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


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

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

SVB Wine Survey - How was 2021

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

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

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

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

Office with lots of wines and Zoom


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

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

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

Jason Haas and Ray Isle at Aspen Food & Wine 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

Footnote:

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

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

Have I said recently how much I love my work? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vaccarese in row with sign

Have I said recently how much I love my work?