaucastel.

What does this all mean? I think it’s both a great piece of evidence in the cyclical nature of the wine market and a sign that the American rosé market may be getting to be mature enough to accept some stylistic variation. I’ve been preaching to the restaurants that I visit this spring that there is enough sophistication among rosé-lovers that they should offer multiple rosés by-the-glass. Sure, have your Provence standby. But also offer something that is a contrast, either because of its region or its style. After all, a wine-focused restaurant would never have just one white wine by the glass, or just one red. At our tasting room, we’ve been pouring our own two rosés in our Spring Tasting Flight for the last several weeks, and it’s fascinating seeing how different people gravitate toward one wine or the other.

I love both. But it’s been a while since I spent this much time thinking about them both. Cheers to 25 years of Dianthus, and an American wine market that continues to grow in sophistication. We’re finally back to a place that a rosé wine can be… pink.

Chelsea and two roses

Footnotes:

  1. I had one of my favorite Instagram Live conversations with Dorothy and John last May. If you missed it, it's in our archive, no Instagram account necessary.
  2. The Dianthus has provided some memorable pairings when I've hosted wine dinners. A particularly mind-blowing match was when, roughly a decade ago, Chef Julie Simon at Thomas Hill Organics paired it with a Moroccan spice-rubbed quail served alongside a salted watermelon and feta salad. 

Did tasting room sales ever fall off that cliff? No, but tasting room traffic is still hard to analyze because of pandemic echoes.

Back in April, in response to alarming headlines showing tasting room traffic down 22% statewide, I wrote a blog suggesting people wait to get a little deeper into the year before making sweeping judgments about the health of the tasting room economy. After all, the first quarter of this year had some of the most tourist-unfriendly weather in our history. I summarized the conditions in that blog:

There weren't many days that weren't rainy, and even those days weren't conducive to relaxing outside. March saw 20 days with measurable rainfall and an average high temperature of 56.9°F. There was only one weekend day with highs above 60°F and no rain. Combine that with headlines in every major California newspaper about extratropical cyclonesatmospheric riverslevee breaches, and evacuation orders, and it's no surprise that people decided to hunker down at home rather than braving the highways in search of wine experiences. It's frankly a wonder our tasting room traffic held up as well as it did.

And tasting room traffic did normalize starting in April. The second quarter was still down a bit, but the last two quarters have been more or less flat with 2022, and two of the last three months have seen increased traffic:

Tasting Room Traffic by Month  2023

It's important to remember that when you're looking at year-over-year numbers your results can be skewed either by what happened this year or by what happened last year. I was reminded of that phenomenon recently as I pulled together my 2023 harvest recap. It showed that our red production this year was up 34%, while our white production was up 55%. That seems like a remarkably good year, especially for whites, right? Maybe not. Our overall yields were right at our long-term averages, while our whites were actually below average. The improvement looks so dramatic because last year's numbers were so low.

So, what happened with tasting room traffic in 2022? It was great the first half of the year. I remember sitting with our Tasting Room Manager John Morris and remarking that we'd never seen a run like the one that we saw between mid-2021 and mid-2022. Every month was setting records, our tastings were booking up weeks in advance, and we were starting to think that we'd unlocked a new reality post-pandemic, where people's increased work flexibility and their discovery of the importance of work-life balance meant that regular visits to wine country were going to continue indefinitely.

That conversation sounds silly now. What we were seeing was a longer-than-expected period of exuberance after lockdowns ended and vaccines offered the promise of reemergence without undue risk. People took the vacations that they'd delayed for a year or more. Fueled by their newfound savings thanks to a year of restricted activity and major infusions of government relief checks, people were able to spend more freely on their leisure activities. And yet many people weren't ready to jump on a plane or a cruise ship and head overseas. The net result was a perfect storm encouraging wine country tourism in a place like Paso Robles.

But that perfect storm didn't last. Inflation started to take a toll on consumers' buying power as pandemic relief funds were drawing to a close. Employers started to require that their workers come back into the office more often. At the same time, those with the means to do so went on their long-delayed international trips and cruises. So visits to places like Paso Robles were squeezed on both ends: the budget-conscious consumer was cutting back at the same time as the highest-end vacationers were gone overseas. The relative weakness of most other global economies and the strength of the US dollar meant that visiting California was an expensive proposition for international tourists, so we weren't able to make up the lost business there (not that Paso Robles is a major international destination anyway). 

By mid-2022, wineries were seeing fewer customers, and those who visited were arriving with less buying power. At the same time, online ordering was seeing continued declines toward pre-pandemic levels. These trends were obscured in stories about 2022 because the first half of the year was so good and low yields in 2021 meant that wineries like us didn't have any extra wine to sell anyway. But as the trends continued into 2023 and were exacerbated by the wettest, stormiest winter in three decades, people started to notice. Sales fell sharply, and as I said in my April blog: it's a wonder they weren't down more.

The way this has played out was previewed in the Instagram Live conversation I had with Rob McMillan back in May. Rob is head of the Silicon Valley Bank wine division and the publisher of the bank's annual "State of the Wine Industry" report. In our conversation (embedded below) he downplayed the worries about the beginning to 2023 as still a residual echo of the Covid pandemic. He shared that he thought it might be another year or two before we knew what the "new normal" was, and before year-over-year data was reliable again.

So what does it mean that the last five months have been more or less flat with 2022? It's less positive than you might think. I know that I don't feel a lot better about our results the last quarter (flat compared to a down period) than I did about the results in the first quarter (down from a great period). But I do think that we're nearing the end of the travel impacts of the post-pandemic world. Airline ticket prices have been trending down the last few months. Cruise lines are offering deals to try to fill up their cabins. In the short term, these offer more competition to a trip to California wine country. But in the long run, they're a sign that we're getting back to a more normal tourist environment.

This isn't to say that there aren't long-term threats to wine country tourism on the horizon. I'm keeping an eye on issues like the changing demographics of wine consumers, the high cost of wine country visits, and revised guidelines from the WHO promoting total abstinence from alcohol. But those will play out in future years.

Meanwhile, the year-over-year data is going to be wonky for at least another six months. Remember that when you see announcements about how tasting room traffic is up sharply in early 2024. That's not news; it's an echo of a data anomaly the previous year, which itself was at least in part one last ripple effect of the Covid pandemic.


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.


Are tasting room sales really falling off a cliff? Not exactly.

On Monday when I got into the office I was greeted with an alarming headline from WineBusiness.com, the wine trade's most-read publication: Are Direct to Consumer Wine Sales Falling off a Cliff? This headline was based on a report published by Community Benchmark, a company that aggregates winery tasting and sales data to provide insights to wineries, regional associations, and wine media. It had already gotten some high-profile attention over the weekend, with industry guru Paul Mabray presenting it as evidence on Twitter that wineries need to be thinking about other ways of customer acquisition beyond their tasting room:

It's a scary thought, that tasting room visitation was down 22% in March and 21% YTD across the nine regions Community Benchmark covers. And our own tasting room traffic was down 22% in March, exactly on trend with the broader community. But I think there's good reason to expect that data to improve, and fast. After the coldest, wettest winter in the last three decades, as the calendar turned from March to April, spring arrived here in California. But March was definitely more wintery than spring-like:

Winter Rainfall by Month vs Average 2022-23

There weren't many days that weren't rainy, and even those days weren't conducive to relaxing outside. March saw 20 days with measurable rainfall and an average high temperature of 56.9°F. There was only one weekend day with highs above 60°F and no rain. Combine that with headlines in every major California newspaper about extratropical cyclones, atmospheric rivers, levee breaches, and evacuation orders, and it's no surprise that people decided to hunker down at home rather than braving the highways in search of wine experiences. It's frankly a wonder our tasting room traffic held up as well as it did. This is in stark contrast to the spring of 2022, where we saw only six rainy days in January, February, and March combined. That wasn't ideal for the vines, but it was great for winery visitation.

This chart combines our high and low temperatures and the daily rainfall for each day since the beginning of March:

Temperature & Rainfall March - April 2023

The contrast between March and April couldn't be more dramatic. The rain ended. Average high temperatures have been 69.2°F, about 13°F warmer than April. This nicer weather has been reflected in the percentage of people who've chosen to sit outside for their tastings here. In March it was just 45% of people who chose to be outside. Since April began, that number has risen to 87%. And our tasting room traffic has rebounded nicely, up 1% over 2022 since the beginning of April.

Sure, there are potential threats to the tasting room model on the horizon, both short-term ones like inflation and the slowing economy, and longer-term threats like changing demographics of wine consumers and the high cost of wine country visits. But I don't think that's the primary cause of what we've seen so far this year. For that, just look to the skies. 

Poppies on our tasting patio

Happy spring, everyone.


What's the most useless glass bottle? One that never leaves the winery.

Last week, I walked out of my office on my way to the mezzanine level of our cellar, on which we keep a few cases of each of our bottled-but-not-yet-released wines. I was looking for samples of our 2022 Patelin de Tablas Rosé, 2022 Dianthus, and 2022 Vermentino, to write tasting notes for our website in anticipation of the wines' release announcements. 

[Pause for a moment. Hooray for new wines! We've never been as scarce on wine as these past couple of months. I am always excited for the release of our rosés, but it's all the more exciting this year. If you've been looking disconsolately at our online shop as I have, wishing most of the wines didn't say "sold out", the cavalry is, at long last, on its way.]

I got about halfway to the mezzanine before I realized I didn't have to open a bottle. I took a right turn into our tasting room, walked up to the new tap system we installed last month, and poured myself tastes of each of the three wines out of keg. No bottle necessary.

Taps in the tasting room

We're long-time advocates for wine in keg. I wrote back in 2010 on the blog about how much potential the format had, but how frustrating it was that the industry hadn't settled on a standard for keg size and connection yet. By 2013 things had evolved enough that I could celebrate the launch of a national keg program for our Patelin de Tablas, Patelin de Tablas Blanc, and Patelin de Tablas Rosé. And in 2020 we expanded that with small batches of kegs of some of the wines normally only available in our tasting room. Why we're excited boils down to three main reasons:

  • Freshness: The wine that is poured out of a keg is replaced by an inert gas, which means that what remains in the keg isn't exposed to oxygen. A bottle, on the other hand, starts oxidizing as soon as it is opened. Roughly half the glasses of wine I order at restaurants show some signs of oxidation... but not if they're served from keg.
  • Less Waste: Restaurants expect to dump out the unused ends of most opened bottles at the end of each night, and the rest of any bottle that's been open multiple days. This adds up; restaurants I've spoken to estimate they may waste 25% or more of their glass pours this way. Keg wines are good down to their last pour.
  • Sustainability: The bottles, capsules, corks and labels that help preserve, identify and market a wine between barrel and glass are temporary enclosures, that will be discarded when the bottle is consumed. That's a lot of resources tied up in something whose only purpose is to be used and (hopefully) recycled or (more often) thrown away. Kegs eliminate all this wasted packaging. When they're empty, they get returned to be washed and reused. Free Flow Wines, our partner in our national kegging program, recently shared the results of a study showing that reusable stainless steel kegs offer a 76% savings in carbon footprint vs. packaging the same wine in bottles. 

In 2022, our distributors sold roughly 640 of our kegs to restaurants and wine bars around the country. Earlier this week we shared a photo of our new tap handles on social media, and got a lot of excited customer responses and a few inquiries from accounts interested in pouring the wines on tap. Perfect.

If you're a regular reader of the blog, you will know that we've been working to be more selective about our use of glass wine bottles. If not, you might be wondering why we're looking for alternatives, given that it's a package with thousands of years of history, made from a product that should be endlessly recyclable, and still the best vessel for long-term aging. Here's a quick summary. Because glass is energy-intensive to mine and mold -- and heavy and fragile to ship -- it accounts for more than half the carbon footprint of the average California winery. It's also bulky. You can reduce glass's packaging footprint by about 20% by moving to lightweight glass, which we did in 2010, but that's still 350% of the footprint of a lighter-weight package like bag-in-box. We've been experimenting with that, and while I think it's a step in the right direction for some wines, it's still a single-use package, requires the creation of some plastic, and isn't great for storage much longer than six months. The glass bottle would be less problematic if it were recycled reliably (it's not; the glass recycling rate in the United States is a dismal 31%) and could become a preferred solution again if we could figure out some sort of wash-and-reuse system along the lines of what soda producers do in Latin America. There are smart people working on this, but the logistical hurdles are daunting and it still seems a long way off. So while we don't expect to move our ageworthy wines out of glass bottle, we've been looking for ways to help at the margins.  

Kegs, filled through our partnership with Free Flow, accounted for 12% of the total volume of wine that we sold wholesale last year, and meant that more than 16,000 wine bottles, capsules, and corks/capsules/screwcaps, plus the cardboard needed for more than 1,300 cases, never needed to be created. That's not negligible. But what about our tasting room? We welcomed more than 28,000 guests for tastings last year, and we sell about the same amount of wine there as we do in wholesale. Those guests got six or seven tastes of wine each. Do the math on that and that's a bottle of wine for every four tasting room guests, or enough wine just for guest samples to fill 7,000 bottles. Add in that we taste each bottle when we open it to make sure it's sound, that we use the same bottles to pour by-the-glass wines in our tasting room, that we often discard the ends of bottles rather than hold them overnight for the next day, and that, to ensure that guests get only fresh wine, rarely-poured wines get sent home with our tasting room team after a few days even if they're mostly full, and you end up with a significantly larger number: the nearly 13,000 bottles that we signed out of inventory as tasting room samples in 2022.

Let that sink in a bit. We used more than 1,000 cases of wine just to pour tasting room samples. Some of those pours were of older wines, where their time in bottle would make a difference in how they showed, but nearly 70% of what we sampled out was used within a year of when it was bottled. That's ~9,000 bottles that were sourced, shipped to us, filled, closed, labeled, opened, poured, and recycled within a year. 

So I'm pleased to announce that we've sourced kegs, filling and cleaning machines for the cellar, and a modular dispensing system for the tasting room. At each bottling, we'll be setting aside a portion of each wine, putting it in keg. Last week's batch:

Kegs of Patelin Rose for Tasting Room

The initial reviews we've been getting from our tasting room guests have been enthusiastic. So, when you next come to taste with us, know that many of the samples we'll share with you will come out of our own kegs. As each keg is emptied, we'll wash and sterilize it, and then reuse it for a future wine. A photo of the setup, in use this morning:

Pouring from Tap in the Tasting Room

We're not expecting to ever get to 100% wine service from keg in our tasting room, and that's fine. We always want to be able to offer wines with bottle age for tasting and sale, and while kegs are outstanding at preserving wine, after a year or so we would expect that the wine from keg would taste different than the same wine from bottle. We'll be trying some small-scale experiments this year to confirm or modify those assumptions. But if we can shift two-thirds or more of our tasting room sampling and glass pours from glass to reusable keg, that's a win. A win for our guests, who don't have to worry about oxidation in their samples. A win for us, since we're estimating we'll go through something like one-third less wine, and we don't have to worry about those pours coming from corked, oxidized, or otherwise flawed wines. And a win for the planet, as thousands of glass bottles and all the associated packaging no longer have a reason to be created.

After all, if glass is a problematic container for the industry at large (don't just take my word for it; the mainstream press has noticed) it seems downright crazy to use it for such temporary storage.


Reflecting on 15 Years at Tablas Creek – An Interview with Three Familiar Faces

By Ian Consoli

2007 was a big year for Tablas Creek. It was a blockbuster vintage, one of the most intense (and highest-scoring) in our history. It was the first year we could ship to five new states (Florida, Maine, Michigan, South Carolina, and Vermont) as unconsititutional state laws were changed following the Granholm v Hield Supreme Court decision. Ohio and Nebraska would join the group later in 2007. Behind the scenes, the TTB was working through its internal issues that the submission of the Paso Robles sub-AVAs brought to light, and paving the way for the AVA map we know today. Our founder Robert Haas turned 80, and we saw great articles like this one in the San Francisco Chronicle celebrating his influential career.

It was also a milestone year because of who we brought on board the Tablas Creek team. Three people you likely know today started working here that year: including Senior Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi, Tasting Room Manager John Morris, and Director of Biodynamics Gustavo Prieto. They came to us from all over the world at different stages of their personal and professional lives. We decided to ask each of them to reflect on the past 15 years, from how they came here initially to how it's going today. Thank you, Chelsea, John, and Gustavo, for your 15 years of dedication to everything Tablas Creek!

Chelsea Franchi  John  Morris  Gustavo PrietoChelsea Franchi, John Morris, and Gustavo Prieto

Please state your name and position.

My name is Chelsea Franchi. I am the Senior Assistant Winemaker.

My name is John Morris. I am the Tasting Room Manager.

Gustavo Prieto, I am the Biodynamicist.

 

What brought you to Tablas Creek 15 Years ago?

I came tasting here with a friend from Cal Poly, which was a super mind-blowing experience. I was talking to somebody years ago at a Rhone Rangers event about how people tend to lean towards either Rhone reds or Rhone whites. Of course, you can love both of them, but one sucks you in early on. For me, it was Esprit Blanc here at Tablas. It started an absolute obsession with Rhone whites. So yeah, decided a few weeks after I came tasting here that I should apply for a job.

A couple of things. I had talked about working at Tablas Creek a couple of times, but there was nothing full-time available. When a position did open up, I went for it. I wanted to be here because the wine was more up my alley than most in Paso back then. I had come from Seattle, where I was mainly drinking European wines with lower alcohol and more nuance and finesse.

I was impressed by the wines and I wanted to learn more, so I decided to apply for a position. It was like all roads led to Tablas Creek.

John  Gustavo  and Chelsea working

What was your position title when you started?

Greeter? <laugh>. Basically a glorified hostess.

Tasting Room Manager! So, you know, I've made no progress in 15 years  <laughs>. I feel like I've had three jobs within the same position, really. There was my role before we expanded the tasting room in 2011, post-expansion, and now with the changes COVID-19 brought about. The job has evolved as we have grown.

Tasting room attendant.

Chelsea in TR 2007Chelsea working the register in our old tasting room

 Did you think you would still be here 15 years later?

I was still in college and didn't have the imagination to begin to dream that I could have ended up in the position I am in. So no, no I did not.

No. No, I didn't. If anybody would've told me when I walked in the door that I'd still be here in 15 years, I would've probably not believed them.

I hoped so!

Gustavo and John at a tasting in 2007Gustavo and John at a tasting in 2007

What kinds of wine were you drinking then and what are you mostly drinking now?

That's a really interesting question. To look back on it and try to compare and contrast. Back then, I drank a lot of entry-level reds from France, Spain, and Italy. They were less expensive, higher toned, with that brighter acidity and a little bit of grip to them. Cost was a huge factor because I was a college student. Now I'd say I probably drink more domestic stuff and explore more California wines. But obviously still plenty of wines from other countries.

I was mostly drinking red wines, especially Cabernet Sauvignon from Chile. Now I enjoy Rhone blends and varietals, reds, whites, and rosés. Also, red and white Burgundy, but I'm very open to all kinds of wines.

 What is the biggest change you have witnessed at Tablas Creek since you started?

I think the change at Tablas Creek is, more often than not, a progression of our core values. Seeing the introduction of new varieties in the vineyard and coming into the cellar. There is a harvest elation when a new variety hits the cellar door for the first time. Everybody has their camera phones out, taking videos of it going onto the sorting table and its first pump over. That excitement is so cool and so real. Also, the biodynamic and ROC certifications. And none of these beliefs are new to Tablas Creek, but we're making them bigger and better, continuing that ideology.

The size. I feel like the integrity has always been there and still is, which is super important to me. And the reason for being is the same, but, you know, when I started in the tasting room, I had six or seven employees. That has now grown to eight full-time employees and twenty-five total.

The continual evolution of our farming practices that keep pushing us toward greater sustainability, and seeing the evolution from organic to biodynamic and now the ROC certification.

Tasting Room team in 2007Tasting room staff at Tablas Creek Vineyard in 2007

What is the most significant change in your life over the past 15 years?

I feel like some of the biggest, most important things a human can do have happened since I started here. I got engaged, bought a house, got married, and had a baby. Yeah, like all of the great things <laugh>.

I got married and took on a few stepkids. No question, that's the biggest change.

Please share one of your favorite stories/memories from the past 15 years at Tablas Creek.

When I had been working here a week or two as a greeter, I was standing outside one sunny Saturday morning, and a… gruff-looking gentleman <laugh>, approached the front doors. It was a bustling weekend day and I, as kindly as I could, told the gentleman that we were busy and that he would need to come back some other time. He brushed past me without a second glance and said, "I'm the winemaker" <laugh>. It turned out to be winemaker Neil Collins, who lives on the property. I thought, 'well, it was a really good two-week run. I had a really good time, and now I'm fired.' Clearly, I wasn't fired, and now I work with Neil and I've worked with him for 15 years. He is like a father figure to me. Oh, the things we've overcome <laugh>.

This was some years ago, on a perfect Spring day during Hospice du Rhone, before we opened the new tasting room and things weren’t quite as busy or tightly scheduled as they are now.  10 or 12 French men and women, some with limited English, some with none, strolled into the tasting room and asked for a tour. Why not!  As we walked into the vineyard doing our best to communicate, it was revealed that I was hosting winemakers and vignerons from Domaine du Gros 'Noré, Domaine Clape, and another prominent property that escapes me, in town for Hospice.  Bear in mind that I was relatively new at this time, and certainly didn’t have the depth of knowledge to answer deep technical question about the vineyard or winemaking.  Good thing there was a language barrier!  Anyway, I did my best, I believe they were happy, and I again thanked my lucky stars for landing at Tablas Creek.

About 5 years ago, during our annual pig roast party, all of the sheep managed to knock down their fence, run down Vineyard drive, and up the neighbor's hill. Neil and I spent an hour chasing after them, finally bringing the last ones in after dark. It's funny now, not so much then!

Significant Life events in the past 15 yearsSignificant life events for Chelsea and John in the past 15 years

You have one Tablas Creek wine from any vintage to take to a deserted island. What's it going to be?

That one is really difficult, but I think it would have to be the 2003 Esprit de Beaucastel. That was one of the Esprits we were pouring in the tasting room when I started here. To this day, it still has the lushness, velvety texture, and chewy fruit, all of the elements that I loved about it then I still love about it today. And it's one of those really cool wines that just, I mean, all wines have the ability to transport you if you give them the opportunity, but that one especially takes me back to where I was in that moment of time. It's funny to look back on that wine and think how many things have changed. But that wine, the way I feel about it, has not.

2017 Esprit de Tablas Blanc. The Esprit Blanc tends to be my favorite wine in general because it is so unique and is almost always the best white wine in the region, and possibly even California some years. The 2017 is so complex. It's waxy, herbal, and spicy. But it's not too big or too rich. Good acidity, just super balanced wine.

Uf, that's a tough one, but if I have to choose one, it would be the 2005 Esprit de Beaucastel rouge.

Any parting thoughts?

The fact that I've known Gustavo and John for 15 years, and Neil, Jason and all of these people for 15 years is really special. Even people I met working in the tasting room that I still see today. Every time I walk into the tasting room or attend a Tablas Creek event, I meet somebody new and look forward to seeing them the next time they visit. We have such a great audience, and it's a true delight to make friends with everybody who comes through these doors. It's a really unique and special experience and I absolutely love that.

Yeah, I feel lucky to be here, to be part of the contributing team. It's been a really great 15 years.

2007 Chelsea Franchi  John  Morris  Gustavo PrietoThe earliest archived photos of Chelsea, John and Gustavo at Tablas Creek Vineyard

 


California Re-Opening: How COVID Changed our Tasting Room Model Going Forward

[Editor's Note: thanks to Director of Marketing Ian Consoli, who contributed many of the ideas we're implementing, including an early draft of this blog and its photos.]

Sometimes, it takes a crisis to spur you to change something fundamental to your business. So it was when we got the news on March 18th, 2020 that we’d have to close our tasting room for the foreseeable future. When we were allowed to reopen in June, we were challenged to think of how we could give guests (and our team) the safest possible experience while also continuing our mission to educate them and showcase the great work our vineyard and cellar teams were doing. It’s only gradually that we’ve realized that the changes we made actually produced a superior experience to the one that we had been offering before.

Pre-pandemic, we were experiencing significant growth in our tasting room. It had reached a point where on busy Saturdays and holiday weekends, we were seeing 250 people or more per day. We always did what we could to make space for everyone, hiring more staff and even setting up tables in our cellar, but it was often a challenging environment to tell the story of Tablas Creek. You might squeeze into a bar space, next to someone already mid-way through their tasting, hear snatches of the story, get served a wine that you might not know, have your pourer try to quickly give you the overview of the property and a wine, all with four other groups at the bar at different points in their tastings. Not ideal for the customer experience, nor the wine educator. Our tasting room staff prides themselves on sharing the information they have spent hours learning and translating to customers. I remember hearing from some of our best tasting room folks who would feel dejected when the end of the day arrived and they realized they hadn’t connected with one individual or group because of the crowds.

Enter May of 2020. As we started to think about what a reopening plan might look like, we knew we wanted to be outdoors, socially distanced, in control of our traffic flow, with reduced contact between the wine educator and the wine taster. A few of the key choices we made were:

  • Tastings by reservation. We didn’t know what the demand would be for wine tasting when we reopened. But we did know that we didn’t want lines or crowding. Reservations were the solution, because they allow our staff to know who is coming, and to limit the traffic to the number of seats we have. But they have a value beyond that. We can prepare for a wine club member and greet them by name when they arrive. Or we can know what wines they have enjoyed in the past, or who referred them. They have value for customers too, who know they have a table waiting for them and dedicated to them, and know that the winery will be properly staffed.
  • Outside only. At the beginning of the pandemic, it wasn’t yet well understood how Covid-19 was transmitted. But the research that we did suggested that airflow was key to reducing transmission. So we opened outside only, even though the state had OK’ed wineries to reopen inside. When the regulations caught up with the science and forced wineries (and restaurants) to be outside-only a month later, we felt like our research had been vindicated. And the fact that not a single member of our tasting room team contracted Covid through the duration of the pandemic provided validation that we were able to create a safe environment.
  • Tables, not bars. We talked at the beginning about trying to move our tasting bars outside. But we worried that people really didn’t want contact with people outside of their group. Instead, we repurposed the tables we’d set aside for picnickers as our main pouring areas. Everyone who reserved got their own table for two hours. We made sure the tables were well distanced from each other. That was for safety and comfort reasons, but we realized that it had other benefits. Each of our hosts had a maximum of three tables at a time. That allowed our wine educators to judge how much attention each group wanted. The taster benefits from this individualized experience. The wine educator benefits from the opportunity to build a relationship with the group at each table.
  • Flight tastings. In our “before” tasting room setup, a guest was given a glass when they arrived, and poured a tasting. To move on to the next wine, they had to finish or dump out the previous taste. The complexity of this process and the number of people in front of any host meant, in practical terms, that we had to have a single tasting list for everyone. We would customize it a bit, offering some extra tastes or wine club exclusives as appropriate, but it was still the same basic lineup. Flights offer tasters a new way of experiencing a collection of six wines. We served them in groups of three, and guests could compare, contrast, and hop back and forth. We poured the wines inside and then carried them out with these cool touchless wine caddies. When we came with the second flight of three, it gave us a chance to check in with the guests and tell a little more of the story, but they never had to dump anything. The whole thing felt more elegant, more intentional, and less hurried.
  • Options for everyone. When everyone is getting flights, and they have the time and space (and menu) to navigate them, it opens up the options of customization. We gave visitors a choice between our classic (mixed red and white) selection, our red wine selection, and our white wine selection. During wine club shipment times, we made flights of the recent shipment, to help make up for the fact that we weren’t able to host an in-person pickup party. These options help encourage comparison and discussion; it’s not at all unusual to have each guest at a table pick a different option so that they can try the maximum number of wines. At a place like Tablas Creek, where we make upwards of 25 wines each year, that’s great for everyone. It also gives us the chance to do fun things like component tastings. In our current white wine flight, for example, a customer can try Viognier, Marsanne, Roussanne, and our Cotes de Tablas Blanc, which is composed of those three grapes (plus Grenache Blanc). It’s a made-to-order educational seminar.

We reopened with a significantly reduced capacity. Because of the time we gave people to enjoy their tasting, and the number of seats we had, distanced, around the tables on our patio, we were able to welcome a maximum of about 120 people per day, less than half what we saw on an average pre-pandemic Saturday. We expected to see our traffic decline on Saturday and Sunday, which it did. What we didn’t expect was that guests who tried to make a reservation on a weekend day and saw it fully booked instead visited on other days. Our traffic on weekdays actually went up, and our weekly traffic was only down by about 30%, from roughly 700 guests to an average of around 500. Even more interestingly, our average weekly tasting room sales were almost identical to those of a pre-pandemic week, which means that our average sales per customer were up nearly 50%. Our wine club conversion percentages went up similarly.

Why? We’re convinced that it was because we were giving people a better experience.

Of course, there are other factors involved. The outpouring of support from our wine club members and long-time regulars was amazing and heart-warming. Just getting out to go wine tasting was a little slice of normalcy in an incredibly challenging and stressful year. But we feel confident it was more than that. For years, our average rating on Yelp and TripAdvisor hovered between 4.3 and 4.5, with about half our reviews being 5-star reviews. That’s pretty good, and puts us in the top quarter of local wineries. But it was noteworthy that a decent number of the lower reviews mentioned that the tasting room seemed busy and impersonal. Every one of these lesser reviews that we could tie to a specific date had visited on a weekend. During Covid, the percentage of our 5-star reviews rose to 83%. That’s a massive jump. We really don’t think that it was just pandemic goodwill that was leading to the higher sales and club signups. It was that we were doing a better job.

So what does all of this mean for our tasting room?

Last month, we received the OK to move back inside as the county moved to the orange (moderate risk) tier in the state’s recovery roadmap. But by that point we’d already started preparing to bring that experience we’d offered outside over the last year to our indoor guests. The challenge was that our tasting room, built ten years ago, was designed around the traditional “belly up to the bar” experience. The bars are built into the room, and located around the outside of the space that looks into our cellars. There’s a big built-in merchandise display space in the middle of the room. It wasn’t going to be as simple as just putting some tables inside. The space wouldn’t work for that. It was Tasting Room Manager John Morris who zeroed in on the option that we settled on: keep the bars, but retrofit them for seating.

John contacted the same local craftsman who custom-built our concrete bar tops ten years ago and commissioned him to update the bars with new, wider tops that provided room for guests’ knees. He ordered comfortable bar stools for the guests. Those bars were installed last week:

TR Construction Jun 2021 New Semi-Private Bar

This process adds twenty-eight seats to our offered reservations. We’ve also added a few additional tables outside. Overall our maximum seated capacity will be more like 100 than the 65 that we had before. Guests will be able to reserve a bar seat inside, or a table outside. All guests, inside or outside, will have their own dedicated space and host, and be able to choose from our selection of flight tastings. And each will give a different level of interaction; think of it like being able to choose a seat at the sushi bar vs. a seat at a table. As we’ve learned, giving people a choice in their experiences has lots of other benefits.

All that will be welcome, we think, year-round. But having an indoor space will be critical on the occasional Paso Robles days where the weather is unfriendly. Last year we had to close entirely five days because of smoke or rain, and an additional twelve days had to close early when even with fans and misters we felt that the heat made the tasting experience unpleasant or even dangerous. Each time, we had to call customers to explain and try to reschedule, or if necessary cancel their appointments. That’s always hard. Going forward, while it may still be an issue with our outside seats, we’ll at least be able to move many of the guests inside. It gives us options. Seventeen days may not seem like much, but we got lucky. There have been plenty of years where we’d have had to close dozens of times if we were outside only.

When can you expect to see this new indoor space? We’re targeting July 2nd. That should get us an inside option before the full heat of the summer is upon us. It also gives our whole team the chance to get fully vaccinated, which we felt was important before we moved back inside. You’ll be able to book the tasting of your choice directly from our visiting page.

This decision isn’t without downsides, which we recognize. It will mean that, unlike in the times pre-Covid, a visit to Tablas Creek will require some advance planning. It will mean that if you go to a neighboring tasting room and ask them for recommendations, it might not be possible to just show up at the place you want to discover and have a space waiting for you. But we’re hopeful that with our additional capacity we’ll be able to take more walk-ins, and visitors know that it’s not only us who are making this decision to keep our visits by reservations. A visit to Paso Robles Wine Country may be less spontaneous, but it will be more relaxed and much more reliable.

We are very excited about how the tasting experience at Tablas Creek has evolved. We hope you are too. We can’t wait to welcome everyone inside in July. See you all soon!

TR Construction Jun 2021 New Long Bar


From the Orchard to the Vineyard: Q & A with Assistant Tasting Room Manager Rumyn Purewal

By Ian Consoli

If you have been to our tasting room in the past four years, the chances you’ve met Rumyn. Rumyn (pronounced rum-in) Purewal has been with Tablas Creek since June of 2017, and at times it feels like we couldn’t run it without her. Her ability to adapt to whatever the team and the customer needs has been invaluable. Whether she’s asked to pour at the bar, spearhead a new seated flight experience, run the register, or greet guests at the check-in station, Rumyn has always been up to the task. So when an opening for the Assistant Tasting Room Manager position opened up, everyone knew she was the perfect fit. Of course, due to her humble nature, everyone knew but her.

In addition to managerial duties, she now makes the calls for the apparel and merchandising part of the tasting room. We are all excited to see how she contributes to the success of our team and your customer experience. On the heels of her promotion to Assistant Tasting Room Manager, I sat down with Rumyn to find out more about her.

Rumyn Purewal in the tasting room

Who are you?

I am Rumyn Purewal, the Assistant Tasting Room Manager at Tablas Creek.

Where did you grow up?

In Yuba City, California.

Tell us a bit about your family and growing up in Yuba City, California.

My grandpa immigrated from Punjab, India, and made enough money working the fields to purchase land. He planted a large peach orchard and worked hard to establish a successful harvesting company. Today, my dad and his brothers run the orchard and the company. I grew up there on my family’s peach farm just outside of Yuba City.

So how did you go from a peach farm to getting into wine?

I went to school at Cal Poly SLO. I studied agricultural business because it was a pretty broad major, and if I ever wanted to go home to the family farm, it would be directly applicable. I fell in love with the Central Coast and began looking for agriculture adventures in the area. I had interned a few years with Farm Credit West and decided I didn’t want to pursue accounting or finance. I also had the opportunity to study abroad in Australia and enjoyed my first experiences within a wine region, so I decided to apply to multiple wineries when I graduated. I interviewed with Tablas Creek, was intrigued by their story and how educational-based they were, and decided to accept a position in the tasting room.

What do you enjoy most about working at Tablas Creek?

I enjoy the people and my co-workers in this very family-oriented setting. I enjoy the farming practices and the opportunity to see the winery become the first in many things without wanting to be the only one, like spreading the cuttings and encouraging others to sign up for the ROC certification. We don’t hoard the knowledge; we want to make it available to everyone.

Rumyn Purewal at work

What is your ultimate goal in the wine industry?

To be determined [laughs]. I like how the wine industry has so much knowledge to absorb. From the way different vineyards farm the grapes, to vinification in the cellar, to all the varieties and regions, there’s just so much to learn. My goal is to keep absorbing that knowledge.

If a genie said you could work at a winery anywhere in the world, where would you pick?

Tablas Creek. Ah, I’m not too fond of this question. If I could go anywhere, I would go to New Zealand.

What’s the best bottle of wine you’ve ever had?

The one that stands out in my mind was a bottle I had at the tasting room of A Tribute to Grace in Los Alamos. The Hofer Vineyard Grenache was just bright, fun, and delicious.

If you were stuck on an island, what three things would you bring?

I would bring my mala (a bracelet my grandma gave me), pictures of my family, and my journal.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I like to dance, adventure, and explore new cities and states.

For what would you like to be famous?

I don’t want to be famous. 0% of me wants to be famous!

Would you rather:

 Cake or Pie?

Neither. I want ice cream!

Breathe underwater or fly?

Fly

Drink, new world wine or old world wine?

Old world

Be a winemaker or a viticulturist?

Viticulturist

Rumyn Purewal near plants


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

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

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

Closed TR Looking Toward Door

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wineries -- and visitors -- should expect months of recurring periodic closures to tasting rooms

Yesterday, our tasting room was open all day for the first time since Thursday, August 13th. We're open again today, and conditions are lovely. Tomorrow looks pretty safe. After that, well, we'll have to see. At least the heat wave that forced us to close most of last week has moved on, but there are still big fires burning to our north, and whether we'll be able to open will depend on where that smoke goes. 

Welcome to 2020. Anyone waiting for things to go back to normal may be waiting quite a while. And I'm just not sure that wine lovers -- or wineries -- have fully realized that this uncertainty is likely to be the norm, rather than the exception, for tasting room operations over the next six months and more. For our part, I'm fully expecting that we'll have to be closed at least one day a week, on average, over the next six months. Why?

First, and most importantly, COVID, which has meant that wineries in California are restricted to outdoor service only. I agree that this is by far the safest way to open. In fact, even when we could have reopened indoors we restricted ourselves to outdoor service only, because the evidence is strong that the risk of COVID transmission is very low in distanced, outdoor settings, and higher in indoor spaces, even with distancing in place. Of course, being outside means you're at the mercy of the weather. But the virus itself is a source of uncertainty; we’ve already had a few instances locally of positive COVID cases at wineries, who have had to close for stretches to make sure their team and their spaces were safe.

It's not bad, most of the time, being outside in California. It's a big reason why people live here. And we got lucky that we had a moderate summer up until the last few weeks. But the climate that allows wine grapes to ripen is sunny and often hot. We do have some control; we installed extra shade, fans, and misters, and have found that with these measures we're able to lower the temperature roughly ten degrees. Plus, we're typically a little cooler than downtown or areas further east. And we do usually get a late afternoon breeze. But still, if it’s over 100, it’s not safe for our team or pleasant for guests. So, we close early and get people on their way before the heat of the day becomes blazing. We've had to do so eight days so far in August, including a six-day stretch between August 14th and 19th. Our average in Paso is a dozen 100+ days each summer. So expect at least a few more heat-related closures before fall.

The heat wave broke late last week. Unfortunately, we’ve got big fires throughout California, producing copious smoke. A few days ago we had the worst air quality in the world. At least with the heat, we could be open in the mornings. We typically took our last appointments at noon each day. That’s a little less than half our capacity, but it’s a lot better than nothing. But with air conditions unsafe, we couldn’t open at all August 20th, 21st, and 22nd. This dramatic satellite image shows the smoke blanketing much of California late last week:

The primary culprit for our smoke is the River Fire in Monterey County to our north, which has burned some 48,000 acres since it was started by a cluster of lightning strikes a week ago. But there are fires burning all over California right now, with other big ones in Sonoma, Napa, and Santa Cruz. And I think there’s every reason to expect these to be burning for months.

Typically, wildfires in California’s forests burn until they are put out by the onset of the rainy season in early winter. Our state’s remarkable firefighters are mostly tasked with protecting structures and making sure that the fires aren’t endangering communities. Once a big fire gets going, with the accumulated fuel from California’s winter growth and exceptionally low summer humidity, it’s just too much to ask to put a fire out. And that’s true even when there are only a few fires burning. With dozens of big ones spreading resources thin, there’s no chance.

These fires were mostly started by lightning strikes from a rare summer thunderstorm week-before-last. We seem to have dodged the potential for more dry lightning overnight. But we’ve still got months before winter rains will end our fire season. Remember all those terrible California wine country fires in 2017 and 2018? Those were in October and November. It's still August. We've got a very long way to go.

Until then? We’re expecting to make day-by-day calls, informed by the local air quality, as to whether we can open for tasters. Most other California wineries will be the same. So if you’re thinking of going wine tasting, plan to check conditions. We'll be posting updates on our website each morning. If it looks like this, we won't be open. We appreciate your flexibility and patience, and promise you wouldn't want to be tasting here anyway.

Smoky skies over Tannat

The kicker? Once fire and summer heat season are over, it will be because of rain. Gentle rain can be handled with umbrellas and heaters. A Pacific storm, with heavy rain and wind? Wineries will have to close for those too. So get used to thinking about a visit to go wine tasting as like a visit to the beach. Sure, make your plans. But also plan to check local conditions in the morning. Welcome to the new (2020) normal.