The red wines from the 2013 vintage come into focus

Blending is always an exciting time for me.  Up until that time, the different wine lots in the cellar have been potential, and we're looking at them principally in terms of the problems that they might present.  One might not be through fermentation.  Another might be a little oxidized, or a little reduced.  Yet another might still be spritzy.  In each case, we're trying to round these component pieces into form so that we can make our evaluations on them and aim them at the appropriate wine.  This period can last as long as six months, starting with harvest and not concluding until April.

Once the lots are behaving, blending can happen startlingly fast, and these components that we have been regarding as potential problems (or, if you prefer, as diamonds in the rough) can in a week become the young wines that we'll spend the next years or decades getting to know.  In addition, that week provides our best opportunity yet to get to understand the personality of the vintage and try it next to its predecessor for context.  The finished products:

Red blends 2014

When we blend, we start by tasting every lot from each varietal, blind.  This year, we had 14 Grenache lots, 12 Mourvedre lots, 8 Syrah lots, 3 Counoise lots and 3 lots that we'd blended early in the fermentation process (including the Scruffy Hill lot that forms the base of our En Gobelet each year).  Each lot is given a grade between 1 and 3, with 1 being the best.  My notes from this year are below; note how many 1's there are and how few 3's: the sign of a good vintage and one that is polished enough to evaluate:

Red blending notes may 2014

Once we've graded and discussed each lot, we start from the top, blending the Panoplie first from the lots that received "1" grades and exceptional comments.  [In the notes above, I use an asterisk to identify the first Mourvedre lot and the sixth Syrah lot as clear Panoplie candidates.]  We taste a handful of possible blends blind against one another until we reach consensus. Once we're satisfied with the Panoplie, we remove the lots that went into it from our calculations and start the same process on the Esprit, and so forth through the Cotes de Tablas and our varietal wines and eventually to the estate lots that will be declassified into our Patelin de Tablas.

Since each blend may contain 20+ lots, each of which themselves might be composite blends of dozens of barrels, it takes the cellar a while to blend the wines we have to taste, and it's nearly impossible to make decisions on more than one tier a day.  So, the seven blending days that we took this year is just about the minimum possible, and another sign that the components were in good shape for blending.  Below are my notes from last Wednesday's tasting of the finished blends.  At this tasting, I was joined by my dad, my brother Danny and our winemakers Neil, Chelsea and Tyler.

  • 2013 Patelin de Tablas: A spicy, meaty nose with leather and mineral notes.  In the mouth, Syrah is at the fore: creamy, with chalky texture, very savory, with charcuterie and tobacco coming first, then brambly black fruit, and some welcome black licorice on the finish. Final blend: 45% Syrah, 29% Grenache, 22% Mourvedre, 4% Counoise.
  • 2013 Cotes de Tablas: The nose is juicy, generous, raspberry and spice, with a little leather lurking behind.  The mouth is clearly marked by Grenache, with juicy wild strawberry and chalky tannins that balance the lushness. The finish is long and silky, with red licorice notes lingering.  Neil said he thought it was "the deepest, most thoughtful Cotes we've made".  55% Grenache, 30% Syrah, 10% Counoise, 5% Mourvedre.
  • 2013 Esprit de Tablas: A nose of dark red fruit, currant and plum, black cherry and meat drippings, and a loamy minerality that Neil called "after a rain out in the vineyard". The wine is mouth-filling, rich with bittersweet chocolate and blueberry and the powdered-sugar tannins that are for us a sign of great Mourvedre. Danny called it "classy and refined". 40% Mourvedre, 28% Syrah, 22% Grenache and 10% Counoise.
  • 2013 Panoplie: The nose is rich, inky and inviting, with spicy purple fruit, a meaty note that someone identified as reduced beef stock and I thought was like a leather armchair.  In the mouth, plums, black raspberry and black cherry vibrate between red and black and the texture is rich and chewy.  Despite only being 10% Syrah, it was the darkest color, with an exceptionally long finish showing off grilled meat, licorice and chalky tannins.  Wow.  70% Mourvedre, 20% Grenache, 10% Syrah.
  • 2013 Grenache: The nose was immediately identifiable as Grenache: milk chocolate and cherry, with a little white pepper adding spice. The mouth was open and generous, with more red cherry and strawberry fruit and a nice chocolatey note.  Tangy acids come out on the finish to keep things balanced, but the impression is of lusciousness and baby fat right now.
  • 2013 Mourvedre: The nose has an appealing, classic cedary, foresty, loamy note on top of mint and currant fruit.  The mouth shows very similar flavors, with nice chunky tannins at the end. It's serious, dry, and long, and should be fun to watch evolve.
  • 2013 Syrah: Classic Syrah nose, with chalk, black olive, coffee grounds and squid ink predominant. Not much fruit showing yet, but a little sweet oak.  In the mouth, you find the fruit: blackberry, with big tannins that suggest it will benefit from the next year-plus in barrel, and likely additional time aging in bottle.  Very chewy and dark.

One of the things I was happiest with was the definition between the different blends, between the different varietals, and between the varietals and the blends that were led by those grapes.  It's important to us that the Cotes de Tablas not taste too much like the varietal Grenache -- and that it not taste too much like the Esprit or the Patelin.  This year, I think we nailed it: each varietal wine is a classic expression of its varietal characteristics, and each blend shows the signature of its leading grape but is, as we typically find, more than the sum of its parts.

It will be a pleasure to get to know these wines over the coming years.


Vintage Hollywood

I have recently been finding myself contrasting two recent vintages primarily in terms of their personalities, rather than (or at least, in addition to) their flavors.  Our 2011 vintage produced wines that are tense, wound-up, powerful and brooding, that make you make an effort to get to know them.  The wines from our 2012 vintage are sunny, open, friendly, and easy to like without being simplistic.  Yes, these are notably anthropomorphic descriptions, and I have described each without mentioning anything about sweetness, acidity, flavors or texture.  And yet, don't you have a sense of what the two vintages' wines are likely to taste like?

That got me thinking of which movie stars might correspond to those two vintages, and once I got myself started, I couldn't stop.  So, I present to you the last ten vintages, with a female and male movie star who will help you get to know them, and a little explanation as to why. Images courtesy Wikipedia.

Star_Banner

  • 2004: "We didn't know they had it in them".  The 2004 vintage struck us at the time as likely to produce friendly, appealing wines without perhaps the structure and depth to age into elegance.  We were wrong, and the vintage has had remarkable staying power and has become something we didn't think it would be.
    • Female star: Mila Kunis, because when you saw her in That 70's Show, did you think she would be an A-list talent, as well as one of the most genuinely funny interview subjects in Hollywood?  Me neither.
    • Male star: Matthew McConaughey. Wooderson didn't seem likely to graduate to Dallas Buyers Club.
  • 2005: "Came through a few rough patches".  2005 wines were big and brawny when they were young, obviously with potential, but they shut down hard in middle-age and got downright difficult, to the point that we actually had to delay including the 2005 Esprit de Beaucastel in our Collector's Edition Wine Club because it wasn't ready.  But now?  They're the wines I pick when I want to impress.
    • Female star: Drew Barrymore, who as a teenager didn't seem likely to mature into the funny, self-possessed star she is now.
    • Male star: Robert Downey Jr., whose transformation from talented tabloid regular to master of multiple genres has been remarkable to see.  Did you realize he's the most valuable movie star in Hollywood, and has been for two years running?
  • 2006: "The overachiever".  A little like 2004, except that the wines seemed more solid and less friendly at the start, likely to be respected and admired but unlikely to be loved.  Then they steadily put on substance while rounding off rough edges, until they were stars in their own rights.  It happened so gradually we were actually surprised when our 2006 Esprit de Beaucastel became our first wine to make the Wine Spectator's annual "Top 100" list.
    • Female star: Amy Adams, who seemed destined for typecast roles as the funny sidekick but who has pushed her boundaries until she's one of the most marketable women in Hollywood.
    • Male star: John C. Reilly, the consummate character actor who parlayed strong work in a steady stream of sidekick roles in great indie films into juicy lead roles in blockbusters like Chicago and Gangs of New York.
  • 2007: "The star".  Big, glossy, powerful, clearly A-list material, our most impressive vintage suggests the classic Hollywood star, at the height of his or her powers, who can play any role successfully.  Yet, you never forget you're watching a star conscious of his or her own power.  No one would describe the 2007 vintage as "cozy".
    • Female star: Catherine Zeta-Jones.  A-list lead.  Talented singer.  One of the most beautiful women of her generation.  Would I be terrified to meet her?  Absolutely.
    • Male star: George Clooney.  Ridiculously talented, funny, self-deprecating and successful in a number of different roles, but you never forget you're watching a movie star.  That's what 2007 is like.
  • 2008: "The quiet pro".  This vintage, sandwiched between the showier 2007 and 2009 vintages, was excellent in its own right, but didn't demand a lot of attention.  It's like the star you're always happy to see in a movie, but whose name probably isn't on the marquee.  Yet at the end, you're glad to have spent the time with them.
    • Female star: Julianne Moore: classy, elegant, always appealing, and often in roles that show off her acting rather than her beauty.  Always an asset to a cast.
    • Male star: Jake Gyllenhaal: ditto.  Can lead a major production, but it doesn't seem to happen as often as it could.
  • 2009: "The dark side".  Powerful, tightly wound, the 2009 vintage is like 2007 with some added menace: an a-list star willing to go without makeup in pursuit of a meaty role.  We're expecting the 2009's, which are a bit forbidding and tannic now, to unwind only gradually, but to reward patience handsomely.
    • Female star: Angelina Jolie, the classic female action hero, whose depth is promised and only gradually revealed. A powerful presence, alluring and intimidating in equal measure.
    • Male star: Daniel Craig, whose take on James Bond is darker than previous iterations, played straight rather than with a wink, still plenty suave while adding more muscle and an introspective streak. A Bond who doesn't let you inside.
  • 2010: "Classic elegance". The comparatively stress-free 2010 vintage, a wet year coming after three years of drought, produced wines that have to me always come across as effortlessly appealing, not notable for their power but beautifully delineated and in perfect balance, like a movie star who ages gracefully.
    • Female star: Gwyneth Paltrow, charming in whatever role she takes on, from the big screen to the kitchen, but seemingly most at home playing a version of herself.
    • Male star: Denzel Washington, whose quiet confidence and air of class allows him to imbue humanity into characters who in other hands would be straightforward villains or saccharine heroes. Watch Training Day and Remember the Titans and marvel that he starred in these back-to-back.
  • 2011: "A little intimidating". 2011 turned up the volume on 2010, gaining intensity from a spring frost and retaining bright acids from our second consecutive cold year.  All the wines have a brooding darkness and the promise of great depth. At the same time, they require a certain investment on your part as their consumer to meet them on their terms. They're not interested in pleasing the crowds.
    • Female star: Halle Berry, who could have settled into a comfortable role as model and actress playing beautiful people, but seemed to search out troubled characters that were impossible to pigeonhole.
    • Male star: Hugh Jackman, who inhabits Wolverine's character comfortably: funny and sociable in short, bitter bursts, but ultimately inward-focused and intense.
  • 2012: "Pleased to meet you". In dramatic contrast to 2011, 2012 comes to greet you with a smile. This isn't to say that there's not depth behind this happy facade, but the first impression I have with all the wines from 2012 is that they're charming, with generous fruit, engaging and enticing.
    • Female star: Reese Witherspoon, recent arrest notwithstanding, plays characters with an easy smile who you want to root for and for whom joy seems a regular emotion.
    • Male star: Tom Hanks, whose wide range never seems to include dour or unappealing characters.  Of course, if you were casting for an unappealing character, would you cast Tom Hanks?  Exactly.
  • 2013: "The prodigy". In our as-yet-limited experience of the 2013 vintage, it seems to combine the appeal of 2012 with the depth and intrigue of 2011.  We're not sure where it's going yet, but we know it's going to be fun to follow and get to know.
    • Female star: Jennifer Lawrence, whose range at age 23 is already staggering, and whose career arc is likely to be meteoric.
    • Male star: Leonardo DiCaprio, circa 1997.  There isn't really a current equivalent to the promise that a 22-year-old Leonardo DiCaprio showed, already nominated for an Oscar (at age 19) for his role in What's Eating Gilbert Grape and within a few months of becoming the biggest star in the highest-grossing movie ever.

I'm sure any list like this is going to create controversy, and would love to know your nominations for the characteristics of our different vintages.  Or maybe I'm totally off base and you've only made it this far because you're wondering if I've lost my mind.  In any case, let me know what you think in the comments.


Reining In Harvest 2013

By Chelsea Franchi

I was standing in the entrance of the cellar on Monday with my hand wrapped around a steaming mug of coffee, watching as a storm rolled over the hills of Paso Robles and finally touch down on our vineyard.

And I had a smile on my face.  

I have a certain fondness for inclement weather, but typically at this time of year, weather like that can be panic inducing.  This year's a bit different, though, as all of our fruit is off the vine and resting comfortably, tucked away safely in tank and barrel.  You can almost feel, and sometimes hear, the soft, gentle crackle as the wines finish up their fermentation.

This cozy, mellow scene feels a world away from where we were just a few weeks ago.  We all knew harvest was going to be early, and it seemed as though we were all parroting the words "harvest is starting soon!" without thinking about what that actually meant.  And then harvest really did start early, and when it started, it was in earnest.  One moment we were leisurely prepping the harvest equipment and suddenly we were hit with a deluge of fruit, with the bulk of it flooding in at once and filling each of our available tanks in the blink of an eye.  We were forced to put our heads down and focus on the tasks directly in front of us and only on October 10th (the last day of harvest) did we dare to glance up and marvel at all we had accomplished in a rather short amount of time.

Harv13_PressWash
Cleaning up after a long day of pressing the pomace (or solids) of red wines

Harv13_HandSort
Hand sorting fruit before it gets pumped into a tank to ferment

Harv13_TankDrain
Draining off juice to add to Dianthus rosé

Not only is everything picked, it's also pressed, and so last Friday, the cellar crew grabbed a thief and a handful of glasses to taste through the wines of 2013.  Initially, we were giddy to be tasting through the cellar so early.  However, after the first few wines, the full weight of the situation settled in. Harvest 2013 is in the books.  And you know what?  It's good. The whites seem to have an exuberant quality. They dance across the palate with both brightness and gravity.  The reds are a bit more tricky to read at this stage. Across the board, during punch downs and pump overs, the lots of red were smokey, meaty and rich.  Now, in barrel, many of them are starting to show promise of an unfurling of fruit, spice and depth.  

Harv13_CellarTasting

I'm going to miss harvest a little bit (but trust me when I say that I can definitely wait until fall of 2014 for the next one).  The easy comraderie that comes with working with people so closely (and for so many hours) is a pretty unique perk of the job.  And this harvest, we had a cast of invaluable characters working alongside us.  I'd like to offer them a public thank you for all their hard work.  We couldn't have done it without them.

Harv13_Neil
Winemaker Neil Collins pulls samples from a barrel of Grenache Noir

Harv13_Levi2.jpg
Viticulturist Levi Glenn takes a break from the vineyard to feed the pigs

Harv13_David2.jpg
Vineyard Manager David Maduena enjoys a much deserved glass of Mourvedre - in a block of Mourvedre

Harv13_Tyler
Cellar Master Tyler Elwell pumps over a fermenting Syrah lot

Harv13_Madeline
Lab Technician Madeline Vanlierop-Anderson collects a day's worth of coffee mugs

Harv13_Craig.jpg
Cellar Assistant Craig Hamm demonstrates what forklifts are really for (lifting forks)

Harv13_ErichHarvest Intern Erich Fleck fills barrels with espresso in hand

Harv13_Jordan
Harvest Intern Jordan Collins pumps over a fermenting tank of red under the watchful (but sleepy) eye of the cellar mascot, Millie

Harv13_Gustavo
Above, Harvest Intern and Tasting Room Employee Gustavo Prieto takes a Tannat shower.  Below, Jordan and Madeline celebrate in a stop animation film of the last bin of Harvest 2013.

 

For the moment, I'm looking forward to the halcyon cellar days to come.  We'll finish cleaning up the mess that harvest left behind and then move forward with looking closely at what we have in the winery and monitoring the fermentation progress of our wines.  The storms have cleared - both the proverbial storm that came crashing through our cellar in the form of fruit, as well as the actual storm that came Monday.  I'm anxious now to see what those two storms yield. 


A Tale of Two Rosés

For the last two years, we've been making two rosés.  If that sounds nuts, it kind of is.  But it's in keeping with using our wines to try to express something fundamental about the grapes that go into them.  The first of our rosés, which we've been making since 1999 under one name or another, is the Dianthus.  It's designed to showcase the richer, more substantial side of dry rosé, and it's based on Mourvedre and spends 24-48 hours on the skins, giving it a darker pomegranate color and a bit of bite.  Think Tavel and you won't be too far off.

The second rosé we make debuted in the 2012 vintage, and is called the Patelin de Tablas Rosé.  It is an homage to the higher-toned rosés of Provence and like those rosés is based on Grenache.  It is largely direct-pressed, which means that the grapes are picked, destemmed, and pumped directly into the press, where they're pressed before they can leech much color or flavor out of the skins.  [I took a cool video of this process last year.]  This base is later given a smaller addition of Mourvedre and Counoise that has spent about 24 hours on the skins, giving a pale salmon color.

Of course, right now, neither is the color it will be when it's clear, but the 2013 vintage of both rosés is dry and we're at the point where we're starting to assess their progress.  I love this photo of Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi holding up a glass of each, Dianthus on the left and Patelin Rosé on the right:

Chelsea and two roses

The cloudiness of the wines is typical at this point; those lees will drop to the bottom of the tanks over the next month or so and leave the color we want.  It should be similar to what we saw in 2012:

12_Dianthus 12_PatelinRose


We were worried last year that adding a second rosé to our portfolio might result in each selling half as well.  But we found that they sold in different places and didn't compete with each other.  The Dianthus has always been a little too expensive for restaurants to pour by the glass, and so we typically sold most of it in our tasting room.  We released the Patelin Rosé at a slightly lower price, and it found a very receptive audience, mostly in restaurants, to the point that we sold out of our 1000-case national release in mid-July.  And the Dianthus didn't suffer; as usual we sent it to our VINsider wine club members in March.  The other 500 cases were gone from our tasting room in August, the fastest sell-out ever. 

I think that the growing acceptance of dry rosés is one of the happiest developments in the American wine market.  These are generally great food wines, quite inexpensive in the grand scheme of things, and not easily conducive to pretense or overworked, overblown styles.  And producers love rosé; if you bring one to a party in wine country, you can watch the winemakers make a beeline toward it.  Here at Tablas Creek, it's my mom who deserves the credit for having encouraged us to make a little rosé back in 1999 -- to drink ourselves, if nothing else -- because of how essential a part of the culture of Provence dry rosé is, and because of how well suited these Rhone grapes we grow are for it.

That first year, we made two barrels, or 50 cases of rosé.

This year, we're making 2700 cases.

If that's not progress, I don't know what is.


Harvest 2013 Recap: Down 21% in Yields; Quality Excellent

On Monday, October 7th we picked the last fruit off our estate.  On Thursday, October 10th we brought in our last purchased lot for our Patelin de Tablas.  And just like that, we're done.  Viticulturist Levi Glenn and harvest assistant Jordan Collins clown in front of the last bins (of Mourvedre):

Jordan and Levi

Having everything in the cellar means that we can look cumulatively at the harvest and make some comparative assessments on things like yields, sugars and pH.  Taken together, these give us a way of assessing measurable differences between our most recent vintage and others we've seen.  Of course, there are differences that are not easily measured by this numerical data; one difference that we note between 2013 and 2012 is that 2013 shows more intensity of color. But even on difficult-to-quantify judgments like this one, the numbers can help shed light: lower yields mean higher skin-to-juice ratios and, other things being equal, produce more intense colors and flavors.

The final yields are definitely down from 2012, though not to the frost-diminished levels of a year like 2011 or 2009. For our principal grapes:

Grape 2012 Yields (tons) 2013 Yields (tons) % Change
Viognier 21.2 16.7 -21.2%
Marsanne 12.6
8.2
-34.9%
Grenache Blanc 45.5
25.4
-44.2%
Picpoul Blanc 6.4
5.2
-18.8%
Vermentino 22.6
15.1
-33.2%
Roussanne
46.4
44.5
-4.1%
Total Whites 154.7
115.1
-25.6%
Grenache 72.8
48.7
-33.2%
Syrah 37.1
32.5
-12.4%
Mourvedre 57.3
57.3
unchanged
Tannat 17.1
12.3
-28.1%
Counoise 17.5
13.9
-21.6%
Total Reds 201.8
164.7
-19.4%
Total 356.5
279.8
-21.5%

Most varieties are down, with the exceptions of Mourvedre and Roussanne, both essentially flat compared to 2012.  That we're generally down in 2013 is attributable to a combination of our second consecutive dry winter, a hangover from the large crop that the vines set in 2012, and our efforts to better control the yields on some grapes that set crops larger than we wanted (and larger than expected) in 2012 like Grenache, Grenache Blanc and Vermentino.  The comparative tonnages of Mourvedre and Roussanne look better, but that's more of a function of their relatively lower yields in 2012 -- most notably Mourvedre's 20% loss last year to sunburn -- than it is to them showing unexpected vigor in 2013.

Overall yields ended up at 2.66 tons per acre, which is on the low side of average for us.  Our ten-year baseline is 2.9 tons per acre, with a high of 3.6 tons/acre in 2006 and a low of 1.9 in 2009.  Other years in which we've seen yields between 2.5 and 3 tons per acre have included 2003, 2004, 2007 and 2008, all of which have been excellent and have been aging very well.

Looking at average sugars and pH at harvest gives a quick way of measuring a year's ripeness.  Since 2007:

Year Avg. Sugars
Avg. pH
2007 24.42 3.67
2008 23.87
3.64
2009 23.42
3.69
2010
22.68
3.51
2011 22.39
3.50
2012
22.83
3.65
2013 22.90
3.63

Both of these measures show 2013 quite close to 2012, and it's probably not surprising, as the two years were broadly similar, both warm and dry.  The darker colors and more intense flavors, particularly in Grenache, that we're seeing compared to 2012 seems likely due to the yields, rather than ripeness at harvest.  It's also interesting (and positive, from our perspective) that we're seeing the intensity of a year like 2007 with sugars a full point and a half lower.  This fact supports our experience that as vines age they are better able to achieve full intensity at lower sugar levels.

As I noted in my last mid-harvest report, this year's harvest is both the earliest to end (by nearly three weeks) and of the shortest duration (42 days) since 2001.

Finally, the harvest has been exciting because we've gotten to work with two grapes that are new to us, each celebrating their first harvest anywhere in America.  We haven't yet learned much about Clairette Blanche or Terret Noir (except that the "noir" in Terret Noir is a bit of a misnomer) but we have a barrel of each fermenting in the cellar and it's going to be fun to see how they turn out.  Here's a peek at the not-very-noir Terret we picked:

Terret Noir

Next up for us is the Paso Robles Harvest Festival, which will for the first time in my memory be conducted sans harvest.  Maybe this is better; we'll have time to focus on our guests in a way we wouldn't have in recent years.  Heck, in both 2010 and 2011 we were less than half picked as of today, and genuinely worried about whether our late-ripening grapes would make it into the cellar.  Instead, two of our excellent cellar team members (Madeline Vanlierop-Anderson and Craig Hamm, below) get to have some fun modeling this year's shirts.

Craig and Madeline

We're looking at some frosty nights in the next week, which might mean an early end to the nascent fall foliage.  So, I thought I'd leave you with a couple of shots of the vineyard in its autumn colors.  The most colorful this year is Syrah:

Colorful Syrah leaves

But it's the contrast in colors which is the most fun, I think.  I take this shot nearly every year because it's a great perspective to see two grapes with dramatically contrasting autumn colors: Grenache Blanc, on the left, stays yellow-green until frost, while Syrah, on the right, colors up like a maple tree (Tannat, in the foreground, is kind of in-between)

Fall Foliage

We'll be enjoying the fact that these colors don't mean the clock is ticking on us... or at least that we're safely across the finish line and don't need to worry about our time.


We cruise toward the end of the earliest Paso Robles harvest since 2001

It's getting hard to find a vineyard block with fruit still on it.  As of the beginning of October, we'd harvested all of our non-Roussanne whites and our Syrah, and nearly all of our Mourvedre, Grenache and Roussanne.  The only grape that's hanging a majority of its fruit still out is Counoise, and we only have 3 acres of that.  We're something like 90% done as of this morning, and expect to be completely finished by early next week.  The Counoise, looking pretty in yesterday's late afternoon sun:

End Sept - Counoise on Vine 2

The last two weeks of September we brought in most of our Grenache, Mourvedre and Roussanne.  It's normal these days to have us pressing reds that are dry or nearly so and moving them to barrel, cleaning the tanks they were in and filling them right back up with newly de-stemmed reds that have just been picked, all while also picking and pressing whites.  The cellar dance is remarkable, often with multiple forklifts moving bins of grapes around.  We've been using our entire 7-person team most days.  A shot from yesterday shows three different red lots (our last Grenache lot for the Patelin, and Mourvedre and Counoise from our estate vineyard) organized on the crushpad while the red press works to make space:

End Sept - Busy crushpad

For us, the quality of the harvest is always most determined by the quality of the Mourvedre we pick, as that is our most-planted grape and the showcase variety in our Esprit red.  What we're getting this year looks marvelous: rich and meaty, with very thick skins and enough acidity to keep things in balance.  It's amazing that the grapes are this complex given that we're picking them nearly a month earlier than normal.  One of yesterday's bins:

End Sept - Mourvedre

It really has been a compressed harvest.  The only year since 2000 that we finished harvest before October 28th was in 2001, when a frost-reduced crop was ripened quickly by a very warm summer.  This year, it looks like we'll pick our last grapes sometime around a week from now, which would make our last picking October 9th.  That would make the harvest just 44 days long, about 23% shorter than our 57-day average over the last decade.

Each ripening and harvest marker point has gotten farther and farther ahead of normal: flowering, a few days; veraison, a week; first picking, 10 days; last picking, 3 weeks).  We attribute this to the consistently warm but not hot summer we've seen.  Grapevines ripen their fruit optimally on days that top out between 85 and 95.  On hotter days, they stop photosynthesis and close the pores in their leaves to conserve moisture.  On cooler days, they spend too much of their time (late evening, night and mornings) under the 70-degree threshold below which ripening is very slow.  This year we've seen optimal ripening conditions, with an average high temperature since mid-July of 88 degrees, only one day that topped 100, and only seven that failed to reach the 80's.  This level of consistency over this long a stretch is unprecedented in our experience.

We have seen things cool down over the last week or so, with nights generally in the low 40's and a couple that even squeaked into the 30's.  We're pleased to see the cooler weather, with the vineyard nearly all ready to pick and us tight on space in the cellar.  The cool nights also encourage the vines to color up for fall.  Click on the Roussanne (left) and Mourvedre (right) photos below for a larger illustrations of the different fall colors we're starting to see.

End Sept - Roussanne Leaf End Sept - Mourvedre Leaf 2
Quality really does look tremendous.  We're starting to hear comparisons to 2007, which is the best vintage here in the last decade, and I think they're warranted.  The wines are remarkably deep in both color and flavor, with good acids and substantial but ripe tannins.  It's going to be a pleasure putting the blends together.

Yields are coming in lower than we expected, down perhaps a third from 2012's large crops, and will likely fall just below 2.5 tons/acre.  That's in keeping with 2007, too.

When we're done next week, I'll have a more complete recap with year-over-year comparisons by grape and by block, and will step back to look at some bigger picture questions.  Until then, we'll enjoy the beautiful days and cool nights, our last chance to see grapes on the vine for 2013, and make sure that there's actually space in the cellar for the last grapes we're picking. 

Final question: if there's no more harvesting to do during Harvest Festival, is it still a harvest festival?


Mid-September Harvest Report: Vibrant Whites and Dark, Electric Reds

What a difference two years makes.  As of September 15th in 2011 (and 2010, for that matter) we were looking at each other and re-sampling the vineyard, trying to figure out what to do with ourselves as we waited for the delayed harvest to begin.  Even last year, as of September 15th we'd only brought in 52 tons (14%) of the eventual 370 tons we'd harvest off of the estate.

Fast forward one year, and we've picked 119 tons off of our estate (43% of the roughly 275 tons we're expecting).  The numbers are even more dramatic when you include the Patelin harvests; because the Patelin Blanc is based on the early-ripening Grenache Blanc and Viognier, and the Patelin red on Syrah -- and because the majority of the vineyards are in warmer parts of the appellation than we are -- the Patelin harvest skews earlier than our estate fruit.  We brought in the last Patelin Blanc lot on Saturday and have already picked 75 tons for Patelin red, roughly three-quarters of what we're expecting to get in all harvest.

The cellar is a beehive of activity, with white grapes being pressed, red grapes being destemmed and moved to tanks, and other red tanks being pressed off.  It smells amazing: the unique, yeasty, juicy, tangy aroma of fermenting grapes. 

A few photos will give you a sense of what's going on.  First, a photo of bins of Grenache Noir assembled at the cellar door, waiting to be de-stemmed for fermentation:

Bins of Grenache

We make tank space for these new arrivals by pressing off the tanks that have reached the level of extraction we want.  Leave grapes in too long and they start breaking down the seeds, which adds bitterness.  I love this next photo of red juice (a Syrah/Grenache co-ferment that will go into Patelin) splashing into the pan below the press, from where it's being pumped into tanks to complete its fermentation:

Red Dripping into Pan

At the same time, we have white grapes arriving, which need to be pressed right away and then moved to tanks or barrels to ferment.  Our last Picpoul Blanc arrived yesterday:

2013 Harvest-Picpoul

The harvest chalkboard is growing, to the point that we're running out of space:

Harvest Chalkboard - Sept 17

Quality looks strong, and yields appear to be down by some 20% - 25% compared to last year, confirming that we're in the range of 2.5 tons/acre or a touch more.  The dark, electric colors and rich flavors we're seeing in our early lots suggest we're looking at something special.  If you don't think a color can be dark and electric at the same time, check out the Syrah -- Still fermenting! -- that Cellarmaster Tyler Elwell is holding:

Tyler with electric Syrah

The weather forecast for this week (cooling off to highs in the lower 80's, and cool, perhaps foggy nights) should give us a bit of a respite.  But with most everything ready or nearly so, we're not planning on much of a break.  We've still got most of our Roussannne and Grenache Noir, and all of our Mourvedre and Counoise, out on the vines.  Grenache is first up.


Harvest 2013 begins, fast and slightly less furious than 2012

In my last pre-harvest assessment, written the first of August, I predicted that based on our veraison dates we'd start between August 25th and September 4th.  And I was right, but only barely.  It was August 26th when we brought in our first estate lots: two different Viognier blocks.  That was followed by our first Syrah the next day, Vermentino the day after that and suddenly (bam!) we were in the thick of harvest. 

August was consistently warm, which produced the relatively short time between veraison and harvest. Average daily high temperatures were 90°.  Only one day (August 6th) failed to make it at least into the 80's, and it topped out at 79.9°. At the same time, it hasn't been hot enough to force the vines to shut down; we've only topped 100° once, on August 14th, and only barely, at 101.1°.  The result has been perfect ripening conditions, and the vines responded.

We've reconstituted our cellar team over the last few months and think it's the strongest we've ever had.  From left, below, veterans Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi, Cellarmaster Tyler Elwell and Winemaker Neil Collins are joined by our two newest additions: Craig Hamm and Madeline Vanlierop-Anderson.

Winemaker Gothic - 2013 Harvest Team

This week, the second week of our harvest, we've brought in the rest of the Viognier and Vermentino, more Syrah, our first Grenache Blanc and Picpoul, and the first-ever picking off our tiny Clairette Blanche block.  We're trying to be more organized, and have been keeping an old-school chalkboard busy with our daily updates.  Note the Clairette Blanche at the bottom; it's California's first:

Harvest Chalkboard with Clairette

We've also been working to harvest more at night and early in the morning, when the grapes are cooler and the oxidation pressures are minimal.  This has turned out to be better in unexpected ways as well; our crew is happier because it's cool out and the many vineyard insects are dormant, it makes for better flow in the cellar because the first press load is in the press and running before the bulk of the winemaking team even arrives, and the staggered shifts we've been working mean everyone isn't here the same long hours driving each other crazy.  Long hours, sure... but varied ones.  A few photos (taken by Marketing Coordinator Lauren Cross) will give you a sense of the feel of a nighttime harvest. We pick using LED head lamps and the lights of the tractors.  No tower lights for us:

Night Harvest harvesting

The hand-harvested grapes are dumped into bins which our vineyard tractor then delivers to the crushpad.

Night Harvest tractor moving

To work in the cool and dark rather than the baking sun, and to do so knowing that the result will be wines that are fresher and more vibrant, is great.

Night Harvest headlights

Our sense all along has been that our yields will be down some from last year, and with two grapes finished, we have some confirmation: Viognier is down 21% and Vermentino down 33% compared to last year.  Of course, last year wasn't normal; we harvested the most total tons off our property ever, although because we've brought a few additional blocks into production, our tons per acre were slightly behind the record levels of 2005 and 2006.  Vermentino was even more unusually productive than our other grapes last year, but the Viognier seems representative, and we're estimating a decline from last year's 370 tons to something around or just over 300 tons this year.  Over our 109 acres in production, that will give us something right in our target zone of just under 3 tons per acre.  Recent years where we've ended up right around that yield per acre have been very strong, and include 2000, 2003, 2004, 2007 and 2008.

With 57 tons in off the property, we're something approaching 20% of the way done with harvest.  That's a full two weeks ahead of last year, and it seems like we might be mostly done by early October.  If so, it will be our earliest finish since 2001, when we finished a frost-reduced harvest on October 3rd.  Since then, our earliest harvest end date was October 28th, and we've stretched into November as often as not.

The quality looks tremendous.  The grapes are coming in with ideal sugars and pH levels, and looking and tasting juicy and intense.  It's early days, to be sure, but we're excited to be where we are.


Veraison 2013: one week ahead of normal as we turn for the home stretch

Veraison -- the point at which grapes start to turn color and accumulate sugar -- is a visible, easily measurable signpost in the growing season.  There are several of these signposts, including budbreak, flowering, veraison, first harvest and last harvest.  Taken together, they allow us to assess the progress of our vineyard compared to other vintages.  The beginning of veraison also begins a roughly six week countdown to the beginning of harvest, and so is closely watched as the best estimate yet of when the big events will begin.

Viticulturist Levi Glenn found the first evidence of veraison in Syrah on July 17th, and by yesterday it was possible to find veraison in every red variety, though by no means in every cluster.  In my ramble around the vineyard, I'd estimate that we're around 50% complete with veraison in Syrah, 30% complete in Mourvedre, 10% complete in Grenache and 1% complete in Counoise.  This doesn't mean that we'll start our harvest with Syrah and finish with Counoise.  Different grapes take different amounts of time between veraison and harvest, with Syrah and Grenache taking less time -- about 6 weeks -- and Mourvedre notorious for taking more: as much as 10 weeks.

I took some photos that were representative of the clusters that showed veraison (so, I didn't photograph any of the many all-green Counoise or Grenache clusters, however representative they would be).  I'll show them in the order in which we expect to start harvesting them, beginning with Syrah, already showing the characteristic conical clusters and beginning to show the blue-black color that it gives the wines it produces.  We'll expect to start harvesting Syrah at the beginning of September and continue well into the second half of the month:

Veraison 2013 Syrah

Next we'll look at Grenache, never particularly dark in color, and at this early stage still more rose than red. The Grenache vines are looking particularly good this year, and we expect to begin harvesting them in mid-September and continue through early October:

Veraison 2013 Grenache

Next up is Counoise.  I had to climb up to the very top of the Counoise block to find clusters that showed color, and even there it's rare.  Counoise, like Grenache, is relatively light in color even at harvest, and we don't expect to see it come into the cellar until October:

Veraison 2013 Counoise

We'll expect Mourvedre to come into the cellar last, likely beginning the second week of October and continuing through the month, despite its fairly advanced progress through veraison.  You'll note a significant number of bright green berries even in the mostly-veraised cluster below (the clusters partially visible in the background are even more green):

Veraison 2013 Mourvedre

Looking at the date at which we first saw veraison over the last several years, and the date on which harvest began, gives us pretty reliable predictive powers about this year.  The last six years have produced a range of between 39 and 49 days between first signs of veraison and the debut of harvest.  Looking forward 39 and 49 days from July 17th gives us a range of possible harvest start dates between August 25th and September 4th.  Given that our average start date over the last thirteen vintages has been September 7th, it looks like we're almost exactly a week ahead of that average, though we'll be unlikely to threaten our earliest-ever start of August 23rd, in 2004.

Click on the year to link to the blog post I put up that year about veraison, if you want details and photos:

Year First Veraison NotedHarvest Begins
# of Days
2007 July 20 August 28
39
2008 July 23 September 3
42
2009 July 20 September 1
43
2010
July 30 September 16 49
2011 August 5 September 20 47
2012 July 25 September 5 42
2013 July 17 ? ?

The weather over coming weeks will determine whether we're at the shorter or longer range of these dates.  2010 and 2011, which show the longest interval between veraison and harvest, were not coincidentally the two coolest years in our history.  And 2007 and 2012 (at 39 and 42 days, respectively) were our two warmest.

Up until now, we knew the clock was ticking.  We just didn't know how much time was left on the timer.  Now we do.