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


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.

20170902_193923

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.

IMG_20170905_195332_259

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.

Foliage


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:

20170721_103051

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.