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.

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):


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.


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


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.


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


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.


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.


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.)


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


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.


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.