If you build it they will come: Owl boxes, owls, and gopher management

By Jordan Lonborg

For those of you who garden, have fruit trees, a few grapevines, or even a vineyard, pocket gophers can be your nemesis. They will burrow in your garden, sometimes taking entire plants underground with them. The will feast on feeder roots of young trees and/or vines, killing the plant. A garden, orchard, or vineyard is paradise to the pocket gopher. They have water (from irrigation) and an actively growing root system as a food source. We may have lost close to 500 one-year-old vines last year due to gophers. The most effective way of dealing with pocket gophers is to physically trap and kill them. This process takes practice, skill, and time. Even then, at the end of the day you may find yourself looking like Carl Spackler (Bill Murray from Caddyshack) with holes all over your yard, no gophers trapped, and feeling very frustrated (no C4 please!).

Enter Tyto Alba, commonly known as the barn owl. This raptor has your back. Here at Tablas Creek, as part of our pest management program, we have built and erected owl boxes throughout vineyard in the last two growing seasons. To be exact, on the 120 or so planted acres (10 of which are just rootstock) there are 38 owl boxes! From just about any point in the vineyard you’ll notice the rectangular shaped houses that are painted barn door red with the Tablas leaf painted on all sides. It was my goal to have one box every 100-150 yards throughout the entire vineyard, and we've been putting up boxes steadily over the last two years. Being certified organic, outside of trapping, biological control -- read predators who will eat them -- is our only other option. Note the heavy traffic this one's door has seen:

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Every January, barn owl males go in search for suitable nesting locations. To attract females, they begin bringing back rodents to their nest to prove that they can provide enough food for a clutch, or a family of owls. The females will lay between 6-8 eggs in a season, an eggs every 2-5 days. When the last egg has hatched, she begins hunting with the male until late May or early June when the owlets fledge or leave the nest. With a full clutch and a strong food source, a nesting pair can conservatively take around 500 small vertebrates back to the nest to feed their young. Barn owls are extremely efficient hunters and can be voracious when it comes to consuming pocket gophers and other vertebrate pests. Other than gopher remains, I have found the skulls of ground squirrels, song birds, snakes, and even crows in these. Check out the gopher skull I picked up under the above box:

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If you have gopher issues and are interested in building owl boxes for your property, check out this link for step-by-step directions on how to build your own… I have personally built over 150 of them and they are very successful. The link provides all steps needed. I will happily answer any and all questions; leave them in the comments or give us a call at the winery.

Owls are amazing hunters. But I'm not suggesting you rely solely on owl boxes to solve your pocket gopher issues. Look at barn owls as free labor that work while you sleep.  If you do decide to build a few of your own, I leave you with a quote…. “In the immortal words of Jean-Paul Sartre, 'Au revoir, gopher'” –Carl Spackler aka Bill Murray in Caddy shack


Picture Tells a Thousand Words: Animal Edition

We are just finishing the time of year in which we can safely have our animal herd out in the vineyard. With the continued progression of budbreak, even our latest-sprouting grapes are starting to push buds. Leaves are not far behind. So, we've moved the animals to two vine-free sections of the property: the new parcel on the other side of Tablas Creek, and a smaller area in the middle of the vineyard where we pulled out some struggling Syrah and Roussanne vines, and which we are letting lie fallow this summer.

Still, it's not hard to see the impact of the animals on the blocks in which they spent time, particularly at the fence lines which mark the dividers between grazed and ungrazed areas. I snapped a photo of one of these borders yesterday, halfway up the hill of Mourvedre that's behind the winery:

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Five days ago, the entire hillside looked like the prairie. Now, the bottom dozen rows (beginning at the middle of the frame above) look like they've been neatly mowed. It took the animals just two days to graze their enclosure down to a few inches. They spread manure throughout the block. And we didn't have to use an ounce of fuel or a single tractor pass to accomplish either goal.

This is the second time this winter that this block has been grazed by our flock; we moved them down the hillside in January. So, even the tall grass on the uphill side of the fence line is regrowth after an initial grazing, fueled in part by the fertilizer left behind on the animals' first pass.

It is this efficiency -- that we can use natural processes instead of artificial ones -- that makes Biodynamics so appealing. We're creating a more complete, more resilient ecosystem by building biodiversity, and saving ourself the costs (and side-effects) of having to buy (and spread) fertilizer, and of having to drive through the vineyard (and compact the soil with a tractor) mowing. The other benefits -- better water retention, no erosion, more topsoil, and the occasional lamb chop -- just tilt the cost/benefit calculation further in the right direction.

I drive by a few vineyards each day on my way into work whose soils look dead. Between the herbicides they use to keep weed growth down and the soil compaction created by the tractor work, even this winter's ample rainfall couldn't make grasses grow. The difference between soils like that and what you see above couldn't be plainer. Do you think this difference will impact the grapes that grow there, and the wines that result? You bet it will.


Spain, meet Paso Robles: Manchego, estate grown quince paste, and Rhone-style whites

By Suphada Rom

Scattered through the vineyard and amongst the vines are various fruit trees, planted to reel in beneficial insects to roost. Not only do the fruit trees break up the monoculture of solely growing grapes, they provide a healthy bounty of fresh and delicious produce for the staff to enjoy. Throughout the year, we are able to enjoy fresh vegetables from the garden and fruit from the trees. However, in the dead of winter when garden life is on a brief hiatus, we get to enjoy quince paste, made from quince off our estate and preserved in the chilly confines of our cellar. 

Quince paste (or membrillo) is simple in its ingredients and lengthy in its process. The fruit is harvested in the fall, around the same time as some of our late ripening grapes, like Mourvedre and Roussanne. As of now, there are three quince trees planted on the property. Even though they are quite youthful and small, they produce close to forty pounds of fruit. Once the fruit is harvested, it's cored and prepped for a stovetop simmer. [We detailed this process on the blog in late 2015.]

From the cores, the seeds are collected and wrapped in cheesecloth and thrown into the pot for maximum extraction of pectin. Pectin, for those (including myself) who do not can/preserve often, is a necessary ingredient that is basically the binding agent and key in the successful setting of the paste. Slowly reduced and concentrated in color, the quince paste is poured into baking dishes, where it sits and dehydrates for a few weeks before it's ready for consumption.  All this is overseen by Gustavo Prieto, jack of all trades, one of which is maker of quince paste here at Tablas Creek (for more on Gustavo, check out his recent interview). The result:

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Manchego cheese, quince paste, and the flight of Tablas wines

Quince paste can be enjoyed as a substitute for a jams and preserves in recipes, or simply spread on crackers or toast. In Spain, quince paste is traditionally enjoyed with Manchego cheese made from sheep's milk. Produced in the region of La Mancha, Manchego has a soft nuttiness and firm, creamy texture. As soon as I took a bite of the cheese and quince, I understood the pairing completely, but what I didn't understand was how I missed out on this for so many years! But what Tablas Creek wine pairs best with this classic combination? Gustavo and I decided to find out.

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Quince paste, or membrillo

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The line-up included 2 dry wines (2013 & 2014 Roussanne) and one with a hint of residual sugar (2o14 Petit Manseng)

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We had to dig into the library for this one, but as you'll find out, it was well worth it!

The four wines we tasted were: 2013 Roussanne, 2014 Roussanne, 2014 Petit Manseng, and 2003 Vin de Paille. Of the four, we leaned towards both the 2013 Roussanne and the 2003 Vin de Paille. 2013 Roussanne was beautiful with a slight salty salinity (try to say that 3 times fast!) brought out by the Manchego. Quince is quite rich and textured on its own, without being overly sweet (which is surprising, considering the recipe for making quince paste is just quince and sugar!). The 2003 Vin de Paille was just gorgeous. I was reviewing my tasting notes and I actually wrote gorgeous three times in a row! The viscosity and richness was there, without being offensively sweet. Sweet notes of ripe nectarines and honey shone through, making this an absolutely memorable wine in my book.  We also experimented outside of the three step pairing and did a tasting with just the cheese and were pleasantly surprised to find that the Petit Manseng was the best fit. We loved Petit Manseng's bit of residual sugar and nice tropical notes that stayed with us through each bite of cheese. It was as if the sweet notes of the wine replaced that of the quince paste, playing up the nice creaminess and saltiness of the cheese. Overall, we were really excited about exploring the many avenues of our wines, both new and old, dry and sweet.

If you love quince and Manchego or if you have another idea for a pairing that would work, 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 resources:

  • The 2013 & 2014 Roussanne are available for purchase in the tasting room or via the online shop, although quantities for the 2013 are getting low.
  • The 2014 Petit Manseng, although out of stock, has been replaced by the delicious 2015 vintage. Order in the tasting room or on our online shop.
  • If you're interested in the Vin de Paille, you're in luck! We have just under a case left and we'd be happy to sell you a bottle (or two!) in the tasting room or online shop.

Tablas Creek Lambs and Tablas Creek Lamb

As many of you know, we have been building up our flock this year. The animals help nourish our soil, spreading manure thoroughly and evenly, reducing or eliminating our need to bring in outside fertilizer. They help keep weeds down and reduce the number of tractor passes we need come spring. And they attract different microbes and insects into soil that is vibrantly alive in a way that just doesn't happen in a monoculture.  The past few years, we've had around 80 sheep, along with a few alpacas, two donkeys, and a llama.  Now, thanks to a fertile winter season, we're up to 165 sheep, plus the other members of the menagerie. The flock can at times be seen from the tasting room, but is more often working quietly, out of view:

Animals Feb 2017

The results, for us, have been remarkable.  In this record rainy winter, we've seen practically no erosion, as the soils have absorbed massive quantities of the rainfall we've received. The cover crops have thrived in the nutrient-rich soils the animals leave behind.  The regular movement of the animals around the property has meant that in what could have become an overgrown jungle, we've instead kept the grasses under the height of the cordons, which will help as we get to frost season.  And because we've moved the animals out of each block after just a day or two, they haven't overgrazed anything, and the grasses have resumed growing right away, giving us that much more biomass from our winter months.  We are excited for the vines to reap the benefits of this investment come spring.

Our goal is to graze the entire property twice each winter between harvest and budbreak, at which point we have to move the animals out of the vineyard lest they eat the new growth off the vines.  We'll probably manage that this winter, thanks to the early start to the rainy season and the early end to harvest.  But for a normal winter, Nathan -- the experienced shepherd who we brought aboard last year -- estimates that we'll need about 200 sheep to get the entire vineyard grazed.  Hence why we've been building up our flock.

As a general rule, you get 1.5 healthy lambs per ewe each year.  Many have twins, but some don't lamb at all, and some lambs don't survive.  But even so, you can grow your herd fast. We got 86 lambs this year from our 55 ewes.  Luckily, 53 of these were female, and will be added to the flock long-term.  But once they reach maturity, you can run into problems if you have too many rams in a flock.  Some rams will fight for dominance.1 But even if you get lucky and they don't, the extra rams are still mouths to feed during the dry summer season, where forage is at a premium because the animals can't be in the vineyard, and extra rams won't contribute to the building of the flock for the next year.

So, for the last few years, we've been reaching out to local restaurants about our male lambs, once they reach a certain age.  It's perhaps not surprising that these have provided some of our most memorable food and wine pairing opportunities.  The lamb, as you would expect from where and how they graze, is some of the most delicious -- as well as the most sustainable -- meat you'll ever taste.  And to have it come from the same place as the wine, grown on vines nourished by the healthy soils the animals helped create, ties together what we really love about Biodynamics.

LarderWith the growth of the flock, we're no longer talking about a dozen or so lambs a year.  This year, we have about 20 year-old lambs from last year's brood, and another 30 or so from this winter's.  We will continue to work with our local restaurants, and are in fact hoping that you'll see Tablas Creek lamb on more local menus.  But after receiving a number of inquiries from consumers, we've also started working in a small way with Jensen Lorenzen's Larder Meat Company.

Many of you will remember Jensen from the Cass House in Cayucos, where he was the chef and his wife Grace ran the dining room and wine program.  When the property sold a couple of years ago, he started what is, in essence, a meat club.  Using his contacts with local farmers, he's sourced high quality beef, pork and chicken, always whole animals, always pasture raised and humanely (and locally) harvested at a USDA-licensed facility.  He divides up the meats into a monthly "share", and his members receive a mix of cuts in each box, along with recipes and pairing suggestions. 

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So, when Jensen (above, working on a recipe with one of our lamb shoulders) reached out to us to see if we would be willing to create a "Tablas Creek lamb" offer with him, we agreed. If you'd like to try it, these lamb boxes are 6 lbs. each, and include a roast, rack and/or chops, ground lamb and sausage, as well as Jensen's Larder lamb seasoning and recipe ideas.  They cost $98, shipping included (CA only)2. If you'd like to learn more, or sign up, you can here.

Delicious lamb, raised on a certified organic (and hopefully soon certified Biodynamic) property, with recipes from one of our best local chefs?  Knowing that the lambs helped produce great wine (that I might even choose to pair with that lamb)? And knowing from first-hand experience that the lambs led good lives and were humanely harvested?  Even for me -- and I am typically skeptical of arguments touting ethical meat production -- that works.  If it works for you and you decide to try it, we hope you will let us know what you think. 

Plate with Esprit bottle

Footnotes:

  1. In the wild, young rams leave the presence of the dominant male, often spending several years on their own. When they come back, they fight for the right to breed. Neither the leaving nor the fighting are practical in a working flock. We left a young ram with the flock longer than we should have a few years back, and he was so badly injured in a fight with the dominant ram that he had to be put down.
  2. Jensen has not yet shipped anything out of state. But it sounds like it's possibly in the works for the future.

Biodynamic Bon Vivant: Q&A with Gustavo Prieto

By Suphada Rom

When work doesn't feel like work and is a joy, you know you've got it made. By this measure, Gustavo Prieto lives an incredibly fruitful life, balancing passion in his work with a zeal for adventure. From cellar to vineyard to tasting room, Gustavo's role at Tablas Creek is as fluid and multifaceted as the seasons themselves. 

Gustavo feeding lamb

Where were you born and raised?
I was born and raised in Chile and moved after high school to attend university at Cal Poly.

What did you study at Cal Poly?
I studied fruit science there for five years. After that, I moved a lot, always working in the produce industry. I was in Holland for four years, moved back to Chile for eight years, then finally back to California for good in 1999. In 2000, I decided I needed a break from that industry, and just did some consultating on the side.

When did you get into the wine industry?
I got my first winery job in 2005, working for Wild Horse during harvest and I just loved it! That was my first harvest and after that, I decided that I wanted to continue working in the wine industry. I worked a harvest at Bianchi on the east side of Paso Robles, then after that, I started hearing a lot of conversation about Tablas Creek and I got really curious about it. In 2007 I was able to get a position in the tasting room and have been here ever since. When I first started I was primarily tasting room, but that grew into doing more out in the vineyard and the cellar. I had a lot of experience with farming and produce, so Levi (our then viticulturist) asked me to help him out with some cool new projects. We wanted to get a staff garden going on the property, as well as planting more trees for the orchard. I also work in the cellar during harvest season.

Gustavo eating cherries

Why is planting trees and a garden important for the vineyard?
It's important for diversity in the vineyard. I mean, we've been growing grapes here for a long time, so growing other crops gives us the opportunity to be around other types of agriculture. Neil introduced the idea of planting fruit trees to bring something else that we didn't already have into the vineyard. By bringing in the fruit trees, we are breaking up the monoculture that is just growing grapes. And we have so many different kinds of trees! Mostly apples, but we also have pears, plums, peaches, nectarines, quince, pomegranates, fig, cherries, and persimmons. 

In the last few years, I've been able to work on a garden, to both diversify the vineyard and provide our staff with good organic produce. In the summer, we have fresh tomatoes, corn, zucchini, squash, melons, radishes, basil, and more. Again, all that adds to the biodiversity in the vineyard. Same with the animals that Nathan's working with and the bees that Jordy introduced. We have this place that is rich and diverse in other elements. We aren't just growing grapes- we're doing much more than that. 

What is your vineyard or garden philosophy?
My philosophy is to bring back Mother Nature. Mother Nature is so savvy and I truly believe will always outsmart us. It's very resilient. I think that's what we, globally, need to get back to. Nature dictates what we do out there. Let the process flow as naturally as well as we can, by guiding in an efficient way. In the end, nature will reward us with what we want to achieve, and in our case, that is to produce good quality grapes on a healthy vineyard. We do that by not using any chemicals. You see, nature in itself helps to keep the population of bad insects under control. It's not about eliminating them, but more about the beneficial insects keeping them under control and not letting them get out of hand. 

Gustavo Grapes

You're coming up on your 10 year anniversary here- what has been your most memorable experience at Tablas Creek or in the wine industry in general?
One of the many highlights was going to France in 2010 and 2011. In 2010, I went to work for Chateau de Beaucastel for harvest. That was amazing! I enjoyed that so much. Everything was great, I worked in the cellar doing everything related to cellar work, helping and supporting them with anything they needed.  Also tasting wines over there, I mean, I can still taste them! It was truly a once in a lifetime opportunity and through working for Tablas Creek, I was able to have such an incredible experience. 

I was also able to spend some time in Burgundy. I even took a class in Beaune. I loved going to France so much that I repeated the experience and worked for Pierre Gaillard in Languedoc for harvest and that too was an amazing experience. Spending time in the southeast part of France, it reminded me a little bit of Paso Robles, you know? Less tight and rigid, less regulated, and less traditional. You have more room for exploring and creativity, too. So much great potential there, as there is here.

When you're not at the vineyard, what are you doing?
On my days off, I like to bike. I live in Santa Margarita, so I can leave my house and bike for hundreds of miles without seeing cars. I also enjoy working on my bikes. Sailing has always been a passion of mine. My wife, Heidi, and I spend time working on our garden; I love doing that. We compliment each other very well in that area; she knows a lot and really, she's the one who started me on gardening. 

Gustavo sitting

Do you have a favorite food and wine pairing?
Well, I'm from Chile, so I love empanadas! To me, empanadas are traditional and a staple. It was a staple in my house every Sunday. We would have empanadas and red wine, most likely a Chilean Cabernet. I love Chilean wines. Old world producers coming from the southwestern part of Chile, with dry farmed vines. Old vine Carignan is very interesting to me. I've also seen Mission blends coming out and getting popular.

Finally, how do you define success?
Success is all about happiness. If you have success and no happiness, I think you've gone nowhere. Stability is important, too. Stability with your family, friends, and yourself. I don't see success from a monetary aspect, it's all about what makes you happy!


Winter Vineyard Photo Essay: After the Rain

It has been a remarkable January here at Tablas Creek. By the time the last storm in our most recent sequence passed through early Monday morning, we'd accumulated 4.01" of rain in 24 hours, 18.79" for January, and 25.5" for the winter rainy season so far. The blog I posted Sunday has more detail on what this record-setting rainfall means to us, but big  picture, it's all terrific.  At this time of year, the more rain, the better, almost without exception.

Now, with three days of sun (and two quite frosty nights) behind us, it's finally firm enough to get out into the vineyard without sacrificing your footwear.  And we've been taking advantage of this footing by getting out to show off the vineyard's green winter coat.  I thought I'd share a few of our favorite shots.  As always, click on the photo to see it larger.  

First, one that Lauren caught of the frost on one of our cover crop flowers. Our mornings have been quite chilly, down in the upper 20s with plenty of moisture to settle (and freeze) overnight:

Frost on cover crop flower

While we're on the subject of wildflowers, I found the first California poppy of the year growing behind the winery:

CA poppy

The vineyard itself is vibrantly green, with the contours emphasized by the bare branches.  We'll be starting to prune in the next few weeks, but as for now everything is still in its raw state. Note too the section in the background (formerly a mixed section of struggling Syrah, Mourvedre, and Roussanne) that we've pulled out and will be letting lay fallow for a year:

Green vine contours

What's growing is a mix of the cover crop that we seed each year (a mix of sweet peas, oats, vetch, and clovers) and the native plants that seed themselves.  One of these that I'm always happy to see is miner's lettuce, an edible water-loving perennial that tastes like a cross between watercress and baby spinach:

Miners lettuce

The animals are doing a great job of keeping the cover crop growth reasonable.  Nathan has already gotten the animals through nearly the entire vineyard once, on his way to two full passes before budbreak.  His goal is to keep them in any given area only for a day or two, and then move them before they start to damage the cover crop's roots, so it will continue growing.  They dot the hillsides like white clouds on a green background:

Animals in vineyard

The sheep, alpacas, and donkeys aren't the only animals we're finding homes for.  I like that this shot of one of our owl boxes is framed between two of the different oak species that give Paso Robles its name (a coastal live oak on the right and a deciduous black oak on the left):

Owl box and oak trees

Outside the vineyard, the rain has left the forest feeling washed clean. I love this photo of the lichen hanging off the trees, still sparkling from the last cloudburst:

Lichen forest

Finally, lest you think that all the water has disappeared underground, one photo of what is normally just a grassy valley.  Water is seeping out of the vineyard at all its low points, heading down toward a suddenly rushing Las Tablas Creek:

Impromptu creek

With all the water in the ground, and a week of sun forecast, it's only going to get greener here, and the wildflower season this year should be spectacular. If you've only seen Paso Robles in its summer gold, it's something to be sure to experience. 


East Coast Roots and West Coast Vines- Q&A with Viticulturist Jordan Lonborg

By Suphada Rom

Recently I was able to sit down with our Viticulturist Jordan Lonborg to learn a little bit more about this New England native's transition to California living. Jordan plays a key part in the organic and biodynamic farming program here at Tablas Creek, as well as being chief liaison with the growers we partner with for fruit for the Patelin program. He's often seen traipsing throughout the vineyard with his dog Miles (named after Miles Davis).

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Where were you born and raised?
I was born and raised in Scituate, Massachusetts, a little beach town about 30 miles south of Boston.

How did you get into wine?
I've always loved wine and was exposed to it at a younger age. When I married Molly (Assistant Winemaker at neighboring Halter Ranch), she took me to another level with the wine experience. 

What is your role as the Viticulturist?
I'm here mainly to improve the overall health of the vineyard while maintaining that level of health moving forward. We're using different pruning techniques, fertilizing tactics, and cover crop choices. I think that's the big role for me. Also, the customer relations with our growers for the Patelin program. I work towards maintaining those relationships, while also trying to help them farm a bit friendlier and moving them from a conventional mindset to more biodynamic in terms of farming.

Jordan and Small Fish

Can you talk a little about biodynamic farming and what you're contributing the vineyard?
Having a diverse ecosystem is amazing. You go into any sort of thriving natural setting, you don't see monoculture. You see a plethora of insects, plants, and animals. One thing I noticed though, when I first got here was that there was no bee program, which is part of the whole biodynamic philosophy. I jumped on that immediately! Bees are essential to biodynamic farming- they pollinate the cover crop we grow on the off season. [Editor's note; see Jordan's post from April about our new bee program The Swarm, the Hive, and Tablas Creek Honey.] 

Me, I'm most passionate about the farming aspect of biodynamics. I think having a diverse ecosystem is amazing. Biodynamics recreates what happens in nature. It's not easy- there's more work involved but it just makes sense. I'll go out in the vineyard and see the animals grazing on cover crop. They're providing tillage and nitrogen, taking away work that otherwise humans would be doing. Otherwise, we'd be running tractors and burning diesel to accomplish the same thing. 

What is your biggest challenge out in the field?
My biggest challenge is coming from a conventional farming background and transitioning to a highly sustainable property. With conventional farming, your toolbox is very big. If you see an issue arise in the vineyard, you can respond with a heavy duty fertilizer, spray, or application. Here at Tablas, that toolbox is small, so it forces you to think outside the box. You can't just band-aid the situation, you have to ask the why's, the how's, and what-can-we-do's. 

Jordan and Molly

What do you find most rewarding about working here at Tablas Creek?
Like I said, it's a really magical property. You have the activity with the animals, which you don't have in many places. Everything feels alive and vibrant. The minute I went on my first tour with Neil, my mind was just made up. You go up on Scruffy Hill, a completely dry farmed block of the vineyard, and there are vines on the top of that hill that were planted 6 years ago; and I've seen vines that have been irrigated and fertilized that are a quarter of the size of those plants! We are fortunate to have the soil type and we get the annual rainfall we need to make dry farming possible. Seeing that was, hands down, one of the coolest things I've ever seen. It just clicked.

If you weren't a viticulturist, what would you be doing?
That is a very good question! I could see myself teaching. When I was at Cal Poly, I helped manage the deciduous orchard on campus and had a lot of interaction with students. Since I was a little older than the other students, my professor set me up with a role to take the lead on a lot of our enterprise courses. On the other hand, I could also say I'd could just be fly fishing on a river for the rest of my life.

Besides the extreme sport of fly fishing, what do you like to do in your spare time?
Work on my yard. We have a lot of acreage that I care for. Any chance that we get, we try to kayak- we're on the ocean a lot. Then just exploring Paso, really. Trying to taste as many wines in the area as we can.

Jordan and Big Fish

Do you have any favorite wineries?
I love Halter Ranch. The wines at Terry Hoage (TH) are amazing, and of course, Tablas Creek. I just love how new and different the wines are in Paso. Outside of Paso, Ridge is insane. Molly is from Mendocino, so we'll always hit up wineries along 128 there, which are just phenomenal, as well.

What would people be surprised to know about you?
I didn't always know this is what I wanted to do. I found agriculture when I was 26 and working on a farm in Mendocino, and just kind of fell in love with agriculture. 

Finally, how do you define success?
Happiness! Bottom line. If you're not happy with what you do every day and you don't go to bed happy, then you're not succeeding in life. It's not the money, or status, or your belongings. It's just whether or not you're happy.


Tablas Creek Olive Oil: A Collaborative Effort Between Tablas Creek and Kiler Ridge

By Suphada Rom

If you've visited the winery, you may have noticed the lines of olive trees that frame the driveway as you enter the property. We have tried to keep our decorative planting in the Rhone theme (think lavender, rosemary, and pomegranates), and in 1992 we planted somewhere around 100 olive trees, mostly Manzanilla and a few Mission. We've tried in many ways to foster biodiversity in our vineyard, and these olive trees were our first non-grapevine plantings! The thought of the harvest the trees would eventually produce was frankly secondary in our mind to the aesthetics of the trees, but we've been harvesting delicious olives for the last decade, and making estate grown, organically farmed extra virgin olive oil each year since 2004.

Our olives give us our last harvest of the year, typically 3 weeks or so after we've finished our last grapes. This year's harvest took place on November 16th. We line the ground under the trees with tarps, to catch the falling olives as they are raked off the branches. It's quite a sight: 

David Olives

Santos Olives

The olives are collected in picking bins and driven over to Kiler Ridge, a local olive milling facility. Kiler Ridge, located at the top of a hill overlooking Kiler Canyon Road just east of downtown Paso Robles, has one of the best views in Paso Robles to go with a state of the art processing facility. Gwen was kind enough to talk, then walk me through the process, because there is not a chance of being able to hear anything over the whirring machines inside. 

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Kiler Ridge's production facility is a frantoio, a straw-bale building finished in natural clay and plaster.
The building is also fully solar powered! 

First, the olives are weighed out on the industrial scale, located outside the building. After they get the numbers, the fruit is poured out onto an upward moving conveyor belt, bringing them inside. At the top, the olives are separated from non-olive material, such as stems, branches, leaves, and rocks and collected in a macro-bin, located outside. They continue on as they're moved through a quick moving water bath and spray. Since the fruit is treated organically, there is no need to wash away pesticides or herbicides, but instead just dirt or debris.

Olives Rolling
Olives going up the conveyor belt after being washed

Olives Grate Sorter
Olives passing through the grill, leaving non-olive material behind

After being washed, the olives are filtered again through a grill that only allows fruit to pass through. From there, the fruit is crushed into a paste, before it enters a malaxer. A malaxer uses spiraling mixing blades to churn and mix the paste. Oil will begin to accumulate and visually, you can see this as the surface of the paste starts to glisten. This paste mixes for exactly 32 minutes before it moves onto the next stage of decanting. During the decanting stage, the solids -- known as pomace -- get separated from the liquid, which is mostly oil, but does contain a bit of water. A centrifuge will separate the oil from that water, before sending it through a strainer and collecting it in medium sized drums. The oil will rest in these drums for a few months before it is ready for bottling.

Olive Oil Process
32 precise minutes in a malaxer; Kiler Ridge has it down to a science!

Oil Dripping
The final straining of the olive oil. It'll rest in a drum for a few months before we bottle it.

The whole process of making olive oil was intricate, loud, and satisfying. Walking outside for a moment of quiet and clarity, away from the clanging equipment, I noticed the pomace being pumped into macro-bins. I learned that the pomace, along with the leaves, will be recycled back into the property: pomace spread in a thin even layer throughout the orchard, while leaves are stacked in high quantity at the base of the tree. 

It's always a pleasure working with neighbors whose beliefs about maintaining a healthy and balanced property line up so well with ours. And as for the olive oil, from first hand tasting experience, I'm anxiously waiting for the bottling and release of the the collaborative efforts of both Tablas Creek and Kiler Ridge.


December in the Vineyard: An Early Winter Assessment and Photo Essay

If you look out at the vineyard, it doesn't look like we're in a drought. The hillsides are impossibly green, the ground is wet enough to make you question whether it's worth even salvaging your shoes after a vineyard walk, and the water-loving winter plants seem happy enough.  The cloudy days we've mostly been enjoying give everything a soft, diffuse light.

Green layers

And yet, we're really hoping this Thursday's forecast storm breaks the recent trend we've seen where storms come in at the low end of (or even below) the range for which they're forecast.  Since the beginning of November, we've had 7 days with measurable rainfall.  Those 7 days totaled just 1.26 inches, with the only significantly wet day coming November 20th, and bringing just under two-thirds of an inch of rainfall.  After a good start in October, we've now fallen behind a normal year's pace (note that the December 2016 information is only through yesterday, whereas the average is for the entire month):

Rainfall Winter 2016-2017

You can see that while November was about as much drier than average as October was wetter than average, we have a long way to go to get December up to normal precipitation. Hopefully, the atmospheric river (one of my favorite terms) that is forming over the eastern Pacific right now will bring the forecast rain (possibly multiple inches) to us later this week, instead of having the bulk of the precipitation stay north of us (as it generally did in November) or impact areas south and west of us (as the storms so far in December have done). Fingers crossed.

Meanwhile, we're taking advantage of the vineyard's early start on its cover crop (thanks to that October rain) and have been moving our animal herd throughout the vineyard. One of our new Shepherd Nathan Stuart's first suggestions was that we hadn't been moving the animals often enough, so now we're moving our flock every couple of days, and they've already grazed a large swath of the vineyard. They're currently on the hillside above the winery, and will be working their way down the hill over the next week.  It should make for some fun viewing for anyone visiting our tasting room.  I snapped this photo over our solar panels: sustainability in action on two fronts:

Animals behind solar

The frosty weather we got last week took care of the issues we'd been seeing with extraneous out-of-season growth, and the vineyard is now properly dormant. Note the difference a few weeks makes.  First, take a look at a hillside Grenache block from a photo I took just after that burst of rain that peaked on 11/20.  The clouds were clearing, and the sun illuminated the new growth in an electric green:

Green Hillsides Moving Sun

It's not the same block (though it is Grenache Blanc) but a photo from Friday shows a much more traditional winter scene:

Dormant hillside

The winter interplay of clouds and sun have provided some great backdrops, which make for quite a contrast to the unbroken summer blue that many guests are used to.  These only get more spectacular at dusk, when winter provides some amazing sunsets.  I'll leave you with a couple of photos, first of a daytime sky I shared on our Instagram page yesterday (if you like photos like these; that's really our focus over there).

Daytime sky

And finally one sunset photo, which I love not for the drama of the clouds (the sky was a beautiful peach, but relatively uniform) but instead for the silhouettes of our vines and one solitary owl box at the western edge of our property:

Sunset

With our early rain, we're still in good shape, if it gets wet. Let's hope that starts on Thursday.


The Shepherd and His Flock- Q&A with Nathan Stuart

By Suphada Rom 

Tablas Creek has a thriving animal program that is an essential piece of the organic farming practices here at the vineyard. We are thrilled to welcome Nathan Stuart, who brings years of animal experience to Tablas Creek and who will be managing and expanding the flock alongside additional responsibilities in the vineyard and winery. His first goal: get 100% of the vineyard grazed by our flock of sheep during the off season. Down the road, once we've built up the flock, we'd also like to have Tablas Creek organic lamb to be a more regular presence on the menus of great restaurants in the Central Coast.

Nathan usually can be found amongst the animals, with his trusty sheepdog, Maya, by his side.

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Where were you born and raised?
I was born on Spring Street in Paso Robles. I grew up in a little yellow house there.

So you've seen Paso Robles grow exponentially over the years. Did you always like wine and the wine industry? 
No, I actually went down to Mexico when I was 18, and lived there until about 5 years ago. I didn't really get into wine until I met Leslie (Many of you may know Leslie, as she is one of our stellar Tasting Room leads!) and from there, making wine in Mexico.

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Tablas Creek has an established animal program, but has room for growth. Where is it right now and where do you project it going?
The animal program has all the right ideas, just on too small of a scale to make the impact on the vineyard it could. We've got 120 acres under vine and for us to graze 120 acres, we need a lot more sheep than we have now. I'd like to have 150 ewes eventually, that will be used for breeding, giving us at least 200 lambs per year. Also, the sheep program (in contrast to the vineyard which is certified organic) is treated organically, yet not certified. I'd like to be certified by next year; we'll probably be the first certified organic sheep producers in the county.

We have diversity of species, with llamas, alpaca, and donkeys, which helps a lot. Each animal will eat different grasses based on preference. Keeping that diversity is important because if you only have one species, they would just focus on their favorite style, allowing for some other weed to grow out of hand. Then this good plant would never get a chance to catch up and re-seed. 

Why the focus on sheep?
Sheep, although tricky, are a great tool that can improve soil. Managing them well by moving them frequently throughout the vineyard and keeping them in higher concentration is the most incredible way to improve soil. And by improving soil you're acquiring/retaining carbon in the soil. For example, take the buffalo grazing on the Great Plains. They've created the best soil to this day for farmland. They would move quickly across the plains, never stopping or staying in one place, as they were being chased by predators. I plan to mimic nature by moving the flock every 2-3 days, as if they were being moved by predators.

The cool thing is that the sheep can go over and graze all the grass off and then put down 0.2 cubic feet of manure per day, per animal. Right now, we've got about 88 animals out there and they are contributing several cubic feet of manure on each block every single day. Everything that they eat, mainly cover crop consisting of vetch, peas, clover, and oats, they put back as much as 90% of the nutrients back into the soil. So they only keep up to 10% to stay alive and will also grow up to a pound a day, which is insane. That's pretty awesome, to me. 

What is your philosophy when it comes to animal management?
For animals, it would be very low inputs, and allowing for natural selection. My focus is going to be on breeding animals that are perfect for Tablas Creek's property. So over the next 5 years, through natural selection on the property, you end up with an animal that is very healthy and adapted to this place. Which is cool, because we'll have the best sheep for Tablas Creek. 

Is there one piece of your job that is particularly rewarding?
Well, when a ewe is having trouble birthing and I get to help her give birth and basically, help her save a lambs life. That definitely makes your day. To actually help life become is pretty amazing and I'm definitely on Cloud 9 afterwards.

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Sounds like you could have been a veterinarian in a past life! Would that be something you'd be doing if you weren't managing the animal program here?
Nah, I'd take Neil's job (Neil Collins is both our Vineyard Manager and Executive Winemaker)! Kidding, no, I'd be looking for another job like this. This is pretty much what I want to do. I guess it's a good sign if I can't think of anything.

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What do you like to do on your days off?
Surf! I normally go North of the grade, but somewhere between Los Osos and Las Blancas. I'm also kind of a geek on the computer and into videography. 

What is something that would be surprising for other people to learn about you?
I was the first American to get a diploma in Mexican real estate.

One last question; how do you define success?
Having peace and joy in your life. Both of those things can travel through suffering- you don't always have to be happy with where you're at to be at peace. Peace is one of those things that can translate through life, even in bad situations.