Frost Damage and Recovery

We're two weeks removed from the frosts of April 7-9, which look like they'll play a major role in defining the 2011 vintage.  With temperatures down to 24 degrees on consecutive nights, we sustained near 100% damage in the Grenache, Grenache Blanc, Viognier and Marsanne (the four earliest-sprouting grape varieties).  It was so cold that even the tops of the hills froze, which hasn't happened in the twenty years we've been here.  The cold temperatures in the upper and middle atmosphere meant that our fans were largely ineffective; we were moving out cold air but replacing it with air that was only slightly warmer and still below freezing.

We were far from alone; vineyards up at 2000 feet elevation saw similar levels of damage, as did those on the plateau east of town.  It was only the vineyards with ample water supplies who frost protected with overhead sprinklers that (mostly) escaped.

The impact of the frost on the Paso Robles area was driven home to me by a trip I took last week down to Santa Barbara.  Coming back through the Santa Ynez and Santa Maria valleys, we drove through vineyard after vineyard with six or more inches of growth.  Returning to Paso Robles felt like moving from spring back to winter, as the Zinfandel vines that line US-101 in Paso Robles looked still fully dormant.

And there are still vineyard blocks at Tablas that are only just sprouted, like the Mourvedre block (left) and the Roussanne block (right):

Frost_0003Frost_0002 The one vineyard block that had sprouted that didn't see extensive damage was the Chardonnay block that we protect with sprinklers.  Here we saw limited damage (where the sprinklers became clogged or didn't reach) but most of the vineyard was protected:

Frost_0001

The four most affected varieties account for about 35% of our planted acreage.  And these vines will have to re-sprout.  Grapevines are prepared, evolutionarily, for freezes, and have secondary buds that push only if the primary buds are damaged or destroyed.  The photo below, from a Grenache vine, shows clearly the damaged buds (on the cane in the foreground) and the secondary buds pushing elsewhere:

Frost_0004

Of course, these secondary buds are not always in the places you'd prefer, and it means a summer for Neil, Ryan, David and the vineyard crew of carefully selecting which canes are allowed to grow and which will inhibit the air flow around the vines and have to be removed.  On the positive side, all of the rain that we received last winter means that the vines grow vigorously, and should have enough energy to spare to still produce decently off the secondary buds.

Still, it's depressing wandering around the frost-damaged blocks, most still with their withered leaves more visible than the new green growth.  Another couple of Grenache vines illustrate:

Frost_0005 Frost_0006 With the early-sprouting varieties forced to start later by the freeze and the later-sprouting varieties just coming out now for their primary growth, it looks like it will be a busy October.  There is every reason to expect that harvest will be late and compressed, with varieties that normally ripen weeks or months apart coming in at roughly the same time.

Production looks like it will be affected.  The two years we've seen serious frosts (2001 and 2009) we estimate that we lost something like 40% of our production off of the affected blocks.  But both of those frosts were later, and all the varieties had sprouted.  It appears that the cool spring delayed budbreak sufficiently that our later-sprouting varieties like Mourvedre, Roussanne, Picpoul and Counoise (as well as, for some reason, Syrah, which wasn't much sprouted at the time of the frosts) didn't sustain much if any damage.  So, I'd estimate that we're down perhaps 20% from what we might otherwise have been able to produce.  Of course, the rest of the year matters.  If we were to get another frost in the next few weeks -- and we estimate that we're still at risk of frost until mid-May -- the impact would be devastating.  But if we're able to come through the frost season OK the ample groundwater should allow the vines a healthy ripening cycle.

Quality should be fine, if 2009 is any indication.  The 2009 reds, which are just being bottled now, are some of the most compelling that we've ever produced.  And it's good that the varieties on which we base our signature blends were the least affected.  We'll know more, of course, by harvest time.

In the vineyard now we're furiously trying to get the cover crop mowed, disked and spaded into the soil.  We're behind here as well because of how wet the spring was; it's only in the last three weeks or so it's been dry enough to get tractors into the vineyard.  The weather has been cooperating, with days in the 70s and mostly dry.  It's supposed to warm up further this week.  Fingers crossed, please, everyone.


Crazy April Weather: Ice, Thunder, Hail and Snow in Paso Robles

The warm, sunny weather of last week seems like a distant memory.  In the last 24 hours we've had two hailstorms (the second with peals of thunder), a hard freeze, with temperatures down as low as 24 degrees in our coldest spots and even the tops of the hills below freezing, and about an inch of snow.

April is often an erratic weather month.  It can be warm and summery.  It can be cold and rainy.  And it's the month where we worry most about frost damage, as most years it's been warm enough by then for the vines to sprout.  We're comparatively lucky that this year March was cool and wet, and bud break perhaps three weeks behind normal.  This later start to the growing season meant that most of the vineyard was still dormant last night and should have escaped the bulk of the frost damage.

A few photos will give you a sense of how unusual this weather was, for spring.  First, a photo of a vineyard block in which we've mowed every-other row.  We mow to allow cold air to drain off the hillsides and away into the valleys, protecting the hillside vines from frost damage.  In today's snow, the mowed rows showed white while the unmowed rows were still green:

Ice_and_snow_0008

The hail was equally impressive, lasting long enough to cover exposed surfaces.  Our patio tables looked like they'd been covered with a white blanket:

Ice_and_snow_0005

As impressive visually as the snow and hail were, it's the cold that we worry about.  And it is cold.  Last night at 11pm our weather station was reading 32 degrees.  At its coldest it got down to 28 degrees in the middle of the vineyard, and 24 degrees in our coldest pocket down near the creek.  Even today it's been cold.  Winemaker Ryan Hebert came inside to report that the frost protection fan that is set to automatically turn on at 34 degrees had come on unexpectedly at 1pm.  That's unprecedented.

We frost protect our vineyard principally with fans, as our water resources are limited.  But the fans just promote circulation, and so don't warm up the surface air if the upper atmosphere is cold too.  We do protect about 20 acres with water, which works more reliably in colder temperatures.  Due to the buffering capabilities of water, as long as there is running water, the vines can be encased in ice but not get below 32 degrees.  On a frosty morning, the icicles can be impressive:

Ice_and_snow_0002

Paradoxically, it appears that it's our chilly location that may have helped us this time.  As we're colder than most Paso Robles spots, our vines are still dormant, while our neighbors (almost all of whom have vines out further than ours) reported significant damage from last night's frost, even in top-of-hill spots that typically don't freeze.  At Tablas Creek, Mourvedre, Roussanne, and Counoise are all still dormant.  Much of Syrah has yet to bud out.  Still, Grenache, Grenache Blanc and Viognier are all out, and I'm sure we'll sustain some damage.  We have one more frosty night forecast for tonight, after which we'll be able to assess where we are. 

If you're interested in more photos from today, you can find them in a Facebook photo album.  While you're looking, please think warm thoughts for us and hope for cloud cover tonight.


Our crazy Paso Robles microclimates

As was forecast, we've had a wet week.  After yesterday's 1.72 inches, we're up around 3.5 for the week, with the largest dose of rain forecast for today.  And the weather pattern is supposed to stay unsettled, although we'll get a mostly sunny break this weekend for anyone heading out to take advantage of the Presidents' Day holiday.

Yesterday, I posted a status update on Facebook that it was a monsoon out at Tablas Creek, and got several comments from friends in town asking, essentially, "really?".  My wife called to ask if I'd seen the giant rainbow, and said that there had been a few sprinkles in town but more blue sky.  Not true out at Tablas.  Just 10 miles west of Paso Robles, it was stormy all day, and downright torrential as we got into the afternoon.

The snapshot below drives home just how much of a difference it makes to your rainfall totals where you are within Paso Robles.  We got an inch and three quarters.  The Templeton Gap got less than half an inch.  Town was less than a quarter, and the two weather stations east of town barely got anything at all.  It's not quite as dramatic when you look at the annual totals, but we have more than double the rainfall of J. Lohr (more or less the center of the appellation) and triple what they've gotten in Shandon, at the AVA's eastern edge.

Weather_feb18_2011

It's hard for me to get used to how much small distances and small changes in elevation can change the weather here in California.  I grew up on the East Coast, where you could safely assume that whatever your weather was, it wasn't notably different a half-hour away.  But the interaction between the cold Pacific Ocean and the hot, dry California interior is so shaped by the height and orientation of the coastal mountain ranges that it significantly complicates the climate picture. 

I think that the biggest benefit that will come from the Paso Robles sub-AVA proposal, assuming it successfully navigates the federal review process, will be the greater recognition of the often dramatic differences of climate and soils within Paso Robles.  It's a huge AVA, and yesterday's weather demonstrates how different one part of it can be from another.


Creating a new wine: Patelin de Tablas

A difficult economy brings problems, but it also brings opportunities.  Over the last few years, we have been fortunate to see our sales continue to grow, thanks to the wonderful loyalty of our customers, an unprecedented run of great press, and lots of hard work by the wholesalers, restaurants, and retailers who represent our wines.  At the same time, we saw three consecutive years of drought from 2007-2009 reduce the yields from our vineyard from nearly 19,000 cases in 2006 to just 12,000 cases in 2009.  The continued growth of our direct sales, both wine club and tasting room, has exacerbated the impact of the fluctuations of supply on our wholesalers.  Practically speaking, you can't not have wine to pour to people who come to your tasting room, and the demand for your wine club is fixed: your members have signed up for a specific configuration of bottles and shipments.  Between the two centers, we sold nearly 10,000 cases of wine direct last year.

Some math will show the impact on our wholesale and export customers.  Subtract 10,000 cases from our production, and you can easily have 9,000 cases of wine to sell one year, and 2,000 the next.  It's terrible to have to tell a wholesaler who has done a great job for you that you're going to have to cut their allocation dramatically.  And there are lasting consequences on your business: the next time that wholesaler has the chance to place a wine in a choice location, do you think that they'll choose you, or another winery whose supply is more regular?  Making it worse, if you have a productive vintage the next year, you might need to ask your wholesalers to take five times the quantity they received the previous year.  Even if they wanted to help you, you're asking the impossible.

At the same time that we're struggling with how we handle our supply crisis, other vineyards in Paso Robles are struggling with the results of the weak economy.  Many larger wineries have cut back their production or severed contracts with their growers, choosing to focus on their estate vineyards.  This has meant that we've seen some of the best growers in the area -- growers who three years ago would have had a long waiting list to get their grapes -- searching for buyers.

Eventually, a light bulb went on.  We decided to see if we could find a handful of growers whose work we respected with whom we could create a new wine.  This wine, in a year when our estate production was high, could be predominantly from Tablas Creek fruit.  In a year when production was low, it could be mostly purchased.  This would allow the wine to provide an escape valve for our own swings in production, and give us the opportunity to celebrate some of the top growers in our area.

We decided to name these two new wines Patelin de Tablas and Patelin de Tablas Blanc.  Patelin is French slang roughly translated as "country neighborhood".  We chose the growers for the care they take in their vineyards, and for the track records of the wines that these vineyards have produced.  All are in our neighborhood.  Many have planted Tablas Creek cuttings.  All farm sustainably, and many are organic or biodynamic.  We're celebrating the growers explicitly on the labels; each wine will list the vineyards that contributed fruit, with the percentage of the wine that each accounted for.  We'll be profiling the growers here on the blog over the coming weeks, but a few of the principal ones bear mentioning:

  • Chequera Vineyard: 30-year-old, biodynamically farmed Syrah and Viognier vines, which in recent years provided Bonny Doon with many of their high-end Rhone wines.
  • Glenrose Vineyard: One of the first customers for the Tablas Creek nursery, a rugged vineyard over 2000 feet in eleveation carved into a limestone mountainside.  The source for our 2002 Las Tablas Estates wine.
  • Edward Sellers Vineyard: The source for the excellent Edward Sellers wines, planted largely with Tablas Creek cuttings in the cool Templeton Gap.
  • La Vista Vineyard: Just a few miles east of Tablas Creek, planted with Tablas cuttings and on a gorgeous south-facing slope.

The Patelin de Tablas will be based on the dark spice and meatiness of Syrah, brightened with Grenache and Counoise, and given some earthy structure by Mourvedre.  The Patelin de Tablas Blanc will be based on the citrus, green apple and mineral of Grenache Blanc, given lushness and lift by Viognier and mineral and spice by Roussanne and Marsanne.

Adding the Patelin de Tablas wines will also allow us to be more rigorous in the selection program for our Cotes de Tablas wines.  Right now, the Cotes wines are our home for the lots that are bright and open, ready to drink younger, and celebrate Grenache (for the red) and Viognier (for the white).  But the reality is that there are lots that go into the Cotes wines because they are perfect for our Cotes de Tablas model, and lots that go in because they don't have another obvious home.  We think that adding the Patelin line will allow us to make the Cotes and Cotes Blanc that much better.  We're hopeful that we can establish them as the best Grenache-based red blend and the best Viognier-based white blend in California.

We'll sell the Patelin and Patelin Blanc for $20.  The white will be released in March, and the red in September.  They'll be Tablas Creek wines (we're not creating a new label, or a new brand) but we'll distinguish the line from our existing ones by color scheme.  As the Esprit de Beaucastels have gold leaf on their labels, and the Cotes de Tablas wines silver, the Patelin de Tablas wines will have bronze leaf.  The impact is, I think, pretty cool.

And did I mention that we'll sell both wines for $20?  They are tasting great in the cellar, though we haven't finished their final assembly quite yet, and given the pedigree of the vineyards they come from we're convinced they're going to blow people away at that price.

Below are mockups of the labels.  That brownish color will be metallic bronze.  And don't pay too much attention to the percentages on the labels; we needed placeholders for submission to the TTB but the blends aren't quite finalized.  But they should give you a sense.

10Patelin_label  10PatelinBlanc_label

If you haven't guessed, we're excited about this project.  We'll be sharing more over the coming weeks and months.

Ed note: the blends of the wines have been finalized and the wines bottled and released (Patelin Blanc in April 2011 and Patelin red in September 2011).  We have technical information online for both the 2010 Patelin de Tablas and the 2010 Patelin de Tablas Blanc.


A photo of the impact of the Santa Lucia Mountains on the Paso Robles climate

In the current weather pattern, it's been foggy on the coast and moderate, sunny and breezy at the vineyard.  Although it's been cool for the last week or so, today's high is supposed to climb back into the upper 80's and get into the 90's this weekend.  At the coast, it's forecast to stay in the lower 60's.  This contrast is one of the most distinctive features of the Paso Robles climate.  The cold Pacific Ocean and the hot California interior vie for influence here, and in a typical weather pattern like this one we have very cool nights, typically in the 50s, and warm, sunny days.

On the way in, I caught a good photo of the impact of the Santa Lucia range on our weather: the coastal fog bank is being held back by the mountains, allowing Paso Robles to warm up and the grapes to ripen!

Fog over santa lucias


Changes at the 2010 Paso Robles Wine Festival

We just finished the Paso Robles Wine Festival for 2010.  As usual, it was a whirlwind of activity, with a delicious dinner Friday night at the Cass House Inn in Cayucos, pourings with the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance on Friday and Saturday evenings downtown in Paso Robles, and our annual salmon brunch and Rosé launch on Sunday morning out at the winery.

The weather was wonderful, cool and crisp, and the park was busy with enthusiastic tasters as attendance rose slightly compared to 2009.  The Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance has made a concerted effort to make the event classier and more comprehensive over the last five years.  Ticket prices have gone up moderately, weeding out some party-goers.  Additional events such as a VIP/trade hour, the Friday evening Reserve tasting, and educational seminars now allow attendees who are interested in closer contact with local winemakers this access.  The salmon brunch was delicious; Chef Jeff Scott continues to do an amazing job.  A couple of photos of the next generation of Haases (Eli, on left, and Sebastian on right) enjoying the event:

WineFest_2010_0002 WineFest_2010_0001

And one of me with Nikki Getty, who runs our wine club, hospitality and events:

WineFest_2010_0003

This year, the PRWCA added a joint winemaker dinner and auction that raised over $100,000 for the Alliance's charity efforts.  Also new this year, they moved the Saturday Grand Tasting later in the day from 1pm-5pm to 3pm-7pm.  That was supposed to have two effects: to help get the event out of the heat of the day and to help open the day up for event attendees to visit the winery tasting rooms.  And we did get more traffic on Saturday: we saw 260 tasters this year, up from an average of 175 the past three years.  Even though sales per customer were down nearly 20% it was still a good day, better than recent Wine Festival Saturdays if not measurably better than a normal Saturday in the busy spring season. 

But Sunday was a different story.  Both traffic and sales were down dramatically, with traffic down 42% from an average of 268 people to this year's 156 and sales per customer no better than the averages we saw the past three years.  Perhaps most dramatically, we went from signing up an average of 13 new wine club members on Wine Festival Sunday to signing up just 2 this year.  Summing up the results between the two days, the improvement on Saturday did not make up for the decline on Sunday.  For the weekend our sales were down 15% and our wine club signups down 53% compared to the average of our results of the last three years.

I would typically suspect that a decline in our numbers like this were due to something lacking about the tasting room experience.  But I don't think that is the case here.  The tasting room has been on a great run recently, putting up some of its best numbers ever.  We have a terrific, experienced tasting room crew, and we staffed up so heavily for Wine Festival this year that we had tasting room attendants practically competing with each other to have the privilege of serving each new guest.  My second suspicion was that it was something we'd changed in our events for the weekend.  And we did add a charge to attend the salmon brunch in 2010 that we hadn't had in past years.  We did this because we found that the event, which was free to wine club members and free with a tasting fee to non-members, was attracting people who would leave without even entering the tasting room.  Our average sales to the people who came to the salmon tasting in 2009 was roughly half that of our other visitors that day.  Given that the salmon tasting itself was costing us roughly $20 a head, about the level of the average salmon-tasting-attendee purchase, that didn't make a lot of sense.  Plus, the crowds that entered the tasting room all at once after the event ended overwhelmed the tasting room's capabilities, meaning that neither the event's attendees nor the other customers got the experience we wanted.  This year, though the attendance at the salmon brunch was down significantly (from about 150 to about 50) the 50 attendees bought nearly as much wine as the 150 had done last year.

No, it was the rest of the day that was the culprit.  It was so slow in the afternoon that our tasting room manager sent half his staff home.  And we've heard that other wineries and tasting rooms were similarly disappointed in Sunday's sales and traffic. 

I have some speculations as to why the changes made to Wine Festival might have had the impact that they did.  First, moving the grand tasting later made it easier to taste for a partial day on Saturday (stopping in time to get to the event by 3pm) rather than a full day on Sunday.  Second, the later end to the event and the fact that many people had begun their day with wine tasting may have meant that people were wined out by the time that they had to make the decision of whether or not to go tasting on Sunday.  I can imagine, after wine tasting most of the day and finishing with a four-hour wine festival, that I'd choose to go to the beach or to Hearst Castle rather than heading back out to more wineries.  And finally, I'd think that this burnout would be most applicable to the attendees of the gala dinner and auction, who didn't finish their Saturday until after 10pm and who also shelled out $500 per couple to attend.  Between the cost and the fatigue, I would guess that it was these attendees who made the largest difference in our end results.

Our tasting room, like most retail establishments, lives by the 80/20 rule, where 20% of the customers provide 80% of the business.  The majority of our tasting room customers buy just a bottle or two, or even just pay the tasting fee.  But it's the minority who get really excited about what they find that keep our average sales (and our wine club signup numbers) strong.  So, if even a small percentage of the best buyers are eliminated, it can have a dramatic impact on total sales.  The 400 attendees of the wine dinner and auction represented about 10% of the total attendees of the wine festival.  But I'd think that they represented some of the best buyers, and that the lateness and the expense of the event likely discouraged many of them from heading out to tasting rooms the next day.  If I'm right, this could be the major factor in the decline in Sunday's sales and the dramatic falloff in wine club signups. 

The key, for me, is to remember that Wine Festival is not an end in itself.  It is the creation of the organization that the local wineries task with marketing and promoting the area and its wineries.  If the event is successful at the expense of the wineries' results, it is actually not achieving what it needs to achieve.

I'm curious to know, from any readers who attended Wine Festival this year, what you thought.  Did you enjoy the event?  Did the changes in the event change your behavior the rest of the weekend?  I'll be meeting with the marketing committee of the PRWCA next week, and it will be at the top of our agenda.


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.

Sincerely,
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/.

Sincerely,

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,
-Jason

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.