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:

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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:

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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.


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:

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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


Photos of the Day: Hand-Grinding Quinces

We've picked all our grapes, and our olives.  The stone fruits like peaches, nectarines and plums are long past.  The vineyard is largely dormant after several frosty nights last week, and the cover crop sprouting.  But there is one type of fruit tree that still had fruit hanging: our quinces.  A quince, if you haven't had one, looks like an oversized, lumpy lemon, but tastes like a tart, crunchy apple.  In texture, it's harder and less juicy than an apple.  Quinces are a part of the same family as apples and pears, and have some resemblances to each, but they are honestly not great eating solo, so are typically used in one of two ways.  You can juice them, and either enjoy the taste -- like freshly pressed cider, but zestier -- or ferment it into a sparkling cider.  Or you can cook them down into paste or jelly, at which point it's a great accompaniment to cheeses.

Both of these seem like good ideas to us, so we'll try splitting our production between the two uses.

Of course, we only have two trees, so we're not talking about industrial quantities here.  Cellar Master Craig Hamm brought in the hand-cranked press that his family used to make homemade apple cider, and he and Gustavo Prieto spent a good chunk of the morning grinding up the pieces of quince by hand:

Pressing Quinces

Looking down into the mouth of the grinder produced a cool image, like spun gold.  You can see the pieces of quince at the bottom, being slowly ground up:

Quince grinder

Because of the woody texture of the quinces, all this was a lot of work.  But the results -- once Gustavo has cooked down the quince mash, and once Craig and the cellar team have fermented the roughly 5 gallons of juice -- will hopefully be worth the effort.  

By the way, if you're wondering what we're doing growing two quince trees, they are a part of our biodynamic program. We've spent the last several years building as much diversity as we can into the vineyard.  Viticulturist Levi Glenn, who oversees the program, wrote a super introduction a few years back: Animal Farm: The Benefits of Biodiversity in the Vineyard.

As for the quinces, stay tuned!


State of the Vineyard, mid-April Edition

Ten days ago, I was convinced that we were going to get clobbered by frost in the aftermath of a cold, wet Pacific storm.  All the conditions were in place: an early budbreak, a weather pattern shift, and a powerful late-season cold front with origins in Alaska that was heading unusually far south for April.

And yet we made it through.  It dropped into the low- to mid-30s eight of the first ten days of April (after seeing no nighttime lows below 38° in the second half of March) but our lowest measured low was 32.3° at the weather station in the middle of the vineyard.  Why did we survive what the forecast called "an exceptionally cool air mass overhead"?  We had just enough cloud cover the two nights after the storm came through (daytime highs 59° and 56°) to keep radiational cooling to a minimum, and by the time it cleared up, the air mass had warmed enough (daytime highs 67° and 70°) to keep our nighttime lows just above the freezing mark.

As a bonus, we got nearly an inch of rain, when every bit of rainfall we receive is welcome.  0.92" of rainfall doesn't sound like much, but over our 120 acres, the total volume is staggering: 2,997,829 gallons of water.  Not enough to make a dent in our drought, but it does give us that much more confidence (and we were already feeling pretty good) that our vineyard is well set up to make it through this year's harvest.

And things look great out there right now.  Every variety has come out of dormancy, and with less variation than normal.  We often have to wait nearly a month between when Grenache and Viognier sprout and when we see the beginning of growth in our late-budding Mourvedre, Counoise and Roussanne grapes.  But this year, the evenness across the vineyard, both between varieties and within blocks of single varieties, is noteworthy.  A few photos will give you an idea.  First, from the middle of our Grenache block, with Roussanne in the background:

Grenache and Roussanne blocks

A close-up of one of the cordons in our old Grenache block shows how far out things are: several inches, with tiny flower clusters already showing.

Grenache cordon

The clusters themselves are beautifully formed, and Viticulturist Levi Glenn thinks we may see our first flowering as early as May 1st:

New Grenache clusters

The main work now is getting the cover crop (both what we planted and the wild grasses that seed themselves) under control, so we protect the vines from competition for water.  A look through our Mourvedre block shows the new green growth in the middle of the vine rows, for which we can thank last week's rain, as well as the higher grasses growing amongst the vines themselves.  This shows the one downside of this late rain; we will have to re-mow or re-disk many of the blocks we thought we'd cleaned up already:

Mourvedre row

Many blocks, though, are still unmowed, and we're enjoying the last of what has been a spectacular wildflower season.  The purple flowers of our vetch plants are predominating:

Row with wildflowers

We're making sure to enjoy the flowers now, because the next few weeks will see this wild scene turn into something much more manicured, as our mower, disker, and spader turn the green at the surface into delicious organic soil for our grapevines:

Row newly mowed

We're still not out of the woods for frost; Paso Robles can freeze as late as mid-May.  But we've survived four dangerous weeks so far, and the ten-day forecast looks OK.  If we can get into May without any damage, we'll be able to relax somewhat.  So far, so good.


New Lambs, 2015 Vintage

It's a quiet interlude here at Tablas Creek.  We're starting to slowly prune the vineyard, but with budbreak two months or (hopefully) more away, there's not great urgency.  The 2014 vintage wines are nearly done fermenting, but not quite done enough to start blending.  We have our first bottling in mid-February (hooray for new rosés!) but we're not quite close enough to start our serious prep on these wines.

So, mid-January is a time to enjoy a slower pace, assess where we are and what we'd like to do for the year, and enjoy the lush, green landscape.

We're not the only ones enjoying this new landscape; we have the first of our 2015 vintage of lambs, born to the ewes who make up our grazing herd:

2015 Lambs 2

As you would expect, the natural cycles of grazing animals in whatever climate look to produce their offspring when the grass is the lushest.  So, this is just the beginning of a wave of new lambs that starts now and should continue through March.

A few more photos of the new arrivals:

2015 Lambs 3

2015 Lambs 1

May your 2015 have started as hopefully as ours!


Weekly Roundup for December 22nd: Drinking Better, Wine's Off Days, Anniversaries, and So Much Green

This week, as you've probably heard, was the last week of the holiday-buying season.  Yet in between the endless lists of the right wines for holiday gift giving were some truly interesting tidbits.  Our favorites of the week are below:

An amazing time-lapse video of the changing weather

  • We're just emerging from three weeks of wet weather into a drier pattern.  How wet?  Not overwhelmingly, by total precipitation; we got 7.75 inches over that stretch, an amount not inconceivable for a single winter storm on the coast of California.  But the distribution of that rain was remarkable: our weather station received measurable rainfall fifteen different days of twenty-two, with no more than two consecutive rain-free days.  With that rain came some beautiful clouds and lots of surface fog.  The time-lapse video captured by Biodynamic winery AmByth Estate, in the hilly El Pomar region just east of the town of Templeton, was pretty amazing.

And evidence of the rain's positive impacts

Adelaida Green  Frick ponds

  • The landscape here in Paso Robles has been transformed over the last few weeks.  The hillsides are electric green in the sunny interludes, and the cover crops are months ahead of last year.  The photo on the left, from Adelaida Cellars' Facebook page, gives a good sense of the new landscape.  We haven't seen any significant runoff or recharge of the ponds and lakes locally, unlike further north, where Frick Winery (in Dry Creek, Sonoma County) posted the dramatic changes to one of their local ponds on their Facebook page.  Hopefully, with the next series of storms, we'll see the same.

Another rain impact: bad tasting day?

  • I read with interest W. Blake Gray's post The Day Wine Tasted Bad on his blog The Gray Report.  He describes a day (pouring down rain) where he opened bottle after bottle, looking for one that tasted good.  We've had this happen to us in the cellar, where wines that we know we liked all started disappointing us in one way or another.  It seems to happen more often when the weather is changing, and we've learned to call it a day early rather than make irrevocable decisions on days like this.  There are believers who would attribute this to the Biodynamic calendar, but it's always seemed more plausible to us that it's somehow meteorologic.  In any case, Blake, you're not alone.  Read more »

A Year in the Life

  • Law Estate 2Congratulations to our neighbors Law Estate Wines, which celebrated the one-year anniversary of opening their tasting room this week.  If you haven't been to visit them yet, in their beautiful tasting room at the crest of Peachy Canyon Road, you should make a point to.  And when you do, please wish them Happy Anniversary.  (Meanwhile, it's worth following them on Facebook, where they routinely post some great photos.)

Food for Thought (Drink for Thought?): Drinking Better

  • Finally, a piece in LA Weekly's Squid Ink blog got some well-deserved play around the internet.  Drink Better Wine, Start a Revolution is a clarion call by author Besha Rodell to consumers to demand better from their wine retailers.  She concludes: "And so, Millennials of America, as well as anyone else who has found themselves drinking that bottle of Two Buck Chuck and realizing that you are basically only tolerating something that you know little about, not truly enjoying it, I implore you: Drink better wine. Make it imperative that Vons should have decent wine if they want your business. Or, better, hit up the small shops around town that really do all the work for you." Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. Read the article »

Weekly Roundup for November 23rd, 2014: Natural Wine, Ancient Rocks, Knobbly Fruit & Thanksgiving

This week's Weekly Roundup is highlighted by a great thought piece on what makes wine "modern" or "traditional", and whether either of these have a relationship with the idea of "natural wine".  We've included a couple of our favorites of the many Thanksgiving wine recommendations omnipresent at this time of year.  And, of course, we check in with some members of our community who are doing cool stuff.  As always, please share in the comments what you like, and what you'd like to see different.

The bounty of (our) harvest

Artisan photo of quinces

  • We kick off this week's column with a gorgeous photo from Artisan Restaurant.  We've partnered with them on several dinners over the years, including one early this year which featured lamb from our property.  Their photo on Instagram (above) of some knobbly bright yellow quinces from one of our trees caught our eye.  We dropped some off there because we had many more than we had any idea how to use, and wanted to get them into capable hands.  This photo isn't an isolated event; there's beautiful stuff worth following on all of Artisan's social media feeds.  If you're wondering why we grow quinces (along with apples, pears, cherries, plums, peaches and apricots) they're a part of the increased biodiversity we've been working to integrate over recent years.

Something in the (ancient) water

  • Halter fossilOur neighbor Halter Ranch posted a great photo (right, or on the Halter Ranch Facebook page for a high-resolution version) of one of the fish fossils that they found in their rocks and integrated into their winery building.  It's a great reminder that the soils that sit under our vineyards (and much of west Paso Robles) were deposited as seabed in the Miocene period (10-20 million years ago). These were lifted above the surface in the creation of the Santa Lucia Mountains quite recently, by geologic standards.  My dad wrote a great blog piece about our soils' history in 2011, if you're interested in learning more.

The 2014 Harvest

Is there a holiday coming up?

  • Thanksgiving is the American holiday most dedicated to eating and drinking.  Yet, many traditional Thanksgiving foods aren't naturally friendly to many of the most popular American wines, given their questionable affinity to oak and high alcohol.  Happily, Rhones, both red and white, make classic pairings, and it's always a pleasure waiting for the pre-Thanksgiving wine columns suggesting Rhones as an accompaniment.  I thought Laurie Daniel's Rhones for Thanksgiving column for the San Jose Mercury News was particularly good this year, and was pleased to see that our 2012 Cotes de Tablas ("bright fruit with savory notes of wild herbs") was one of her suggestions.
  • We weren't mentioned, but I still really liked Eric Asimov's Thanksgiving recommendation that the wine you choose should "Refresh the Palate". He highlights versatility and energy as two characteristics to look for in your Thanksgiving wine, and recommends an eclectic mix. I'm not sure I could find many of the wines he and his panel recommend (there are rewards for living in New York City, after all) but I do know that I agree completely with his basic advice. Read more »

An event to look forward to

  • This week, the Paso Robles Rhone Rangers announced the details of their 2015 Paso Robles Rhone Rangers Experience. In the last seven years, this event has become a showpiece for the Rhone movement here, and it's a remarkable value: just $85 for the full slate of events, including a nine-wine seminar (this year led by the Wine Enthusiast's Matt Kettmann), a vintners lunch catered by Chef Maegen Loring, a grand tasting featuring some 50 Paso Robles Rhone wineries, and a silent auction that benefits the Rhone Rangers Scholarship Fund.  There's a $35 ticket for just the Grand Tasting, too. Details & tickets »

Food for Thought (Beverage for Thought?)

  • Finally for this week I wanted to point you to a blog that is writing some of the most consistently interesting and erudite pieces in the world of wine today.  Elaine Brown of Hawk Wakawaka Wine Reviews this week tackles the questions raised by the ambiguity inherent in the definition of "natural wine".  We fall in her category 3 ("Wine growers and/or makers that use organic and/or biodynamic viticultural practices and/or less interventionist cellar techniques with few additives but do not define themselves with the movement of Natural wine") and are often dismayed by the reductive arguments on either extreme of the debate. Her conclusion -- that what matters is "if we’re trying to listen, and have a conversation" seems right on to me. Read more »

Wildflowers in the Vineyard: More Than Just Pretty Faces

By Lauren Cross

Thanks to the late rainstorms we had recently, it is now wildflower season here at Tablas Creek!  One of the many benefits of our organic and biodynamic property is the prolific wildlife that lives symbiotically throughout the vineyard. We leave sections of the vineyard to our native vegetation because of the insect and microbial life these plants support, and these section, particularly, burst into flower in April and May. Guests to our upcoming spring festivals are in for a treat!  I took a long hike through the vineyard and was happy to find dozens of unique wildflowers.  Here are a few of my favorite photos.

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I found this first pea flower in the cover crop near the lambing barn.  It is so exciting to see all of the tall crops between the vines- a few months back before the rain storms there was just bare soil and now the cover crop and flowers reach almost four feet!

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I found this tall buttercup flower blowing in the breeze farther in the vineyard behind the old nursery greenhouses.

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Finding this flowering Salvia was the best surprise of the day.  It was nestled in under an oak tree just passed the gate into our new unplanted property. 

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 I love the intricacies of this wild Primrose with the delicate white star shaped center. 

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The bees are happy it is wildflower season too! The California poppy it's feasting on is our state flower, and always our most visible sign of spring.

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This thistle is my favorite shot of the day.  I love the texture and how the flower is just beginning to open up.  It reminds me of the 2014 vintage just beginning in the vineyard: new growth just before flowering and all of that potential just waiting to be realized.


Photo Essay: The first vineyard hike of spring

By Lauren Cross

I couldn't resist hiking through the vineyard today. The sun was warm and bright, there was a slight breeze and the floral smells of spring were intoxicating. The first day of spring is a turning point for the vineyard, a definite end of dormancy, and I wanted to see what new life I could find out there.

First stop, I made a bee-line for the chicken coop where our new baby chicks had just arrived; we got five more this morning!  This little gal was so fluffy, soft and very curious.

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Just around the corner from the chicks' temporary home is their soon-to-be fully automated and portable chicken coop.  If you missed our Facebook post from earlier this week, Viticulturist Levi Glenn is transforming a reclaimed outhouse into a fully-functioning coop for these little gals.  I love the idea of reclaimed materials transformed with modern technology. Of course, the chickens are examples of recycling as well.  They eat the weeds, seeds and insects and produce nitrogen for the vineyard.

Check out the windows!

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Then I headed up the hill to see how the lambs, sheep, alpacas and donkeys were doing.  I am always surprised by how quickly these little ones grow up.  Can you believe this lamb was born only a few months ago?  Of course, they're not there to be decorative.  It was good to see them hard at work turning our cover crop into fertilizer, and great to see the fast-growing greenery. We are most thankful for those few late storms!

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Then I headed down to see the fruit trees, another part of our biodynamic program.  Biodiversity is a central tenet of biodynamics, so in addition to our chickens, sheep, donkeys, goats, pipgs, alpacas and llamas we also have interplanted fruit trees in our newer vineyard blocks.  Each different tree attracts a slightly different mix of insects and birds, and results in a more vibrant underground ecosystem.

I just so happened to find a very large pig free-ranging around the orchard.

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That big guy came right up to me and nuzzled my leg with its huge snout. Cute, but also a bit intimidating.

The best part about the first day of spring for me is the beginning of my favorite season: rosé season! Somehow, rosés only look right outside.  Please welcome the 2013 Dianthus:

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Come visit us in the tasting room and take a tour to taste the Dianthus and see spring in the vineyard for yourself: tours run daily at 10:30am and 2pm. Call 805.237.1231 and we'll set you up.

Happy first day of spring, everyone.

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Winterizing the vineyard as we wait and hope for rain

By Levi Glenn

The falling leaves mark the commencement of the “slow time” of the year in the vineyard. Harvest is in the rear-view mirror. All the grapes have been fermented and the wines are resting comfortably in their respective vessels, yet one last series of tasks needs to be completed. We have come to call this winterization, and it has nothing to do with new wiper blades or antifreeze. Our tasks include ripping the soil, discing, applying compost, seeding cover-crop, and spreading straw bales. In a normal year it’s a race against the clock. The rain usually arrives at some point in November (we’ve only received 0.59 inches so far), after which it becomes a lot harder to get our tractors into the vineyard. With the tractors darting around the property, it can almost look choreographed. One tractor will broadcasting compost, a second closely behind with a disc to incorporate the compost and aerate the soil, and a third tractor bringing up the rear with seed drill to sow our cover-crop. It takes us close to a month to finish it all up, and that’s when we can really sit down and take a breather.

On a good portion of our vineyard we use our Yeomans Plow. This consists of a three-shank ripper and a roller behind it. There seems to be no end to benefits of this tool. We use it to break-up soil compaction, which is caused mostly by our long, dry summers, but contributed to by our tractorsand even the winter rainfall, depending on the physical composition of the soil. It simultaneously aerates the root zone allowing the roots to breathe and spread more easily, and it trims surface roots forcing the roots to grow downwards instead of into the row middles (allowing us to dry-farm more effectively). On our steepest head trained, dry-farmed blocks we also use it for erosion control. By ripping across the hill, any run-off that may occur sinks down the trenches left by the shanks, allowing us to retain water rather than having it run off down hill. The only drawback to this tool is the amount of rock that it pulls out of the soil, that we then have to remove by hand. The Yeomans has become an invaluable tool in the vineyard.

V56
The Yeomans Plow mounted to the tractor.

Ripped 2
Newly ripped ground in a young dry-farmed Grenache block

Organic compost is at the very center of our nutritional program at Tablas Creek Vineyard. For many blocks this is the only fertilization they receive for the entire year. Our application rates vary from 2-5 tons/acre. This may sound like a huge amount, but an acre is a big area, and as you walk behind the spreader you can see only a scattering of compost on the ground. We make around 100 tons of compost each year from own property. We collect all the vine prunings from the vineyard and run them through a wood chipper, then throw in all the pomace from the winemaking process, and lastly add green waste from tree trimming. All of these ingredients are put into a pile and turned every couple months. Microbes in the raw materials break down all this organic matter into compost, which takes close to a year to finish. We can’t make enough compost ourselves, so we purchase another 250 tons from organic sources to supplement our own. The compost gives the plants a little boost of nitrogen, which helps their growth, but just as importantly introduces an immense quantity of microbes. Even better, compost has a time-release effect, and not all the nutrition will be used up right away. This year’s compost will feed the vines for 3 years, and since we apply every year, the vines receive a compounding effect.

Trekker spreader
A spreader full of organic compost ready to be applied.

Pile
50 Tons of newly delivered organic compost.

Throughout the whole estate vineyard we seed cover-crop. We use a seed drill, which creates a small furrow in the soil and drops a selected amount of the seed a couple inches below the soil surface. The seed mixes we use are mostly made up of legumes, but also have some barley and other grasses. Legumes have the unique ability to pull nitrogen from the atmosphere and process it and actually put it back into the soil. The grasses are mostly for erosion control. As the seeds start to germinate, their roots penetrate into the soil and help hold onto the little topsoil that we have. Perhaps the most beneficial aspect of cover cropping is harnessing the immense amount of greenery that grows between the vine rows. Once we till this cover crop back into the soil in the spring we increase the percentage of organic matter in our soil. Organic matter improves soil nutrition, water holding capacity, microbial activity and soil structure. Increasing organic matter in soil is what farmers refer to as “building soil”. With different seed mixes we get different flowers that bloom and attract good bugs, and the more species of plants the more diversity of microbes we have in our soil.  A side-benefit is that a cover-crop allows us to choose the plants that grow in the winter, and cut down on invasive and troublesome species of weeds such as yellow starthistle.

Seed mix Seed bag
Left, a handful of cover-crop seed. The round ones are legumes and the oval ones are grasses.  Right, organic Soil-Max seed mix

Cover popping
Newly-germinated cover crop in January 2013

Cat + seeder
A Catapilar D-6 with a large seed drill on our new property

We only have one last thing to do before we are fully buttoned-down for winter. On the steeper dirt access roads between vineyard blocks, winter rainfall can cause serious erosion problems, but plowing across the slope or planting with cover crops aren't really feasible. So we spread straw in a thin layer across these areas. The straw slows down the water, and helps distribute the force of the heavy rainfall. Only the steepest of spots are in jeopardy. Once it rains a couple times, grass germinates and grows up through the straw, further reinforcing these sensitive areas.

Straw
Standing at the top of New Hill, straw in place. December 2012

Straw 2
Straw protecting the avenue between the French grenache and Mt. Mourvedre from erosion. January 2013

Just a week ago we finished up with all of our various winterization tasks. The winter slumber can now begin. It's on to building more rock walls and waiting for the rain. Even with average rainfall from here on out, we will most likely still suffer some drought conditions in 2014. As of today we are at just 16% of normal rainfall. This is making most growers quite axious right now, in a time that would usually be the more restful. It wont be until February that our next big task of pruning begins. Hopefully between now and then all of our erosion control efforts actully get put to use. In any case, the rest will be much appreciated.