We've been fortunate with our weather during harvest for the last four years. Each year starting with 2005, whatever the conditions during the spring and summer, we've had beautiful autumns, without serious heat spikes and without any significant rain. That's one of the major reasons that in my post ten years of Paso Robles vintage grades that I wrote last year, the last four years all received "A-" or "A" grades.
I'm not sure that we're going to have that kind of luck this year. We suffered through an extended heat spike in late September that threatened vineyards with dehydration and over-rapid ripening. Warmer than normal nights have meant that grapes are ripe with lower acids than we've seen in years. And now, as if on cue, we have a forecast for the most significant October rain in two decades. The complete extended forecast, from the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance's usually conservative meteorologist:
Those comments about "some mountain areas" typically mean the foothills of the Santa Lucia Mountains, where Tablas Creek is located. So, we're looking at possibly six inches of rain across three days next week. Not good.
We're fortunate, in Paso Robles, that we don't often get rain before November. That's typically two weeks later than Napa and a month later than Sonoma and Mendocino. The longer growing season is a luxury in that it allows us to wait as long as is necessary to get our later-ripening varietals (read: Mourvedre, Counoise and Roussanne) fully ripe. And, in fact, the North Coast has already had a small rain event in mid-September that dropped half an inch of rain up north but just brought clouds to Tablas Creek. And this rainstorm is predicted to be at least as heavy up north. But six inches is a lot of rain, and no vineyard with grapes nearly ripe can expect to come through it unscathed. Between dilution, swelling and splitting of berries, rot and mildew, there are a lot of possible negative consequences.
So, what are we doing? Picking as fast as we can between now and Monday. We hardly ever pick on Sundays, as it's hard on our crew and cellar staff, but we are tomorrow. We should be able to complete most of our Grenache and Roussanne harvest, and get a good chunk of Counoise in. We're most worried about the larger, thinner-skinned grapes like Grenache and Counoise, who tend to absorb more water when they're ripe and are more prone to swelling and splitting.
We'll also be picking the Mourvedre that is ripe (or nearly so) because there is no guarantee that, even with Mourvedre, whose thick skins allow it to more easily shrug off late rainfall, we'll be able to use what's left out there after the storm comes through.
On the positive side, our hot September meant that grapes like Mourvedre that aren't usually ripe in mid-October are more or less ready to come in. In a perfect world, we'd leave some vineyard blocks out for another week or ten days in the cool, sunny weather we've been having, but the little last bit of added concentration we'd get isn't worth the risks.
Of course, there are blocks, particularly ones that were impacted most heavily by the spring frosts, that just aren't ready. There's nothing to be gained by bringing in this fruit, as we wouldn't want to use it as it stands now. The only thing to do is to leave it out, hope that the storm is less severe than predicted, and that the extended forecast (which is calling for warmer, dry weather for the end of October) is true.
The last time we faced a similar decision was in 2004. We had Mourvedre still out that wasn't ready, and a storm predicted for mid-October. We harvested what we could, left out the two-thirds of our Mourvedre that wasn't ripe, and hunkered down for two inches of rain. The skies cleared after, and after two weeks of cool, sunny and breezy weather, we picked about 60% of what was left. Another storm came through at the end of the month, and though we still had fruit out, the weather never dried out again, and what was still out wasn't usable.
Still, our patience in leaving out the Mourvedre through the first storm was rewarded: we had some terrific fruit that we wouldn't have had if we'd picked everything before the rain.
At the very least, this will get our winter rainfall off to a good start. And, if we're looking for silver linings, everyone can be happy about that.