You aren’t hearing as much about the Rocks District as you should be. You might be surprised why.

I’m not sure there’s any American Viticultural Area (AVA) as aptly named as the Rocks District of Milton-Freewater. Located in north-east Oregon just 15 minutes south of the city of Walla Walla, Washington, it’s the closest thing I’ve ever seen to the look of Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Vines grow in deep beds of basalt cobblestones, the product of ancient volcanic eruptions, rolled and smoothed as they were tumbled down from the nearby Blue Mountains by the Walla Walla River and then deposited on the valley floor in an alluvial fan. Adding to the region's allure, it sits at roughly the same latitude as the southern Rhone. A majority of the vines are Rhone-derived; more than 45% of the vineyard acres are planted to Syrah, with other Rhone grapes like Grenache, Picpoul, Bourboulenc, Clairette, Grenache Blanc, and Roussanne all represented too. In just a few short years, the Rocks District has built a reputation as a place to find some of the most interesting Rhone varieties in America.

Rocks District Vines - Closeup

Neil, Cesar Perrin, Nicolas Brunier and I had the pleasure of exploring this remarkable terroir with Delmas Wines’ Brooke Robertson while we were in town for the recent Hospice du Rhone celebration.

Jason  Neil  Cesar  and Nicolas with Brooke Robertson

If great wines are borne out of struggle, this region is destined for greatness. Not only do the vines have to navigate the rocks and the paltry twelve inches of rainfall, but they have to live through winter freezes so cold that most producers (including Delmas) now bury their vines every winter to provide insulation, and then unbury them in time to prune and start the growing season1. The 300 days of sun, the long summer days due to the northern latitude, summer daily high temperatures routinely in the 90s°F and not infrequently in the 100s°F, allow for enough ripening in the short season, which can end with a freeze any time after the calendar flips to October. And did I mention the rocks?

Rocks District Cobbles

At Hospice du Rhone, the wines from Rocks District fruit were among my highlights of the Grand Tasting, with as clear a signature as any AVA or appellation I can think of. The fact that it’s a small AVA (just 3,767 acres, or less than 1% of the acreage within the Paso Robles AVA) surely helps, along with its climatic uniformity, but I think that the rocks themselves play an important role. As in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, those rocks absorb and reflect the sun, warming the ripening clusters, producing rich, powerful wines with a distinctive umami flavor of baked loamy earth.

The AVA was created relatively recently, with work beginning in 2011 and formal recognition from the United States Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) in 2015. There are now, according to the AVA’s website, 52 vineyards encompassing 640 acres. More than 50 wineries source fruit from these vineyards, although there are only five production facilities within the AVA’s boundaries. Many more facilities are just a few minutes away, in Walla Walla, the center for wine production (and wine tourism) in the area, and the namesake of the larger AVA in which the Rocks District is nested. And that distance, minor though it seems, provides one of the region’s biggest challenges.

In the federal regulations that govern the American Viticultural Area (AVA) system2, there’s a clause that I’d never noticed before this visit. It says that a wine may be labeled with a viticultural area appellation if it satisfies a series of criteria, one of which is that “it has been fully finished within the State, or one of the States, within which the labeled viticultural area is located”. This clause means that all the wineries with production facilities in Walla Walla (in Washington State) can’t label their Rocks District vineyards with its AVA because that AVA lies entirely in the state of Oregon. Delmas is one of those wineries, so their labels just say Walla Walla.

Neil, Cesar, Nicolas and I were frankly flabbergasted by this restriction when we learned about it. After all, what does a state boundary (or for that matter, where a production facility is located) have to do with viticultural distinctiveness? It seemed to me that this goes against the stated purpose of an AVA, which as explained on the TTB’s website, is:

“An AVA is a delimited grape-growing region with specific geographic or climatic features that distinguish it from the surrounding regions and affect how grapes are grown. Using an AVA designation on a wine label allows vintners to describe more accurately the origin of their wines to consumers and helps consumers identify wines they may purchase.”

That I never knew about this clause in the AVA regulations stems from California’s central place in the firmament of American wine. We’ve never seriously thought about getting fruit from other states. We’re excited, with the launch of our Lignée de Tablas program, to explore other California AVAs, and that’s no problem. But the fact that we can get fruit from the Sierra Foothills (6 hours away from Paso Robles) and use their AVA but Delmas can’t get fruit from their own vineyard, 15 minutes away from the winemaking facility they share with dozens of other local wineries, feels unfair.

The TTB in fact foresaw the challenge that the creation of this new Oregon AVA so close to the region’s winemaking nexus in Washington state would pose for producers. In the 2014 notice of proposed rulemaking for the Rocks District AVA, they solicit feedback on the topic:

“TTB is interested in comments from persons who believe they may be negatively impacted by the inability to use ‘The Rocks District of Milton– Freewater’ as an appellation of origin on a wine label solely because they use facilities located in Washington.”

The TTB must have received enough feedback to convince them that there was support for modifying their rules, because the next year they proposed a rule change to address it:

“The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) is proposing to amend its regulations to permit the use of American viticultural area names as appellations of origin on labels for wines that would otherwise qualify for the use of the AVA name, except that the wines have been fully finished in a State adjacent to the State in which the viticultural area is located, rather than the State in which the labeled viticultural area is located. The proposal would provide greater flexibility in wine production and labeling while still ensuring that consumers are provided with adequate information as to the identity of the wines they purchase.”

I would have thought that the TTB’s proposed rule change would have been uncontroversial, but it ended up far from the case. Organizations that submitted letters in opposition included Napa Valley Vintners, Family Winemakers of California, the Washington State Wine Commission, and the California Wine Institute. Some included proposed changes that would satisfy their concerns, while others just requested that the proposed new rule be scrapped. Even the Oregon Winegrowers Alliance & Walla Walla Wine Alliance submitted a comment in opposition, although the change that they requested was minor. In every case, the stated reason for opposition was because the regional associations worried that state laws that modify the federal regulations overseeing wine production would be unenforceable in a neighboring state. A good example would be the Oregon requirement that to be varietally labeled, a wine must contain 90% of the listed grape, a more restrictive standard than the federal requirement that a varietal wine contain at least 75% of the named grape.

A few of the comments hinted at a second reason: that they were worried that if a cheaper nearby state could make wine from a prestigious appellation, there might be an exodus of jobs to that lower-cost (or less regulated) state, with economic damage to the established reason.

As typically happens when it receives conflicting feedback, the TTB backtracked and the proposed change was never made. This may have avoided the unintended consequences that the regional associations were worried about, but it leaves the producers in the Rocks District with the same challenge that the TTB identified back in 2014. Are they supposed to all build wineries in Oregon when they’re already established in Washington State? Or establish the reputation of their new AVA without the powerful tool of identifying the wines’ place of origin on their labels?

I don’t have a lot of sympathy for the economic argument (made mostly by commenters from the Napa Valley) given that California is already so large, and with such different costs of production, that any negative damage would likely have already happened. Does Napa Valley’s economy suffer when a Paso Robles winery buys grapes and puts out a Napa Valley AVA wine? I don’t see it.3 And even if you did see it, given the size of California, that ship has sailed. 

The other objection, that state wine laws that try to ensure a higher quality product would be unenforceable out-of-state, doesn’t seem to me like an unsolvable problem. In fact, the Wine Institute proposed an elegant solution in their comment objecting to the proposed rule (their addition emphasized):

“(iv) In the case of American wine, it has been fully finished (except for cellar treatment pursuant to §4.22(c), and blending which does not result in an alteration of class and type under §4.22(b)) within the State the viticultural area is located in or an adjacent state, or for, a viticultural area located in two or more States, within one of the States in which the viticultural area is located, and it conforms to the laws and regulations governing the composition, method of manufacture, and designation of wines in all of the States where the viticultural area is located.

It seems to me like this solution gives something to everyone. Appellations like the Rocks District get to build their reputation by appearing on wine labels. Winemakers get the flexibility to source grapes from diverse regions and tell consumers where they come from, without having to build new wineries across state lines. Grape growers are able to benefit from the reputation of the region they help establish. States retain the ability to enforce regulations designed to enhance quality or distinctiveness. And consumers get more clarity on where the wines they love come from. Let's hope that the TTB revisits this issue soon, with a more tailored approach.

Meanwhile, go out and do a little research on which Walla Walla AVA wines actually come from the Rocks District, and try to find a bottle or three. You won’t be disappointed.

Delmas Bottle

Footnotes:

  1. How cold? This January 13th, the low was -8°F and the high just 4°F.
  2. That would be the Federal Register Title 27 Chapter I Subchapter A Part 4 Subpart C § 4.25(e)(3)(iv) for anyone keeping score.
  3. I would also note that I think this argument raises commerce clause objections about a state using regulation to protect its businesses from competition from competing businesses in other states.

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

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

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

Two 2023 Roses

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

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

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

Jason and Neil at Hospice du Rhone 2024

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

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

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

Chelsea and two roses

Footnotes:

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

Taking Paso Robles on the Road to Japan and South Korea

This past Wednesday at around 6:30pm, I got home, on the same day and at almost exactly the same time that I'd left Seoul roughly 17 hours earlier. This miracle of time travel (thank you, International Date Line) was just the final marvel in what was an amazing 10-day trip through three cities in Japan and South Korea in support of the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance and the California Wine Institute's Export Program, which promotes California's wines abroad. The specific program was their "California Alive" tour that brings the wines of California to Tokyo, Osaka, and Seoul. 

While the California Alive tour happens each February, the event features a different California wine region each year. This year, the featured region was Paso Robles, and so representatives from ten local wineries made the trek across the Pacific Ocean for the tastings (which were open to all California wineries and their importers) and for a dedicated Paso Robles seminar in each city, along with media, influencer, and consumer events that were organized for us by the Wine Institute around the three trade tastings. The events were spaced out enough that there was time in each city for us to work with our local importers and even do a little sightseeing. Given that this was my first trip to Asia, that was very much appreciated. Even better, my brother-in-law Mark Dunn flew up from Bangkok to help me pour and explore:

With Mark Dunn

The event began in Tokyo. Six of us got in at more or less the same time on Sunday evening, and our introduction to the local food was an informal but delicious dinner at a local place orchestrated by the Wine Institute's Hiro Tejima:

First night out with Paso Robles group in Tokyo
The next morning, I woke up early enough thanks to jetlag that I had a chance to explore the Imperial Palace grounds before my work responsibilities started:

JCH in front of Imperial Palace

My sightseeing itch scratched, I headed to the offices of of our Japanese importer Jeroboam for a staff training for their sales team and a lunch visit to a one of the restaurants that sells Tablas Creek in Tokyo, all before our first formal Wine Institute event: a tasting with local influencers at one of the Tokyo locations of the Weber Grill Academy:

Wines at Tokyo influencer event

Influncers at Weber Grill Tokyo

After the event, I hopped in a taxi to get to Cellar Door Aoyama, the Tokyo retailer and restaurant owned by Jeroboam, for what turned out to be an amazing dinner:

Cellar Door Aoyama dinner menu

The next day included the first of the big tastings, where I was assisted by Jeroboam's PR & Marketing Director Yoko Yamashita (foreground left):

With Yoko at Tokyo tasting

The next day, we hopped on a bullet train and headed to Osaka to repeat the program. Somehow, I didn't get many photos of the official events, just all the delicious food that we ate before and after (for that, you can check out my Instagram feed). Then, we headed to the Osaka airport and flew to Seoul. As in Tokyo, the first event was a media and influencers event in conjunction with a Weber Grill store. This is the full Paso Robles plus Wine Institute contingent who made the Korea leg of the trip:

Group outside Seoul Weber Grill event

The next day was Sunday and our first day off since we'd arrived, which meant a chance to see the city. The owner (Yongbin Choi) and our brand manager (Katie Kang) of our South Korea importer Shindong Wine gave us an amazing insider's tour of the city, from palaces to markets to an end-of-day visit to Seoul Tower for an amazing view overlooking the city: 

Jason and Mark with Yongbin and Katie

The Wine Institute tasting was outstanding again and included a terrific seminar where we got to dive into what makes Paso Robles unique:

JH speaking at Seoul seminar

Seoul seminar setup

Whites on ice in Seoul

That was the end of the official events, but I stuck around Seoul one more day to take the Shindong Wine team through the Tablas Creek story, visit one of the enormous and gorgeous department stores through which most of the wine in South Korea is sold, and host a lovely, intimate dinner at another Hyundai Department Store location:

Consumer dinner in Seoul

I came away from my visit with a new appreciation for the work that goes on behind the scenes in helping a region thrive. California wineries, whether they are members or not, all benefit from the tireless promotional work that the Wine Institute does. Looking at their 2024 calendar is eye-opening, with events in 14 countries this year as well as programs that bring sommeliers, retailers, media, and importers to California to experience our wine country as well as ongoing promotion to spread the word about what's going on here to the world. Similarly, the amount of work that the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance team put in to make this tour happen was enormous, and the fact that it went off without a hitch a testament to their planning. I love this photo, of the four people most responsible for the tour's success. Clockwise from left, Joel Peterson, PRWCA Executive Director, Chris Taranto, PRWCA Communications Director, Hiro Tejima, Wine Institute Joint Regional Director, North Asia and Australasia, and Madoka Ogiya, Wine Institute Joint Regional Director, North Asia and Australasia:

PRWCA & CWI brain trust

It's important to get out into the broader world in order to realize that while Paso Robles has made great strides in recognition domestically, when it come to international markets we're still just getting started. Very few of the knowledgeable and worldly guests I met on the trip had ever visited Paso Robles, and the majority didn't know where it was or what made it special. Now there are thousands more members of the wine trade in Japan and South Korea who've been exposed to Paso Robles, and you can feel it rippling out from there. I came away inspired by the potential of both markets and with a new appreciation for all the work that goes on behind the scenes in making this possible.

Thank you, Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance. Thank you, Wine Institute.


Thinking about the Box in Which we are Thinking Inside the Box

By Ian Consoli

I remember the day Proprietor Jason Haas came to me with the decision to allocate a portion of our 2021 Patelin de Tablas Rosé to release in the Bag in Box (BIB) format. We had addressed the idea in multiple managers' meetings, so it wasn't a surprise, but we had a quick turnaround ahead of us. On a short timeline, we picked up a standardized, cardstock, square box, printed the same label we would put on a bottle, and wrapped it over two sides of the box. While we all knew we could make a bigger statement from a design standpoint, our belief in the concept outweighed our worry about the aesthetics. We turned to the old adage of don't let perfect be the enemy of good and carried forward.

Original Tablas Creek Boxes

The launch, as you may already know, was incredibly successful. Another day I will never forget was releasing 300 3L BIBs in an email and watching the website traffic go off the charts while Jason saw the sales pinging away. We were walking back and forth between our offices with our hands on our heads in jubilant exasperation to the oft-frequented term, "bonkers!"

300 boxes filled with premium wine at $95 a piece sold in four hours without a single comment on the lack of design on the box. Yeah, bonkers.

We released 400 more, followed by the 2021 Patelin de Tablas Blanc and 2021 Patelin de Tablas red. Noting the program's success as we entered the second year of releases, we knew we wanted to expand the BIB program from our mailing list to retail shelves. As Jason highlighted in this blog, there were significant barriers to scaling the program up. We just had to figure out how to work around them.

So begins the next chapter in our premium BIB story.

Jason told the story of our boxed wine success as the keynote speaker at the 2023 DTC Wine Symposium, noting the positive reception in the DTC market and the current limitations preventing us from offering these boxes to wine shops requesting them.

Afterwards, Jake Whitman of Really Good Boxed Wine (RGBW) approached us. While we and other wineries had worked to build the reputation of premium BIBs in the DTC market, Jake and RGBW had been paving the way for a premium category of BIBs on retail shelves. He thought there might be a way for us to collaborate to solve some of the issues we addressed and work together to develop the category.

We worked with the team at Really Good Boxed Wine over the past year to expand production and design a box that would stand out on retail shelves nationwide. We are happy to introduce that box to you now, along with its benefits:

New Box Rendering compressed

Design: The previous version of our boxed wine made sense for our current customers. Our wine club and mailing list know who we are; they read our reasons for releasing the wine, know the wine is good, and see the benefits of the BIB packaging. What does it matter what the packaging says when the contents are what you want?

This is not the case when it comes to retail shelves. We needed a box that would speak for us. One of the significant benefits of a box is the real estate on which we can share information. This contrasts with a wine label, where information must be limited. We used an entire panel to summarize the key benefits of the BIB format from one of our blogs, effectively communicating with a consumer who might not know who we are or why our BIB wine is priced differently from the BIBs they are used to seeing.

Shape: RGBW noticed retailers placed their earlier boxed wine designs in, well, the boxed wine section. A $70 BIB targeting a premium consumer in a section where budget shoppers are looking at $15, $20, and $25 BIBs is not competitive. In response, their team designed a box the width of a burgundy bottle. That size allows them to fit alongside wines in bottles in the premium category where they belong. It also means it will be easier for consumers to identify high-quality wine in BIB.

Boxed wine next to a bottle

Shipping: The benefits are not all for the wholesale market. Our early trials revealed an issue with shipping multiple BIBs. An initial three-box limit proved too many, as the boxes would crush each other en route to their location, arriving in a dismal state. We then limited purchases to two boxes, shoving craft paper all around them to protect them. The presentation was as hodge-podge as it sounds.

Jake and his team developed shipping boxes specifically for this BIB design. They have grids that hold each box in place for one-packs, two-packs, and three-packs. Thanks to this change, we can now increase our limit back to three BIBs per customer!

Three-Pack shippers

Perception: We knew our original design was not a long-term solution. Premium wine in a box should feel premium, and this new box does. It is sturdy, has a clean design, and communicates our message of sustainability. We chose black ink on cardstock (similar to our case boxes) to ensure the recyclability of the packaging. This package will stand out on retail shelves and look nice in the fridge.

We plan to release about 950 boxes of the 2023 Patelin de Tablas Rosé in its newest package (Check those emails) and around 800 to retailers in California and a few other hand-selected states soon. These retailers (many of whom commented on our social media posts or responded to our emails to express interest), represent a test that, if successful, could lead to us rolling these boxes out more broadly around the country in 2025. We don't want to be the only ones talking about the benefits in sustainability, shelf-life, and space that boxes offer, and this gives us a chance to activate the network of cool independent retailers and hopefully even a few restaurants!

That national program will launch later this month, so feel free to contact us if you hope to find the boxes near you.

It only makes sense for me to conclude this blog post by thanking the team that made it all possible. The resources given freely by Jake and Michelle at Really Good Boxed Wine are on a level indicative of the most hospitable of the wine industry. With a rising tide lifts all ships mentality, they are to be admired. I strongly encourage you to find their wines near you or order online. Oh yeah, and the wine is Really Good.

New boxed wine design


The quest for sustainability: wine's "yes, and" moment

In improv comedy, there's an important concept called "yes, and". In essence, it means that you're taking what your team has done previously and building on it. This is important in improv because it's unscripted: you don't know what's going to come before, but it's your job to keep up and build the momentum. The website of the famous Chicago-based comedy group Second City has a great summary of its importance in the improv world:

A large part of improv is that you are always there for your scene partner or partners, and, in turn, they are always there for you. This is the goal of “Yes, And”! By saying yes to your scene partner, you create something much more entertaining. If you start a scene by saying that you are an alien, and your scene partner completely commits to also being an alien, being abducted by an alien, etc., both of you know you can count on the other person. On the other hand, if you start by saying you are a puppy, but your scene partner says “Wait, I thought you were a cat!”, the scene is compromised. Not only do you feel less confident, but also the audience is less entertained.

As the same page points out, "yes, and" has applications in real life as well, to the point that it's become a business school staple. I was reminded of the concept's relevance twice recently. The first time was when I shared on my various social channels my excitement at the news of Karen MacNeil's announcement that she was no longer going to accept wine packaged in heavy bottles for review. The responses fell along the lines that you would probably predict. The significant majority (about 80%, by my rough count) cheered the decision as an important step for a writer using her platform to nudge a tradition-loving industry in a positive direction. I got a few responses from the right wing fringe (maybe 5%) complaining that this was nothing more than virtue signaling and that things like carbon footprint and climate change were a hoax. But I also got some responses that while this was positive, it was of secondary importance to other environmental issues in grapegrowing, winemaking, or wine marketing. A few of the issues mentioned in these comments were pesticide use, the carbon footprint of wine tourism, and the prevalence of single-use packaging.

Now it's possible that these weren't good-faith comments in the first place. Deflections to other problems have become a favorite tactic of the anti-environmental lobby in recent years, with the goal of muddying the discussion of any particular solution and forcing proponents to defend their proposals against one idea after another. But these responses got me thinking. 

The second occasion recently where I was reminded of the importance of "yes, and" was at last week's Tasting Climate Change Conference in Montreal. The event was inspiring. We heard from experts in viticulture, resource use, and the soil microbiome; discussed the changes that wine regions have already observed and the best projections for what things will look like in another generation; and debated the best way forward for packaging, certifications, appellations, and grape varieties. I sat on a panel with a local importer and a representative from the SAQ (the province-wide monopoly on wine and liquor sales) to discuss the role that producers, importers, and retailers can play in moving the wine community toward a more sustainable future. A core piece of what I discussed was our experiment in recent years in releasing a high-end boxed wine due in large part to its more-than-80% reduction in the carbon footprint of the package compared to four glass bottles and the capsules, corks, and labels they require.

JH Speaking at Tasting Climate Change

To begin my presentation, I wanted to establish that this experiment was not done in isolation, but instead part of a fundamental approach to how we conduct our business. Across our departments, we focus on making choices that have the fewest possible negative repercussions and the greatest possible positive impacts on our people, our land, our community, and the broader environment. I've written about most of these initiatives here on the blog, including: our longstanding commitment to organic and biodynamic farming; our move to lightweight glass; our embrace of kegs in our wholesale sales and our tasting room; our replacement of plastic water bottles with reusable canteens; our reduction in tillage; our move toward dry farming; the growth of our composting and biochar programs; and the installation of a wetland to treat our winery wastewater. One of the reasons we love the Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC) program is because it's both rigorous and comprehensive, with meaningful requirements in soil health, biodiversity, resource use, animal welfare, and farmworker fairness. I fielded as many questions about our farming approach, or our commitment to our people, as I did our packaging.

That's why, to me, the deflections about there being other pressing issues in the world of wine beyond carbon footprint ring hollow. Addressing one issue doesn't mean not addressing another. Should you be using lighter bottles? Absolutely. Your customers will appreciate it, you'll save your winery significant money, and you'll reduce your overall carbon footprint by between 10% and 20% depending on the bottle you were using previously. But should you also move from conventional to organic farming, or from organic to biodynamic or regenerative farming? Also yes. You'll feel better about not exposing your land, your people, and your neighbors to chemicals. You'll improve your soil's resilience and its ability to withstand extreme rain events, heat spikes, and drought. And you'll almost certainly make better wine. How about coming up with new ways of connecting with your customers that don't require you to fly all over the country or them to fly out to see you? Also also yes. You'll save money and realize that the initiatives that you came up with allow you to reach a much higher percentage of your current (let alone potential) customers than you were able to before. I could go on.

If you don't believe that carbon footprint matters or that businesses have a responsibility for the carryon effects of their choices, I'm not sure that any of this will matter to you. But for the rest of us, this isn't a time to think of these challenges as either-or choices. Adopt a more comprehensive approach. Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Get started, and adjust as you learn more.

Yes, and.


Wine, health, and the fool's gold of "zero risk"

Over the last year, there has been a steady drumbeat of anti-alcohol messaging percolating out into newspapers and magazines around the world. This messaging is due in large part to a coordinated campaign led by the World Health Organization (WHO), who published a news release in January titled No level of alcohol consumption is safe for our health and last week proposed that governments worldwide double their taxes on alcohol to drive down consumption. This is an important change from their last major initiative from 2010, which was designed to reduce the harmful use of alcohol

The negative health effects of the abuse of alcohol are well documented. But the data on light to moderate consumption of alcohol, and particularly wine, is much more equivocal. Low levels of alcohol consumption appear to have modest protective effect on cardiovascular disease and diabetes, and a small negative effect on certain cancers, most notably throat, breast, and colorectal cancer. There is a great article by Felicity Carter in Meininger's International that dives into the data. She points out that the same massive data set on which the WHO based its new recommendations was later analyzed by the Journal of the American College of Cardiology (JACC), which came to five main conclusions:

  • Regular moderate alcohol consumption protects against fatal and nonfatal CVD and all-cause mortality, both in healthy adults and in CVD patients.
  • The dose-effect relationship is characterized by a J-shaped curve.
  • For light-to-moderate levels of alcohol consumption, the risks of some cancers (breast, colorectal, oral) are relatively small and should be considered in the context of each individual global risk.
  • Lifelong alcohol abstainers should not start drinking for health reasons only, but should be encouraged to adopt healthy lifestyles (regular physical activity, no smoking, weight control, and dietary habits such as the Mediterranean diet).
  • Excessive or irregular (binge) alcohol use is detrimental to human organs and function and is a major public health and social problem.

I'll share the JACC's image of the J-shaped curve, which puts in graphical form the idea that the extremes (total abstention and high consumption) are both higher-risk than low-to-moderate consumption:

JACC J-shaped curve

This all matters because these sorts of stories drive consumer behavior. A recent Gallup poll showed sharp increases in the percentage of Americans who believe that moderate drinking is harmful:

2023 Gallup poll on alcohol perception
The increase in the perception that moderate alcohol consumption is bad for health was driven largely by younger Americans (age 18-34). This suggests there's good reason for the worry in the wine world that Millennials and Gen-Z may not pick up the baton in wine consumption as Boomers and Gen-X start to age out of their prime wine purchasing years. Not only is wine competing with other forms of alcohol -- not to mention cannabis, which was seen in the Gallup poll as less harmful -- but the changes in perception are driving the rise in movements like Dry January and sober-curious

If the data around moderate alcohol use and mortality is -- at worst -- equivocal, wine seems likely to be comparatively less harmful and more helpful than beer and spirits. After all, it's made from fruit (rather than grain or sugar), it includes heart-healthy compounds like resveratrol and other polyphenols, it's been linked to long lifespans in places like Gers, France, the home of Tannat, and it's more likely to be consumed with a meal instead of on its own, which slows the absorption of alcohol in the blood and seems likely to also have positive interactive effects as a part of the Mediterranean diet.

So why is the WHO taking such a strong stance against alcohol, collateral damage be damned? I'm sure it's hard for an organization tasked with optimizing health outcomes to roll out a nuanced policy on a product that is capable of causing such harm when misused. If they did, it would probably look something like this summary from the Harvard School of Public Health. It would look at whether you were by family history more predisposed toward cardiovascular disease or cancer. It would look at your age and drinking history. It would make recommendations on how you drink as well as how much.

Back to the WHO's press release. In one key paragraph, they say "To identify a “safe” level of alcohol consumption, valid scientific evidence would need to demonstrate that at and below a certain level, there is no risk of illness or injury associated with alcohol consumption." Whatever you think of their analysis of the data (and I think they're setting an impossible standard of evidence) my bigger question is this... is our decision tree about what to do supposed to be driven by zero risk? I do things every day that have non-zero risk. So do you. Some of the things I've done in the last week include driving (risk of accidents), road biking (risk of crash), hiking (risk of injury), and attending sporting events (risk of contagion). Our goal in life shouldn't be to eliminate risk. It should be to properly evaluate it and weigh that risk against any potential benefits.

Maybe the WHO has concluded that a broad-based attack on all alcohol is the only way to get at the problem drinkers and the personal and societal harm they cause. And it's important that we as a society and an industry wrestle with that challenge. But none of that changes the overall picture for the individual consumer. Moderate alcohol consumption is unlikely to either significantly increase or decrease your health outcomes. I'm suspecting that if you're reading this blog, you've already decided that it increases your pleasure.

Consider yourself a risk taker.


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

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

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

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

Tasting Room Traffic by Month  2023

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


That Wine Enthusiast headline about $50 average tasting fees in Paso Robles is… just not true.

Last week, the Wine Enthusiast published a piece by Matt Kettmann celebrating the recent decision by Matt Trevisan to lower his base tasting fee at Linne Calodo Cellars from $40 to $20 in order to entice newer wine drinkers to experience his wines. I applaud Matt (Trevisan)'s decision, and think it's great that Matt (Kettmann) decided to write about it. In his intro, Matt (Kettmann) says "Tasting room fees have jumped to more than $50 per person at many wineries, even reaching $100 in some cases, triggering alarm amongst tourists and industry folk alike." While I'd quibble with his characterization of there being "many" wineries in Paso with $50+ tasting fees -- I'll share the actual numbers shortly -- that's a judgment call. But then the Wine Enthusiast made a much more inflammatory claim on social media. Do you notice it?

WE Twitter Paso Robles

The authors of articles don't generally write their headlines, let alone the copy that's used to promote the articles over social media. But saying that many fees are high is a far cry from saying that the average tasting fee is that high. And (spoiler alert) this second claim just wasn't true. This information isn't hard to find or verify. According to the 179 listings on the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance winery guide, the most common tasting fees are between $20 and $29.99, with an average of $24.36. Eight wineries (4.5%) show tasting fees of $50 or more:

Tasting Fees in Paso Robles  by Number of Wineries

I became aware of the controversy through British wine writer Jamie Goode's Twitter post, which has as of this morning received 49 replies, 21 re-tweets, and 176 likes. I was sure it wasn't right, given what I see around town, and made a quick response, breaking a self-imposed Twitter hiatus to do so:

The reaction to the Wine Enthusiast's posts was predictable. There was a chorus of voices saying, essentially, "California wineries are all greedy and overpriced" while another chorus of people with connections to Paso Robles pointed out, with varying degrees of outrage, that this data didn't seem right. A few of the 49 comments to the Wine Enthusiast's Facebook post will give you a sense:

WE FB Paso Robles Comments
Finally, this morning, there was a correction posted to the Facebook post, adding "UPDATE: A previous version of this post indicated that average tasting room fees jumped to over $50 per person. This was misleading and has adjusted accordingly." No correction yet on Twitter that I can find. But to my mind, the damage has already been done. The original characterization became a lead story in the widely-distributed industry news roundup Wine Industry Insight and continues to echo around the wine ecosphere:

Wine Industry Insight Paso Robles Fees
To what extent does this color the general perception of a place like Paso Robles? It's not insignificant, I don't think. The Twitter post got something more than 34,000 views. Facebook doesn't make view counts public, but given Wine Enthusiast’s 417,000 fans and the number of comments, reactions, and shares their post got, it's probably even more. And then there's the reach of the emails, which mostly go out to people in the business and in a position to further influence consumer behavior. I suggested to the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance that they ask for a public retraction, but don't know if they will.

All this matters because it plays into a narrative that is convenient and ultimately destructive. The Lettie Teague article Who Can Afford Napa Now? Not This Wine Columnist in the Wall Street Journal last April -- to which I wrote a response on this blog -- is probably the highest-profile such piece. The temptation is to look at the most expensive options in a region and conclude that those are representative. But they are no more representative than the least expensive, such as the local example that Eberle Winery still doesn't charge a tasting fee. And wine is always susceptible to claims of elitism, given its historic association with aristocracy and the way it's often portrayed in popular culture. Perception drives customer behavior, and if people think that Paso Robles (or Napa) has gotten too expensive, they'll decide to go elsewhere. 

All this is why I think that what Matt Trevisan is doing is such a good thing. I wrote about the dilemma wineries face in my response to Lettie Teague's piece:

Do they raise their prices to keep up and risk losing their historic audience? Do they keep their prices and risk being seen as less elite than their neighbors? Or do they try to split the difference (as, if I read between the lines in the article, it seems that the lovely, historic Spottswoode Winery has done) and feel guilty about it? Unfortunately there's not a great solution once a critical mass of wineries has set dramatically higher prices for themselves.

But the same way that having a critical mass of wineries raising prices on visits puts pressure on their neighbors to do the same, having wineries publicly cutting those prices leaves room for other wineries to forge their own path. That's likely to keep visits to Paso Robles approachable, which should help set us up as an appealing destination whether you're a first-time visitor to wine country or a regular who makes several trips a year.

So, kudos to Matt. Go visit Linne Calodo. And thanks to all of you out there who stuck up for Paso Robles over the last few days.


The Benefits of Marketing Interns in the Wine Industry

By Ian Consoli

Over the past two summers, we have extended the opportunity for one individual to participate in a marketing internship at Tablas Creek. We contacted local universities, and posted on LinkedIn, Paso Wine Careers, and other job listing sites. The response to the listings was immediate and enthusiastic, as individuals looking to make their start in wine marketing found the post and applied. This September, our second marketing internship concluded, and for the second internship in a row, the accomplishments we made during the three months created a lasting impact on our marketing program. Two internships may be a small sample size, but it is enough for me to realize we are on to something.

One of the purposes of this blog is to share success stories, whether in sustainability, farming, recipes, wine marketing, or an array of other categories. With a general feeling of success, I thought we would share how and why we developed an internship program, its structure, and its results. My hope is for other wineries to feel inspired by our results and create a wine marketing internship program of their own.

Day in the life of a wine marketing internVideo: Day in the Life of a Wine Marketing Intern

The idea

Marketers ponder. (In fact, that pondering time is crucial for marketers to develop innovative ways to help brands develop, but that’s a piece for another time). In one of those ponderings, I thought back to my marketing internship in college and the value it brought me with the suffix, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could offer that opportunity to someone?” The answer was that we absolutely could. In fact, we might be one of the better-positioned wineries to offer one. We are large enough to employ a full-time marketing person (me) yet small enough that one marketing person is responsible for every aspect of the department. The idea made sense, but we needed to ensure the benefits outweighed the cost of bringing someone on board. We developed a program with three potential beneficiaries in mind:

Benefits to the candidate. The candidate would study and observe all parts of marketing throughout our organization. We employ one of the most intensive social media programs in the wine industry, with daily postings on three major platforms and weekly contributions on four more. What an opportunity for someone to learn every aspect of a professional marketer!

Benefits to the company. That intensive social media program requires many ideas and a lot of time. Social media is always changing, and the next generation fuels much of that change. We felt a current student or recent graduate would give us a Gen Z perspective, refresh our social media, and help us better understand social media’s current climate. If we repeat the program every summer, we will continue to refresh that understanding. After a month of shadowing, the candidate should be comfortable enough to contribute to our social media, email campaigns, website, public relations materials, and more. That alleviation of the marketer’s workload means more time for those pondering sessions.

Benefits to the industry. Summer internships are, by design, temporary positions. If we do not plan on employing the intern after three months of work, then what’s the point? Well, that temporary position could translate into a permanent position at another winery in the region. My personal philosophy is that the wine industry, at least locally, has a long way to go when it comes to understanding and respecting the value of employing a full-time marketer. I also believe that as more dedicated marketing professionals emerge, the better our marketing as a region will become. By power-training an enthusiastic candidate, we may help that candidate emerge as one of the top wine marketers and make significant contributions to the wine industry.

The Execution

For this internship to be well-rounded, we needed to look at every aspect of a marketing director’s duties, strip them down to their basic intent, and format a learning program that gets to the fundamentals of those duties. This practice is, within itself, a benefit to the marketing team and the company. Here’s a shortened description of the responsibilities we came up with:

  1. Social Media: Assist and implement daily social media posting and focus on developing a video strategy.
  2. Content Creation: Develop photography, videography, and copywriting skills (complete one piece for the Tablas Creek blog).
  3. Print Media: Assist with inserts for our wine club shipment and participate in printer negotiations.
  4. Public Relations: Write one press release and present it to local news outlets.
  5. Email: Observe, collaborate on, and take the lead on monthly email campaigns.
  6. Hospitality: Spend one day a week in the tasting room to connect front-of-house and back-of-house mentality.
  7. Events: Participate in one on-site and one off-site event.
  8. Major Project: Pick one significant project to complete over the course of the three-month internship.

We feel these responsibilities give our interns a taste of most of the daily tasks of a wine marketer while allowing them to focus on their primary skillset.

The Results

We hired two interns with entirely different skill sets. The first, Nadia Nouri, specialized in social media. She joined the team in the summer of 2022 when short-form videos started to gain recognition in the wine industry. That medium was a second language for her, one she spoke fluently. We developed multiple series and videos during her internship.

The understanding we developed inspired me to speak on short-form video at the DTC Wine Symposium in 2023. Our following grew by over 2,000 people, engagement was up, reach was up, and, more importantly, our content had a burst of life. That’s something a new perspective always brings. Here are a couple of my favorite posts from that time.

Shelby Burns was our most recent intern, and is a graphic design and communications specialist finishing her last quarter at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. I can navigate the Adobe suite of design tools, but working side-by-side with a collegiately trained graphic designer helped simplify processes and improve our print media. Her big project was developing a single booklet combining three handouts into one. The booklet she created will minimize our printing, saving resources and money in the long run. My favorite piece from her project was a consumer-facing vineyard map that will help guests enter our vineyard in a fun and educational way. I mean, check it out!

2023 Tablas Creek Vineyard - MapKey takeaways

Not all interns are the same, and thank goodness they aren’t! Lean into the talent of your interns. In going from a social media specialist to a graphic designer, we realized both interns would benefit more if we focused on developing their specific skill sets while giving them a taste of all other aspects of the position.

Evaluating your processes is always a good thing. Nothing drives your expertise home like teaching. Developing this internship program forced us to take a good look into what we were doing, and helped us tighten up our marketing efforts. Also, sharing what you have learned always feels good.

You can always use a fresh perspective. It is rewarding when one of your key motivators becomes a key takeaway. We felt that adding a fresh perspective to our content room (my name for the marketing office) would help us grow, and we were right. More perspectives bring more understanding. We can’t wait for next summer’s marketing intern to add to what we’re doing at Tablas Creek.


Assessing the 11 Paso Robles sub-AVAs after their first decade

In September of 2013, the TTB published a notice of proposed rulemaking that gave a preliminary stamp of approval on the Paso Robles wine community's proposal to subdivide the Paso Robles AVA into 11 new sub-regions. I celebrated this milestone with an article on this blog where I laid out why I thought it was such an important development for our region. It's worth remembering that at the time there was some resistance to the proposal as being disproportionately complex given that up until that point everyone had used just the single overarching Paso Robles AVA. I tried to summarize why I thought it was important:

These new AVA's will be a powerful tool for wineries to explain why certain grapes are particularly well suited to certain parts of the appellation, and why some wines show the characteristics they do while other wines, from the same or similar grapes, show differently. Ultimately, the new AVA's will allow these newly created sub-regions to develop identities for themselves with a clarity impossible in a single large AVA.

The proposal was ultimately approved in October of 2014, and we started using our own sub-AVA (the Adelaida District) on the labels of our estate wines with the 2014 vintage. Our Patelin de Tablas wines, which are sourced from several of the sub-AVAs, continued to use the umbrella Paso Robles AVA. Of course, there was no requirement that wineries use these sub-AVAs. From my conclusion of that 2013 blog:

Wineries who wish to continue to use only the Paso Robles AVA are welcome to. And many will likely choose to do so as the new AVA's build their reputation in the market. Not all the AVA's have a critical mass of established wineries, and it seems likely that a handful of the new AVA's will receive market recognition first, while the reputation of others will take time to build. But I believe that it will be several of the currently less-developed areas that will benefit most in the long term, through the ability to identify successful winemaking models and build an identity of their own. We shall see; having a newly recognized AVA is not a guarantee of market success, just a chance to make a name for yourself.

All this came back to me last week when I fielded a call from veteran writer Dan Berger, asking my thoughts on the success of the AVAs given that most of the big Cabernet producers he sees haven't been using them. To my mind, that's neither here nor there, since those producers are typically large enough that they're sourcing grapes from multiple sub-AVAs and therefore can only use the umbrella Paso Robles AVA anyway. And there are exceptions even to this, most notably Daou, which uses the Adelaida District AVA on all its estate wines. But it did make me wonder the extent to which the different AVAs were appearing on labels and therefore being presented to consumers as a point of distinction. 

The best way to measure this would be label approvals from the TTB, but I don't think there is a way to search their publicly available database by AVA. Origin, sure... you can search, for example, by California. But not by Adelaida District. But there are proxies available that can give a good indication: the major publications to whom wineries submit thousands of wines each year. So I dove into the review databases at Wine Enthusiast, Wine Spectator, and Vinous. Because each publication receives and reviews a different subset of the wines that are produced, I've included a summation of all three, with the number of reviews that a search for each sub-AVA produces for vintages since the new AVAs were announced. The total for the Paso Robles AVA (reviews that don't list a sub-district) is at the bottom:

Paso Robles Wines Reviewed, by AVA, 2013-2022 vintages
  Wine Enthusiast Wine Spectator Vinous Total % of Total
Adelaida District AVA 611 249 773 1633 16.8%
Willow Creek AVA 427 261 674 1362 14.0%
Templeton Gap AVA 154 26 115 295 3.0%
Santa Margarita Ranch AVA 49 33 38 120 1.2%
Geneseo District AVA 34 5 55 94 1.0%
El Pomar AVA 45 2 40 87 0.9%
Paso Robles Highlands AVA 44 9 27 80 0.8%
Estrella District AVA 28 2 49 79 0.8%
Creston District AVA 8 0 25 33 0.3%
San Miguel District AVA 5 0 14 19 0.2%
San Juan Creek AVA 0 0 0 0 0%
Paso Robles AVA 3531 709 1691 5931 60.9%

So, nearly 40% of all the wines reviewed by these publications carried one of the 11 new AVAs on their label. Is that surprising? I'm not sure, but I do think it's an encouraging sign that the producers here think that the AVAs are or will become meaningful in the marketplace. When you figure that many of the rest of the wines (like our Patelins) weren't eligible for one of the sub-AVAs, the clear implication is that most Paso Robles wineries are using the smaller, newer designations when they can. Even J. Lohr, whose founder Jerry Lohr was quoted in Dan's article as saying "We’re not selling our Cabernets based on the sub-appellations," has used the El Pomar AVA on at least three wines, the Adelaida District on at least three others, and the Estrella District on yet three more.

And yet, while all the new AVAs except San Juan Creek have appeared on labels, it's worth considering why more than three-quarters of the wines that use the sub-AVAs are coming from the Adelaida and Willow Creek districts. Some of that is the profile of the wineries who have settled in these two AVAs, which include many of Paso Robles' highest-end producers often making dozens of small vineyard-designated bottlings each year. Willow Creek wineries -- including Saxum, Denner, Epoch, Caliza, Paix Sur Terre, Thacher, and Torrin -- and Adelaida District wineries -- including Daou, Alta Colina, Adelaida Cellars, Law, Villa Creek, and Tablas Creek -- account for a much more significant percentage of the wines reviewed in these databases than they do the percentage of production within the broader Paso Robles AVA. The choice that these high-profile wineries have made to put their AVAs on their labels encourages their neighbors to do the same.

Will the other districts -- many of which have more planted vineyard acres than Adelaida and Willow Creek -- eventually catch up? I'm not sure. As long as much of that acreage is going into wines whose production is measured in the hundreds of thousands or millions of cases, and therefore being sourced from multiple sub-AVAs, maybe not. But I've always thought that some of the AVAs with the most to gain are ones like El Pomar and Creston whose cooler climates and higher limestone soil content makes them more akin viticulturally to the more prestigious regions to the west, but whose location on the east side of the river tends to get them lumped in with warmer, sandier regions like Geneseo and Estrella to their north.

Paso Robles AVA map - PRWCAPaso Robles AVA map from the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance website

Ultimately, time will tell whether more of the 11 Paso Robles AVAs join Willow Creek and the Adelaida District as something that people look for on their labels. Meanwhile I think it's healthy that Paso Robles as a region remains centered in people's awareness. Although in Dan's article Gary Eberle implies that the decision to advance a conjunctive labeling law -- which requires that Paso Robles be used on the label alongside whatever sub-AVA is used -- was a controversial one, I don't know any producer here who opposed it. It's a good thing that the recognition for Paso Robles continues to grow even as people start to understand what makes the different parts of the broader AVA unique. And promoting Paso Robles isn't incompatible with also building recognition for the diversity within it -- in fact, doing so will help consumers understand why the wines that they love have the character that they do, and give them guidance for how to further explore this region.

What it comes back to, for me, is that the science for subdividing the Paso Robles region is pretty conclusive. This morning's Paso Robles agricultural forecast, as an example, shows different weather stations within the region recording high temperatures yesterday ranging from 74.2°F to 92.9°F, low temperatures yesterday morning ranging from 42.9°F to 55.7°F, and heat accumulations for the growing season from 1533 growing degree days to 2510. Vineyards in Paso also vary by elevation (between 600 feet and 2400 feet), rainfall (between 7 and 30 inches annually) and soils (a dozen major soil types encompassing everything from high pH calcareous to low pH alluvial and loam).

The roughly 60 local vineyards and wineries who together commissioned and funded the Paso Robles AVA proposal -- which included both Gary Eberle and Jerry Lohr -- agreed, as a region, to bring scientists in from UC Davis and Cal Poly, and to defer to their findings as to where the lines should be drawn between the different AVAs. We knew at the time that this would likely mean that there would be AVAs drawn that didn't have a critical mass of wineries yet to help spearhead that sub-AVA's recognition. And we decided that this was OK. If the lines were drawn in the right places, over time, the AVAs that were capable of doing so would achieve recognition in the marketplace. Back in 2015, I laid out in a blog why the wisdom of this decision would only play out over time. A decade in, I think that we're well on our way.