Photo of the Day: A Ridiculous Sunset

Winter in Paso Robles typically brings great sunsets.  The moisture in the air brings clouds -- rare in the summer -- and the lower sun angles mean that the colors last longer in the evenings. The shorter days mean that they're often happening while I'm still at work. Tonight's wasn't a given, though. It was chilly and overcast most of the day, and it wasn't until a half hour or so before the sun disappeared behind the western hills that the clouds broke up enough to let the sun's rays through. But oh, what a reward:

Sunset feb 2017

This time of year brings my favorite Paso Robles landscape.  The winter's rainfall has meant that you have deep, lush greens everywhere. Soon, we'll get an explosion of wildflowers, particularly after this wet winter.  And the sky puts on pyrotechnic displays many evenings.  There was actually a rainbow (not really photographable, though I tried) opposite this sunset. 

If you've only experienced Paso Robles in summer or fall, make a point to come out in the winter or spring next time. You won't believe your eyes.


Winter Vineyard Photo Essay: After the Rain

It has been a remarkable January here at Tablas Creek. By the time the last storm in our most recent sequence passed through early Monday morning, we'd accumulated 4.01" of rain in 24 hours, 18.79" for January, and 25.5" for the winter rainy season so far. The blog I posted Sunday has more detail on what this record-setting rainfall means to us, but big  picture, it's all terrific.  At this time of year, the more rain, the better, almost without exception.

Now, with three days of sun (and two quite frosty nights) behind us, it's finally firm enough to get out into the vineyard without sacrificing your footwear.  And we've been taking advantage of this footing by getting out to show off the vineyard's green winter coat.  I thought I'd share a few of our favorite shots.  As always, click on the photo to see it larger.  

First, one that Lauren caught of the frost on one of our cover crop flowers. Our mornings have been quite chilly, down in the upper 20s with plenty of moisture to settle (and freeze) overnight:

Frost on cover crop flower

While we're on the subject of wildflowers, I found the first California poppy of the year growing behind the winery:

CA poppy

The vineyard itself is vibrantly green, with the contours emphasized by the bare branches.  We'll be starting to prune in the next few weeks, but as for now everything is still in its raw state. Note too the section in the background (formerly a mixed section of struggling Syrah, Mourvedre, and Roussanne) that we've pulled out and will be letting lay fallow for a year:

Green vine contours

What's growing is a mix of the cover crop that we seed each year (a mix of sweet peas, oats, vetch, and clovers) and the native plants that seed themselves.  One of these that I'm always happy to see is miner's lettuce, an edible water-loving perennial that tastes like a cross between watercress and baby spinach:

Miners lettuce

The animals are doing a great job of keeping the cover crop growth reasonable.  Nathan has already gotten the animals through nearly the entire vineyard once, on his way to two full passes before budbreak.  His goal is to keep them in any given area only for a day or two, and then move them before they start to damage the cover crop's roots, so it will continue growing.  They dot the hillsides like white clouds on a green background:

Animals in vineyard

The sheep, alpacas, and donkeys aren't the only animals we're finding homes for.  I like that this shot of one of our owl boxes is framed between two of the different oak species that give Paso Robles its name (a coastal live oak on the right and a deciduous black oak on the left):

Owl box and oak trees

Outside the vineyard, the rain has left the forest feeling washed clean. I love this photo of the lichen hanging off the trees, still sparkling from the last cloudburst:

Lichen forest

Finally, lest you think that all the water has disappeared underground, one photo of what is normally just a grassy valley.  Water is seeping out of the vineyard at all its low points, heading down toward a suddenly rushing Las Tablas Creek:

Impromptu creek

With all the water in the ground, and a week of sun forecast, it's only going to get greener here, and the wildflower season this year should be spectacular. If you've only seen Paso Robles in its summer gold, it's something to be sure to experience. 


Creating an Experience Worthy of Being Called the "Collector's Tasting"

By Lauren Phelps

It is a very rare treat to pour an aged, library wine for guests in our tasting room.  Wines that have been carefully cellar aged have a rich and complex quality that many California wine drinkers have yet to discover.  After a few years of bottle aging our Esprit de Tablas wines are impossibly complex, with layers of complementary flavors ranging from dark cherry and plum to leather and spice.  I have exhausted myself and our guests attempting to explain with words and gestures the benefits of bottle aging,  imploring my audience to "forget about our wine at the back of your closet" or "write a special occasion on the bottle" and keep it aging for at least five years, upwards of thirty in the right conditions.  As you might imagine, my passionate attempts at persuasion are mostly met with doubtful gazes and guilty confessions about their lack of will control.  

Tablas Creek Vineyards 7

Our traditional tasting list guides guests through our new releases, which for many wines mostly conveys the wines' potential.  It's easy to judge these fresh, young wines as they are, without a perspective as to their long and developing lifespan.  It's like writing the biography of a teenager.  I would never suggest guests not enjoy our wines in their youth; they are lovely young as well.  I would simply caution tasters from only experiencing the wines before they've had a chance to fully develop.  I often suggest having a few bottles of the same vintage on hand and tasting one every couple of years to watch them mature and change over time.  [We provide a vintage aging chart on our website to help take the guess work out of when to open our wine.]  Alas, we cannot all have closets full of Tablas Creek wine on hand for such experiments and that is why I am excited to share our Collector's Tasting Experience (previously known as our "Reserve Tasting").

Tablas Creek '16 (4 of 8)edited

In our Collector's Tasting Experience, I can finally take a deep breath, relax and allow the wines to speak for themselves.  It's an intimate, seated tasting, focusing on wines that we've cellared for some years, and typically including multiple older vintages of our Esprit de Tablas. This allows guests to experience first-hand how the bottle aging process deepens and complicates the youthful flavors, while also often revealing  the secondary flavors a young wine just hasn't developed yet.  It is so satisfying to watch the recognition stretch across my guests' faces as they recognize how dramatically these wines develop with age.  I hope this tasting experience will encourage guests to purchase current release wines and hold them to their peak maturity, but we also have a small stock of these library wines to offer to the guests who've come for this special tasting.

Tablas Creek Vineyards 5

Whether you are a long-time member of our wine club or have recently discovered Tablas Creek, we hope that you'll find the Collector's Tasting to be both a memorable and worthwhile experience. We offer two sessions Sunday-Friday at 11:30am and 3:00pm; Saturdays and holiday weekends we offer one session at 10:00am. We ask that reservations be made at least 24 hours in advance. The cost for the tasting is $40 for non-members/ $25 for members, and each tasting fee is waived with $250 purchase. To reserve a spot for this tasting, please contact us at visit@tablascreek.com, or just give us a call at (805)-237-1231.

It is a honor to share these wines with our fans who appreciate them and those who are also passionate about the Rhone movement in California.  Please don't hesitate to call the vineyard or email me with any questions you may have (lauren@tablascreek.com).  Cheers!


Tablas Creek Olive Oil: A Collaborative Effort Between Tablas Creek and Kiler Ridge

By Suphada Rom

If you've visited the winery, you may have noticed the lines of olive trees that frame the driveway as you enter the property. We have tried to keep our decorative planting in the Rhone theme (think lavender, rosemary, and pomegranates), and in 1992 we planted somewhere around 100 olive trees, mostly Manzanilla and a few Mission. We've tried in many ways to foster biodiversity in our vineyard, and these olive trees were our first non-grapevine plantings! The thought of the harvest the trees would eventually produce was frankly secondary in our mind to the aesthetics of the trees, but we've been harvesting delicious olives for the last decade, and making estate grown, organically farmed extra virgin olive oil each year since 2004.

Our olives give us our last harvest of the year, typically 3 weeks or so after we've finished our last grapes. This year's harvest took place on November 16th. We line the ground under the trees with tarps, to catch the falling olives as they are raked off the branches. It's quite a sight: 

David Olives

Santos Olives

The olives are collected in picking bins and driven over to Kiler Ridge, a local olive milling facility. Kiler Ridge, located at the top of a hill overlooking Kiler Canyon Road just east of downtown Paso Robles, has one of the best views in Paso Robles to go with a state of the art processing facility. Gwen was kind enough to talk, then walk me through the process, because there is not a chance of being able to hear anything over the whirring machines inside. 

20161117_110638
Kiler Ridge's production facility is a frantoio, a straw-bale building finished in natural clay and plaster.
The building is also fully solar powered! 

First, the olives are weighed out on the industrial scale, located outside the building. After they get the numbers, the fruit is poured out onto an upward moving conveyor belt, bringing them inside. At the top, the olives are separated from non-olive material, such as stems, branches, leaves, and rocks and collected in a macro-bin, located outside. They continue on as they're moved through a quick moving water bath and spray. Since the fruit is treated organically, there is no need to wash away pesticides or herbicides, but instead just dirt or debris.

Olives Rolling
Olives going up the conveyor belt after being washed

Olives Grate Sorter
Olives passing through the grill, leaving non-olive material behind

After being washed, the olives are filtered again through a grill that only allows fruit to pass through. From there, the fruit is crushed into a paste, before it enters a malaxer. A malaxer uses spiraling mixing blades to churn and mix the paste. Oil will begin to accumulate and visually, you can see this as the surface of the paste starts to glisten. This paste mixes for exactly 32 minutes before it moves onto the next stage of decanting. During the decanting stage, the solids -- known as pomace -- get separated from the liquid, which is mostly oil, but does contain a bit of water. A centrifuge will separate the oil from that water, before sending it through a strainer and collecting it in medium sized drums. The oil will rest in these drums for a few months before it is ready for bottling.

Olive Oil Process
32 precise minutes in a malaxer; Kiler Ridge has it down to a science!

Oil Dripping
The final straining of the olive oil. It'll rest in a drum for a few months before we bottle it.

The whole process of making olive oil was intricate, loud, and satisfying. Walking outside for a moment of quiet and clarity, away from the clanging equipment, I noticed the pomace being pumped into macro-bins. I learned that the pomace, along with the leaves, will be recycled back into the property: pomace spread in a thin even layer throughout the orchard, while leaves are stacked in high quantity at the base of the tree. 

It's always a pleasure working with neighbors whose beliefs about maintaining a healthy and balanced property line up so well with ours. And as for the olive oil, from first hand tasting experience, I'm anxiously waiting for the bottling and release of the the collaborative efforts of both Tablas Creek and Kiler Ridge.


December in the Vineyard: An Early Winter Assessment and Photo Essay

If you look out at the vineyard, it doesn't look like we're in a drought. The hillsides are impossibly green, the ground is wet enough to make you question whether it's worth even salvaging your shoes after a vineyard walk, and the water-loving winter plants seem happy enough.  The cloudy days we've mostly been enjoying give everything a soft, diffuse light.

Green layers

And yet, we're really hoping this Thursday's forecast storm breaks the recent trend we've seen where storms come in at the low end of (or even below) the range for which they're forecast.  Since the beginning of November, we've had 7 days with measurable rainfall.  Those 7 days totaled just 1.26 inches, with the only significantly wet day coming November 20th, and bringing just under two-thirds of an inch of rainfall.  After a good start in October, we've now fallen behind a normal year's pace (note that the December 2016 information is only through yesterday, whereas the average is for the entire month):

Rainfall Winter 2016-2017

You can see that while November was about as much drier than average as October was wetter than average, we have a long way to go to get December up to normal precipitation. Hopefully, the atmospheric river (one of my favorite terms) that is forming over the eastern Pacific right now will bring the forecast rain (possibly multiple inches) to us later this week, instead of having the bulk of the precipitation stay north of us (as it generally did in November) or impact areas south and west of us (as the storms so far in December have done). Fingers crossed.

Meanwhile, we're taking advantage of the vineyard's early start on its cover crop (thanks to that October rain) and have been moving our animal herd throughout the vineyard. One of our new Shepherd Nathan Stuart's first suggestions was that we hadn't been moving the animals often enough, so now we're moving our flock every couple of days, and they've already grazed a large swath of the vineyard. They're currently on the hillside above the winery, and will be working their way down the hill over the next week.  It should make for some fun viewing for anyone visiting our tasting room.  I snapped this photo over our solar panels: sustainability in action on two fronts:

Animals behind solar

The frosty weather we got last week took care of the issues we'd been seeing with extraneous out-of-season growth, and the vineyard is now properly dormant. Note the difference a few weeks makes.  First, take a look at a hillside Grenache block from a photo I took just after that burst of rain that peaked on 11/20.  The clouds were clearing, and the sun illuminated the new growth in an electric green:

Green Hillsides Moving Sun

It's not the same block (though it is Grenache Blanc) but a photo from Friday shows a much more traditional winter scene:

Dormant hillside

The winter interplay of clouds and sun have provided some great backdrops, which make for quite a contrast to the unbroken summer blue that many guests are used to.  These only get more spectacular at dusk, when winter provides some amazing sunsets.  I'll leave you with a couple of photos, first of a daytime sky I shared on our Instagram page yesterday (if you like photos like these; that's really our focus over there).

Daytime sky

And finally one sunset photo, which I love not for the drama of the clouds (the sky was a beautiful peach, but relatively uniform) but instead for the silhouettes of our vines and one solitary owl box at the western edge of our property:

Sunset

With our early rain, we're still in good shape, if it gets wet. Let's hope that starts on Thursday.


The Shepherd and His Flock- Q&A with Nathan Stuart

By Suphada Rom 

Tablas Creek has a thriving animal program that is an essential piece of the organic farming practices here at the vineyard. We are thrilled to welcome Nathan Stuart, who brings years of animal experience to Tablas Creek and who will be managing and expanding the flock alongside additional responsibilities in the vineyard and winery. His first goal: get 100% of the vineyard grazed by our flock of sheep during the off season. Down the road, once we've built up the flock, we'd also like to have Tablas Creek organic lamb to be a more regular presence on the menus of great restaurants in the Central Coast.

Nathan usually can be found amongst the animals, with his trusty sheepdog, Maya, by his side.

Image6

Where were you born and raised?
I was born on Spring Street in Paso Robles. I grew up in a little yellow house there.

So you've seen Paso Robles grow exponentially over the years. Did you always like wine and the wine industry? 
No, I actually went down to Mexico when I was 18, and lived there until about 5 years ago. I didn't really get into wine until I met Leslie (Many of you may know Leslie, as she is one of our stellar Tasting Room leads!) and from there, making wine in Mexico.

IMG_5842

Tablas Creek has an established animal program, but has room for growth. Where is it right now and where do you project it going?
The animal program has all the right ideas, just on too small of a scale to make the impact on the vineyard it could. We've got 120 acres under vine and for us to graze 120 acres, we need a lot more sheep than we have now. I'd like to have 150 ewes eventually, that will be used for breeding, giving us at least 200 lambs per year. Also, the sheep program (in contrast to the vineyard which is certified organic) is treated organically, yet not certified. I'd like to be certified by next year; we'll probably be the first certified organic sheep producers in the county.

We have diversity of species, with llamas, alpaca, and donkeys, which helps a lot. Each animal will eat different grasses based on preference. Keeping that diversity is important because if you only have one species, they would just focus on their favorite style, allowing for some other weed to grow out of hand. Then this good plant would never get a chance to catch up and re-seed. 

Why the focus on sheep?
Sheep, although tricky, are a great tool that can improve soil. Managing them well by moving them frequently throughout the vineyard and keeping them in higher concentration is the most incredible way to improve soil. And by improving soil you're acquiring/retaining carbon in the soil. For example, take the buffalo grazing on the Great Plains. They've created the best soil to this day for farmland. They would move quickly across the plains, never stopping or staying in one place, as they were being chased by predators. I plan to mimic nature by moving the flock every 2-3 days, as if they were being moved by predators.

The cool thing is that the sheep can go over and graze all the grass off and then put down 0.2 cubic feet of manure per day, per animal. Right now, we've got about 88 animals out there and they are contributing several cubic feet of manure on each block every single day. Everything that they eat, mainly cover crop consisting of vetch, peas, clover, and oats, they put back as much as 90% of the nutrients back into the soil. So they only keep up to 10% to stay alive and will also grow up to a pound a day, which is insane. That's pretty awesome, to me. 

What is your philosophy when it comes to animal management?
For animals, it would be very low inputs, and allowing for natural selection. My focus is going to be on breeding animals that are perfect for Tablas Creek's property. So over the next 5 years, through natural selection on the property, you end up with an animal that is very healthy and adapted to this place. Which is cool, because we'll have the best sheep for Tablas Creek. 

Is there one piece of your job that is particularly rewarding?
Well, when a ewe is having trouble birthing and I get to help her give birth and basically, help her save a lambs life. That definitely makes your day. To actually help life become is pretty amazing and I'm definitely on Cloud 9 afterwards.

Image7

Sounds like you could have been a veterinarian in a past life! Would that be something you'd be doing if you weren't managing the animal program here?
Nah, I'd take Neil's job (Neil Collins is both our Vineyard Manager and Executive Winemaker)! Kidding, no, I'd be looking for another job like this. This is pretty much what I want to do. I guess it's a good sign if I can't think of anything.

Image2

What do you like to do on your days off?
Surf! I normally go North of the grade, but somewhere between Los Osos and Las Blancas. I'm also kind of a geek on the computer and into videography. 

What is something that would be surprising for other people to learn about you?
I was the first American to get a diploma in Mexican real estate.

One last question; how do you define success?
Having peace and joy in your life. Both of those things can travel through suffering- you don't always have to be happy with where you're at to be at peace. Peace is one of those things that can translate through life, even in bad situations. 


Anxiously Awaiting Winter, When We Want it to Freeze

Vineyards in Paso Robles worry about frost every year. Springtime frosts can be devastating, killing the new growth and forcing the vine to dip into its reserves to re-sprout from secondary buds. We've lost around 40% of our crop from April frosts in years like 2001, 2009, and 2011.  I've written (more times than I care to remember) about the nightly worry we face between bud break (typically in late March) and mid-May, when our nights have warmed enough that we're out of the danger zone.

We're worrying about frost now. But not because we might lose production if it freezes.  Instead, we're worried that it hasn't frozen yet.  

Three weeks ago, most of the vineyard looked dormant.  Leaves were off varieties like Roussanne, Counoise, Grenache and Mourvedre, all of which worked late into the season to finish ripening their grapes, exhausting themselves in the process. The earlier grapes that had to expend less energy were brilliantly colored in typical autumn splendor.  All that's normal enough for late October.  But with the nice rain we received in mid- and late-October, many of these blocks have sprouted new growth. A Mourvedre vine behind the winery is a good example:

New Fall Growth in Mourvedre

Ironically, a lack of frost in the fall can have the same negative impact as a late frost in the spring, as a grapevine spends its stored energy on growth that won't be usable to ripen the fruit.  It will freeze, sooner or later, and this growth will die.  We'll come through and prune during dormancy, and when the vine sprouts for the 2017 season in April, it will do so with less vigor than it otherwise would have because of these depleted reserves.

Typically, this fall growth isn't a problem in Paso Robles, because we usually get our first frost more or less in conjunction with our first rain. But this year, the rain we've received so far has been tropical in origin, instead of moving south from Alaska with Arctic air behind it. 

That's not to say the rain we've received has been unwelcome; getting rain this time of year has meant that the cover crop is already well established and we're unlikely to see much erosion should we really get dumped on.  And drought, right now, is a bigger worry for us than a little pointless end-of-season growth.  It's going to freeze sooner or later; in a typical winter, we see 30 or 40 nights drop below freezing, and in December and January frost is a sure thing. 

But the scene below, as pretty as it is with bright green grass and autumn colors on the vines, isn't ideal. Each week we continue to see warm nights will sap a little of next year's vigor.  Winter can come any time it likes, please.

Nov 2016 Foliage + Cover Crop growth


Grapes Two Ways: Oven Roasted Chicken with Grapes and Shallots, Paired with Grenache Blancs

By Suphada Rom

Walking through the cellar a couple of weeks ago, I was engulfed by the raw sensations of the place. The sweet yet pungent aroma of fermenting grapes. The music blasting out from the high positioned speakers, reverberating off the large tanks and walls. The complex dance of forklifts moving grapes in, must out, and bins to be cleaned. The intense focus of the cellar team, going about their individual tasks.  It's one moment in time, but critical to everything we do the rest of the year.

In celebration of harvest, I decided to incorporate grapes into my next food and wine pairing. After a few relatively easy recipes, I decided to step up my game a little bit and focus on a more complex dish, including sides and sauces. I chose an Oven Roasted Chicken with Grapes recipe from Bon Appetit. The chicken is lightly dusted with Chinese Five Spice, a mix of Sichuan peppercorns, star anise, cloves, cinnamon, and fennel whose subtle warmth and pepper quality I love. Another thing I love about this dish is that everything is prepared in one pan (I chose a cast iron skillet). Deglazing this pan and liberating all the drippings from the chicken and caramelized shallots is amazing. For the sides and sauces, I got a little creative: an avocado mousse and lemon sabayon. Here are some photos of the process:

Chicken in Pan

A one pan wonder

Finished with Patelin

Oven Roasted Chicken, Avocado Mousse, and Lemon Sabayon- paired with our 2015 Patelin de Tablas Blanc

Finished with Grenache Blanc

An additional wine! Our 2015 Grenache Blanc

This dish had quite a few elements, with contrasting textures, degrees of crunch and acidity. And the pairings really worked. For my first bite, I was adamant about tasting everything together (you can imagine that this was a bit of a challenge, since grapes are not entirely conducive to cutting!) and I was rewarded with the gentle spice of the crispy skinned chicken mellowed out by the creamy avocado mousse. The lemon sabayon was light and airy, reeling in all the qualities of fresh squeezed lemon, without the astringency lemon can sometimes provide. In the form of sabayon, the lemon is set somewhere between a sauce and custard, with creaminess as well as brightness. All together, it harmonized marvelously, like a well practiced barbershop quartet: acidity, textures, richness, and flavors. 

One component of the dish that I was particularly fond of was the lemon sabayon. The peculiar thing about the lemon sabayon is the presentation of acidity. It's almost as if the acid and citrus notes are the backdrop to the concoction's amazing texture. It's sort of like a leaner and lighter Hollandaise sauce. The avocado mousse was just as simple as it sounds, which was important because when you've got a couple of high-volume elements (i.e; spice on the chicken and lemon sabayon), you've got to have something that can compliment the dish without creating cacophony. That extra bit of color on the plate is nice, too!

The dish's combination of richness and brightness makes it a natural pairing for Grenache Blanc, which we often describe in those same terms.  For us, this means our the 2015 Grenache Blanc, and I decided to see how it worked with the 2015 Patelin de Tablas Blanc (56% Grenache Blanc, 23% Viognier, 12%Roussanne, 9% Marsanne) too. All in the name of "research", of course. Both wines are from the incredibly low yielding 2015 vintage. Wines from this vintage are aromatically appealing, with what I like to call "definites". When I delve into wines from this vintage, if I smell or taste something, there is no doubt in my mind that that fruit, spice, or earth flavor exists. For the Patelin de Tablas Blanc, on the nose, there is freshly exposed lemon pith teamed up with a racy expression of lemongrass. The wine is mouthwatering and juicy, with notes of tart green apple and pink grapefruit. A certain sea salt quality keeps the salivary glands going, and keeps me wanting another sip. The varietal Grenache Blanc smells, tastes, and looks somewhat different. There's green apple there too, but it's like a slice of an apple dunked into a bowl of warm caramel. There's also a great deal of citrus, but richer flavors of the pith of limes and oranges rather than lemon. On the palate, it's not as tart as the Patelin de Tablas Blanc and in fact, it's got more of that sneaky acidity quality, more so than the vibrant and obvious kind. There is an added layer of creaminess that I would attribute to the proportion of the wine that saw neutral oak barrel time. 

In terms of the pairing, I thought both wines went extremely well with the dish. Honestly, it was kind of a toss up between the two wines and you can guess why based on the descriptions. The wines worked well with the spice on the chicken: Chinese five spice is just forward enough to showcase the subtle spiciness of the wine, without dominating. The not-overbearing citrus quality of the sabayon teamed up with the racy acidity of the wines for a lovely balance of like flavors. 

This was a technical -- but fun -- recipe to produce and all grapes aside, a delicious one to taste. If you recreate this dish (or create a TCV wine and food pairing of your own!), be sure to let us know on any of our social media handles - Facebook or Twitter or Instagram - or just leave us a comment here! When you do, tag @tablascreek and use #EatDrinkTablas

A few resources:

  • Recipe for Oven Roasted Chicken with Grapes can be found here, via Bon Appetit.
  • Recipes for Lemon Sabayon found here (original recipe with asparagus and prosciutto) and Avocado Mousse found here.
  • You can purchase the 2015 Patelin de Tablas Blanc and 2015 Grenache Blanc by clicking here or by visiting us in the tasting room.
  • Not local? Good News! Our Patelins can be found throughout the country! Check out the distributors we work with here.
  • Be sure to check out this post, "Grenache Blanc's Moment in the Sun" written by General Manager & Partner Jason Haas on the recent rise of Grenache Blanc.

Harvest 2016 at its midpoint: things heat up, literally and figuratively, in Paso Robles

On Friday, Neil came to me and said that according to their estimates, they'd reached the midpoint of harvest that day.  And looking at the numbers, that seems right to me.  We're done with Viognier, Vermentino, and Marsanne. We're nearly done with Syrah and Grenache Blanc. We're perhaps one-third done with Grenache, and have made a start at Roussanne. All the grapes for Patelin Blanc, most of those for Patelin red, and the majority of the Grenache for the Patelin Rose have been picked.  Off the estate, only Picpoul, Tannat, Counoise, and Mourvedre are untouched so far.  The cellar is humming, with both presses running, new fruit arriving, and barrels and tanks getting cleaned to make space for all the arrivals:

Craig on forklift through press

Our hopes that yields would be much improved over 2015 seem to be holding up.  Of the grapes that we've finished, we saw more than twice as much Vermentino and Viognier as we did last year.  Marsanne was down 25%. But with a couple of small blocks still to go, Syrah is already up 62%.  I'm not expecting the late grapes like Mourvedre and Roussanne to be up much from last year (after all, they were hardly down compared to 2014) but overall, we're likely to be up around 2014's levels, which would be great.

One big project last week was getting the Grenache in off of the dry-farmed, head-trained block we call Scruffy Hill.  It was quite a scene, on a cool, crisp day that felt more like late October than mid-September.  A big fog bank was sitting over the Santa Lucia Mountains to our west, and the day topped out at 71°F, a rare treat at this time of year. A few photos, starting with Vineyard Manager David Maduena overseeing things, fog bank clearly visible:

David

The fruit looked amazing, deep blue and plentiful on the widely-spaced vines:

Scruffy Hill Grenache vimne

It looked just as good back at the winery. The block produced about 25% more fruit than last year, at picture perfect numbers. Flavors were intense:

Grenache bins in front of empty bins

We had one more very cool day last Tuesday, when the sun peeked through the thick fog only at around 4pm, and the temps topped out at 65°F.  Then, a warming trend began, with each day 6-8 degrees warmer than the one before.  By this past weekend, we had two days around 100°F, and and all of a sudden, everything looks like it's ripe.  Looking at our daily highs compared to our 1981-2010 averages will help show the swing:

Aug-Sept Daily High Temps

Before this weekend, temperatures since August 10th had averaged 2.5°F below normal. The last few days have been a different story.  Still, while we're happy to have had a fairly moderate beginning to harvest, it's not a bad thing that it's heating up now.  The later grapes (like Mourvedre, Counoise, and Roussanne) have all been losing chlorophyll, and with it ripening capacity, over the last few weeks.  Having a warm stretch now, while the vines are still mostly green, will do more good than a similarly warm stretch three weeks from now. And with a grape like Mourvedre, which always struggles toward the end of the season, a little boost is just what the doctor ordered. A photo of the Mourvedre from late last week shows the autumn-tinged foliage:

Mourvedre mid-Sept

Looking forward, we've got one more hot day in the forecast tomorrow, and then it's supposed to cool off mid-week before warming back up again next weekend.  An alternating pattern like this often works out well for the cellar, as the cooler periods allow them to catch up on all the lots that have gotten ripe during the warm stretches.  Full speed ahead.


A Cool Stretch Lets Us Ease into Harvest 2016; Yields Seem Solid

The cellar is full of bins of fruit. Our white press is running all day pressing newly harvested Viognier, Grenache Blanc, Clairette Blanche, and Vermentino, and our red press has been working on the first loads of Syrah. Everything smells yeasty and spicy, with the tang of CO2 in the air. We are fully in the thick of harvest.  

Clairette in bins

After a very warm June, July, and beginning to August, cooler weather returned about two-thirds of the way through August, and it's been relatively cool ever since.  In fact, the first week of September has been significantly cooler than normal, with degree days down 24%.  We can complete one more month in the heat graph, and you can see that while August is usually about 20% warmer than June, this year it was cooler, though still a touch above our 20-year average:

Degree Days 2016 pct difference Sept

The cooler respite has been welcome, as there were lots of blocks that were getting close even a few weeks ago, and the cooler weather has allowed us to sequence them a little more gracefully into the cellar.  So far, we've picked about 163 tons of fruit, roughly evenly split between reds and whites.  The bulk of what we've brought in so far (about 70%) has been purchased fruit for the Patelin de Tablas program, both because many of the Patelin vineyards are in somewhat warmer parts of Paso than we are, and because the grapes that these wines are based on -- Grenache Blanc and Viognier for the white, and Syrah for the red -- are harvested on the early side anyway.  We're probably two-thirds done with Patelin.

We're really just beginning the estate harvest. The 50 tons we've picked so far has been mostly Viognier and Vermentino (14 tons each), Syrah (10 tons), Pinot Noir (7 tons) and Grenache Blanc (2 tons).  We've also picked most of our Marsanne, though we only got a ton in so far and are expecting yields on this grape to be down.  The other grapes offer hope for a more generous harvest, though.  In 2015, we only harvested 9 tons of Vermentino and 6 tons of Viognier, totals we've already surpassed with a little more still to come in. One Syrah block (our Syrah "C" clone) we picked just 2.63 tons last year and received 5.16 tons this year, nearly double.  Of course, we're comparing quantities to grapes that saw cripplingly low yields in 2015, so it's not like we're seeing a windfall of grapes.  But yields look a lot more like 2014 (when we ended up harvesting 298 tons off the estate, just a hair below our 10-year average) than like 2015 (where totals ended up at 215 tons only because our late-ripening grapes were down much less than our early ones).  So, while it's early, we're feeling cautiously optimistic about quantities.  If we do end up around 2014's totals, that would mean that we're about 17% done so far.

Quality seems super.  Our sugar and acid numbers are pretty close to textbook, and we're seeing deep colors and tasting vibrant flavors.  We don't see any impact from the two weeks of intermittently smoky weather caused by the nearby Chimney Fire, and feel pretty confident that the smoke wasn't thick enough or long-lasting enough to have left any residue on the grapes.

As for what's next, we're sampling virtually the entire vineyard this week, as well as all the remaining Patelin vineyards.  We're expecting most of the Grenache for us to press directly into the Patelin de Tablas Rosé before the end of the week, as well as more Syrah and Marsanne off our own estate, more Grenache Blanc for Patelin Blanc, and the first Grenache for our Patelin red.  The floor of the cellar looks like a painter's palette:

Samples

In the vineyard, even the latest ripening grapes have completed veraison and are looking (from the outside, at least) like they're ripe.  On the inside, however, grapes like Mourvedre (below) are still weeks, maybe even a month, away from being ready to pick.  Sugars are still in the mid- to high-teens, pH levels are still in the high 2's, seeds are still green, and flavors are not yet developed.  They may look great (and in fact, they make good eating) but we know we have to be patient.

Mourvedre on Vine Sept 2016

The pattern we've seen so far -- early budbreak, warm summer, then a cooldown as harvest approaches -- reminds us a lot of 2014.  Yields seem similar as well.  Given that 2014 is the best vintage in our recent memory, that's got to be a good thing.  Stay tuned.