A truly scary weather forecast

We've been fortunate with our weather during harvest for the last four years.  Each year starting with 2005, whatever the conditions during the spring and summer, we've had beautiful autumns, without serious heat spikes and without any significant rain.  That's one of the major reasons that in my post ten years of Paso Robles vintage grades that I wrote last year, the last four years all received "A-" or "A" grades.

I'm not sure that we're going to have that kind of luck this year.  We suffered through an extended heat spike in late September that threatened vineyards with dehydration and over-rapid ripening.  Warmer than normal nights have meant that grapes are ripe with lower acids than we've seen in years.  And now, as if on cue, we have a forecast for the most significant October rain in two decades.  The complete extended forecast, from the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance's usually conservative meteorologist:


Those comments about "some mountain areas" typically mean the foothills of the Santa Lucia Mountains, where Tablas Creek is located.  So, we're looking at possibly six inches of rain across three days next week.  Not good.

We're fortunate, in Paso Robles, that we don't often get rain before November.  That's typically two weeks later than Napa and a month later than Sonoma and Mendocino.  The longer growing season is a luxury in that it allows us to wait as long as is necessary to get our later-ripening varietals (read: Mourvedre, Counoise and Roussanne) fully ripe.  And, in fact, the North Coast has already had a small rain event in mid-September that dropped half an inch of rain up north but just brought clouds to Tablas Creek.  And this rainstorm is predicted to be at least as heavy up north.  But six inches is a lot of rain, and no vineyard with grapes nearly ripe can expect to come through it unscathed.  Between dilution, swelling and splitting of berries, rot and mildew, there are a lot of possible negative consequences.

So, what are we doing?  Picking as fast as we can between now and Monday.  We hardly ever pick on Sundays, as it's hard on our crew and cellar staff, but we are tomorrow.  We should be able to complete most of our Grenache and Roussanne harvest, and get a good chunk of Counoise in.  We're most worried about the larger, thinner-skinned grapes like Grenache and Counoise, who tend to absorb more water when they're ripe and are more prone to swelling and splitting. 

We'll also be picking the Mourvedre that is ripe (or nearly so) because there is no guarantee that, even with Mourvedre, whose thick skins allow it to more easily shrug off late rainfall, we'll be able to use what's left out there after the storm comes through. 

On the positive side, our hot September meant that grapes like Mourvedre that aren't usually ripe in mid-October are more or less ready to come in.  In a perfect world, we'd leave some vineyard blocks out for another week or ten days in the cool, sunny weather we've been having, but the little last bit of added concentration we'd get isn't worth the risks.

Of course, there are blocks, particularly ones that were impacted most heavily by the spring frosts, that just aren't ready.  There's nothing to be gained by bringing in this fruit, as we wouldn't want to use it as it stands now.  The only thing to do is to leave it out, hope that the storm is less severe than predicted, and that the extended forecast (which is calling for warmer, dry weather for the end of October) is true.

The last time we faced a similar decision was in 2004.  We had Mourvedre still out that wasn't ready, and a storm predicted for mid-October.  We harvested what we could, left out the two-thirds of our Mourvedre that wasn't ripe, and hunkered down for two inches of rain.  The skies cleared after, and after two weeks of cool, sunny and breezy weather, we picked about 60% of what was left.  Another storm came through at the end of the month, and though we still had fruit out, the weather never dried out again, and what was still out wasn't usable.

Still, our patience in leaving out the Mourvedre through the first storm was rewarded: we had some terrific fruit that we wouldn't have had if we'd picked everything before the rain.

At the very least, this will get our winter rainfall off to a good start.  And, if we're looking for silver linings, everyone can be happy about that.

Harvest, Week of September 28th: A Change in the Weather and Worries about Yields

If you've been following our 2009 harvest report, you'll know that we'd been hoping that the vintage would turn out to be a little more plentiful than the last two drought-reduced crops.  Perhaps this was wishful thinking, given our third-consecutive below-average rainfall winter.  But the distribution of the rainfall (lots of small doses of moisture) and the vigor of our vines and cover crops led us to believe that perhaps we had received enough "usable" rainfall, even if our total rainfall was just sixteen inches (about 60% of normal).

It does not seem that these hopes will be realized this year.  After another intense week of harvesting, we're now about half done with this year's crop.  And we've completed harvest on a few varietals, which allows us to compare with what we received last year.  The results do not paint a pretty picture on yields.  Of the four varietals we've completed harvesting, only Vermentino came in above last year's totals.  Syrah is down 20%, and Viognier and Marsanne more like 40%.  The specifics, in tons:

                    2009       2008       % Change
Viognier:       12.2         19.4        -37%
Marsanne:       5.3          9.8         -46%
Vermentino:    4.3          2.7         +59%
Syrah:           24.0        30.1         -20%
Totals:         45.8        62.0        -26%

I don't think that, when all is in the cellar, we're going to end up down 26%.  Whites (compared to reds) gave us a comparatively generous harvest in 2008.  And based on our best estimates, it looks like Grenache and Counoise have pretty good crops on them, likely at or even slightly above last year's numbers.  But I don't think it's unrealistic to expect us to be down 20% on whites and 10% on reds.  That's a lot less wine than we were expecting... something like 2000 cases fewer than we'd been hoping.  Having that much less wine (something in the neighborhood of 13,000 cases rather than 15,000 cases) will make for some tough choices about to whom to allocate the wine we have.

The good thing about low-yielding vintages is that their quality is almost always high.  And the fruit that we've seen come into the cellar has looked very good.  Intensity is excellent, sugars (particularly on the whites) are a bit lower than we've come to expect, and the pH levels are higher than normal.  We may have to do some fairly widespread acid adjustment for the first time in several years, but that's a fairly minor intervention.

Meanwhile, the weather has taken a decided turn cooler.  After two weeks of hot weather (accompanied by, for Paso Robles, unusually warm nights) the temperature plummeted early last week.  On Sunday, September 27th, the high at the weather station in the middle of the vineyard was 102, and the low 53.  The next day, the high dropped to 82, with a low of 50.  The following day, the high was 72, with a low of 38.  And we've now had a week of these unusually cool days, including three nights where temperatures dropped below freezing in at least a few lowest-lying sections of the vineyard.  We have run our frost-protection fans the last three nights, and will certainly need it again tonight, which is forecast to be the coldest yet.  It does look like we're supposed to revert to more seasonal temperatures later in the week and into next week, which will be good for ripening what's left in the vineyard.

These recent cooler temperatures were helpful after the weeks of hot because they really reduced the pressure on the cellar.  When you have extended hot temperatures in the middle of harvest, it's essential to bring fruit in as soon as you decide it's ripe.  Waiting even a couple of extra days can be disastrous.  (I'll have a blog post on some of the unpleasant consequences of dehydration in vineyards later this week.)  But these cooler temperatures have allowed us to pick in a more leisurely fashion.

Over the last week, we've picked more Grenache, our first batches of Mourvedre, several pickings of Roussanne, and most of the rest of our Grenache Blanc.  We're being very selective about what we pick, making sure the get clusters that are showing signs of starting to raisin even if the other clusters on the vine aren't ripe yet.  It seems to us that, moreso than in recent vintages, the amount of care that is taken in the vineyard is going to determine the quality of the end product.

Harvest, Week of September 21st

The weather did indeed heat up.  It has topped out around 102 most of this week, and is forecast to stay hot through the weekend (and then cool down).  This heat wave has been a touch gentler than the forecasts were predicting, which is a good thing.  And this late in the year (after the autumnal equinox) the nights are so long that we're guaranteed to get good cooling.  Yesterday's low was 56.

But still, it seems like most of the vineyard is ripe.  We've been harvesting Vermentino, Grenache Blanc and Syrah all week, are starting Roussanne and Grenache Noir, and should finish the Marsanne tomorrow.  The ripening has been a bit more uniform than we'd feared, but the quantities a bit lower than we'd hoped.  Overall, yields are looking similar to 2008.

I got the chance to get out in the vineyard this morning, and took some photos of where everything is at this stage.  I've put a few of the most illustrative in this article, and the rest are in the Vineyard Photos - September 2009 photo album.

We spent this morning harvesting Roussanne.  I love this photo of the Roussanne sitting in the picking bin, with the Roussanne vineyard block in the background:


The Roussanne on the vine shows the russet color for which the grape is named:


The reds are at various degrees of ripeness, with the Grenache and the Counoise particularly showing the delaying effects of the spring frosts.  Some of these clusters are still finishing veraison.  Not the Syrah, though, which is blue-black and ripe, and which we'll finish harvesting this week.  We've never had a Syrah harvest so short: just 8 days from first cluster to last:


The Grenache vines that were not impacted by frost have beautiful fruit: purple and luscious.  We're bringing in a first "cherry pick" of the ripest, darkest Grenache tomorrow.


At the same time, there are Grenache vines with clusters still mid-veraison:


The Counoise is similar to the Grenache.  Some clusters are fairly ripe, others still mid-veraison.  A good example of the uneven impact of the frost is the below vine, with clusters at every stage of ripeness:


The Mourvedre (which wasn't really out yet at frost time) is looking remarkably uniform.  This is a surprise; it typically gives us some of our largest headaches at harvest time due to its tendency toward uneven ripening.  But it is starting to show signs of stress, the first of which is an early change toward fall coloring.  It's not unusual for us to pick Mourvedre from vines with very few leaves left.


I'll leave you with one last shot I thought was cool: a photo of the owl box that stands at the intersection of our Grenache, Mourvedre, and Counoise blocks: one of a dozen or so we have scattered around the property as a part of the ongoing war with gophers.


Harvest, Week of September 14th

We've (finally!) started harvesting our reds.  We are bringing in Syrah today, and expecting about 10 tons.  The fruit looks tremendous: low pH (around 3.35), good sugars (around 25 Brix) and excellent flavors.  It seems to me that the grapes have lots of texture and solids rather than lots of juice, which bodes very well for quality, though not so much for quantity.  It's possible that our early estimates of a return to normal crop levels may have been wishful thinking.

September 17th is a little late for us to be bringing in our first reds, particularly for a year with smaller yields.  Syrah always kicks off our red harvest, but the dates do vary.  For the past few years, our first Syrah has come in on:

2008: September 9th
2007: September 6th
2006: September 26th
2005: September 29th
2004: September 3rd
2003: September 18th

It's worth noting the 2005 and 2006 were both very large crops, while 2007 and 2008 both very small.  In general, the more fruit you have on a vine, the longer it takes to ripen that fruit.  I was interested to see, though, that there doesn't appear to be a huge correlation between the dates of harvest and vintage quality (see the vintage grades I gave out last fall).

This first batch of Syrah is going into our two upright fermenters.  It will ferment there for the next ten days or so and then be pressed into smaller barrels.  We'll then re-use the uprights for Grenache and Mourvedre.

Earlier this week, we brought in some of our Grenache Blanc and about half our Marsanne.  Both came in light in quantity, though the quality looks excellent.  We've known, though, that the Grenache Blanc and Viognier were seriously impacted by the spring's frosts, so are reserving judgment before we project these results across the vineyard.

Some photos from the cellar track the progress of the bins of Syrah.  First, a bin of fruit (a little over 1000 pounds worth):


Syrah's clusters are noteworthy for their small size, dark blue-black color and tight configuration.  That's my hand for scale:


The bins are brought into the cellar via forklift:


And dumped onto the sorting table:


Winemaker Ryan Hebert and Cellar Assistant Chelsea Magnusson toss out any leaves or underripe clusters (there aren't many due to all the sorting that happens during the hand-harvest) and push the fruit gradually into the destemmer:


The berries and juice are pumped to the 1500-gallon upright fermenters in the next room:


...and up into the top of the tank.  Note that this door can be opened for loading as well as pumpovers or punchdowns, or sealed up for aging:


And finally, a look at the uprights in position in the cellar.  The slightly smaller 1200-gallon foudres are stacked in the background:


Harvest 2009 Begins... Slowly

It's clear at this point that it's going to be a long harvest.  We picked our first grapes early last week (September 1st): Viognier from the top of the tallest hill on the property -- typically the first part of the vineyard we harvest -- and Roussanne for our Bergeron program.

And then we waited.

We harvested a little more today, nine days later, with a another small Viognier block.  So, we're approximately 2% done with harvest.  It doesn't look like things are progressing very quickly, either.  Grapes that are normally accumulating sugar rapidly (like Grenache, and Grenache Blanc) are sitting quietly around 21 or 22 Brix, and haven't moved much in the past week.  But, acids on the Grenache Blanc, at least, are relatively low, and it may be that this vintage will feature ripeness at lower sugar levels than the past.  We're planning to bring in our first Grenache Blanc early next week.

The grape that seems closest to coming in in significant quantities is Syrah.  Its numbers are looking good (roughly 24 Brix, 3.45 pH) but the grapes just don't feel quite ready.  The flavor development doesn't seem complete, and the grapes are a little too full still.  Another few days and we figure that they'll just get better.

One thing that we have noticed is that there is enormous variability within vineyard blocks.  I was out in the Grenache section today and saw clusters that were starting to deflate, looking totally ready to pick, on the same vine as clusters that still hadn't completed veraison.  On one level this isn't surprising.  Grenache -- like Roussanne -- always has major issues with uneven ripening.  But we're seeing the same phenomenon throughout the vineyard.  This isn't as big an issue for us as it is for many other producers; we always hand-harvest selectively, making multiple passes through each vineyard block, which protects us against uneven ripening.  But it does suggest that just because we have started a particular varietal, or a particular vineyard block, it doesn't mean that we'll be completing that varietal or that vineyard block anytime soon.  My guess is that we'll still be harvesting in mid-November, which is a little scary given predictions of an El Nino winter and a likely earlier onset of the rainy season than normal.

It's clear why we see this wide variation in ripeness.  We had a cool spring with a series of late frosts that, as with all frosts, had an unpredictable impact.  Some vines were affected while vines nearby were fine.  Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of vines had some sprouts frosted while others a few inches away were not.  This unevenness persisted through a cool early summer, brief hot spell in mid-July, a cool late July and early August, and then a very hot three week period ending last weekend.  We've been hearing anecdotal evidence of some vineyards locally showing impacts from vine dehydration during the heat wave, but between the good rainfall we saw last winter and some proactive irrigation in sensitive vineyard blocks early this summer, the vineyard looks healthier than it ever has before at this time of year.

Crop levels look a bit higher than the past few years, although it will vary depending on how much the varietal and the vineyard block were impacted by the frosts.  Overall, I suspect we'll see higher yields on reds (most of which were not out during the frosts, or in the case of Grenache, were so vigorous that they resprouted and still hung a healthy crop) and similar yields on whites to 2008.

A few photos of the first day of harvest are below.  First, Winemaker Ryan Hebert with the bins of Viognier:


The bins are dumped into our press:


And finally, the juice dripping out of the press: