What we've learned about making box wine, six months and three colors later

Back in February, I published a blog that created a bit of a stir. In it, I made the case that boxes of wine (the cardboard kind normally found on grocery store shelves, not the wooden kind found in fancy cellars) deserved another look from higher-end producers. It had become stigmatized in the market, the container for what people assumed would be cheap plonk. But I asserted that there were compelling reasons to shift certain wines into boxes, most notably that it offered advantages in preservation (it can last weeks in your fridge after being opened), storage space (glass bottles are bulky, and the packaging needed to cushion them takes up yet more space), and portability (a full 3L bag-in-box weighs seven pounds while the same volume in bottles weighs eleven). Plus, and probably most importantly, because glass bottles are heavy and require lots of energy to melt and mold, a 3L wine bag-in-box offers an 84% carbon footprint reduction vs. the four glass bottles that would contain the same wine.

The blog got 54 comments, more than any other we've ever published. It spurred stories in Wine Searcher, Forbes, and even the Robb Report. I was invited to speak about the decision at the WiVi tradeshow and on the XChateau Podcast. More recently, the New York Times published an article in which wine columnist Eric Asimov pointed to our experiments with the wine boxes as a productive step forward for wine producers grappling with the environmental impact of our default package. The initial batch of 324 boxes of our Patelin de Tablas Rosé sold out four hours after we announced their release in an email to our wine club and mailing list. We made more (522 boxes) of the Patelin de Tablas Blanc in June, and despite releasing them in a much less shipping-friendly season sold them out in less than a month. This week, we put our first red into box, the 2021 Patelin de Tablas. We're planning to release it soon, and I expect it to go fast.

Cellar team making Patelin red boxes Chelsea filling Patelin red boxes

The response from our customers has been amazing. I was hoping that we'd sell out of the Patelin Rosé boxes in a month, so being out in four hours was definitely above my wildest aspirations. And the feedback we've seen from customers either directly or online has been terrific. But I've been most gratified to hear from so many other producers who are also looking to explore this lower-carbon package and want to know what we've learned. A few have even jumped in and done it, including Kobayashi Winery, who released their high-end Roussanne/Marsanne blend in a $195 box.

In the spirit of using the blog to answer the questions I get every day, here's a quick summary of what we've learned after six months:

  • The public is more open than they've ever been to alternative packaging. This first hurdle, which I assumed would be the biggest one, turned out to be no big deal. Granted, we have a direct relationship with the customers on our mailing list and in our wine club. But so do other wineries. And based on the number of people who let me know that this was their first-ever purchase of a boxed wine, we weren't dealing with people who were already converts to the package. That's amazing. And it's not just boxes. Writers as on platforms as diverse and distinguished as JancisRobinson.com, SommTV, San Francisco Chronicle, and Wine Enthusiast have recently published pieces in support of lighter-weight, lower-waste wine containers like boxes, cans, kegs, and bottles made from paper, resin, and plastic. 
  • The wholesale market is likely to be slower to adjust. When I published that February blog, I heard from a few independent retailers around the country asking if they could buy some of these boxes. We didn't make enough this first go-around to sell them in the wholesale market, but I put out some feelers with our wholesalers for next year. Although there were a few exceptions, the responses I got were not generally enthusiastic. Most boiled down to some version of, "You want people to spend how much for your box of wine? That won't work with our current box wine outlets." And I get this. A quick search on the shelves at our local Albertsons revealed a decent array of box wines... all selling for between $20 and $35. Doing the math, that translates to between $5 and $8.75 per 750ml. Our Patelin boxes, priced at $95, work out to $23.75 per 750ml bottle. I submit that this is still a great value -- bottles of Patelin sell for $28, after all -- but I could easily imagine the sticker shock of a grocery store customer wondering what this outlier was doing on a shelf at triple the price of the next-most-expensive box. If someone knows and trusts Tablas Creek already, great. That's easy to overcome. But are those people looking in the box wine section of their local retail store? Perhaps not. However, I still think that there is a market for high-end box wines in wholesale. It's just not at the traditional grocery and retail chain outlets. The sweet spot, I think, would be to market this to smaller, independent retailers who talk to their customers and would be excited to share the advantages of boxes. And to hip restaurants who don't have keg systems to pour wine by the glass. After all, the preservation and waste-reduction advantages offered by boxes could prove incredibly valuable at a restaurant level. No more pouring out the oxidized ends of bottles after two days. No more bins full of empty glass.    
  • The infrastructure to support small producers packaging in bag-in-box has a long way to come... but it could happen fast. There is a supply network that allows small- to medium-size wineries to operate with reasonable economies of scale. These include brokers who consolidate the offerings of vendors of bottles, capsules, labels and corks; mobile bottling lines that allow a winery to bottle a few weeks a year without having to invest in a line that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars; and warehouses who ship wine for hundreds of wineries and can negotiate on reasonable footing with common carriers like UPS and FedEx. All those pieces still need to be developed for boxes of wine. We had one off-the-shelf option (thank you AstraPouch!) on the open market for sourcing our boxes and the bags that go inside. That's fine; you don't need to make millions of boxes to contract with a printer to make your own. We're leaning toward doing so for future runs. But if you were wondering why for this year we used the plain craft cardboard box with our label stuck onto it, well, that was the only option available. For the filling, we had a similarly restricted set of options. There are no mobile boxing lines in California. There is one in Oregon, but the minimum commitment to have them drive all the way down here was in the tens of thousands of boxes. There is a custom boxing line in the Central Valley at which you can rent space if you can bring your wine and materials to them, but their minimums were similarly high. So we were left with renting (and eventually buying) a semi-automated bag filler from Torr Industries and building all the boxes ourselves. That's time consuming (see below) and not very scalable. Finally, on the shipping end, we work with the largest fulfillment house in California to ship our wine to our consumers. They didn't have a package for boxes because they'd never done it before. We had to do a bunch of trial and error, and still aren't 100% satisfied with where we ended up. What's more, neither FedEx nor UPS have approved shipping boxes for wine in box, which means they won't take any responsibility that the product arrives intact.
  • It's time consuming doing the box construction and filling yourself. As I mentioned in the last point, because of the lack of availability and prohibitively high minimum quantities for automated box-filling lines, we had to set up a little assembly line and do it ourselves. You can see the process in the pictures at the beginning of the piece. Someone has to attach the bag to the filler, start the fill, then when it's done detach it and repeat. Meanwhile, someone else has to be assembling and taping the top of the boxes, while yet another person puts a bag into that half-assembled box and then closes and tapes up the bottom. Finally, someone has to carefully stick on the label, then put the box into its "master" case box that holds six of the finished 3L packages. Each stage takes time, on average 30 seconds to fill, 20 seconds to assemble the top of the box, 24 seconds to put the bag into the box and tape up the bottom, and 16 seconds to stick on each label. That's 90 seconds per box of labor. To make 400 boxes, as we did Monday, it takes 10 hours of work time, not counting the time it takes to set up and calibrate the machine, unpack the shipments of materials, or close up finished master cases and prepare them for transport. For our cellar team of four, making 400 3L boxes was an afternoon's work. That's a lot slower than bottling using a mobile bottling line. How much slower? We normally can bottle 2000 cases in a full day of work. The 400 3L boxes is equivalent to 133 9L cases. So if we'd done a full day, we might have finished the equivalent of 275 cases... less than 15% of the volume we could have put into bottles in that same time. That's a huge disincentive to scale up a boxed wine program.
  • The package itself is even better than we'd thought. For all the challenges, we're believers in the package. We're now roughly six months out from our first batch of boxes, and the wine is still showing beautifully when we open a new box, indistinguishable from a newly-opened screwcapped bottle. We've tried the wine after having it be open two months and four months in a fridge, and it showed fresh and pure. We'll keep testing and will know more after a year, but as far as the integrity of the wine in the box, we've been happy.

So, where does this leave us? Not all that far from where we began. We think the package is good for the wine and now have confirmation that consumers are willing to give it a try even at a higher price. We have learned that the infrastructure to support smaller producers who want to move to bag-in-box is limited. We have learned that there are lots of other wineries out there who are interested, but that many are stymied by the lack of infrastructure. And we know that the wine press is focused like never before on bigger picture questions on the sustainability of wine and the containers it comes in.

All this together seems to me like it will result in changes coming sooner than later that will make it accessible for smaller wineries to offer boxes of their wine to customers. After all, it's a business opportunity, as well as a chance to help move the wine world to a lower-carbon future. Now we wait.

Patelin Red Boxes


Why is Glass Recycling in the United States So Dismal?

Glass is a product with a number of inherent advantages. It's made from a readily-available and non-toxic source (sand). It's exceptionally stable and nonreactive, and so provides a terrific vessel for containing products like wine that you might want to store for decades. And it can be melted down and reused without any degradation of its quality, so it's a perfect product for recycling. And yet, in the United States, it's recycled less than a third of the time. This fact is one of the main reasons we've been exploring alternative packaging like the bag-in-box that we debuted for our Patelin de Tablas Rosé earlier this year. But it doesn't have to be this way. Other countries recycle a much higher percentage of their glass than we do here. I found our depressingly low rate of glass recycling eye-opening enough that I have spent a fair amount of time over the last few months researching why. The conclusions say a lot about what our society and industry values right now. I'm guessing and hoping that this information might be eye-opening for you as well.

Before we start investigating why, a quick review of the facts. According to the EPA, in the United States our glass recycling percentage is 31%, and non-recycled glass represents about 5% of the waste that goes into American landfills each year: 7.6 million tons of glass annually. Our recycling rate is less than half of that in Europe (74% overall) and one-third of the best-performing countries like Sweden, Belgium, and Slovenia (all over 95%). And it's actually worse than those numbers appear, since a significant percentage of the glass that is collected and classified as "recycled" in the United States is in fact crushed up and used for road base rather than melted down and used to make new glass.

The stakes are significant. Recycling glass has positive impacts not just on the waste stream, but on energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. According to the Glass Packaging Institute, making new glass containers from recycled glass saves between 20% and 30% of the energy, roughly 50% of CO2 emissions, and offsets a greater-than 100% requirement for inputs, compared to working from raw materials. What's more, according to a 2017 survey by the Glass Recycling Coalition, 96% of Americans want and expect that glass be included in their recycling options.

So why, if waste glass is a usable commodity, if consumers expect to recycle it, and if doing so saves on cost compared to working from raw materials, isn't the picture here better? The consensus among experts is that it boils down to three main factors.

  • The most widely adopted recycling system in the United States is problematic for glass. Single-stream recycling, in which glass, plastic, and paper are co-mingled in a single bin for pickup and transport to a materials recovery facility (MRF), is overwhelmingly the most common community-sponsored recycling system in America. It is convenient for households, who can toss all their recyclables in one place, and for solid waste companies, who can pick them up with one truck. However, while plastic and paper are unlikely to be damaged in the collection process, glass is fragile and often shatters in the collection process, becoming difficult to sort and also contaminating the other recyclables. Plus, single-stream recycling systems encourage “wish-cycling” where consumers throw nonrecyclable products like light bulbs, plastic bags, soiled cardboard, and Styrofoam into their bins figuring that it’s better to over-recycle than to throw away something that’s recyclable. Doing so adds cost to the recycler and sometimes leads to it being less expensive to send loads to the landfill than pay the cleaning and sorting costs. By contrast, multi-stream recycling systems, in which glass, paper/cardboard, and plastic are placed in different receptacles and collected separately, bypass the MRF entirely and can usually go straight to a processing facility. The downside of these systems is that they cost more for the municipality and solid waste companies, and there is often not the political will to pass along these costs to taxpayers. But the difference is outcomes is stark: just 40% of the glass that goes into single-stream recycling systems ends up getting recycled, compared to 90% from multi-stream recycling systems.

Trash and Recycling

  • The United States is big. There are roughly 400 MRF facilities around the country. But there are many fewer glass processing facilities, which turn recycled glass containers into cullet, or usable fragments often sorted by color: just 63 nation-wide, in 30 states. There are even fewer glass manufacturing facilities: just 44, in 21 states. Processing facilities are often far away from population centers where glass is collected and MRFs built. Glass is heavy and bulky, which means that the transportation costs from MRF to processing facility can, absent other incentives, raise the price of the cullet that results high enough to outweigh the savings from using recycled glass.
  • Transparency is low, both pre- and post-consumer. First, from the post-consumer end. Most people don’t know what happens to their recyclables once they’ve been collected. Consumer surveys show that residents overwhelmingly want their communities to recycle, and reasonably assume that if they do their part their municipality will take care of the rest. But municipalities have little incentive to report on what happens after the recycling is collected. Do you know where your town’s recyclables are sorted? Or what percentage is sent to the landfill? Do you know whether the process makes or loses money for the community? I didn’t. And communities, which have largely chosen a recycling system that gives consumers a false sense of effectiveness, don’t have the incentives to make this information easy to find. Second, from the pre-consumer end. Have you ever seen a wine label display the recycled content of their glass? I don’t think I have. That’s an indication that wineries don’t think that their customers care about this information, or at least don’t care enough to displace other content in what is valuable and scarce label real estate. And bottle suppliers don’t seem to think that wineries care about this information. We pushed our glass supplier TricorBraun to get us bottles with the highest-possible percentage of recycled glass. Our antique green bottles are made with between 60% and 70% recycled material, and our flint (clear) bottles made with 35-50% recycled material. That’s the most that’s available for domestically-produced wine bottles. But that information isn’t easy to find. If you look at TricorBraun's selection of Burgundy-shaped bottles, each listing includes information about their weight, base diameter, color, neck size, height, punt height, mold number, capacity, finish, and style. But there’s no information on the bottle’s recycled content. That’s surely an indication that bottle suppliers either don’t see this as a point of differentiation or don’t have recycled content widely enough available for the resulting information to be worth sharing. And wine isn’t unique. Glass containers, whether for beverages, food, or household products, don’t typically disclose the amount of recycled content. All this makes it difficult for a consumer to make informed purchasing decisions. 

So what’s the way forward here, for consumers and wineries? I see a few possible avenues that could help.

  • Wineries: ask your bottle brokers and manufacturers about the recycled content of the bottles you buy, and demand bottles with as high a recycled content as possible. It’s clear to me that bottle producers and brokers are not sufficiently focused on increasing the recycled content of their products. If that’s the case, it’s because it isn’t being asked of them by their customers. Wineries of all sizes, but particularly larger ones, have significant market power. We’re not a large winery, but we will still buy something like 350,000 bottles this year. The larger the winery, the more power you have to move the needle. And for wineries who are a part of organizations like International Wineries for Climate Action (IWCA) and committed to achieving meaningful carbon footprint reductions by 2030, increasing the recycled content of your glass bottles should be a piece of the solution you’re pursuing, along with reducing the weight of those bottles and exploring alternate packaging. Because the glass bottle accounts for more than half the carbon footprint of the average California winery, it also offers the most important target for improvement. 
  • Sustainability certifiers: Add a recycled glass component to your winery metrics if you haven’t already. Most California wineries are a part of a sustainability program. But at least our local program (SIP Certified) doesn’t appear to have any mention of using recycled glass in your bottles in its protocols. I have my issues with sustainability programs, which I’ve shared at length here and elsewhere, but they remain a powerful tool in incentivizing the high percentage of wineries who participate in them to make incremental positive changes. (And wineries, if you’re a part of a sustainability program that doesn’t include anything about this, ask them why.)
  • Consumers: Ask the wineries that you patronize about the recycled content of their bottles. If you have a direct relationship with any wineries, reach out to them directly. Wineries are unusual consumer products in that most do have direct relationships with many of their customers. But if you don’t, ask your local retailer. If they don’t know, they can ask the distributor. The more people along the supply chain who are inquiring about this information, the more pressure there will be on bottle suppliers to use more recycled content, the more market there will be for recycled glass, which will make it more attractive for communities to recycle their waste glass rather than sending it to the landfill.
  • Everyone: Push your communities to be more transparent about the outcomes of their recycling programs. This is particularly important if you’re a part of a single-stream recycling system. If the recyclables are being sorted and used at a high rate, that’s great. But it’s likely not. If not, push for multi-stream recycling, or at least better education on why materials aren’t being used. Is it because of contamination? If so, encourage your community to share information about the costs of “wish-cycling”. Is it a cost decision? Find out what it would take to implement a multi-stream recycling program. There are real challenges here, particularly with the market for recycled commodities still developing. But the status quo, where local governments are quietly misleading their citizens about the efficiency of their recycling programs, isn’t viable.

We know that we can do better, because European countries have shown the way, typically with a combination of multi-stream recycling (to produce good supply) and industry mandates for recycled content (to ensure that there is demand). Neither of those are impossible here; they're just a question of focus and political will. Yes, distances are shorter in Europe; the more densely populated continent means that the shipping costs between consumer collection and glass processing are less. But that’s an incremental difference. If there were more demand from consumers and beverage producers, there would be more recycled glass products available. And that would create a positive feedback loop that would encourage better recycling decisions at the community level.

Glass RecyclingPhoto modified from the original on Wikimedia Commons by user Ecovidrio

We can do the same, or something similar, here. Let’s get to work.


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

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

Ian Consoli award winner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The ROC Logo - Coming Soon to a Label (and Shelf) Near You

This week, we bottled seven varietal whites from the 2021 vintage. These included some of our stalwart varietal bottlings (Viognier, Picpoul, and Grenache Blanc), some rare grapes where our varietal bottling is one of the only ones in the world (Bourboulenc, Picardan, and Clairette Blanche), and one blend, our Cotes de Tablas Blanc. We'll be releasing them one or two at a time over the next few months, so if you're on our mailing list, be sure to keep an eye on your emails. The septet:

2021 Whites - Front View

I am super excited to have these wines in bottle, both because it was clear to me in this year's bending trials that 2021 has a chance to be a truly memorable vintage, and because we've been so short on white wines that many people's favorites are sold out on our website and we had to suspend our white wine tasting flight for a while until last month's bottling of the Patelin de Tablas Blanc gave us the bare minimum. So the wines will be incredibly welcome, especially as some of our early-in-the-year white wine releases like Vermentino and Roussanne start to get scarce.

But that's not the reason I'm writing a blog about them. I'm doing that because they're the first wines we've bottled to carry the twin logos of CCOF Organic Certified and Regenerative Organic Certified™ (ROC™):

2021 Whites - Back View

We've written a lot here, directly and indirectly, about why we're so excited about the Regenerative Organic Certified program. If you haven't yet read Viticulturist Jordan Lonborg's piece Introducing Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC): Farming Like the World Depends on It go do that now. But it boils down to the fact that we think that the ROC program provides a framework for how agriculture can be a part of the solution to big-picture societal problems like resource scarcity, climate change, biodiversity loss, and inequality. It's a game changer, with a broader focus than organic (though with the same government-enforced rigor), less tied up in mysticism than Biodynamics (though many of the soil health protocols of ROC come from Biodynamics), and much more rigorous than sustainability certifications (which typically permit at least the limited use of chemicals like RoundUp).

ROC's combination of rigor and breadth is why we think that for the first time it's worth jumping through the hoops to put a seal on our labels. Although we've been farming organically since our inception, and been certified since 2003, we never before put an organic seal on our bottles, mostly because in order to use the NOP seal you can't add any sulfur in winemaking, which makes fermentations prone to volatility and reduces the wine's ability to age. Yes, there's an exception where you can say "made with organic grapes" but that's never felt particularly satisfying; if you want the deep dive, I talk about why in some detail on the blog here and here. And although we've been farming Biodyamically since 2010 and got our certification in 2016, we've never put a Biodynamic seal on our bottles, mostly because of the restrictions on winemaking, most notably the prohibition of any acid additions, which can be necessary to ensure proper fermentation and bottle aging in a warm climate like Paso Robles.

But ROC feels different enough from anything that's come before that we decided this was a certification worth displaying. So we've been spending the last few months figuring out how to navigate a process that involves approvals from the ROA (who runs the ROC program), CCOF (our organic certifier), and the TTB (which oversees federal label approvals). Because the ROC program is so new, and because the NOP standards treat alcohol differently than other foodstuffs, we've been breaking new ground. And it turned out that because the ROC logo contains the word "organic" written out, we needed also to include the seal of our organic certifier and the text "Made with organically grown grapes certified organic by CCOF" to be compliant. I'm not sure I would have wanted to do that without the ROC logo, but I'm totally fine with them both in conjunction. The final result: 

ROC and CCOF Logos on 2021 Cotes Blanc

Many of these first seven wines are only going to be sold at the winery. But the 2021 Cotes de Tablas Blanc will start to go out to wholesalers as soon as next week. So there's a chance you could see it on a shelf, or on a table at a restaurant, as soon as this summer. And it's just the beginning. As the rest of our estate wines from 2021 get bottled, they too will carry these two seals. We're hoping that they spark interest and start conversations. Wine label real estate is precious space; you only have a relatively few square inches to tell people what you and your wine are all about. We're proud to dedicate a piece of that space to this effort.


What does it mean that Napa Valley is too pricey for the Wall Street Journal?

The article making waves in wine circles this weekend was Lettie Teague's most recent column for the Wall Street Journal: Who Can Afford Napa Now? Not This Wine Columnist. In it, she uses the opening of a $1300/night hotel and a $900 tasting package as examples of a region whose increasing focus on high-priced experiences runs the risks of alienating long-time customers and locals while also pricing out the new generation that the local industry hopes will become future Napa wine lovers. In her conclusion, she includes a comment from Tor Kenward, the winery owner with the eye-opening $900 tasting:

"Of course there are many other wine regions in California where the prices are lower and winery tastings are even, often, free. 'I tell wine lovers to go to Mendocino, to go to Santa Barbara,' Mr. Kenward said. I decided to follow his advice myself. Stay tuned to this column."

It is of course true that looking only at the most expensive hotel rooms and winery tasting packages (many of which are signaling to their hoped-for audience with the price) isn't the full story. As Lettie explains in the article, the average tasting fee for a "base" experience in Napa Valley has risen, but is still just $40.62 according to CellarPass. An "elevated" experience averages $82.26. And a quick check of Expedia for a two-night Thursday/Friday stay in June offers budget lodging options in the low-$200s and nicer hotels and resorts starting around the mid-$400s (yes, there are more expensive options, including the $1799 price tag for the Stanly Ranch whose $1300 base mid-week rate was the article's main example). So, while Napa Valley is an expensive place to visit, it's still possible for a consumer used to buying $50+ bottles of wine and spending $100 per person on a meal to build a viable trip without totally breaking the bank. But her point remains: people who want to feel that they've experienced the best the region has to offer must now budget several thousand dollars for a visit.

In my nearly three decades in business, it's been drummed into me that it's a very good idea to focus on your core product, and to tailor your other offerings to support that main product. In our example at Tablas Creek, we want to sell wine and add (and keep) people loyal to our wine club. So we've priced our other offerings accordingly. Our tasting fee is $25/person, and we comp that on the purchase of two bottles of wine. Tastings are free to all our club members. Our tours are free. We pour guests 6 or 7 tastes of wines priced between $28 and $65, so the cost of the tasting just covers the cost of the samples. For what it's worth, I consider each tasting fee we collect a failure, because it means that the guest didn't like anything enough to buy two bottles or the experience enough to sign up for one of our wine clubs.

So why do we charge a tasting fee at all? Two reasons. First, we want to weed out people who just want a cheap place to drink wine. If people look at our fee and think "that seems like a lot" they're probably not great candidates to buy our wine, and we want as much of our limited capacity as possible to go to current or potential future customers. Second, people often don't value what they don't pay for, as this article from Business Insider explains well. You are signaling how much you believe your offerings are worth when you put a price on it. Your decision to offer it for free sends a signal about how much someone should value that product or experience. 

Still, the 15% or so of our visitors who pay a tasting fee isn't a big piece of our profitability. Even if we changed our policies and 100% of our 30,000 annual guests paid the $25 it would be less than 10% of our revenue. So it's easy to be generous with our visiting policies, and use them to support the wine sales and wine club signups that are our bread and butter. For me, the sign that this is working is the relatively small percentage of visitors who pay a fee, and the long median tenure of our wine club members, which at the end of last year was a little more than four years, roughly triple the industry average.

So, what's going on in Napa? I think it's best understood as a shift of business priorities, with some unintended follow-on effects. At $100+ per experience, unless it's for a very expensive wine, the tasting fee is not a supporting product. And at $900, it's not a supporting product no matter the price of the wine. That experience, and the fee it comes with, is the main event. And that's what I think is at the root cause of some of the sky-high prices there. With the massive popularity of Napa Valley as a tourist destination, and many of the tourists coming from international locations where it's impossible or impractical to ship wine, a winery is behaving rationally by looking to turn the visit itself into a profit center. Yes, it may shock and disappoint a regular visitor to the region, but the high prices are telling those visitors that they're not the winery's target audience anyway. For someone coming from far away and looking for a once-in-a-lifetime experience, I get it. It's not what I'd look to do as a wine lover. And it's not what I'd want Tablas Creek to do as a business. But I get it.

The unintended consequences come in for the wineries who see their neighbors (who may have different target audiences or production levels than they do) raising prices and are then left with the dilemma that pricing, as I mentioned earlier, is seen a proxy for worth. Do they raise their prices to keep up and risk losing their historic audience? Do they keep their prices and risk being seen as less elite than their neighbors? Or do they try to split the difference (as, if I read between the lines in the article, it seems that the lovely, historic Spottswoode Winery has done) and feel guilty about it? Unfortunately there's not a great solution once a critical mass of wineries has set dramatically higher prices for themselves.

But whatever the downstream results, it seems clear that Napa Valley has set itself up for a future with higher, and perhaps dramatically higher, prices for visitors. With that, it seems inevitable that some wine lovers who are turned off by the change will decide to branch out and come to places like Paso Robles, where creating life-long customers for our wine remains the primary focus. And that writers, like Lettie, who have previously focused a large share of their attention on Napa Valley, will decide to write more about other California wine regions. Those are downstream consequences that would be just fine with me.

Rainbow over Paso Robles sign


On the Road Again

By Darren Delmore.

Like a UFO in its own right, my Tablas Creek Subaru Outback fireballed through the Chihuahuan desert in late-February. It’d been awhile since I’d hit the road for wholesale market work. My Southwest odyssey included winemaker dinners and tastings in Arizona, Texas and New Mexico. I saw a country that was coming back, climbing out of the pandemic, and ready to drink some Tablas Creek.

Call me old school, but driving instead of flying had more pros than cons; including the transport of newly released rosé samples, catching up on long phone calls, the bevy of interesting wine podcasts that are available nowadays (I’ll Drink to That, Disgorgeous), and the chance to add in a mystical pitstop like Marfa, Texas along the way. Plus, now I truly know the meaning behind the phrase “longer than a Texas mile”.

Marfa

Texas, as suspected, seemed like nothing unusual had really happened over the last two years. My week-long tour there, which began in Houston, was as busy as any market visit in my ten year history with Tablas Creek, and included a luncheon for wine directors and shop owners, appointments from Uptown to Montrose, and even a sold-out in-person dinner at the great Backstreet Café, with whom we partnered for a virtual wine dinner during the thick of things. It was good to see their sommelier Sean Beck owning the room like normal, and blowing off some social rust of my own. The crowd washed down chili-rubbed snapper on lemongrass risotto with Cotes de Tablas Blanc, feasted on lamb sausage and white bean cassoulet with Patelin de Tablas Rouge, and capped off the night with Bulgogi style braised beef cheeks on a pomegranate reduction, paired with our Mourvédre. 

I witnessed Austin on a rare, freezing day with a wind chill factor sending things into the 18 degree temperature range. Not even the warm, pillowy breakfast tacos at Tacodeli could prepare me for the frigid airmass.

Tacodeli

I’ll never forget my parking lot tasting of the new wines with the Austin Wine Merchant, homeless folks asking us for tastes, and realizing how many layers of fabric I was lacking.

AWM

Had I not driven, I would’ve never made it up to Dallas, courtesy of a massive ice storm that shut down highways and the school system on the Thursday I was slated to work and do a wine dinner. I white knuckled it from Austin to Dallas in a specific window of Wednesday night before the freezing rain set in, like a Wal-Mart trucker with a haul full of toilet paper back in April 2020. Our dinner event was ultimately canceled because of the ice, though our Vineyard Brands manager Todd got me around town to show our wines to a handful of accounts and make the journey worthwhile.

Then off again, passing through Amarillo and on to Santa Fe to the shuffling sounds of Townes Van Zandt and Khruangbin, I arrived in time for top chef Laura Crucet’s culinary crescendo at Pig and Fig Café in White Rock, New Mexico. We debuted the 2021 Patelin de Tablas Rosé to the forty-plus attendees, before art-exhibit-worthy plates of braised buffalo ravioli with Mourvédre and tzatziki drizzled Moroccan Lamb Kefta with Esprit de Tablas Rouge transported us all into gastronomical bliss.

The homestretch of Arizona had me in Phoenix visiting a few restaurant accounts and wine shops, all of which had an increased focus on more organically grown wines than I remember from before the pandemic. Spring training was still on hold, so buyers and restaurant owners had a lot of downtime to meet and taste and hear what's new. You now can find our wines at Sauvage, Faraway Wines and Provisions, Restaurant Progress, Tratto, and many more cool AZ accounts.

Tratto

Lastly, I concluded the odyssey in Tucson, in the Barrio Viejo to be specific, at the beautiful, classic restaurant The Coronet. I showed the owners around our vineyard during Covid, and we plotted a delectable collaboration. The timing seemed right; the Gem Show had just brought somewhat normal business to town, snowbirds had flocked in, and we had fifty reservations for a dinner event that included Thai Mussels and Roussanne, Duck Leg Confit and Patelin de Tablas Blanc,  and Venison on a charred onion blackberry puree with Esprit de Tablas Rouge. VINsiders, restaurant owners from Alaska, and Tablas fans from Minnesota were in the house, to the tinkling ivories and bassy grooves of a local jazz trio.

Barrio

I had to step back a few times and take the familiar scene in. We’re back, it seems, and we’re out here.


A Blast from the Past and a Prototype for the Future: A Look at the 2002 Glenrose Vineyard "Las Tablas Estates" at Age 20

2001 was a traumatic vintage for us. After a relatively warm winter produced early budbreak, consecutive nights of hard freezes in late April hit hard. Yields were just 1.4 tons per acre, down by 39% despite additional acreage in production. Worse, the frost hit right as the Mourvedre was sprouting. Typically, Mourvedre, which sprouts late, dodges the spring frosts and provides a hedge against the lost production from other more precocious grapes. Not in 2001. In the end the uneven Mourvedre quality, combined with the low overall yields, dictated that we not even make an Esprit de Beaucastel. We ended up declassifying almost the entire red vintage into Cotes de Tablas, which we were selling for $22/bottle at the time. Ouch.

I moved out here to California in April of 2002, and that experience was fresh. We looked forward and foresaw a few years with both cash flow and profitability challenges thanks to the short 2001 crop. And we had no assurance this would be a one-off event. Several other local wineries told us to should expect frosts like that in our chilly inter-mountain valley every few years. So when my dad and I sat down and brainstormed how we were going to get more wine into production and protect ourselves against potential future frosts, the additional acreage that we'd planted in 1999 and 2000 didn't seem like it would be an adequate solution. 

Enter Glenrose Vineyard and its proprietor Don Rose. He'd been one of the first customers of the Tablas Creek Nursery back in 1996, and planted an array of our cuttings onto his hillside property. This is about five miles east and a little bit south of Tablas Creek, on one of the ridges in the hills that separate us from the town of Paso Robles. Critically, the vineyards sit between 1700 and 2000 feet in elevation, high enough that they are usually above the frost line. And it's a stunning vineyard [see some striking photos here] with soils even more calcareous than what we have under our own vineyard, particularly after Don carved terraces into the steep hillside so it would be farmable. We reached out to Don and worked out an agreement for him to sell us some grapes for 900 cases of a wine, which would become the 2002 Las Tablas Estates "Glenrose Vineyard":   

Glenrose 2002 in 2022
We decided that in order to have something different from our Mourvedre-based Esprit de Beaucastel and our Grenache-based Cotes de Tablas this wine should be based on Syrah. So we contracted for grapes, brought them into the cellar, and crushed, fermented, and blended the wine. It turned out to be delicious, with the darkness of the Syrah, the minerality of the chalky soils, and a distinctive violet florality. We released it in April of 2004 and it was a welcome wine for our tasting room as we worked through the shortages from our estate 2001 wines. We contracted for a second vintage in 2003, and (in smaller quantities) 2004 as well. My vision for this project at the time was to eventually develop a series of 3-5 different vineyards that had our grapevines in the ground, and have us produce a vineyard designate of each under this "Las Tablas Estates" label. But it didn't turn out that way.

So, why didn't this work? There were a few reasons:

  • Production off our own vineyard rebounded. We had a productive vintage in 2002, and another one in 2003, and another in 2004. As it turned out, our next major frost wasn't until 2009. And that production grew fast. After harvesting just 85 tons off our estate in 2001, that total more than doubled to 203 tons in 2002, thanks to the combination of no frost and yet more acreage coming into production. And it went up again to 232 tons in 2003. So we had our hands full finding homes for all this new estate production, and it started to feel like a distraction establishing this side-project, with a different label and a related but different story.   
  • We diversified our own estate offerings. This was also the era where we were starting to offer varietal bottlings of these new-to-most-consumers Rhone grapes. I wrote about that last year after tasting our first such wine, the 2001 Roussanne. But in 2002 we added six new varietal bottlings: Grenache Blanc, Vermentino, Syrah, Counoise, and Tannat. In 2003 we added Viognier, Picpoul Blanc, and Mourvedre (as well as our first Vin de Paille). All of a sudden we had lots of other wines to talk about and slot into wine club shipments.
  • We decided it would be a mistake to sell the wine in wholesale. This was an era where we had gone through a series of name and label changes as we found our footing in the market. [See this blog my dad wrote in 2011 for a few of them.] Wholesalers value continuity and familiarity. In a crowded marketplace where a distributor rep might only take out a few bottles of Tablas Creek each year, and a restaurant or retailer might only have one presented occasionally, the bar to launch a new product is high. We were worried that doing so would further confuse the market and compete with either the Cotes de Tablas, the Esprit de Beaucastel, or both. So that meant just selling the Glenrose Vineyard in the tasting room and on our website.
  • The timing and pricing weren't different enough from our estate wines. Because the wine was based on Syrah, which benefits from time in barrel to soften, we couldn't really push the wine's bottling early enough to help cover the holes produced by 2001's short crop. So we ended up releasing it after our 2002 Cotes de Tablas and only slightly ahead of our 2002 Esprit de Beaucastel. If we'd had a frost in 2002, that would have been fine. But of course, we didn't. And then didn't again the next year, or the next. And as for price, we decided to sell it at $32.50, which was only slightly below the $35 price of the Esprit in that era. We realized that we hadn't left ourselves a lot of room in pricing. Cheaper than the Cotes' $22/bottle would have meant we lost money. More expensive than the Esprit would never have made sense.

As we approached the time in early 2005 when we were going to have to bottle the follow-up vintage of 2003 Glenrose Vineyard, we decided that it would be a mistake to do so. So we reached out to some of our neighbors, and ended up selling both the finished 2003 Glenrose, ready to bottle, and the just-fermented 2004 Glenrose, to a local winery. We watched with both pride and a bit of regret as it got high scores and established a brand for them that lasted several years. And the Glenrose Vineyard became a go-to sought out and celebrated by some of the region's top local Rhone producers, including Paix Sur Terre, Adelaida, Thacher, Lone Madrone, and many more.

I found a bottle of that wine (under screwcap!) in our library and opened it over the weekend. It was in beautiful shape. My tasting notes:

Still very much alive. Cherry and currant, leather and pepper, and a sarsaparilla-like sweet spice on the nose. The mouth is similar, with flavors of licorice and plum and sweet baking spices. A Worcestershire-like umami character is the best sense of the wine's two decades of age. The tannins are mostly resolved, ushering in a hint of that violet florality I've always associated with the site 

I still think the basic idea is one that could work, particularly now that our biggest challenge is not enough wine, not too much. But we did take a lot of the lessons from this experience to heart when we next launched ourselves into the world of grape purchases. Five years after we pulled the plug on the Glenrose Vineyard wine, we responded to our next big frost by launching the Patelin de Tablas and Patelin de Tablas Blanc.

Like the Glenrose Vineyard, the Patelin red is based on Syrah, to distinguish it from the other main blends we make. And thanks to the screwcap experiment we did with this wine we felt confident putting even the Patelin red under that closure. But the Patelin wines have a clearer place in our hierarchy than the Las Tablas Estates did. They are our entry-level wines, which we hope restaurants will pour by the glass. We bottle them just before the subsequent harvest, which means they're less expensive to make, require less foudre space, and can be released into the market before the estate wines of the same vintage. That came in very handy in addressing frost years like 2009 and 2011. They include some Tablas Creek fruit, whose percentage can vary from very little in short crops to more significant when we have surplus estate production (as in 2010, or 2020). There are white and (since 2012) rosé versions, better matching our own vineyard's mix and the demands of the market. It shares the Tablas Creek label, allowing it to benefit from our own branding and also when people discover and love it to lead them to what else we do. And it feels appropriate that they be less expensive than our estate wines, which are after all organic, Biodynamic, and Regenerative Organic Certified. 

Still, I love how things come full circle. One of the vineyards that we reached out to source that first 2010 Patelin de Tablas was Glenrose Vineyard. And there will be some Glenrose Vineyard in the 2021 Patelin. That feels right, and appropriate. I only hope that the wines hold up as well as that 2002 I opened on Saturday did.


Why we believe the time is right for a $95 box of wine

Last summer, I wrote a blog I called A Winery Carbon Footprint Self-Assessment: Why I Can't Give Us an "A" Despite All Our Progress in which I broke down how we stacked up against the baseline California winery across all the components that make up our carbon footprint, from vineyard to winery to packaging and transport of finished wine. Overall, we look good against the baseline, thanks to the combination of organic farming with minimal outside inputs, solar power, and the lightweight glass that we use for all our bottles. My rough estimate is that we have about 60% of the carbon footprint of the baseline.

One of the things that was really driven home to me as I did this research was the importance of the packaging in wine's overall environmental footprint. According to the assessment of California Wine's Carbon Footprint published by the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CSWA) in 2011, which is what I used as my baseline, more than half of California wine's impact is due to the packaging in glass bottles. And that's not surprising; glass is energy-intensive to make and transport, as it requires high temperatures to melt and mold and is heavy to transport. Moving to lightweight glass reduces a winery's footprint by 10%, while using heavy bottles adds 10% to that tally, according to the CSWA's report:

CO2 Impact by Bottle Weight

In the piece, I did mark us down a bit for not using the 3L bag-in-box, which is by far the most effective package for reducing wine's carbon footprint. But I admit that I didn't take it particularly seriously, as the market for the 3L wine boxes is still (at least in the United States) almost entirely a bottom shelf one, with boxes topping out around $30 retail. Given that our least expensive wine at the time was $25, and the box contains four bottles, I didn't think it was an option for us.

After I published this piece, I got a number of interesting comments that made me rethink that position. A great example is one on my personal Facebook page from friend and former wine blogger Jason Mancebo:

Really great effort here, Jason. Tons of respect for your efforts and transparency in that effort! One thing that rubs me a bit wrong is: ...."we don't use the bag-in-box 3 liter package (the best available package, in terms of CO2 footprint) at all, and likely won't as long as it still carries the stigma of grocery store generic."
 
Leadership requires risk and without risk, this (stigma) won't ever change. A winery of your size and your commitment to environmental issues is a perfect "Poster Child" to change the stigma. As a consumer I wish I had more choice on quality wine than the 750 glass bottle. Cans are great, but limited selection and volume requirements = lower quality. the 3L would be great, especially to ship for @home consumption. Go for it! Be the change!!

Since then, I've found my own feelings around the 3L bag-in-box evolving. And Jason was right; the issues with the format -- at least for wine made for short-term consumption -- are almost entirely about consumer perception. After all, think of the advantages:

  • Preservation. When you open a bottle of wine, the liquid inside is exposed to oxygen, and starts the clock ticking on the destructive effects of oxidation. If you're careful, and re-cork or re-cap the wine promptly and put it back in the fridge, you can get a week or so of life. If you forget and leave the half-empty bottle on your dinner table, it's likely to be compromised by morning. But not in a bag-in-box. Because the bag containing the wine deflates inside the box as you pour wine out of its spigot, oxygen never comes into contact with what remains inside, and you can keep an open box in good shape for weeks or a few months in your fridge.
  • Storage space. It's amazing how much space and weight are taken up by the bottles and the fact that because they're round and breakable they can't even sit snugly next to each other. When we got a look at our first 3L boxes they looked so small that we thought the vendor had sent us 1.5L boxes. It wasn't until we measured out three liters of water and filled one up that we realized that it was three liters after all. That saved space is extra room in your fridge and in our winery and warehouse.
  • Portability. Liquid is heavy, but wine bottles are too. The 470 gram (1 lb.) bottles that we use are among the lightest on the market. Even so, they end up making up nearly 40% of the finished 1,220 gram (2.7 lbs.) weight of a filled bottle. Four full bottles together weigh nearly 11 pounds. The full 3L bag-in-box weighs less than seven. That's easier to lift and take with you, sure, but it's also cheaper to truck and ship. Plus... glass is breakable. Liquid in a plastic bag inside a cardboard box? Not so much.
  • Footprint. The CSWA chart that I shared above makes the case clearly. Compared to the packaging required to put that same wine in 750ml glass bottles, the carbon footprint of the bag-in-box package is 84% less, and the carbon footprint of distributing this lighter, more compact package is 60% less. The CSWA study didn't specifically look at the footprint of delivering direct-to-consumer (DTC) wines, but I'm sure the savings of moving to bag-in-box is similar if not greater than the savings via distribution, given all the packaging that's required to ship glass bottles safely via companies like UPS and FedEx and the greater per-bottle transportation footprint of air shipping compared to palletized wholesale transport by truck or rail.

Of course, there are unknowns about this package too. Is it good for long-term aging of wine? I'd doubt it. Is the package recyclable? The boxes are, although the plastic pouches inside are not in most places. (Of course, in America our glass recycling percentage is a disheartening 31%, so this still means a lot less trash headed to the landfill on average). And will people buy it at a price that allows higher-end wineries to adopt the package? I floated on Twitter that we were thinking about trying it with our new vintage of Patelin Rosé and got a heartwarmingly enthusiastic set of responses.

It seems like it's time to find out the answer to the question "will people buy a high-end wine in a box". To that end, we've decided to dip our toe into this water by diverting 100 cases of the 2021 Patelin de Tablas Rosé into 300 3L bag-in-box packages. The Patelin Rose seems like a great place to start, since it's a wine that we suggest that people drink in the near-term anyway. A few photos of the process. First, Austin at the filling machine (left) and Chelsea building boxes (right):

Box of rose filling

Box of rose making boxes

Then Gustavo putting on labels (left) and the finished box (right)!

Box of rose labeling

Box of rose finished

Since we're paying less for the packaging, we'll be passing along that savings to customers, pricing each box at $95 instead of the $112 that the four bottles would cost. Because it takes up less space and weighs less, we can pass on shipping savings too, counting each box as two bottles for shipping rather than four.  

Will that be enough to tempt people who might not have dreamed of buying a box of wine? I hope so. For this batch, we're only making it available for sale direct, i.e. on our website and in our tasting room, so we can explain directly to the customers who might be interested why we've made this choice. If it works, we'll do it with some additional wines going forward. If it really works, we might even make enough next year to sell some wholesale. After all, there was a time when screwcaps were considered appropriate only for cheap wines. And when wine in keg, to be ordered by the carafe or glass, was unheard of. But in both cases we decided that we trusted our followers enough to try, because we thought that the decisions were the right ones for the wines. In this case, we think it's an important approach to try both for the wine, and for the planet.

Patelin Rose Box with Amanda Jason and Neil

No time like the present to find out if we're right. If you're on our mailing list, look for an email next week announcing its release.


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