Our Skeptic's Embrace of Biodynamics

Back in 2010, I had the pleasure of listening to John Williams from Frog’s Leap Winery speak at the Yosemite Vintners Holidays.  Although the focus of his talk was on how underrated “off” vintages are with some age (or, if you prefer, how the tendencies which lead most writers to rate a vintage highly can often make the same wines short-lived) the conversation soon turned to his thoughts on Biodynamics, of which he has been one of California’s most vocal proponents.  His take was that most of the things that receive focus for Biodynamics (think cow horns and lunar cycles) were little more than distractions, and what mattered in Biodynamic farming was that doing so reestablishes a plant’s ability to make sense of its environment and self-regulate.  I found the whole talk fascinating.

In the last seven years, spurred in part by what I learned at John’s talk, we have been increasingly incorporating Biodynamic elements into Tablas Creek’s farming practices. We’ve been organic since our inception, and certified since 2003, so it wasn’t as though we needed to make a massive move away from chemical-intensive agriculture.  But Biodynamics still requires a shift in mindset from organics.  Organics tends to look for non-chemical alternatives to the chemical herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers that define modern industrial farming. And that’s a worthy effort. But Biodynamics, which begins with the assumption that you have eliminated chemical interventions already, is much more concerned with creating environments that are self-regulating, where even non-chemical interventions are mostly rendered unnecessary.

170309-APP-104_wOur flock at work in the vineyard (photo credit: Brittany App)

So, we introduced our herd of sheep and alpacas into the vineyard. The animals fertilize naturally with their manure and graze down cover crops so we need to make fewer tractor passes to eliminate weeds. We started interplanting fruit trees and herbs, leaving sections unmowed, and planting other sections with flowering herbs, to attract and retain a diverse group of insect species that help control pests and keep soils alive and vibrant. We increased from a dozen to 39 owl boxes, to control gophers. We built beehives and captured a wild swarm to help preserve this valuable resource. And we redoubled our efforts to produce our own compost on site from our prunings and the grape must left over from fermentation, both to spread on the vineyard and to make into compost tea, to spray on the vines to combat mildew.

Orchard at Tablas Creek 2One of the hundreds of fruit trees we've interplanted in the vineyard

We made these changes partly because it made sense to us from a resource management standpoint – why not try to make our farm unit as self-sufficient as possible – but also because the idea of putting as little as possible from the outside onto our vineyard appealed to our ideal of terroir: the character of place that, reflected in wine, is the holy grail of winemakers around the world. We figure that the less that goes onto the vineyard that originates elsewhere, the greater the chance that we can allow the signature of our own land to show.

Budbreak and Wildflowers 2Lupines are some of the native wildflowers we encourage to grow between the vines

In the last seven years, as we’ve incorporated these new practices, I have come to believe that you can separate the tenets of Biodynamics into three broad sections. I list them in what I think is the order of their importance, which just happens to be the inverse order of what most laypeople (and maybe more important, mainstream wine journalists) tend to focus on with Biodynamics:

  • A broad subset that is basically just really good farming. This includes the prohibitions on chemical interventions (to preserve biodiversity and ensure that your soil is able to break down raw materials into nutrients your vines can process). And the efforts to turn a monoculture into a polyculture (to ensure a healthy diversity of insects and microorganisms in the soil and to ensure habitat for the natural controls for pests). And the focus on composting (to turn the by-products of your farming into nutrients for your crops).
  • Another broad subset that includes the micro-additions of Biodynamic preparations. This is where the cow horns come in. For example, some preps are made by packing various natural products (such as manure, or silica) into the hollows of the cow horns, letting them mature for some time. Other preparations are made with botanicals, such as stinging nettles, horsetail, or chamomile, which are then composted, fermented, or dried.  Whatever the preparation, when applying it to your vineyard, you dilute it massively in water before spraying the resulting solution onto your vines. I think it’s safe to say that none of these actions will harm your crops, and they probably do a small amount of good. How much good can they do, when the prescription is to dilute 25 grams of manure in 13 liters of water (a ratio of 1:520)? Or 1/4 teaspoon of stinging nettle in 1 gallon of water (a ratio of 1:3072)?  I have my doubts, although chemical reactions can happen at much lower concentrations than this. But at least, I’m confident any impact these actions have on the vineyard are going to be positive.
  • A subset relating to the Biodynamic calendar. Here I think things are on tenuous ground. While it is incontrovertible that the moon, at least, does have some impacts on Earth (think the tides), the moon’s gravitational pull on Earth is roughly 1/300,000th of the pull of the Earth. Might it impact things like sap flow? I guess, in a tiny way. But I have to think that the lunar impacts will be dwarfed by the other stimuli a vine is receiving from things like length of daylight and soil temperature. And as for picking, I think it’s even harder to make a credible case that what’s going on in the heavens is going to make a difference in the characteristics of the fruit you pick. On the other hand, waiting for the calendar (published months in advance) to tell you when to pick can cause some damage if you’ve ignored the weather, say, during a heat spike. I think that all this is really best ignored.

So, when we decided to pursue Biodynamic certification late last year, we didn’t know whether the powers that be at Demeter (the international organization that administers and protects the Biodynamic trademark) were going to view what we were doing as sufficient, or whether we’d learn that we’d need to make significant (and perhaps unwelcome) changes to our practices in order to qualify.  We ended up deciding that if we needed to make changes in order to qualify for certification that we felt would jeopardize our vineyard or our wines, we wouldn’t lose much. After all, we’d done what we’d done so far without certification.

FoliageOne of our 39 owl boxes that help attract the gopher's most effective natural predator

But it was still tremendously encouraging to learn that Demeter itself had come to the conclusion that if a winery focused on the elements that I grouped together in the “really good farming” bullet above, and made a credible effort at those I classified as “micro-additions of Biodynamic preparations” it was good enough for them.  And so, we moved forward with the certification process.

And I do believe in certification. I think it’s great that many growers (and farmers) are pursuing organic or Biodynamic practices without any goal of becoming certified. The more people who are farming in an Earth-friendly way, the better. But at the same time, certification gives an outside validation that your practices aren’t lip service, and are being applied consistently and rigorously.

So, it is with pleasure and pride that I announce that Tablas Creek Vineyard is now Biodynamic certified. That includes the grapes we grow, the olives, eggs, and the vegetables in our staff garden, and even the lamb that we harvest a few times a year from our flock.

If this makes you happier about your choice to consume Tablas Creek, that’s great. If it doesn’t make any difference, that’s fine too. We’re confident that the proof is in the bottle.

Biodynamic Certification


Harvest 2017, the End

By Brad Ely

[Editor's note: this is the bookend to Cellar Master Brad Ely's Harvest 2017, the Beginning, posted on August 29th. If you haven't read it yet, you might want to.]

Last week marked the end of fruit for the 2017 vintage with three picking bins of golden Roussanne.  At the beginning of harvest we started with Viognier, and I would have never imagined the last fruit would be white as well. It sounds a cliche, but vintage variation is real, every harvest is different, and it is a beautiful thing.

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The colors of fall are taking over the vineyard. Green lush canopies are shedding leaves and changing colors, becoming gold, brown, auburn and maroon. Taking their winter vacation from a long and strenuous growing season.

Harvest heaved off with a shotgun start. Record breaking temperatures maxed out our thermometers for a week and a half straight, causing rapid ripening, and throwing the whole cellar crew into a frantic pace. Not the most ideal situation as many blocks are finishing veraison (the process of changing from hard green berries, to colorful soft berries with an accumulation of sugar). After the heat wave, we stalled out, with low temperatures pumping the breaks, and giving us cellar team shorter days, and almost whole weekends off. It was a false sense of relief, as temperatures climbed back up, leading to a hot and heavy finish.

Each harvest has its own feel, its own unique personality. While this holds true, each also has a similar roller coaster of emotions and checkpoints in store for us along the way, as the fruits of our labor twist and turn along their journey to liquid magic.

Things begin with feelings of joy and excitement. And it continues for a few weeks, getting back into the swing of things, brushing the dust off skills that haven’t been used since last year. Having the perfect aim with the bin dumper, trying not to lose a single berry, or spill a drop of wine. Remembering every process and procedure. Weighing incoming grapes, labeling tanks, setting up pump-overs, pulse airs, and punch downs in the most efficient order. Recognizing old smells, identifying new ones. Asking lots of questions, experiencing and learning along the way.

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Eventually these skills become second nature again. Before you know it the cellar is buzzing with the daily grind. Fruit arrives at the winery in white bins. It is weighed, sorted, destemmed if red, pressed if white, and sent to its new home for the next two weeks. After a two-week party, what was once juice escapes as wine, and finds its home in oak barrels and tanks for the next year and a half.

As the freshness of harvest wanes, these activities become the regular. Workdays grow longer and longer, arriving as the first light illuminates the vineyard, and leaving well after the sun has set back down. The limits of caffeine consumption are tested. Themed days of questionable music begin to emerge, as a marker to remember what day it was in the first place, and as a way to look forward to the next. Wednesday is Dubstep, followed by R Kelly Thursday, followed by Kesha and glitter Friday (my personal nightmare). Our beloved jamon leg is whittled to the bone, replenished, and whittled down once again.

There comes a point when the fun starts to diminish. Frustration develops, bodies weaken, and spirits dwindle. There is an amount of tired that starts to build, and even the soundest night’s sleep doesn't scratch the surface. Our stained purple hands begin to grow feeble and ache. Thumbs become dry, crack, heal, and then crack again. The slightest bit of contact with acidulated water results in a quick cry for mum. The standard for clean clothes becomes less stringent, and even the stained stuff will pass with a quick smell test. The hot water turns cold with hours of work to go, only to realize  the 12 hour timer set upon in the morning has times out, and it must be reset to continue on.

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Just as it seems the workflow will never end, and spirits are close to being broken, a clearing in the storm occurs. More tanks are being pressed off than being filled, and the constant buzz of the harvest equipment becomes faint. One by one each new wine marches off the cellar floor and into the barrel room, leaving empty spaces where they once resided.

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The last fermenters are dug with mixed emotions. A sense of relief, knowing two-day weekends, a regular sleep schedule, visits with family, and a restoration of social life are on the horizon. A reintroduction to civilization will occur, and we must adapt to normal life once again. As the tiredness fades, and our bodies are rejuvenated, a feeling of post harvest blues sets in. All of the feelings of glory and accomplishment flutter through our daydreams as we clean, and clean, and clean the scene where all of the action occurred. Any remaining dismal sentiment from the end of harvest is quickly forgotten, replaced by thoughts of the great times had, the friendships created, and the new wines quietly resting in barrel.

Eventually, these wines will find their resting places out of our hands, and in the cellars of their final consumers. When you pop a cork, we hope you feel the signature of the harvest with each glass poured. We can't wait for you to make its acquaintance.

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Harvest 2017 Recap: Fast Start and Finish, Solid Yields, and Plenty of Concentration

Last week, with the threat of our first rainstorm on the horizon -- key word here is threat, as it didn't pan out -- we brought in the last lingering blocks of Mourvedre, Roussanne, and Counoise.  And then, all of a sudden, we were done.  Sure, there are a few lots we're still waiting for, as they sit concentrating on straw in our greenhouse. But the picking, at least, is through. No wonder our cellar crew was ready to celebrate:

Lunch on day of last pick

The harvest came in two large waves, with a significantly less busy stretch in between.  The first surge was kicked off by a record heat wave that sent temperatures soaring over 102°F nine days in a row in late August and early September, and included the majority of our purchased grapes for the Patelin de Tablas wines.  The slow interlude corresponded with nearly three weeks of temperatures more than 5°F cooler than normal. When, by early October, things heated up again (modestly this time) most of the late-ripening grapes on our estate were nearly ready, and we had a pretty continuous run between October 2nd and October 19th, picking 16 of 19 days in that stretch. You can see the double-peaked workflow in the chart below. In the chart, blue is purchased fruit for the Patelin program, and orange estate grown fruit:

Harvest by Week - End

Yields were the best we've seen since the twin vintages of 2005 and 2006, up about 20% from 2016. On the one hand, this should be unsurprising, given that we got good rainfall last winter after five years of drought. But you still never know, and midway through the summer, we were all thinking that harvest was going to be at average or slightly above average quantities.  To have it among our most productive vintages ever was somewhat of a surprise. The complete picture:

Grape 2017 Yields (tons) 2016 Yields (tons) % Change vs. 2016
Viognier 18.9 14.2 +33.1%
Marsanne 13.8 4.5  +206.7%
Grenache Blanc 46.4 30.6 +51.6%
Picpoul Blanc 9.7 7.7 +26.0%
Vermentino 22.2 19.0  +16.8%
Roussanne 41.7* 47.0  -11.3%
Total Whites 152.7 123 +24.1%
Grenache 73.1 58.8  +24.3%
Syrah 41.5 36.8  +12.8%
Mourvedre 72.9 62.7  +16.3%
Tannat 20.5 12.3  +66.7%
Counoise 18.8 18.0 +4.4%
Total Reds 226.8 188.6 +20.3%
Total 379.5 311.6 +21.8%

Overall yields ended up at 3.62 tons per acre, about 20% above our ten-year average.  Other years in which we've seen yields around 3.5 tons per acre have included 2005, 2006, 2010, and 2012, which includes some of our favorite vintages. Like 2005 (the vintage that this reminds me the most of) this year followed a multi-year drought, and the obvious health of the vines suggested that they were able to ripen the relatively healthy yields with concentration and character.

*If you're wondering why Roussanne has an asterisk, there are two reasons. First is that there's still a little Roussanne concentrating in our greenhouses, to be added to the total. It won't amount to much (a ton, more or less) but it's there. The second reason is that it's worth noting that at least some of the decline comes because we pulled out an acre or so of Roussanne this winter. We also pulled out a couple of acres of Syrah, but the Syrah total is augmented by the fact that the year before, we grafted over about two acres of Roussanne to Syrah.  So, Roussanne has seen a bit of a double-whammy in recent years. We'll be planting some more Roussanne soon.

Another way that you can get a quick assessment of concentration is to look at average sugars. Since 2007, the average degrees Brix and pH:

Year Avg. Sugars Avg. pH
2007 24.42 3.67
2008 23.87 3.64
2009 23.42 3.69
2010 22.68 3.51
2011 22.39 3.50
2012 22.83 3.65
2013 22.90 3.63
2014 23.18 3.59
2015 22.60 3.59
2016 22.04 3.71
2017 22.87 3.74

You'll note that 2017's sugars saw a rebound after the lower levels in 2015 and 2016. This is a sign of the health of the vines. The higher pH levels seem to have been a result of the stress that the early-harvest heat wave produced, as well as a reflection of the overall warm summer.  In the 2017 growing season, only May was cooler than average, with April, June, and July particularly warm.  Overall, 2017 was our second-warmest year ever, just a hair cooler than 2014 and about 10% warmer (measured in degree days) than our 20-year average. The chart below summarizes (October's information is for the first 19 days, as we picked our last significant block on October 19th):

2017 Degree days vs Average

We picked even more lots this year (124) than last, and we ran out of space on our harvest chalkboard.  Note the number of times that you see Roman numerals after a pick, particularly toward the end of harvest: those are the blocks that we picked multiple times:  

Full Harvest Chalkboard

The duration of harvest -- 54 days -- was exactly at our average this millennium. Both the beginning (August 30th) and the end (October 23rd) were a little earlier than our average since 2000, but not by much: about 4 days.  That said, we started later than we have since 2012, and finished later than 2013, 2014, and 2016. The fact that 2017 saw a later budbreak than recent years pushed everything into a more normal time frame than we've seen recently, but it was still a warm year.

In character, it's early to tell what things will be like, but so far, we're excited. I asked Winemaker Neil Collins to sum up the vintage based on his tastings, and his response was, "full, and great structure, and lovely acidity... just what we wanted it to be."  Given that Neil, like most winemakers, tend to focus on the shortcomings they see in the immediate aftermath of harvest, this is a pretty resounding endorsement.  We'll know more, of course, in coming weeks.

The last project for us for harvest 2017 is to make our first Vin de Paille "Sacrérouge" since 2014.  This traditional dessert wine-making technique involves drying newly-harvested Mourvedre clusters on straw, and only pressing and beginning fermentation when they have reached our desired level of concentration -- typically around 35° Brix -- after 2-3 weeks.  [For more details on how and why it's done, see our blog Vin de Paille: A Dessert Wine Making Technique for the Obsessed from a few years back]. The Mourvedre we'll be using for this project is currently sitting on the straw, and we expect to bring it in and start fermentation later this week. 

Vin de Paille Mourvedre

Now that the fruit is in, it's welcome to start raining any time.  Meanwhile, we're enjoying the autumnal views of the vineyard without having to worry that the cooler nights and the likelihood of future precipitation -- our first chance, it appears, may come as early as the first few days of November -- might negatively impact our harvest.

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Photos of each Rhone grape as harvest nears, and an updated harvest assessment

I've spent a lot of time the last week or two out in the vineyard. Some of that is because I was gone for a chunk of July and wanted to make sure that I understood what had happened in my absence. Some of that is because we've had several visitors who wanted to get their shoes dusty and see where things really come from. And part of it is that we're close to (maybe just a day or two away from) launching a beautiful new mobile-responsive Web site, and I've been looking for great images to populate the site with.

One of the results has been an ongoing Twitter thread where, each evening, I've posted one close-up cluster photo, working through all the grapes we have growing in the vineyard. That's been fun, but now that I have them all, I thought it would be fun to share them all here on the blog. We have a larger portfolio to work with than we did the last time I did this (in 2014). This year, our three newest grapes, Terret Noir, Clairette Blanche, and Picardan, are ready for their photo ops. So, without further ado, in the order we expect to pick:

Viognier

We expect to get our first estate Viognier into the cellar this week.  It's looking ready, berries are softening, and it's sweet. And the vines themselves look bursting with health, with some canes ten feet long. Off we go!

Viognier

Vermentino

Vermentino, with its distinctive coloration and citrusy aromas, typically vies with Viognier for first into the cellar. This year, it seems a little behind, but we should still see it the first week of September.

Vermentino

Syrah

We expect to get our first Syrah in a couple of weeks. This cluster (whose photo I took two weeks ago) still shows a couple of green berries, but in my walk this morning I didn't see any green in Syrah, and the berries were starting to soften. With this week's hot weather, we're not far out. 

Syrah

Marsanne

We're looking forward to better yields off our Marsanne, which have been punishingly low the past two years. This year's crop looks better, and the honeydew melon flavors that come through in the wines already in evidence in the berries. We're likely to see this mid-September:

Marsanne

Grenache Blanc

Grenache Blanc will likely take a while to pick, given that we have it planted in a number of different places and that how advanced it is seemed pretty variable to me as I walked around the vineyard.  We'll likely start in early September, but might not see it all in until the end of the month:

Grenache Blanc

Clairette Blanche

Clairette ripens typically in the middle of the cycle, and we'll expect it in late September sometime. But it already looks good, with the acidity that makes it so valuable as a blending component in evidence: 

Clairette

Grenache

Grenache is always surprisingly late to go through veraison, and even now, a week after I took the photo below, it's not hard to find pink berries in the Grenache blocks. At the same time, they've already accumulated a fair amount of sugar, and Grenache seems to take less time than most grapes between full veraison and harvest. We should see our first Grenache lots in mid- to late-September, but our last lots not until mid-October. 

Grenache

Picardan

I'm guessing a bit here, given that we've only harvested Picardan once.  But it came in fairly late last year, and we expect to bring it in right at the September/October cusp most years. 

Picardan

Tannat

Tannat is easy, in lots of ways. It is relatively late to sprout (protecting it from our spring frosts), it's sturdy and rugged in the vineyard, it ripens evenly, and it harvests right in the middle of the cycle, typically in early October.

Tannat

Terret Noir

We're still learning about Terret, but given that it tends to be high in both acid and tannin, and low in sugar, we try to wait it out. We should be getting it in in early October.

Terret

Picpoul

Picpoul, which gets its name from the root word for "to sting" is renowned for its ability to retain acidity. And our climate and soils here in Paso Robles exaggerate this tendency. So, as nice as it looks in this photo, we're a long way from when we expect pick it in early- to mid-October.

Picpoul

Roussanne

Roussanne is a little like Grenache Blanc, in that we'll likely pick it over a month or more.  I expect that we'll see our first "cherry pick" lots of the ripest clusters before the end of September, but might not see the last lots until late October.

Roussanne

Counoise

The cluster below is unusually advanced for the vineyard; our average Counoise cluster is only about 50% through with veraison.  And it doesn't hurry even after it's done; we expect to wait until mid-October to pick.

Counoise

Mourvedre

We have a lot of Mourvedre out there, in various stages of ripening.  Some, like the photo below, are mostly through veraison.  Others are still half green. And even once it's through veraison, Mourvedre takes longer than any of our other grapes to get to ripeness, so we probably won't see the first picks until early October, and the last until late October or early November.

Mourvedre

A quick note about this week's hot weather and an updated vintage assessment

Although we've brought in a little fruit for our Patelin de Tablas program (well, only Viognier for the Patelin Blanc so far), we haven't yet picked anything off the estate.  But given that it's forecast to reach 105 every day this week, things are going to move fast.  It's not ideal to have this blast of hot weather during harvest, but we think the vineyard is as well prepared for it as it could be, given the health of the vines and the vigor from last winter's generous rainfall.

Even with the speedup spurred by the heat, we're still looking at our latest onset of harvest since 2012, and nearly two weeks later than our earliest-ever start, last year.  My assessment that we were going to start about a week earlier than our 15-year average (September 4th) seems right on target.


Veraison 2017 suggests an early, but likely not record-breaking, harvest

I returned on Wednesday from three weeks away to a significantly changed vineyard landscape. When I left, we were through flowering but many of the grape berries were still pea sized, bright green, and hard. It looked like early summer. Fast forward three weeks and the grapes are much more mature. While almost all the grapes are still green, many varieties are full-sized. The white grapes -- except for Roussanne -- don't look all that different than they will at harvest. And, when I got to the Syrah block, I found veraison.

Veraison marks the point where a grape stops accumulating mass and starts accumulating sugar. At the same time, red grapes start their color change from green, while white grapes take on more of a yellow tint. Both red and white grapes start to soften. [For more about what's happening chemically, check out this veraison post from the archives.] This landmark comes roughly six weeks before the onset of harvest, and gives us our best estimate for when harvest will begin. One of the most advanced Syrah clusters shows the beginnings of this color change:

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It's important to note that this cluster is exceptional. Even at the top of the hills, most of the Syrah clusters are green. Go even halfway down the hills (where it's cooler, since cold air sinks at night) and there's no color change to be found. And as for the other grapes, only in Mourvedre could I find even a hint of veraison, and that took some searching. The cluster below is about the most advanced I could find:

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Although it may seem like wineries mark veraison as a moment, it's probably better understood as a continuum, with the percentage of berries that show the telltale signs. By that measurement, I'd say we were 5% through veraison in Syrah, 1% through in Mourvedre, and 0% in Grenache and Counoise. So, we've got a ways to go. But still, when we first note veraison is one of the five major signposts in the vineyard year, each of which helps us know how it compares to other years. Veraison is the third, after bud break and flowering, but before first harvest and last harvest. 

While six weeks is a good basic guide for the duration between veraison and harvest, it's not totally constant, and can be influenced by the weather that we get in the interim, as well as by the amount of fruit the vines are carrying.  For example, in 2014 our earliest-ever veraison (noted on July 9th) was mitigated by a very cool August, and we started harvest 45 days later, on August 23rd. By contrast, last year's first veraison was noted on July 13th, and combined with a very warm August to produce our earliest-ever beginning to harvest, just 36 days later. The last ten years are compiled in the chart below, with each year linked to my blog post about that year's veraison:

Year First Veraison Noted Harvest Begins # of Days
2007 July 20 August 28 39
2008 July 23 September 3 42
2009 July 20 September 1 43
2010 July 30 September 16 49
2011 August 5 September 20 47
2012 July 25 September 5 42
2013 July 17 August 26 40
2014 July 9 August 23 45
2015 July 18 August 26 39
2016 July 13 August 18 36
2017 July 20 ? ?

Using the range of durations between first veraison and first harvest (36 to 49 days) we can have good confidence that we'll begin picking sometime between August 25th and September 7th. If I had to lay bets, I'd guess we start toward the early end of that range, given that it's been a very warm summer so far and we've already made up ground from bud break that was two weeks later than 2016. 

What's next for the vineyard? We'll watch the different grapes go through veraison. Syrah and Mourvedre will be followed by Grenache soon, and Counoise a bit later. The white grapes have already started veraison -- though it's not something easily shown in photographs -- with Viognier and Vermentino well underway and the others soon to follow. It's an exciting time, with the view changing practically daily. I'll be posting regular photos of veraison's progress on our Instagram page. In the cellar, we'll be getting the last of the year's bottling done so there's space in barrels and tanks for the coming crush, and starting the process of pulling out and cleaning all the tanks, barrels, and equipment we'll be using once harvest begins.

So while veraison doesn't herald anything immediate, it's still a significant milestone. The timer has been set, and we now know -- roughly -- how much time is on it.


Back from the Rhone River Cruise

I am in Vermont, relaxing for a short time after a wonderful cruise up the Rhone River. And what an experience it was. We (Meghan and I, as well as our winemaker Neil Collins and his wife Marci) led a group of 62 up the Rhone, from Avignon in the south to Lyon in the north, with a short extension up the Saône to Macon for a little Burgundy experience to cap it off. From this floating home base, we made shore excursions each day to cultural, historic, culinary or oenologic destinations, reconvening each evening for a dinner paired with wines from Tablas Creek, Famille Perrin, Chateau de Beaucastel, and Maison Nicolas Perrin.  For those who made it, I wanted to share some photos. For those who didn't, but are considering coming next time (and yes, there definitely will be a next time) I hope this will give you a taste of what to expect. 

Our Home Base

Our home for this eight day trip was the Uniworld S.S. Catherine. This ship is one of the newest in Uniworld's fleet, named after Catherine Deneuve and showing much of the same glamour and elegance as her namesake. The exterior:

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The interior was beautiful, but the highlight for me was the roof deck, from which you could watch the countryside go by, the moon come up, or the sun go down:

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The Focus Visit: Beaucastel and Clos des Tourelles in Gigondas

Most of the itinerary of the cruise was that of the Uniworld ship we were on. However, we worked with our travel partners Food & Wine Trails to create two special experiences just for our group. A visit to Chapoutier, including both a tour of their Hermitage vineyards and a focused tasting and lunch in their cellars, was amazing. I'll dive into that more below. But the centerpiece of the trip for us (and, speaking to the attendees, for most of them) were the twin visits to the cellars at Beaucastel and to the Perrins' newer property in Gigondas: Clos des Tourelles. So that both visits could be more intimate, we divided the group into two. One half visited the first day of our trip, and the other half the second. We started with a tour of Beaucastel's Chateauneuf du Pape vineyards, with head-trained vines growing out of what looks like a moonscape of rounded river stones. That's Beaucastel's Hospitality Director Kirsty Manahan speaking to the group:

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Kirsty then brought us through the remarkable cellar, with stacks of bottles aging gracefully and big wooden tanks identical to those we use at Tablas Creek:

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We then moved to a tasting of the wines, including vintages back to 2001:

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One of the cool discoveries for me was a photo of my dad and Jacques Perrin from 1973: the beginning of the Haas-Perrin collaboration that ultimately resulted in Tablas Creek:

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From Beaucastel, we continued by bus to Clos des Tourelles, the Perrins' property in Gigondas. A former monastery -- the first permanent structure built outside the town's medieval city walls -- Les Tourelles is being renovated as the headquarters of the Famille Perrin umbrella, and is just a few months away from opening. We got to enjoy a reception on the property's patio, overlooking the walled vineyard that is the appellation's only "Clos":

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Charles Perrin joined us there, which was a treat for the guests:

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We walked up a short stairway to the town center, where the Perrins' restaurant l'Oustalet is located on a pretty shaded patio. I would submit Gigondas as one of the most picturesque villages in the south of France.

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The meal was delicious -- summer truffles, anyone? -- and the wines equal to the challenge:

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From there, fully sated, we continued to the first of our shore visits, a walking tour around the ancient town center of Arles.

The Shore Excursions

Each day, the participants in the cruise got a choice of ways to explore the towns and countryside we were passing through. Because it was a river cruise, and because we didn't have massive distances to travel, we woke up each morning in port, so the shore opportunities were daily and varied. Some were more sedate, like walks through quiet towns like Viviers (in which we also got to hear a short performance on the basilica's pipe organ):

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Other shore visits offered more activity, like the chance to kayak down the Gardon River to and under the remarkable Roman aqueduct known as the Pont du Gard. This was one of my top highlights of the trip, and a bucket list thing to do:

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One nighttime excursion was a bus tour of Lyon (the "City of Lights"), serendipitously as the full moon was rising:

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And, at the end of the trip, we spent a lovely day in Beaune, including a visit to the weekly market:

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And a tour of the lovely, historic Hospices de Beaune, a hospital for the poor started in 1433:

Hospice de Beaune

Focus Visit #2: Chapoutier and Hermitage

As we made our way north, we watched the landscape change from the southern Rhone's broad valleys and pebbly soils to the northern Rhone's steep terraced vineyards. When we reached Tain l'Hermitage, we stopped for the night. The next day, we were greeted at the ship by two representatives from Maison M. Chapoutier, the historic wine family who have farmed their vineyards in Hermitage since 1808.  We walked through the town and into the vineyard blocks at the foot of the hill which forms the town's northern border:

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The small size of the appellation was striking, as was knowing that this hillside has been the inspiration for a high percentage of the world's producers of Syrah. The tasting in Chapoutier's cellars was equally convincing, as we got a chance to taste wines from Hermitage (both red and white), Cote Rotie, and even Chapoutier's Chateauneuf du Pape, which was particularly interesting given where we'd just come from.

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We finished with a lunch in their cellars, which was a remarkable way to end a great day.

The Towns

We were docking in a new town each night, which meant new places to explore. Some of these I knew well (Avignon, for example) so I skipped the planned tours in favor of some simple wandering.  Others I'd visited, but rarely or not for a while, and in these cases I very much enjoyed the more formal narrative on the town's history and culture. Arles was one of these. The remarkable Roman amphitheater is one of the best preserved anywhere in the world, and was actually hosting a bull race -- the Camargue version of the "running of the bulls" famous from the Spanish city of Pamplona -- that day.

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The small town of Tarascon, just south of Avignon, has one of the best-preserved medieval castles in the south of France. 

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The castle had been converted to a prison during the French Revolution, which saved it from destruction. It also meant that the rooms had graffiti (largely from 18th & 19th century English prisoners) carved into their walls, which I found fascinating:

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It's particularly nice, I found, approaching these towns from the river. Unlike the typical entry points of railway station, airport, or even outside-of-town road sprawl, the river typically shows a historic face, and the docks were all in the middle of town rather than the outskirts. And it seemed like our schedule meant that we often arrived at dusk, which is hard to beat:

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The Onboard Program

As our group represented more than two-thirds of the passengers, whether we were mingling at breakfast, taking in the views of the river topside, or exploring the differences between pastis and pernod in the lounge, the ship's activities became group activities. And the length of the stay meant that after the first day or two everyone felt like family. But we did add a few enhancements to the ship's program. We sent over (or procured in France) special wines for each night's meal, doing our best to mirror what we were drinking to what we had seen that day or the parts of the Rhone we were passing. That meant wines like Beaucastel Chateauneuf du Pape and Miraval rosé in the south (and the Tablas Creek equivalents), Famille Perrin Gigondas and Vinsobres as we made our way north, and then the wines of Maison Nicolas Perrin in Tain l'Hermitage and Lyon.  It was a particular treat to be sipping on the (delicious) Nicolas Perrin Condrieu with dinner as we passed the tiny village of Condrieu on our way north from Tain to Lyon.

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Neil and I also hosted a seminar, where we got the whole Tablas Creek group together during a longer sail and deconstructed our flagship Esprit de Tablas and Esprit de Tablas Blanc blends, tasting these wines and varietal bottlings of each of the grapes that go into them. Coming toward the end of the journey, this also gave Neil and me a chance to put the visit into context:

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The River

But the star of the show was ultimately the Rhone. The engineering on display as we traversed 13 locks, each bringing us 60 vertical feet higher, was a recurring highlight of the trip. We would slow down and the windows would get dark as we entered the lock, massive yet barely larger than the ship. Then, after a pause, we'd begin to climb out of the manmade canyon, up to a new landscape at a rate of a foot every few seconds:

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It was equally impressive watching the technology required to pass under the low bridges, with the ship's awnings, railings, and even the captain's wheelhouse retracting into the deck:

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Wherever we were on our journey, we had the Rhone's patchwork of grain fields, vineyards, lavender and orchards on display, with the honey colored building stone of the old towns sprinkled in. That landscape was the constant backdrop of the many visits, and a lovely reminder of what draws millions of visitors to the south of France each year:

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If you joined us on this journey, thank you. I'd love you to share your own highlights in the comments. If you weren't able to join us this time, we'll definitely be back. And we look forward to sharing this experience with you then. 


One last gasp of winter amid spring's progress

Over the last week, we've seen what feels like the last gasp of winter.  Two storms have come through, the first dropping about an inch and a half of rain (a lot for April; our long-term average for the entire month is just 1.86") and a couple more are expected this and next week. We've had several other days with significant cloud cover, and two nights where we got down around freezing, though we think we escaped any damage to the new growth.  At the same time, the days are lengthening and the sun is warm, the vines have all come out of dormancy, and we're getting the cover crop turned under where the animals weren't able to do it for us. It's a point in time where the view in any given vineyard block changes daily.  A few photos will give you a sense.  First, one taken on Friday 4/7, during our rainy day, with the cover crop and vines a mix of winter green/brown and summer gold/green:

Misty April 2017

In the areas where the animals last grazed in February (or earlier) the grasses are knee-high and starting to turn gold. This view, with high grass and new growth, is going to be short-lived, as we need to bring the cover crop under control for a variety of reasons.  The winter's heavy rain and its associated risk of erosion are largely in the rear-view mirror. With our always-dry summer on its way, we want to eliminate the vines' competition for the soil's available water. Returning the cover crop to the soil renews the earth's fertility and provides nutrients for the vines to draw on the rest of the year. Finally, it's important to knock down the cover crop to allow the cooler air at the surface to drain downhill rather than having it pool around the vines and cause frost damage. From the head-trained, dry-farmed "Scruffy Hill" block yesterday:

Scruffy Hill April 2017 2

Within a few weeks, all this growth will be turned under and decomposing in the topsoil, while the vines begin their trek toward harvest.  Last April 27th, I spent a morning taking photos on Scruffy Hill.  The difference from the photo above is dramatic, but not likely much different from what you'll see in two weeks:

Scruffy long view

The April rainfall pushed us over 40" and made this winter our second-rainiest ever.  We still have a chance to catch 2004-5, which at 42.85" is our wettest since we installed our weather station in 1996:

Rainfall by winter as of 2017

And yes, if you were wondering, the 2017 vintage is underway. The Grenache vines on Scruffy Hill already have tiny flower clusters forming:

Flower clusters April 2017

I'm sure we'll be sharing many photos in coming weeks and months of the new growth and the 2017 growing season. This is where it all begins.


Picture Tells a Thousand Words: Animal Edition

We are just finishing the time of year in which we can safely have our animal herd out in the vineyard. With the continued progression of budbreak, even our latest-sprouting grapes are starting to push buds. Leaves are not far behind. So, we've moved the animals to two vine-free sections of the property: the new parcel on the other side of Tablas Creek, and a smaller area in the middle of the vineyard where we pulled out some struggling Syrah and Roussanne vines, and which we are letting lie fallow this summer.

Still, it's not hard to see the impact of the animals on the blocks in which they spent time, particularly at the fence lines which mark the dividers between grazed and ungrazed areas. I snapped a photo of one of these borders yesterday, halfway up the hill of Mourvedre that's behind the winery:

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Five days ago, the entire hillside looked like the prairie. Now, the bottom dozen rows (beginning at the middle of the frame above) look like they've been neatly mowed. It took the animals just two days to graze their enclosure down to a few inches. They spread manure throughout the block. And we didn't have to use an ounce of fuel or a single tractor pass to accomplish either goal.

This is the second time this winter that this block has been grazed by our flock; we moved them down the hillside in January. So, even the tall grass on the uphill side of the fence line is regrowth after an initial grazing, fueled in part by the fertilizer left behind on the animals' first pass.

It is this efficiency -- that we can use natural processes instead of artificial ones -- that makes Biodynamics so appealing. We're creating a more complete, more resilient ecosystem by building biodiversity, and saving ourself the costs (and side-effects) of having to buy (and spread) fertilizer, and of having to drive through the vineyard (and compact the soil with a tractor) mowing. The other benefits -- better water retention, no erosion, more topsoil, and the occasional lamb chop -- just tilt the cost/benefit calculation further in the right direction.

I drive by a few vineyards each day on my way into work whose soils look dead. Between the herbicides they use to keep weed growth down and the soil compaction created by the tractor work, even this winter's ample rainfall couldn't make grasses grow. The difference between soils like that and what you see above couldn't be plainer. Do you think this difference will impact the grapes that grow there, and the wines that result? You bet it will.


Budbreak 2017: A Return to a More Normal Time Frame

After our very wet beginning to 2017, I was hopeful that we'd see a delayed start to the growing season, at least compared to the past couple of years.  But after a chilly beginning to March, including frosts 5 out of the first 7 nights, we got a very spring-like two-week stretch starting March 8th, with sun, no frost, and consistent days in the upper 70s and low 80s. So, it wasn't a total surprise when I got a photo from our viticulturist Jordan Lonborg with a photo of a sprouting Grenache Blanc vine on March 13th:

Budbreak 2017

Budbreak, as you probably guessed from the name, is the period when the grapevine buds swell and burst into leaf.  It is the first marker in the growing cycle, a point when we can compare the current season to past years.  Upcoming markers will include flowering, veraison, first harvest, and last harvest.

Budbreak isn't uniform. Different grape varieties sprout at different times, just as they ripen at different times.  On a ramble out through the vineyard today, there were several grapes that were out significantly, including Grenache Blanc (unsurprisingly), Viognier, Vermentino, and Grenache (below):

Budbreak 2017_grenache

By contrast, our later-budding grapes like Roussanne, Counoise, Mourvedre and (this year, at least) Syrah are still mostly or entirely dormant. This Counoise block is just down the hill from the Grenache block I photographed above, without a green sprout in evidence:

Budbreak 2017_counoise

While this year is two weeks later than our record-early 2016, it's still on the early side historically: tied with 2014 and 2015 as our second-earliest in the last ten years:

2016: Very end of February
2015: Second week of March
2014: Mid-March
2013: First week of April
2012: Mid-April
2011: First week of April
2010: Last week of March
2009: Second week of April
2008: Last week of March
2007: First week of April

Weather_west 2017 tempsWhy was this year still relatively early, when other recent wet years like 2010 and 2011 were two weeks or more later? It turns out that this winter, while it was wet, wasn't really that cold. Normally, in California, the two go together, as the clouds that bring the rain also limit the ability of daytime temperatures to rise out of the 50s. But most of our storms this winter were relatively warm, of the "pineapple express" or "atmospheric river" variety originating in the South Pacific waters near Hawaii. And most of the cold weather came early, with 32 of our 41 below-freezing nights coming November-January. The graphic to the right shows that most of San Luis Obispo County was on the warm side of average, historically. (It, and a great explanation behind the data, come from Daniel Swain's must-read blog Weather West.) Click on it for a larger view.

While budbreak always feels hopeful, it also comes with a certain degree of risk. Dormant vines can freeze without danger, but new growth is susceptible to freezing; April frosts cost us roughly 40% of our production in both 2009 and 2011. And we can receive frosts here in Paso Robles all the way into early May. So far, we've avoided anything damaging, and the medium-term forecast doesn't look too threatening. But we've still got more than a month to go before we can feel safe.

Still, it's hard to feel too apprehensive when there is so much life springing into visibility around you. Please join me in welcoming the 2017 vintage.


January set the table for a wet winter. February brought us home.

At the end of January, I wrote a blog announcing that January 2017 had become our wettest month ever.  But at that time, we were only at 23.88" for the rain year (July-June), which while better than in recent years was still below our 20-year average, albeit with nearly half the rainy season still to come. I concluded that while we were very happy with what we'd received so far, "we've got a long way to go to climb out of the hole the last five years of drought has put us in".

February continued the winter's remarkable attack on our long-term drought, adding another 12.56" of rain to the tally, roughly 250% of what we'd get in an average February. By month:

Winter Rainfall 2016-17 March

How rare are back-to-back 10+ inch rain months?  Since our weather station went in during the summer of 1996, this is the first time.  In fact, we've only once before had two 10+ inch months in a single rain season: December of 2010 and March of 2011.  Otherwise, the closest we've come to these back-to-back wet months was a 13.5" month in December of 2004 followed by a 7.5" month in January of 2005, en route to our wettest-ever year at 42.85".  At 38.41" winter-to-date, we're not far from that now:

Winter Rainfall 1996-2017

You can see the impact of the 30" inches we've received (!) in 2017 in ways both more and less obvious. The vineyard is wet, with springs welling out of many of our hillsides. Las Tablas Creek is running cheerfully through its valley, for the first time since spring of 2012:

Tablas Creek Valley

The lake, which the previous owners made by damming up the creek, which we have visions of tapping to help with our frost protection in the spring, is full for the first time since 2011, complete with ducks:

Lake Ramage

The drought is significantly ameliorated, according to the United States Drought Monitor. In fact, San Luis Obispo County is almost entirely free of drought, upgraded to the lowest "abnormally dry" classification, when at the beginning of the fall it was split between "severe drought", "extreme drought", and "exceptional drought":

Drought monitor changes - v2

So, are we truly out of the woods? I wouldn't go that far. There are still enormous pressures on groundwater. While out here aquifers recharge quickly, compared to most other California regions, it's still early to declare us free from worry. I know that we're going be as careful as ever in how we develop our vineyard. The water in the ground will certainly give the head-trained, dry-farmed vines we're planting this winter on our new property an easier go of it. And we're unlikely to need to irrigate even the close-spaced established blocks this growing season. That's all good. But this year's wet winter doesn't change the likelihood that our climate is going to be gradually getting warmer and drier with climate change.

While we're grateful for all this water, we've also been happy to have the sun in recent days. The ground is so saturated, and so soft, that until the last 10 days or so it's been impossible to get into the vineyard to prune. We're still behind, but making good progress, and feel confident that we'll get everything done before budbreak.  I like this panoramic shot, taken between two Mourvedre rows where our crew left off at lunchtime: pruned, uphill on the left, and as-yet-unpruned, downhill on the right. Click on it to expand:

Pruned Unpruned Panorama

About that budbreak. At this time last year, we'd already seen budbreak in several of our early-sprouting grape varieties. This year, we've been having frosty mornings for most of the last two weeks, which combined with the water in the soil, seem to be convincing the vines to stay dormant a bit longer.  It seems likely that we're going to be back to a more normal start time to the growing season -- late March or early April -- rather than the exceptionally early beginning that we've seen the past few years. That is comforting. But as to whether it insulates us from a damaging frost, we'll have to see.  We've been lucky to avoid frosts these last few years, despite the early onset to the growing season. But the last two years which produced bad frost events (2009 and 2011) both saw late budbreak, in April rather than March.

Is it possible that a cold spring, which leads to a late budbreak, may also put you more at risk for a post-budbreak frost? It doesn't seem far fetched. But we'll still take every dormant night that we can, and shorten the frost season as much as possible. Fingers crossed, please, everyone.