Fruit Snacks, Organic Wine, and the Dilemma of "Made With"

This Welch's Fruit Snacks box is a great example of why I find the US National Organic Program (NOP) wine standard problematic. Seem like a leap? Bear with me.

Welchs Fruit Snacks

These fruit gummies say “Made With Real Fruit”. And they are! But also a lot of other stuff, like corn syrup, artificial flavors, and Red 40. The phrasing "made with" is pretty clear in this case. This product contains real fruit. It's (in this case) the first ingredient, though it doesn't need to be. But the clear implication is that there are other ingredients. And there are, 17 in all, in these fruit snacks. 

So, why, if you look on a shelf in the "organic" section of your local wine shop or supermarket, do most of the wines there say “Made With Organic Grapes” on the label? After all, based on American labeling laws, the implication is that there’s other stuff in there, maybe even things that aren’t grapes. But it's one of the only options for wines, as dictated by the NOP standard.

This disconnect comes down to a long-standing (and in my opinion overblown1) fear of sulfites. Sulfur has been used for centuries in winemaking because adding it in small amounts slows the process of oxidation and inhibits the action of vinegar-causing bacteria. But as I wrote early this year, how this got added to and then maintained in the organic regulations is a quirk of history and marketing from an unusual coalition of anti-alcohol interests, natural wine purists, and sulfite-free wineries: all parties with a vested interest in making organic wine hard to achieve.

Most other countries set a limit for sulfites for organic wines around 100ppm. That seems reasonable to me. But not the NOP. If you add any sulfites at all you can’t call your wine organic. You can't use the NOP organic seal. Instead there is a specific line in the NOP standards that says "Any use of added sulfites makes the wine only eligible for the “made with” labeling category; may not use the USDA organic seal." There is a specific meaning to the "Made With" claim in the NOP organic regulations. It's for products that are at least 70% but less than 95% organic. Think pasta sauce "Made With Organic Tomatoes" but including non-organic onions, spices, etc. By contrast, the "Organic" standards require that 95% or more of the finished product be from organic sources. Those products can use the organic seal. A wine from an organic vineyard with 100ppm sulfites is 99.99% organic. But it's not eligible for the organic seal. 

This may seem an esoteric worry. But the fact that American organic wine is forced to be sulfite-free makes many of them short lived and unstable. That implies to consumers that organic farming makes unreliable wine and reduces incentives for wineries to farm organically. It's probably not a coincidence that the percentage of wine grapes in California has lagged that in France, Spain, and Italy. It also makes American organic wine  less competitive with international organic wines. That's at least three clear negative outcomes.

Supporters of the NOP standards (and wineries who have built a market with sulfite-free wines) say that wineries should embrace the “Made With Organic Grapes” phrasing. But one look at that fruit snacks box should make it clear why that option comes with its own baggage.

Footnote:

  1. Why overblown? Many people attribute to sulfites the "red wine headache" that is more likely a sensitivity to histamines, found naturally in grapes. Sulfite allergies can be serious, but such sensitivities are very rare, and usually manifest in respiratory symptoms. It is (purportedly) for people with these sensitivities that wines that add it carry a “Contains Sulfites” warning. But given that there are many other products including including dried fruit, frozen potatoes, frozen shrimp and many condiments that contain much higher sulfite levels and don't have to carry a warning label, I don't find that particularly convincing.

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

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

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

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

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

DTC Sales by Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wineries by Size 2020

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

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

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

And the best tool for that? Education.

Rows of Tablas Creek glasses


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

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

SVB Wine Survey - How was 2021

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

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

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

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

Office with lots of wines and Zoom


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

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

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

Jason Haas and Ray Isle at Aspen Food & Wine 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

Footnote:

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

Is it possible that we just released the first varietal Vaccarese bottling... ever?

Have I said recently how much I love my work? 

Vaccarese 2019 bottle against limestone wallThis week, we got to release our 2019 Vaccarese, the first bottling of our first vintage of this obscure Rhone red grape. I dove into its history in the blog Grapes of the Rhone Valley: Vaccarese last year, so I'm not going to rehash its full history here. If you'd like to refresh yourself on it, take a moment now. OK, welcome back.

But in getting from growing the grapes to making and bottling the wine to now, finally, getting to share it with our fans I've spent a fair amount of time looking for literature on Vaccarese. It barely exists. In her seminal and comprehensive Wine Grapes, Jancis Robinson dedicates barely three-quarters of a page to it (under its synonym Brun Argenté) and in the subheading calls it a "very minor southern Rhone variety". At just 12 hectares (about 30 acres) in France as of 2012, it's scarce. Most of that, Jancis reports, is in Chusclan, a minor appellation in the Gard, where it is known as Camarèse. (Yes, this grape is old enough that despite its scarcity now and as far as we can tell forever, it goes by three different names. Welcome to the challenges of being a grape ampelographer.) In Chusclan, it is generally blended with Grenache to make rosés. But its percentage is capped at 20%. So, you're not going to find a 100% Vaccarese from Chusclan.

How about Chateauneuf-du-Pape? Very unlikely. According to Harry Karis in his 2009 Chateauneuf-du-Pape Wine Book, there were 4.1 hectares (about 10 acres) in the entire appellation, representing just over one tenth of one percent of the 3,231 hectares planted. [Editor's note April 29th: It appears there may be one! See the comment below from Robert Parker Wine Advocate contributor Joe Czerwinski, reporting on a special cuvee from Chateau des Fines Roches called "Forget Me Not". The wine's page on the producer's website lists a blend of 90% Vaccarese and 10% Grenache. That's the closest we've yet found!]

For confirmation, I checked the Wine Searcher Pro, the industry-leading wine search engine, to see if any Vaccarese bottlings were listed. A global search returned just three results, one Cotes du Rhone for sale in Switzerland and two Chateauneuf-du-Papes, one for sale in Austria and another in Massachusetts. But in all three cases Vaccarese was the fourth or fifth variety in the blend. How rare does this make Vaccarese? Compare the limited results to a grape like Picpoul, which returns 2,720 listings. Grenache Blanc, rarely found on its own, returns 1,670 listings. Even Counoise returns 185 results. 

How about historically? It seems unlikely. Although the grape comes in for praise in Pierre Galet's 1990 ampelography Cépages et Vignobles de France, it's for its blending value. He quotes a winemaker who finds it "particularly interesting for moderating the alcoholic power of Grenache in the rosés of Chusclan and the red wines of Chateauneuf-du-Pape" (my translation). And while there was more acreage in 1990, according to Galet there were still just 40 hectares (100 acres). Going back to the Viala and Vermorel's 1901-1910 Ampélographie doesn't help. They don't have an entry for Vaccarese, instead listing it and a few alternate spellings in the index as "nonspecific names given to grape varieties in the Vaucluse". Brun Argenté is dismissed equally briefly in the index: "a grape variety from the Vaucluse, poorly described ampelographically" (both translations mine again). Camarèse doesn't even get an appearance in the index. So, it's pretty clear that at least for the last century Vaccarese has never been widely planted, or been a lead grape where it was.

So, where does that leave us? Forging our own way. And based on our experiences this week, where we've released the 2019 Vaccarese to our club members and been tasting the 2020 Vaccarese around the blending table, the grape has potential. My (brief) notes on the 2020 out of barrel were "Lovely dark color. Nose herby and savory. Mouth medium-weight, blackberry and chalk, rose hips and leather. Structured." It was good enough that we're going to use a portion of it in our 2020 Esprit de Tablas, in just its second year in production. That's rare for us. For more on that story, stay tuned for next week's blog, on this week's blending. But we'll still have enough to bottle perhaps 100 cases on its own, which I think is important for such a new grape. After all, we want help from other people wrapping their heads around this grape which is so new and so rare.

If any of you have ever had a 100% Vaccarese from anywhere, or even a Vaccarese-led wine, will you please let me know? We'd love to try it as a comparison. If not, and ours if your first, please let us know what you think!      

Vaccarese in row with sign

Have I said recently how much I love my work?


Virtual Wine Club Events are Awesome, and Everyone Should do Them

By Ian Consoli

This past weekend we completed our second virtual Wine Club pickup party at Tablas Creek, and I am fully convinced that everyone should be doing them. We have connected with hundreds of wine club members across the country, without leaving the vineyard and with minimal expenditures of time or money. The positive reviews from members keep pouring in, and, honestly, we’ve had a lot of fun doing these first two. So yes, we’ll continue to do these virtual events even when we feel comfortable hosting events at our tasting room. I think the rest of the wine industry should do the same.

Virtual Wine Club Event

We invite our wine club members out to the winery for club pickup parties twice a year in normal times. We close the tasting room to the public on a Sunday and cap out at ~450 members (four different time slots, 115 per session). We offer a glass of something seasonal on arrival. Jason gives a ~15-minute update on what we’ve been working on over the last six months, and then we invite members to find a pouring station where they get to try each of the wines in their wine club shipments. A chef (usually our friend Chef Jeff Scott) prepares two bite-size dishes, one each for the red wines and the white wines, for everyone to enjoy during the tasting. The events are a lot of fun, and we enjoy getting to see so many members in a single day.

Cue the summer of 2020. We skipped the Spring 2020 pickup party due to the Coronavirus. It was all we could do in April just to unite our members with their wines, given that nearly everyone was in a new situation and we were all working from home. But by summer, Wine Club Director Nicole Getty and I decided we wanted to do something for our members in the fall. With no template or examples that we could find, we put our heads together to come up with a virtual wine club pickup party based on our in-person events. We came up with this structure:

A virtual event hosted by General Manager Jason Haas and Winemaker Neil Collins. Members could either open one or more of the bottles they’d received or order an optional tasting half-bottle kit of our Esprit de Tablas and Esprit de Tablas Blanc. Recipes developed by Chef Jeff Scott and distributed by us to members in advance of the event for them to prepare at-home and enjoy along with the tasting. We would simulcast on our Facebook Live and YouTube channel so that members who didn’t have a Facebook account could still participate. During the broadcast, Jason and Neil started with an update on Tablas Creek, then tasted through each of the six wines with guest appearances from Chef Jeff to explain his recipes and why he paired them with each of the select wines. After confirming recipes and attendance from Chef Jeff, we were ready to go.

The turnout at the event in the Fall of 2020 was shockingly good. Not because I didn’t expect it to work, but because I had been producing live shows for months and typical viewership was in the 20-50 screen range. We were at 80 screens within 2 minutes and crested the century mark for most of the broadcast. I remember watching the number of live viewers climb and climb and thinking, here we go! By the end of the event, we had reached 1300 screens. Jason, Neil, and Jeff were incredible. The content of their conversation was informative, and their personalities were on full display. We estimated the broadcast would last an hour; it lasted two and just flew by. We heard Chef Jeff talk about food like Steve Jobs introducing the first iPhone. Sitting behind the dashboard was a true pleasure, and comments from the audience echoed that sentiment.

After that first success, we knew we were on to something. We analyzed the event’s benefits and think they mostly fall into three items: access, intimacy, and convenience.

  • Access. We offer multiple opportunities throughout the year to meet our owner, winemakers, and viticulturist through onsite events like the pickup party, horizontal tastings, vertical tastings, and our annual pig roast. In addition to these onsite activities, we participate in winemaker dinners around the country to provide that same access. Virtual events allow your fans unprecedented access to whoever you choose. In our case, that meant our proprietor, our winemaker, and the chef who made the recipes specifically for the wines our members were tasting.
  • Intimacy. Jason often jokes that more people have seen his living room in the last year than in the previous two decades. Virtual events offer a face-to-face experience for members. With a chat box in front of them, members can ask your owner and winemaker whatever questions they have, and they will get a response. Wondering why vine quarantines take so long? Just ask. That question you’ve been dying to ask the winemaker about his use of native fermentation? Here’s your chance. Been wondering what kind of truffle oil to use? Don’t know what truffle oil is? Ask the chef. And know that members will remember this intimacy.
  • Convenience. Don’t forget the importance of For all our effort in participating in festivals and dinners around the country, winery events generally require your fans to travel to be where you are. Wine club events even more so. We ship to 40 states, and we have members in every one of them. Even the majority of our California members don’t make it to Paso Robles annually. And the 450+ members who attend each of our pickup parties only represent about 5% of our membership. So, how do you maintain and build your connection to the vast majority of members who don’t visit? Based on these comments, it looks like we’ve found a solution:

Where are they from_

Fast forward six months, to our recent (April 16th) Spring VINsider Virtual Pickup Party. We learned a lot from our first experience, and while most things stayed the same, we realized we wanted a better solution to get wine samples to members who didn’t want to have to open the bottles they’d received. We had the half bottles of Esprit and Esprit Blanc on hand for our fall shipment, making it a relatively easy decision to package them, but even so, having only two of the six wines available as half-bottles wasn’t ideal. Given we don’t bottle any of the wines in the spring shipment in half-bottles, that wasn’t an option anyway. But we like the solution we came up with. We partnered with Master the World, a company founded by two master sommeliers dedicated to providing blind tasting kits for somms-in-training, to make 100 sample packs of all six wines in the Spring Classic wine club shipment. These came in 187ml bottles (quarter-bottles), and we were able to make them available to members, shipping-included for $99.

With the same format, new wines, and a new sample kit, we aired on Friday, April 16th. The results were even better than for the fall event.

Virtual Pickup Party Live Results

A lot is going on here; I’ll summarize my key observations. Between Youtube (YT) and Facebook (FB), our peak live viewership was 138 screens. I emphasize screens because we likely have multiple people on each screen. At just two people per screen, that’s 276 viewers, but I believe that number is conservative. While I focus on the live viewership numbers because it shows how engaging the content is, it’s important to note that our reach was a cumulative 1851 screens, or a low-end potential of 3700 sets of eyes on the broadcast (or 7400 individual eyes)! Total Live minutes viewed on FB was 5300. That means 88 hours of view time on our FB page. Total comments were 234, total reactions (likes, laughs, and loves) were 99. That’s a lot of members taking advantage of this intimate environment!

Between total attendees and their participation in the event, it’s easy to see that people were happy to be there.

But does it sell wine? The short answer is we’re sure it does, although it’s hard to measure. We did see a surge in online and phone orders around the event. Of course, the baseline level of orders is higher now than it was before the pandemic, but still, we know that some of the people who attended and were commenting on the live event placed orders in the next few days. It’s worth remembering that the principal goal of our member events has never been sales. These are club members who are buying every six months anyway. Our main objective has always been to reinforce their connection with us through these events. And we feel sure that we were successful in this goal. It’s also worth noting that if you’re comparing it directly to an in-person event that there are many fewer direct and indirect costs of putting on a virtual party. You don’t have to close your tasting room. You don’t have to prepare or serve food. And the demands on your staff are much less.

Conclusion

We’re excited to continue to host this kind of event in the future. We’re meeting our members where they are, we’re teaching them new recipes, and we’re giving them the opportunity to interact with the proprietor, winemaker, and chef.

We face new questions come October. It seems like we will be able to host an in-person pickup party for the first time since 2019. If we do, will the virtual version still see a large attendance? Will the sales of one cannibalize the sales of the other? Will members choose to go to both? We don’t have the answers to these questions right now, but we’ve seen enough value on several levels to give it a try. It sounds like members are excited about that; here is a selection of the comments we received at the end of the broadcast:

What did they say

Best Practices

I wanted to leave a few tips and tricks we’ve learned along the way for any of our winery friends who are thinking of doing events of their own. You can also contact me directly, as I’d love to share our methodology. ian@tablascreek.com.

  1. Start with an intro video: average viewership numbers start at four minutes. Pick a five-minute song or video to play while viewership populates.
  2. Pay an artist: pick a local band to get that intro song from and pay them for their work. The pandemic has struck artists pretty hard.
  3. Drink wine early and often: we’ve started the last two broadcasts with a 30-minute update before talking about wine. After feedback, we’ll be shifting that model to shorten the intro, start tasting earlier, and sprinkle the updates between the wines.
  4. Use streaming software: we use Be.live, but Streamyard is another excellent alternative. This allows us to stream on multiple platforms and build in visuals.
  5. Have a dedicated producer: let the people on-screen focus on what they’re doing and have someone selecting questions to show on-screen.
  6. Encourage questions: that’s what it’s all about! And be sure you are answering them.
  7. Two people on screen: it’s much more conversational and flows much better than one.
  8. Celebrity guests: adding that third or fourth person from time to time keeps interactions fresh and engaging.
  9. Prepare for things to go wrong: you are working with technology, something will always go wrong, stay on your toes for the whole broadcast and be prepared to troubleshoot.
  10. Have fun: your hosts are drinking wine on camera, guests are drinking wine at home, and the producer drinks wine behind the camera. It is a fun evening with plenty of memories to be made at the end of the day.


Prohibition's legacy and the marginalization of organic wine

Introduction
Prohibition may have ended nearly 90 years ago, but its legacies remain, often hidden, in the way that wine and other alcoholic beverages are marketed and sold in America. I've written about the unintended consequences of the 21st Amendment which repealed Prohibition and as a side effect carved out an exception to the Commerce Clause that has made every step forward in the fight for direct shipping a battle between actors in the winery, wholesale, and retail spheres. Another effect is that because there is an express prohibition in the federal standards from any statement that might "suggest a relationship between the consumption of alcohol, wine, or any substance found within the wine, and health benefits or effects on health" a winery can't talk in advertising or on their website about the studies that show links between red wine and heart health.

Understanding the NOP Standards
One consequence of Prohibition's legacy is in how wine is treated by the National Organic Program (NOP) standards. The organic labeling standards, as written for most products, contain four levels of organic purity. In descending order:

  • 100% Organic
    • All ingredients, processing aids, and facility must be certified organic
    • Can use the organic seal 
  • Organic
    • All agricultural ingredients must be certified organic, but up to 5% of non-organic, non-agricultural ingredients are allowed
    • Can use the organic seal
  • Made with Organic
    • At least 70% of ingredients must be certified organic
    • Must state the ingredients that are organic ("made with organic apples")
    • Cannot include USDA organic seal anywhere or represent finished product as organic
  • Specific Organic Ingredients
    • For use of organic ingredients in a non-organic product. Does not need to be certified.
    • Organic can only be used in ingredients list and not on front panel
    • Cannot use the organic seal or state organic anywhere other than the ingredients list.

How Wine Is Treated Differently: Cue Strom Thurmond
Wine is a pretty easy product to measure, as it's typically more than 99% grapes and winemaking additions (yeasts, nutrients for that yeast, acid, and an amount of sulfur measured in parts per million) are minor in volume. More natural-leaning wineries like us don't add yeast or nutrients at all. And yet, the organic regulations put a unique hurdle in front of wine: "Any use of added sulfites means that the wine is only eligible for the 'made with' labeling category and may not use the USDA organic seal." Because we add sulfites in the winemaking process, the highest tier that we can qualify for is the "Made with Organic" tier.

Pause for record scratch here. What?

Before I go further, I want to acknowledge that there are people with serious sulfite allergies and sensitivities. I have found various government estimates that between 0.2% and 1% of Americans have sulfite sensitivities to one degree or another. That's not an insignificant number, although most sensitivities are mild. The most serious sulfite allergies can cause asthma or even in rare cases anaphylaxis, although these reactions are extremely rare. It is in theory for those people that wines have to carry a "contains sulfites" declaration on their label. Whether this declaration (which has led a lot of people to attribute to sulfites unrelated symptoms such as the "red wine headache") is wise is the topic for another blog. In any case the presence of sulfites already has to be declared. But sulfites, in and of themselves, are not inorganic... except according to the NOP standards, when they're used in wine. 

Why turns out to be a legacy of prohibition. In an article for the Tribune Newspapers, Bill St. John recounts the influence of then-Senator Strom Thurmond, segregationist, teetotaler and avowed opponent of alcohol, whose "crowning achievement" was a warning label on alcohol whose purpose was "not to inform but to frighten". That is how the "contains sulfites" labeling requirement ended up in the regulations of the BATF (now TTB) rather than the FDA. There are many common food products that contain higher concentrations of sulfites than wine (including dried fruit, frozen potatoes, frozen shrimp and many condiments) but none of them are required to declare a warning like this. Only alcohol.

Why the Standards Haven't Evolved
According to Geoffrey Jones and Emily Grandjean's working paper for Harvard Business Review Creating the Market for Organic Wine: Sulfites, Certification, and Green Values, the standard we have today is a result of two things: the stigmatization of sulfites in alcohol, and economic protectionism. When a coalition of wineries and organic farming advocates got together in 2012 to propose adopting the same standards used in Europe and most of the rest of the world (a 100ppm cap on sulfites for organic wines, as opposed to the 350ppm cap for "conventional" wines) a handful of wineries making sulfite-free wines, most notably Frey Vineyards, pushed back. The NOP board sided with that group.

In the conclusion to his article Reds, Whites, and Sulfites: Examining Different Organic Wine Regulation Practices in the United States and the European Union in the Northwestern Journal of International Law & Business, author Ryan Puszka points out that the health difference between the American and world standards is negligible:

"For all ecologically and nearly all health concerned purposes, the penalized winemakers produce an identical product to certified wine producers from completely organic grapes. The logical foundation of the current NOP scheme and resulting disenfranchisement, then, is substantiated by flimsy health claims about extremely marginal cases that thinly veil an economic desire to narrow competition in the market."

So, there's a coalition of anti-alcohol interests, natural wine purists, and sulfite-free wineries who have banded together to make the "Organic Wine" status hard to achieve in the United States. Why should we care? Because having the standards written as they are means that organic wine is unlikely to ever be more than a niche product. And having organic wine no more than a niche product means that grapes -- which are one of the easiest crops to farm organically -- are going to be farmed organically a lot less widely than they should be. And that should concern us all.

To understand why, it's helpful to know what sulfites are doing in winemaking. After all, sulfur is a mineral, and a perfectly legal thing to put on an organic vineyard, used for its antimicrobial and antifungal properties. On vines, it's a common tool to keep mildew from spreading. In winemaking, it discourages the action of yeasts and other bacteria. Put in too much and your wine won't ferment. But in small amounts, it allows fermentation yeasts to proceed while inhibiting the action of vinegar-causing bacteria and other spoilage processes. It also absorbs oxygen, protecting a wine from oxidation as it ages in barrel or bottle.

Implications on the Reputation of Organic Wine
As you might expect from my list of sulfur's properties, many of the early organic-labeled sulfite-free wines were unstable and short-lived. The ones that were shelf-stable tended to have been highly fined and filtered and otherwise processed in a way that tended to make them unexciting. And those early impressions of organic wines have lingered in the marketplace. To this day, wineries like us dread being put on the "organic wine" shelf, because fine wine drinkers tend to avoid it, assuming it's aimed at people for whom the organic seal is more important than the wine quality.

The "made with organic grapes" option might seem like an equally good substitute, but it hasn't gotten much traction either. I'd speculate that this is for three reasons. First, there's that lingering doubt because of the many flawed or mediocre organic wines about whether organic grapes is actually a good thing. Second, the NOP clearly intends that the classification be a lesser one that implies that there are things in there that are not organic, and maybe not even grapes. Think "Pasta Sauce, made with Organic Tomatoes". The implication is clear that there are things in there that aren't organic, and aren't tomatoes. Third, you can't use the organic seal. As it was intended to be, the seal is the shorthand for certified organic. You can put extra words on your label, but there are always lots of words. The seal stands out.

Why We Should Care: Less Organically Farmed Land
If there's not a great reason to put yourself into the organic classification you're eligible for, wineries would be excused for not bothering to go through the work and expense of certifying themselves organic. And that's what's happened: according to Jones and Grandjean, in 2017 organic acreage represented only 2% of vineyard land in California, and had actually declined 10% since 2013.

To be sure, some of the prime grape acres have let their organic certification lapse but have adopted Biodynamic certification, which requires the same elimination of chemicals in the vineyard but allows a limited (under 100ppm) addition of sulfites in the winery. Biodynamics, which also incorporates elements of biodiversity and soil microbial health, has garnered a reputation as a farming method adopted by some of the world's greatest vineyards. Of course it also comes with elements that speak of cosmic energies and cycles of the moon, which tends to limit its audience a bit.

Many other vineyards are being farmed organically but not certified. I talk to vintners all the time who have chosen that path. And of course sustainability certification have proliferated. But I don't think that either of these are ideal outcomes. Someone who does not have to be audited for a certification is more likely to hedge, and it's difficult to know how many of these vineyards would actually be able to pass an organic certification. Verification matters. And as for sustainability certifications, they do a good job on breadth, asking wineries to look at things that neither organics nor Biodynamics addresses, like renewable energy, water use reduction, or wildlife passthroughs. But, by and large, sustainability certifications fall short on rigor. Most allow the use of Roundup and many chemical pesticides. You can make a legitimate critique that many are little more than greenwashing.  

In any case, it is a failure of the national organic standards that they have left air in the room for these other approaches to proliferate. Ryan Puszka's conclusion on this is scathing:

"Furthermore, the no-added sulfite NOP standards disincentivizes U.S. and European winemakers from attaining organic certification, as they may not deem the “made with organic grape” certification worthwhile in light of the high costs associated with certification. Moreover, this confusing system renders wine labels even more indecipherable than they already are, requiring customers to know the different international standards of “organic” and “made with organic . . . “. The net result is consumer confusion and economic inefficiency. All of these issues undermine the legitimacy of national organics programs."

What Comes Next
For us, the failures of the existing certifications are another reason we're excited to embrace Regenerative Organic Certification. There is a carve-out in the TTB's application of the NOP standards that a wine that farms their grapes organically, produces the wine in an organic-certified facility, and uses less than the international standard (100ppm) of sulfites can't use the NOP seal but can use the seal of their certifier. The good folks at CCOF have a useful document explaining the rules, which contains the below image:

CCOF Made with Organic Grapes

The Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC) logo will be treated similarly. Thankfully, ROC is following the international organic (and Biodynamic) standard and allowing ROC labeling on wines that are made from Regenerative Organic Certified grapes, produced in an organic certified facility, and use no more than 100ppm of sulfites.

So, while you won't see a USDA Organic seal on a bottle of Tablas Creek any time soon, we're hopeful that starting in 2021 you'll see the ROC logo on our bottles. And together we can help put one last legacy of Strom Thurmond to bed. 


Revisiting the 2001 Roussanne and the Beginning of the Tablas Creek Varietal Program

2001 Roussanne on Patio

The original model for Tablas Creek was that we were going to make one red wine and one white wine, with the thought that when the vineyard had matured, we might make a reserve-level white and red as well. We named our first wines Tablas Creek Blanc and Tablas Creek Rouge.

Within a few years, we'd come to the conclusion that this simple model was a mistake, for two reasons. First, it didn't give the market much help in figuring out what the wines were. Sure, the Rouge was red. And the Blanc was white. But other than providing elementary French lessons, that didn't help a consumer trying to figure out what was in those wines, or what they would taste like. In an era where blends from California didn't yet have a category on most shelves or wine lists, that was two strikes against us at the start. Second, and more importantly, having just one red and one white didn't give us any flexibility in putting the wines together. If using everything threw off the balance between the varietals, or a lot didn't have the character we wanted, our only option was to sell off those lots. That's a painful choice to make, and although we did it from time to time, usually the blends ended up containing something close to the full production of that color from that year.

Things started to change for us in 1999. We made the decision during the blending of that vintage to pull out a couple of Grenache lots that were juicy but also quite alcoholic and tannic from our main blend, blended them with a little Syrah and Mourvedre, and called the wine "Petite Cuvée". That allowed us to shift our main red blend to be heavier on Mourvedre and feature a richer, lusher profile. We called that "Reserve Cuvée".

The next year, we added a third blend from three remarkable barrels, called it Panoplie, and renamed the two blends we'd made the year before. Petite Cuvée became Cotes de Tablas, referencing the usually Grenache-based wines of Cotes du Rhone, while the Reserve Cuvée became Esprit de Beaucastel, connecting its Mourvedre-driven profile with that of Beaucastel and making our connection with our partners more explicit. And with the 2001 vintage, we applied that same model to the whites, making our first vintage of Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc. We were able to be selective with the Esprit tier, make better wines than before, and get recognition for that from press and collectors. We were able to sell the Cotes tier at a price that restaurants could pour by the glass, and get exposure to new customers. As I wrote last year in my reflections on our 30th anniversary, these changes were a big part of helping us get ourselves established in the marketplace. But as anyone who has counted the 25+ wines that we now make each year will realize, that's not the end of the story.

It turned out that each year there were some lots that were so evocative of an individual grape that it seemed a shame to blend that character away. The first time we acted on this nagging feeling was 2001, when my dad identified two Roussanne barrels while tasting through the cellar in advance of that year's blending. He made the executive decision that we should bottle them alone and we'd be able to figure out how to sell them. It was, after all, only 50 cases. And it turned out that with the opening of our tasting room in 2002, it was valuable having something that was not available in distribution for the people who made the trek out to see us, and even more valuable having a varietal bottling of this grape that was still new to most of our visitors, so they could start to wrap their heads around it. The label has my dad's typically dense, complete description of the selection process on its back:

TCV_2001_Roussanne_RGB_Full
And the wine itself has always been compelling. I have a vivid memory of a dinner I hosted in 2004 or 2005 where, when this 2001 Roussanne was opened on the other side of the room, the whole gathering stopped what they were doing and looked over because the room had filled with the aroma of honeysuckle. But it had been years since I opened one, and so I pulled a bottle out of our library yesterday to check in, and invited our winemaking team to join me. It was amazing.

2001 Roussanne on Limestone Rock

My tasting notes from yesterday:

A lovely gold color in the glass, still tinged with Roussanne's typical hint of green. The nose shows sugar cookies and lemon curd, warm honeycomb and cinnamon stick. On the palate, dense and lush with flavors of spun sugar and candied ginger. Someone around the table called it "liquid flan". And as sweet as all those descriptors make it sound, it was dry, with just enough acid to keep it fresh without taking away from the wine's lushness. The finish had notes of graham cracker, dried straw, and vanilla custard. Neil called it "an exceptional moment for an exceptional bottle".

With this wine as the starting point, we added new varietals most vintages in the 2000's, each time when we found lots that evoked the grape particularly vividly. Syrah, Counoise, Tannat, Grenache Blanc, and Vermentino debuted in 2002. Mourvedre, Viognier, and Picpoul saw their first vintages in 2003. Grenache came on in 2006, and Marsanne completed the list of our original imports in 2010. Once we started getting the obscure Chateauneuf du Pape grapes out of quarantine and into production in the 2010s, those made their debuts as varietal bottlings: Clairette Blanche and Terret Noir in 2013, Picardan in 2016, and Bourboulenc, Vaccarese, and Cinsaut in 2019. These wines have proven to be fascinating for us, and great tools to share the potential and diversity of the Rhone pantheon with our wine club members and other visitors to the winery.

But it all started here, in 2001, with two barrels of Roussanne. To know that two decades later that first-ever Tablas Creek varietal wine is not just still alive but a shining testament to the potential of this grape in this place is pretty darn cool.


The Esprit de Tablas Blanc is having a moment

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

Esprit Blanc bottles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers, everyone.


Mourvedre: Sidelined by Phylloxera No More

One of the silver linings of the last nine months unable to travel has been the chance to spend time virtually with some of California winemakers whose work I find inspiring. One of these is Bedrock Wine Company's Morgan Twain-Peterson. He and I were paired up in the finale of the California Wine Institute's "Behind the Wine" series. We got a chance to talk about heritage clones and the work he's doing as a part of the California Historic Vineyard Society, which has interesting parallels to the work we've been doing bringing in the complete collection of Rhone varieties. It turns out that in mapping the pre-phylloxera vineyards he's working with, he's uncovering genetic diversity that has amazed even him. The vineyards are, as you would probably expect, mostly Zinfandel, but (as I learned in the lead-up to our session) include plenty of Rhone varieties like Mataro (the old name for Mourvedre), Grenache, and Carignane. He found one vineyard with three Vaccarese vines, and another with one Clairette Blanche. That's amazing.

Ampelography Cover PageWeek before last, Morgan sent me a link as a follow up to our conversation about Mourvedre/Mataro. It was a link to a copy of the 1884 Ampelography by Charles A Wetmore, archived via Google and the University of California. Wetmore was at that time the Chief Executive Viticultural Officer of California's wine's first governing body: the Board of State Viticultural Commissioners.

Inside, Wetmore takes the major grape varieties that had at that point made their way to California and evaluates each for its success and potential in the state. One of the grapes that he was most excited about was Mataro. [A quick aside; even then there was confusion about its name, with Wetmore noting that it was "called generally Mourvedre" along the Mediterranean coast of France, but Mataro "along the Spanish coast" with both names in widespread use.] He begins: "Although this is not as extensively cultivated now as other varieties for red wine, yet its present popularity demands for it a place next to the Zinfandel; indeed, I believe that for the future it will have a wider range of usefulness."

He continues with (for me) the piece's most interesting assertion: "All the great French authorities agree in placing the Mataro as the finest red wine grape of the southern regions." This is a good reminder that before phylloxera, Mourvedre was the dominant Rhone grape, not Grenache. After some comments on its ripening, he says "The apparent defect of this grape is the roughness of the new wine; but this is the defect of most noble varieties. Like the Cabernet-Sauvignon of Bordeaux, it requires age to develop its quality."

He goes on: "The chief merits of Mataro are, viz: The vine bears well and resists early fall rains; the fruit contains an abundance of tannin; the wine is wholesome, easily fermented and contributes its fermenting and keeping qualities to others with which it is combined." That is an amazingly pithy summation of why so many Rhone (and Rhone Rangers) producers work with Mourvedre, even if it's not a lead grape for them: the tannic structure and resistance to oxidation that Mourvedre brings to a blend even in small quantities.

After quoting some French authorities, he concludes "I believe there are few red wine vineyards in California, whether for dry or sweet wine, wherein the introduction of a proportion of Mataro, varying from ten to seventy-five per cent, will not be a positive gain." So, if both French and California authorities were so bullish on Mourvedre's potential, what happened to it? Why did it become a relatively trace variety, which in 2000 represented some 7,600 hectares in France, less than one-tenth of Grenache's 95,000 hectare total, while also languishing in California and representing just 605 acres in 2000, barely more than one tenth of one percent of total wine grape acreage? There are doubtless many reasons, but I think it's fair to put a significant portion of the blame on the root parasite phylloxera.

It is significant that Wetmore's work was published in 1884. That date comes during the phylloxera outbreak in Europe, and just before phylloxera devastated vineyards in California and forced widespread replanting onto grafted vines. Mourvedre didn't graft easily onto the rootstocks of the period, so was largely lost. The exceptions were the regions (like Contra Costa here in California, and Bandol on the Mediterranean coast) where the sand content of the soil was high enough to resist phylloxera, and vines could be planted on their own roots. It's from Bandol that Jacques Perrin got the Mourvedre clones that won Beaucastel renown.

1892 French  EnqueteThis time capsule of a document is a great reminder of what a setback that era was and how many of the planting trends we accept as normal and historical are in fact a reaction to what was fashionable (and possible) in its aftermath. Case in point: the widespread pan-Mediterranean rise of Grenache. While digging in the online French viticultural archives, I found this remarkable quote from this book from 1892, whose title roughly translates as "Investigation of the Reconstitution of the Vineyards in France and on American Vines" (pictured right) speaking about the region of the Var, which is now largely planted to Grenache. My translation of the relevant section is below. Riparia is the scientific name for the first of the American-sourced rootstocks that became necessary in the post-phylloxera era:

"The dominant plant is Alicante-Bouschet grafted on Riparia. We still notice Clairette, Ugni Blanc, Chasselas, Calmeite Noir, and Mourvèdre also grafted onto Riparia; while all the plantations made up of the first grape varieties indicated are vigorous, those made up of Mourvèdre are much less so, and seem to suffer. The owners of Saint-Cyr especially believe that this last grape takes [grafts] with difficulty."

Mourvedre isn't an easy grape even without its grafting issues. It ripens late, typically three weeks after Grenache. It is less vigorous and productive than grapes like Grenache, Cinsaut, and Carignane. And in the very late 19th and early 20th centuries, when neither California nor the south of France were commanding high prices for their wines, it's easy for me to imagine the decision making process of growers wondering what to replant after having to pull out thousands of dead vine trunks. That grape that ripens late and might not take successfully to this still-new grafting process? Or something easy and vigorous like Grenache. Yeah. Easy choice. If they worried about quality or color, it would be easy enough to figure they could solve that problem later. But getting something that would grow successfully had to be priority number one. A few decades of decisions like that and it's easy to understand how Mourvedre could become scarce.

That cautionary tale also highlights Jacques Perrin's bravery (and wisdom) in searching out the traditional grapes of Chateauneuf-du-Pape in the decades after World War II. Grafting technology was better. Viticulturists in France had a half a century of experience cross-breeding rootstocks and better understood which crosses worked well for which soils, which climates, and (critically) which grapes. Jacques' experimental vineyards are still there, including this great hand-lettered sign.

Old Mourvedre sign at Beaucastel Square
The success Beaucastel has had with Mourvedre and other even-rarer Rhone grapes is a major inspiration for our push to bring in and plant the historical grapes of the Rhone. There are, after all, lots of reasons that grapes can have become unfashionable that has nothing to do with the quality of wine they might make here and now. Take Picardan for example. It proved to be prone to powdery mildew -- a scourge of French vineyards in the mid-19th Century -- and was already in steep decline when phylloxera hit a few decades later. It would likely have gone extinct but for Jacques' efforts. But here, with mildew hardly ever a problem and a warming climate making higher-acid grapes more appealing, it's been terrific. And there are likely more discoveries like this to be made. 

Success stories like these are one more reason to admire and support the work that Morgan and the other founders of the California Historic Vineyard Society (including Turley's Tegan Passalacqua, Ridge's David Gates, and Carlisle's Mike Officer) are doing to map and DNA-test California's heritage vineyards, and to work with UC Davis's Foundation Plant Services to then clean up, archive, and reproduce these varieties so other grapegrowers can plant them. They've already shown that these old vineyards contain amazing diversity, with grapes there that appear to be unique in the world -- likely rare European varieties that have since gone extinct in their homelands. Which of these might be the next Picardan... or Mourvedre is an exciting question to consider.

Mourvedre, if you're curious, may be starting to recover both here and in France. From those 7,600 hectares in France in 2000, as of 2016 it was up to 8,754, an increase of about 15%. In California, its acreage has climbed as of 2019 to 1,166 acres, growth of 93% since 2000. There's hope yet. 

Meanwhile, if you're looking for a time capsule into that nearly-lost world of pre-phylloxera, pre-Prohibition California viticulture, check out the Ampelography. It's a treat.