Some of the most insightful blogging on wine occurs on the Web site of Tablas Creek Vineyard in Paso Robles (http://tablascreek.typepad.com). There, Tablas Creek general manager Jason Haas uses the blog not so much as a marketing tool for the wines, but as an information center on industry trends and issues. Any winery can blog blah-blah-blah about its medals won and 90-point scores; it takes thought and a commitment to serving the customer to create a blog that has something to say other than, 'buy my wine' or 'join our wine club.'
Taking on direct shipping regulation, the efforts being made by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) to change the rules for establishing American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), the meaning of terroir, and other weighty matters, Jason Haas and his father, Robert Haas, co-owner of Tablas Creek with the Rhône Valley's Perrin family, are keen communicators on wine industry concerns through their blog. Two recent posts -- 'Terroir, Then and Now' and 'AVA Approval Gridlock at the TTB' -- are must reading for those who care about where their wine comes from and why it tastes the way it does.
If wine politics aren't your thing -- and AVAs are indeed political -- the blog has so much else to offer, from a drink-by chart for each of the winery's Rhône varietal wines, to harvest reports, detailed photographs of grape varieties, and last week's post on the growing American wine market.
Jason Haas even blogs with sage advice to other wineries -- the competition -- on how to establish their own blogs. Among the questions he asks those contemplating blogging, are, 'Do you have the time to blog?' (Frequent postings, at least once a week, are needed to keep the audience coming back). 'Do you want to spend your time blogging?' (After all, writing is work, and responding to comments is time-consuming).' Do you have patience?' (A new blog's viewership takes time to build). And the most important question from a consumer standpoint: 'Are you (the winery blogger) willing to interact with viewers?'
Indeed, blogs are golden opportunities for wineries to convey information to wine lovers. Smart bloggers know they can build relationships, and indirectly, their brands, by having honest conversations with those who visit their sites. When used only to sell, sell, sell, blogs are simply a new-fangled marketing trick. Yet when producers communicate with an open-book, this-is-what-we-believe approach, it tells customers present and future that they are being listened to, and that blog visits will enhance their appreciation and knowledge of wine.
Winery blogs are only as good as the audience's interest in them, and the dialogue that ensues between posters and responders. On the best blogs, vintners get valuable feedback from the marketplace, and consumers get an opportunity to not only respond, but also to ask questions they cannot get answered at the wine shop, restaurant, even the winery tasting room. Traditional winery Web sites portray an image, stick to key messages and aim to sell wine; effective blogs are real-time information exchangers, alive rather than static, purposeful rather than promotional. Blogs present an opportunity for viewers to ask such complex questions as:
'Why are the alcohol levels of your wines rising (or, how do you keep your alcohol levels so low)?'
'You farm your vineyards organically/biodynamically; does this improve wine quality?'
'For health reasons, I'm concerned about sulfites in wine. Are there sulfites in your wines, and if so, why?'
'I live in Maryland; why can't you ship your wines to me?'
'I purchased your wine in a restaurant for $60, and later saw it at my local wine shop for $20. What gives?'
Blogs open the door for consumers to pose such questions, and for responsible wineries to give insightful answers. Should you pose a query on a blog and get no response, or if the response seems crafted and vague, that winery isn't serious about establishing a true relationship with you.
Tablas Creek's blog is the most adept I've seen at addressing the most important wine issues of the day; it doesn't hammer viewers over the head with a 'buy Tablas Creek' message (though it certainly hopes you do). A number of other wineries are on a similar blogging path, though not quite as evolved as Jason Haas' conduit to consumers.
The blog of Joe Briggs at August Briggs Winery in Calistoga (http://blog.augustbriggswines.com/index.cfm?method=blog.blogList) has not only harvest reports from the 2008 vintage, but also videos that demonstrate various aspects of crush. In one video, Briggs explains how much crop was lost due to damage from spring frosts in 2008 -- and how production of his Leveroni Vineyard Carneros Chardonnay was cut in half because of it.
The Hess Collection on Napa Valley's Mount Veeder has a blog (http://www.rocksrootsandreds.com/wpress) which shows, via videos, how various viticultural practices are conducted. The next time you hear a winemaker talk, or a journalist write, about 'grafted vines,' go to the Hess blog and see a demonstration of grafting by viticulturist Sander Scheer. In another video, Scheer shows how leaves are removed from vines to reduce their vigor (and thus the green, vegetative aromas and flavors that can come from overly energetic vines).
Laurence Sterling, operations manager at Iron Horse Vineyards in Green Valley of Russian River Valley, has a blog (http://www.ironhorsevineyards.com/about-us/biographies/laurence-sterling-blog.html) with some terrific photographs of the estate at various times of the year. If you've heard about Russian River Valley fog and winter floods, you can see them here. I applaud the blog's emphasis on Iron Horse vineyard workers, an often-invisible yet vital part of the wine business. Unfortunately, Sterling's blog is not interactive.
Donum Estate's Ultimate Pinot Blog (http://www.ultimatepinot.com) has everything a Pinot Noir aficionado would want to know about growing and producing the varietal. Winegrower Anne Moller-Racke, winemaker Kenneth Juhasz and vineyard manager Nabor Camarena are the contributors.
Winery blogs present an opportunity for vintners and consumers to converse about key issues, as well as the minutiae of toast levels of oak barrels, use of native yeasts and wine and food pairings. Blogs that merely replicate the text of brochures, or regurgitate wine accolades, are not without merit, yet are under-performers. We need more real-world blogs like that of Tablas Creek to engage a wider consumer audience.
For my reviews of the wines of Donum Estate and its brother/sister label, Robert Stemmler, go to the Wine Reviews page.