Life as a Harvest Cellar Intern: To Shower or Not to Shower?

[Editor's note: With this post, we are happy to welcome Linnea Frazier to the Tablas Creek blog.  Linnea was one of our cellar interns for this years harvest, fresh from Portland’s Lewis and Clark College. This was her first cellar experience. This won't be the last you hear from her, as we are also happy to announce that she will be staying on with us working as our Marketing Assistant, as well as in the Tasting Room.]

By Linnea Frazier

I glanced at the clock. It was 8:13 pm and I had just trudged through the door after yet another twelve-hour cellar work day. After grappling with my juice-stained, water-logged boots and eventually winning the battle, I flopped onto the bed and contemplated my grape induced state of affairs.

To shower or not to shower? Eh, that’s what the glory of dry shampoo was invented for. To eat something besides oatmeal for dinner and make a decent meal fit for a person? Hmm, if I put enough chia seeds in it that means I’m healthy right? To attempt to stay up past 9:30 for once and get a drink with the friends who were threatening to file a missing persons report on me? Hard pass, because that would probably entail staying awake long enough to understand basic human social cues (plus the whole shower thing). Then I should probably FaceTime my Mom and placate her that I haven’t fallen into a fermenting tank yet. Perhaps not, because she would demand to check the state of my Harvest Hands.[i]

That glorious night ended as most every night of Harvest did, with my feet in fuzzy socks and a glass of my one true love, Syrah, in hand. There I rested, falling asleep by nine like the 23-year-old harvest Grandma that I was more than happily content being.

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Looking back at this year’s harvest I can’t help but chuckle at my preconceived notions going into it, and how much that changed into the new reality I have emerging from it. To describe working harvest at a winery in a mere blog is no easy task. Words almost seem to fail when I think about the evolution of what those unoffending, little grape clusters do to make their way to be imbibed and dissected at our dinner party tables, and what we need to do as winemakers to ensure they don’t stray that path. Perhaps it’s the influence of our heavily moustached shepherd Nathan, but there’s a sheep-dogging metaphor in there somewhere.

For what happens in a winery's cellar is worlds apart from the warmth and comfort of its tasting room. The environment of a cellar is raw, almost carnal in nature, with the cellar crew itself verging on animalistic at times amongst the frenzy of a Harvest. It is cold, damp, and amongst the constant heavy whir of machinery you can readily lose sense of time and place. The fervid smell of fermentation clings to everything, including you. It is this living, breathing entity with the cellar crew tending to it as worker bees tend to their hive. And it is one of my favorite places in the world.

Harvest was not about my reversion to a 9 pm bedtime. Nor was it about learning how many espresso shots your body can take in twelve hours. Nor even how alright you are with leaving a veritable crumb trail of grape skins wherever you go. No, in the end, it was about falling in love with not only the people who make Tablas Creek what it is, but also with a process that has been one of the most gratifying and humbling human experiences my minimal years have yet to afford me.

To walk through the rows of vines in the vineyard, to feel the buildup of sugar between your fingers in a berry, knowing that countless man hours and spreadsheets and lab work have the exact time and date of picking down to the minute, is humbling. To watch the picking crews leave after a night shift to sleep and rest as we come in to start our days, is humbling, for I am convinced these men and women are some type of superhero. To be standing at the sorting table and plucking unlucky creepy crawlies and debris from grapes about to be destemmed and ready to begin the long journey of fermentation is humbling.  To watch the seasoned veterans of the cellar let their experience out to play as they debate amongst themselves what direction they want to take a blend, is humbling. To punch down[ii] the cap of skins that inevitably forms in our fermentation tanks and watch the CO2 escape from it in a witchy cauldron type of way, is humbling.

 

Harvest Intern Blog Pumpover Picture

To test alcohol densities daily and watch the contents of the tanks make the slow progression from a juice to a wine, and then to jump into action and transfer it into barrels at the last possible nanosecond, is humbling. To clean out the metal grates that collect the cellar debris and runoff after the end of a heavy fruit day, let me tell you, is humbling.

So you learn there is no shortage of lessons in the life of a harvest intern, there is no job you are unwilling to do, there is nothing you want to say no to because you want to be involved in it all, as simple as it sounds. You fall in love with it, the process of it. You are there for the beginning, middle, and after a year or two you get to taste the end to the manifestation of your blood, sweat, and espresso.

And the cellar crew at Tablas Creek has everything to do with that ease of falling in love.

The best sleep of my life has been after work days spent with the most ridiculously hilarious, vivacious people I could have ever even imagined. These people, these people made every day of harvest something I was eager to wake up for. From making fun of the men for their slow decline into caveman status as their harvest beards began to overrun their faces, to the inevitable glitter bombing and water wars of Kesha Fridays (shout out to my cellar gals), to the endless rounds of slow clapping if someone would be a bit too eager with a forklift, to the vineyard dogs that would intuitively sense you hitting that wall after hour nine and come up to let you lean into them for a moment, and most fondly to the five-star lunches our Winemaker Neil’s wife Marci (also known as Harvest Mama of the Year) would create, there are countless memories I now carry with me when looking back at my time in that cellar.

 

Harvest Lunch Picture for Blog Post

 

So as this years Harvest closes and my incentive to make hygiene a priority comes back, I can safely say that as sad as I am it is over, I am also utterly content because I get to continue existing here with those that have become family.

As the years have progressed I have grown to understand that the people make the place, the place does not make the people. And Tablas Creek feels at times otherworldly in its sense of community, its altruistic desire to extend that shared sense of self and love for cultivating wines to others in a manner I have never seen before. Before joining this company, yes I enjoyed wine and loved the nuance of it, its seductive fluidity that all wine drinkers can appreciate. But now wine is emotional to me. Seeing how much the Haas family has melded with this land, what they have done to ensure the honesty of their grapes is again, humbling. It is not about what could be easier, more cost-efficient, more along the lines of instant gratification that are all unfortunate aspects of vineyard management, and agriculture in general. For the Haases it is about ensuring that this place, and this type of winemaking will be here for our grandchildren and then their children after them. I believe that to strive for a better future that you will not even see, is true generosity. That generosity is why Tablas Creek has become what you see today.

So cheers Tablas Creek Harvest 2017, you didn’t always smell great but you sure changed my world.

 

References

  1. Harvest Hands, the decline of decent cuticles due to the inevitable blistering and blackening of your hands (and soul) as Harvest progresses.
  2. Punch downs, a form of Cap Management which is physically turning the grapes in the tanks to ensure the skins and the juice evenly ferment. Also the process that gave me my new biceps.

 


Harvest 2017, the End

By Brad Ely

[Editor's note: this is the bookend to Cellar Master Brad Ely's Harvest 2017, the Beginning, posted on August 29th. If you haven't read it yet, you might want to.]

Last week marked the end of fruit for the 2017 vintage with three picking bins of golden Roussanne.  At the beginning of harvest we started with Viognier, and I would have never imagined the last fruit would be white as well. It sounds a cliche, but vintage variation is real, every harvest is different, and it is a beautiful thing.

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The colors of fall are taking over the vineyard. Green lush canopies are shedding leaves and changing colors, becoming gold, brown, auburn and maroon. Taking their winter vacation from a long and strenuous growing season.

Harvest heaved off with a shotgun start. Record breaking temperatures maxed out our thermometers for a week and a half straight, causing rapid ripening, and throwing the whole cellar crew into a frantic pace. Not the most ideal situation as many blocks are finishing veraison (the process of changing from hard green berries, to colorful soft berries with an accumulation of sugar). After the heat wave, we stalled out, with low temperatures pumping the breaks, and giving us cellar team shorter days, and almost whole weekends off. It was a false sense of relief, as temperatures climbed back up, leading to a hot and heavy finish.

Each harvest has its own feel, its own unique personality. While this holds true, each also has a similar roller coaster of emotions and checkpoints in store for us along the way, as the fruits of our labor twist and turn along their journey to liquid magic.

Things begin with feelings of joy and excitement. And it continues for a few weeks, getting back into the swing of things, brushing the dust off skills that haven’t been used since last year. Having the perfect aim with the bin dumper, trying not to lose a single berry, or spill a drop of wine. Remembering every process and procedure. Weighing incoming grapes, labeling tanks, setting up pump-overs, pulse airs, and punch downs in the most efficient order. Recognizing old smells, identifying new ones. Asking lots of questions, experiencing and learning along the way.

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Eventually these skills become second nature again. Before you know it the cellar is buzzing with the daily grind. Fruit arrives at the winery in white bins. It is weighed, sorted, destemmed if red, pressed if white, and sent to its new home for the next two weeks. After a two-week party, what was once juice escapes as wine, and finds its home in oak barrels and tanks for the next year and a half.

As the freshness of harvest wanes, these activities become the regular. Workdays grow longer and longer, arriving as the first light illuminates the vineyard, and leaving well after the sun has set back down. The limits of caffeine consumption are tested. Themed days of questionable music begin to emerge, as a marker to remember what day it was in the first place, and as a way to look forward to the next. Wednesday is Dubstep, followed by R Kelly Thursday, followed by Kesha and glitter Friday (my personal nightmare). Our beloved jamon leg is whittled to the bone, replenished, and whittled down once again.

There comes a point when the fun starts to diminish. Frustration develops, bodies weaken, and spirits dwindle. There is an amount of tired that starts to build, and even the soundest night’s sleep doesn't scratch the surface. Our stained purple hands begin to grow feeble and ache. Thumbs become dry, crack, heal, and then crack again. The slightest bit of contact with acidulated water results in a quick cry for mum. The standard for clean clothes becomes less stringent, and even the stained stuff will pass with a quick smell test. The hot water turns cold with hours of work to go, only to realize  the 12 hour timer set upon in the morning has times out, and it must be reset to continue on.

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Just as it seems the workflow will never end, and spirits are close to being broken, a clearing in the storm occurs. More tanks are being pressed off than being filled, and the constant buzz of the harvest equipment becomes faint. One by one each new wine marches off the cellar floor and into the barrel room, leaving empty spaces where they once resided.

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The last fermenters are dug with mixed emotions. A sense of relief, knowing two-day weekends, a regular sleep schedule, visits with family, and a restoration of social life are on the horizon. A reintroduction to civilization will occur, and we must adapt to normal life once again. As the tiredness fades, and our bodies are rejuvenated, a feeling of post harvest blues sets in. All of the feelings of glory and accomplishment flutter through our daydreams as we clean, and clean, and clean the scene where all of the action occurred. Any remaining dismal sentiment from the end of harvest is quickly forgotten, replaced by thoughts of the great times had, the friendships created, and the new wines quietly resting in barrel.

Eventually, these wines will find their resting places out of our hands, and in the cellars of their final consumers. When you pop a cork, we hope you feel the signature of the harvest with each glass poured. We can't wait for you to make its acquaintance.

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Harvest 2017 Recap: Fast Start and Finish, Solid Yields, and Plenty of Concentration

Last week, with the threat of our first rainstorm on the horizon -- key word here is threat, as it didn't pan out -- we brought in the last lingering blocks of Mourvedre, Roussanne, and Counoise.  And then, all of a sudden, we were done.  Sure, there are a few lots we're still waiting for, as they sit concentrating on straw in our greenhouse. But the picking, at least, is through. No wonder our cellar crew was ready to celebrate:

Lunch on day of last pick

The harvest came in two large waves, with a significantly less busy stretch in between.  The first surge was kicked off by a record heat wave that sent temperatures soaring over 102°F nine days in a row in late August and early September, and included the majority of our purchased grapes for the Patelin de Tablas wines.  The slow interlude corresponded with nearly three weeks of temperatures more than 5°F cooler than normal. When, by early October, things heated up again (modestly this time) most of the late-ripening grapes on our estate were nearly ready, and we had a pretty continuous run between October 2nd and October 19th, picking 16 of 19 days in that stretch. You can see the double-peaked workflow in the chart below. In the chart, blue is purchased fruit for the Patelin program, and orange estate grown fruit:

Harvest by Week - End

Yields were the best we've seen since the twin vintages of 2005 and 2006, up about 20% from 2016. On the one hand, this should be unsurprising, given that we got good rainfall last winter after five years of drought. But you still never know, and midway through the summer, we were all thinking that harvest was going to be at average or slightly above average quantities.  To have it among our most productive vintages ever was somewhat of a surprise. The complete picture:

Grape 2017 Yields (tons) 2016 Yields (tons) % Change vs. 2016
Viognier 18.9 14.2 +33.1%
Marsanne 13.8 4.5  +206.7%
Grenache Blanc 46.4 30.6 +51.6%
Picpoul Blanc 9.7 7.7 +26.0%
Vermentino 22.2 19.0  +16.8%
Roussanne 41.7* 47.0  -11.3%
Total Whites 152.7 123 +24.1%
Grenache 73.1 58.8  +24.3%
Syrah 41.5 36.8  +12.8%
Mourvedre 72.9 62.7  +16.3%
Tannat 20.5 12.3  +66.7%
Counoise 18.8 18.0 +4.4%
Total Reds 226.8 188.6 +20.3%
Total 379.5 311.6 +21.8%

Overall yields ended up at 3.62 tons per acre, about 20% above our ten-year average.  Other years in which we've seen yields around 3.5 tons per acre have included 2005, 2006, 2010, and 2012, which includes some of our favorite vintages. Like 2005 (the vintage that this reminds me the most of) this year followed a multi-year drought, and the obvious health of the vines suggested that they were able to ripen the relatively healthy yields with concentration and character.

*If you're wondering why Roussanne has an asterisk, there are two reasons. First is that there's still a little Roussanne concentrating in our greenhouses, to be added to the total. It won't amount to much (a ton, more or less) but it's there. The second reason is that it's worth noting that at least some of the decline comes because we pulled out an acre or so of Roussanne this winter. We also pulled out a couple of acres of Syrah, but the Syrah total is augmented by the fact that the year before, we grafted over about two acres of Roussanne to Syrah.  So, Roussanne has seen a bit of a double-whammy in recent years. We'll be planting some more Roussanne soon.

Another way that you can get a quick assessment of concentration is to look at average sugars. Since 2007, the average degrees Brix and pH:

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
2014 23.18 3.59
2015 22.60 3.59
2016 22.04 3.71
2017 22.87 3.74

You'll note that 2017's sugars saw a rebound after the lower levels in 2015 and 2016. This is a sign of the health of the vines. The higher pH levels seem to have been a result of the stress that the early-harvest heat wave produced, as well as a reflection of the overall warm summer.  In the 2017 growing season, only May was cooler than average, with April, June, and July particularly warm.  Overall, 2017 was our second-warmest year ever, just a hair cooler than 2014 and about 10% warmer (measured in degree days) than our 20-year average. The chart below summarizes (October's information is for the first 19 days, as we picked our last significant block on October 19th):

2017 Degree days vs Average

We picked even more lots this year (124) than last, and we ran out of space on our harvest chalkboard.  Note the number of times that you see Roman numerals after a pick, particularly toward the end of harvest: those are the blocks that we picked multiple times:  

Full Harvest Chalkboard

The duration of harvest -- 54 days -- was exactly at our average this millennium. Both the beginning (August 30th) and the end (October 23rd) were a little earlier than our average since 2000, but not by much: about 4 days.  That said, we started later than we have since 2012, and finished later than 2013, 2014, and 2016. The fact that 2017 saw a later budbreak than recent years pushed everything into a more normal time frame than we've seen recently, but it was still a warm year.

In character, it's early to tell what things will be like, but so far, we're excited. I asked Winemaker Neil Collins to sum up the vintage based on his tastings, and his response was, "full, and great structure, and lovely acidity... just what we wanted it to be."  Given that Neil, like most winemakers, tend to focus on the shortcomings they see in the immediate aftermath of harvest, this is a pretty resounding endorsement.  We'll know more, of course, in coming weeks.

The last project for us for harvest 2017 is to make our first Vin de Paille "Sacrérouge" since 2014.  This traditional dessert wine-making technique involves drying newly-harvested Mourvedre clusters on straw, and only pressing and beginning fermentation when they have reached our desired level of concentration -- typically around 35° Brix -- after 2-3 weeks.  [For more details on how and why it's done, see our blog Vin de Paille: A Dessert Wine Making Technique for the Obsessed from a few years back]. The Mourvedre we'll be using for this project is currently sitting on the straw, and we expect to bring it in and start fermentation later this week. 

Vin de Paille Mourvedre

Now that the fruit is in, it's welcome to start raining any time.  Meanwhile, we're enjoying the autumnal views of the vineyard without having to worry that the cooler nights and the likelihood of future precipitation -- our first chance, it appears, may come as early as the first few days of November -- might negatively impact our harvest.

Foliage


Harvest at the Three-Quarter Pole: A Return to a More Normal Time Frame, with Solid Yields

Late last week, we welcomed our first major picks of Roussanne and Mourvedre into the cellar.

Roussanne in tank

Mourvedre in tankAnd with that, the home stretch of harvest officially began. There will be a lot of harvest chalkboards that look essentially like this one over the next couple of weeks:

Harvest chalkboard Roussanne and Mourvedre

Where we are, one week into October, is remarkably similar to where we'd expect to be, if we were predicting at the beginning of the year.  We're done with early grapes like Viognier, Vermentino, Syrah, Marsanne, and Grenache Blanc.  We're mostly done with what we consider mid-harvest grapes like Grenache and Tannat.  And we're just getting into our late grapes, Mourvedre, Roussanne, and Counoise.  Given that we're comparatively heavily planted in these late grapes, we still have more fruit out than many of our neighbors.  Still, we expect to be harvesting pretty steadily for the next two weeks, and to be done before the end of the month.  If this seems late, it's likely a matter of perspective, because most of our recent years have been early.  While 2013, 2014, and 2016 were all done by mid-October, our average finish date of harvest this millennium has been October 29th.

With the first complete blocks harvested, we've been able to get the animals back into the vineyard.  Right now, they're in the head-trained vines on our Scruffy Hill block, visible from Vineyard Drive if you're coming in from the south:

Animals back on Scruffy

Although we're where we'd expect to be in the harvest sequence, it hasn't always been smooth getting here.  Harvest began with a significant heat wave that sent temperatures soaring over 102°F nine days in a row.  We then got nearly three weeks of temperatures more than 5°F cooler than normal. In the last two weeks, temperatures have been more or less normal for the season, without any noteworthy heat waves, and with only one day significantly cooler than normal, a bizarrely chilly October 3rd where the sun didn't break through the fog until noon and the day topped out at 64°F:

Avg Temps 2017 vs Normal Sept Oct

For the month of September, we had 11 days warmer than seasonal averages, and 19 days cooler than average.  Even with the heat wave that began the month, our average high was 86.3°F, two degrees cooler than average. These cooler days allowed the vines to recover from the stress of their early-season heat wave, and allowed the cellar to free up tanks and get ready for the next push.  A graph of the harvest by week shows the ebb and flow. Normally, you'd expect a sort of bell curve, with thin tails at the beginning and end and the busiest weeks in the middle.  Not this year:

Harvest by Week

In terms of yields, with a significant number of grapes done, things are coming into focus.  It looks like yields are up from 2016, and a bit above average for the first time since 2012.  The varieties we've finished harvesting are up an average of 32.9%, with the most noteworthy recovery from Marsanne, whose yields had been so depressed by the five years of drought that we were getting less than one ton per acre last year:

Grape 2017 Yields (tons) 2016 Yields (tons) % Change vs. 2016
Viognier 18.9 14.2 +33.1%
Marsanne 13.8 4.5  +206.7%
Grenache Blanc 46.4 30.6 +51.6%
Picpoul Blanc ? 7.7 ?
Vermentino 22.2 19.0  +16.8%
Roussanne ? 47.0  ?
Grenache 73.1 58.8  +24.3%
Syrah 41.5 36.8  +12.8%
Mourvedre ? 62.7  ?
Tannat 18.3 12.3  +48.8%
Counoise ? 18.0 ?
Total so Far 234.2 176.2 +32.9%

Even with the higher yields, sugars are up a bit this year, which is a sign of the health of the vines.  Thank you, rainy winter!  The growing season, the yields, and the character and numbers of the grapes at harvest remind us most, so far at least, of 2005: also the first wet year after a string of dry years, with a long growing season and a relatively cool harvest period.  We aren't likely to go as late as we did that year -- November 7th -- but if we get a similarly robust vintage, we'll be happy. 

Meanwhile, we'll enjoy the last couple of weeks of grapes on the vines. By the end of the month, we'll have to wait another year for views like this:

Counoise on the vine early October


Why Paso Robles is So Well Suited to Late-Ripening Grapes

This morning, when I got back to the winery after a week on the road, my first order of business was to check in on how harvest was going. I was happy to learn that things picked up a bit last week. After more than two weeks of chilly fall weather, it had warmed back up, with eight days of perfect ripening weather: daytime highs between 83°F and 93°F, and lows between 41°F and 51°F.

And still, when I asked Chelsea how she was feeling, she responded, "this is definitely the first October 1st I can remember where we haven't been stressing about tank space."  Although harvest picked up from the glacial pace it was in mid-September, we are still waiting on most of our Marsanne, Roussanne, Mourvedre and Counoise.  Why? Blame the cold nights. Here's Neil, this morning, next to our first pick of Mourvedre. It was 52°F at 8:30am:

Neil looking chilly

We're used to this here, but most of the Mediterranean world is finishing up harvest about now. Beaucastel's Facebook page (for example) shows that they brought in their last fruit on September 29th:

It's not like this year is an outlier for us, either.  Over the last 15 years, we've averaged a last pick off the estate on October 29th, and our earliest-ever finish was October 7th in 2013.  Six times in those 15 years we were still picking in November. 

To explain why grapes take so long to ripen in Paso Robles, I'll have to detour briefly into some basic plant physiology. Bear with me here, or just skip to the end of the bullet points if you'd like the conclusions without the chemistry. There are a number of different processes which limit a grapevine's ability to photosynthesize at low temperatures. These include:

  • The tendency of plants to close their stomata (pores in the leaves) in response to cold, limiting respiration and the uptake of CO2
  • Carboxylation (sorry for the long, technical term) is the first stage of photosynthesis, whereby CO2 molecules are turned into an acid known as 3-PGA. Carboxylation efficiency declines as temperature declines
  • The electron transport capacity of plants is reduced at low temperatures
  • An enzyme known as Rubisco, essential to the first step of carbon fixation in photosynthesis, is inefficient at low temperatures

So, in essence, at cold temperatures, plants take in less CO2 and are less efficient in turning the CO2 that they do take in into the starches that fuel both plant growth and fruit ripening.  Grapevine ripening proceeds most efficiently between 30°C and 35°C (86°F and 95°F).  It drops dramatically below 25°C (77°F), and reaches zero at 10°C (50°F).  A summary graph from a technical paper published in Plant, Cell, and the Environment shows the combined effects pretty clearly:

Figure-7-CO2-saturated-maximum-rates-of-photosynthesis-meanSE-of-Semillon-leaves-as

For context, take a look at the temperature curve for the most recent 24 hour period:

Temperature C by Hour early October

You can see that while it did get warm, topping out around 30°C (86°F) yesterday afternoon, it only lasted until sunset just after 6pm.  By 8pm it was already down to 20°C (68°F). It bottomed out at 6.4°C (43.6°F) at 6am and wouldn't rise back up above 20°C until noon today.  So, over the last 24 hours, our vineyard spent 5 daylight hours over the 25°C temperature at which photosynthesis happens efficiently (2pm-6pm yesterday). Five other daylight hours (9am-1pm today) saw temperatures at levels where some photosynthesis can happen. Two daylight hours (7am-8am today) saw no photosynthesis at all because it was too cold.  And for 12 hours the sun was below the horizon. 

We are far from the only, or even the most extreme, location in Paso Robles.  The temperature grid from the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance shows other areas that dropped near freezing last night.  Most show diurnal temperature swings of 40°-50°F. 

Temperature Grid October 2nd 2017

So, what does all this mean? That once you get into the end of the growing season here in Paso Robles, it's hard for grapevines to do too much photosynthesizing. That's a benefit, because you can get the last little bits of ripening on your late-ripening varieties slowly, so they continue to build complexity without accumulating too much sugar.  In general, the longer your grapes can stay on the vine before they get to the ripeness levels you want, the more complexity your wine has.  That's why a generally accepted bit of wine wisdom says that the best examples of different grape varieties can be found at the northern limit of their ripening range. So, the best Sauvignon Blancs tend to come from the Loire, and not Bordeaux. The best Pinot Noir tends to come from Burgundy, and not the Languedoc.  And the best California Chardonnay tends to come from cool coastal pockets where the fog slips in from the Pacific, not from the Central Valley.

Of course, at some point, you do need to get things ripe.  Grapes that don't make it to good ripeness produce wines that are green and bitter: no one's idea of a pleasurable drink. But here too Paso Robles has an advantage: that we don't tend to get our first serious rain until mid-November.  If we need to wait, we wait.

Hopefully, this particular waiting game is over for a while. But if it's not, I'm still confident we'll be OK. Thanks, Paso Robles.


A cool interlude slows down Harvest 2017 as we reach its mid-point

Ten days into the 2017 harvest, our winery crew was looking harried. Seven consecutive 105°+ days produced an avalanche of fruit. Right as we were genuinely wondering what we would do if the heat kept up, the weather broke, and now, two weeks later, it still hasn't really put itself back together. Take a look at our high temperatures compared to seasonal averages:

Avg Temps 2017 vs Normal

Since the heat wave broke on September 4th, we've had only two days above our seasonal averages, and the average high (84.1°) has been more than five degrees cooler than we'd expect.  At first, there was a bit of a backlog of fruit ready to pick, but by the time we got to this past weekend, we were back in waiting mode:

Harvest chalkboard interlude

To have a slower period like this in mid-September is a luxury. We've been able to free up tank space ahead of the next wave of fruit we know will be coming, and we've been able to spend a lot of time out in the vineyards testing, waiting for the right moment.  And the pace really has slowed.  After 110 and 142(!) ton weeks to start harvest, last week saw just 54 tons arrive at the winery, and we've only picked 16 tons so far this week.  

So, with 322 tons received, we're at or just past the mid-point on our harvest, based on our estimates. And now that we've finished picking some of our early grapes, it gives us a chance to assess where yields are compared to what we'd expected and compared to other years.  And things look solid. The 19 tons of Viognier we picked was up about 33% compared to 2016.  Vermentino (22 tons) is up about 15%. We're not quite done with Syrah, but the 33 tons we've picked is close to last year's 37 tons. The 4.7 tons of Marsanne we picked is almost identical to last year's 4.5 tons, though still very low.  Overall, I'm guessing we end up slightly up from last year's numbers, but not by much.

The cellar has been its usual dance, with fruit coming in (albeit at a more moderate rate) while other tanks are fermenting away and yet others are being pressed off to make space. One fun consequence has been that we have Grenache Noir, Grenache Blanc, and even Grenache Rose fermenting at the same time.  Check out the colors:

Three colors of grenache

The colors aren't only inside the winery. Outside the vineyard, it's starting to look -- as well as feel -- like fall.  As the vines start to lose chlorophyll, the autumn oranges and reds come out.  It's more dramatic on some grapes than others, but Syrah and Mourvedre are particularly lovely.  This Mourvedre vine is from right outside the winery; anyone coming to visit in the next few weeks should see a scene very much like this:

Mourvedre head trained

So, where are we, at harvest's mid-point?  Largely done with our Patelin picks, with the exception of some Mourvedre and a little Grenache and Syrah. Off our estate, we're done with our early whites (Viognier, Vermentino, Marsanne) and mostly done with Grenache Blanc and Syrah. We've made a start on Grenache, and today got our first Tannat into the cellar. Next week, we'll turn in a serious way to Grenache, and maybe get started on the later-ripening Roussanne, Mourvedre and Counoise.

It feels somehow appropriate that we've filled in the left-hand column of our harvest chalkboard. With the forecast set for it to warm back up next week, it feels like we can dispense with the halftime entertainment and get on with the second half.

Chalkboard Sept 21

We'll be back for the second half kickoff, after this break.


Harvest 2017 Update: A Start Like an Avalanche

Many years harvest starts gently, with a pick every few days as our vineyard and cellar crew ease into harvest. Not in 2017.

Harvest 2017 Bins of Grenache

On August 25th, we brought in the first Viognier grapes for our Patelin de Tablas Blanc. August 29th saw the Pinot Noir come in from my dad’s property in the Templeton Gap. And then, on August 30th, the floodgates opened. We got the first pick of Viognier off our own estate, and the first Grenache Blanc for the Patelin Blanc, more than 17 tons combined. The next day saw more Viognier for Patelin Blanc and our first Vermentino and Syrah off the estate, 13 more tons. The first day of September saw 50 tons enter the cellar, one of our busiest days ever: three different Syrah blocks off our estate, plus Grenache Blanc for Patelin Blanc and Grenache for Patelin Rosé. September 2nd (a Saturday) brought in 20 more tons of Viognier and Grenache. Sunday the 3rd was a much-needed day of rest, but Labor Day Monday was a labor indeed, with 29 more tons, evenly split between Syrah for the Patelin red and Viognier, Syrah, and Grenache off the estate.

All told, just over one week into harvest, we’ve brought 147 tons of fruit into the cellar. How unusual is that? It’s unprecedented. Looking back over our last several harvests, I don’t see a single week where we brought in over 100 tons.  And it’s even more unusual for so early in the harvest season; look at how much fruit we harvested in the first ten days the last decade:

Tons of Fruit by Harvest

Now there were a few vintages in here with smaller crops (2009, 2011, 2015), and before 2010, we didn't have as much early fruit because the Patelin program -- mostly based on earlier ripening grapes like Grenache Blanc, Viognier, and Syrah -- didn't exist yet. But still, that's quite a beginning. What caused this avalanche of fruit? A ten-day long stretch of some of the hottest weather Paso Robles has recorded.  For the nine days beginning August 25th and ending September 2nd, the lowest high temperature we recorded at the vineyard was 102.3°F. Seven days topped 105°, and we reached a scorching peak of 111.5° on September 2nd. During this period, seven different days broke the all-time record high for that day at the Paso Robles Airport.

It's not that 100+ days are unusual in Paso Robles. We average about 15 of them per year. But to have so many, back to back, right as the grapes are approaching ripeness, has a dramatic impact.

You might well be wondering how the vines held up through this heat wave. The answer is really pretty well. The overall health of the vineyard, thanks to the generous rainfall we received last winter and the ongoing focus on soil nutrition provided by our vineyard team and our Biodynamic program, has been outstanding. The canopies are notably lusher than in recent years, with some blocks looking like jungles. All this leaf area helps shade the clusters and keep them from singeing in the blazing sun. And it helps the vines photosynthesize. In other years, when we’ve seen hot stretches, the vines shut down photosynthesis to conserve water, and the only progress you see – if you can call it progress – comes from the grapes dehydrating, when sugars and acids both rise as water evaporates, while seed and skin tannins stay green. At the extreme, this can produce wines that are tannic, alcoholic, and green: not a good combination.

But this year, we saw ripening continue (and in fact accelerate) through the heat wave. Sugars went up, acids came down, seeds turned from green to brown, and flavors developed nicely. What was remarkable was the rate at which this happened, with some blocks jumping 1-2° Brix a day. So the windows in which we needed to pick to have grapes in balance were shorter. In conditions like these, you have to have the capacity to get the fruit off the vines as it ripens, and be prepared in the cellar for them all to come tumbling in at once.

And tumble it did.

It’s probably not a coincidence that I fielded three separate inquiries from journalists last week about whether we were able to find the picking crew we needed. Farm labor is, after all, scarce in California anyway, between the high cost of living and the competition with other crops. And the hostile turn the national immigration climate has taken in recent months has added additional stresses.  I have never been more grateful for the decision that we made back in 1996 to give our field crew year-round employment. And yet even with the fruit we contract for as a part of the Patelin program, our growers have been able to find the picking crew they need. So while everyone I talk to is concerned about the future availability of vineyard crew, it seems like for this year at least, it's not yet at a crisis point.

The quality of what has come into the cellar looks good. Sugars are a touch higher than we’ve seen in recent years, with Viognier and Syrah both coming off the vineyard between 24° and 25° Brix, whereas in recent years 22-24° Brix was more normal. But acids are good, balance seems on point, and the flavors are luscious and focused.

Despite the heat-accelerated first week, the start to harvest was not that early. An August 30th beginning off the estate is almost exactly what I projected a month ago, and less than a week ahead of our long-term average. This comparatively normal start time (after several years of mid-August beginnings) is thanks in part to the later beginning to the growing season from the wet, relatively cool winter, and in part to the cool stretch that we saw in mid-August. It’s hard to remember now, given the week long inferno we just experienced, but between August 14th and August 23rd our average high was 82°F and our average low 53°F, with some genuinely fall-like days.

Looking forward, we’re hoping that things slow down a bit now that the heat wave broke on Monday.  Typically, at harvest time, the cooler interludes allow us some breathing room, in which we can press off lots and free up the tanks filled during the previous hot stretch.  This week has been moderate, with days in the upper 80s and nights in the 50s. The long-term forecast predicts more of the same. That's absolutely fine with us.

Meanwhile, if you see a winemaker out at a bar in the next few days, buy them a drink. They’ve earned it.


Harvest 2017, the Beginning

By Brad Ely

[Editor's Note: With this post, we welcome Brad Ely, Tablas Creek's Cellar Master, to the Tablas blog.]

Friday marked the first day of harvest for us here at Tablas Creek. A whopping 8.72 tons of Viognier for the Patelin Blanc. This is just the soft start of our busiest season in the cellar. Soon the sweet smell of fermentation will be wafting from full tanks, our hands will be stained purple, and we will be busy with the task of guiding grapes through their transformation into wine.

Harvest is the culmination of an entire year’s worth of work in the vineyard. A year of sunshine, rain, wind, temperature fluctuations, frosty mornings, heat waves, all having an effect on the character of the next vintage in bottle. Countless hours of work, making sure the vines produce the best fruit possible. Our job in the winery is not to mess it up. Once the fruit is placed on our doorstep, the vineyard’s work for the year is done.  The vines can rest, and begin dreaming of winter hibernation. Now it is our time, our opportunity, to create something spectacular.

We have been preparing the winery for the last month, cleaning harvest equipment, pressure washing fruit bins, rebuilding pumps, making sure presses work, and tanks are sanitized. We have purchased supplies, new winemaking toys, and tools to fix the new toys when they inevitably break. At times it feels like preparing for battle, making sure every detail of preparedness has been taken care of. Our goal is to come out victorious, with new wines that have reached their maximum potential as our spoils. (Perhaps I have been watching too much Game of Thrones.)

We have also been preparing ourselves, both mentally and physically. We desire harvest to run smoothly, like a well-oiled machine. That means we need to be as equally prepared as the winery. Safety training, CPR and first aid certifications, training of excited interns, revisiting our standards and procedures for everything harvest related. The row of machines dedicated to supplying artificial energy has appeared in the lab. A coffee pot, espresso machine, and even an iced tea maker, to help us grind through the longest days.  Soon a beautiful leg of cured Spanish ham will appear, fondly known as “The Stinker”, for our snacking delight. The fridge has been stocked with cold libations to help us keep our sanity at the end of a hard day's work.  

We rejoice with the opportunity to stop shaving, (the men anyways) not worrying about looking presentable to the general public. The slow process of transforming into cave men has begun. We have had our last suppers and bits of summer vacation, both friends and family knowing we will be out of social commission for the next few months. Every bit of down time will be needed for sleep, a decent meal, and perhaps a stab at the pile of dirty, grape-stained laundry looming in the corner of the bedroom.

Relationships will be built, friendships made, stories told, and also created. So many hours spent with one another provides a connection deeper than the average 9 to 5 workday experience. Musical tastes will emerge, and then be sub sequentially suppressed by the opposition.  Senses of humor will arise, movie quotes rehearsed, dirty jokes told, and a few curse words may take flight. We have come together with a common objective, to raise wines through the start of their long journey to our dinner table. If we are successful, we will enter harvest as a team, and exit as family.

Harvest is the best time of year. Tensions are high, and so are emotions of excitement and thrill. Creating fine wine is an exhilarating feeling matched by very few experiences in life. It is the perfect combination of science and nature, with opportunity for artistic expression every step of the way. Hopes, dreams, and aspirations of creating something magical gain traction around every corner.

This morning, we way our first day of red fruit, beautiful clusters of Pinot Noir that will ultimately become the Full Circle. Perhaps an ironic foreshadowing of what harvest will signify for the vineyard? The last arc in the annual circle it takes on its mission to produce the world’s most noble beverage.

Meanwhile, we'll celebrate the beginning, in style.


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

I've spent a lot of time the last week or two out in the vineyard. Some of that is because I was gone for a chunk of July and wanted to make sure that I understood what had happened in my absence. Some of that is because we've had several visitors who wanted to get their shoes dusty and see where things really come from. And part of it is that we're close to (maybe just a day or two away from) launching a beautiful new mobile-responsive Web site, and I've been looking for great images to populate the site with.

One of the results has been an ongoing Twitter thread where, each evening, I've posted one close-up cluster photo, working through all the grapes we have growing in the vineyard. That's been fun, but now that I have them all, I thought it would be fun to share them all here on the blog. We have a larger portfolio to work with than we did the last time I did this (in 2014). This year, our three newest grapes, Terret Noir, Clairette Blanche, and Picardan, are ready for their photo ops. So, without further ado, in the order we expect to pick:

Viognier

We expect to get our first estate Viognier into the cellar this week.  It's looking ready, berries are softening, and it's sweet. And the vines themselves look bursting with health, with some canes ten feet long. Off we go!

Viognier

Vermentino

Vermentino, with its distinctive coloration and citrusy aromas, typically vies with Viognier for first into the cellar. This year, it seems a little behind, but we should still see it the first week of September.

Vermentino

Syrah

We expect to get our first Syrah in a couple of weeks. This cluster (whose photo I took two weeks ago) still shows a couple of green berries, but in my walk this morning I didn't see any green in Syrah, and the berries were starting to soften. With this week's hot weather, we're not far out. 

Syrah

Marsanne

We're looking forward to better yields off our Marsanne, which have been punishingly low the past two years. This year's crop looks better, and the honeydew melon flavors that come through in the wines already in evidence in the berries. We're likely to see this mid-September:

Marsanne

Grenache Blanc

Grenache Blanc will likely take a while to pick, given that we have it planted in a number of different places and that how advanced it is seemed pretty variable to me as I walked around the vineyard.  We'll likely start in early September, but might not see it all in until the end of the month:

Grenache Blanc

Clairette Blanche

Clairette ripens typically in the middle of the cycle, and we'll expect it in late September sometime. But it already looks good, with the acidity that makes it so valuable as a blending component in evidence: 

Clairette

Grenache

Grenache is always surprisingly late to go through veraison, and even now, a week after I took the photo below, it's not hard to find pink berries in the Grenache blocks. At the same time, they've already accumulated a fair amount of sugar, and Grenache seems to take less time than most grapes between full veraison and harvest. We should see our first Grenache lots in mid- to late-September, but our last lots not until mid-October. 

Grenache

Picardan

I'm guessing a bit here, given that we've only harvested Picardan once.  But it came in fairly late last year, and we expect to bring it in right at the September/October cusp most years. 

Picardan

Tannat

Tannat is easy, in lots of ways. It is relatively late to sprout (protecting it from our spring frosts), it's sturdy and rugged in the vineyard, it ripens evenly, and it harvests right in the middle of the cycle, typically in early October.

Tannat

Terret Noir

We're still learning about Terret, but given that it tends to be high in both acid and tannin, and low in sugar, we try to wait it out. We should be getting it in in early October.

Terret

Picpoul

Picpoul, which gets its name from the root word for "to sting" is renowned for its ability to retain acidity. And our climate and soils here in Paso Robles exaggerate this tendency. So, as nice as it looks in this photo, we're a long way from when we expect pick it in early- to mid-October.

Picpoul

Roussanne

Roussanne is a little like Grenache Blanc, in that we'll likely pick it over a month or more.  I expect that we'll see our first "cherry pick" lots of the ripest clusters before the end of September, but might not see the last lots until late October.

Roussanne

Counoise

The cluster below is unusually advanced for the vineyard; our average Counoise cluster is only about 50% through with veraison.  And it doesn't hurry even after it's done; we expect to wait until mid-October to pick.

Counoise

Mourvedre

We have a lot of Mourvedre out there, in various stages of ripening.  Some, like the photo below, are mostly through veraison.  Others are still half green. And even once it's through veraison, Mourvedre takes longer than any of our other grapes to get to ripeness, so we probably won't see the first picks until early October, and the last until late October or early November.

Mourvedre

A quick note about this week's hot weather and an updated vintage assessment

Although we've brought in a little fruit for our Patelin de Tablas program (well, only Viognier for the Patelin Blanc so far), we haven't yet picked anything off the estate.  But given that it's forecast to reach 105 every day this week, things are going to move fast.  It's not ideal to have this blast of hot weather during harvest, but we think the vineyard is as well prepared for it as it could be, given the health of the vines and the vigor from last winter's generous rainfall.

Even with the speedup spurred by the heat, we're still looking at our latest onset of harvest since 2012, and nearly two weeks later than our earliest-ever start, last year.  My assessment that we were going to start about a week earlier than our 15-year average (September 4th) seems right on target.


Veraison 2017 suggests an early, but likely not record-breaking, harvest

I returned on Wednesday from three weeks away to a significantly changed vineyard landscape. When I left, we were through flowering but many of the grape berries were still pea sized, bright green, and hard. It looked like early summer. Fast forward three weeks and the grapes are much more mature. While almost all the grapes are still green, many varieties are full-sized. The white grapes -- except for Roussanne -- don't look all that different than they will at harvest. And, when I got to the Syrah block, I found veraison.

Veraison marks the point where a grape stops accumulating mass and starts accumulating sugar. At the same time, red grapes start their color change from green, while white grapes take on more of a yellow tint. Both red and white grapes start to soften. [For more about what's happening chemically, check out this veraison post from the archives.] This landmark comes roughly six weeks before the onset of harvest, and gives us our best estimate for when harvest will begin. One of the most advanced Syrah clusters shows the beginnings of this color change:

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It's important to note that this cluster is exceptional. Even at the top of the hills, most of the Syrah clusters are green. Go even halfway down the hills (where it's cooler, since cold air sinks at night) and there's no color change to be found. And as for the other grapes, only in Mourvedre could I find even a hint of veraison, and that took some searching. The cluster below is about the most advanced I could find:

20170721_103051

Although it may seem like wineries mark veraison as a moment, it's probably better understood as a continuum, with the percentage of berries that show the telltale signs. By that measurement, I'd say we were 5% through veraison in Syrah, 1% through in Mourvedre, and 0% in Grenache and Counoise. So, we've got a ways to go. But still, when we first note veraison is one of the five major signposts in the vineyard year, each of which helps us know how it compares to other years. Veraison is the third, after bud break and flowering, but before first harvest and last harvest. 

While six weeks is a good basic guide for the duration between veraison and harvest, it's not totally constant, and can be influenced by the weather that we get in the interim, as well as by the amount of fruit the vines are carrying.  For example, in 2014 our earliest-ever veraison (noted on July 9th) was mitigated by a very cool August, and we started harvest 45 days later, on August 23rd. By contrast, last year's first veraison was noted on July 13th, and combined with a very warm August to produce our earliest-ever beginning to harvest, just 36 days later. The last ten years are compiled in the chart below, with each year linked to my blog post about that year's veraison:

Year First Veraison Noted Harvest 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 August 23 45
2015 July 18 August 26 39
2016 July 13 August 18 36
2017 July 20 ? ?

Using the range of durations between first veraison and first harvest (36 to 49 days) we can have good confidence that we'll begin picking sometime between August 25th and September 7th. If I had to lay bets, I'd guess we start toward the early end of that range, given that it's been a very warm summer so far and we've already made up ground from bud break that was two weeks later than 2016. 

What's next for the vineyard? We'll watch the different grapes go through veraison. Syrah and Mourvedre will be followed by Grenache soon, and Counoise a bit later. The white grapes have already started veraison -- though it's not something easily shown in photographs -- with Viognier and Vermentino well underway and the others soon to follow. It's an exciting time, with the view changing practically daily. I'll be posting regular photos of veraison's progress on our Instagram page. In the cellar, we'll be getting the last of the year's bottling done so there's space in barrels and tanks for the coming crush, and starting the process of pulling out and cleaning all the tanks, barrels, and equipment we'll be using once harvest begins.

So while veraison doesn't herald anything immediate, it's still a significant milestone. The timer has been set, and we now know -- roughly -- how much time is on it.