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.


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

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

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

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

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

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

Outdoor tasting - Flight

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

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

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

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

Outdoor tasting - View from below

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

Outdoor tasting - tables

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


How to Help Your Favorite Wineries Survive the Coronavirus Pandemic

It's been a tough last week, on a lot of levels. Like most Americans, we've personally been adjusting to social distancing, school, and activity closures, while reevaluating our own life patterns and checking in with family members to make sure everyone is in a good place. On a business level, we've been worrying about how best to make sure we're operating in a way that is responsible while still hopefully continuing to operate, both to be able to support the great team we have working here and to be available to provide wine to our thousands of customers. We switched briefly over last weekend to tastings by-appointment-only to ensure proper distancing, and then closed our tasting room entirely this week in accordance with Governor Newsome's new directives and our own obligations (and desires) to do everything we can to slow the spread of the virus. 

Tasting Room Closed for Coronavirus

We're just one of hundreds of wineries in Paso Robles, and thousands of wineries in California, who've been navigating this new crisis. I know it's hit plenty of other industries hard. Restaurants are on the front lines. Tour companies, hotels, neighborhood shops... really the whole tourism infrastructure has been disrupted or shut down indefinitely. At the same time, the outpouring of phone calls, texts, and emails I've gotten from people has been really heartwarming. One thing so many of them have asked is "how can we help?" I've been answering everyone individually, but thought it might be timely and helpful to expand these into a blog.  

Order Wine From Us
OK, this is probably pretty self-explanatory. Wineries are seeing two of their primary revenue streams disrupted right now. Tasting room sales, the lifeblood of the majority of California wineries, are going to zero. And wholesale sales are going to be seriously impacted too, as restaurants are forced to close or toward takeout. But from what I'm hearing, people are still definitely buying wine. Who wants to be stuck at home with leisure time to plan and cook meals for several weeks without the wine to accompany them? Wine shops and grocery stores have been reporting sharply increased sales in recent weeks, and that's great. These sales do help wineries, and help keep the distribution channel functioning. But if you are able to buy directly from the wineries you patronize, that's a lot better for them. If you had to cancel a trip to wine country, consider joining a wine club or two with the money you aren't spending on hotels and travel.

Support Restaurants Who Are Staying Open by Ordering Takeout
Restaurants are the hardest-hit businesses in these socially distanced times. Some are closing entirely. But others are pivoting to offering their menu for takeout. This list includes big name restaurants that made news for doing so, like Canlis in Seattle, Spago in Beverly Hills, and Balthazar in New York. But it also includes local favorites here in Paso (each linked to their announcements or carryout menu) like The Hatch, Il Cortile, Thomas Hill Organics, BL Brasserie, and La Cosecha. Will there be enough local business to make up for all the lost visitors to the area? Almost certainly not. But we can all do our part. Many jurisdictions have also announced a new easing of rules and allowed restaurants to sell wine to go. As wine programs are typically a big piece of a restaurant's profitability, ordering wine with your gourmet to-go meal can have several benefits. It keeps restaurants going, which benefits the entire community, and it helps wineries by reducing the loss to their wholesale sales. Plus, we all want these restaurants to be open when we're out the other side of the crisis, for lots of reasons.  

Share Your Experiences and Recommendations
One of the most important things that we lose when we close our tasting rooms and cancel our events is the chance to reach new customers who don't yet know that they'd love us. You can help bridge that gap by sharing on social media the wines that you're opening at home. There's a ton of research that shows that peer-to-peer recommendations are the most trusted in this day and age. In an environment where most wineries will struggle to get in front of potential new customers, just sharing a photo of a bottle you opened and loved can mean a lot. And talking about wine encourages engagement and other people talking about wine. There's a lot of story to wine, generally more than there is to other alcoholic beverages, because wines have an association to place, and to year, that beer and liquor generally don't. Thousands of these stories would normally be told every week in tasting rooms around the state and country. Instead, start one of your own, tag your favorite winery, and see where it takes you.

Stay in Touch
I've sent two emails to our entire mailing list (37,000-plus) in the last five days, sharing the changes that we've been making here at Tablas Creek. I can't tell you how much it means that so many people have taken the time to reply to say some variation of "hang in there". I honestly wasn't expecting that, though I probably should have. We know that we're losing many of the easy ways that we have to share what's going on here and help our customers feel connected to our work, and so will be moving toward more digital ways of communication. When you see these, if you felt like participating and interacting, we'd love to know what you think. A virtual tasting? Let's try it. A live-streamed report from the blending table? We'll see. An Instagram Live vineyard walk? You bet. We're all going to be learning how to preserve social ties through a period when face-to-face contact is restricted. Wineries are no different. 

Buy Gift Cards
While most wineries are keeping their shipping departments open, not all are. And not everyone is in a place to take delivery of wine right now. Restaurants and local shops are in even tougher positions. Buying gift cards right now, and redeeming them when the crisis is over, is a way of helping these small, local businesses survive a period of zero foot traffic. 

Self-Isolate
Mostly, though, the best thing that you can do for us is to take these restrictions seriously so that we can get through to the other side of this without major breakdowns of our health care system and our economy. If you have the choice, please be serious and conscientious about your isolating and your virus spread mitigation. I'm not going to repeat the whole list that begins with washing your hands a lot and not spending time around other people if you're sick. But it's all true, and the extent to which we all make the changes we're told are important will make a meaningful difference not just in the societal response to this pandemic, but to how fast we can all safely get back to our raising a glass... together.


Sustainability Matters: We ditched the plastic water bottle. And so should you.

By Leslie Castillo

[Editor's Note: With this blog, we're launching a the new blog series "Sustainability Matters", written by Leslie Castillo. In addition to her responsibilities as a team lead in the tasting room, she is our point person on a major waste-reduction initiative we began at Tablas Creek late last year.]

Have you been to our tasting room? If you have, you’ve probably seen and enjoyed the complimentary cool, fresh water we provide in reusable stainless steel canteens. Our guests are welcome to enjoy this water while they are visiting; we ask that they return the canteens when they're done. And most people do. We often receive comments from our first-time visitors expressing what a genius idea it is to provide water in reusable canteens instead of single-use plastic bottles, and that they wish more other places adopted it. To us, finding alternatives to plastic is more common sense than genius.

Canteens 2017

Ever since we opened our doors to the public in 2002 we have made sure water is provided to our guests. That's an essential accommodation for any business serving wine and a common courtesy for a winery like us who wants to get our guests out to see how grapes are grown in an often warm, dry climate. In our first few years, we hosted tastings in a smaller tasting room at the western edge of our winery, and used 5-gallon reusable water jugs. But as our traffic increased, and we got more demand for water to take out on tours, we switched to a more convenient alternative: plastic bottles with our logo on the label. From June 2007 to June of 2011 we purchased one pallet of single-use water bottles roughly every five and a half weeks. Each pallet had 84 cases, and each case had 24 bottles, which meant we were going through some 19,000 bottles per year.

That summer, our General Manager Jason Haas had the common-sense idea to replace the single-use plastic bottles to the reusable stainless steel canteens we offer now. I asked him why, and he said "it always made me a little queasy seeing the pallets of water arrive, and knowing that we had a hand in creating demand for all this plastic. It seemed like there had to be a better way. When I came up with the idea of the stainless steel canteens, I kicked myself for not having thought of it earlier." This decision turned out to be good for our bottom line as well as for the environment. We lose between 5% and 7% of the canteens. They cost roughly four times what a plastic water bottles cost. The cost of the water filtration station and the labor to sterilize and refill the empty canteens each morning have been modest. So, we figure we've reduced the cost of providing water to our guests by some 75%. And the reduction in the amount of plastic waste we were producing has been dramatic. That was important even when the plastic that we were collecting was being recycled. With recent changes to the international plastic recycling supply chain it's even more so.

You may assume that plastics thrown into your recycling bin end up reprocessed into a new material. New research (and changes to international trade) suggest that's largely not the case. In fact, worldwide, 91% of plastics are not recycled. For the last 30 years, most of the plastic waste the US and many other countries produced was exported to China to be recycled. But as of January of 2018 China stopped importing all plastic waste from residential collection. This means China went from being the main world’s plastic waste recycler to only buying plastics that are 99.5% pure, this means 99.5% clean, free of contaminants like left over food, liquid, grease, etc. As a consequence, bales of plastic waste began to pile up around the world, from Japan to the UK, Germany, Australia, and yes, the United States.

140108-plastic-1955-peter-stackpoleIt's not like things are likely to get better soon, either. Most consumer plastics today have no market value in the recycling industry, and virgin plastic is cheaper than its recycled version. Single-use plastic is everywhere, from the grocery store to the shopping mall to the fast-food restaurant. And yet, we don't have to go back that far in history to find a culture that didn't embrace a throw-away lifestyle. If we look back at the World War II era, thriftiness was encouraged. People collected metal to be melted into bullets. But the years following the end of WWII were an era of economic growth and prosperity in the US, and the focus on consumer products was ease of use. A sign when the society began to switch from a thrift based model to a throw-away model is an article published in August 1955 by LIFE Magazine that includes a remarkable image by Peter Stackpole of Getty Images (right) of a couple and their child throwing disposable plates and other food ware up in the air. The title of the article is “Celebrating Throw-away Living”. 

It's easy to understand why plastic became popular. It is easy to mold into different textures and shapes, can be flexible like a plastic bag or rigid like the keyboard I’m using to type this blog post, it is impermeable so it can serve as a barrier for oxygen and bacteria, and it is cheap to produce. Plastic is also extremely durable: so durable that it lasts essentially forever. It seems crazy that a material that lasts forever is the underpinning of single-use products that are meant to be thrown away!

Plastic does not biodegrade. It fragments into smaller pieces instead called microplastics, fragments 5mm or smaller. These fragments are now permeating our oceans to the point that they can reasonably be called the smog of the sea. These small plastic particles are ingested by ocean animals, from the smallest fish in the sea to huge filter-feeding whales. This is an environmental crisis. It's also a social justice crisis, and I’ll explain why.

According to 5 Gyres, a California-based organization that fights global plastic pollution in our oceans, in the US an average of 3 million water bottles are used per hour, a number that has continued to grow despite well-publicized city bans of single-serve bottled water and the faltering recycling system. Since the January 2018 China plastic ban, cities like Memphis, Tennessee and Deltona, Florida have stopped their recycling programs. Earlier this year, RePlanet, the biggest recycling center in California, went out of business, shutting down all of its 284 centers because there is too much plastic waste and not nearly enough infrastructure to reprocess plastic into new materials. The accumulating plastic waste is either going into landfills or oceans, or being incinerated, adding to climate change worries and adding air pollution disproportionately in majority-Latino and black communities.

Leslie with water bottle

So, what to do? First, recognize the scale of the problem. Plastic bottles are the number two in the top five single-serve disposable items. Maybe switching to reusable steel canteens instead of the single-use plastic bottle at a single winery in California seems insignificant, but over the eight and a half years since we made the switch, we've saved the production of more than 161,000 plastic bottles. Every reduction of 1000 bottles reduces demand by 40 gallons of oil and eliminates the release of 142 pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere. And that's just the production. The reprocessing or destruction of these bottles requires additional resources and releases additional pollutants and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. We are just one of more than seven million businesses in California. Imagine if one in ten found a similar area where they could make a change that reduced their waste and helped their bottom line. If more and more people set aside a little bit of convenience to begin practicing more sustainable ways of water consumption, perhaps sooner than later our culture will begin to see throw-away as what used to be the norm. Think of other norms that have changed surprisingly rapidly, like smoking in restaurants, bars, and airplanes.

I’m curious to know if any of you readers who live in areas where recycling has been suspended. How has this impacted your community? Have you made any changes in the way you consume? And, most importantly, have you come up with any great ideas that deserve to be more widely adopted?


Thirsty for a bit of history: The Wine of the Popes

[Editor's Note: With this blog, we're launching a the new blog series "Stories from the Tasting Room", written by the talented Evelyne Fodor. Evelyne was born and raised in Lyon, France, holds a PhD in French and Francophone Studies from UCLA, and still teaches for UCLA online. She has been one the leaders in the Tablas Creek tasting room since 2014.]

By Evelyne Fodor

The other day a young couple stopped at the winery for a tasting.  Timothy and Cassandra, as they introduced themselves, were from Silver Lake, a hidden Los Angeles neighborhood that attracts creative people and foodies. My guests fell in both categories. “Timothy is a TV writer and I am a private chef” Cassandra told me.  Timothy had an unusual request. “I am reading this book about a troubled gentleman, confined in a hotel, who found solace in drinking the “Wine of the Pope.” The allusion to the New York Times bestseller, A Gentleman in Moscow, did not escape me. The main character, Count Roskov, a wine connoisseur, was a big fan of Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines.  “How is Tablas Creek related to Châteauneuf-du-Pape?” he asked.   Of all the things that makes our story so compelling, our connection with an ancient village in Southern Rhône is the one that excites me.  The name transports you not only to another time and place, it also evokes a turbulent time in the Catholic Church history, the birth a wine dynasty family, an iconic bottle, and the inspiration for our flagship wine Esprit de Tablas.

CNP blog PIC ClementChâteauneuf-du-Pape means “Pope’s new castle,” I told Timothy. In the 14th century, I continued, just before the Great Schism the newly elected Pope was a Frenchman from Bordeaux by the name of Clément V (pictured left).  As historians told us, Pope Clément chose to not move to Rome for security reasons. Instead he brought the Papal court to the walled city of Avignon, at the time a property of the Roman Church.  Clément V, it is also said, was an avid wine drinker who preferred to stay close to his estate which he personally managed.  The estate was a few kilometers north of Avignon in an ancient village known for its soil, Châteauneuf-Calcernier, named after a nearby limestone quarry.

I started the tasting with our 2016 Grenache Blanc, a perfect wine for a day like today, when Timothy interrupted me. “It’s a lovely wine, great acidity! Tell me more about the Castle.” Clearly Timothy was enjoying the unexpected history tasting so I continued. The next Pope, by the name of Jean XXII, also French, also a wine lover, built a home among the vineyards of Châteauneuf-Calcernier, as a summer residence to escape the heat of Avignon.  Then six successive French Popes kept their residence in Avignon, spending time in the vineyards of Pope Clément, expanding the home started by Jean XXII.  The Papacy remained in Avignon until the last French Pope, Gregory XI, decided to return to Rome. It came to a bad end for the last Pope, but the legend of the “Vin du Pape”, as it became known, had begun.

CNP blog PIC villageI was now pouring the 2016 Cotes de Tablas, boasting the characteristics of my favorite grape, Grenache, when Timothy signaled again, he was ready for a bit more of history. “So how did the Beaucastel family became involved with the Wine Pope?” It came later I answered. The Popes had already returned to Rome when Pierre de Beaucastel, a Huguenot living in a village nearby, bought a barn with a plot of land. In those days, if a Protestant agreed to convert to Catholicism, in return King Louis XIV would give him the right to collect taxes from the local people.  It is with this money that Pierre built his house.  In recognition of his status and conversion to Catholicism after the revocation of the Edict de Nantes, he was appointed “Captain of the town” by the King and became known as Noble Pierre de Beaucastel.  The Beaucastel family went on to become one of the most prestigious families in Châteauneuf-du-Pape region, and their estate has now been owned and run by the Perrin family for five generations.  

CNP blog PIC bottle“There is a scene in A Gentleman in Moscow, where Count Rosko is in the cellar of the Metropol Hotel where thousands of bottles of wines had their labels removed” Timothy said, “but Count Rosko was able to single out a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. How was that possible?” Clearly, Timothy had never seen a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. "If you remember the scene," I told him, "Count Rosko was lingering his fingers on the bottles." In our seating room we have a picture of a vintage bottle of Château de Beaucastel. "Here it is," I told Timothy. You can see and feel the inscription "Châteauneuf-du-Pape contrôlé" embossed in Gothic letters. The Coat of Arms symbolizes a Papal tiara placed above the keys of St. Peter, or as Francois Perrin, our French partner from Beaucastel once told me “the keys to Paradise”.

I could tell Timothy’s excitement when I finally introduced him to our flagship blend 2016 Esprit de Tablas. “So, this is the Châteauneuf-du-Pape wine?” he asked, starring at our own embossed logo, a nod to Châteauneuf-du-Pape Coat of Arms.  "It’s as close as you can get in this part of the world," I told him.  "But as Jason Haas made it clear in his blog, Esprit de Tablas is 'an inspiration, not a copy.' Esprit means 'Spirit' after the Châteauneuf-du-Pape of Beaucastel.”

When the tasting was completed, Timothy joined our VINsider Collector’s Edition, “to get as many older Esprit de Beaucastel and Esprit de Tablas vintages I can put my hands on.” And with that, Cassandra had one final question: “What should I pair the wine with?” Timothy winked at me. We both knew the answer. “A bouillabaisse, bien sûr”, as per Count Roskov’s recommendation.