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:

Ava_map_paso_robles

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:

West_paso_topography

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":

WE_westside_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.


West Paso Robles Wind Flow, the Templeton Gap and the Adelaida Climate

As I've said before, it's great to have interesting friends.  I got a question from one of them (Kelly Bobbitt of Mike Bobbitt Associates, vineyard mappers here in San Luis Obispo County) asking about a model that he'd created to show the incursions of fog into the Paso Robles AVA.  He was looking at his model and wondering how fog (and an afternoon sea breeze) got out to where we are.  Why he was wondering is explained by the below map (again, thanks, Kelly; click on it for a full-size version):

West_paso_wind_031109

Elevations are noted by color; lowest-lying areas are pale blue, then white, then green, yellow, orange and brown.  White marks ridgetops over 3000 feet.  You can see that the Santa Lucia Range to our west is nearly at its highest point, and that Tablas Creek is protected on nearly every side.  The area around us, with its north- and west-draining watersheds, historically formed the community of Adelaida.  It was close enough to the coast to receive enough natural rainfall for grain and nut tree farming.  Areas farther east, which were drier, were used for ranching.  

I often get questions from people who assume that because we're west of town, we must have direct ocean influence, or it must be cooler.  Looking at the topography shows why this isn't necessarily true.  The unbroken ridgeline to our west shunts air flow southward, through the Templeton Gap, which isn't really a single gap at all, but instead a series of passes through which air flows cumulatively before ending in the Jack Creek, Paso Robles Creek and Santa Rita Creek valleys.  We do get some eddies of cooler air flowing up our way, but as you can see from the map, they are very far from their source and flowing uphill without an outlet.  Our waterway, Las Tablas Creek, opens to the west, and we see negligible air flow up the creek's valley.  All this is a long way of saying that we don't get a sea breeze very often. 

You can see the action of the air outflow in a post I wrote last summer showing time-lapse satellite images of fog in Paso Robles.  The fog, which pushes down from Monterey Bay and in from the Pacific, surrounds the Adelaida area but doesn't cover us.   The topography illustrated so well in the map in today's post explains why.  This sheltering effect of the ring of mountains discourages fog formation  in the mornings, which allows us to allows us to warm up more quickly.  The days stay warm longer than they do in the Templeton Gap, although the proximity to the ocean means that the nights are just as cold -- and often, due to the lack of fog cover, even colder.  The cumulative effect is enough to allow us to reliably ripen Southern Rhone varietals.  Wineries in the Templeton Gap, just a few miles south, struggle to ripen Mourvedre and Grenache and tend to be more focused on Syrah or even Pinot Noir.

The climate of the Adelaida area is remarkable.  It is relatively wet; we get on average 50% more rainfall than the weather station at Summerwood (in the Templeton Gap, at the eastern edge of the map in the same cluster of vineyards as Treana and JanKris) and double what the town of Paso Robles receives.  It is relatively high elevation, which makes it lower in humidity and increases the intensity of the sun.  It is relatively warm during the day, which facilitates ripening, but cold at night, which keeps acid levels strong late into the growing season.  And it happens to have one of California's nicest bands of calcareous soils underneath it.

We didn't know all of this when we bought the property, although we did know about the soils, and felt that the climate would overall be good.  It has been wonderful to find that our site has turned out to be even better than we had expected.


Fog in the Vineyard

It's not foggy out at Tablas Creek very often.  Our elevation (1500 feet) and the barrier of the Santa Lucia Mountains mean that neither the Salinas Valley fog that settles in areas close to town on summer mornings nor the Pacific fog that comes through the Templeton Gap in the afternoons when we have onshore flow tends to make it out to Tablas Creek.  [For a cool photo of what summer fog patterns look like in Paso Robles, check out this animated satellite image of fog retreating up the Salinas Valley.]

What we do occasionally get is ground fog in the winter, nearly always shortly after it has rained.  This morning, it was clear in town but when I arrived at the vineyard, the winery was shrouded in fog (though the blue sky was visible through the fog).  The effect was cool, so I grabbed the camera and drove up to the top of our highest hill expecting to come out the top of the fog, but it was actually thicker up there than down lower.  So I took a handful of shots of the vineyard, several of which I'm pleased with.  I've posted the best here; you can look at the complete Fog in the Vineyard album on Facebook.

The first three photos are all in our Grenache blocks up near the top of the tallest hill in the vineyard.  First, a photo looking up and west through our oldest section of Grenache.  The vines are starting to look mature as they approach 20 years old.

Vineyard_fog_0001

The second photo looks east through a slightly younger Grenache section on the back of what we call Mount Mourvedre.

Vineyard_fog_0002

The third photo shows how variable the fog cover was.  It was taken less than a minute after the previous photo, but looks north through the Grenache block rather than east.  It also show how much the cover crop has grown even in the last two weeks as we've gotten our first consistently rainy weather of the winter.

Vineyard_fog_0003

Speaking of cover crops, I got a nice shot of a sweet pea, one of the most useful of our cover crop components.

Vineyard_fog_0004

As is often the case, most of the best shots of the fog were taken into the sun.  This photo below looks south-east, down the old Grenache block.  To orient you, the first three photos were taken from more or less where the road exits the left-hand edge of the frame.

Vineyard_fog_0006

As I was standing at the top of the hill, the fog was rising up to meet me.  This photo looks east toward Halter Ranch, and you can see the fog approaching from the south.

Vineyard_fog_0005

The next photo looks north, down through our Viognier block, and shows how thin the veil of fog was, with the hillsides no more obscured than vines twenty yards down the hill.  It also shows the two long "kicker" canes that we leave when we prune early-sprouting varietals.  These kicker canes sprout first, and delay the sprouting of the buds closer to the cordon by a week or so.  It doesn't sound like much, but getting an extra week of frost protection can mean a lot.  (We later come through and prune off the kicker canes so they don't sap too much of the vine's vigor.)

Vineyard_fog_0008

Finally, with the fog fully rolled in, the Grenache blocks disappeared, giving a terrific ghostly feel.

Vineyard_fog_0007


Snow in the Vineyard

We're (finally, thankfully) in a cold, wet winter weather pattern.  Over the past four days we've received about 3.5 inches of rain, and it appears that we have Pacific storms dropping down out of Alaska every other day for the next ten days or so.  That's great.  We're up to 8.85 inches of rain for the year, and hope to pick up another 3 or 4 inches this week.

Still, I was not expecting, when I left town in the steady rain that we'd been receiving all night, to see snow out at the vineyard.  It does snow in Paso Robles every now and then (the link at the left is to a blog post from our last snowfall, almost exactly three years ago) and when it does it's always beautiful.  When I got out to the vineyard, it was still snowing hard, and we got an inch or two of accumulation.  The photos below are a few of the best; you're invited to view the whole "Tablas Creek snow" photo album on Facebook (you can look at the photos even if you're not a Facebook member).  First, the main road heading out into the vineyard, lined by snow-covered olive trees:

Main road out into the vineyard

A look down toward our grapevine nursery through our tiny Chardonnay block:

Chardonnay block with nursery in the background

I love the geometry of the vineyard, made more dramatic by the snow.  Below, a newly-pruned Roussanne block to the west of the winery:

Newly-pruned Roussanne block

We've been pruning for the past few weeks; below is a single, newly-pruned Roussanne vine, with a closeup below:

Roussanne vine

Roussanne vine closeup with snow

We collect the prunings off the vineyard for our grapevine nursery.  The pruned Roussanne canes are in the foreground of the photo below, covered with snow:

Roussanne block with pruned canes in foreground

It was cold enough (32 degrees exactly) that the snow was sticking wherever it landed.  Add to that the fact that the air was absolutely calm and the snow built up even on the unpruned canes like those in the Syrah block south of the winery:

Syrah canes

Finally, one shot of the snowy Beaucastel sign in front of our tasting room:

Beaucastel Sign


A little tropical rain in January

We're worried about the rainfall we've received this winter.  So far, we're under seven inches total, which is behind the pace we need to be at to get to our annual average of 28 inches.  And we had a very warm, dry stretch from late December through mid-January with daytime highs reaching the upper 70s and nighttime lows in the mid-20s.  That's spectacular weather to live in, particularly when the rest of the country is suffering through record freezing temperatures and bitter winter storms, but each winter week that goes by without rain is roughly 4% of the 6-month season when we're supposed to be receiving the rain which will support the vines during the summer and fall.  We know that April is looming just a few months away, and we're unlikely to receive any significant rainfall once we get there.

So, for all these reasons, we were happy to see a break in the weather pattern and a series of minor storms make their way through the Central Coast.  Even better, yesterday's storm tapped into a reservoir of tropical moisture, which tends to produce our most substantial rainfalls in the winter.  As evidence of the tropical character of this weather pattern, our low yesterday was just 53 degrees, fully 15 degrees warmer than our normal winter lows.  With all the clouds, the high was just 57 degrees, and the four degree range the lowest that I can remember in the seven years I've lived in Paso Robles.

The weather report for Paso Robles is below.  Note how at Tablas Creek we've received nearly twice as much rain as the next highest level (the Templeton Gap) and three times as much as the weather stations further east.

Weather_summary_jan23

This last storm was useful for the vineyard but not dramatic, with nearly an inch yesterday and another two-tenths of an inch on both the 22nd and the 24th.  In a normal winter, this would be perfect (no wind, no erosion damage, steady gentle rain) but in a dry winter we'd been hoping for more.  We have two more days in this wet weather pattern, with tomorrow (Sunday, January 25th) showing the best chance for significant rain.  Another inch or so looks likely.  We'll happily take it, knowing that another ridge of high pressure is likely to keep more rain away well into February.


Ten Years of Vintage Grades: Paso Robles Report Card 1999-2008

I was called recently by the Wine Spectator, who wanted my review of the 2008 vintage in Paso Robles for their annual report card for the recently-concluded vintage (you can read the resulting article on the Wine Spectator's Web site).  Distilling the complexities of a vintage down to a letter grade is challenging, probably even more so than reducing a wine to a score on the 100-point scale.  A wine is a snapshot, a finished product, and can be evaluated as such.  A vintage is a collection of events whose impacts vary even across a single vineyard, and vary more greatly as you expand the area under consideration.

When I struggled with the question, the writer helped me by saying that the Wine Spectator had rated the 2006 and 2007 vintages a "B+" and that most of my fellow vintners were rating this vintage a "B".  Really?  I understand everyone's desire to cast the most recent vintage in a positive light, but I don't see how anyone could assert that 2008 was only a fractional grade less positive than 2006 and 2007.

After mumbling something to the point that if the last two vintages were "B+" then this most recent vintage was at best a "B-" I tried to make a caveat.  I've felt (and I wrote here six weeks ago) that Rhone producers in the Paso Robles have the chance to make some of the standout wines of the vintage.  We didn't have the issues with shatter and over-rapid ripening that producers of Bordeaux varieties had, we didn't get impacted by the fires that affected much of Santa Barbara, Sonoma, and Mendocino counties, and we didn't get the late-September rain that drenched the North Coast.  Plus, the April frosts that impacted much of the state were more severe in regions to our north and south than they were here.

After I finished the call and had a chance to compose my thoughts a little, I wrote a follow-up note to the Wine Spectator writer who'd called me trying to clarify what I thought about the last few vintages.  My point boiled down to that there's no way that the last two vintages should have been rated as "B+" vintages.  If there ever were a vintage that deserved an "A" grade, it was 2007 (at least if you were grading for quality; quantities were low).  And both 2005 and 2006 should have received "A-" grades, in my opinion.  In this context, a "B" or "B-" grade for 2008 seems deserved for the region (though, for Tablas Creek and other Rhone producers near us, I think that it warrants an "A-" grade, a shade below 2007 and on par with 2005 and 2006).

I included in my note my grades of the last decade's worth of vintages here in Paso Robles, and wanted to share them with all of you.  I give a few brief notes of explanation following each grade, and I have linked the vintages to our harvest reports since we began keeping them if you would like our blow-by-blow experience as the vintage has unfolded:

2008 Vintage: B-  A difficult vintage bookended by frost in the spring and freeze in early October.  Yields were low, and Bordeaux varieties and Zinfandel suffered, and an August heat spike forced many producers to pick before they wanted to.  Beautiful weather in mid- to late-October saved the vintage for producers who could afford to wait.  Rhone varieties were most successful, and produced wines with good flavors and lower than normal alcohols.
2007 Vintage: A  A fabulous vintage defined by the cold, dry winter that preceded it.  Rainfall levels just 40% of normal stressed the grapes. The summer was moderate in temperature, producing a long, slow harvest with yields down 15%-30% from 2005 and 2006. The wines were intensely flavored, dark in color, with surprisingly gentle tannins for such a powerful vintage.  A potentially classic vintage for the Paso Robles region.
2006 Vintage: A-  Above-average winter rains and a cool spring got 2006 vineyards off to a wet and late start. A moderate summer followed, and the resulting harvest was delayed but unhurried, with beautiful weather persisting into November. Winemakers reported a higher then normal crop (perhaps a shade below 2005's levels) with notable elegance, pure flavors, medium body and comparatively lower alcohol levels.
2005 Vintage: A-  2005 was a nearly ideal growing season, begun with early flowering after a wet winter.  Yields were higher than normal and combined with moderate temperatures to encouraged gradual ripening.  Harvest began about 10 days later than normal, which meant that grapes had spent nearly a month longer on the vine between flowering and harvest.  The harvest resulted in the largest crush on record in the region, but the resulting wines were nevertheless intense and balanced.
2004 Vintage: B-  2004 was the third consecutive drought year, marked by a warm spring and very early flowering. A fairly mild summer morphed into a late-August heat wave, with much of the harvest completed by mid-September.  The problems came with the early (mid-October) onset of the rainy season, and many late-ripening varieties weren't harvestable. 2004's wines showed classic flavors and moderate concentration, and tended to drink well young.
2003 Vintage: B  A second drought year marked by the warm, dry winter and spring which brought bud break in early in March. An average summer, with hot days and cool nights still resulted in an earlier-than-normal harvest and wines with somewhat higher than normal alcohols.  Wines showed good richness and substantial tannins, but only moderate complexity.
2002 Vintage: A-  2002 growing season began with a warm, dry winter with the lowest rainfall in five years. Spring remained dry and cool, while June, July and August were very warm.  Moderate temperatures returned in September and weather stayed ideal well into November.  The resulting wines (like 2007) were intense and powerful, with high tannin levels but good complexity.  Red wines have aged beautifully.  Similar overall to 2007.
2001 Vintage: C  The 2001 growing season started with moderate vigor from average rainfall and cold temperatures.  A warm March led to early budbreak, which allowed a major frost event in mid-April to inflict major damage and dramatically reduce yields.  High winds during flowering compounded erratic yields.  A protracted heat wave in the early summer accelerated ripening and set the stage for an early harvest.  Yields were very low, and ripening uneven.  Wines were lighter in body and early-maturing.  Bordeaux varieties produced the best showing.
2000 Vintage: B+  2000 saw average rainfall, with warm springtime weather, early budbreak but no significant damage from frosts.  Summer daytime temperatures were about normal while cooler than average summer nights helped extend the growing season.  Harvest began two weeks later than normal, and wines had good intensity despite slightly higher than normal yields.  Wines showed good persistence and have aged well.  Similar overall to 2005.
1999 Vintage: B+  Slightly below average winter rainfall reduced yields and ripening was further accelerated by a warm, dry spring and summer.  Harvest began in mid-August, the earliest date on record at Tablas Creek.  The wines were intense and tannic when young, with slightly elevated alcohol levels.  The wines needed some time to come into balance, but many have aged magnificently.

Is this helpful?  Other winemakers, do these grades and descriptions seem right to you?


A frosty winter morning (and more good weather ahead!)

We're finally in a great winter weather pattern.  We've seen measurable rain each of the last four days (totaling about 2.5 inches) and a couple of very cold nights in the mid-20s.  It's a terrific time of year for this, as the cold weather forces the vines into dormancy early and the rainfall starts the critical process of replenishing the ground water depleted by the severe drought two winters ago.

What's better, we're forecast for more rain over the next week, with the long-term forecast using phrases like "a more significant storm Monday", "yet another storm system Christmas Eve" and "trough lingers near west coast".

A few photos give you a sense of what the morning was like.  It was still below freezing when I got out here shortly after 9a.m., and the frost was lingering anywhere the sun hadn't yet penetrated.  An end-post in the Syrah section below the winery shows the lingering frost:

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The next two shots look at our wetlands wastewater treatement area which we installed back in 2006.  The water plants are largely dormant at this time of year anyway, but the gravel-lined pools were cracking audibly in the sun as the ice covering them started to melt.

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And finally one more shot looking east into the Syrah block with the half-melted dew lighting up the newly sprouted vineyard cover crop:

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Challenges in assessing a vintage like 2008

I had a meeting with the Paso Robles Rhone Rangers yesterday, and while we were waiting for everyone to arrive we spent some time kicking around impressions of the recently concluded harvest.  The general consensus was that all we were missing from our list of calamities was a plague of locusts.  We'd had late spring frosts, major issues with shatter due to wind during flowering, weeks of smoky weather from Monterey County forest fires, a heat spike in August, a very unusual early October freeze, and rain at the end of the October.  Still, most of the producers there were encouraged about how the wines in their cellar were looking and tasting, and felt surprisingly positive about the vintage's prospects.

And, everyone was happy that we hadn't had to deal with some of the additional issues that producers in Napa and Sonoma had faced, most notably a big rainstorm in early October that just sent some clouds as far south as Paso Robles.

Some things were clear.  Yields were low (although not as much on Rhone varieties as on Bordeaux varieties or Zinfandel).  Reds were impacted by these low yields more than whites -- in fact, most of the producers there, like us, saw increased yields on whites.  Grapes came in very soft, but with relatively moderate sugars.  Wineries who were not estate and had to meet a substantial number of cases struggled to find adequate sources of fruit. 

It struck me that this is the sort of vintage where there will be a great temptation for writers looking to tell a simple story to dismiss the vintage as a bad one.  Cabernet, Merlot and Zinfandel all struggled throughout California with erratic yields, shatter, and uneven, early ripening.  Later-ripening varietals in the North Coast saw significant rain.  Any producer who had to source fruit to match or grow their annual production was forced to get fruit from places that they would normally have rejected out of hand.  These challenges were particularly severe for producers based in the North Coast.

Yet, for we Rhone producers in the Central Coast, the vintage has the potential to be a great one.  Yields on most Rhone varietals were lower (concentrating character) but largely avoided the problems with shatter that affected Bordeaux varietals and Zinfandel.  We dodged the early October rain that afflicted regions to our north.  The late, cold spring probably saved us from the August heat wave, as the grapes were still sufficiently unripe that there was time to moderate the sugar accumulation and acids stayed high.  The warm, sunny (perfect) weather for the last half of October allowed the vines time to recover from the cold snap earlier in the month and ripen without going flabby.  Finally, the relatively light yields meant that we were all done before it rained last weekend.  Some years, we have a significant amount of Mourvedre still out at the end of October.

I feel like one of those movie characters who after a gun fight looks around to see everything around him riddled with holes, but somehow emerges unscathed. 

And I hope that writers, when it comes time to assess the 2008 vintage, will take the time to look at the unscathed combatant rather than at the carnage all around.