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 »

Harvest 2014 Recap: Yields up 5.2% (though still below average); Quality excellent

On Wednesday, October 15th we picked the last batch of Roussanne off of our estate.  And just like that, we're done picking for the year.  It doesn't feel like we're finished, as we're still pressing off bins of reds, the cellar still smells like crush, and the vineyard's colors are still more green than gold -- it is only mid-October, after all -- but there's no more fruit to pick.  From Wednesday:

Last Day of Harvest

As we've progressed through this harvest, we have been comparing it to similar vintages with relatively low yields and high quality, like 2003, 2007 and 2013.  Now that everything is in, we have a chance to look quantitatively and see whether these comparisons have merit.  Of course, there are things that can't be easily measured (think color, or thickness of skins) but knowing how much fruit you have and how ripe it is, overall, gives us a good tool for knowing what the vintage will be like.  And it's not surprising; yields per acre and ripeness at harvest tell you critical things like skin-to-juice and sugar-to-acid ratios.

Somewhat to our surprise, given that we're in our third year of drought, yields were on average actually up a little from 2013. For our principal grapes:

Grape2013 Yields (tons)2014 Yields (tons)% Change
Viognier 16.7 11.4 -31.7%
Marsanne 8.2 9.9 +20.7%
Grenache Blanc 25.4 31.9 +25.6%
Picpoul Blanc 5.2 7.5 +44.2%
Vermentino 15.1 17.3 +14.6%
Roussanne 44.5 42.8 -3.8%
Total Whites 115.1 120.8
Grenache 48.7 50.7 +4.1%
Syrah 32.5 38.1 +17.2%
Mourvedre 57.3 52.3 -8.7%
Tannat 12.3 15.4 +25.2%
Counoise 13.9 17.0 +22.3%
Total Reds 164.7 173.5
Total 279.8 294.3 +5.2%

Most varieties are up a bit, with the exceptions of Mourvedre and Roussanne, our two latest-ripening varieties, and the two grapes most susceptible to late-season stress-related devigoration.  So, it's perhaps unsurprising that both showed declines in this dry year.  The third grape to see a decline (Viognier) came from a much more discrete cause: we had several nights of break-ins by wild pigs toward the beginning of harvest, and they of course went straight for Viognier, the ripest (read: earliest-ripening) grape.

Overall yields ended up at 2.78 tons per acre, which is still just below our ten-year average of 2.9 tons per acre.  Other years in which we've seen yields between 2.5 and 3 tons per acre have included 2003, 2004, 2007, 2008, and 2013, 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:

YearAvg. SugarsAvg. 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
2014 23.18 3.59

Both of these measures show the subtle differences between 2014 and a year like 2013, corroborating what we noticed: that the level of lushness this year (our highest average sugars since 2009) was counterbalanced by good acids (better than all our recent vintages except the historically cool 2010 and 2011 vintages).  It also suggests that the narrative we're hearing from many California appellations -- that acids were extremely low this year, requiring significant intervention in the cellar -- didn't hold true for us.  Finally, it's a good indication that we were able to keep up with the pressure in mid-September, when so much of the vineyard seemed like it was ready, and that we got fruit off the vine while it still maintained natural freshness.

In character, we see many similarities to 2013, with the characteristic dark color and intense flavors of a low-yielding vintage, but with a little more overt fruit than the more savory 2013s.  Fans of the lusher style our wines featured in the 2007-2009 period will likely find many similarities.  Clusters and berries were very small, which means that skin-to-juice ratios were high on our red grapes.  My dad holds up a cluster each of (from left) Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre from late-September, when all three were arriving in the cellar simultaneously:


Of course, it's early to make predictions on flavors, so stay tuned in the spring, when we'll dive into the vintage's character in preparation for our blending trials.

At 53 days between its August 23rd beginning and its October 15th conclusion, this harvest clocks as a bit shorter than average (our 10-year average is 56 days) and our finish was one of our earliest on record, preceded this century only by last year's October 7th end.  It joins 2013 as our only vintages where we finished harvesting before the Paso Robles Harvest Wine Weekend.

Our main challenge, as things finished up, was Roussanne, and it's with this notoriously finicky grape that I think the meticulous work of our vineyard team will show the most.  Roussanne, even in the best of conditions, tends to ripen unevenly, requiring that we go through each block multiple times to pick what's ripe and give the other clusters some more time to mature.  Roussanne is also the variety most prone to stress-related devigoration, where the leaves lose chlorophyll and ripening slows toward the end of harvest.  Not every vine is affected to the same degree, so you can have mostly-green vines next to those that are largely yellow, with predictably faster ripening on the greener vines.  In this exceptionally stressful year, we knew we would have to be willing to go back repeatedly through our Roussanne blocks if we hoped to get most of the fruit harvested in good condition.  But even by Roussanne's normal standards, this year was a slog.  As an example, we made a first pass through the Roussanne block we still call our "New Hill" (since it was planted in 2000 rather than 1995-1997) on September 4th.  We made our next passes on September 18th and October 2nd.  Still, nearly half the fruit remained.  We went through again on October 7th, and a final pick -- our last pick of the harvest -- on October 16th. It's a good thing Roussanne is so rewarding in the cellar.  If it weren't, no one would deal with its quirks. The culprit, looking deceptively placid in early October:

Roussanne mid-September 2


And while we're early to be done with harvest, the cooler nights and the shorter days are beginning to bring out the fall colors in the vineyard.  I take a photo from this vantage point nearly every year because it shows two grapes that both color up in the fall: Tannat, in the foreground, and Syrah, on the hillside behind.

Fall foliage 2

Now that we're done with picking, we're able to get our animal herd back into the vineyard.  They can clean up any second crop clusters we left behind, as well as start getting some natural fertilizer into the soil in advance of what we're hoping will be a wet winter.  Dottie, one of our guard donkeys, is enjoying a snack of Marsanne before it goes dormant: 

Dottie back in the vineyard

And as for that rain, we're feeling hopeful that the series of Pacific fronts that have blown through Paso Robles over the last two weeks -- dry though they were, this early in the season -- bode well for winter. In many years, it's still hot and summer-like in mid-October.  These last two weeks have felt like fall.  If that promise carries through to real rain, we'll all have reason to celebrate.

Near-End-of-Harvest Assessment: A Furious September, Moderate Yields, Quality High

In the vineyard, things are starting to look genuinely fall-like:

Fall foliage 2

And in keeping with the visuals of the season, we're on the tail end of our harvest craziness, something like 85% done.  As of the beginning of this week, we'd harvested 386 tons: 237 from our estate and another 149 for the Patelin.  What was left was one good block of Mourvedre (picked today), scraps of the other reds (all of which should be cleaned up by the end of this week), our three small blocks of Tannat (likely to be harvested this and next week), and a good chunk of Roussanne (which will likely be picked in waves into the middle of October; more on that later). 

The pace at which we harvested fruit off our estate in September was remarkable.  After a relatively slow beginning to harvest (which I discussed on the blog) things picked up serious steam the first week of September, and are only now starting to slow down. It's perhaps easiest to look at it graphically, showing tons of fruit, estate and Patelin, per week:

Harvest 2014 by week

In many ways, this vintage is shaping up like 2013: it's been a warm year without many heat spikes, we've picked 10 days or 2 weeks early on average, it's a slightly below-average vintage for yields, and looks very high for quality.  But unlike 2013, our shortest harvest in a decade, we're likely going to see a more normal full two months between the first and last fruit off our estate.  Still, August's slow beginning and October's gradual taper will together account for less than 20% of the harvest, meaning our September peak was one of our busiest periods ever. How busy? The busiest week of 2013 saw us bring in 58 tons off of our estate.  Even in 2012, our largest crush ever, no week ever reached the 79 tons we harvested the week of September 15th.  And the week of September 8th had already filled the cellar with 70 new tons of fruit.

So, it's not surprising that we felt buried by grapes.  We've managed to fit everything into the cellar (more of a challenge than you'd think, given that we typically use a fermentation tank for 5 or 6 sequential lots at harvest -- leaving each lot in the fermenter for some 10 days -- and having nearly all our fruit come in during a 30-day sprint effectively halves our fermentation space).  Between the couple of new upright wooden tanks we added last year and a few open-top stainless steel fermenters we hadn't used in a few harvests, we've made it work.  The cellar, though, is as full of different fermentation tanks as I've ever seen it:

Full cellar

Yields look very similar to last year.  Of the non-Roussanne whites, we've harvested 68.7 tons.  Last year saw us bring in 65.4 tons.  Of the Rhone reds, at week's beginning we'd brought in 134.5 tons.  Last year we finished up with 151.5, but we estimate we've got another dozen tons or so that will trickle in, meaning we'll end up very close to last year's totals.  Maybe up a touch in Syrah and Counoise, and down slightly in Mourvedre and Grenache. 

The real question for us is Roussanne.  This always-challenging grape is being difficult even by its standards this year.  We've gone through our principal Roussanne blocks twice already, picking just the ripe clusters, netting a little over 10 tons.  We have another selective pick scheduled for tomorrow, and are expecting another 4 tons or so.  Still, we're a long way from done.  Last year, we harvested 44 tons of Roussanne, accounting for about 40% of our white production.  This year, there are a higher than normal number of Roussanne vines that are starting to shut down due to stress, which means that the clusters they carry are ripening more and more slowly.  We think that we'll still be able to harvest much (most?) of what's out there, but assuming that all of it will come in seems unreasonably optimistic.  We're hoping for 30 tons, total.  It seems unfair that the Roussanne looks as nice as it does on the vines, taunting us with its amber beauty despite not being ripe: 

Roussanne mid-September

So, we wait on Roussanne, and on Tannat, which is looking good but still mostly not quite there.  The colors of its foliage, though, suggest that the time is near: 

Tannat on the vine

In terms of quality, we continue to be excited by what we're seeing.  The berries seem unusually small, the flavors and colors correspondingly intense.  The grapes are a bit riper than they've been the last few years, but in good balance.  It's looking (dare I say it) a lot like 2007.

And that has to be a good thing.

Drying Mourvedre Grapes for Vin de Paille "Sacrérouge"

We don't make our vin de paille dessert wines every year.  First, the grapes need to be in great shape before they're put on the straw, or they rot rather than drying, making some vintages unsuitable for the technique.  Second, Americans don't buy large quantities of sweet wines, so we don't need to make that much.  (Perhaps I should more accurately say that while many Americans like their dry wines with some sweetness they don't buy large quantities of truly sweet wines.)  And third, given that the setup and winemaking are pretty labor-intensive and that the wines age effortlessly, more wine less-often gives us efficiency.

So, it's exciting that today we're beginning the process of making our first Vin de Paille  "Sacrérouge" since 2010. The process is interesting, I think.  The grapes (in this case, Mourvedre) are harvested into picking baskets, but not then dumped into half-ton bins for transport, because the weight of the grapes on top is enough to bruise the grapes on the bottom and encourage rot.  Instead, the baskets are carried by hand -- or loaded onto the back of a flatbed and driven -- down to our greenhouse:

Sacrerouge bins

Then, they're laid out on the straw, as demonstrated by Juan Gomez below:


The grapes will spend two or three weeks on the straw, dehydrating gradually in the greenhouse heat, until they're semi-raisined, at which point we'll pick them back up and transport them to the winery for foot-crushing (they're too dense at this point to run through a de-stemmer or to get a punch-down tool through) and eventual fermentation.  If you're wondering why these wines are usually expensive, this makes three times that they have to be handled plus some pretty labor-intensive daily cellar work.  But the reward is worth it: a sweet wine that has freshness, isn't overly alcoholic (reds typically in the 13% range, whites in the 9%-10% range), and has concentrated minerality and varietal character, not just sweetness.  But that's still several weeks away.  For now, we'll be watching the drying grapes as we finish the rest of harvest.  One more photo, for those of you interested.  One of our greenhouse benches is nearly full, with another to go:

Sacrerouge on benches

If you're interested in more technical explanation of how the vin de paille process works compared to other common techniques for making sweet wines, or photos of the grapes further along in their drying, check out my blog post from 2010: Vin de Paille: A Dessert Wine Making Technique for the Obsessed.

Photo of the Day: Bounty of Harvest

Today we were given a glorious reprieve: a cool, overcast morning with even a little drizzle, courtesy of a cut-off low pressure system currently meandering down the California coast.  Given how much fruit is ripe on the vines or nearly so, this cool day (and the similarly cool day forecast for tomorrow) give us a great chance to get caught up on our harvesting without the pressure of knowing that each hour of warmth and sunlight means that yet another block is ready to come in.

All this doesn't mean that we're pausing; we've harvested several blocks today (Roussanne, Grenache and Mourvedre) and have several more similar pickings on tap for tomorrow.  It just means that we can pick what we know needs to come in and not worry too much that in the time it takes us to pick those blocks, several more are reaching critical ripeness.

All this is pretty standard for the peak of harvest, which I think, looking back, we'll say happened this week.  We're done with all our whites except Roussanne, nearly done with Syrah, and have made a good start on Roussanne, Grenache and Mourvedre.  Counoise is still mostly hanging, but we have to be around 50% done with our estate.  And walking around the vineyard supports this: there are nearly as many vines picked clean as there are still heavy with fruit.  And we've made at least one pass through many of the blocks that do still have fruit, taking what's ready and leaving the slower-ripening clusters to hang longer.

One grape that is nearly finished is Syrah.  We have some left only in two places, both down near Tablas Creek and because of the tendency of cold air to sink among the coldest spots in our property.  Walking past one of them, I saw a shot I loved, which just calls out about the bounty of the season.  I was happy the photo came out as well as it did.  Click on it for a larger version; it's worth it.

Bounty of Harvest - Syrah

May your harvest seasons be going as well as ours.

Harvest 2014 at the Midway Point: Very Like 2013, which is a Good Thing

We finally feel like we're in the middle of harvest.  Every day brings a mix of new fruit coming in, sample teams going out, both presses running as we press off fermented red lots and newly-harvested whites, winemakers on the sorting table and de-stemmer processing newly-harvested reds, and even the first outline of our rosés taking shape.  The harvest chalkboard is filling up!

Chalkboard 9.11

Happily, for our sequencing at least, the arrival of Patelin lots via truck have slowed to a trickle.  You can see in the chalkboard: the top of the board has mostly blue lots, indicating fruit from Patelin vineyards, while the bottom is mostly white, which denotes estate fruit.  It has been great not to have to worry about too much of our Patelin harvest once our estate fruit started coming in in earnest.  Here's some of what we know, so far:

The Patelin is mostly done.
We've received 126 tons of fruit for Patelin: 53 tons of white (mostly Grenache Blanc and Viognier), 45 tons of red (mostly Syrah, with a little Grenache), and 28 tons of Grenache that we've direct-pressed to make the base of the Patelin Rosé.  We're expecting another 25 or so tons of red, mostly Grenache and Mourvedre, and a few more tons of Mourvedre for the Patelin Rosé.

Harvest off our estate vineyard is heating up.
So far, four grapes are done.  The Haas Vineyard Pinot -- often an outlier -- was the first, on 9/3.  We completed our harvest of Viognier on 9/9 and Vermentino on 9/11, and picked our last Grenache Blanc this morning.  We're probably 80% of the way through Syrah, 40% through Grenache Noir, 25% through Counoise, 15% through Roussanne and Mourvedre, and are yet to start Marsanne (coming in tomorrow), Tannat, or Picpoul.  Still, we expect the year to end with Roussanne and Mourvedre, as usual.  Overall, we figure we're maybe 40% done with our estate, and expect to hit the halfway mark around the end of the week. This week has been the beginning of a Grenache onslaught.  It looks super: intensely colored, with beautiful flavors.


The fruit that's still out looks great, too. 
A few photos.  First, Roussanne, starting to show the classic russet tint that gives the grape its name:

Roussanne on Vine 9-12

Next, Mourvedre, still fully inflated, sheltering under its canopy, and likely a couple of weeks away from coming in:

Mourvedre on Vine 9-12

Overall, the vineyard doesn't appear to be struggling as much as we thought it would given how dry it's been.  Sure, Roussanne is looking ragged, but it always does this time of year.  The Viognier made it, barely.  Mourvedre, which also often looks pretty haggard by the time it's picked, is holding up pretty well, as are Grenache and Grenache Blanc, and Counoise.

An early harvest? Not so much.
For all our worries that this would be an exceptionally early harvest, it turns out we're not actually ahead of last year's pace. Looking at the grapes that are done, we finished Viognier and Vermentino roughly a week later this year than last, the Haas Pinot at the same time, and Grenache Blanc one day earlier this year.  As of September 13th, 2013, we'd harvested 119 tons off our estate.  This year, it was 110 tons at the same date.

The cellar is a moving three-dimensional puzzle that needs a new solution each day.
The challenges in the cellar are logistical: how do we make enough of the right kind of space for the fruit that's coming in.  This means pressing off lots that have reached the extraction levels we want (typically about 10 days after harvest) and moving those lots into barrels, cleaning those tanks and then getting them ready to refill with new juice.

We've begun the process of assembling the Dianthus Rosé by bleeding off a tank of Counoise 24 hours post-harvest.  A 40-second video takes you through how it's done:

Yields look similar to 2013.
Of the grapes we've finished harvesting, Vermentino's yield is up about 10%, Grenache Blanc nearly identical, and Viognier's down 30% (largely due to wild pig depredation).  It looks like Syrah totals will be very similar to last year.  The grapes we're thinking might be lighter are Roussanne (which seems to be struggling more than most grapes due to the drought) and Grenache (whose berries and clusters seem small this year; check out the photo below). 

Grenache cluster in JCH hand

But overall, we don't expect big yield differences from 2013. Since we consider last year's yields of 2.66 tons/acre to be characteristic of our best vintages, having similar results this year would be just fine with us.  And the weather seems to be continuing to cooperate, with hot-but-not-scorching spells broken by stretches of cool weather that give us a chance to catch back up.  Fitting the pattern, it was hot over the weekend, but is forecast to cool down this week.  Even so, it looks like we've got maybe another month of harvest, at the outside.

So, looking ahead, that el nino they're now not forecasting for this winter?  It can arrive any time after October 15th.  If any of you have any pull with the weather gods, that is.

Harvest 2014 slowed with a cool second half of August, but is picking up speed

It often happens in harvest that you get your first burst of fruit and then enter a lull, where it seems like half your vineyard is sitting there almost-but-not-quite ready.  Because you're into the routine of daily punch-downs, and you've broken out your harvest equipment, it seems like you should be in the full swing of harvest, but when you look back at the totals you realize you were really in a holding pattern.  That was our story for the second half of August.

That story ends today.

First, a quick recap of what we've seen the past two weeks.  Our first few days, where we welcomed 30 tons of Patelin fruit between August 13th and 15th, were busy indeed.  But the next two weeks saw a slower pace, with another 47 tons of Patelin fruit spread over the period.  This included 8 more tons of Grenache Blanc and 12 more tons of Viognier for Patelin Blanc, 12 more tons of Syrah for Patelin, and 15 tons of Grenache Noir for the Patelin Rosé.  We've also been guiding the early red lots through their fermentations, keeping the skins and juice mixed by pumping them over (or in some cases, using compressed air to inundate the cap of skins) twice a day:

PumpOver Syrah

More exciting, we saw our first harvest off our estate, with 2.8 tons of Viognier on August 23rd and another 2.8 tons two days later.  We also made a first pass through the Pinot Noir at the Haas Vineyard, for our Full Circle:

Pinot in bins

And, we've been out in the vineyard every day, taking samples and assessing whether or not blocks are ready:

Sample buckets

The pause during the second half of August was not surprising, in retrospect, because it turned out to be quite cool for us, historically.  Most days topped out in the 70's or low 80's.  Between August 15th and August 31st we accumulated just 304 degree hours (a common agricultural measurement of heat), 20% less than either 2012 or 2013 and 5% cooler even than the cool 2011 and 2010 harvests.

That cool weather ended over the Labor Day weekend, with five days topping 90, and the vineyard has responded as you would expect.  Samples we took yesterday suggested that Viognier, Vermentino, Syrah and even one block of Mourvedre were ready to pick, and we're now entering the period where sequencing what gets picked and pressed, and in what order, becomes a daily challenge.  Knowing this fruit was coming, we pressed off four upright tanks of Syrah yesterday, so they're ready and waiting for the new arrivals:

Emptied upright

We've already run two press loads of Vermentino today, and will try to squeeze in (pun intended) two more of Viognier.  We've got another picking of Pinot Noir on the way, and will in all likelihood see close to 100 tons this week alone.

Happily, the heat has already moderated (forecast high for today: upper 80's) and we're supposed to have another cool week this week.  This will give us a chance to catch up, and slow down the vineyard's progress a touch.

In terms of character, the grapes look very much like they did last year: intense yet balanced, with thick skins and dark color, moderate sugar levels, and good acidity.  So far, so good.

Harvest 2014 begins: How our earliest-ever start also has longer-than-average hangtime

This Wednesday, August 13th, we welcomed sixteen tons of Syrah into our cellar, marking the beginning of the 2014 harvest.  These bins were from Estrella Farms, in the warm heartland of the Paso Robles AVA, and will form the juicy core of our Patelin de Tablas.  The fruit looked terrific, and the numbers were textbook: 23.5° Brix and 3.39pH.


The next day, we got four more tons of Estrella syrah and our first white: a little over seven tons of Grenache Blanc from Coyote Moon Vineyard, on a vineyard that we had grafted over to Grenache Blanc specifically for the Patelin Blanc up near the town of San Miguel.  This fruit looked great too, with intense flavors, modest sugar levels and great acidity: 21° Brix and 3.38 pH.

Grenache Blanc in bins

The two locations have in common that they are from areas of the AVA that are on the warmer side.  We think we're still a week away from harvesting anything off of our estate vineyard.  For our planning in the cellar, it's great that we're seeing this slug of fruit before anything else.  The roughly 30 tons of fruit is about 20% of what we're expecting for our Patelin, and to have it already safely put away before we're also dealing with the much more complicated harvest off our estate is a gift.  It also allows us to break in our wooden upright tanks and start building the population of native yeasts in our cellar.

This mid-August beginning feels early, but it's not unprecedented.  Yes, August 13th is the earliest that we've ever had fruit in the cellar, but it's only one day earlier than 1997, when the lot of estate Syrah that we harvested on August 14th was the first fruit we crushed in our newly-built winery.  Given that the fruit we've welcomed so far this year comes from warmer parts of Paso, I'm not sure even that we'll break our modern record for our earliest picking off our estate, August 23rd in 2004.

More than the calendar date when we start harvesting, what we look at as important is the length of the ripening cycle, and of course the balance and intensity of the fruit.  Because we saw such an early budbreak this year (two and a half weeks earlier than average) an estate harvest that begins ten days earlier than average, as this one appears poised to, actually gives us hang time about a week longer than normal.  And the fruit conditions that we're seeing so far bear this out: the fruit is intensely colored and perfumed, with beautiful deep flavors and acids exactly where we'd like to see them.

So, it's early yet.  But we couldn't ask for a better beginning.

Photos of each Rhone grape as harvest approaches, and an updated vintage assessment

I returned this week from two and a half weeks on the east coast to find a vineyard landscape transformed.  In what was a sea of green we now have new colors: pinks, reds and purples in our red grapes, as well as the first hints of gold in our white grapes. 

Long View with Grenache

These transformations are normal for early August, and while I stand by my prediction that harvest will be a couple of weeks early, the changing colors don't mean that harvest is imminent.  In fact, I was a little surprised to see that even in the earliest-ripening grapes we weren't through veraison.  To give you all a sense of what things look like now, I snapped representative photos of each of the main Rhone grapes, red and white.  I'll go through them in the order in which we expect them to come in, starting with Viognier, the only grape I tasted that seemed pretty close.  Note the golden color; I'm figuring maybe two more weeks before we start picking:


Next, Marsanne, which was still quite green by comparison to the Viognier:


Our first red will almost certainly be Syrah, but even there I still found a few green berries and the grapes didn't taste nearly ripe.  We will likely see some Syrah from warmer parts of Paso for our Patelin wines as early as late next week, but I don't expect much off our own property before the end of August:


Grenache Blanc made for very good eating -- about the sugar/acid balance of table grapes, for now -- but that's far less than the concentration that we look for at harvest.  You can see in the photo below that it's also still tautly inflated.  We'll look for the grapes to soften quite a bit more before we pick, likely starting early September.

Grenache Blanc

There's often a gap between the early grapes above and the late grapes below, so I wouldn't be surprised to see a pause in early-mid September when much of the Viognier, Marsanne, Syrah and Grenache Blanc have come off, but we're still waiting on our later grapes.  Grenache, typically next in line, is still less than halfway through veraison, and while it does ripen pretty quickly once it finished veraison, I'd still expect it to be late-September before much Grenache is coming in:


Counoise is always our last grape to go through veraison, later, even, than Mourvedre, although Mourvedre's unusually long time between veraison and ripeness means that we typically harvest Counoise first.  Many Counoise vines were still entirely filled with green clusters, and the photo I got is on the advanced side for the Counoise blocks as a whole.  The grapes were also still quite hard and sour, even those that had turned purple:


It's not usually possible to take a good photo of white grapes in mid-veraison, but I managed it in our Roussanne.  Note the differences in color between the grapes that are still green and those that have begun to take on the russet color that gives Roussanne its name.  All the Roussanne grapes were still crunchy, though those with the russet tint were starting to get sweet, while the green ones were still sour.  We're likely more than a month out from even our first Roussanne pick, and I expect a significant portion of our Roussanne harvest not to happen until October:


Finally, Mourvedre, which is as usual taking its time getting through veraison.  It often starts before Grenache (and always before Counoise) but it's typically the last to finish veraison. We've come to expect to wait another 6 weeks between full veraison and harvest, when most grapes take 4 weeks.  We might start to pick in the very end of September, but October will see the bulk of it:


Overall, and even after the two weeks of warm weather that just concluded (eleven consecutive days between 7/23 and 8/2 that reached the 90's, with the last three topping 100) the vineyard still looks to be in remarkably good shape.  The Viognier was showing signs of some end-of-season stress, but it only has another couple of weeks to go.  I saw a little sunburn damage here and there, mostly in Syrah, but less than we see most vintages.  And the weather forecast for the next week is perfect: highs in the upper 80's or low 90's, and cool nights in the upper 50's.  That's about as good as it gets for Paso Robles in August.  If all continues as we're seeing it, I think we're in for another terrific vintage.

Veraison two weeks early suggests a late-August beginning to harvest

This week, we've seen the first hints of veraison in our Syrah and our Mourvedre.  One of the most advanced Syrah clusters is below, alongside other clusters that like most of the vineyard are still totally green:

Veraison 2014 - syrah

Veraison is an exciting time visually, but its implications in the work that we do, at least in the short term, are limited.  Practically speaking, it means that we no longer have to worry about powdery mildew, and so can end our sulfur, copper, and compost tea sprays.  Otherwise, we continue the work we've been doing in the vineyard, start to thin clusters to get to our desired yields, and rest up knowing that harvest is just around the corner.

Physiologically, what is happening inside each grape during the veraison process is that the grapes have stopped adding mass and begun the changes that accumulate sugar.  Like all fruit-bearing plants, its goal is to distribute its seeds far and wide, and the flavors are designed to peak at the time when their seeds are at maximum fertility.  An animal snacks on the berries, distributes the berry's seeds in its waste, and the seeds grow into new plants. 

The transformation between green, hard, sour berries and sweet, soft, red berries takes some time, and when it starts depends on that year's weather: both how early the vine sprouts and begins to grow (determined largely by the date of the last winter freeze) and how fast it can photosynthesize (determined by the amount of heat and sun after budbreak, as well as the vine's crop load).  Given this year's early budbreak and the lack of spring frost, we expected this year's veraison to be early.  The question was, how early.  It turns out that despite the drought and a relatively warm summer so far, it's taken a relatively normal amount of time between budbreak and veraison.  In degree day accumulation, 2014 has so far been one of our warmer years, though not as warm as our warmest years like 1997, 2001 and 2013 (weather data taken from the Western Weather Group's Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance forecast):

Degree Days through July 9 2014

Budbreak, as I noted in a blog piece in mid-March, was about two and a half weeks earlier than normal.  We were exceptionally lucky to avoid frost given the two full months of frost risk that this early budbreak left us with.  But avoid it we did, and the vineyard has been progressing steadily ever since.  But compared to when we've first reported veraison in other years, we've actually regressed a bit toward normal.  Those dates are in the below chart, with the year linked to the blog piece I wrote that year talking about veraison:

YearFirst 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 August 26 40
2014 July 9 ? ?

This year's budbreak is about two weeks in advance of our eight-year average.  Based on the range of days that it's taken between first veraison and harvest (between 39 and 49 days) that suggests that harvest will begin sometime between August 16th and August 27th.  Given that the years when it was closer to 50 than 40 days were in the unusually cool vintages of 2010 and 2011, I'm betting that it will be at the early end of that range.

It is interesting to me that it has taken slightly longer than average for us to go from budbreak (two and a half weeks early) to veraison (two weeks early).  This seems to me to be a good thing, given that the longer that the grapes can stay in contact with the vines, the more opportunity they have to pull character and minerality out of the soil.  This suggests to me that our crop levels aren't as low as we worried they might be three years into our drought, and provides confirmation of what we're seeing in the vineyard: that crop levels are similar to last year, and in some blocks high enough that we're starting to go through and thin out some of the clusters.

So, where does this leave us?  About where we were before.  We're still thrilled with the health of the vineyard, which looks as good as we can remember for mid-July.  And knowing that we're entering the home stretch with above-average hang time so far eases some worries that we had about the early start to harvest.

Now, the waiting starts.  But at least we know that the timer has been set.