Creating a Wine Tasting Show: The Story behind Chelsea and the Shepherd

By Ian Consoli

If you follow only our blog and not our other social media channels, it’s possible that you don’t yet know Chelsea and the Shepherd. Or at least, you might know Chelsea, or the Shepherd, but not Chelsea and the Shepherd. If that’s the case, please allow me to introduce you. Blog readers, meet our YouTube series in which our Senior Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi and our Shepherd Nathan Stuart walk you through the wines in Tablas Creek Vineyard’s most recently released VINsider wine club shipment. YouTube series, meet our readers.

For many, the series has become a favorite. Some gravitate toward Chelsea’s incisive observations (and next level vocabulary). Others identify with Nathan, as he brings the wine tasting process down to Earth.

As we prepare for the release of Chelsea and the Shepherd Season 2 I thought it would be fun to share how it came to be created. It’s a story that begins with two guys with just enough time on their hands to be creative and a desire to make the wine tasting process less intimidating and more fun.

Chelsea and Nathan Main Thumbnail

Shepherd Nathan Stuart came to Tablas Creek with an eclectic resume and a remarkable collection of talents. Shepherd. Cellar hand. Trained vineyard guy. Cameraman. Drone operator. Video editor. In early 2019, when I moved into my marketing role here at Tablas Creek, he had already produced two amazing videos sharing Tablas Creek’s story: the Esprit de Tablas Story and the People behind Patelin de Tablas. We were fortunate enough to share an office. Day one Nathan looks at me with an eager smile under an impressively giant mustache and says, “Oh we’re doing marketing together now? This is going to be fun.”

Fun it certainly has been. To his technical talent Nathan adds a creative mind, openness to discussion, and an inability to turn off his imagination. He also, it turns out, is just as good in front of the camera as he is behind it. The net result? I’ve been living in a think tank for most of the last two years.

Fast forward to a vertical tasting of Panoplie in July of 2019. I sat in awe as I first got to bear witness to Senior Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi’s descriptors and vocabulary. After scurrying back to the think tank and mentioning it to Nathan, the idea of capturing her ability to paint pictures with her words was born.

Fast forward again, to November 2019, just after a harvest in which I see the value of Nathan’s periodic forays into cellar life, how he makes the rest of the team laugh, how his ability to work hard but not seriously makes the whole team better, and it clicks, “a wine tasting show with a winemaker and the shepherd!” Chelsea absolutely loves the idea. The valve on the think tank opens up, the ideas pour out like some freshly fermented Grenache, and Chelsea and the Shepherd is born.

Our challenge: even in a non-Covid year, we ask a lot of our members if they want to learn about the wines we send to them. We host a pickup party each spring and fall, and it’s a testament to their dedication that so many of them make the trip each time, but still, it’s an experience that the 90+% of our members who don’t join us can’t share. How to bring this experience to members, wherever they live? Technology! Our idea: A YouTube video to walk wine club members through their newest six-bottle shipment. Give great information, but don’t assume too much knowledge. We know that people can join us at any point in their wine journey, so it’s essential that we be approachable for newcomers. By combining Chelsea’s wine knowledge and vocabulary with Nathan’s everyman relatability, it seemed like we had a good balance.

The first take: February, 2020. Nathan prepares his camera for a six-wine, single-day shoot. Un-planned, un-rehearsed, they sit down for a full 8-hour workday, a testament to Nathan’s boundless energy and Chelsea’s patience and inherent parenting skills. They piece together what will ultimately become the first episode of Chelsea and the Shepherd. For Nathan, that 8-hour film day is just the beginning as he takes many more to turn those hours of footage into a five-minute video.

Covid’s impact: The original launch date of the Chelsea and the Shepherd video was March 24th 2020. We’d prepared a couple of teaser videos that we pushed back because mid-March felt so scary. But as we settled into a “new normal” of lockdowns, social distancing, and stay-at-home orders we began to recognize that this video was a potentially powerful way for us to connect our fans and our wines with the tasting room closed. Turning it into a series seemed only appropriate. Nathan utilized the extra footage, compiled individual videos for each wine, and our YouTube video became a YouTube series.

Had Covid-19 not hit, it’s hard to know whether or not we would have felt compelled to turn it into a full series. We’re glad we did, and plan to continue to release new seasons with every wine club shipment, giving you insights that, in the past, were only available if you visited.

And now: Enjoy Season Two, Episode One of Chelsea and the Shepherd on our YouTube Channel! While you’re there, consider subscribing and following along.

So did we reach our goal of appealing to all of our audiences? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.


Syrah's Wild Ride in California, from Darling to Pariah... and Back

1971 California Grape Acreage Report CoverOne of the most interesting publicly-available resources on wine trends is the California Grape Acreage Report, prepared and released annually by the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service California Field Office. In it, you can find a complete data set by grape and by county going back to 1971 with what grapes were in production or newly planted, and where. It's really an amazing collection, and I've used it to write some of my favorite blogs, including all of the Grapes of the Rhone Valley series and maybe my favorite blog ever, A Tale of Two Grenaches, which uses this information to show how Grenache can be reaching new highs in quality and visibility even as overall Grenache acres have declined to a level one-fifth of what they were at their peak in 1974. (Here's what happened: about 2,000 acres of new high quality Grenache plantings went into coastal and mountain AVAs at the same time as roughy 18,000 of the 20,000 acres of bulk Grenache, no longer needed for jug wines, have been pulled out of the Central Valley.)

Syrah's story is similar, in that there are multiple trends going on at the same time, each affecting the grape's narrative. Let's take a look first at, overall, what's happened to Syrah since 1970. Essentially, there have been five eras.

1970-1988: Planting the First Few Seeds

Despite growing interest in the wines of the Rhone Valley, there really wasn't much going on with Syrah planting in California. From a base of four pre-1970 acres in the initial acreage report, there were some years where no Syrah was planted, others where a little was planted: an average of about 10 acres a year. The 24 acres planted in 1975 was the first significant addition to the state's total, planted by Gary Eberle at Estrella River Winery. This is the source of the famous Estrella Clone of Syrah, purportedly from Chapoutier cuttings, whose descendants populate most of the state's Syrah vineyards today. But by 1988 there were still just 167 acres of Syrah in total.

1989-1994: The Wave Builds

WineSpectatorRhoneRangerCoverIn the April 15th, 1989 issue of the Wine Spectator, Bonny Doon's Randall Grahm posed in Lone Ranger gear next to a horse to accompany a cover article on "The Rhone Ranger," and a category title was born. That year, California vineyard owners planted 72 acres of Syrah, more than double the largest previous yearly total. In 1990 that total jumped to 278, more than doubling the state's total to date. And the grape was off. The next five years saw an average of 213 acres of Syrah per year planted, bringing the state's total to 1308 by 1994. That put it on the map, but it was still a tiny percentage, 30th in that year's acreage report, its total eclipsed by grapes including Burger, French Colombard, Carnelian, and Alicante Bouschet. But this was the era in which Rhone wines started to get the press's attention. And it was the era where the importation of new clones (first, but not only, by us) began to open up options for the state's winemakers.

1995-2002: Explosion

Fast forward just eight years from 1994 and Syrah leapt from 30th in the state's plantings to 7th, trailing only the "big 5" grapes of Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, and Zinfandel, plus the declining but still plentiful French Colombard. Plantings averaged 2,210 acres per year, peaking at 3,515 acres in 1997. It went in everywhere, with 100+ acres in 19 different California counties. Eight counties had more than a thousand acres. Those counties could be found all over the state, and included Sonoma, all three Central Coast counties (Monterey, San Luis Obispo, and Santa Barbara), and four Central Valley counties (Fresno, Sacramento, San Joaquin, and Madera). Napa and Mendocino just missed, with 995 and 674 acres respectively. What do those counties have in common? Not much, other than that grapes are grown in all of them. And that, plus the sheer math of the number of grapes hitting the marketplace, sowed the seeds for a problem.

2003-2013: Recognition Comes, but Not Mass Market Sales

Unlike the earlier periods, it's hard to put firm dates on the beginning and end of this category, and some aspects of it remain in play today. But this period saw Syrah gain a reputation for being very hard to sell at the same time as the category got unprecedented praise from wine writers and saw the rise of the "cult" Rhone producer, many located in Paso Robles.

I feel like this era of recognition started with Robert Parker's first article on "California's Rhone Rangers", in February of 2002. In his introduction, he writes:

The noble Syrah grape has done so well so quickly in California that it is surely going to find a permanent place among California wine lovers. Remarkably adaptable, it has shown positive results in the cool hillside climates of the Sonoma Coast, the western hillsides of Paso Robles, and in exceptionally hot areas such as the valley floors of Napa, Sonoma, and Paso Robles. In both Santa Barbara and even the cooler satellite district of Santa Ynez, it has also done exceptionally well provided crop levels are modest. Syrah is capable of producing anything from a Beaujolais-like, bubble gum, fruity style of wine with light tannin, low acidity, and obvious pleasure and appeal, to more formidably concentrated, massive wines with high tannin, great intensity, and potential longevity.

Stories followed in other publications. The Wine Spectator began doing an annual review of California Rhones. More producers, and better wines, meant more high scores. Through the 2000 vintage, the Wine Spectator had given 143 California Syrahs 90+ ratings, and only one (the amazing 2000 Alban Pandora) hit 95 points. In the next decade, 1064 California Syrahs got 90+ ratings, and 69 were 95 or higher. A number of Rhone specialist wineries, most notably Alban, Saxum, and Sine Qua Non, used this recognition to build allocation-only mailing lists with long waiting lists, and dozens of other wineries, many of them our neighbors, followed the style and business model. 

But the sheer volumes of Syrah were never all going to be absorbed by a few (or even a few dozen) cult winemakers and their mailing lists. And by 2003, there was 2,360% more acreage in production than there had been a decade earlier. That increase was even more staggering in volume. In 1993 there were 1,905 tons of Syrah harvested in California. That's enough to produce about 120,000 cases of wine. In 2003, that total had grown to 110,249 tons, an increase of 5,687%. That tonnage, if all vinified into varietal bottlings, would produce nearly seven million cases of wine.

Did you notice something else interesting about that math? The tonnage grew faster than the acreage. In 1993, figuring that vineyards planted in 1991 and earlier would be in production, those 708 acres averaged 2.69 tons of fruit per acre. In 2003, and again figuring that any acreage planted 2001 or earlier would be producing, growers harvested an average of 6.60 tons of Syrah off of 16,694 acres.  

And Syrah's reputation took a hit. Inventories built up. Steve Heimoff, the Wine Enthusiast's California specialist at the time, asked What's the Problem with Syrah in 2009, where he reported hearing that selling it in the wholesale market was "like trench warfare". James Laube published a Wine Spectator article Why Isn't Syrah More Popular in 2010. Eric Asimov wrote that same year in the New York Times Is there still hope for Syrah? with the opening line: "There's a joke going around West Coast wine circles: What’s the difference between a case of syrah and a case of pneumonia? You can get rid of the pneumonia." The Rhone Rangers, doing their best to make lemons out of lemonade, turned the punch line into benefit tastings for global pneumonia prevention in New York and San Francisco, called Pneumonia's Last Syrah.

So, what caused this glut? There wasn't much new Syrah planting in this era, averaging just 250 cases per year statewide. And because some vineyards started to be pulled out or grafted over, there were only about 1,000 more Syrah acres in California vineyards in 2013 than there were a decade before. Sure, there were the challenges that Syrah is a flexible, adaptable grape and tastes different depending on where it's grown and the winemaker's preference. The entry into the American marketplace in this era of lots of cheap Australian Shiraz probably didn't help. And because it was so widely planted, it didn't have a signature region whose name was synonymous with the grape the way that Napa is with Cabernet. But those explanations all feel incomplete to me, not least because you can make many of the same critiques about a range of other successful grapes.

No, I think it came down to a simple question of math. There was so much more wine in a decade that the American Syrah market would have to have grown 50% per year, every year, compounded, to absorb all the extra production. Not even the dry rosé market, the success story of the last decade, has done that. The grape also suffered a little bad luck, in that right as Syrah seemed poised to take off in the fall of 2004, the movie Sideways came out, launching Pinot Noir sales into the stratosphere. Merlot is often mentioned as the main casualty of Pinot Noir's rise, but I think Syrah was equally a victim, as Pinot sucked all the promotional air out of the room.

The net result was that although Syrah sales rose rapidly through the 2000's, they had an impossible task to keep up with production, and inventory built up. How impossible a task? Look at the exponential math. If Syrah sales had grown by 30% per year, compounded over a decade, they would have ended up just under fourteen times what they were at the beginning of that decade. That would have absorbed just one quarter of the growth in production coming from all those new Syrah acres. Plus, it's not like there was this massive global production of Syrah that this American production could displace or be absorbed into. In 1990, there were only about 80,000 acres of Syrah worldwide, compared to 700,000 acres of Grenache, 300,000 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, or 380,000 acres of Merlot. The increases in Syrah were always going to be harder to find homes for. Really, it was never going to be possible.

California Syrah plantings and acreage by year 1970-2019

2014-2019: An Under-the-Radar Renaissance

The last half-decade or so has seen California acreage of Syrah decline by about 20%, as growers who planted it in the Syrah wave move on to the next popular grape. But Syrah is still being planted. Over the last six years, California has averaged 716 acres of Syrah pulled out, and just under 100 new acres planted, per year. As of 2019, there are 15,458 acres of Syrah in the state. Last year, those acres produced 82,846 tons of fruit. That's 5.36 tons per acre, a meaningful decline of about 20% from that 6.60 tons/acre at the tail end of the planting boom.

What is happening now is complex, and still evolving, but it appears to me that the Syrah is coming out of places it probably shouldn't be anyway. There are about 1,300 fewer acres of Syrah in the Central Valley than there were in 2013. That's almost all low quality, high production acreage. And while this evidence is mostly anecdotal, in coastal and mountain appellations, it has mostly been pulled out of the vineyards of generalists rather than Rhone specialists. The producers that we speak to who are growing their own Syrah for their own programs aren't pulling vines out. It's vineyards that are producing grapes for the open market. Are there some negative implications for less inexpensive Syrah up for grabs in the state? Sure. But I think the positives outweigh them.

I also think that the state of California Syrah has never been stronger. And who doesn't love a good comeback story? Eric Asimov wrote about A New Chapter for California Syrah last year. Matt Kettmann, who has taken over reviewing the wines of the Central Coast for Wine Enthusiast in recent years, has been at the forefront, not least because he tastes so many great Syrahs. I'll let him have the last word, from a podcast interview he recorded in 2018, which more or less mirrors my own thoughts.

The one thing I will say, though, is that Syrah, and especially cool climate Syrah is kind of a favorite wine for many winemakers, for many sommeliers, for many wine professionals. People can’t get enough of it. So as the American wine customer gets more and more educated over the years, I wouldn’t be surprised if you see them shift in that direction too.

We're not yet at "Syrah is back!" phase. But with it increasingly being planted in the right places, by people who are Rhone specialists or at least Rhone lovers, with most of the vines now getting to 20+ years old, making some of California's most highly-rated and most sought-after wines, and with some of the pressure being released by 20% less acreage in production and another decade for the market to develop, I feel like Syrah can finally get past its reputation as a failed "California's next big thing" and go back to doing what it's always done best: appealing to those of us who want meat, and spice, and wildness in our wines just as much as we want fruit and tannin. That may not be a mainstream flavor profile, but at 3.2% of the state's total acreage, that's OK. It doesn't need to be.

Harvest Syrah 2015


Which of the many Covid-19 changes to the wine industry will prove enduring?

Usually, at this time of year, I'm locking in the plans for the market visits I'll be making for the busy fall selling season. When I travel, I typically spend my days riding around with distributor reps calling on restaurant and retail accounts to show them our new releases, and my evenings hosting in-store tastings and winemaker dinners to help those same accounts tell the Tablas Creek story to their customers. But I won't be visiting any out-of-state markets the rest of 2020. That's for sure, and I think the first half of 2021 is likely to be more of the same.

Instead, I've been scheduling Zoom meetings and arranging for sample deliveries to wholesale accounts, working on a national strategy to organize virtual tastings around the releases of the 2018 Esprit de Tablas and Esprit de Tablas Blanc, trying to figure out what sorts of trade visits to Tablas Creek we can safely host, and finalizing details with my guest for Wednesday's Instagram Live broadcast.

Jason on video chat with Sadie

I think it's safe to say that this pandemic will be a generation-defining event, in the way that 9-11 was, or the Vietnam War. Covid has spurred changes large and small to nearly everyone's personal and work lives. I've been thinking a lot about which of the changes that we're making to our business will be things that will endure even after the pandemic is in the rear-view mirror, and which will fade away as we get back to normal life. Here are my current thoughts.

Things that seem like they will endure

  • Virtual trade tastings. These sorts of tastings have been (in my opinion) exceptionally effective. We've figured out how to rebottle wines into sample bottles and get those samples to the restaurant and retail buyers (and media) in a relatively cost-effective way. Then, over Zoom, we can present the wines, have a conversation, show photos, answer (and ask) questions, and generally be interactive. Compare this to the closest thing in the before world: a trade lunch or trade seminar. People have to physically get to your location, you always get tons of cancellations, it's expensive, and it's inflexible. What you lose from being online is negligible, but what you gain is massive. People can be anywhere. There are no commute costs and no one cancels because they're stuck in traffic. You can add people up to the last minute, and you can even record the events for people who couldn't join you to watch later.    
  • An increased focus on reaching consumers online with live events. At Tablas Creek, Neil and I both started doing live broadcasts weekly at the beginning of the pandemic, him on Facebook and me on Instagram. They've both been sufficiently compelling that although we've moved to an ever-other-week schedule, we're planning on keeping them going indefinitely. I've written about how one of the things this pandemic has done is encourage us (and other wineries) to meet consumers where they are, rather than force them to come to us. This is a great way to do this, at very low cost, and they're archived and posted on our social media channels for people to revisit at their leisure. 
  • Shift toward e-commerce and delivery. Our baseline of weekly phone and internet orders during the pandemic was roughly three and a half times what it was last year. That's a huge increase. I know that some of it was an unsustainable surge in people stocking up, and some of it was that everyone was at home cooking instead of out at restaurants (and so they needed to buy wine to go with those meals). But that's a lot of customers who now know how to use the online tools who didn't before, and I think it's extremely unlikely that the baseline will go down to where it was before. I've read in other industries that the pandemic spurred five years of changes in behavior in a few months. That sounds right to me, at least for this metric.
  • Tastings by appointment at wineries. We've always been proud that you didn't need an appointment to taste at Tablas Creek, and felt that allowing someone who is recommended to visit to make a spur-of-the-moment decision to do so was central to our mission to spread the word on the Rhone Rangers category. But we realized that there was no way that we could control our flow of tasters (which then allows us to maintain distancing and ensure a good experience for those who come) without appointments. So, we implemented them. The results have been quite positive. The average sale per customer has gone up about 13%, as have wine club conversions, and we haven't lost much traffic, because when visitors see that Saturday is sold out, they've been booking Friday or Sunday visits instead. That means we can give everyone better experiences, and we've seen the results in sales and club signups. I can easily imagine not wanting to go back.
  • Fewer wine cruises. We've hosted wonderful cruises that brought people to Beaucastel and around French, Spanish, and Italian wine regions each odd-numbered year since 2013. And we were far from the only ones. By the past few years, it seemed like every winery, wine region, and wine association was sponsoring a wine cruise somewhere. I don't think they will go away, but I do think that we'll see fewer of them, as I think it will take a long time for people's tolerance for close quarters and enclosed spaces to return to where it was pre-Covid.
  • Wine and drinks to-go from restaurants. One of the relief measures that most states passed in the immediate aftermath of shut-down orders was to allow restaurants to sell beer, wine, and cocktails for takeout with their food. And it's been wonderful, with really no negative impacts on anyone that I can think of. While a few places might re-enact restrictions on this business, I think most of them will stay in place, not least because restaurants are likely to be struggling with reduced capacity or outside dining only for quite a long time. By the time things get back to normal, I just can't see state governments choosing to punish restaurants by taking away this revenue source. 

Things that likely won't endure

  • The end of wine festivals. There just aren't going to be wine festivals, at least not as we know them, until there's a Covid vaccine. Sure, events will move online. (Along those lines, if you want to experience the famously exclusive Aspen Food & Wine Classic, you can do so online for free. One of our wines is even included in a seminar!) But I don't think that this spells the end of wine festivals, because the online experience is so far removed from what you get if you go to an event and can choose from hundreds of wines from dozens of wineries, and sample tastes from scores of restaurants. That doesn't translate online very well, and as soon as people feel safe in crowds, I expect these sorts of events to come roaring back.
  • Virtual consumer tastings. We pivoted to offer virtual wine tastings during the three months when our tasting room was closed. And we enjoyed them, and got lots of positive feedback. But as things have moved toward reopening, we've seen demand fall pretty sharply. In April, we sold 58 of our virtual tasting packs per week. In May, that declined to 23 per week. In June, it fell to 8 per week. Some of that was other wineries jumping into that same space. But a lot of it was, I think, Zoom fatigue, and the fact that sitting in front of a computer is a pale reflection of a winery visit, no matter how engaging a winery tries to make it. We're going to plan to continue to offer virtual tastings, but I don't expect the demand to be huge. The sorts of virtual events that I do think will endure are those that offer experiences that aren't a knockoff of what you can get at a winery, like panel discussions including far-flung members of the wine community, and offering deep insights into regions, grapes, or techniques. 
  • Cheap wine shipping. There were a ton of pressures, both short- and long-term, for wineries to offer free or discounted shipping during the first round of stay-at-home orders. And we did, offering $10 flat-rate shipping for more than three months. It seemed the least we could do to help people sheltering at home, and we were worried that the closure of restaurants would mean that a big outlet for our wines would disappear, leaving us with lots of extra inventory. As it turned out, we did lose most of that restaurant business, but the growth in direct sales mostly made up for it, though at the cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars in shipping subsidies. Boutique wineries can generally not easily replicate Amazon and other e-commerce giants' infrastructure of having warehouses around the country, and therefore being able to offer fast, cheap ground shipping. Many wines are made in tiny quantities, and the logistical challenges of splitting, say, 70 total cases of inventory of our newly-released 2019 Picardan among multiple warehouses and our tasting room are really thorny. Because wine is perishable, two-day shipping or faster is pretty much non-negotiable. And because wine bottles are heavy, air shipping is expensive. Even with the better rates that our fulfillment center can negotiate because of their volume, it's around $100 for us to send a case of wine to the east coast, and not much less to go to Texas or the Midwest. That's a lot of cost to eat if you're offering free or steeply discounted shipping, particularly if your wines aren't $50 or more per bottle. Essentially, nothing has changed since this Twitter thread I shared in February. All together, this means that I don't think that most wineries will be able to keep up free or nearly-free shipping indefinitely:   

So, I'm curious. What did I miss? Any big wine industry changes that you're seeing that you think are here to stay? Or that will be relegated to the dustbin of history as soon as we have a Covid vaccine? Please share in the comments.


After decades in the wine wilderness, the higher-acid Rhone white grapes are ready for their spotlight

2019 was a watershed year for us, in a number of ways. We celebrated our 30th anniversary. Our long-time Winemaker Neil Collins was named Paso Robles Wine Industry Person of the Year. We were invited to be the pilot vineyard in the new Regenerative Organic Certification that we think will become sustainable farming's gold standard. We were honored by our first-ever feature article in the Robert Parker Wine Advocate. But for me the most significant achievements were grape-related. First, we completed our collection of Chateauneuf-du-Pape grapes with the grafting of Muscardin into the vineyard. And second, we got our first-ever harvest from three new grapes: Cinsaut, Vaccarese, and Bourboulenc.

Bourboulenc's arrival had particular significance because it meant that we finally had all the approved Chateauneuf-du-Pape white grapes in the cellar, joining Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Picpoul Blanc, Clairette Blanche, and Picardan. (As well as Viognier and Marsanne, which are allowed in Cotes du Rhone though not Chateauneuf du Pape.)

Rhone whites are generally thought of as settling on the richer, more textural, lower-acid side of the white wine spectrum. And that's definitely one face of what the Rhone offers. But it's far from the only face of the family. It includes rich, low-acid wines (like Viognier). Rich, mid-acid wines (like Roussanne). Rich, high-acid wines (like Grenache Blanc and Bourboulenc). Medium-weight, low-acid wines (like Marsanne). Medium-weight, high-acid wines (like Picpoul and Picardan). And light-weight, high-acid wines (like Clairette Blanche). The fact that the wines that were preferred by growers beginning particularly in the 1970s tended toward the richer, lower-acid part of the spectrum (think the rise of Roussanne, Marsanne, and, most dramatically, Viognier, of which just 35 acres were planted in total in the late-1960s) was a function of the marketplace's preferences toward powerful, aromatic wines, and of what worked in that comparatively chilly decades that preceded the 1990's.

Starting with the 1990s we've seen three decades each warmer than the last, and each the warmest on record world-wide. With the climate warming around the world, all grapes achieve ripeness more reliably than before. I remember my dad commenting five or six years ago that the warming climate had basically eliminated bad vintages in France (typically characterized by thin, acidic wines from cold, rainy years). Of course, those warmer years also produce wines with less acid and more sugar (and therefore more alcohol and body). That reduces the risk of growing the grapes on the higher-acid, lower-body edge of the spectrum, because they're likely to get to full ripeness and have enough body. It also makes the lower-acid grapes more at risk of being heavy or out-of-balance. For this reason, Clairette Blanche is currently seeing a resurgence of interest in Chateauneuf-du-Pape for its ability to bring freshness and elegance to the ever-weightier Roussanne and Grenache Blanc. 

2019 white varietal wines

Enter the forgotten Rhone varieties: Picpoul Blanc, Clairette Blanche, Bourboulenc, and Picardan. All four have high acids at harvest. All four saw years of decline in the Rhone, and because international markets tend to follow what is in demand in a grape's homeland, all four were late to arrive in California. None pre-dated our arrival. And even as we brought in Roussanne and Marsanne, Grenache Blanc and Viognier, we decided to wait to focus on these less-planted white varieties. It wasn't until we saw what a revelation Grenache Blanc turned out to be here in Paso Robles that we dipped our toes into the water, importing Picpoul Blanc in 1997, planting it in 2000, and getting our first small crop in 2003. All it did was force its way into (and displace Viognier out of) our Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc in 2004, just its second harvest. 

Our next round of imports began in 2003, but because these grapes were so rare that we had to take field cuttings, all our imports had virus and had to be cleaned up by UC Davis. The grapes trickled out of quarantine, Clairette Blanche in 2009 (we planted it in 2010) and Picardan in 2012 (we planted it in 2013). Bourboulenc didn't make it until 2015 (we planted it in 2016). But both Clairette and Picardan showed Picpoul's precocity, finding their way into Esprit Blanc in 2017, their fifth and second vintage, respectively, at Tablas Creek.

It probably shouldn't have surprised us. We're convinced that grapes like Picpoul and (to a lesser extent, Grenache Blanc) are victims of a vicious circle in France. Because they're not much respected and don't command a high price on the market, they tend to be only viable economically if they're cropped heavily. So, they're usually overcropped and then earmarked for quick fermentations and inexpensive bottles, which reinforces that they're of low value. Here in California, we crop them modestly, give them the same attention in the cellar as our other grapes, and then allow them to find their place in the blends and varietal bottlings through the blind tastings that kick off our blending trials each year.

For the first time, in 2019, we have all four as varietal bottlings to share with you. They were bottled the week of June 8th, and I opened these four high-acid wines this past week in order to write tasting notes for our Web site. I thought it would be fun to share them with you now. I've linked all the wines (except the Bourboulenc, for which we're still waiting for a bottle photo) to its page on our Web site if you want detailed production notes.

  • 2019 Clairette Blanche: a clean mineral nose of lemongrass, lychee, and honeydew melon. The palate is bright and yet mouth-filling, with flavors of fresh apricot, lemon, chalky minerality, and a little sweet anise-tinged spice. The finish is clean, long, and mouth-watering, with a lingering citrus note.
  • 2019 Picardan: clean but rich aromas of nectarine, yellow raspberry, and sun-dried hay. On the palate, quite rich texture balanced by yellow plum flavors and a preserved lemon pithy bite. The finish is long and peachy, with a lingering note of saline minerality.
  • 2019 Picpoul Blanc: an immensely appealing nose of yellow roses, fresh pineapple, sea spray, and sweet green herbs. The palate is mouth-watering, with flavors of salted pineapple, yellow raspberry, and briny minerality. Tropical and saline notes come back out on the long, vibrant finish. Drink now and over the next few years.
  • 2019 Bourboulenc: a rich golden color. On the nose, aromas of marmalade, caramel, and a briny sea spray minerality. The palate is richly textured yet bright, with flavors of mandarin and nectarine, and a little Meyer lemon pithy bite coming out on the long, minerally finish.

We didn't make much of any of these wines: just 70 cases of Clairette Blanche, 80 cases of Picardan, 145 cases of Bourboulenc, and 280 cases of Picpoul. And because we have so many whites from 2019 -- not just these, but Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Marsanne, Viognier, and our blends -- we've decided to space out their releases. We'll be announcing the release of the first two (Clairette and Picardan) to club members this week. Picpoul will follow next month, and Bourboulenc will go out to members of our VINsider "white-only" club in September.

After my tasting of these four wines, I just can't imagine that these grapes will remain obscure for long. Although each had its own personality, every one had texture and richness, vibrant fruit and refreshing acids, and all showed the saline minerality we attribute to our calcareous soils. We can't wait to share them with you.


My wine warmed up in shipping. Is it still OK?

Like most wineries, with our tasting room closed the last two months we've seen a surge in phone and e-commerce wine orders. Some of these customers are regulars in ordering wine, but we know that for a lot of them, this is a new thing. For the first six weeks of the quarantine, we benefited from mostly cool weather around the country, but the last two weeks have warmed up and we've begun our annual weather watch to make sure that our shipments to you go out and arrive when the weather is as cool as possible.

Unfortunately, summer is coming, and there will soon be swathes of the country that will be hot for months. Does this mean you can't order wine? And while it always ships out cool, if it does warm up in transit, is it damaged? I've received a handful of questions about this in the past couple of weeks, and, following my own advice from 13 years ago, it seems like that means it's a good subject for a blog.

First, it's important to know what is happening when a wine warms up, what the warning signs are that your wine might be affected, and if so, what your options are. I'll take those in turn.

What happens chemically as wine warms up
The short answer is not much... unless oxygen gets into the bottle. And then, look out. In general, a wine bottle is a sealed environment, and unless that seal is compromised (see below) the difference between what goes on chemically at 55°F and 90°F is pretty minimal. Long-term, the storage of wine at higher temperatures is likely to age a wine more quickly, as the slow, gradual chemical processes that break down a wine's tannic structure and fruit, while producing deeper, earthier flavors speed up like most temperature-sensitive chemical reactions. But wine often gets up in the 80°F-90°F range during fermentation without negative effects, and over the course of a few hours, unless it gets really hot, your concerns shouldn't be the chemistry as much as the physics. Read on.

What happens physically as wine warms up
Wine is a liquid, typically about 85% water, 13% ethanol, and 2% all the other things that give it color and flavor. That means that physically, it acts more or less like water. And water, like most substances, expands as it gets warm. Unlike most substances, it also expands when it gets really cold (below 4°C) and expands significantly when it freezes (as everyone knows if they've forgotten a bottle of wine in the freezer and had it break). The graph below (from Wikipedia, by Klaus-Dieter Keller) shows the density of water at various temperatures.

2560px-Density_of_ice_and_water_(en).svg

Of relevance for your wine in transit (hopefully) is what's going on between normal storage temperature (say, 55°F/13°C) and what might happen if a package were riding around on a hot day and got up to 95°F/35°C. You can see that the density of water would change, on a sliding scale, from about .999 kg/m3 to about .994 kg/m3. That may not sound like much, but it results in an increase in volume of about half a percent. That changes 750ml of wine to 753.75ml. Since the head space (the space that's filled with air between the cork and the liquid) is typically between 4ml and 7ml, the expansion of the liquid would pressurize that air. Although air is quite compressible, eventually it will seek to escape, and there's only one way out of a bottle: past the cork, either by pushing the cork out the neck of the bottle, or by squeezing wine (or air) between the cork and the bottle. Neither is good news, because in either case the cork's seal has been compromised.

Know the warning signs for overheated wine
There are two things to look for. Either will let you know you have a problem. The first is to see if you can find evidence of any wine that has escaped past the cork. Typically, that will leave a sticky residue on the outside of the neck of the bottle. You may also be able to smell the wine. Once this has happened, the trail of wine on the outside of the cork provides a pathway for oxygen that's outside the bottle to make its way into the bottle at a rate far faster than in an uncompromised seal. Once oxidation starts, the clock is ticking. It's usually not hard to miss, though white wines can be a little less conspicuous:

Leaker Bottle

No seeping wine? That's good. The next thing to check is to see whether the expansion of the liquid has pushed the cork up into the capsule. That's not as bad as seepage, but it's not good. Typically it does weaken the seal of the cork, and often wine has seeped up around the cork even if it hasn't made its way all the way outside the bottle. Plus, if the air in the bottle gets pushed out past the cork by expanding wine, once the liquid cools, its contraction creates a vacuum inside the bottle, which tends to suck air back in past the cork. That introduces new oxygen (not good) and further compromises the seal (also not good). In the below photo, the foreground cork has pushed enough to make me suspicious, while the one in the background is clearly concave:

Pushed Cork

What to do next
If your wine arrives with signs of heat damage (pushed corks or leaking wine) snap a photo and let whoever sent it to you know as soon as you can. Most wineries and wine shops will replace it, no questions asked. Then stash the wines in your fridge and plan to consume the bottles in the next few days. Even if the oxidation process has begun, it's a temperature-sensitive reaction and will be slowed by cooler temperatures (this is why it's always smart to put an opened but unfinished bottle in the fridge to preserve it). And unless it was hot for a long time, the wine will probably be fine to drink in the short term (like a week or two). But at this point, it's not a candidate for aging.

If your wine arrives warm but you don't see any signs of seepage or pushed cork, you're probably OK. Get that wine cooled down as soon as you can, because the seeping could be happening invisibly, and the sooner you reduce the wine's volume the better. When you eventually do open it, the thing to look for is notes of oxidation. This article on Wine Folly does a great job of describing the symptoms: browning of red wines or darkening of whites, and aromas more like sherry or nuts. If you find that, don't feel bad about requesting a replacement. Even without visible symptoms, if a cork's seal is compromised and has been leaking oxygen for months or years, the wine had no shot.


Why we're going to be a better business after this Coronavirus shutdown

Last week, I made a small appearance in Eric Asimov's excellent assessment of how the various disruptions caused by the Coronavirus are impacting American wine producers. If you haven't read For American Wine Producers, Fear, Uncertainty and Hope go read it now. OK, welcome back.

New_York_Times_Jason_Haas_Apr10_2020
Jim Wilson/The New York Times

The article included a photo (right) from Eric’s last visit to Tablas Creek, in the depths of the 2012-2016 drought. The 2015 article that resulted noted that at Tablas Creek, "the vineyard has managed to thrive despite the drought." And that's true. We had a string of excellent harvests as the drought really took hold, with each of 2014, 2015 and 2016 producing memorable wines across three different vintage signatures.

Re-reading the article today, I don't think I emphasized to Eric enough that we made it through that drought not principally because of our location (though we do get more rain here than much of the Central Coast, thanks to our location at altitude, in the Santa Lucia foothills, and relatively close to the Pacific) but because of a series of extraordinary actions we took to reduce our demand for water.

These included rethinking how we planted new vineyard (much more widely spaced) so that we could set them up for success dry-farmed. It included new, deeper-rooting rootstocks. It included micro-emitters for frost protection. And it included investing in cover crops and a much larger animal flock. The flock and cover crop together increase our soil’s carbon content, which allows it to hold more moisture. In Paso Robles, we don’t have a water table at root-available depth, and it doesn’t rain for six months every year. The soil is our reservoir, if we allow it to be. [For a deep dive into how our farming changed during the drought, check out my 3-part series Dry Farming in California's Drought.]

Why mention this now? While the outside shock is different, we’re in the middle of another shock right now that is forcing us to rethink how we operate. Coronavirus is a demand shock rather than a supply shock like a drought, but we’re having to reinvent ourselves as a business the way we did as a farm last decade.

Without many of the ways we’ve always interacted with customers (tasting room, events, festivals) we’re investing in new technology. The first things we rolled out utilize the live interactive capabilities of our social media platforms. I've been hosting Instagram Live broadcasts every Wednesday at noon PDT, inviting a guest to dive into the world of Tablas Creek. Neil has started hosting weekly tastings on Facebook Live, also with a guest, of two wines each Friday at 5pm PDT. Our tasting room has launched virtual Zoom tastings, where customers can choose a pre-made pack of half-bottles, order wines they want to open and discuss, or just taste through wines they have on hand, led by one of our senior tasting room team members. We've ramped up our investment in video; we've been adding a deep-dive into a recently released wine to our Chelsea and the Shepherd series each week, and now have a YouTube channel to collect them all.

What do all of these initiatives have in common? We're meeting customers where they are, instead of asking them to come to us. We didn't really have a choice; with our tasting room and restaurants closed, and events canceled both here at the winery and around the country, the typical avenues through which we'd interact with our customers are unavailable. But I'm convinced that many or most of these new initiatives will remain valuable enough to keep doing them even once we can reopen our tasting room, resume pouring at festivals and reschedule those restaurant wine dinners that we'd planned to host this spring. After all, we’d discussed doing, or even made starts on, many of these new initiatives before the arrival of Coronavirus, but this crisis made us attack these new programs with urgency.

All of these new initiatives have in common that they are location-independent. Of course, when you're stuck in your house, it doesn't really matter whether Tablas Creek is 30 miles away or 3000. But I'm convinced that the lessons we're learning will allow us to better connect with customers near and far. 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 do to former wine club members, we always see 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. But we are now.

Jason on video chat with Sadie

After the drought ended, we realized that the new things we’d learned to do in the vineyard led to healthier vines, better fruit, and wines with more character even when they weren’t existentially necessary. I don’t think it’s coincidence that 2017-2019 is maybe our best-ever run.

I think we're going to see something similar here. Just as we emerged from the drought better farmers, so too will we come out of this crisis a stronger business and industry.


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.


Introducing a New Idea: Seasonal Pour Wine Kegs

Readers of this blog know that I'm a fan of offering wine in keg. There are lots of reasons. It's great for the customer because every one of the roughly 130 glasses in a 19.5L keg is as fresh as the first (unlike wines served by-the-glass from bottle, where the last pours are often oxidized). It's great for the restaurant and wine bars that serve it because there's no wasted wine from ends of bottles, and no empty bottles to deal with. It's great for wineries because they're not paying for the bottles, capsules, corks, and labels. And it's great for the environment because the packaging that would otherwise be created for short-term storage of wine, and then (ideally) recycled never gets created in the first place. We were proud indeed in 2018 to get a "Keggy" Award from our kegging partner Free Flow Wines for having kegged enough wine over the years to eliminate 100,000 bottles from being created, shipped, and destroyed again: 

Keggy award in the cellarYes, that mini-keg is the Keggy award. No, there was never any wine in it.

For the last decade, we've had the same lineup of wines available in keg, and we've worked hard to keep these wines -- our Patelin de Tablas red, white, and rosé -- in stock year-round. As those three wines form the core of what of ours gets poured by the glass in restaurants around the country, that makes sense to us. And the growth has been impressive, from just a few hundred kegs (still replacing thousands of bottles) in the early years to the roughly 1000 kegs we sold in 2019. We're planning to continue that program, and look forward to seeing it grow.

At the same time, we felt that we could be doing more with our keg program. While the majority of accounts still are using keg wines as their principal by-the-glass options, by-the-glass programs themselves have changed over the last decade. Printing costs used to be higher, reprinting wine lists used to be rarer, and accounts prioritized wines that they knew would still be available in three, six, or nine months. While there are still plenty of restaurants who value stability, more and more treat their by-the-glass lists as a treasure hunt, reprinting on an office laserwriter whenever necessary, or (more and more) just erasing a chalkboard and writing in something new. Far from it being a disincentive that only a few cases of something cool are available, it's become a selling point in many restaurants and wine bars.

The same impetus has spilled over into the world of keg wines. Accounts looking to change up their lists regularly have been reaching out to us and other wineries asking if we'd do custom kegging for them, small-production things that aren't available elsewhere. That's not really feasible for anything other than local accounts, and it's not ideal for the wines, as a single barrel produces roughly twelve kegs, most accounts don't want twelve kegs for programs like this, and what to do with remnant wine at less-than-barrel quantities is a real challenge. We don't just have wine sitting around waiting for someone to ask us to keg it up. Some wineries do, I know, but that's not us. But we have a new idea we're excited about. We've decided to do three small-batch keggings this year, each in 45-65 keg quantities. These will go up to the warehouse we share with our national marketing partners Vineyard Brands, and be available for any of our distributors to order. When they run out, we'll be ready with something else.

What, you ask, will we start with? Vermentino! Vermentino has always been a grape that we've felt would do well in keg because of its freshness and how well it drinks young. We actually did a custom Vermentino kegging several years ago, and it was delicious and well-received (at least until the restaurant we did it for changed wine directors, the new director took the program in a totally different direction, and we had to scramble to find new homes for the kegs we made). We kept 250 gallons out of our recent Vermentino bottling, and sent it up to our partners at Free Flow, who filled 47 kegs. The first 25 kegs are in stock in California, with the balance waiting to go out to some other key markets.

2019 Vermentino in tank

What's coming next? Counoise, we think. Of all our reds, Counoise seems best suited to kegging because of its light body and refreshingly bright flavors. We only had 250 gallons of Counoise after blending the 2018 vintage, and we're planning to put it all in keg sometime in May.

After that, we'll see. We need to get through blending this year before we know what will suggest itself. But I'd love to do another obscure white in early fall, maybe something like Clairette Blanche or Picardan.

We're excited about this new program. If you run a wine-on-tap program and are interested, grab them while they exist. And if you see one in your favorite restaurant or wine bar, order a glass and let us know what you think. Just don't get mad at us if the next time you go back, something else is available. After all, when they're gone, they're gone. And that's a big part of the fun.


Introducing a new wine club: the Esprit Club

We've had pretty much the same collection of wine clubs for most of the last decade. They are (with links to the club pages on our Web site):

  • The VINsider Wine Club. This is our main club begun and kept in more or less the same format since 2002, and probably the most familiar to most people. We pick six bottles we love in the spring and fall, and send them out to members at our standard wine club discount of 20% below list price, plus shipping and tax. Members have the opportunity to choose classic (mixed), red-only, or white-only shipments. 
  • The VINsider Wine Club Collector's Edition. We augment the fall VINsider club shipment with six extra bottles of Esprit, including a few additional bottles of the newest Esprit and Esprit Blanc and a small collection of older Esprit and Esprit Blanc that we've been aging in our cellars. Because that shipment is a case, we bump up the discount to 25% (our case discount for VINsider members), and because it contains six or more bottles of Esprit wines, we include no-charge shipping. We've had a waiting list for this since its second year, and because we only have so much wine in our library, I suspect we always will have to cap membership.
  • The VINdependent Wine Club. For people who don't want preconfigured shipments or want a lesser commitment, all we require is that members purchase a minimum of six bottles per year. Because the commitment is less, the discounts are a bit less too: 10% from bottle one, and 20% on orders of a case of more. If members get to the end of the year and haven't met the 6-bottle commitment, we offer them a choice of three shipments: mixed (the default), red-only, and white only, or the opportunity to configure their own order. We let them know that if we don't hear back from them, they'll get the default shipment.

While I think we have something for almost everyone, there are a couple of sorts of fans for whom none of the above clubs are a perfect fit. One is the cohort of VINdependent Club members who really just want our flagship wines. They typically put together an order of Esprit (and sometimes Panoplie) once a year, to take advantage of the 20% case discount. But they reasonably point out that their order is more valuable to us than most VINsider orders, and wonder why they aren't getting the 25% case discount. The second is our super-fans, who are in the Collector's Edition club and often reach out to us to add additional wines (mostly Esprits) to their spring shipment to get to the point where their shipping is included. They reasonably wonder why they can't get the case discount on their spring club shipment (our software doesn't process club shipments that way).

At the same time, I've felt for a while that we don't do quite enough to elevate the Esprit de Tablas. When you think of Ridge, for all the wonderful wines they make, if you're asked to name a collectible wine, you likely choose Monte Bello. If you think of Justin, you likely think of Isosceles. If you think of Joseph Phelps, you likely recognize Insignia. From my conversations with our fans and our supporters among restaurant and retail buyers, the general consensus is that if it says Tablas Creek, they're going to like it, but that they don't distinguish all that much between the different blends we make. I can't tell you how many times I've had someone tell me they had one of our wines at a restaurant, I ask them which one, and they can't remember. (Or they say Panoplie when they mean Patelin, but that's another story).

Overall, I think this is a good thing. I'm very happy that whether it's Patelin, Cotes, or Esprit, people feel confident that a Tablas Creek blend will be great. But I also think this is a missed opportunity. We really don't think that all three of our main blends are equal. We blend first for the Esprit, and that wine is made up of the best 15%-20% of what we taste in our blending trials. And, the focus grapes of the blend are meaningful, as both Esprits are based on the signature grapes of Beaucastel. We feel that the Esprit is the most tangible connection in our work to the pioneering tradition personified by Jacques Perrin's pursuit of Mourvedre and Roussanne (and the quest to find and regenerate all the traditional varieties of Chateauneuf du Pape) in the 1950s. As my dad says in this video from 2017, it's the wine we came to California to make:

If you combine the fact that we want a club for our superfans, want to give collectors of the Esprit de Tablas wines a home, are looking to give the Esprit wines a higher profile in our marketing, and have noted that we're getting to the point where we're having to choose where to allocate out the limited amount of Esprit that we've got, it seems like an Esprit Club could do all of those things. So, here goes.

We have decided to keep the new Esprit Club simple. Members will get a case of the newest vintage of Esprit de Tablas (red) each spring, at a 25% member savings off of the list price and with no-charge shipping included. That's it. Easy. If our Esprit club members are also members of our VINsider Club they'll get that spring shipment at the additional discount and also with shipping included. Joint Esprit-Collector's Edition Club members (read: those superfans) will get the 25% savings and included shipping on both shipments, which only feels appropriate. 

Esprit Vertical

If you're interested in being a part of the inaugural year of the Esprit club and getting your case of the 2017 Esprit de Tablas, you can read the details of the club and sign up here. If you have feedback on the idea, or other things you'd like us to implement, please leave the suggestions in the comments.


Are we really saying that wine can't compete with hard seltzer on... authenticity?

January is the season where the wine community gets together at events like the Unified Grape & Wine Symposium and the Direct to Consumer Wine Symposium. In preparation for these gatherings, some of the industry's most important thinkers and researchers pull together the data from the previous year and assess the state of the industry.  Two reports that I always read are the Silicon Valley Bank State of the Industry Report and the Sovos/ShipCompliant Direct to Consumer Wine Shipping Report. The keynote "State of the Industry" talk at Unified often provides the take-home messages that then make their way into print headlines.  

As you would expect, some assessments are more pessimistic, while others focus on the positive. This year, it seems like most of the headlines focused on the negative. An article that I thought threaded the needle pretty well to give a balanced assessment was Bill Swindell's piece in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat: US wine shipments increase slightly to 409 million cases in 2019 (although it's worth noting that the original headline was more pessimistic: "US wine shipments increase slightly, despite fears").

Bill points out in his article that despite slight overall growth there are major issues for certain segments of the industry. Lots of grapes went unharvested in 2019. Grape and bulk wine prices on the open market are down, squeezing growers. After years of strong growth, sales flattened in 2019. And younger drinkers (mostly the Millennial generation) have been slower to adopt wine as their beverage of choice than previous generations. So, what's the outlook?

I think it's complicated. The fact that growers are having trouble selling their grapes appears to me to be due to two things:

  1. There has been a ton of speculative planting in recent years. The 2018 California Grape Acreage Report (the most recent year available) shows some 637,000 acres of wine grapes in the state, including 47,000 planted in the last two years and therefore non-bearing. That's new acreage greater than the total acres in Paso Robles, planted just in the last couple of years, and growth of 21% since 2008. And most of this acreage isn't being planted by estate wineries. It's large plots, owned by growers hoping to sell grapes to wineries on the open market.
  2. By and large, the big American wine companies are struggling. According to the SVB Wine Report, the seven largest American wine brands saw a total sales decline of 3.09% last year. That may not sound huge, but as those brands amount to between 68% and 70% of the domestic market, that decline totals some 3.4 million fewer gallons (1.4 million fewer cases) sold. That's a lot of volume for small producers to soak up. And looking locally in Paso bears this analysis out. It’s growers who contracted with these behemoths who are hurting most, leaving grapes unharvested, while demand for premium vineyards has remained strong.

Of course, there are also the demographic challenges that the SVB Wine Report pointed out. Younger generations aren’t adopting wine as fast as the industry hoped they would, with Millennials' share of the wine market growing only from 14% to 17% in the last five years, even though that time frame saw the youngest millennials reach legal drinking age and the oldest approach 40. That said, although I haven't been able to find exactly the right data to prove my point, I'm pretty sure that they're drinking more wine per capita than previous generations were at their age. I'm right in the middle of GenX, I grew up in the wine business, and neither I nor my friends were drinking much wine at age 25. I think it's even less likely that baby boomers were drinking as much wine at age 25 as millennials are now. The peak of the boomer generation would have been 25 in 1980, when cocktails and beer were ascendant and the total American wine market was half the size it is now. Wine coolers? Maybe.

Importantly, things are still growing for quality producers. While wines with prices below $9 showed declines in both sales volume (between 3.5% and 4%) and value (around 2.5%), the picture looks better up the price spectrum. Wines between $9 and $12 were more or less flat in both value and volume. All the categories above $12 showed growth in both volume (between 7.5% and 8.5%) and value (between 4% and 8%). And direct sales from wineries — mostly toward the higher end of the price spectrum — grew 4.7% in volume and 7.4% in value.

What are we to make of all this? I think it's naive to assume that the wine market is somehow immune to the market constraints of supply and demand. Growers shouldn't be able to plant unlimited additional acreage and expect to sell it regardless of quality. Wineries shouldn't be able to muscle whatever production they make into the US market even if they have no path to market or way of connecting with customers.

As far as I'm concerned, that thinking is a relic. Producers need to be focusing on quality. And on responsibility. And on storytelling. And on transparency. If there’s something to learn from analyzing millennials’ buying trends, I think it should be to align your production with customers’ values. Last year’s darling category — hard seltzer — took lots of smart people by surprise. At the DTC symposium, a presenter pointed out that they're making a big deal about it being "pure", to the point that it's part of White Claw's motto. The White Claw home page lists carbs, calories, and alcohol, and the cans all bear a "gluten-free" logo:

White Claw Home Page

Wine is a natural product, made from a healthy raw material (grapes) with relatively benign farming inputs. But somehow hard seltzer has seized the mantle of the new "healthy" alcohol. Why are we as an industry allowing this to go unchallenged? It’s disappointing that the big national wine companies haven’t made any serious efforts at meeting this head-on. Are they just not wired this way? If I were in their shoes (and, let me be clear, I’m happy I’m not) that would be priority number one.

If transparency is at least part of the answer, it will require a major shift in how wine is marketed. The mystique and exclusivity that is a staple of most luxury wine marketing is, I think, part of the barrier that the wine industry has erected between itself and millennials, because it can often come off as elitism.

Back to the conclusion of the Santa Rosa Press article I linked in my second paragraph: “The people who are successful right now are the people who have focused on the quality of the wine and the quality of the experience”. That shouldn’t be shocking. But it's clear that, at least in terms of experience, there's improvement to be made. In a bombshell of a blog post last weekend, Silicon Valley Bank's Rob McMillan shared a letter he received recently from a friend who spent such a disappointing weekend visiting wine country with his GenX daughter — being ignored and taken for granted at one winery after another, all while spending thousands of dollars — that they decided next winter they'd visit the Grand Canyon.

In retrospect, I think we'll realize that lots of wineries have had it easy in recent years. The market was growing fast enough that it absorbed larger quantities and higher prices every year. New states were opening up through liberalized shipping laws, offering wineries direct access to customers and enticing millions of new vacationers to visit wine country. Premium wine regions and highly rated wineries saw enough demand that they didn't need to focus on customer service.

Whether 2019 was a blip or the start of a new era, I think this is a good time to refocus on providing great wine and great experiences, being transparent about how wine is made, and — most importantly — accelerating the improvements in industry practices so that the transparency shows a picture we're proud of. It seems like that would improve things both short and long term.

Are we really saying that wine, made from fruit in a natural process that is millennia-old, shouldn’t be able to compete on authenticity with hard seltzer, an industrial triumph of marketing, developed roughly 15 minutes ago? Give me a break. Let's have this conversation.

Tablas Creek Vineyard  Newly Pruned