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August 2017

A cool interlude slows down Harvest 2017 as we reach its mid-point

Ten days into the 2017 harvest, our winery crew was looking harried. Seven consecutive 105°+ days produced an avalanche of fruit. Right as we were genuinely wondering what we would do if the heat kept up, the weather broke, and now, two weeks later, it still hasn't really put itself back together. Take a look at our high temperatures compared to seasonal averages:

Avg Temps 2017 vs Normal

Since the heat wave broke on September 4th, we've had only two days above our seasonal averages, and the average high (84.1°) has been more than five degrees cooler than we'd expect.  At first, there was a bit of a backlog of fruit ready to pick, but by the time we got to this past weekend, we were back in waiting mode:

Harvest chalkboard interlude

To have a slower period like this in mid-September is a luxury. We've been able to free up tank space ahead of the next wave of fruit we know will be coming, and we've been able to spend a lot of time out in the vineyards testing, waiting for the right moment.  And the pace really has slowed.  After 110 and 142(!) ton weeks to start harvest, last week saw just 54 tons arrive at the winery, and we've only picked 16 tons so far this week.  

So, with 322 tons received, we're at or just past the mid-point on our harvest, based on our estimates. And now that we've finished picking some of our early grapes, it gives us a chance to assess where yields are compared to what we'd expected and compared to other years.  And things look solid. The 19 tons of Viognier we picked was up about 33% compared to 2016.  Vermentino (22 tons) is up about 15%. We're not quite done with Syrah, but the 33 tons we've picked is close to last year's 37 tons. The 4.7 tons of Marsanne we picked is almost identical to last year's 4.5 tons, though still very low.  Overall, I'm guessing we end up slightly up from last year's numbers, but not by much.

The cellar has been its usual dance, with fruit coming in (albeit at a more moderate rate) while other tanks are fermenting away and yet others are being pressed off to make space. One fun consequence has been that we have Grenache Noir, Grenache Blanc, and even Grenache Rose fermenting at the same time.  Check out the colors:

Three colors of grenache

The colors aren't only inside the winery. Outside the vineyard, it's starting to look -- as well as feel -- like fall.  As the vines start to lose chlorophyll, the autumn oranges and reds come out.  It's more dramatic on some grapes than others, but Syrah and Mourvedre are particularly lovely.  This Mourvedre vine is from right outside the winery; anyone coming to visit in the next few weeks should see a scene very much like this:

Mourvedre head trained

So, where are we, at harvest's mid-point?  Largely done with our Patelin picks, with the exception of some Mourvedre and a little Grenache and Syrah. Off our estate, we're done with our early whites (Viognier, Vermentino, Marsanne) and mostly done with Grenache Blanc and Syrah. We've made a start on Grenache, and today got our first Tannat into the cellar. Next week, we'll turn in a serious way to Grenache, and maybe get started on the later-ripening Roussanne, Mourvedre and Counoise.

It feels somehow appropriate that we've filled in the left-hand column of our harvest chalkboard. With the forecast set for it to warm back up next week, it feels like we can dispense with the halftime entertainment and get on with the second half.

Chalkboard Sept 21

We'll be back for the second half kickoff, after this break.


Farming in the Blood: Q & A with Craig Hamm, Assistant Winemaker

By Lauren Phelps

Craig Hamm, Assistant Winemaker, is living the dream and savoring every moment. We get the inside scoop on what's it's like making wine in the cellar at Tablas Creek and what inspires this fifth generation farming native to evolve his skills into winemaking.

Where were you born and raised?
I was born in San Luis Obispo and raised in Templeton.  We spent a couple years in Shandon.  My dad farmed hay on a couple flats around where the Target is now in Templeton.  My brothers and I started helping my dad when we were really little.  My twin brother and I were the youngest of four.  I remember how we couldn’t use the hay hooks, because we were too small, and my brother and I would push the bales to get them closer to the truck so our bigger brothers could help pick them up.  Eventually we got big enough that we could throw them up into the truck with hooks.  Then as we got older we’d get into the truck and help from there.  Growing up in this area, that’s just the kind of stuff we did. 

When and how did you get into wine?
1996 was my dad’s first year of getting fruit off his vines so I started helping out with that when I was young.  Later, when I was in my twenties, I worked at a steakhouse and met a lot of winemakers.  I was bartending and they were always a really cool crowd of people, so I figured I wanted to try working in the wine industry.  I started my wine career in the barrel room at Meridian where they put me on a machine spinning and washing barrels all day- that’s all I did, it was very monotonous.  From my work station, I could see the guys on forklifts, which looked like a lot more fun, so I eventually moved up to a position that allowed me to drive alongside them.   The forklift work was essentially racing around as fast as I could; it was intense, trying to go faster than the other guys without dropping barrels- it was a challenge but it was a blast.  I took two years off after that harvest and then got a job working in the cellar at Justin Winery where I worked for a couple of years.

What has been your career path to where you are?
While working at Justin I would do weekend events with Chef Jeffery Scott.  We did a few events at Tablas Creek, which is where I met the Tablas Winemaker, Neil Collins.  Neil was a really nice guy and we got along well.  After a few years I was looking to work somewhere where there was more variation and smaller lots to work with.  I reached out to Neil, who said there was an opening at Tablas Creek.  I got the job in 2013, and I worked my way up from Cellar Assistant to Cellar Master and now Assistant Winemaker.

In your view, what makes working in the Tablas Creek cellar special?
It’s got to be working with new varieties, and being with a winemaker and crew that’s open to experimenting.  We don’t have any sort of regimentation in the cellar here, so we’re able to figure out what we like on our own terms.  We’re working with wines that don’t have an established legacy here in the United States and we’ve been given the opportunity to help write their history.  It’s really fun seeing what comes in the doors every day during harvest. 

Craig Edit

What’s your biggest challenge as Assistant Winemaker?
My biggest challenge is part of what I really like about working at Tablas.  It’s working with these new grape varieties and building a log of history and maintaining it with each new vintage and with each variation we try in the vineyard and in the cellar.  My challenge is noting these details, because up to this point all we had was what was in Neil’s head, his knowledge and experience. I’ve been challenging myself to learn more about these varieties and organizing written notes that we can use for years to come.

Which are your other favorite wines or wineries locally or around the world?
I prefer rustic, country style wines, you know- easy drinking country wines.  I love Tablas, so I drink a lot of our wine.  I like Pinot a lot, I’ve worked a lot of World of Pinot events and I really like tasting those.  Papapietro from Sonoma Coast makes killer Pinot Noir.  And I really like Demetria in Los Olivos, they’re really fun and nice to visit and big fans of Tablas too.

If you had to pick one red and one white to drink for the next month which would you choose?
I'd probably pick the Grenache Blanc for the white because it maintains a great balance between richness and texture without going too far in either direction.  For red, I’d choose En Gobelet not only because I love the wine, but also because I’m really into the story behind the wine.  The farming technique employed to make that wine is really important in the narrative of the future of California winemaking, I think.  Those would be two solid wines I could drink with each meal.

How do you like to spend your days off?
Now my days off are pretty much spent taking Jackson, my two-year-old son, to the beach.  We play soccer, kick the ball around a little bit.  It’s something we’ve both been into.  My free time is spent hanging out with the little man. I used to love to go surf, once he gets old enough I’ll get him out on a board. My fiancée Annika and I spend a lot of time traveling and even more cooking together and learning to pair wine with the new cuisine.

Craig 2

What would people be surprised to know about you?
I guess probably that my Great-Great-Grandfather lived out in the Adelaide. They were part of the Mennonite train that came out here.  So my family’s been here six generations.  That’s a lot of history, and roots in the farming community.

How do you define success?
You’ve got to be happy with the people you work with and the job you do and I think Tablas does a great job at creating that atmosphere.  It’s amazing.  When you walk around working and you just smile and realize, hey I’m at work and I’m really happy, I think that’s success.

Craig 3


Harvest 2017 Update: A Start Like an Avalanche

Many years harvest starts gently, with a pick every few days as our vineyard and cellar crew ease into harvest. Not in 2017.

Harvest 2017 Bins of Grenache

On August 25th, we brought in the first Viognier grapes for our Patelin de Tablas Blanc. August 29th saw the Pinot Noir come in from my dad’s property in the Templeton Gap. And then, on August 30th, the floodgates opened. We got the first pick of Viognier off our own estate, and the first Grenache Blanc for the Patelin Blanc, more than 17 tons combined. The next day saw more Viognier for Patelin Blanc and our first Vermentino and Syrah off the estate, 13 more tons. The first day of September saw 50 tons enter the cellar, one of our busiest days ever: three different Syrah blocks off our estate, plus Grenache Blanc for Patelin Blanc and Grenache for Patelin Rosé. September 2nd (a Saturday) brought in 20 more tons of Viognier and Grenache. Sunday the 3rd was a much-needed day of rest, but Labor Day Monday was a labor indeed, with 29 more tons, evenly split between Syrah for the Patelin red and Viognier, Syrah, and Grenache off the estate.

All told, just over one week into harvest, we’ve brought 147 tons of fruit into the cellar. How unusual is that? It’s unprecedented. Looking back over our last several harvests, I don’t see a single week where we brought in over 100 tons.  And it’s even more unusual for so early in the harvest season; look at how much fruit we harvested in the first ten days the last decade:

Tons of Fruit by Harvest

Now there were a few vintages in here with smaller crops (2009, 2011, 2015), and before 2010, we didn't have as much early fruit because the Patelin program -- mostly based on earlier ripening grapes like Grenache Blanc, Viognier, and Syrah -- didn't exist yet. But still, that's quite a beginning. What caused this avalanche of fruit? A ten-day long stretch of some of the hottest weather Paso Robles has recorded.  For the nine days beginning August 25th and ending September 2nd, the lowest high temperature we recorded at the vineyard was 102.3°F. Seven days topped 105°, and we reached a scorching peak of 111.5° on September 2nd. During this period, seven different days broke the all-time record high for that day at the Paso Robles Airport.

It's not that 100+ days are unusual in Paso Robles. We average about 15 of them per year. But to have so many, back to back, right as the grapes are approaching ripeness, has a dramatic impact.

You might well be wondering how the vines held up through this heat wave. The answer is really pretty well. The overall health of the vineyard, thanks to the generous rainfall we received last winter and the ongoing focus on soil nutrition provided by our vineyard team and our Biodynamic program, has been outstanding. The canopies are notably lusher than in recent years, with some blocks looking like jungles. All this leaf area helps shade the clusters and keep them from singeing in the blazing sun. And it helps the vines photosynthesize. In other years, when we’ve seen hot stretches, the vines shut down photosynthesis to conserve water, and the only progress you see – if you can call it progress – comes from the grapes dehydrating, when sugars and acids both rise as water evaporates, while seed and skin tannins stay green. At the extreme, this can produce wines that are tannic, alcoholic, and green: not a good combination.

But this year, we saw ripening continue (and in fact accelerate) through the heat wave. Sugars went up, acids came down, seeds turned from green to brown, and flavors developed nicely. What was remarkable was the rate at which this happened, with some blocks jumping 1-2° Brix a day. So the windows in which we needed to pick to have grapes in balance were shorter. In conditions like these, you have to have the capacity to get the fruit off the vines as it ripens, and be prepared in the cellar for them all to come tumbling in at once.

And tumble it did.

It’s probably not a coincidence that I fielded three separate inquiries from journalists last week about whether we were able to find the picking crew we needed. Farm labor is, after all, scarce in California anyway, between the high cost of living and the competition with other crops. And the hostile turn the national immigration climate has taken in recent months has added additional stresses.  I have never been more grateful for the decision that we made back in 1996 to give our field crew year-round employment. And yet even with the fruit we contract for as a part of the Patelin program, our growers have been able to find the picking crew they need. So while everyone I talk to is concerned about the future availability of vineyard crew, it seems like for this year at least, it's not yet at a crisis point.

The quality of what has come into the cellar looks good. Sugars are a touch higher than we’ve seen in recent years, with Viognier and Syrah both coming off the vineyard between 24° and 25° Brix, whereas in recent years 22-24° Brix was more normal. But acids are good, balance seems on point, and the flavors are luscious and focused.

Despite the heat-accelerated first week, the start to harvest was not that early. An August 30th beginning off the estate is almost exactly what I projected a month ago, and less than a week ahead of our long-term average. This comparatively normal start time (after several years of mid-August beginnings) is thanks in part to the later beginning to the growing season from the wet, relatively cool winter, and in part to the cool stretch that we saw in mid-August. It’s hard to remember now, given the week long inferno we just experienced, but between August 14th and August 23rd our average high was 82°F and our average low 53°F, with some genuinely fall-like days.

Looking forward, we’re hoping that things slow down a bit now that the heat wave broke on Monday.  Typically, at harvest time, the cooler interludes allow us some breathing room, in which we can press off lots and free up the tanks filled during the previous hot stretch.  This week has been moderate, with days in the upper 80s and nights in the 50s. The long-term forecast predicts more of the same. That's absolutely fine with us.

Meanwhile, if you see a winemaker out at a bar in the next few days, buy them a drink. They’ve earned it.