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.


Community Roundup: Major Awards for Qupe and L'Aventure, Imminent Rain, Snow in the Rhone, and New Direct Shipping Opportunites

Last year, I debuted a weekly feature on the blog called Weekly Roundup, focusing on interesting news from our communities (Rhone and Paso Robles), fun articles that we'd found on the world of wine, and pieces from other social media channels that we thought would interest a wider audience.

Unfortunately, the series never got a lot of traction.  I didn't hear much feedback about it, we didn't get many comments (1, in all the articles) and it didn't get shared or clicked on all that much when we posted it.  And it was a fair amount of work to do each week, some of which frankly didn't have all that much that was exciting going on in our community.  So, I've decided to rechristen this as a roughly monthly endeavor, and make its focus more explicitly on our community.  So, please welcome the Community Roundup: an occasional foray into what else is going on in our world.  These are things that we think are sufficiently noteworthy and of interest to our audience to be worth sharing, but maybe less than a full post each.

And please continue to share your own feedback on this series in the comments section.  Is it something that you've enjoyed and would like to continue to see?  Are there areas that you'd like to see more of?  Thanks in advance!

Two Awards for Two Iconic Figures
This week, we've been pleased to hear that two industry veterans for whom we have enormous respect are receiving major awards. 

Stephan Asseo CroppedThe first is Stephan Asseo, whose desire to combine the strengths of Bordeaux and the Rhone introduced a new kind of fusion into Paso Robles.  Stephan began making wine in 1982, and for the next 15 years developed a formidable reputation in Bordeaux.  Looking to escape the restrictions of France's appellation controlee system, he came to Paso Robles, where he founded  L'Aventure Winery in 1998.  His work in the seventeen years since has played a major role in establishing Paso Robles as the home for some of the most innovative garagiste winemakers in California, and brought to prominence the "Paso Blend", combining grapes from different Old World traditions into something uniquely Paso.  We are excited to learn that Stephan will be presented with the 2015 Wine Industry Person of the Year award from the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance.  Photo (right) is from the L'Aventure Facebook page.

Bob Lindquist CroppedThe second award recipient is Bob Lindquist, whose pioneering work at Qupe Winery was one of our inspirations, showing since 1982 that great Rhone varieties could be made in California's Central Coast.  Bob, throughout his time at Qupe, has been a tireless advocate for the wines of the Rhone, and a generous, patient, and humble figure in the movement.  He doesn't ever call attention to himself, which is one of the joys of his receiving only the third-ever Lifetime Achievement Award from the Rhone Rangers: that he'll get some richly deserved time in the limelight. My dad received this award last year, and the ceremony was great. If you missed it, I wrote a blog after that includes the amazing tribute video presented at his ceremony. If you're interested in joining for the celebration, you can; Bob's award will be presented at the Rhone Rangers San Francisco Winemaker Dinner. Photo (right) is from the Qupe Web site.

Snow in the Rhone
The Famille Perrin Instagram account is chock-full of great images, but one really stuck out this past week.  Snow isn't exactly a rarity in the Rhone Valley; they get a dusting at some point most years, but heavy snow is.  The photo that they shared of Gigondas under a heavy white blanket was stunning:

Snow in Gigondas

Rain in Paso Robles
At the same time, we're eagerly anticipating the arrival of our first real storm of 2015 tonight.  It looks like it will produce at least a few inches of rain for areas out near us, and I've read a report suggesting that the hills out here might see as many as six inches by Monday.  It's much needed; as my blog post from earlier in the week pointed out, we got less than 5% of normal rainfall in January.  A good head start on February (average rainfall: about 5 inches) would be great.

This rain (and the frost which is scheduled to follow) is particularly important because January was so warm that some California regions are reporting exceptionally early bud break. This isn't something we're worried about in the short term (I wrote about why last summer) but we're still at the point where some cold weather can shift the beginning of our growing season a few weeks later, reducing our risk of frost damage significantly.

New Direct Shipping Opportunities
FreethegrapesEarlier in January, I wrote a long piece on the state of wine shipping in the United States.  It wasn't really germane to the article -- which dealt more with the levels of expense and regulation within the three-dozen shipping states -- but it seems like there's been a little flurry of opportunity in opening some of the roughly dozen states that still prohibit all wine shipping.  Not only is Massachusetts set to open any day now, but the South Dakota legislature is debating a viable shipping bill, as is Indiana, and I've been hearing rumors that Pennsylvania is likely to move on wine shipping before the end of the year.  As always, the best place to go is Free the Grapes, where you can learn what's being debated and use their built-in templates to write state legislatures.

Drink for Thought: Wine State or Beer State?

Wp-winecountrybeercountry

I'm a sucker for maps.  There were several interesting ones, including the one above, in the Washington Post's article Do you live in beer country or wine country? These maps will tell you. The take-home message for me was that where there are wineries, there are likely breweries too.  Of course, there are hotspots where one or the other dominates, but fewer than you might think.  This is why I've found the reported worry in some corners of the wine community over the rise of craft beer silly.  In general, the people who love good wine love good beer, and increasingly, vice versa.  And more importantly, the people who love interesting wine look for interesting beer.  Nowhere more so than winery cellars.  The old adage that "it takes lots of good beer to make good wine" is absolutely true, in my experience.  Cheers!


Rainfall whiplash: a less optimistic drought assessment after a record-dry January

In mid-December, we seemed set for a great rainfall winter.  A series of storms had dropped 7.75 inches over three weeks, with measurable rainfall fifteen different days of twenty-two and no more than two consecutive rain-free days.  We were ahead of our annual averages, and the winter felt promising: air laden with moisture, hillsides getting greener by the day, and spectacular sunsets due to the frequent clouds.

Fast-forward to early February, and things look less promising.  January was one of the driest on record throughout California, with no measurable precipitation in San Francisco and not much more on the Central Coast.  At Tablas Creek, we got only 0.23 inches for the month, less than 5% of what we would expect in what's normally the wettest month of the year.  Here's how the year has looked so far:

Rainfall chart winter 2014-2015

(Rainfall averages are 1942-2014 as listed on the Paso Robles City Web site, and extrapolated to our wetter microclimate here west of town. My multiplier was 1.77, the ratio between the 25" of rain that long-time residents out in our Adelaida area report as average and the 14.11" average shown on the Paso city site.)

Even though December's rain didn't include the massive storms that often provide the bulk of coastal California's precipitation, we ended the month at 111% of normal winter-to-date precipitation.  One month later, we're at 69% of normal precipitation and things don't look so good.  We have only to look at the winter of 2012-2013 for an example of a seemingly great beginning to the rainy season that petered out dramatically after January 1st:

Rainfall Chart Winter 2012-2013 - Updated

A more hopeful example is last year. The winter of 2013-2014 saw nearly all our rainfall come late in the season, with January totally dry:

Rainfall Chart Winter 2013-2014

And there is potential relief in sight, with an "atmospheric river" of moisture set to hit Northern California this coming weekend.  Whether it will make it this far south is still an open question, but at least it will hopefully bring a pattern change. As nice as it is to sit outside in the sun while our friends and relatives in the northeast are battered by snowstorms, each day without rain is significant: we have roughly 26 weeks to get our 25 inches of rain.  Each rainless week is nearly 4% of our potential lost, and a rainless January puts us in a 21% hole for the winter.

The vineyard certainly doesn't look at first, or even second, glance like it's suffering from drought.  The cover crop is deep, green and lush, to the point that we're having to deploy our animal herd to crisis points where we need to knock back the greenery.  I took a photo last week of our new puppy nearly lost underneath the growth, and it's only grown deeper since:

Sadie in the Cover Crop

The ground underneath is still wet enough that walking through the vineyard leaves you with soggy shoes.  But despite this veneer of green, the drought is no less real.  There is no water in Tablas Creek, nor in most of the other local watersheds.  The reservoirs have barely budged from their historically low levels of last summer.  And ground water remains diminished, though it's less of an issue at a time of year when few wells are in much demand.  The NOAA has kept much of California, and all of San Luis Obispo County, under its "Exceptional Drought" category, barely budging from the beginning of the rainy season:

20150127_CA_trd

 

The next few weeks will be critical if we hope to climb out of this rainfall deficit we're in. A wet February would build on the base we got in December and if not provide macro-level drought relief, would set the stage for a more or less normal growing season.  A dry February means we're almost certainly into year four of this historic drought.


Weekly Roundup for December 15th: 8000 Years of Wine Storage, Months of Great Press for Paso, and a Week of Rain

This last week, it seems we've been dominated by stories about our rain.  Whether it's in its pre-precipitation anticipation or its post-fall analysis, it's clear that California is excited about the unusual moisture falling from the sky and curious to know whether it makes a big-picture difference in our multi-year drought.  But that's not all we've been seeing.  Paso Robles got another mention in what has been an amazing year for our area, we got a nice mention ourselves from the Los Angeles Times, and we learned about how wine has been transported and stored through the millennia.  Plus, I discovered a blog I'll be following regularly going forward.

OK, About that Rain

  • We wrote about our rain twice, once looking forward to it and once mid-storms.
  • The Los Angeles Times pointed out that the storms aren't just having an impact on the vineyards directly; they're also building the Sierra snowpack, which provides so much of California's summer water source.
  • Looking back, our local KCBX Public Radio interviewed me for a piece on how the drought impacted the 2014 vintage (it wasn't all, or even mostly, negative). My conclusion was "the quality of this vintage, as is often true with low yielding vintages, looks spectacular -- but now it can rain". And it has! Listen »

In Between the Raindrops
LAventure Clouds

  • Winter isn't just about rain clouds and green grass; the interludes between the storms provide mixed skies appealing in a different way than the deep unbroken blues of summer. I loved this shot from the L'Aventure Winery Facebook page, of their iconic sign hanging under a cornflower blue sky dotted with sheep-like clouds.

Some Nice Press for Paso

  • This year has seen Paso Robles recognized in the Washington Post, in Forbes, in the San Francisco Chronicle, in Conde Nast Traveler, and in Passport Magazine. This week, Travel & Leaisure got into the act, putting Paso Robles at #16 in its list of America's Best Towns for the Holidays. Most visitors come to Paso between April and October, and bask in its warm days and clear golden light. The winter is different, softer and greener, slower-paced, and it's nice to see a piece focusing on our winter charms.
  • Paso Robles was also the feature of a great blog posted by Chef and Sommelier Shauna Burke.  Her piece, called Stopping in the Middle: A Weekend in Paso Robles Wine Country, touched on several of my favorite places to go and things to do. Like the rest of her blog, it also was beautifully written and illustrated. I was intrigued that her previous blog piece was about Vermont (where I grew up) and equally impressed with what she picked to feature in that piece. With that inducement, I ended up reading a year's worth of entries, chock full of terrific recipes, thoughtful recommendations and her terrific photography. Check it out »

And for Tablas Creek

  • It was really nice for me to see the 2012 Cotes de Tablas picked by S. Irene Virbila as the Los Angeles Times' Wine of the Week, for two reasons.  The first is that as the "middle child" (between, in price, the Esprit de Tablas line and our Patelin de Tablas) the Cotes wines, which I think have never been better, seem to struggle to get their fair share of attention.  And second, I thought her review was particularly perceptive and really nailed the wine's character: "cherries, plums and wild herbs, with a licorice kick".

Food for Thought (Drink for Thought?)

  • This last piece isn't new (it was published in March) but it was new to us, and we all found it fascinating.  It's a long-format article on the Web site Vinepair called The 8,000 Year Effort To Transport Wine Around The World, going back to when ancient Georgians invented the kvevri, a massive earthenware vessel used to ferment, age and store wine made from locally growing wild grapes.  Smaller, more portable amphorae came next, then wood barrels, and finally bottles in recent centuries.  And even once they were invented, wine wasn't initially put into bottles at the estate; it was transported in barrels and bottled nearer its eventual destination.  In any case, we found the article fascinating, and hope you will too.  Read more »

Weekly Roundup for November 30th, 2014: Giving Thanks, Giving Back, and Getting Wet (Hopefully)

This Thanksgiving week, some of the things that most intrigued us in the world of wine do had to do with thanks (and giving) but also, as we look forward to a week of potentially signficant rain, at our drought and at a growing movement toward dry-farmed vineyards.  Finally, for our thought piece, I wanted to share a lyrical view of our beautiful Central Coast.  The highlights:

Giving Thanks

Giving Back

On Drought and Dry-Farming

  • At the beginning of November, I went up to San Francisco for an event co-sponsored by the Commonwealth Club and the Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF).  It began with a panel discussion on the feasibility and benefits of dry-farming wine grapes and concluded with a walk-around tasting of dry-farmed wines (you can listen to the panel discussion here). With our current drought, I'm seeing renewed interest in the potential of dry-farming grapevines.  This has to be a good thing, on both quality and sustainability fronts (I've written about our own reasons for dry-farming) and it was great to see the Los Angeles Times write a good piece on this small but growing movement.
  • Also this week, we got some good news from the NOAA, which has updated their forecast for this winter and is now saying "above average rainfall is now predicted". Read more »
  • Finally, on the rain front, we're looking forward to what is forecast to be a very wet week.  It is being awaited with great anticipation by the entire Paso Robles wine community.

Vineyard Ass-ets

Cline donkeys

  • We were excited to learn this week that we're not the only winery with two donkeys on staff! On the Cline Cellars Facebook page we met Fancy (left) and Pudding (right).  If you don't follow fellow California Rhone pioneer Cline (home region: Carneros) on social media, you should; their posts are consistently among the cleverest in the world of wine. And, they have donkeys.

Food for Thought (Beverage for Thought?)

  • We'll conclude this week with a paean to the Central Coast, written by UK Native, Napa resident and Master of Wine student Clare Tooley.  In her piece "Saints, Rogues and Kerouac" she writes of Paso Robles: "Paso is colourful and rogue-ish. Wild still, definitely not tamed. In vogue right now but definitely carving its own path."  The whole piece is worth reading: beautifully written and, I thought, right on.  Read more »