Harvest 2018 at the 80% line: It looks like won't see November grapes, after all

As often happens in early October, the bigger picture of harvest comes into focus and you have a chance to check which of your early harvest assumptions are turning out to be true, and which false. This year, we're receiving validation of most of our important assumptions. Quality has been very high. Quantity has been solid: at long-term averages, or a little above. But timing? It appears that my prediction of a late harvest (one that lasts into November) is looking increasingly unlikely.  As we begin the week of October 15th, we're somewhere around 85% done. And while we still have enough Mourvedre, Counoise and Roussanne hanging that we will have fruit to pick during our upcoming Paso Robles Harvest Wine Weekend festivities (hooray!) I think the chances that we'll still have grapes on the vines a week later are dwindling rapidly.

This isn't a bad thing. We've had such good conditions ever since we began in earnest on September 10th that we haven't really had to push the harvest pause button.  In fact, until this past weekend, we hadn't had consecutive non-picking days since September 6th-9th, at which point we were only 8 tons in, or 1.6% of what we've harvested to date. Our week-by-week harvest log shows the relatively steady intensity of the last five weeks. We didn't maintain the pace of our busiest-ever harvest week (September 10-16, at nearly 133 tons) but we also haven't seen any real pauses, with each week since then falling between 59 and 104 tons:

Harvest Chart through October 14th

The weather has provided ideal conditions for this sort of harvest, with plenty of cool to moderate, sunny days and a few modest, short-lived warm-ups embedded within. Looking at the weather since our mid-summer heat wave broke on August 20th shows that we've seen 38 cooler-than-normal days and just 18 whose highs topped out above our long-term averages:

Daily High Temps 2018 vs Normal

That first warm-up between September 4th and 8th goosed the harvest into gear and produced our incredibly busy week, including most of our early-season grapes like Viognier, Syrah, and Vermentino. The second warm up (September 16-24) brought our mid-season grapes like Grenache, Marsanne, and Tannat into ripeness. Most of our late-season grapes like Counoise, Mourvedre, and Roussanne stayed out until it warmed up modestly last week, and some upper-80s weather that's forecast for later this week should give them the nudge they need to come into the cellar.

It's worth noting that for all that the graph above looks pretty spiky and dramatic, we've really had a very consistent season.  Only 2 days (both early in the harvest season) have topped 100, with just 5 more topping 95.  And only 3 days topped out in the 60s, with just 3 others topping out between 70 and 75.  That means that 43 of the last 56 days have seen  highs between 75 and 95, which are temperatures at which grapevines do a very good job of photosynthesis.

All the remaining vineyard blocks look ready, and in reality nothing is very far away.  If we were facing an early-season rainstorm, or a stretch that was forecast to get up into the 100s, we could pick everything and be happy with it.  But it's a luxury knowing that grapes like the Counoise pictured below can get another week or so of ripening in ideal conditions, and then be picked without stress:

Counoise rows

In the cellar, the pause we've seen the past few days has allowed us to get ready for the final push. We've been pressing off one red lot after another, to free up fermentation tanks and allow the wines to finish their fermentations in barrel:

Pressing October 15th

That brings us to another October ritual: cleaning barrels into which we'll put all this new wine to complete its fermentation. I love this shot I got this morning, of Cellar Master Brad Ely steam-cleaning barrels that will become homes for the newly-pressed red wines. Note his hat: last night got down to 41.9°F out here and there's a chance that some of the coldest pockets of Paso Robles might even see frost this week:

Steam Cleaning Barrels

But a frost, even in the off chance that it happens isn't a big deal at this time of year.  We'd keep picking nonetheless.  And conditions are forecast to be just about ideal, so we're feeling good about things.  So, with 10 days or so of harvest to go, even if it's no longer a coin flip as to whether or not we'll be picking in November (as I thought it would be two weeks ago) we can still use that coin to predict whether or not we'll have enough lines on our harvest chalkboard to fit everything this year. Let's hope it comes down heads!

Chalkboard Oct 15th


Harvest 2018 at its mid-point: moderate to good yields and outstanding quality under ideal weather conditions

After two intense weeks, the cellar is pretty much full and we're in a bit of a lull. The early grapes (think Viognier, Vermentino, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc, Syrah and Pinot Noir) are done or largely done, and while we've made a start with the mid-season grapes like Grenache and Tannat, there's still more out on the vines than there is in the cellar. Mourvedre, Roussanne, and Counoise are still a few weeks off. This ebb and flow is a good chance to let a few fermentations finish in what is a very full cellar: 

IMG_1555

The weather has been absolutely ideal, a bit cooler than normal, but with a few short warm-ups mixed in to give the grapes periodic nudges toward ripeness. And even during those warm stretches, the nights have been quite chilly, leading to some remarkable diurnal temperature swings. From the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance's weather stations this past Wednesday:

IMG_8272

The 48.5° swing that we saw at Tablas Creek was one of the smaller ones in the area. The Templeton Gap's swing was 57.8°, while the Adelaida West station, just a few miles away from us, was 62.3°.  That's remarkable, even here in Paso Robles where massive diurnal swings are commonplace. But it meant that even when it was hot, it was only hot for a few hours, with the vast majority of the day in the 85°-95° range which is ideal for grapevine photosynthesis. 

With the first handful of varieties harvested, we have the first chance to wrap our heads around yields.  It looks like yields are down from 2017, but still above the levels we saw during our drought. The varieties we've finished harvesting are down a total of 12.8%. Given that 2017 was up 21.8% over 2016's more or less average yields, we still seem like we're in good shape. The details on the grapes we've finished with:

Grape 2017 Yields (tons) 2018 Yields (tons) % Change vs. 2017
Viognier 18.9 14.4 -23.8%
Marsanne 13.8 11.8 -14.5%
Grenache Blanc 46.4 33.7 -27.4%
Vermentino 22.2 21.7 -2.3%
Syrah 41.5 42.6 +2.7%
Pinot Noir 8.7 7.9 -9.2%
Total so Far 151.5 132.1 -12.8%

In terms of timing, as September moves into October, we're still about two weeks behind what we have grown used to in the 2012-2017 run, and haven't picked up any significant ground since the beginning of harvest. We picked Syrah this year between September 14th and 25th.  Last year, it came in between August 31st and September 20th. The 2018 Viognier came in between August 31st and September 20th. In 2017, its range was August 30th to September 4th. By the end of September last year, we'd picked 90% of our Grenache. This year, we're only 24 tons in, or about a third of what we expect to harvest.  I'd give us less than a 50/50 chance of being done by the end of October this year. That's not particularly scary; in the 2000's we harvested into November more than half the vintages. But it's been a while. 

The quality has been outstanding so far: terrific flavors and ideal numbers from fruit that has looked like it could have come of the table at our local farmers' market. And the fermentations have smelled wonderful. We've been wishing for scratch-and-sniff Internet, so we can share more than just how nice fermentations (like the Pinot Noir pictured below) look:

IMG_8211

Looking forward, we expect to see a lot of Grenache and Tannat the next week or two, and we'll likely start cherry-picking Roussanne and Mourvedre, to get the ripest clusters into the cellar so they don't raisin while we wait for the majority of the fruit to reach maturity. Scenes like Saturday morning's, where Tannat bins spill from the crushpad onto our staff parking lot, will be commonplace:

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There is a little uncertainty in next week's forecast; the interaction between a Pacific low pressure system and the remnants of Hurricane Rosa will likely cause some showers on Wednesday.  But with the forecast predicted to warm up and dry out after, that's not a big deal.  At worst, we may not pick for a couple of days.  But if you're in the desert Southwest, this is something to prepare for:

Meanwhile, we'll enjoy the beautiful fermentation aromas in the cellar, and the colors of the grapes on the vines. And hope that the second half of harvest continues under equally good conditions as we've seen for the first half.


Harvest 2018 Begins with a Whisper

A little more than a month ago, I predicted that the 2018 harvest would begin sometime in the first half of September.  I was almost right.  We actually got our first fruit -- a couple of tons of Viognier -- on August 31st.  About five tons of Viognier came in for our Patelin de Tablas Blanc on September 5th.  And then, this morning, we picked our first red grapes: 2.6 tons of Pinot Noir from my parents' vineyard:

Full Circle Pinot harvest - Team photo

How does this leisurely beginning to the 2018 harvest stack up against other recent years? Much slower. The first 11 days of the 2018 harvest saw 10.64 tons of fruit arrive in the cellar, which is just 16% of our average (67.34 tons in the first 11 days) this decade. The decade has included cool and hot vintages, early and late starts, and even in the years with the slowest starts we saw at least triple the amount of fruit arriving in the cellar during the first week and a half of harvest.  So, we really are seeing an outlier this year. The below chart will illustrate, and I've also tossed on the chart the date of our first Full Circle Pinot Noir harvest, for comparison:

Year Tons, First 11 Days Date of First Pinot Harvest
2018 10.64 September 10th
2017 156.06 August 29th
2016 83.41 August 23rd
2015 80.78 August 22nd
2014 40.48 August 28th
2013 81.67 August 23rd
2012 120.95 September 6th
2011 37.57 September 22nd
2010 32.03 September 28th

You can see, in addition to how unusual this slow start to harvest is, just how much later harvest has been this year than in other recent years. The first Pinot Noir pick is a good marker for us, because it always comes from the same small vineyard.  We're more than two weeks later than our 2013-2017 average, though not as far behind as what we saw the historically cool back-to-back 2010 and 2011 vintages.  

Although we've seen a brief warmup the last few days, it's been quite cool, overall, since mid-August, and we're forecast for more cool weather this and next week.  So, we may not see things catch up much.  That's not worrying, at least not yet.  Longer hang times are a good thing, as is the ability to pick at just the right moment, instead of being forced into a pick in the middle of a heat spike.  Of course, if we don't catch up at all, and finish harvest still two-plus weeks behind where we've been the last five years, there's a better-than-even chance we'll be harvesting in November. We wouldn't have thought that unusual a recently as a few years ago (between 2000 and 2011 harvest stretched into November six times) but it hasn't happened since 2011.  It does appear, as I wrote this summer, that we're looking at something of a throwback vintage

The slower start to harvest has meant that we've been able to get out and get good samples on most of our early blocks, and we like what we see.  Clusters are small but not tiny.  The vines appear healthy, recovered after the long mid-summer heat marathon.  Numbers are ideal for us at this stage.  And the fruit looks great.  A bin of Viognier looks fresh and clean:

Viognier cluster with Linneas hand

The fruit in the press smells great, like peaches and flowers, and the rich, yeasty scents of fermentation are beginning to permeate the cellar:

Viognier in press

And now that we finally have some red grapes in the cellar, we can really get things going.  Please join me in welcoming the 2018 harvest.

Full Circle Pinot harvest - bins and vines


What a difference a few weeks makes: From hot to cool as we wait for a delayed harvest

If you didn't know how beautiful a fog bank can be, you haven't spent a summer in Paso Robles.  Yesterday, I returned to the vineyard after a weekend in San Francisco to find that I'd somehow brought back the weather with me.  The daytime high was just 77°F. The night before dropped down to 43°F. And there was a big, beautiful fog bank sitting over the Santa Lucia Mountains to our west:

Fog bank August 2018

Now this weather pattern isn't shocking for us, even in the middle of the summer. Although we get plenty of hot days, we normally see a pattern that builds in heat, tops out over 100°F for a few days, then breaks and we see cooler weather with days topping out in the upper 70s or lower 80s for a few days before it starts to build.

But it was shocking in that this summer, we hadn't seen the breaks hardly at all.  In fact, between July 5th and August 19th -- a stretch of six and a half weeks --  the lowest high temperature that we saw was 87°, and the lowest low temperature we saw was 53°. We had 22 days top 100°F. Our average high was 98.8° and our average low 57.6°. 

Happily, things have changed over the last ten days.  Every one of the days since August 20th would have been the lowest high and the lowest low in the previous 6-week stretch. We averaged a high of 83.3° and a low of 48.5°. And the long-term forecast calls for continued moderate weather.  The vineyard appears grateful for the respite; the vines look a lot less stressed to me than they did a couple of weeks back.

In some ways, this year reminds me of 2015, where we had alternating cold and hot months all the way from budbreak in April to the close of harvest in October.  Although the periods have lasted longer this year, we are seeing the same cold-hot-cold pattern.  I'm hoping that yields aren't as scarce as they were in 2015, when we were deep in the throes of our drought and also saw cold, windy weather during the May flowering period that reduced crop loads on our early grapes by as much as 70%, but it's certain that they'll be down from our 2017 levels.  How much is still to be determined.  But in character, the 2015s were outstanding, so if that's our baseline, I'm not unhappy.

Because we've largely avoided the temperatures where grapevines photosynthesize optimally (between 85°F and 95°F) we're still trending behind on our harvest. We're thinking it might begin slowly at the end of next week.  And we're OK with that.  In my trek around the vineyard, I tasted berries from Grenache, Grenache Blanc, Tannat, and Roussanne, and none of them were anywhere near ripe.  In fact, most were still only partway through veraison, a month after I wrote about it.  A few photos will demonstrate.  First, Tannat, where you can see the characteristic blue-black berries intermixed with pink and even green berries at the top of the cluster:

Tannat cluster August 2018

Next, Grenache Blanc. It's harder to see veraison in white grapes, but you can see some berries with a yellow tint, while others toward the center of the cluster are still more green:

Grenache Blanc cluster August 2018

And finally Roussanne, which is still resolutely green, not showing any of the characteristic russet coloring that gives the grape its name:

Roussanne cluster August 2018

It's worth recapitulating how much later we are than other recent years. Four of the last five years, we'd already started picking off our estate as of August 28th, and the fifth (2017) we were just two days from beginning and had already received some Viognier for the Patelin Blanc.  This year? Not so much. We've gone from weather that was too cool to ripen grapes fast to weather that was too hot to gapes ripen fast right back to cool weather, with virtually no transition either time.  We're out sampling all our Patelin vineyards, but nothing is imminent. The cellar team has been scrubbing equipment from top to bottom, and everything is sparkling clean. We've installed some new mini-foudres for our white program. The table is set... we're just waiting for the guests to arrive.

Clean cellar with new foudres August 2018


Yes, July really was hot. But veraison still arrived late. What gives?

A month ago, I felt like I was tempting fate when I characterized the 2018 summer as "benign". Well, so much for benign. July was the hottest month we've ever seen here at Tablas Creek, with an average high temperature of 96.5 and an average overall temperature of 76.5.  Fourteen days topped 100, and only seven -- all toward the beginning of the month -- failed to get into the 90s. In terms of degree days, July saw us accumulate 844 degree days, fully 28% more than our average of 659. That's a big increase over what is already our hottest month:

2018 summer temps through July

Given the heat and the season, it really wasn't a surprise when I got an email from Neil on Monday with a photo of Syrah undergoing veraison. Veraison marks the point where a grape stops accumulating mass and starts accumulating sugar. More visibly, red grapes start their color change from green to purple, 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.] A few photos of Syrah clusters will give you a sense of what things look like now:

Veraison 2018 syrah 2

And:

Veraison 2018 syrah 3

It's worth remembering that most of the vineyard is still totally green.  Syrah is the first red grape to enter veraison, and I couldn't find even a hint of color on any of the others. And, that photo was from the top of our tallest hill, which is always more advanced than areas lower down both because they started earlier since their last frost was later, and because they're under more stress due to scarcity of water. But we know that once we see Syrah, the other grapes follow along in fairly short order.

One of veraison's principal values to a winery is as a marker: this landmark comes roughly six weeks before the onset of harvest, and gives us our best estimate for when harvest will begin.  But, of course, six weeks is a rough average, 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, 2016'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 dozen 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 August 30 40
2018 July 29 ? ?

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 September 3rd and September 16th. I'm guessing we start toward the early end of that range, given the warmth of the summer so far and the relatively moderate crop levels we've been estimating.

Given the heat in July, it's worth addressing why the vineyard hasn't caught up more from the roughly two weeks late it was after flowering. I'd point the finger at two culprits. First, we did catch up a bit; I'd estimate that we're more like 10 days behind than the two weeks we were in early July.  And second, grapevines photosynthesize optimally at temperatures between 30 and 35 Celsius (86 and 95 Fahrenheit). Two-thirds of our days in July got above 95 degrees, which means that the grapevines actually slowed down photosynthesis in the heat of the day as they closed the pores on their leaves to reduce dehydration.

What's next for the vineyard? We'll watch the different grapes go through veraison. Syrah will be followed by Mourvedre, then Grenache soon, and finally Counoise. 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. Everyone will be storing up on sleep.

And now we know -- roughly at least -- how much time we have  left before everything shifts into harvest mode. Stay tuned.


A mid-summer vineyard assessment suggests 2018 is looking like a throwback to the 2000s

I feel like I'm inviting disaster just by typing this sentence, but it's been, well, benign so far this summer.  I got back from two weeks in Europe, some vacation and some work, to find a vineyard significantly advanced over where it was in the first half of June.  Vines that were just finishing flowering are now fully set, with early varieties nearly full-sized.  The Grenache, below, looks fully formed, though the grapes will continue to grow a little and there's no hint of color change yet:

Vineyard Summer 2018 Grenache

Fruit set looks good, with only minimal shatter, and the late rain that we received in March appears to have given the vines enough vigor to set a healthy crop.  We will surely be dropping some fruit this summer.

The vineyard looks vibrantly healthy, with even stress-prone varieties like Roussanne and Mourvedre still fully green.  This isn't a surprise; we've only had one day (June 22nd) top 100, and only 14 days reach the 90s.  That may sound like a lot, but the average nighttime low since May 1st has been 46 degrees, and a couple of days in mid-June didn't even make it out of the 60s. More measurably, in terms of heat accumulation (as measured in Degree Days at the weather station in our vineyard) we're still below our 20-year average, with May 18% cooler than normal and June just 5% warmer than normal.  I'm not sure if the health of the vineyard comes through in photographs, but it's (no pun intended) worth a shot:

Vineyard Summer 2018

Or, for another perspective, here's a shot from below the Counoise trellises, showing the clusters sheltering beneath their leafy canopy:

Vineyard Summer 2018 Under Counoise

How does this compare to other recent years, and what does it mean for harvest?  Well, our late-March budbreak, which kicks off the growing season, was about two weeks later than in most recent years, though more or less average looking at a 20-year perspective.  The weather since then has been quite a bit cooler than the years since 2012, but again, more or less average looking at the 20-year scale.  That's probably easier to make sense of in a graph.  First, the heat accumulation (in degree days) this year versus two averages: one of all years since 1997, and the other looking at just the recent warm stretch that began in 2012:

Summer 2018 Degree Days Through June

You can see that our recent years (in green) have been quite a bit warmer than the longer-term average (in blue), whereas 2018 (in red) is cooler.  That's perhaps even more dramatically illustrated by looking at 2018 in terms of percent difference from average.  All three months we've measured this growing season have been between 8.5% and 15.5% cooler than the 2012-2017 stretch:

Summer 2018 Degree Days Through June vs Normal

All this weather data just reinforces my thought that we're going to be seeing a harvest that's more like what we got used to in the 2000s (when we averaged 1069 degree days through June, nearly identical to this year's 1045) than what we've seen in the 2010s. The best comps to date are 2002, 2006, and 2009, all of which didn't see harvest begin until the first half of September. I'm not expecting veraison until we get close to the end of July.  Of course, there's still a long way to go, and there is a hot stretch forecast starting next week.  But we are at what's typically the hottest time of year, and it's still been moderate.  So far, so good.


Assessing Winter 2017-2018 After March's Rainfall "Miracle"

At the end of February, we were looking at a potentially disastrous winter, with less than five inches of precipitation.  A major storm that arrived March 1st and dropped more than three inches of rain in 24 hours marked a major pattern shift, and the rest of March continued wet, finishing with nearly 12 inches of rain, our wettest March since we put in our weather station in 1996 and the sixth-wettest month in that time frame.  Although April was dry, we're in a much better place than it looked like we'd be.  For a visual sense of how the winter has shaped up compared to normal, I've put together a graph by month:

Rainfall Graph Winter 2017-18

You can see what an outlier March is, at 295% of normal.  Still, following six drier-than-n0rmal winter months, we will end this winter season at something like 70% of average, a total much more like what we saw during our 2012-2016 drought than the gloriously wet 2016-2017 winter:

Rainfall by Winter 1996-2018

Still, while it was a below-average rainfall winter, it's neither particularly troubling nor particularly unusual. It ranks 13th of the 22 winters since 1996. And it follows our very wet winter last year, which produced healthy vines and replenished our underground water sources. Historically, the first dry year after a wet stretch hasn't been particularly hard on the vineyard, thanks to the accumulated vigor and residual moisture, and has in fact produced some fabulous vintages like 1999, 2002, 2007, and 2012. 

It's also important to realize that the fact that the rain came late will have an impact on the growing season.  It's unusually green right now for mid-May, and that soil moisture is relatively plentiful close to the surface, easily accessible even to relatively young grapevines.  A few shots should give you a sense of what things look like. First, one from mid-April, before the Mourvedre vines in this low-lying area had sprouted:

Cover crop

Next, this photo of new growth in Grenache, from about a week back:

New Growth in Grenache

Because the rain came so late and we wanted to give the cover crops as much time as possible to build organic matter, we're behind in getting them tilled under. The vineyard at my parents' house is a good example; the cover crops are nearly as high as the cordons:

Haas Vineyard Cover Crop

The other implication of the late beginning of cover crop growth is that we weren't able to have the animals in the vineyard as much as we would have liked this winter, because there just wasn't enough for them to eat until the beginning of March. But we're planning to harvest the cover crops in sections of the vineyard where we weren't able to have them graze, to supplement their forage from unplanted portions of the property.

The late rain and the consistent sun in April has made for a spectacular wildflower season.  The mustard is blooming, adding an electric yellow blanket nearly covering the head-trained Grenache vines:

Mustard and Head trained Grenache

And, of course, the California poppies are the stars of the show.  Anyone who is planning a visit to Paso Robles this month is in for some spectacular scenery:

California Poppies

Big picture: we're feeling cautiously optimistic about things.  We've received enough rain to feel confident that our dry-farmed vineyards will do fine through the growing season, and in a concentrated enough period to have positively impacted our well levels. Budbreak was later than in recent years, and we're now largely through the frost season, with only one frost event (the morning of April 17th), which doesn't look like it did too much damage. The vineyard looks healthy.

Given where we were in mid-February, I don't think we could have asked for anything more.


Spring in the Vineyard: A Burst of Growth and a Wildflower Explosion

It's been a while since I took people on a photographic tour of what's going on in the vineyard. So, let's remedy that.

Spring is my favorite time in Paso Robles.  The hillsides are green.  The air is softer than it was during the winter, and the days warm and pleasant, but not yet the stark summer that can feel floodlit during the day.  Nights can still be chilly, and we do worry about frost, but so far this spring we've had relatively stress-free nights and (other than a little testing) haven't even had to turn on our frost-protection systems.  That's particularly nice because this week, both our winemaker and our vineyard manager are out representing the winery at Taste of Vail.  Meanwhile, the vineyard is springing to life, with buds swelling, then opening, then bursting to leaf with remarkable speed.

But it's the explosion of color that is springtime in Paso Robles' calling card.  The rain that came during the winter combines with the longer days to produce a month of proliferating wildflowers. The most visible of these flowers are the bright orange California poppies, our state's official flower:

Poppies and animals

Low to the ground, particularly in valley areas and those blocks where the sheep came through earlier in the winter and ate the taller grasses, you can find a carpet of tiny purple flowers covering the ground:

Purple wildflowers

On hillsides, the wild mustard's yellow blooms give splashes of color that always make me think of a giant toddler let loose with a can of yellow spray paint:

Mustard in the vine rows

Not all the growth is colorful. The green of our cover crop mix (oats, sweet peas, vetch, and clovers) combines with wild grasses to approach the height of the cordons where we haven't been able to get the sheep in to eat it down:

Cover crop

With bud break, we're approaching the end of the season where we can have our animal flock in the vineyard safely. We've moved them to the late-sprouting Mourvedre and Counoise blocks, including one easily visible from the winery itself.  I love this photo, which shows the hillside with the sheep, the extent of the green growth, and the winery, complete with solar array, all in one shot:

Winery  animals and solar panels

The rain we got last month meant that (briefly, at least) Las Tablas Creek was running, and it filled up the lake on the new parcel we bought in 2011. We still haven't done anything about using that water to help frost-protect the vineyard, but seeing the lake full for the second consecutive year has rekindled our thinking about how we might:

Lake Ramage

But, of course, it's the vines that are the main event at this time of year. And the splashes of vibrant yellow-green are the most hopeful sign of all. While some varieties (like the aforementioned Mourvedre and Counoise, as well as Roussanne, Tannat, and Picpoul) are yet to sprout, early grapes like Viognier, Syrah, Marsanne, Grenache, and Grenache Blanc (pictured below) are already well out of dormancy:

New growth - Grenache Blanc

This explosion of spring color won't last long.  Soon, the weather will heat up and dry out, and we'll turn to getting the cover crop incorporated into the vineyard so the vines can benefit from its nutrition and don't have to compete with extra roots for available water. But if you're coming in the next month, you're in for a treat.


A Late-March 2018 Bud Break Marks a Return to a "Normal" Spring

Two months ago, I was worried. January, normally our coldest month of the year, had seen only four nights drop below freezing. After one decent storm on January 8th and 9th, the rest of the month was dry, leaving us at just 20% of normal rainfall by month-end.  We ended the month with a week of sunny days, each topping out in the mid-70s.  The beginning of February was more of the same: ten days of sun in a row, each topping out between 75 and 81, with lows dropping down only into the 40s.  I was worried we'd see our vines start to sprout in February, setting the growing season off to an unprecedentedly early start and leaving us an unconscionably long period of frost risk.

Thankfully, mid-February brought a change in the weather pattern. Although the second half of the month remained dry (the 0.28" of rain is just 6% of what we'd expect from our second-wettest month) it got cold. We finished February with ten straight frosty nights, all but one dropping into the 20s. Only one of those days made it out of the 50s. And then, in March, it began to rain. We've seen fifteen days this month with measurable precipitation, totaling 11.94" for the month and bringing us to 16.54" for the winter, roughly 75% of what we would expect on this date. The vineyard has transformed, green cover crop springing from the ground as though it was making up for lost time. Now that we've passed the spring equinox and are in the middle of a week of sunny, increasingly warm weather, it's not surprising that I saw the first signs of bud break when I got out into the vineyard yesterday. Our viticulturist Jordan Lonborg provided photographic evidence with a photo of a sprouting Viognier vine this morning:

Budbreak 2018 Viognier

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.  And like harvest, budbreak doesn't happen for every grape simultaneously. Early grapes like Viognier, Grenache Blanc, and Vermentino tend to go first, followed by Grenache and Syrah, then later Marsanne and Picpoul, and finally, often a month after the earliest grapes sprouted, Roussanne, Counoise, and Mourvedre. And it really is just starting. Even Grenache, typically on the early side, was fully dormant everywhere except the very tops of the hills:

Grenache still dormant late March 2018

While this year is two weeks later than last year's budbreak, and a month later than our record-early 2016, it's only about average for what we'd have expected historically:

2017: Mid-March
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

The timing of our cold and our rain was pretty much ideal. Grapevines (and all deciduous plants) pay the most attention to soil temperatures in deciding when to come out of dormancy. And wet soils retain cold better than warm soils. The double dose we received of cold and wet meant that despite the lengthening days, the vines' most important sensors were telling them that winter was still in effect, and sprouting would be a risk.  And, in fact, budbreak does begin our white-knuckle season, since while dormant vines can freeze without danger, new growth is susceptible to frost damage. April frosts cost us roughly 40% of our production in both 2009 and 2011, and we don't feel truly safe until mid-May. So, we've still got more than a month to go before we can relax, and it will be a few weeks before our later-sprouting varieties and our lower-lying (read: more frost-prone) areas are out enough to be at risk. 

But in general, if you could design a favorable winter weather pattern, it would look a lot like what we've seen recently. We'd ask for regular frosts and rain through the end of March, and then a switch to a warm, dry pattern thereafter. While we're always grateful for rain, since frosts tend to follow in the wake of frontal passages, the precipitation you get in spring storms isn't worth the risk of frost damage.  And the current long-term forecast calls for the high pressure system that has dominated our area this week, bringing sun and increasingly warm days, to persist for a while.

That's just fine with us. Now that the first vines have begun to sprout, we'll see the scene in the vineyard change rapidly. Please join me in welcoming the 2018 vintage.


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