An update from smoky Paso Robles

Many of you will be aware that there's a big fire burning in the Santa Lucia Mountains north of Big Sur and south-east of Carmel. The Soberanes Fire, which started last week, has grown to over 19,000 acres, and its plume of smoke is easily visible from space:

As you can see from the image above, most of the smoke is being pushed inland by the prevailing winds, but some is collecting in the Salinas River Valley, and was drawn up toward Paso Robles yesterday evening.  We ended up sleeping with our windows closed and the air conditioning on last night rather than have the house smell like old campfire.  This morning, I arrived at work to see a landscape with blurred edges and a grayish tint, instead of the normal crystal clear, deep blue sky (click on the image for a larger panoramic view):

Smoky panorama 2016

This isn't the first time we've seen smoky weather here at the vineyard, although we've been lucky to avoid any big nearby fires.  Back in 2008, two large fires put a high layer of smoke overhead, giving us the unusual perception of overcast summer days. This year's smoke isn't as thick, although it is closer to the surface.

If grapes are exposed to concentrated smoke over time, they can pick up an oily, smoky taste. This character (typically called "smoke taint") was an issue for many Mendocino and Sonoma wineries in 2008, and seems likely to be an issue for Monterey County wineries this year. That said, we don't think that the amount of smoke we're seeing now will have any impact on our harvest. It's only lightly smoky here, and the forecast is for the weather pattern to shift by the weekend to a more dramatic on-shore flow, which should draw fresh air off the Pacific Ocean, just ten miles west over the coast range.

Meanwhile, we're watching the vineyard go through veraison, variety by variety. Syrah was first. We've seen a few examples of Mourvedre around the vineyard in the past couple of days. And I got a photo of Grenache this morning, still more green than red, but on its way. Even in that photo, you can see some of the smoky haze against the horizon:

Veraison 2016 Grenache 3

Looking again at how advanced we are, I'm reassessing my prediction that we might challenge our earliest-ever harvest. What I'm seeing is more like 2013 or 2015 (roughly a week ahead of average) than it is like 2014 (roughly 2 weeks early). But there's still a long way to go, and a consistently hot August might push things up again. In any case, we know we're likely to see some fruit coming in the last week or ten days of August.

Look for more updates in coming weeks.


Come soon for the incredible 2016 wildflower season in Paso Robles

So, I feel like the Chamber of Commerce here, but really, if you like wildflowers, this is the year for you. The combination of good rain early in the season and ample sunshine in February has produced the most impressive display of color in several years. I'm going to share a few of these that we've taken here at the vineyard, which is impressive enough. The vistas on the rolling hills east of town are even more impressive, at least for their scale. I remember a trip that we were making to Utah nearly a decade ago when the wildflowers were in bloom off of Highway 46, and people were pulled haphazardly off the road just staring at the mesmerizing, hypnotic scenes. We have a link to some of these scenes at the end of the blog. But first, what we're seeing here at the winery, starting with this pretty purple flower that carpets any areas we didn't plant a cover crop, and peeks through even the taller growth like an ultraviolet wash behind an oil painting:

Wildflowers

The mustard flowers are familiar to anyone who drives around the Central Coast in the springtime, but this year's growth is particularly lush:

Mustard

The lupines are just beginning. In another few weeks, they will be swaying hypnotically to the spring breezes and covering the area with their thick perfume:

Lupine

Some flowers you'd like to admire from afar, like the thistle, whose spines make it a nuisance in the vineyard.  We've largely eliminated it from problematic spots, but along the fencelines it still shows off its deep purple, spiky blooms:

Thistle

But the crown jewels of the wildflower season, of course, are the California poppies: our state flower.  They are so plentiful, and so photogenic, that I have photos of them from nearly every day this month.  I'll spare you the entire collection, but here are a few of my favorites:

Single poppy

Poppies

Poppies limestone and deep blue sky

If you're interested in knowing where to go, a good article in the San Luis Obispo Tribune yesterday has recommended routes and lots more photos. But come sooner than later. By June, this burst of color will have largely faded to the golds and deep greens of California summer.


Reassessing Winter 2015-2016 After March's Rain

Three weeks ago, we were seeing our earliest-ever budbreak, driven by a warm, sunny February that saw just one winter storm pass through and a total of just 1.55" of rain. Articles from around the state echoed San Francisco Chronicle's headline What if El Nino is a big bust?.  Far from the promise of an El Niño that would put a measurable dent in California's historic drought, Paso Robles and points south had fallen below historical averages for winter rainfall.

Fast forward three weeks, and things look better, if perhaps not as much better as we'd like them to look.  So far in March, we've seen a welcome 6.32" of rain, bringing our yearly total up to 19.33". This is already better than what we received the last four years, if only about 85% of what we'd expect by this point in an average winter.  We do still have another month where we can reasonably expect rainfall, albeit usually not a huge additional amount.  The chart below will give you a sense of how this year has stacked up compared to normal for us (click on it to see it bigger):

Winter Rainfall

We've had three months (July, January, and March) with above-average rainfall, six months below, and three-plus still to go.  With 10 days still to go in March, we're already at 150% of normal March rainfall.  But while I'd like to project that forward and assume we'd get another couple of inches before the end of the month, there's nothing promising in the forecast.  So, assuming we get something like average rainfall in April and May, we're likely looking at somewhere in the 22" range.  That's a lot better than what we received the last four years (13"-15" each year) but still only about 85% of our 25" historical average.

That said, the vineyard looks like it's thriving.  It's clear from the prevalence of water-loving native plants like miner's lettuce (photo below; more information here) even in areas that we don't normally see them that the soils are saturated.

Miner's Lettuce

The rain and cool weather in the first half of March delayed the spread of budbreak -- which started 10 days earlier than 2015, which had been our earliest-ever year -- by a welcome couple of weeks, so we're now more or less on par with the last two years.  But things are going to be moving fast from here forward, and we're likely past the point where we could safely weather a frost even in our low-lying and late-sprouting areas.

The cover crops are still deep, green, and growing enthusiastically. With the vines (like Grenache, below) coming out of dormancy, we'll need to get them tilled under so they don't allow frosty morning air to settle next to the new sprouts:

Budding Grenache Blanc

In fact, the March rain has meant that even blocks where our animal herd spent time in January -- like the Roussanne below, with vineyard dog for scale -- have regrown so much that they'll provide a lot of additional organic matter for the soil when they're tilled under in the next few months:

Sadie in the cover crop

The alternating sun and rain has made for what is shaping up to be a spectacular wildflower season.  The mustard is blooming, adding an electric yellow blanket that contrasts dramatically with the still-dormant Mourvedre vines:

Mourvedre in Mustard

And the California poppies are starting to come out. Anyone who is planning a visit to Paso Robles in the next couple of months is in for some spectacular scenery:

Poppies

So, big picture, we're feeling cautiously optimistic about things.  We've received enough rain to feel confident that our dry-farmed vineyards will do fine through the growing season, though not enough to materially improve the groundwater reserves.  The vineyard is early by historical averages, but no longer alarmingly so.  We've negotiated the first 3 weeks of what will have been an unprecedentedly long frost season successfully, though there are still 6 weeks before we feel safe.  

Given where we were three weeks ago, I'll take it, gladly.


Congratulations to Jason Haas, 2015 Paso Robles Wine Industry Person of the Year

By Robert Haas

In 1989 The Perrin family and the Haas family bought a 120 acre pasture in Adelaida that was to become Tablas Creek Vineyard, named for the eponymous creek that flowed through the property.  I took over the management.

In 2002 my son Jason, fresh from a stint in the east coast’s tech world, arrived in Paso Robles and started working at Tablas Creek, focusing initially on our marketing and increasingly on our management.  Although Jason has taken over the day-to-day operations here, I'm still working because I enjoy our working together.  It's fun.  His leadership here and his accomplishments at the vineyard and in the community delight me.

Last Friday, the Paso Robles wine community came together at the Paso Wine Country Alliance's annual Winter Gala to honor Jason for “outstanding contributions toward the success of the Paso Robles wine industry”.  He was named the 2015 Paso Robles Wine Industry Person of the Year:

BarrelJason, with Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance Executive Director Jennifer Porter 

KatchoJason with State Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian (left) and State Senator Bill Monning (right) and the decree passed by the Californa legislature

Group
A healthy Tablas Creek contingent gathered to help celebrate

It was fun to hear the wine community recognize his accomplishments in the fourteen years he has been working here. They have been significant!

  • He started this blog back in 2005 and has been its principal author for a decade now. It has been a finalist for “Best Winery Blog” seven of the last eight years and won in 2008 and 2011.   The blog helped establish us as leaders in the wine community and himself as a source for media with thoughts worth seeking out.
  • His writing on the blog has led to invitations to contribute pieces on Paso Robles and Rhone varieties to Wine Business Monthly, Wines & Vines, Wine Industry Network, and Zester Daily, and to regular appearances on radio and television.
  • He established the Paso Robles Rhone Rangers chapter in 2007 and led it for the next several years. In that period, it grew from 15 members to 50 members and helped establish Paso Robles as the epicenter of California’s Rhone movement.
  • He has represented Paso Robles, Rhone grape varieties, and Tablas Creek to industry groups including the American Wine Society, the AIWF, the Unified Symposium, and the Society of Wine Educators, and has been a regular guest lecturer to classes and student groups at Cal Poly and Fresno State, spreading the word about our region and our winery to the next generation of wine consumers and wine professionals.
  • He has helped build Tablas Creek's standing in the community, working with and supporting deserving causes such as must! charities, Festival Mozaic, the Foundation for the Performing Arts Center, and the Paderewski Festival, as well as volunteering as a youth basketball and baseball coach in Templeton.
  • He has volunteered diligently as a board member of the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance, of Rhône Rangers, and of Family Winemakers of California. It is easy to critique the actions of an organization, but much more significant to jump in and help it achieve its goals.
  • He has had, I feel, a particularly significant impact on the Rhone Rangers. When he joined the board in 2004, it was an organization whose sole footprint was one tasting a year in San Francisco.  He pushed the group to expand its Bay Area event to include a greater educational component and a winemaker dinner and auction.  He also led the charge to add additional events, including an annual Los Angeles tasting and “road show” visits to Seattle, Chicago, New York, and Washington DC.  The category of California Rhones has made amazing strides in the last decade, in part thanks to the work of Jason and the rest of the Rhone Rangers leadership.
  • Jason’s support of Tablas Creek’s role in the creation of and advocacy for the 11 new Paso Robles AVAs helped distill a complicated story into a comprehensible message of why this is a good thing for the region.

I'm proud of him.   He has made a difference.


What's next for the new Paso Robles AVAs

Last month, I had the pleasure of sitting on a panel discussing the process behind and prospects for the 11 new Paso Robles AVAs (short for American Viticultural Areas). This panel was a part of a conference organized by the Continuing Education of the Bar (CEB), for attorneys interested in wine law from around California.  Joining me on the panel were Steve Lohr (of J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines, another founding member of the Paso Robles AVA Committee) and Carol Kingery Ritter (of Dickenson, Peatman & Fogarty, the law firm that shepherded the AVAs through the federal approval process). [Map below, courtesy of Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance. Click to enlarge, or here for a PDF that also includes descriptions of the sub-AVAs.] 

AVA Map w 11 AVAs

Much of the discussion focused on how the AVAs came to be: the genesis of the idea, the research that took place to discover and support how to draw the boundaries, and the convoluted process that took place once the petition had been submitted to the TTB, lengthened by the TTB's decision to reconsider the fundamental nature of AVA labeling after receiving the submission.  I've written about all of these, and particularly the TTB's struggle with the concept of nested AVAs, on the blog in the past (you can find them all by scrolling through the Legislation and Regulation category tag).  I won't repeat those thoughts here, though I encourage anyone interested in the often convoluted regulations that govern the production, marketing and sales of wine to explore the archive at their leisure.

More interesting, to me, were the questions I received about why I thought the approval of the AVAs a good thing for Paso Robles, and how I saw them being used in the marketplace.  I'll dive into both topics in this blog.

Why the 11 AVAs area a good thing for Paso Robles

For me, there are three main reasons why the approval of the AVAs are good for the Paso Robles region as a whole.  

  1. Their approval is a concrete data point that the region is maturing. When the Paso Robles AVA was first proposed and approved back in 1983 it contained only five bonded wineries and fewer than 5000 planted acres of vineyard.  Big swaths of the AVA, including the area out near us, were largely untouched by grapevines.  In the last thirty years, Paso Robles has grown to encompass some 280 wineries and 32,000 vineyard acres.  Until the new AVAs were approved, it was the largest unsubdivided AVA in California, at 614,000 acres. By contrast, the Napa Valley appellation (which includes sixteen AVAs delineated within its bounds) is roughly one-third the area at 225,000 acres. The growth of the region has been a story in itself in recent years, but the approval of the AVAs is something tangible and official that encourages press, trade and consumers to take a new look at what Paso Robles has become. 
  2. The approval was done collectively, as a region.  There were 59 different Paso Robles growers and wineries involved in the Paso Robles AVA Committee, and the work was done hand-in-hand with the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance.  This cooperation allowed the region to push (and eventually pass) a conjunctive labeling law, which guarantees that any winery who uses one of the sub-AVAs on their label will also be required to state Paso Robles equally prominently.  This safeguard ensures that the region will keep the accumulated marketing capital that we've all been working to build in the national and international marketplace.  And the cooperative nature of the AVA Committee reinforced the bonds of our community, which is in my experience a rare and valuable point of distinction for Paso.
  3. It provides a framework for wineries, sommeliers, and wine educators to discuss the incredible diversity of Paso Robles.  Those of us making wine here have been talking for years about how varied the climate, soils, and geography are in Paso Robles, and largely relying on anecdotal descriptions to support our points.  The research that went into the AVAs puts these facts at our fingertips, and facilitates the discussions that show why Paso Robles can make world class wines from grapes as diverse as Cabernet, Syrah, Roussanne, Mourvedre and Zinfandel.  As a quick summary: 
    • The Paso Robles AVA stretches roughly 42 miles east to west and 32 miles north to south. 
    • Average rainfall varies from more than 30 inches a year in extreme western sections (like where Tablas Creek is) to less than 10 inches in areas farther east. 
    • Elevations range from 700 feet to more than 2400 feet. 
    • Soils differ dramatically in different parts of the AVA, from the highly calcareous hills out near us to sand, loam and alluvial soils in the Estrella River basin. 
    • The warmest parts of the AVA accumulate roughly 20% more heat (measured by growing degree degree days) than the coolest.  This difference in temperatures is enough to make the cooler parts of the AVA a Winkler Region II in the commonly used scale of heat summation developed at UC Davis, while the warmest sections are a Winkler Region IV.  This is the equivalent difference between regions like Bordeaux or Alsace (both Winkler II areas) and Jumilla or Priorat (both Winkler IV areas).

How I expect to see the AVAs used in the marketplace

A criticism that I see commonly tossed out by the opponents of new AVAs (and not just Paso Robles') is that an AVA may be approved before it has meaning in the marketplace.  To me, that's putting the cart before the horse.  At the time ours were approved, really only the Templeton Gap AVA had any particular association in the market, and that was mostly as a geographical feature more than as a delineated area (in fact, much of what locals refer to as the Templeton Gap lies west of the Paso Robles AVA entirely).

Given that relative lack of market knowledge about the sub-regions of Paso Robles, should the TTB have denied the petition?  If they had, it's hard to see how these regions could ever be recognized.  Drawing the lines is an essential step in allowing those regions to develop an identity.  At that point, it's up to the wineries within (or at least, who source grapes from) those regions to make their names.  If they're successful at associating the region with quality and distinctiveness, the market will follow.  What is key is that the lines are drawn using good science, and I think that it's here that the Paso Robles petitions were particularly strong.  The climate, soils, and elevation studies that went into the proposals were the most comprehensive that the TTB has ever received, and I believe they will stand the test of time.

To get a sense of how we're using the new AVA designations, take a look at some of the wines that we bottled during the second half of this year.  You can see several (Tannat, Petit Manseng, Mourvedre, Cotes de Tablas Blanc, and Panoplie) with the new Adelaida District AVA noted.  The Patelin de Tablas, which incorporates fruit from four of the sub-AVAs, retains the umbrella Paso Robles AVA.  The Full Circle Pinot Noir, sourced from my dad's property about 8 miles south-east of us, carries the Templeton Gap AVA (click the photo to expand it):

LG Group

The distinctions between these different labels will make it easier for us to tell their stories: whether they are estate or not.  Whether they are single-vineyard or not.  Whether they are from our home vineyard or not.  And the fact that they all say Paso Robles should keep the market from being confused as to the bigger picture.

If I had to look into my crystal ball, I'd guess that of the 11 AVAs, there will be 4 or 5 that will achieve some market recognition within the next few years.  There will be another 2 or 3 that will achieve it, but somewhat later.  And there will be a few that never achieve much recognition in the market, either because there doesn't develop a critical mass of wineries located within that AVA to champion their AVA, or because the wineries that are located there decide that they would prefer to remain associated with Paso Robles rather than their sub-region.  And that's OK.  How many AVAs can anyone but the most bookishly-inclined sommelier name?  Even among wine lovers, most would be hard-pressed to name more than 30 of the 231 approved AVAs (as of November 2015).  If Paso Robles can add a few more to the common lexicon, it's a win for all of us here, and for wine lovers everywhere.


Harvest 2015 update: just over 15% completed & yields are looking low

By: Lauren Phelps

In the cellar, things are in full-gear!

Sorting Tablas_Cube

According to veteran Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi harvest is already over 15% completed.  As of August 29th, we have worked with 65.82 tons of fruit.

Upright with Syrah_cube

The 1700 gallon French oak upright fermenters are all full fermenting Syrah for the 2015 Patelin de Tablas!

Harvest Sign First Estate_cube

Our first estate grapes were harvested on August 26th when we brought in about 3 tons of Viognier.  According to Viticulturist Levi Glenn, the estate Viognier yields appear down at least 50% due to the drought however, both acids and PH look great.

Mavis_cube

Levi's dog Mavis, vineyard dog extraordinaire, conducts a rigorous "lab test" of a bin of Viognier.

Although estate Viognier yields look low, Levi explains that "it's really more of a mixed bag.  Mourvedre and Roussanne both look a bit higher than normal".  In general, we're thrilled with the quality of fruit and a bit concerned since yields remind us of frost reduced years in 2001, 2009 and 2011.  We're waiting until we've harvested more from the estate to draw any firm conclusions.


The 11th annual Tablas Creek Vineyard pig roast dinner

By: Lauren Phelps
We hosted our 11th annual Pig Roast dinner on Saturday evening, August 15th and wanted to share some of the images and a bit of information about this event.  Over 120 guests joined us for a family-style meal on our terraced patio with wines paired from our cellar.  The meal was collaboratively prepared by our very own Winemaker, Neil Collins and local Chef, Jeffery Scott

Tablas_Creek_20150815_182833_2000It was a beautiful evening, and relatively mild for August in Paso Robles.  As the sun set behind the tasting room the breeze brought in cool marine air.

Tablas_Creek_20150815_193044_2000Our very own Darren Delmore and his brother who make up the duo, The Delmore Boys set the tone with their Americana guitar tunes.

Tablas_Creek_20150815_190304_2000Many Tablas Creek team members and their families attended the event including, Neil Collins, Chelsea Franchi, Jason Haas and Nicole Getty.

Tablas_Creek_20150815_190617_2000This year, Neil roasted the 350 pound estate-grown pig for over 12 hours using a modified iron-cross roaster with oak from our property. Chef, Jeffery Scott contributed incredible appetizers and sides using locally-sourced and organic ingredients.

TABLAS CREEK PIG ROAST

SATURDAY AUGUST 15th, 2015

CHEF JEFFERY C. SCOTT

 UPON ARRIVAL

CHILLED SUMMER MELON CUPS
GINGER CRÈME FRAICHE

  TABLAS ESTATE LAMB CRUSTADE
MOROCCAN SPICES, ROSEMARY HUMMUS

DINNER FAMILY STYLE

 HEIRLOOM TOMATO & WATERMELON
FRENCH FETA, SOFT HERBS, BALSAMIC CREMA

TOASTED PEARL COUSCOUS
PINE NUTS, SULTANAS, CURRANTS, FENNEL CONFIT

SHEEP’S MILK YOGURT TATZIKI

MASON JARS OF CAPONATA

HUSH HARBOR RUSTIC BREAD

________________

 EMBER ROASTED TABLAS CREEK ESTATE PIG

AMARETTO-APRICOT GLACÈ

 LOO LOO FARMS GARDEN PAELLA
PORCINI STOCK, LINGUICA, ROMESCO

 CUMIN GLAZED CARROTS & CHARRED SUMMER SQUASH
ROASTED GARLIC, LOCAL GOAT CHEESE, LEMON THYME

______________

BLUEBERRY-PEACH COBBLER

OLIVE OIL GELATO, CINNAMON BASIL

Tablas_Creek_20150815_184259_2000

We paired the meal with the 2014 Grenache Blanc, our 2014 Dianthus, the newly released 2013 Mourvedre and our flagship red wine, the 2011 Esprit de Tablas, that we brought up from the library.

Tablas_Creek_20150815_194257_20003

We'd like to thank all of the guests who joined us and invite you to view additional photos by Patrick Ibarra Photography on our Pig Roast Dinner Flickr Album

Also, we are thrilled to announce that the Cooking Channel's, Man Fire Food will be airing an episode on September 15th highlighting our pig roast dinners! We're really looking forward to watching it.

The date for the 2016 pig roast has not been set yet and we recommend periodically checking our Upcoming Events page for more details.  We give priority invitation to our wine club members and seating is very limited.


Did 2.6" of rain in July really just happen?

Yesterday, we hosted a seminar on dry-farming.  In the rain.  In Paso Robles.  In July.

Levi lecturing

And it wasn't just a little rain, either.  As we were talking about how we've been working to plant increasing acres of vines without any irrigation infrastructure, and how we've been weaning even our established vines off of needing regular water, we were in the process of accumulating more rain -- seven times more rain -- than Paso Robles had received in any July day in its history.  In fact, we received four times more rain yesterday than Paso Robles has ever received in an entire month of July before.

Of course, July is the driest month of the year in Paso Robles, averaging less than 0.2" of rain for the month.  But residents of other parts of the country may not realize just how unusual summer rain is in the Central Coast of California.  Maybe a graph will help (from the useful site climate-data.org):

Climate-graph-paso

The unusual storm was caused by the remnants of Hurricane Dolores, which instead of remaining offshore or moving inland toward Phoenix (both more common paths for Pacific ex-hurricanes) wandered slowly and more or less directly north up California's coast, bringing unusually hot, moisture-laden air to parts of the state where humidity is almost totally foreign.  This moist, unstable air spurred a series of thunderstorms (themselves rare in this area) whose path took them directly over Paso Robles.  The town recorded 3.55", the highest total in the county and more than a quarter of the average annual rainfall the city can expect to receive.  It's also more than the town averages in any month during the year; for those of you who like me need a translation from the metric, 3.55" is more or less 90mm... about 10% more than Paso Robles receives on average in January, its wettest month.  We saw a little less rain out here than they did in town, but at 2.6" we still received more than we did all but two months (December and February) this past winter.

Given how much rain we received, and how fast it came down, you might wonder how the vineyard fared. It came through with flying colors. We rarely see much erosion here, due to the porosity of the clay-limestone bedrock, and we didn't see any in the vineyard. The little we saw was confined to a few vineyard tracks, where the occasional tractor traffic compresses the soils enough that water runs down rather than soaking in. From this afternoon:

Minor erosion

We don't anticipate any serious negative consequences from the rain. After a last round of showers and thunderstorms that are forecast to blow through this evening, it's supposed to dry out. It looks like we'll have a few sunny, breezy, relatively cool, low humidity days, and then it will warm up to normal for the season (highs in the 90s and lows in the 50s, with virtually no humidity).  This should serve to dry out the surface layer of the soil, and prevent too many weed seeds from germinating.  Plus, both the low humidity and the warm days will serve to prevent mildew from becoming a problem.

On the positive side, this is a time of year when the vines are nearly all under some stress.  A dose of rain now helps alleviate this stress, and gives the vines the energy to make their final push toward ripeness.  And the amount of rain that we received was enough to get through the topsoil and replenish the moisture in at least the upper layers of the calcareous bedrock, which will provide a reservoir for the vines over the next couple of months.  You can see how rich and soft the soils look after the rain, and also how void of erosion channels they are even near the bottom of a steep hillside:

Brown dirt

If the rain had come a month later, with some grapes nearly ripe, we would worry that the water might dilute the flavors and even cause grapes to swell and split.  But now, with veraison barely started, that's not a risk.

It's worth remembering that most other wine regions, including the Rhone, see summer rain.  The same chart as above, for Chateauneuf-du-Pape, shows that while rain is a bit less common in the summer than in other seasons, it's hardly rare:

Avg rainfall CdP

So, we'll enjoy the unusual moisture in the air, and feel thankful that we got it now and not during harvest.  If this is a precursor to what is sounding likely to be a strong el nino winter, so much the better.  I'll leave you with one final photo, taken in the middle of yesterday's rain, and looking more like an impressionist painting than a summer Paso Robles landscape:

Mist and rain


Dry-Farming in California's Drought, Part 1: Understanding California's Only-Sorta-Mediterranean Climate

Over the last few months, it seems like everyone I meet, whether locally or around the country, is wondering how we're doing in what our governor has termed a "historic drought".  Many are surprised to hear that while we're watching it warily, we think we're in OK shape.  And even more are surprised to learn that a critical reason why we think we're OK is that we've been increasingly investing in dry farming over recent years.  It seems counter-intuitive that farming without irrigation makes you better able to survive periods with less rainfall, but it is, we think, an important part of the answer.  In this three-part series, I'll look at California's drought from our perspective.  This first part will look at the differences between the Mediterranean climate and our climate here in California, and what lessons we took from that.  The second part looks both at how our original approach to farming has set our vineyard up to succeed through the last four dry years and what we're changing to adjust to what will likely be a drier future.  Finally, the third part looks back historically at how grapevines -- which should be one of the easier crops to dry-farm -- came to be so widely irrigated in California. 

We are, of course, inspired by Chateauneuf-du-Pape, the home of our founding partners at Beaucastel.  In Chateauneuf, as in most top winemaking regions in France, irrigation is prohibited.  This prohibition is enforced to prevent dilution and overproduction, and to encourage deeper rooting which should help wines express their region's terroir.  We came into our project believing that dry-farming would give us our best chance to express our terroir, although we were unsure whether we would be able to right away.

Chateauneuf-du-Pape receives, on average, 723mm (28 inches) of rain per year. The distribution is relatively constant, except for somewhat drier summers and somewhat wetter falls. Still, it can rain any time during the year. The chart below (which I found, along with the data above, on the useful site climate-data.org) shows the distribution of rainfall by month, with January (01) on the left and December (12) on the right:

Climate-graph-cdp

Our area west of Paso Robles has received historically a similar amount of precipitation annually (about 28 inches) but it is much more heavily weighted toward winter, with May-October almost entirely dry:

Avg Rainfall by month at Tablas Creek

(Note that if you're looking at statistics for Paso Robles, you'll see that the town averages 14 inches of rain.  However, our weather station, here 12 miles west of town, has recorded over the last decade almost exactly double the rainfall measured in town, with very similar distribution.)

Otherwise, the climate is broadly similar, though somewhat more extreme here.  Average temperatures are a touch cooler here in summer and fall because of our cool nights, and a touch warmer in winter, because of our warm days.  Year-round we have a larger diurnal shift (the difference between the daytime high and the nighttime low) than does Chateauneuf, which produces more frosty winter nights and a greater chance of spring freezes, but also ensures that we maintain good acids during the growing season.  We receive a bit more sun.

Still, the primary difference between the two places, and the one that requires us to adjust most, is the distribution of the rainfall. We knew that we had chosen soils that were primarily calcareous clay, renowned for their water-holding capacity.  But still, it was clear to us that while we had enough rainfall on an annual basis to support dry-farmed grapevines, we would need to figure out how to get them through a five-month dry spell unlike anything they see in the Rhone Valley.  

What did we do?  Check out part 2.


Another way in which Paso Robles is cooler than you think

This week, fresh on the heels of the wonderful storms that blew through last weekend, headlines from around California have made a quick about-face to resume talking about what has been so far a warm, dry 2015 overall. The LA Times warned of powerful winds and record high temperatures for February. Our local San Luis Obispo Tribune said Record heat forecast in SLO County after weekend storm. Inside Bay Area reported Rains give way to heat wave.  Industry voice Wines & Vines reported that thanks to our continued warmth, California vineyards have been reporting early budbreak.

And yet, with reported temperatures in the 80s around California, our highs here the last few days have topped out in the low-60s.  The local temperature map from Weather Underground from this afternoon illustrates (click to enlarge):

Temperatures feb 2015

Notice the gradient: 80 in Santa Maria. 79 in San Luis Obispo. 77 in the foothills of the Santa Lucia Mountains just south of Monterey.  Heck, it's 73 in Cambria, just over the mountains from us.  But Paso Robles is just 64 degrees.  This pattern -- warm on the coasts and the inland areas open to the Pacific, but cooler in more inland climates like ours -- is normal in the winter, and often overlooked when people discuss the climate here.

This difference, already dramatic enough in the afternoon, is even more pronounced in the nights and early mornings.  We typically see 20-30 frost nights a year here in Paso, while San Luis Obispo sees only a few.  Here, you see apples, grapes, and other crops that benefit from full dormancy planted, while when you go over the mountains to the coast, you see citrus and avocado groves.  It's routine for me to get up into foggy, low-40's winter mornings and drive down to San Luis, where it's in the 60's and sunny.

Why does all this matter for us?  Because the beginning of the grape growing season is determined by the accumulated heat during the winter.  Last year, after a warm start to 2014, regions in more moderated climates (think Edna Valley, or the Santa Lucia Highlands) saw an exceptionally early start to their growing season. This led to a growing cycle that began in February, with veraison in June and harvests that began, in some cases, in July.  Yes, our early 2014 was warm compared to normal, but we didn't see anything like this.  From last year's post Veraison in June? Not so fast, in Paso Robles at least:

How close were we to a similarly early start?  I'd point to the nights of February 4th and 5th, both of which got down to 29 degrees here.  That doesn't sound like much, but it meant that even with the warm weather that followed, our budbreak didn't start until mid-March.  The more coastal regions didn't get a frost after December, and I remember driving through the Santa Maria Valley in the second half of February and marveling that their vines were already showing green.

If you needed more evidence, our winter cool is just another way in which Paso has cool climate aspects as well as warm.  It's warm, in summer (but cold in the winter). It's hot, during the day (but cold at night).  It's exactly this dichotomy that we loved when we settled here: this balance between the elements that bring sweet fruit and rich texture (the California sun, our warm days, and our long growing season) and those that maintain our savory notes and our freshness (the cold nights and winters, and our altitude).

Just when you think you have Paso Robles pigeonholed, it offers something new.  Plan your next trip for winter, if you don't believe me.