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March 2016
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Spring Cleaning in the Vineyard: How Eliminating Surface Grasses Conserves Water

Over the course of about six weeks, the vineyard has gone from looking like:

Lush cover crop

To looking like:

Scruffy long view

This transformation takes place as the rainy season ends, and our focus shifts from encouraging a cover crop to hold the topsoil in place to making sure that the vines (rather than the cover crops) get the bulk of the water that is stored in the absorbent limestone-rich soils.  Think of each plant that's growing in a given plot of land as like a wick, with its roots delving into the soil for available moisture.  If we had overabundant water, we might want to leave some surface weeds to keep levels more reasonable.  Instead, in our California climate, eliminating competition from grasses and other surface plants is an essential part of our ability to dry farm.  Tilling in the cover crop also allows the insects and microorganisms in the soil to start breaking down the surface biomass accumulated during the winter growth into nutrients that the vines will draw from in the coming months.  Finally, the loosening of the soil creates an insulating layer at the surface that helps conserve the water deeper down.

The main tool we use to turn our cover crops under is the spader, shown in action below.  The row to the right has been mowed but not turned under, while the spader is chopping up the topsoil with a collection of tooth-like blades that penetrate deep into the topsoil:

Spader at work

The end result, when a whole block has been spaded, is a manicured surface from which weeds rarely re-sprout, like the head-trained Tannat block below:

Spaded area in Tannat

We're only about 30% done with turning the cover crop under, and the work will continue for another month. The one section that we have finished is Scruffy Hill, and it looks amazing.  Two shots follow, beginning with the fully leafed out Grenache block, looking down over the less-advanced Mourvedre vines below:

Scruffy Grenache vine

And a view that shows you a close-up of the soils. Tilling in the surface weeds allows you to see just how calcareous the soils are:

Scruffy soil view

Pretty soon, the whole vineyard will look like this, just in time for summer.


We Celebrate a Meaningful Honor: 2016 Green Award for Sustainability

This week, I made the long drive up to Sacramento to accept an award that I'm as proud of as any that we've ever received.  This award is a 2016 California Green Medal, a program created by the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance last year to encourage and spread the word about the state's wine-led push to make grape growing and winemaking more environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable.  From the award:

Green Awards_04202016_083

The awards recognize wineries in three categories, for their innovations in bringing greater sustainability to their environment, their community involvement, and their business practices.  There is also an umbrella award for their vision and leadership in promoting sustainability in all three categories.  The application is essentially identical no matter which category you're going for. So, we applied for all of them, as all three are areas in which we've made a real effort. That said if I'd had to guess at a sub-category in which we'd have been recognized, it would have been for the environment.  So, it was something of a surprise, but a happy one at that, that we were chosen for the community category. The event produced a beautiful video in which they announced us as the award winner:

What, specifically, have we been doing to promote sustainability?  Here's a partial list:

Water Use

  • Property developed to wean vineyard off irrigation. We can now go into a second year of drought before needing to supplement
  • 35 acres of wide-spaced vines (12x12 or 10x10) planted totally without irrigation
  • Have been the subject of a case study on dry farming by CAFF and hosted a series of dry-farming seminars since 2012
  • Converted to steam-cleaning barrels saving thousands of gallons of water per year
  • New 50-acre property in process of being planted entirely without need for irrigation

Soil & Nutrition Management

  • Vineyard has been certified organic since 2003 and farmed organically since inception in 1989
  • Cover crop includes legumes and is returned to the soil through mobile flocks of sheep, alpacas and donkeys, reducing need for outside fertilization
  • Cover crops are harvested annually to provide fodder for our animals when they cannot be in the vineyard
  • Nutrition is supplemented through the compost pile maintained on-site from our prunings and the skins, stems and seeds at harvest
  • Compost teas, made in house and used as foliar sprays, reduce the amount of sulfur needed to apply to the vineyard
  • Biodynamic applications provide crucial micronutrients to the vineyard

Pest Management

  • Biodynamic practices including interplanted fruit trees and native plants, encouraging natural insect controls of pests
  • Network of owl boxes and trapping program controls gopher population without poisons
  • Planted cover crop outcompetes weed seeds
  • Weeding is done mechanically using custom “tournesol” tractor attachment
  • Organic soaps and oils used as needed to control pest populations

Biodiversity and Wildlife Conservation

  • We've farmed biodynamically since 2010 with own mixed flock of sheep, alpacas, and donkeys to graze cover crops, reduce organic fertilizer needs (down 30.1% vs. 2010-2011) and eliminate tractor passes
  • Interplanted fruit trees and sections of property left to native vegetation attract and provide habitat for beneficial insects
  • Wetlands area filters wastewater with the roots of cattails, reeds, and rushes while providing wildlife habitat
  • Beehives house three wild-caught swarms of honeybees
  • Vineyard blocks are designed with wildlife pass-throughs in each

Energy Efficiency & Greenhouse Gas Mitigation

  • Installed a 35kW solar bank in 2006
  • Installed an additional 50kW bank in 2015. We're still assembling data, but know that solar provides a majority of our annual power needs
  • Winery and office outfitted with motion-sensitive lights, dramatically reducing wasted electricity
  • Electric car and Tesla charging stations, installed early in 2016, are free for customers to use while visiting
  • Reduced wine club packaging material in 2014 by 50% for most picked-up packages
  • In March, we began the use of a hub system to transport wine shipments to the East Coast and ship from there, reducing shipping air freight and carbon footprint

Human Resources

  • Employees compensated beyond the industry standard with fully funded medical, dental and vision benefits, employer-matching 401k plan, educational support, wine shares and annual profit-sharing bonuses to both part-time and full-time employees
  • Employees encouraged and supported to continue education as it pertains to their positions
  • Our core vineyard team of 10 is employed year-round, allowing them to build a life here and allowing us to benefit from their expertise

Solid Waste Management

  • Replaced plastic water bottles with reusable stainless steel canteens, saving 19,000 bottles/year (760 gallons crude oil & 2700 lbs CO2)
  • Switched to lightweight glass (16.5 oz/bottle) in 2010, reducing case weight by 26% and total glass weight by 45 tons/year.
  • Have been leaders in move to package in reusable stainless steel kegs; in 2016 we will keg 7700 gallons of wine (22% of total production) reducing bottle needs by 38,500 bottles
  • Use 100% post-consumer recycled product and soy inks for brochures

Neighbors and Community

  • We have partnered on events with organizations like must! charities, local animal shelters, and arts organizations
  • Donated more than $100,000 to support local youth and arts programs since 2002
  • Sponsored 16 local youth sports teams since 2010 
  • Within the local wine community, we helped create the Paso Robles Rhone Rangers chapter and led the community effort to approve 11 new AVAs
  • We've organized and hosted industry seminars on organic farming, dry farming, and Roussanne 
  • Jason Haas has served on boards of Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance (current Chairman), Rhone Rangers (former President), and Family Winemakers of California

The four recipients were all well represented at the event, and all seemed eminently worthy. We congratulate them all! The other three were Jackson Family Wines (Leader), McManis Family Vineyards (Business) and Halter Ranch (Environment). The four of us, together with Karen Ross, Secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, the keynote speaker at the event:

Green Awards_04202016_123

It did not escape notice that two of the four honorees were from Paso Robles, or that Halter Ranch and we are neighbors. That two wineries from Paso Robles were winners is a testament to the innovation in this community, as well as the leadership provided by the Vineyard Team (until recently the Central Coast Vineyard Team), based in Atascadero. Their educational seminars and the fun Earth Day Food & Wine Festival (which just happened last weekend) have done a great deal to demystify sustainability to a broader base of vineyards and wineries here than maybe anywhere else.

Looking forward, I feel like the wine community is uniquely positioned to lead California agriculture toward sustainability.  We grow a crop that originated in a part of the world where water was scarce, which does best in arid areas without great fertility. The areas are generally not well suited for grain or row crops. Grapevines are very long lived, so vineyards can invest in long-term solutions. We produce a product from that crop that is value added, where efforts we make in producing better grapes can be rewarded by the market. And we largely have direct relationships with our customers which allow us to leverage any good work we're doing into better loyalty. All of that is true for any American winery. In California, we have the added advantage of living in a climate where rainfall is seasonal, so weed control can be handled mechanically with a minimum of expense, typically just once a year, in the late spring. And our very low humidity means that we face much less pressure from fungal diseases compared to most wine producing regions. In essence, if anyone can do it, we should be able to.

And I feel that if we have the opportunity to put sustainability at the forefront of what we do, we have that obligation. It was great to spend some time celebrating others on that same path.


A Classic Pairing for a Rich, Dry Rosé: Salmon Niçoise

By Suphada Rom

Rosé is one of those wines that takes me down memory lane. I can clearly remember the first time I tried rosé- I had just finished a crazy Saturday night shift where we saw over 100 covers, but it felt more like 500. Part of the restaurant culture, I was learning, came with the after shift beverage of choice, whether it was a pint of beer or a glass of wine. Absolutely exhausted, I found myself being relatively indecisive and asked our chef what I should have. He reached into the fridge under the bar and grabbed a bottle of this gorgeously deep pink wine. I was slightly confused, as I half expected him to have suggested something like Cabernet Sauvignon or Sauvignon Blanc, something I was more familiar with. Without asking if I wanted it, he poured me a glass and slid it across the smooth bar top, and watched me as I took a sip (he was probably making sure I didn't dump it out!). I wasn't quite at the level of "sophistication" that I'm at right now, so I went in for the kill, took a large gulp, and was left surprised beyond measure. The wine was juicy and felt fresh on my palate. I could feel my salivary glands go into overdrive with the kick of acidity. The dehydration I had been feeling was now masked by the cool elixir running down my throat. It may have just been the moment, but that rosé was just what I needed.

20160411_121147
The finished product with our 2015 bottling of Dianthus Rosé

When thinking about food and wine pairings, I try to take as many things as possible into account: the wine’s structure, acidity, the vessel in which its aged, whether it is youthfully bright or deeply mature. For the dish, I try to focus on not only the protein, but consider the sauces, acidity, spiciness, and intensity. If you have a regional tradition to lean on, so much the better.  It's no surprise that classics - think beef bourguignon and a glass of red Burgundy - that have withstood the test of time.

With the release of our beautiful estate Dianthus Rosé, I can't think of a better pairing than with a dish based on salmon. I chose to make Salmon Niçoise (recipe published by Bon Appétit) for a few reasons, the first being that salmon is a bit more sustainable than the traditional tuna for Niçoise. The second reason is because I happen to love Niçoise more than the average person. Each bite is something new, as there are endless combinations of perfect bites balanced between potatoes, olives, haricots verts, boiled egg, and salmon. And the third reason - working a riff on a classic pairing - Niçoise means "in the style of Nice", a historic city which sits on the Mediterranean coast of France, the epicenter of dry rosé.

For this recipe, I had to make a few alterations due to what I could find at my local grocery store. I couldn't find purple potatoes, so I used small golden ones. It was nearly impossible to find frisée or mâche, so I substituted peppery arugula. Here are the results from this afternoon:

  Nicoise Set Up 2
Salmon Niçoise mise en place

 20160411_122841
An up close shot of the Niçoise

The release of our estate Dianthus Rosé is always an exciting time of year, and 2015 was no different. The 2015 Dianthus Rosé (49% Mourvèdre, 37% Grenache, 14% Counoise), is the product of a vintage where yields were dramatically reduced due to the four consecutive years of drought. To give you a little perspective, last year we were able to comfortably produce 1600 cases of Dianthus while this year, we only produced 275 cases. Our red yields were so low that in order to preserve reasonable quantities for our red wines, we had to cut somewhere, and even with the reduction in Dianthus things will be scarce when we get to blending the reds next week.

That being said, we think this year's rosé is just top notch. The year's low yields brought forth great concentration, and balanced acidity. The color of the Dianthus alone is a force to be reckoned with- a dark pink with hues of electric orange, it is reminiscent of the deeply hued rosés found in the southern Rhône valley of France. Think Tavel, and you won't be far off (though the composition, and the wine's freshness, are actually closer to that of Bandol). Upon diving into the glass, aroma-wise you'll find just about any red fruit under the sun, from cherries to watermelon to raspberries. In the mouth, all that fruit that you smell is confirmed, even some darker stone fruits like plum. There is some serious structure to this wine, along with vibrant acidity, making it wonderfully balanced in all respects. Pairing this with the Salmon Niçoise was what I considered to be a classic pairing. The richness of the salmon was complimented with the body and texture of the wine, and while there were a lot of components to the dish, no one flavor was truly overpowering. And if you're considering your own springtime mise en place, the Niçoise is served at room temperature, and the rosé slightly chilled, making a pleasant spring/summer pairing.

If you recreate this dish (or create a TCV wine and food pairing of your own!), be sure to let us know on any of our social media handles - Facebook or Twitter or Instagram - or just leave us a comment here! When you do, tag @tablascreek and use #EatDrinkTablas

A few other resources:

  • The recipe for the Salmon Niçoise can be found here.
  • VINsider wine club members may order up to 6 bottles of the 2015 Dianthus by clicking here.
  • Not a member?  Learn more about our VINsider wine club here, or try this dish with our food friendly 2015 Patelin de Tablas Rosé. You may order the 2015 Patelin de Tablas Rosé by clicking here.

The swarm, the hive, and Tablas Creek honey

By Jordan Lonborg

[Editor's Note: With this article, we welcome our new Viticulturist Jordan Lonborg to the Tablas Creek blog. He joined us in February and will be leading our vineyard team and our biodynamic program, including a new beehive program that he describes below.]

Every March, as flowers start to bloom, honeybees that have successfully overwintered begin the foraging process. The bees start to collect tree resin or propolis which is used to strengthen hives structurally; pollen, which is converted to protein;and flower nectar, which is converted to carbohydrate (honey). The honey and pollen are essential food sources and determine the strength and size of the colony. On years that we receive enough rainfall for a strong wildflower bloom, another process takes place. The phenomenon known as swarming.

Honeybees are a fascinating species. It is this process that fascinates me the most. In early spring, when wildflower nectar flow is at its peak, the workers are able to sense that the queen that overwintered with them starts to lay fewer eggs. In response, the workers then start to build queen cells within the hive. These cells are not your typical hexagonal shape we are so used to seeing. A queen cell is a cone-like structure that is built vertically through the hexagonal worker cells. Once the queen deposits eggs into the queen cells, the colony starts making preparations to split the hive. Scout bees begin to search for a suitable location for a new hive site. The scouts have been known to search up to 30 miles away from the hive in search of a new hive site. This is where the bee keeper (read: yours truly) steps in and encourages these bees to make their new home in a place where they can help us.

Swarm catchers come in all shapes and sizes. There are three essential characteristics that successful swarm catchers will share. First, there will be a secure cavity with one entrance. Second, they will have a piece of pre-existing honey comb that you obtain from either one of your previous hives or from another reluctant beekeeper in your area. Lastly, a small vial containing honeybee pheromone to attract the bees to the catcher itself. Here at Tablas, we used 16” compressed flower pots that were mounted to a square piece of plywood. Three of the four drain holes were plugged with foam insulation. We then hung these swarm catchers strategically (near plants that are blooming and close to a water source) anywhere from 6’-16’ off the ground. An example:

Swarm catcher

Then, you wait. It could be anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of hours until you catch a swarm, but when you do, you know, and it’s exhilarating.

Swarms can contain anywhere up to 10,000 to 40,000 bees. When they select the swarm catcher as a suitable hive location, a literal cloud of bees surrounds the catcher until the queen either lands on the catcher or in the catcher, and the rest of the colony follows. As an observer, the bees are fairly docile at this point, fully engorged with honey, and with a one track mind. Those who are daring enough can walk into the middle of this cloud and experience something few have. It is one of the rare times you can work with bees with no real fear of getting stung. Once all bees have entered the catcher, preparations are to be made for the hiving of your newly caught swarm either that evening or the following morning. Another close-up view:

Swarm2

So far, this year at Tablas Creek Vineyard, we have captured 3 swarms, and successfully hived all of them. We started the bee project for a few reasons. For one, it is in line with the bio-dynamic and organic practices we follow here on the property. Also, it is important that we enhance the biodiversity at Tablas Creek any way we can. Whether it is planting fruit trees throughout the vineyard, incorporating animals into our farming practices, or, keeping bees to help pollinate our cover crops, a biodiverse farm is a healthy one. Lastly, without honey bees, the human race would cease to exist. I guess you could say we are just doing our part to ensure the continuation of one of the most important species on the planet.

Part two of the honeybee blog: Hiving the swarm and maintaining the colony… To be continued…

Jordan Lonborg, Viticulturist and resident beekeeper


A Double Pairing for a Wine that Tastes Like Spring: Cotes de Tablas Blanc

By Suphada Rom

Recently, I traveled back to Vermont to spend some time with my family. When I come home, there are a few things that I am absolutely sure about. I will most certainly visit my favorite little coffee shop to sit down with a warm maple latte. I will walk through the front door of my house with quick paced strides of excitement, only to be corralled into the nearest wall by strong paws, wet noses, and wagging tails. I will eat tasty food and drink delicious wine with friends and family. With all of the studying for my upcoming sommelier examination (that will hopefully lead to my certification!), my family has become increasingly interested in what I'm passionate about and I have been trying to share as much wine and food knowledge with them as I can. One night on my recent trip, my mom left me in charge of the menu, so I decided to come at food and wine pairing from a reverse direction: pick out a wine (in this case our 2014 Cotes de Tablas Blanc) and try out a couple of recipes that would show different ways to pair with the wine.

IMG_2114A more gentle rendition of the slobbering- don't let her sweet nature fool you, she will most definitely tackle you for a biscuit or two!

With the onset of warmer weather and the additional hours of daylight, I find myself wanting to spend less time in the kitchen and more time outdoors. This was true even in Vermont, which during my March visit was sunny and 70 degrees without a lick of snow. So, both the appetizer and the main course I chose to pair with our Cotes de Tablas Blanc placed an emphasis on fresh ingredients, simply prepared. For a starter, I chose a great recipe for a Butter Lettuce Salad with Blood Orange, Avocado, and a Citrus Vinaigrette by Rick Bayless. I love this recipe because not only is the prep time minimal, but there is a full utilization of ingredients within the dish. You'll use both the juice and zest of the blood oranges for the vinaigrette, while cutting some into supremes. The small critique I had was my small regret for having too much zest in the vinaigrette (it sticks to the lettuce!). When I make this again, I would possibly infuse the vinaigrette with the zest and strain it through cheesecloth before dressing the salad. Either that or cut the amount of zest in half. For the main course, I decided on a recipe for Seared Scallops with Tropical Salsa by Williams-Sonoma. I substituted halibut for scallops, but you could most certainly use scallops, too! My local fishmonger cut us some fairly thick slices, so I found that searing it on the stove top and finishing it in the oven worked best. Anyways, here are the results from the double food and wine pairing:

Salad Prep
Fresh produce in preparation for the salad- 'tis the season for citrus!

Salad  Cotes Blanc
The finished salad with our Cotes de Tablas Blanc.

IMG_2235
The fruit and vegetable prep for the tropical salsa- there may have been a tropical drink consumed in the making of dish.. hey, I didn't want to waste any of that delicious fruit!

Halibut Cotes Blanc
Pan Seared Halibut over Tropical Salsa with our Cotes de Tablas Blanc

Why the 2014 Cotes de Tablas Blanc (42% Viognier, 30% Grenache Blanc, 23% Marsanne, 5% Roussanne)? The 2014 vintage has been incredibly impressive so far, bringing forth a balance of fresh and lush fruit with a vibrancy that provides a nice counterpoint to their richness. In our Cotes Blanc, there are gorgeous notes of peach pit and almond skin on the nose, with flavors of pear skin, peach juice, and honeydew. (Do make sure to take the wine out of the fridge a half-hour or so before you want to drink it, to get all the wine's complexity.) Despite all these fruit flavors, there is a distinct savory quality about this wine, which I would maybe attribute to the Marsanne. I really love this wine's mouthfeel- it kind of hangs around long enough to let you know it's there, but has a clean acidity to leave you wanting another sip (and another sip I gladly took!). With the salad, the wine was the dominant partner, whereas with the fish, there was more of a conversation between it and the dish. Both were nice in their way, but if I had to choose which pairing I loved more, I'd say that the halibut and tropical salsa took the cake. At one point, I wasn't sure if I was tasting the fruit notes of the salsa or the wine- they were just that interchangeable. And even though my family doesn't know all that much about food and wine pairings, they were left smiling at how well they worked (or even just how good they tasted!).

These recipes are great as a pair, but feel free to have just the salad for a nice light lunch and the halibut for a satisfying dinner (we won't judge you if you have wine with both!). If you recreate this dish (or create a TCV wine and food pairing of your own!), be sure to let us know on any of our social media handles- Facebook or Twitter or Instagram - or just leave us a comment here! When you do, tag @tablascreek and use #EatDrinkTablas

A few other resources:

  • The recipe for the Butter Lettuce Salad with Blood Orange, Avocado, and Citrus Vinaigrette can be found here.
  • The recipe for Seared Scallops with Tropical Salsa can be found here.
  • You can order the 2014 Cotes de Tablas Blanc here, or find it in distribution throughout the country.
  • The 2014 Cotes de Tablas Blanc is part of our current (Spring 2016) VINsider wine club shipment, in both the mixed and white-only shipments. Learn more about our VINsider wine club here.