Harvest 2015 begins and sounds alarm bells about yields

Today we welcomed into the cellar the first fruit of 2015: eight bins of Viognier from Fralich Vineyard, for our Patelin de Tablas Blanc.  And with that, the 2015 harvest is underway:

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Things look like they're moving pretty fast now, particularly after this past weekend saw temperatures soar into the low 100's both days.  It's cooled down since, but we're sampling most of the vineyards that we're expecting Syrah and Viognier from for Patelin and Patelin Blanc, and doing a first systematic pass through the same varieties in our own vineyard.  We'll get a little more fruit in tomorrow, then take a break to bottle the 2013 Esprit de Tablas before getting back at it next week.

It is wonderful to have the smell of new fruit in the cellar, particularly Viognier, which is as aromatic when it's newly picked as it is in the glass: honey and peaches and spice. And the fruit looked good.  But we were expecting something more like 15 bins today than the 8 we received. 

We expected that crop levels would be light in this fourth year of drought, and we know that some of the earlier grapes (notably Syrah and Viognier) were flowering during our unusually cool, breezy May.  These aren't ideal flowering conditions, and we've seen evidence of shatter in our own vineyard and from our expeditions to the vineyards we source from for Patelin.  But we were all taken by surprise by just how light this first pick turned out to be.

It is something of a maxim in vineyard analysis that when you see evidence of yields being light, they end up even lighter than you were thinking, while when you see evidence of heavier yields it ends up being even heavier than you expect.  And we have been seeing other evidence that yields will be light, from observations of lower cluster counts and smaller clusters to relatively high sugars and relatively high acids in our samples.  Perhaps less intuitively, further evidence is provided by the fact that the vines look notably healthy, when with heavier yields you would expect to see more signs of stress. 

So, I've been steeling myself for this news.  And with the Patelin, we have options; we have handshake agreements with several local vineyards that if we realize that we're light during harvest, they'll find some fruit for us.  We may not be able to make up all the difference, but we can bridge the gap a bit.  Those phone calls started this morning.

The estate vineyard, however, doesn't offer this recourse.  If we end up light, we just make less wine.  It's likely only another week before we find out the extent to which that will be true.

First day of harvest 2015 sign edited


Coming (soon) to Fruition

By Chelsea Franchi

Anticipation of harvest is a primal feeling.  It's a dichotomous sensation made up of a humming excitement, a nervousness that simmers just below the surface, and a light touch of hysteria.  We're anxious for the first fruit of harvest to come in, while at the same time, we're hoping we can push it off for a little bit longer.  By all accounts, it looks as though harvest from our property will commence early September - but, as this is agriculture and Mother Nature is at the helm, that's nothing more than our best guess.

In preparation for this epic time of year, all the members of the vineyard and cellar crew are drinking up time with their loved ones as though every second is a fleeting, delicious drop.  It's fortunate we have a team that gets along, as we'll be seeing their faces far more than those of our chosen partners in the months to come.  Weekend plans are a luxury afforded to the time before and after harvest, but not during.  Currently, we're relishing the feeling of getting into our cars dry and comfortable, after a work shift that lasts eight hours.  All of that will be changing in the coming weeks, when our horizon will look more like this:

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Our days are about to be filled with the whine of the must pump, the whir and tumble of the de-stemmer, and the rattle of the sorting table, all overlaid by the constant thumping music that was chosen by whoever arrived first and/or was thick-skinned enough to endure the inevitable complaints about their music selection from everyone around them (unless it's Thursday, because on Thursdays, we listen to R. Kelly and there can be no complaints.  Well, there can be complaints, but no one will listen.  They're about to be filled with wet heat and the sharp sting of carbon dioxide, both byproducts of fruit fermenting in tank and the deepest inhalations our lungs can handle every time we walk past the rosé tanks (I'm so looking forward to that smell!)  They're about to be filled with the most vibrant and ever-evolving selection of colors: from the bubble gum pink of counoise to the ox-blood red of syrah, from the electric green stems at the beginning of harvest to the golden, crackly leaves toward the end.  Harvest season is a true sensory overload - made even more overwhelming because all participants are exhausted in every sense of the word.

This job is unlike any other that I know of.  Yes, we work ourselves into the ground, but we do it with a common goal of making wines we're all undeniably proud of.  The team we've built shares the delight that's earned from crafting a product with one's own hands.  And there are times, too, when our job is just the way Hollywood portrays it.  There are long lunches on the crush pad, made from ingredients that were sourced from the property and slow cooked under the percipient eye of our Executive Winemaker/Vineyard Manager/Fearless Leader, Neil Collins, who just so happened to be a chef before turning his attention to the wine world.  These lunches are masterfully paired with beautiful wines, giving us a chance to remember, in the middle of the chaos, why it is that we do what we do.

For now, I plan on savoring my post-work gym routine (that's a laughable goal during harvest), my quiet meals at home with my husband, raucous weekends with friends and family, and the primal thrill I feel deep in my bones in anticipation of what's to come:

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Bring it on.


State of the Vineyard, Mid-Summer Edition

This has been an unusual summer.  We had the warmest late-winter/early-spring anyone can remember. This was followed by the coolest May in 20 years. Then June was hot.  July, so far, has been cool, and we've even had (very unusual for summer in Paso Robles) a couple of showery days.

Overall, the year looks about average in terms of heat accumulation.  At 1276 degree days to date, we're about 10% behind where we've been the last three warm years (2012-2014 average on July 14th: 1483) but 15% ahead of the cool 2010 and 2011 vintages (average on July 14th: 1112).  Through it all, the vineyard continues to look remarkably healthy.  

To get a sense of how healthy, I'll start with this panoramic photo, taken this week, overlooking olur main Grenache block.  It's worth expanding it; click on it (or any photo) to see it bigger:

Panorama over Grenache

All this variation in the weather, particularly the warm April and the cold May, suggests that we'll see a harvest that will begin early and end late.  The grapes that had sprouted by early April (like Viognier, Grenache and Grenache Blanc) were spurred on by the warmth and sun, and pushed canes already a foot long or more by the time it cooled off in May.  The later-sprouting grapes (like Counoise, Mourvedre and Roussanne) were barely out when it got cold, and didn't really start growing until things warmed up again in June.  This led to a period in mid-June where the early varieties had grapes that were already pea-sized while many of the late varieties were still flowering.

Things have evened out in the last few weeks, but you can still see remnants of the uneven beginning in the different cluster and berry sizes.  First, Syrah, from near the top of the hill.  The berries look nearly full-sized, but we haven't seen any veraison yet:

Syrah clusters

Grenache, too, has grown a lot, though we do expect some added mass before they start to turn red:

Grenache clusters

Mourvedre is still farther away from being ready, with the grapes still as much oval as round, and small, hard and light green:

Mourvedre clusters

This same week last year, I was already talking about veraison in Syrah and Mourvedre.  2014's veraison was about 2 weeks earlier than normal, and this carried through to a mid-August beginning to harvest. The fact that we're still not seeing veraison suggests that we're likely looking at a later start to harvest than the last few years, and I'm also expecting a significantly later finish.  Could we start in late August and finish in early November?  It seems likely, at this point, though a stretch of hot (or cold) weather could move that around.

Crop levels seem down a bit compared to the past couple of years.  Given that we're now four years into our drought, that's hardly surprising.  But it doesn't look like it will be dramatically reduced, and the vineyard looks healthier than it has in mid-July in years.  Roussanne often is showing signs of stress by now, with leaves starting to yellow.  Not this year.  I'll leave you with one final shot of our Roussanne, sheltering under a vibrantly green canopy and beginning its long, slow trek toward what will likely be a mid-October harvest:

Through Roussanne row