Why Limestone Matters for Wine Grape Growing

Rocks in Hands Large
Winemaker and Vineyard Manager Neil Collins
with a handful of broken calcareous rock
It has long been recognized that great wine regions such as Champagne, Burgundy, Chablis, the Loire and southern Rhône valleys, and Saint-Emilion in Bordeaux are rich with limestone.  Or, more precisely, these soils are rich in plant-accessible calcium carbonate, the principal chemical component of limestone, typically from decayed limestone outcroppings.  (Limestone itself is too hard for plants' roots to penetrate.) 

Limestone is rare in California except in a crescent of land in the Central Coast between the Santa Cruz Mountains to the north and Lompoc to the south.  When we were searching for a site on which to plant our vineyard, finding calcium-rich soil similar to that of Château de Beaucastel was a primary criterion. That calcium-rich soils were only found in the Central Coast focused our search in this area.  The west side of Paso Robles and Templeton is the state's largest exposed limestone layer, and in 1989 we bought our property here.

For all the anecdotal evidence of the superior qualities of calcium-rich soils, the science behind how calcareous soil influences grapevine health and the wines that come from them is still being explored.  It turns out that there are four principal reasons why these soils improve wine quality.

Wet limestone
In winter, the calcareous clay absorbs moisture,
turning dark.  Note the roots that have pene-
trated between the layers of clay.
Water-retention capabilities
Calcium-based soils have water-retention properties that are ideal for growing grapevines.  Some water is essential for cation exchange -- the process by which plants take up nutrients through their roots.  But grapevines do poorly in waterlogged soils, which increase the likelihood of root disease. Calcium-rich clay soils have a chemical structure composed of sheets of molecules held together in layers by ionic attractions. This structure permits the soil to retain moisture in periods of dry weather but allows for good drainage during heavy rains.

Soils that are less able to retain moisture must be irrigated.  Drip irrigation creates a funnel-shaped wet area in the topsoil immediately under the dripper.  As cation exchange cannot occur in the absence of moisture, the only roots that are taking up nutrients are those within the dripper zones.  And as those zones are in topsoil rather than in deeper soils, it is clear why French regulations prohibit the use of irrigation in the top terroirs in France: wines from those vineyards would not be able to express their terroir.

At Tablas Creek, we have become more and more convinced that dry farming is perhaps the most important aspect to producing wines of place.  And our calcium-rich soils mean we can dry farm, even though it almost never rains between April and November.

Cation exchange and berry pH
Calcium-based soils tend to be more basic than soils derived from other nutrients.  The soil pH of the calcareous layers at Tablas Creek tends to be around 8, much higher than the typical topsoil pH of between 5.5 and 6.0.  Research has shown that cation exchange is greater at higher levels of base saturation, perhaps because most of the minerals that grapevines require are at their most accessible when soils are more basic.  

High-calcium soils are also correlated with easier nutrient uptake. The nutrients a grapevine needs to thrive (magnesium, potassium, calcium, and sodium) are taken up at certain specific sites on the root hairs through the process of cation exchange. Negatively charged compounds in plant roots attract positively charged cations.  Calcium helps soil particles aggregate through a process called flocculation, which helps make available more cation exchange sites to a plant's roots. 

In low-pH soils, Hydrogen ions start to displace the ions of the four principal nutrients.  Only above a pH of 6.0 are all four nutrients readily available. So, calcium carbonate acts as a buffer (it has been used for centuries as an antacid) and counteracts the acid created in the breakdown of organic matter in topsoil.  The end result is a a pH level at which nutrient availability is at its highest.

Finally, there is increasing evidence that soils rich in calcium help maintain acidity in grapes late in the growing season.  A researcher at the University of Bordeaux linked the healthy cation exchange processes in soils rich in calcium -- and with enough water -- to higher grape acidity and lower wine pH.  And we have good anecdotal evidence of this property.  At the symposium on Roussanne that we conducted two summers ago, producers from eastern Paso Robles, where calcium-rich soils are much rarer and rainfall consistently less, consistently reported harvesting Roussanne roughly half a pH point higher than those of us on the calcareous (and wetter) west side.

Rock cut
The limestone-rich layers of the mountain behind
the winery shine bright white in mid-summer
Root system and vine development
Unlike cereals and other annual crops that have shallow root systems, grape vines have deep root systems.  This means that the composition of the deeper soil layers is more important for vine health and wine character than that of the topsoil.  It also means that amending the soil (by, for example, liming to add calcium) is less effective than is natural replenishment of essential nutrients from deeper layers. 

Grapevine roots are remarkable.  They can penetrate dozens of feet into soil in their search for water and nutrients, and they continue to grow throughout the vines' lives.  This means that the physical properties of the soil are important: a hardpan layer through which roots cannot penetrate can have a serious negative impact on a vine's output.  Calcium's tendency toward flocculation (soil particle aggregation) creates spaces into which roots can penetrate and in which water can be stored.  This quality is particularly important with clay, and clays high in calcium tend to offer better soil structure and less mechanical resistance to roots than those without.  In addition, in long periods of dry weather, the clays dry out and crack, allowing roots to penetrate deeper into the soil where more residual moisture can be found. And even in our vineyard (relatively young in vineyard terms) we've found roots ten feet deep and deeper in experimental excavations.

In addition, soils where calcium is scarce -- like those where water is unavailable -- tend to show excessive exploratory root growth, and may have large, inefficient root systems that support small, relatively weak growth above ground.  And this makes sense: vines have a certain amount of energy to apportion between root growth, canopy growth and berry ripening.  If they are forced to invest more energy in searching for calcium there is less available for other tasks.

Disease resistance
Finally, there is evidence that calcium is essential for the formation of disease-resistant berries.  Calcium is found in berries in its greatest concentration in the skins, and essential for the creation of strong cell walls and maintaining skin cohesion.  However, if calcium is scarce, plants prioritize intracellular calcium over berry skin calcium and berries are more susceptible to enzyme attack and fungal diseases.

We've thought since the beginning that limestone was a key to making great wines.  It's great to learn the science that underpins our belief.

Anyone who is interested in the more detailed science behind this article should read the two-part piece by Valerie Saxton in Wine Business Monthly, from which I drew heavily for this article.  You can find Part I and Part II online.

An exchange with Representative Kevin McCarthy on HR 5034 and direct shipping

On April 15th, H.R. 5034 was introduced into the US House of Representatives.  This bill, written by the Beer Wholesalers of America and titled the "Comprehensive Alcohol Regulatory Effectiveness Act of 2010" [Get it? The "CARE Act"] would write into law the primacy of the 21st Amendment, which repealed prohibition, over the Commerce Clause of the US Constitution, which gives the federal government exclusive power to regulate interstate commerce.  The net impact would be to allow states to write laws which allow their own in-state wineries (and breweries) to ship direct to consumers but prohibit out-of-state wineries (and breweries) from doing the same.  Read the full text here.

Of course, local wineries, and the in-state jobs that they represent, have been one rallying point for the advocates of direct shipping.  And direct shipping has been largely victorious in the nearly five years since Supreme Court ruled in Granholm v. Heald that states were not allowed to discriminate in favor of in-state interests in their alcohol regulations.  At that time, we could ship to 13 states.  Later this month, we will add Maine as our 31st legal shipping state.  The end result of the deregulation has been more choices for and lower prices to consumers, and more tax revenue to states, who have nearly all written shipping laws that require out-of-state wineries to remit state and local taxes on the wines they ship into the state.

Of course, one tier has been left out of the celebration: the wholesale tier, who in the era before direct sales collected a state-mandated markup on every bottle of beer, wine and liquor sold in every state.  These wholesalers are licensed by each state, and are often the single largest contributors to state political campaigns.  And although direct shipping of beer and wine is a tiny proportion of all sales and largely covers products that are not available through distribution, wholesalers have mobilized in force against direct shipping.  It's really amazing that so many direct shipping laws have been written in the last five years given the money and political muscle that have been lined up against each one.

With state ploys for legal discrimination being eliminated one by one in the courts (the most recent, a Massachusetts capacity cap under which all in-state wineries fell, was reaffirmed as unconstitutional by the First Circuit Court of Appeals in January) wholesalers have evidently turned to the federal government for help.  Hence H.R. 5034.

Although the bill has yet to be brought to the floor of the House for a vote, I did not want to be complacent about its prospects.  So, I wrote our local congressman, Representative Kevin McCarthy of California's 22nd District, to urge him to oppose the bill.  I assumed, given that his territory includes both Paso Robles and Bakersfield (wine producing regions) that he would be opposed to the bill.  His response suggested to me that he had not yet considered the bill's impacts on his district, and that he was taking the legislation's sponsors at their word when they said that this was an issue of states' rights.

I thought it would be interesting to post our exchange.  I have a few concluding thoughts (as well as how to contact your own representative) below the emails.  First, from last Thursday:

Dear Representative McCarthy,

We met a few years ago at an event organized by the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance about immigration issues.  This is much more pressing to us, and to every small wine producer in the Paso Robles region.  I hope you will oppose HR 5034, a bill sponsored by beer wholesalers that would overturn winery-to-consumer shipping around the United States.

The legislation is couched as addressing public safety and states' rights, but is better described as an effort by wholesalers to protect their monopoly and choke off a potential source of competition.  If it passes, it will eliminate consumer access to thousands of small wineries and tens of thousands of wines, nearly all of them with such small productions as to be irrelevant to distributors.

HR 5034 has been condemned by winery associations including the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance.  It would choke off the lifeblood of most small wineries in our area and around the country.

Please let me know how you intend to vote on this important issue.

Jason Haas

I received a response this morning:

Dear Jason:

Thank you for contacting me in opposition to H.R. 5034. 

According to the bill's sponsors, H.R. 5034 is intended to reiterate the three-tier system of alcohol regulation in the U.S., and to ensure that states retain their traditional regulatory authority over alcohol distribution, which are areas that I support. However, I appreciate your concerns that the legislation could negatively impact wineries, especially small ones, in California. Given these concerns, I will closely monitor this legislation before making a final decision on this bill should it come to the House floor for a vote.

Thanks again for contacting me on issues of importance to you. If you would like additional information on services my office can provide you, my votes and positions on issues facing our nation, and to subscribe to receive periodic "e-newsletters," please visit my website at http://kevinmccarthy.house.gov/.


Kevin McCarthy
Member of Congress

I responded to him just a few minutes ago:

Dear Representative McCarthy,

Thank you for your response to my earlier note regarding HR 5034.  In your response, you write:

"According to the bill's sponsors, H.R. 5034 is intended to reiterate the three-tier system of alcohol regulation in the U.S., and to ensure that states retain their traditional regulatory authority over alcohol distribution, which are areas that I support."

Please, in your deliberations, recognize that nothing currently prevents states from regulating alcohol in any way they choose.  Some states force all wine to go through the three-tier system and prohibit wine shipments entirely.  Others only allow it only for wineries of a certain size.  Others allow shipment into some areas and not others.  Others allow wineries and retailers to ship.  The only prohibition is that states not discriminate in favor of in-state wineries.  The major beneficiaries of the free trade that has resulted from the Supreme Court prohibition of discrimination have been the small wineries of California, over 200 of which are in your district.

While the sponsors of the bill would have you believe that this issue is one of states' rights, it is instead an issue of legislated monopolies (the liquor distributors) trying to eliminate their competition (your small wineries).  If you support free trade, you should oppose this bill. 

The passage of HR 5034 would likely result in dozens of local wineries having to close, the elimination of hundreds of good local jobs, and blunt the most powerful engine of the vibrant Paso Robles economy.

I hope that you will oppose this dangerous bill.

All the best,

I find it hard to believe that a California representative, and a member of the Congressional Wine Caucus, would take a bill like this at face value.  If a representative who has a territory with such a vested interest in expanded access to direct shipping can be so willing to accept the justifications of the wholesalers' lobby, what can the prospects be in the rest of the country?

If we expect the members of Congress to see this bill for what it is -- an anticompetitive money grab by big businesses with legislated monopoly power -- we need to make our voices heard.  Please speak up!  As usual, the Web site Free the Grapes is a great resource.  Or, you can also go straight to a page where you can customize and have notes sent to your senators and representatives.  And please continue to spread the word.  There is a Facebook group dedicated to stopping HR 5034, and a quick blog search on HR 5034 turns up nearly 4000 articles, led, appropriately, by Tom Wark's full-throated repudiation of the wholesalers' claims.

The TTB gets it right on Calistoga

On Tuesday, December 8th, the Federal Register published the TTB's approval of a Calistoga AVA that has been held up since 2007 due to a name conflict with two existing wineries.  This approval is a win for wine lovers, for wineries who make wines of place, and for the supporters of truth in labeling.  It also is a promising step forward for the TTB's consideration of the eleven Paso Robles sub-appellations which were submitted two and a half years ago. 

The proposed Calistoga AVA was initially submitted in 2005.  After the end of what appears to have been a routine review of the (significant) evidence in favor of the creation of this AVA, the TTB received letters from two small wineries (Calistoga Cellars and Calistoga Estate) from within the proposed AVA.  These wineries, who did not source their grapes from within the proposed AVA, argued that their businesses would suffer significant harm from its approval.  An AVA name, once it is accepted, can only be used as a brand on wines that satisfy the TTB's requirements for grape sourcing: 85% or more of the grapes in any wine with that brand must come from the AVA in question.  The wineries argued that they should be protected from the AVA's impacts either by being grandfathered in as exceptions to the AVA rules, or by being allowed to put a disclaimer on their labels.  Their precedent was that since 1986 the TTB has had a grandfather policy which exempts brands established before 1986 from having to follow the grape-sourcing provisions on the TTB's books.

In November of 2007, the TTB essentially agreed to the two wineries' requests, and published Notice No. 77, which proposed acceptance of the new AVA.  It published at the same time Notice No. 78, which included a new grandfather clause that would allow the two wineries (and other wineries, in other, future AVA's, who had previously been using the proposed AVA's name as a part of their brands) to continue their brands without conforming to the TTB's own grape sourcing rules.  At this point, the once-uncontroversial proposal exploded onto the public consciousness of the wine community.  The TTB received 1350 comments to its proposed new rule.  I wrote a blog post at that time called "A well-meaning step in the wrong direction" where I argued that the TTB's new policy would perpetuate a system "even more riddled with exceptions, exemptions and disclaimers".  I believe that all the hue and cry took the TTB by surprise, and it suspended its consideration of the Calistoga AVA (and any other AVA that included potential name conflicts) while it re-evaluated its policy.  They have now published a revised approval of the Calistoga petition which incorporates the elements that we (and many, many other California wineries and winery associations) hoped for.

In the TTB's strongly-worded ruling, after summarizing the scientific and name evidence for the Calistoga AVA (which was never in much dispute) they address the roadblock head-on.  Note that § 4.39(i) refers to the TTB's original grandfather clause covering wine brands established before 1986:

The present rulemaking raised the question of what to do about viticultural area petitions that are received long after the issuance in 1986 of § 4.39(i) on the use of geographical brand names of viticultural significance where the petition proposes a name that results in a conflict with a brand name first used on an approved COLA not covered by the grandfather provision in § 4.39(i). Such a circumstance may occur for legitimate reasons because exact terms of viticultural significance are not always universally agreed upon, and relevant facts and issues regarding terms and areas of viticultural significance are not always brought forward until a petition is published for rulemaking.

What the TTB was forced to do in this decision was to decide between the relative merits of preserving two businesses' accumulated brand rights and recognizing an area of viticultural significance in which dozens of wineries currently produce wines.  First, they address the validity of the proposed AVA:

the evidence submitted supports the establishment of the ‘‘Calistoga’’ viticultural area, with the boundaries as the petition describes and as set forth in the proposed regulatory text.

Next, they take up the more controversial issue of what to do to mitigate the impacts of the new AVA on the two Calistoga wineries who objected and best serve the legitimate interests of the wine community.  It was obvious that the TTB took enormous care evaluating the mountain of comments that they received, most on the proposed new grandfather exemption.  Although the numerical majority of the comments were in favor of the objections by the two Calistoga wineries, nearly all of these were in the form of form emails or post cards that were summarized and dismissed as the marketing actions of a business interest rather than the thought-out contributions of a motivated public.  Similarly, the offerings on behalf of their constituents of the handful of US senators and representatives in support of the two wineries, which echoed the phrasing of the form emails, were also recognized but not apparently given overmuch weight.  Instead, the bulk of the summary of the comments is dedicated to the nearly universal opposition to the new grandfather clause from wineries and winery associations from within and outside Calistoga, of which three were by Robert Haas, by the Paso Robles AVA Committee, and by the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance.  Most of these comments pointed out to the TTB that if their goal is to protect consumers from misleading or confusing labeling, and to protect the integrity of the AVA system, the best option was to require that wineries using the Calistoga name before the establishment of a Calistoga AVA be given a limited period of time to come into compliance.  A disclaimer was dismissed as a viable option.  In the TTB's words:

We believe in this matter that a label with the proposed disclaimer may not provide a consumer with adequate information as to the identity of the product but rather may result in the consumer being misled as to the true origin of the grapes used to produce the wine.

Given the lack of other options (such as a viable alternate name for the AVA) the TTB asserts its right, as many petitioners had been urging it to do, to decide based on the weight of merits of the arguments:

when it cannot be otherwise avoided the government may make a choice between competing commercial interests by requiring existing labels’ compliance with regulations establishing a new AVA.

And sets aside the earlier proposal for a new grandfather provision, at least in the case of Calistoga, as overly problematic.

the use of a grandfather provision would result in the application of multiple standards for the use of one name on wine labels, leading to potential consumer confusion and thus potentially frustrating the consumer protection purpose of the FAA Act labeling provisions. In the present case, we conclude that it is preferable as a matter of consumer protection for ‘‘Calistoga’’ to have only one meaning and association for viticultural area purposes.

The phrase "in the present case" in the above quote is an important one.  The approval of Calistoga, while a promising step forward, does not mean that Notice No. 78 has been invalidated.  But we are hopeful both in light of the agency's obvious care in addressing the concerns of the wine industry and by the logic that they used in declining to establish a grandfather exemption in the case of Calistoga.  While this does not mean that a ruling on the pending Paso Robles petitions is near, it gives us hope that the process is moving forward, and that the TTB's thinking about the advisability of prioritizing brand names over AVA's has evolved since Notice No. 78 was published. 

Will we see a similar conclusion in future TTB decisions?  Stay tuned.

October 13-14 Pacific Storm Recap and Assessment

So, we're picking up the pieces at Tablas Creek after a storm that dropped an amazing 9.6 inches of rain on us in a little more than 24 hours.  To try to contextualize how unusual this storm was for us:

  • This is more than half the rainfall we received all of last winter.
  • We've never received more than 6 inches in a day since our weather station was installed a decade ago, and we're pretty sure that this is the most rainfall in a day since we bought the property in 1989.
  • On our 120-acre property, we received roughly 4,181,760 cubic feet of rainwater.  That's more than 31 million gallons of water... enough to fill more than 52 olympic swimming pools.
  • For a stretch of about 12 hours on Tuesday afternoon and evening, we were receiving about 3/4 inch of rainfall each hour.
  • Winds were strong, consistently in the 25-35mph range, with the top gust topping out at 39mph.

Fortunately, the storm was very well forecast.  Working through the previous weekend, we were able to bring in about 80% of what was still out, including most of our Mourvedre, Roussanne, Grenache and Counoise.  We were comparatively fortunate that the hot spell in September got most of the vineyard near ripeness.  If we'd had the leisure to do so, we might have left some things out for another week or ten days to get a little added concentration, but most of the vineyard was essentially ripe.

Of course, not everything came in.  The blocks of Mourvedre, Grenache and Roussanne that just weren't ripe enough for us to want to use we left out.  There isn't any point in bringing grapes in that you wouldn't want to make wine out of; better to take the chance of leaving the grapes out and hoping that they come through the rain OK, we get some warm sunny weather, and they reconcentrate.  As I mentioned in my post last weekend, this happened for us in 2004.   There are between 10 and 15 tons of grapes (the equivalent of roughly 1000 cases of wine) still out on the vines.

It's still a little early to tell whether we'll be able to use these grapes that we left out.  Neil and Ryan's assessment of the storm damage is that we came through remarkably unscathed; there is some erosion damage, but not as much as we'd feared.  The ground was apparently so porous and so thirsty that most of the water, amazingly, was absorbed.  The morning after the storm, Tablas Creek wasn't particularly full -- an indicator that the ground absorbed most of the rainfall.  With the weather forecast showing warmer, sunny, breezy conditions, it seems likely that we'll be able to wait for at least the Mourvedre and Grenache to reconcentrate.

Our yields are going to be low this year.  We've brought in about 195 tons of grapes, down 22% from the already-low yields of 2008.  Even if we do get another 10 tons out of the vineyard, we're still looking at making nearly 3000 fewer cases than the 15,000 that we made in 2008.  That will leave us some difficult choices.

One positive that we're looking forward to: the main culprit of these last three low-yielding years is the ongoing drought.  We don't have enough water to do much irrigation, and we'd prefer not to anyway.  But it's clear that the vineyard can subsist on a water deficit for only so long.  If this storm is the harbinger of a wet winter (as October storms have tended to be in the past) it will be a major boon for us.  We'd feel better about sacrificing 1000 cases of production this year if we can look forward to regaining the 6000 cases of production we're down below our peaks from 2005 and 2006.

A truly scary weather forecast

We've been fortunate with our weather during harvest for the last four years.  Each year starting with 2005, whatever the conditions during the spring and summer, we've had beautiful autumns, without serious heat spikes and without any significant rain.  That's one of the major reasons that in my post ten years of Paso Robles vintage grades that I wrote last year, the last four years all received "A-" or "A" grades.

I'm not sure that we're going to have that kind of luck this year.  We suffered through an extended heat spike in late September that threatened vineyards with dehydration and over-rapid ripening.  Warmer than normal nights have meant that grapes are ripe with lower acids than we've seen in years.  And now, as if on cue, we have a forecast for the most significant October rain in two decades.  The complete extended forecast, from the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance's usually conservative meteorologist:


Those comments about "some mountain areas" typically mean the foothills of the Santa Lucia Mountains, where Tablas Creek is located.  So, we're looking at possibly six inches of rain across three days next week.  Not good.

We're fortunate, in Paso Robles, that we don't often get rain before November.  That's typically two weeks later than Napa and a month later than Sonoma and Mendocino.  The longer growing season is a luxury in that it allows us to wait as long as is necessary to get our later-ripening varietals (read: Mourvedre, Counoise and Roussanne) fully ripe.  And, in fact, the North Coast has already had a small rain event in mid-September that dropped half an inch of rain up north but just brought clouds to Tablas Creek.  And this rainstorm is predicted to be at least as heavy up north.  But six inches is a lot of rain, and no vineyard with grapes nearly ripe can expect to come through it unscathed.  Between dilution, swelling and splitting of berries, rot and mildew, there are a lot of possible negative consequences.

So, what are we doing?  Picking as fast as we can between now and Monday.  We hardly ever pick on Sundays, as it's hard on our crew and cellar staff, but we are tomorrow.  We should be able to complete most of our Grenache and Roussanne harvest, and get a good chunk of Counoise in.  We're most worried about the larger, thinner-skinned grapes like Grenache and Counoise, who tend to absorb more water when they're ripe and are more prone to swelling and splitting. 

We'll also be picking the Mourvedre that is ripe (or nearly so) because there is no guarantee that, even with Mourvedre, whose thick skins allow it to more easily shrug off late rainfall, we'll be able to use what's left out there after the storm comes through. 

On the positive side, our hot September meant that grapes like Mourvedre that aren't usually ripe in mid-October are more or less ready to come in.  In a perfect world, we'd leave some vineyard blocks out for another week or ten days in the cool, sunny weather we've been having, but the little last bit of added concentration we'd get isn't worth the risks.

Of course, there are blocks, particularly ones that were impacted most heavily by the spring frosts, that just aren't ready.  There's nothing to be gained by bringing in this fruit, as we wouldn't want to use it as it stands now.  The only thing to do is to leave it out, hope that the storm is less severe than predicted, and that the extended forecast (which is calling for warmer, dry weather for the end of October) is true.

The last time we faced a similar decision was in 2004.  We had Mourvedre still out that wasn't ready, and a storm predicted for mid-October.  We harvested what we could, left out the two-thirds of our Mourvedre that wasn't ripe, and hunkered down for two inches of rain.  The skies cleared after, and after two weeks of cool, sunny and breezy weather, we picked about 60% of what was left.  Another storm came through at the end of the month, and though we still had fruit out, the weather never dried out again, and what was still out wasn't usable.

Still, our patience in leaving out the Mourvedre through the first storm was rewarded: we had some terrific fruit that we wouldn't have had if we'd picked everything before the rain.

At the very least, this will get our winter rainfall off to a good start.  And, if we're looking for silver linings, everyone can be happy about that.

Robert Haas is 2009 California Mid-State Fair Wine Industry Person of the Year

Robert_Haas_Vineyard On Thursday night, my father was awarded 2009 Wine Industry Person of the Year by the California Mid-State Fair.  It was a really nice presentation, with my dad's introduction given by Steve Lohr of J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines.  He was previously committed to a dinner in Vermont, so I accepted the award in his place.  There was good symmetry, as the son of last year's recipient (Jerry Lohr) presented the award to the son of this year's recipient.

In his generous introduction, Steve Lohr spoke about my dad's career, which has spanned more than 50 years in the wine business as a retailer, an importer, a wholesaler, and now, with Tablas Creek, as a vintner.  He has had tremendous impact on how Americans buy, drink, and think about wine, and has had an even greater impact on Paso Robles and the rest of the Central Coast.  I wrote about his varied career (which I still think is under-appreciated) on the occasion of his eightieth birthday a few years ago, so I won't repeat that here, but I do want to reflect a little on his impact on the local community.

  • At the time when he and the Perrins together decided to buy property in Paso Robles, it was on no one's list of up-and-coming California wine regions.  Monterey, Santa Barbara, the Sierra Foothills, Mendocino, even Lodi were thought of as more compelling regions to explore.  Now, Paso is the third-largest (after Napa and Sonoma) and fastest-growing wine region in California, and has more wineries than all of Santa Barbara County.  I don't think it's possible to overstate the importance for the Paso Robles area of the decision that my dad and the Perrins made to choose Paso Robles for their project after looking all over California.
  • In 1989, no Paso Robles winery was producing any Rhone variety, and the total footprint of Rhone varieties in the AVA was just a couple of acres of Syrah.  Now, nearly 90% of Paso Robles wineries produce at least one wine from Rhone varieties, and the Paso Robles AVA is the largest home in California to nearly every major Rhone variety (including Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Roussanne, and Grenache Blanc).
  • The decision to import new cuttings of Rhone varieties, and to then make these cuttings available for sale to other producers, changed the face of the Rhone Rangers movement in California.  There were only six Rhone grape varieties in California (Mourvedre, Grenache, Syrah, Cinsaut, Viognier and Marsanne) and Mourvedre, Grenache and Cinsaut had mediocre reputations due to the inferior clones that were here.  The decision that he and the Perrins made to accept a five-year delay in their planting to bring vines in through a USDA-mandated quarantine and then, even more importantly, to make these clones available to other interested vineyards, gave the Rhone Ranger movement a critical boost at a time when its membership included only a few early pioneers.  We believed that getting these clones in more widespread circulation would help us (in classic "rising tide lifts all the boats" manner).  The fact that this prediction has turned out to be true should not obscure how extraordinary and generous this decision was.
  • When we decided in 1989 that we would follow the lead of the Beaucastel estate and farm our vineyard organically, there were only a handful of vineyards being farmed organically in California (Paul Dolan's experiments with organic viticulture at Fetzer had just begun in 1986).  None of these organic vineyards were in Paso Robles, and the consensus of the major American viticultural universities was that farming grapes organically was pointless and difficult.  Yet we were convinced that organic viticulture was an essential element of our effort to express the place in which our grapes were grown.  The movement toward organic (and even biodynamic)viticulture is now widespread among the best vineyards of California.
  • Similarly, we decided that we would ferment with native yeasts, use a minimum of new oak and age our red wines in 1200-gallon foudres.  Using native yeasts was unusual (enology professors tended to call it "Russian roulette"), new oak was in fashion, and foudres were unheard of in California.  We had to import ours on container ships from France.  Now, all three practices have gained dramatically in popularity, as California winemakers have come around to the Old World goal of elevating the expression of terroir to paramount importance.

In addition to these far-seeing decisions that he helped make at the beginning of the Tablas Creek project, he has made a point of working to unify and promote the Paso Robles wine growing region.  At the time when the PRVGA (Paso Robles Vintners & Growers Association) was weak in the early years of this decade, he resisted calls to split off and form an association of westside-only wineries, and instead made sure that Tablas Creek participated (and continues to participate) fully in the region's local and national promotional efforts.  When a Paso Robles Westside AVA petition was introduced, he recognized it as a mistake and began rallying opposition to put together a more comprehensive proposal of AVA's for the Paso Robles region.  He serves on the board of the Paso Robles AVA committee, and has consistently been willing to donate his own time and resources in the push to have our viticultural designations be meaningful and scientifically-based.

In addition, he has been very active in the local community, involving Tablas Creek as major sponsors of the arts, including Festival Mozaic, the Paderewski Festival, and the Foundation for the Performing Arts Center.  He serves on the board of this last organization, and patrons of the PAC will enjoy some major changes this year (including wines from some of the region's best wineries at the performances) as a part of the $50,000 in new support he coordinated from the Paso Robles wine community.

There is something fitting about the fact that my dad was not there to receive his award.  By the time we learned of the award, he had already committed to a dinner at Hemingway's Restaurant in Killington, Vermont, and so asked me to accept the award in his stead.  It seems appropriate that, at age 82, my dad would have a work commitment that would keep him from receiving a lifetime achievement award.  His acceptance speech, which I delivered for him, is below:

I am honored and pleased to accept this award voted by fellow members of the Paso Robles wine community. Thank you.

And what a great and growing wine community this is! I feel privileged to live and work in this mixed agricultural setting with its rural atmosphere with its fine California weather, earthquakes and all.

I am often asked if our venture at Tablas Creek in partnership with our good friends, the Perrin family of Château de Beaucastel, is the realization of a dream. Actually, it was more of an itch than a dream. For many years while selecting and marketing other peoples’ wine I had been tempted by the idea of owning vineyard and making wine.

However, it took until 1985 and our and the Perrins’ confidence in California, its climates and soils, and the inspiration of Roederer’s vineyard and winery investment in Mendocino, for me to scratch that itch and say to myself. “We can do that.”

We then started to look for a California property that would be suitable for growing Rhône variety grapes. After spending several years stalking the state looking for high pH soils with a Mediterranean climate we ended up in 1990 with 120 acres of pasture in Adelaida and a long term lease for another 30 acres from our neighbor Alan Ramage. Needless to say to those of you who know the area, we did end up with calcareous clay soils with a vengeance. We had to rip before we could plant.

We then brought in cuttings from France, went through the USDA indexing program, started a nursery to multiply and graft, and began to get some grafted vines in the ground in 1996. We now have about 100 acres planted with another 15 to go.

Of course, the Paso Robles wine community grew along with us. When we got here there were some 17 wineries producing. Now, there are over 200. Thanks to a spirit of community cooperation and endeavor, great soils and climate and excellent work by the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance, Paso Robles has become one of the prime AVAs of California.

What a great place to be! Thank you again.

Paso Robles Wine Festival 2009

Last weekend was the annual Paso Robles Wine Festival.  We joined 92 other Paso Robles wineries to pour in the park on Saturday morning to pour wine for the roughly 4200 attendees.  Of course, it was hot.  You can just about set your calendar in Paso Robles to the fact that the first hot weekend of the year will coincide with Wine Fest, and this year didn't disappoint.  It was a little cooler than last year (around 100 instead of 106) and the heat broke on Sunday afternoon, which proved to be a very welcome and unexpected early respite.  Still, it didn't seem to dampen anyone's spirits.  The Tablas crew (cru?) at the park included eight of us so we would have time to go out and taste ourselves, as well as to get into detailed conversations with anyone who was interested without neglecting other guests:


The Wine Festival as a whole had a very nice vibe to it, and we were busy the whole time.  We poured about 2000 tastes of wine over the four hours, which amounted to nearly seven cases of wine... the same amount we poured in 2008.  Even better, I heard mostly good things about the temperatures at which other wineries were pouring their wines (which was not the case last year).  We were swapping wines in and out of the ice all day, even the reds, which is essential.  The thought of tasting warm red wines on a hot day... ugh.  There were a few instances of the cool kid syndrome where wineries brought much less wine than they would need and poured out in a few hours, but overall, I think that anyone who attended got to taste all the wines they would have wanted to if they took even a little care.

I hope the Paso Robles Wine Alliance was happy with the results; they've done a tremendous job of turning what used to be a giant party into a fairly focused tasting where attendees are overall quite responsible and interested even at the end.

On Sunday, we again used the excuse of having thousands of wine lovers in town to launch the new vintage of our Rosé (in this case the delicious 2008).  We reprised our salmon tasting, and chef Jeffrey Scott did another amazing job of putting together an amazing spread of dishes to pair with Rosé, including cured salmon, fresh cheeses, two salads (heirloom beets and burrata in one, fennel in the other), and strawberries with balsamic vinegar and basil.  The chef at work:


We have for the last several years planned our event for the Sunday morning of Wine Festival weekend, in the hopes of convincing people to begin their day out west of town and work their way back toward civilization.  As we're typically much busier in the afternoon than the morning, this helps ensure that our traffic is steady all day, and it has become an annual event for many of the members of our VINsider Wine Club (for whom the event is free).

I saw a phenomenon this year that I wasn't expecting, and would love some feedback.  While we did sell wine in the morning, we sold only about 40% of our daily sales to 60% of our traffic in the first two hours of the day (which coincided with the salmon event).  And I spoke to several VINsiders who said that they'd come out for the salmon but weren't even going to go and taste, as it was too early in the day for them.  Later that weekend, I read an article in the New York Times magazine where Suze Orman is quoted saying (I'm paraphrazing here) that she never gives things away for free because people just don't value what they don't pay for.  This was truly a phenomenal event, with amazing food and wine, and available to anyone for the price of a tasting fee (which also got the purchaser a full wine tasting and a tasting glass).  Are we doing something wrong if some people come out and partake but don't buy (or even taste)?  Maybe this is overkill?  I'm not sure, but we'll reevaluate before next year.

I'll leave you with two more photos that give you a feel for the family side of the event, and of Tablas Creek.  First, a quiet moment near the end of Saturday's tasting in the park, where Neil is relaxing next to my older son Eli, who just turned four and was taking everything in with very wide eyes:


And finally, one family shot on Sunday, where both kids (Eli and his little brother Sebastian, age 20 months) came out and mingled with the guests at Tablas Creek, many of whom have known them since they were born:


I have the complete photo album, with more photos both from the park and from the salmon and Rose tasting, posted on Tablas Creek's Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=81506&id=27438997414&l=d9b54a4ad8

The importance of hang time

This past weekend was Hospice du Rhone.  It's always one of my favorite events of the year, where hundreds of people (maybe pushing 1000, all told) who are enthusiastic supporters of Rhone varietals get together for a weekend of seriously lighthearted consideration of all things Rhone.  You get comments at these tastings that you don't anywhere else (like "oh, I've been so looking forward to tasting all the grenache blancs") and a very informed level of questions.

One question I got at Saturday's tasting I thought deserved a fuller treatment here.  It came after I'd tasted the questioner through all our red single-varietals wines from 2006 (Counoise, Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre) and was explaining why we thought that Mourvedre was the best of the bunch, at least for us.  The assertion, in a room where 90% of the tables focus on Syrah, is one that invites a challenge, and the questioner asked me why we thought so much of Mourvedre.

The answer (like so much else in wine) hinges on the appropriateness of the grape variety for its site.  Syrah is clearly a great grape, dark and lush, with terrific minerality and excellent structure.  But while it reaches monumental heights in the northern Rhone, it's a relatively minor player in the southern Rhone.  In non-Rhone examples, a grape like Sauvignon Blanc, which makes some of the world's greatest white wines in the Loire Valley, is used as a blending grape in Bordeaux, and Pinot Noir, which makes some of the world's great wines in Burgundy, makes largely boring wines in the Languedoc.

Why is this?  Grapes can clearly ripen in a climate warmer than might be ideal for them.  And, in a warmer climate, you can harvest more reliably, as you're less likely to run into end-of-harvest hazards like rain or frost.  What you don't get is hang-time.  Hang-time measures the length of time between flowering and harvest.  The cooler the temperatures, the more slowly grapes ripen.  At Tablas Creek, because of the exceptionally cold nights in Paso Robles, we tend to get long hang-times, between 4 and 6 months depending on the season and the varietal.  This is usually about 2 weeks longer than the same varieties have at Beaucastel.

In the family of Rhone varieties, at Tablas Creek, the harvest usually sequences itself something like this:

Early September: Viognier
Mid-September: Syrah, Marsanne
Late September: Grenache Blanc
Early October: Grenache
Mid-October: Roussanne, Picpoul, Counoise
Late-October: Mourvedre

Of course, the above list is an approximation.  The spread of earliest to latest harvest of any given varietal can span close to a month (or more in the case of Roussanne, which as I've written about before seems particularly prone to uneven ripening).  Still, it gives you an idea of how long the hang time is on each varietal.  [It's worth noting that there is some spread in flowering time, with Grenache and Grenache Blanc joining Syrah and Viognier as early flowerers.  Still, the roughly three week spread of earliest to latest flowering is a lot less than the two month spread of harvest.]

It is intuitive that the longer a grape cluster can spend on the vine without going out of balance, all other things being equal, the more interesting it should be.  Each day that the cluster is in contact with the roots, the vine's roots can transmit a little more character of place to the clusters.  Each day that the vine is in the sun, the skins should get a little thicker and the color a little more intense.  This would help explain why the most interesting examples of a given varietal should be made in the coolest climate in which the grape will ripen.  It also helps explain why, in regions where multiple varieties are planted, the ones that come in latest tend to be the most renowned.

Of course, there are risks involved with late-ripening varieties.  There have been a few years (most recently in 2004) that some of our Mourvedre didn't come in, as it didn't get ripe before the onset of the rainy season.  And in Chateauneuf du Pape, it has long been considered too risky to plant more than a token acreage to Mourvedre.  One of Jacques Perrin's innovations at Beauacstel was to devote a significant percentage of his acreage to Mourvedre at a time when nearly the entire appellation was planted to Grenache. Beaucastel takes the risk of having to toss out a higher percentage of their crop than their neighbors in a year when Mourvedre doesn't come in.  But, in the years it does get ripe, they can make wines that no one else in their appellation can match.  It's a gamble that has paid off well for them.

In Paso Robles, it's not so risky to choose late-ripening varieties as it is in France, as the climate is more reliable later in the fall.  And, overall, due to its cool nights, most varieties hang for a long time before they come in.

So, long answer to the question: I credit the exceptionally long hang-time of our latest-ripening red (Mourvedre) and white (Roussanne) varietals for giving them the character that they have, and with why we choose them to make up the core of our flagship wines.

The real differences between eastside and westside Paso Robles

I've gotten a series of questions recently, mostly from people inside the trade, asking me some variation of the question "so, you're pretty far west in Paso Robles, right?  That must mean you're cooler than a lot of those big eastside wineries."

Interestingly, it just isn't true that, in Paso Robles, east is hotter and west is cooler.  Sure, the farthest eastern stretches of the Paso Robles AVA are usually hot, and stay hot later in the day than we do out west.  But north and south make at least as much difference as east and west for temperature.  To get your bearings, take a look at the map below (created with the help of the excellent interactive Paso Robles AVA map tool on the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance site); click on the image for a larger, clearer one:


While we are close to the coast, the cool sea air is largely blocked from affecting us by the Santa Lucia mountains.  Just a few miles south, in the Templeton Gap, cool air flows more freely through the gaps in the mountains and cools the vineyards there dramatically in the afternoon.  I wrote in more detail about how this happens about a month ago in the post west Paso Robles wind flow, the Templeton Gap and the Adelaida climate.

The other effect of the dual flows of cold, often moist air (up the Salinas Valley and through the Templeton Gap) is to bring morning fog into the lower-lying areas, including most of the vineyards in the Salinas and Estrella River valleys.  As this fog takes some time to burn off in the morning, summer days are often fifteen or twenty degrees warmer when I make it out to Tablas Creek to begin my work day than when I left my house in town.  These dual effects (afternoon sea breeze and morning fog) in effect create four different climatic zones in Paso Robles.  Areas in the Templeton Gap, which receive the earliest afternoon cooling and relatively late morning fog, are the coolest parts of the AVA.  Areas that are relatively high in elevation north of the Templeton Gap but west of town (like the Adelaida area in which Tablas Creek sits) have a moderate climate, warming early in the day but cooling earlier in the evening.  The average daily temperature in this zone is similar overall to areas close to town who warm later in the day but stay warm later into the evening.  Finally, there are the areas relatively far east of town which don't get any significant fog but also don't get much cooling from the valley airflow.  These areas are measurably hotter than the rest of the AVA.

Although the climate of the Adelaida area is not that different from that in town, there are three major characteristics that distinguish it.  The first is soils, which in our part of Paso Robles are very high in calcium with little topsoil cover, forcing vines to work into the chalky bedrock for sustenance.  The calcareous soils in west Paso Robles and west Templeton are among the largest in the state of California, and some of the only ones in areas warm enough to ripen late-ripening grape varieties like Mourvedre, Grenache and Cabernet.  There are smaller calcareous deposits east of town, but in nothing like the same concentration. 

The second distinction is rainfall.  The closer to the coast that you go, and the higher up the coastal range you go, the more rainfall you receive.  So, out at Tablas Creek (1500 feet elevation) we average nearly double the rainfall of the town of Paso Robles (700 feet elevation) and triple that of areas east of town.  This means that producers west of town who wish to do so can farm without irrigation many years, creating grapevine root structures that delve deep into the bedrock in search of moisture.  By contrast, irrigated vineyards reward the roots that stay at the surface, largely in the topsoil, nearer their primary source of water.  We feel that the deeper root systems that are encouraged in our largely-unirrigated vineyard produce grapes that show more character of place.

Finally, the third distinction between east and west Paso Robles is topography.  The land rises sharply once you leave the Salinas valley to the west, rising into wooded foothills cut by pocket canyons.  East of town, gently rolling hills and broad plains extend nearly to the eastern edge of the Paso Robles AVA.  The area east of town is unquestionably easier to farm, and most of the large plantings in the AVA have occurred there.  These large plantings include parcels planted and managed by the larger wineries in the area (including J. Lohr, Meridian, EOS, and Robert Hall) but very many are planted by independent grapegrowers who market their grapes, by the ton, through a variety of long-term and year-by-year contracts.  There is good reason for producers interested in producing at higher yields, whether to produce value wines or to maximize their tonnage per acre as a cash crop, to choose the east side of town.  The steep hills of the Adelaida and Templeton Gap regions make mechanizing farming difficult and mechanizing harvesting impossible.  The relative lack of groundwater on the west side makes irrigation a dicey proposition, while a plentiful aquifer under much of east Paso Robles assures a regular water supply.  These two factors preclude us, and most other producers on the west side, from producing more than 3 or 4 tons of grapes per acre most years.

To get a sense of the differences in topography, compare the following two photos.  The first is a shot taken at Tablas Creek, looking east at one of the larger (perhaps the largest of the) plantings on the west side, at Halter Ranch.  You can see the relatively steep hillsides and the valleys within that can be planted to grapevines:


Compare that to the below shot of the rolling plains and extensive plantings of the Estrella River basin, included paradoxically by the Wine Enthusiast a few years ago in an article touting the potential of westside Paso Robles called "The West Side Story":


I think that much of the difference between the wines of east and west Paso Robles (that most people within and outside the industry ascribe to climate) can be better thought of as an example of topographic determinism.  By that I mean that the producers who wanted to make higher-production wines to sell less expensively chose eastside Paso Robles because it just isn't practical to farm inexpensively west of town.  And by doing so, they convinced many people that this was all their area was capable of.  The producers who started west of town were forced to sell their wines more expensively because it was more expensive to develop and farm their land, and their land produced fewer tons per acre.

I'm not dismissing the impacts of soils and rainfall; we believed that both were important enough for what we wanted to do to choose the site that we did, far west of town in an area that at the time didn't have a vineyard within three miles.  But I think that the terrific high-end wines being produced by eastside wineries, from eastside vineyards (but just starting to get noticed) will start to change people's opinions of the entire AVA.  And this is why the plan for 11 additional AVA's within Paso Robles, still as of this writing being considered by the TTB nearly two years after it was filed, should in the long run help the producers east of town at least as much as those of us to its west.

I think that the rise of wineries making and marketing premium wines east of town is a great thing; the investments that these wineries will make (and have been making) to produce their premium wines in areas formerly thought suitable only for "value" wine production should result in a dramatic improvement in the reputation of the Paso Robles "brand".

And, perhaps even more importantly, a more sophisticated understanding of what the real differences are between Paso Robles east and west, north and south, hills and plains, and wet and dry, will help all of us match up the varieties we grow with the farming practices we implement and the land we farm.

A Last Dose of Winter

I just got back from spending the weekend in San Francisco, host to the Rhone Rangers Grand Tasting and its two days of seminars, trade and consumer tastings, and fifteen-winery winemaker dinner.  The events were great... well attended despite the economy, with a great vibe to them all.  Those of you who are fans of Rhone varietals in California (and, if you aren't, why are you reading this blog?) should sign up for the free Rhone Rangers Sidekick program, which gets you information about and discounts on Rhone Rangers events.

While I was gone, a cold winter storm accelerated through Paso Robles, bringing about a half-inch of rain to the vineyard and a cold, blustery day today to all of California.  Snow levels in the Santa Lucia Mountains dropped to 2500 feet or so during the storm, and I had a pretty drive back from San Francisco this afternoon with snowcapped peaks to my right and the lush green of spring growth in the pasturelands and foothills below.

Closer to home, we're expecting a hard freeze tonight.  The weather feels distinctly different than it has the last couple of weeks, when we saw warm days in the upper 70s and relatively balmy nights.  In those two weeks, we've traded the kids' sweatshirts for sunscreen and broad-brimmed hats (anyone with a good idea of how to keep a hat on an uncooperative 18-month-old, please share).  I've had my first t-shirt work day of the year.  And the fruit and nut trees in Paso Robles have burst into flower.  On my drive down to Los Angeles last week, I passed an orchard on CA-46 somewhere in the Central Valley where the blossoms were so thick on the ground that it looked like a very localized snowstorm had passed over that plot.

More relevantly, the grapevines in our back yard (in the town of Paso Robles) sprouted last week.  Our backyard Thompson's Seedless are usually about 3 weeks ahead of the vineyard's earliest vines, but it's a clear indication that the clock is ticking.  Another indication is that the pruning cuts on the vines in pots outside our tasting room are dripping sap.  That usually precedes budbreak by about a week.

Looking at the long-term forecast, it looks like this cold front was an isolated event, rather than a resumption of a more winterish weather pattern.  High pressure is supposed to rebuild over the course of this week, with temperatures forecast to push into the 80s by next weekend.  No more rain is in sight.  After tomorrow night, the lows aren't supposed to threaten frost, at least for a couple of weeks.

All this is a long way of saying that what we've seen the past few days feels like the last little gasp of winter, with spring definitively on its way.  And that means that we're likely to see bud break before our next bout of cold weather.

Assessing this winter, it will end up being our third year of drought.  We had a wet February, but not wet enough to make up for a very dry January.  March has been mostly dry.  And we haven't had the big storms that we typically receive in the winter.  We've had lots of days of quarter-inch to half-inch rainfall, but no days with more than two inches.  Our total rainfall for the rainy season is about 14.5 inches, which is just over half of normal.

The broad distribution of the rainfall has meant that the rain has all been able to be absorbed into the topsoil and very little has run off.  The vineyard cover crop is gorgeous and lush, but Tablas Creek is still dry, and hasn't run at all this winter.  We know that we'll see pressures on our well, as everyone in the area is already starting to think about irrigating. 

There's still a decent likelihood that we'll get another dose or two of rain before the end of April, but I'm not holding my breath.  And if we do, it will likely be accompanied by the serious frost threat that typically follows the passage of a cold front, making it a mixed blessing.

So, we make the transition from wishing it will be cold and wet to wishing it will be warm and dry.  Keep your fingers crossed for us.