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November 2013

Reining In Harvest 2013

By Chelsea Franchi

I was standing in the entrance of the cellar on Monday with my hand wrapped around a steaming mug of coffee, watching as a storm rolled over the hills of Paso Robles and finally touch down on our vineyard.

And I had a smile on my face.  

I have a certain fondness for inclement weather, but typically at this time of year, weather like that can be panic inducing.  This year's a bit different, though, as all of our fruit is off the vine and resting comfortably, tucked away safely in tank and barrel.  You can almost feel, and sometimes hear, the soft, gentle crackle as the wines finish up their fermentation.

This cozy, mellow scene feels a world away from where we were just a few weeks ago.  We all knew harvest was going to be early, and it seemed as though we were all parroting the words "harvest is starting soon!" without thinking about what that actually meant.  And then harvest really did start early, and when it started, it was in earnest.  One moment we were leisurely prepping the harvest equipment and suddenly we were hit with a deluge of fruit, with the bulk of it flooding in at once and filling each of our available tanks in the blink of an eye.  We were forced to put our heads down and focus on the tasks directly in front of us and only on October 10th (the last day of harvest) did we dare to glance up and marvel at all we had accomplished in a rather short amount of time.

Cleaning up after a long day of pressing the pomace (or solids) of red wines

Hand sorting fruit before it gets pumped into a tank to ferment

Draining off juice to add to Dianthus rosé

Not only is everything picked, it's also pressed, and so last Friday, the cellar crew grabbed a thief and a handful of glasses to taste through the wines of 2013.  Initially, we were giddy to be tasting through the cellar so early.  However, after the first few wines, the full weight of the situation settled in. Harvest 2013 is in the books.  And you know what?  It's good. The whites seem to have an exuberant quality. They dance across the palate with both brightness and gravity.  The reds are a bit more tricky to read at this stage. Across the board, during punch downs and pump overs, the lots of red were smokey, meaty and rich.  Now, in barrel, many of them are starting to show promise of an unfurling of fruit, spice and depth.  


I'm going to miss harvest a little bit (but trust me when I say that I can definitely wait until fall of 2014 for the next one).  The easy comraderie that comes with working with people so closely (and for so many hours) is a pretty unique perk of the job.  And this harvest, we had a cast of invaluable characters working alongside us.  I'd like to offer them a public thank you for all their hard work.  We couldn't have done it without them.

Winemaker Neil Collins pulls samples from a barrel of Grenache Noir

Viticulturist Levi Glenn takes a break from the vineyard to feed the pigs

Vineyard Manager David Maduena enjoys a much deserved glass of Mourvedre - in a block of Mourvedre

Cellar Master Tyler Elwell pumps over a fermenting Syrah lot

Lab Technician Madeline Vanlierop-Anderson collects a day's worth of coffee mugs

Cellar Assistant Craig Hamm demonstrates what forklifts are really for (lifting forks)

Harv13_ErichHarvest Intern Erich Fleck fills barrels with espresso in hand

Harvest Intern Jordan Collins pumps over a fermenting tank of red under the watchful (but sleepy) eye of the cellar mascot, Millie

Above, Harvest Intern and Tasting Room Employee Gustavo Prieto takes a Tannat shower.  Below, Jordan and Madeline celebrate in a stop animation film of the last bin of Harvest 2013.


For the moment, I'm looking forward to the halcyon cellar days to come.  We'll finish cleaning up the mess that harvest left behind and then move forward with looking closely at what we have in the winery and monitoring the fermentation progress of our wines.  The storms have cleared - both the proverbial storm that came crashing through our cellar in the form of fruit, as well as the actual storm that came Monday.  I'm anxious now to see what those two storms yield. 

Photo essay: Autumn in the Vineyard

This is such a beautiful time of year in the vineyard.  As the vines gradually shut down photosynthesis for the year, vibrant fall colors appear.  The low angle of the light in the mornings and evenings bring out the contrasts. And the moderate temperatures invite you to spend time appreciating it all.  I spent an hour this morning on a ramble around the vineyard and here are a selection of my favorite photos.

First, a shot of the main work we're doing at this time of year: making sure that we provide the soil the nutients it will need to remain healthy, before the rains come to make things impassable.  We do this mostly with compost we've made ourselves from the grape must and vine prunings we take off the vineyard each year.  The compost spreader was in front of one of my favorite autumn vistas of the vineyard, with the contrasting colors of Tannat (foreground), Grenache Blanc (back left) and Syrah (back right):

Compost spreader

That Syrah block is always one of our most colorful.  A closeup shot looking up between two of the rows feels distinctly fall-like:

Syrah vine rows

Looking back at the morning sun highlights the contrast between the red Syrah and the still-green Grenache Blanc:

Syrah and Grenache Blanc in the sun

The leaves, still mostly on the vines in the above photos, are starting to come off some blocks, principally Mourvedre and Roussanne.  Looking down at the south end of the property shows the difference between the different grapes, with Roussanne on the left, Grenache Blanc still leafy in the middle, and Mourvedre on the right.  The large propellor is a part of our frost protection system, which we use in the spring:

Frost fan

The next view, over the straw-bale tractor barn in the middle of the vineyard, also shows contrasts between the different blocks that are harder to make out in the middle of the summer, when everything is green.  In this view, you can see Grenache Blanc (foreground), Tannat (the head-trained block below it), Grenache Noir (the green hillside on the back right), Counoise (middle-left), and Mourvedre (back-left):

Looking over the straw bale barn

Our owl boxes were mostly occupied this year, which is great.  As I approached this one, an owl swooped out over my head and flew away to the woods, watching me.  Alas, I was so surprised I couldn't get a photo:

Owl box

Finally, a shot of one of the most colorful leaves, from a Mourvedre vine we grafted onto our old Chardonnay block:

New Mourvedre grafts

These colors won't last long -- just until our first serious frost, which could happen any day -- so make sure that you ask to spend some time outside when you're visiting.  You won't regret it.

A Tale of Two Rosés

For the last two years, we've been making two rosés.  If that sounds nuts, it kind of is.  But it's in keeping with using our wines to try to express something fundamental about the grapes that go into them.  The first of our rosés, which we've been making since 1999 under one name or another, is the Dianthus.  It's designed to showcase the richer, more substantial side of dry rosé, and it's based on Mourvedre and spends 24-48 hours on the skins, giving it a darker pomegranate color and a bit of bite.  Think Tavel and you won't be too far off.

The second rosé we make debuted in the 2012 vintage, and is called the Patelin de Tablas Rosé.  It is an homage to the higher-toned rosés of Provence and like those rosés is based on Grenache.  It is largely direct-pressed, which means that the grapes are picked, destemmed, and pumped directly into the press, where they're pressed before they can leech much color or flavor out of the skins.  [I took a cool video of this process last year.]  This base is later given a smaller addition of Mourvedre and Counoise that has spent about 24 hours on the skins, giving a pale salmon color.

Of course, right now, neither is the color it will be when it's clear, but the 2013 vintage of both rosés is dry and we're at the point where we're starting to assess their progress.  I love this photo of Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi holding up a glass of each, Dianthus on the left and Patelin Rosé on the right:

Chelsea and two roses

The cloudiness of the wines is typical at this point; those lees will drop to the bottom of the tanks over the next month or so and leave the color we want.  It should be similar to what we saw in 2012:

12_Dianthus 12_PatelinRose

We were worried last year that adding a second rosé to our portfolio might result in each selling half as well.  But we found that they sold in different places and didn't compete with each other.  The Dianthus has always been a little too expensive for restaurants to pour by the glass, and so we typically sold most of it in our tasting room.  We released the Patelin Rosé at a slightly lower price, and it found a very receptive audience, mostly in restaurants, to the point that we sold out of our 1000-case national release in mid-July.  And the Dianthus didn't suffer; as usual we sent it to our VINsider wine club members in March.  The other 500 cases were gone from our tasting room in August, the fastest sell-out ever. 

I think that the growing acceptance of dry rosés is one of the happiest developments in the American wine market.  These are generally great food wines, quite inexpensive in the grand scheme of things, and not easily conducive to pretense or overworked, overblown styles.  And producers love rosé; if you bring one to a party in wine country, you can watch the winemakers make a beeline toward it.  Here at Tablas Creek, it's my mom who deserves the credit for having encouraged us to make a little rosé back in 1999 -- to drink ourselves, if nothing else -- because of how essential a part of the culture of Provence dry rosé is, and because of how well suited these Rhone grapes we grow are for it.

That first year, we made two barrels, or 50 cases of rosé.

This year, we're making 2700 cases.

If that's not progress, I don't know what is.

Harvest 2013 Recap: Down 21% in Yields; Quality Excellent

On Monday, October 7th we picked the last fruit off our estate.  On Thursday, October 10th we brought in our last purchased lot for our Patelin de Tablas.  And just like that, we're done.  Viticulturist Levi Glenn and harvest assistant Jordan Collins clown in front of the last bins (of Mourvedre):

Jordan and Levi

Having everything in the cellar means that we can look cumulatively at the harvest and make some comparative assessments on things like yields, sugars and pH.  Taken together, these give us a way of assessing measurable differences between our most recent vintage and others we've seen.  Of course, there are differences that are not easily measured by this numerical data; one difference that we note between 2013 and 2012 is that 2013 shows more intensity of color. But even on difficult-to-quantify judgments like this one, the numbers can help shed light: lower yields mean higher skin-to-juice ratios and, other things being equal, produce more intense colors and flavors.

The final yields are definitely down from 2012, though not to the frost-diminished levels of a year like 2011 or 2009. For our principal grapes:

Grape 2012 Yields (tons) 2013 Yields (tons) % Change
Viognier 21.2 16.7 -21.2%
Marsanne 12.6
Grenache Blanc 45.5
Picpoul Blanc 6.4
Vermentino 22.6
Total Whites 154.7
Grenache 72.8
Syrah 37.1
Mourvedre 57.3
Tannat 17.1
Counoise 17.5
Total Reds 201.8
Total 356.5

Most varieties are down, with the exceptions of Mourvedre and Roussanne, both essentially flat compared to 2012.  That we're generally down in 2013 is attributable to a combination of our second consecutive dry winter, a hangover from the large crop that the vines set in 2012, and our efforts to better control the yields on some grapes that set crops larger than we wanted (and larger than expected) in 2012 like Grenache, Grenache Blanc and Vermentino.  The comparative tonnages of Mourvedre and Roussanne look better, but that's more of a function of their relatively lower yields in 2012 -- most notably Mourvedre's 20% loss last year to sunburn -- than it is to them showing unexpected vigor in 2013.

Overall yields ended up at 2.66 tons per acre, which is on the low side of average for us.  Our ten-year baseline is 2.9 tons per acre, with a high of 3.6 tons/acre in 2006 and a low of 1.9 in 2009.  Other years in which we've seen yields between 2.5 and 3 tons per acre have included 2003, 2004, 2007 and 2008, all of which have been excellent and have been aging very well.

Looking at average sugars and pH at harvest gives a quick way of measuring a year's ripeness.  Since 2007:

Year Avg. Sugars
Avg. pH
2007 24.42 3.67
2008 23.87
2009 23.42
2011 22.39
2013 22.90

Both of these measures show 2013 quite close to 2012, and it's probably not surprising, as the two years were broadly similar, both warm and dry.  The darker colors and more intense flavors, particularly in Grenache, that we're seeing compared to 2012 seems likely due to the yields, rather than ripeness at harvest.  It's also interesting (and positive, from our perspective) that we're seeing the intensity of a year like 2007 with sugars a full point and a half lower.  This fact supports our experience that as vines age they are better able to achieve full intensity at lower sugar levels.

As I noted in my last mid-harvest report, this year's harvest is both the earliest to end (by nearly three weeks) and of the shortest duration (42 days) since 2001.

Finally, the harvest has been exciting because we've gotten to work with two grapes that are new to us, each celebrating their first harvest anywhere in America.  We haven't yet learned much about Clairette Blanche or Terret Noir (except that the "noir" in Terret Noir is a bit of a misnomer) but we have a barrel of each fermenting in the cellar and it's going to be fun to see how they turn out.  Here's a peek at the not-very-noir Terret we picked:

Terret Noir

Next up for us is the Paso Robles Harvest Festival, which will for the first time in my memory be conducted sans harvest.  Maybe this is better; we'll have time to focus on our guests in a way we wouldn't have in recent years.  Heck, in both 2010 and 2011 we were less than half picked as of today, and genuinely worried about whether our late-ripening grapes would make it into the cellar.  Instead, two of our excellent cellar team members (Madeline Vanlierop-Anderson and Craig Hamm, below) get to have some fun modeling this year's shirts.

Craig and Madeline

We're looking at some frosty nights in the next week, which might mean an early end to the nascent fall foliage.  So, I thought I'd leave you with a couple of shots of the vineyard in its autumn colors.  The most colorful this year is Syrah:

Colorful Syrah leaves

But it's the contrast in colors which is the most fun, I think.  I take this shot nearly every year because it's a great perspective to see two grapes with dramatically contrasting autumn colors: Grenache Blanc, on the left, stays yellow-green until frost, while Syrah, on the right, colors up like a maple tree (Tannat, in the foreground, is kind of in-between)

Fall Foliage

We'll be enjoying the fact that these colors don't mean the clock is ticking on us... or at least that we're safely across the finish line and don't need to worry about our time.

Every now and then you get a particularly meaningful compliment...

The wine business is hard.  It may not get talked about a lot, but it is.  There are huge start-up costs, an ever-growing number of wineries which crowd the marketplace and compete for your existing customers, and a shrinking number of distributors that combine with a relentless stream of wines from around the world and make it hard to gain attention in the wholesale market.

Granted, there are positive demographics working in your favor as a winery, too.  America is becoming more and more a wine-consuming nation, which means that you aren't competing with the other wineries in your area for a pie of a fixed size; the pie is growing every year.  Liberalized wine shipping laws have put some 80% of American consumers in states we can ship to.  And Americans' acceptance of blends (and unusual grape varieties) has never been better than it is.  But it's still a challenge getting and keeping your name out there, particularly when you want, like we do, to succeed both in our direct sales business (our tasting room and wine clubs) and in the wholesale market.


So it's great to see an article like the one we received recently from Paso Robles-based bloggers Matt and Annie Browne, whose blog Hoot n Annie is packed each week with first-person accounts of their explorations into the local wine community and their insightful analysis of what works in marketing and social media.  The title of the article is Paso Robles Wineries: Tablas Creek is Doing it Right and I'm not sure I've ever read anything so nice written about us.  They are social media experts, and much of their focus is on what we've tried to do in that sphere (I was very happy to read that they thought we'd been successful) but they also talked about our marketing, our facility, our people, and (of course!) our wine. 

It's easy, I think, to fall into ivory tower syndrome as a winery.  Unless you force yourself to get out into the market, or make sure you're searching out unbiased opinions, it's easy to hear only voices that tell you you're doing great work: those are the people who tend to seek you out.  Does this mean you're doing great work?  Not necessarily.  And even if you are doing great work in one sphere (winemaking, say) it's easy to assume that success will find you as a matter of course.  We had that problem at the beginning; our initial marketing plan could have been summed up as "people will buy Tablas Creek because people love Beaucastel".  It turned out to be wildly optimistic, and we spent some dicey years in the early 2000's turning around the business side of Tablas Creek.  In 2002, for example, we sold 4,000 cases of wine and made 12,000.  That's obviously not sustainable, and we realized that our problems weren't going to be solved by a single effort.  We opened a tasting room, started a wine club, started participating in wine festivals and working with our distributors around the country, and rededicated ourselves to being an involved and committed member of our community.  We made the decision to focus on maximizing the number of customer interactions and doing everything we could to give those customers an outstanding experience that they would rememeber and would tell their friends about.  And little by little we leveraged a successful business out of the good choices we'd made at the beginning in choosing our site and making our wines. By 2006 we'd stabilized our balance sheet and were selling roughly the same 18,000 cases we were making.

But it's not easy.  And each year brings new challenges, as you work to stay true to who you are while continuing to innovate in ways that keep you fresh.  We've tried hard not ever to take our fans for granted, or to rest on our laurels.  Reading a piece like Matt's and Annie's gives me faith that it's working.  Thanks, guys.

We cruise toward the end of the earliest Paso Robles harvest since 2001

It's getting hard to find a vineyard block with fruit still on it.  As of the beginning of October, we'd harvested all of our non-Roussanne whites and our Syrah, and nearly all of our Mourvedre, Grenache and Roussanne.  The only grape that's hanging a majority of its fruit still out is Counoise, and we only have 3 acres of that.  We're something like 90% done as of this morning, and expect to be completely finished by early next week.  The Counoise, looking pretty in yesterday's late afternoon sun:

End Sept - Counoise on Vine 2

The last two weeks of September we brought in most of our Grenache, Mourvedre and Roussanne.  It's normal these days to have us pressing reds that are dry or nearly so and moving them to barrel, cleaning the tanks they were in and filling them right back up with newly de-stemmed reds that have just been picked, all while also picking and pressing whites.  The cellar dance is remarkable, often with multiple forklifts moving bins of grapes around.  We've been using our entire 7-person team most days.  A shot from yesterday shows three different red lots (our last Grenache lot for the Patelin, and Mourvedre and Counoise from our estate vineyard) organized on the crushpad while the red press works to make space:

End Sept - Busy crushpad

For us, the quality of the harvest is always most determined by the quality of the Mourvedre we pick, as that is our most-planted grape and the showcase variety in our Esprit red.  What we're getting this year looks marvelous: rich and meaty, with very thick skins and enough acidity to keep things in balance.  It's amazing that the grapes are this complex given that we're picking them nearly a month earlier than normal.  One of yesterday's bins:

End Sept - Mourvedre

It really has been a compressed harvest.  The only year since 2000 that we finished harvest before October 28th was in 2001, when a frost-reduced crop was ripened quickly by a very warm summer.  This year, it looks like we'll pick our last grapes sometime around a week from now, which would make our last picking October 9th.  That would make the harvest just 44 days long, about 23% shorter than our 57-day average over the last decade.

Each ripening and harvest marker point has gotten farther and farther ahead of normal: flowering, a few days; veraison, a week; first picking, 10 days; last picking, 3 weeks).  We attribute this to the consistently warm but not hot summer we've seen.  Grapevines ripen their fruit optimally on days that top out between 85 and 95.  On hotter days, they stop photosynthesis and close the pores in their leaves to conserve moisture.  On cooler days, they spend too much of their time (late evening, night and mornings) under the 70-degree threshold below which ripening is very slow.  This year we've seen optimal ripening conditions, with an average high temperature since mid-July of 88 degrees, only one day that topped 100, and only seven that failed to reach the 80's.  This level of consistency over this long a stretch is unprecedented in our experience.

We have seen things cool down over the last week or so, with nights generally in the low 40's and a couple that even squeaked into the 30's.  We're pleased to see the cooler weather, with the vineyard nearly all ready to pick and us tight on space in the cellar.  The cool nights also encourage the vines to color up for fall.  Click on the Roussanne (left) and Mourvedre (right) photos below for a larger illustrations of the different fall colors we're starting to see.

End Sept - Roussanne Leaf End Sept - Mourvedre Leaf 2
Quality really does look tremendous.  We're starting to hear comparisons to 2007, which is the best vintage here in the last decade, and I think they're warranted.  The wines are remarkably deep in both color and flavor, with good acids and substantial but ripe tannins.  It's going to be a pleasure putting the blends together.

Yields are coming in lower than we expected, down perhaps a third from 2012's large crops, and will likely fall just below 2.5 tons/acre.  That's in keeping with 2007, too.

When we're done next week, I'll have a more complete recap with year-over-year comparisons by grape and by block, and will step back to look at some bigger picture questions.  Until then, we'll enjoy the beautiful days and cool nights, our last chance to see grapes on the vine for 2013, and make sure that there's actually space in the cellar for the last grapes we're picking. 

Final question: if there's no more harvesting to do during Harvest Festival, is it still a harvest festival?