Come soon for the incredible 2016 wildflower season in Paso Robles

So, I feel like the Chamber of Commerce here, but really, if you like wildflowers, this is the year for you. The combination of good rain early in the season and ample sunshine in February has produced the most impressive display of color in several years. I'm going to share a few of these that we've taken here at the vineyard, which is impressive enough. The vistas on the rolling hills east of town are even more impressive, at least for their scale. I remember a trip that we were making to Utah nearly a decade ago when the wildflowers were in bloom off of Highway 46, and people were pulled haphazardly off the road just staring at the mesmerizing, hypnotic scenes. We have a link to some of these scenes at the end of the blog. But first, what we're seeing here at the winery, starting with this pretty purple flower that carpets any areas we didn't plant a cover crop, and peeks through even the taller growth like an ultraviolet wash behind an oil painting:

Wildflowers

The mustard flowers are familiar to anyone who drives around the Central Coast in the springtime, but this year's growth is particularly lush:

Mustard

The lupines are just beginning. In another few weeks, they will be swaying hypnotically to the spring breezes and covering the area with their thick perfume:

Lupine

Some flowers you'd like to admire from afar, like the thistle, whose spines make it a nuisance in the vineyard.  We've largely eliminated it from problematic spots, but along the fencelines it still shows off its deep purple, spiky blooms:

Thistle

But the crown jewels of the wildflower season, of course, are the California poppies: our state flower.  They are so plentiful, and so photogenic, that I have photos of them from nearly every day this month.  I'll spare you the entire collection, but here are a few of my favorites:

Single poppy

Poppies

Poppies limestone and deep blue sky

If you're interested in knowing where to go, a good article in the San Luis Obispo Tribune yesterday has recommended routes and lots more photos. But come sooner than later. By June, this burst of color will have largely faded to the golds and deep greens of California summer.


Reassessing Winter 2015-2016 After March's Rain

Three weeks ago, we were seeing our earliest-ever budbreak, driven by a warm, sunny February that saw just one winter storm pass through and a total of just 1.55" of rain. Articles from around the state echoed San Francisco Chronicle's headline What if El Nino is a big bust?.  Far from the promise of an El Niño that would put a measurable dent in California's historic drought, Paso Robles and points south had fallen below historical averages for winter rainfall.

Fast forward three weeks, and things look better, if perhaps not as much better as we'd like them to look.  So far in March, we've seen a welcome 6.32" of rain, bringing our yearly total up to 19.33". This is already better than what we received the last four years, if only about 85% of what we'd expect by this point in an average winter.  We do still have another month where we can reasonably expect rainfall, albeit usually not a huge additional amount.  The chart below will give you a sense of how this year has stacked up compared to normal for us (click on it to see it bigger):

Winter Rainfall

We've had three months (July, January, and March) with above-average rainfall, six months below, and three-plus still to go.  With 10 days still to go in March, we're already at 150% of normal March rainfall.  But while I'd like to project that forward and assume we'd get another couple of inches before the end of the month, there's nothing promising in the forecast.  So, assuming we get something like average rainfall in April and May, we're likely looking at somewhere in the 22" range.  That's a lot better than what we received the last four years (13"-15" each year) but still only about 85% of our 25" historical average.

That said, the vineyard looks like it's thriving.  It's clear from the prevalence of water-loving native plants like miner's lettuce (photo below; more information here) even in areas that we don't normally see them that the soils are saturated.

Miner's Lettuce

The rain and cool weather in the first half of March delayed the spread of budbreak -- which started 10 days earlier than 2015, which had been our earliest-ever year -- by a welcome couple of weeks, so we're now more or less on par with the last two years.  But things are going to be moving fast from here forward, and we're likely past the point where we could safely weather a frost even in our low-lying and late-sprouting areas.

The cover crops are still deep, green, and growing enthusiastically. With the vines (like Grenache, below) coming out of dormancy, we'll need to get them tilled under so they don't allow frosty morning air to settle next to the new sprouts:

Budding Grenache Blanc

In fact, the March rain has meant that even blocks where our animal herd spent time in January -- like the Roussanne below, with vineyard dog for scale -- have regrown so much that they'll provide a lot of additional organic matter for the soil when they're tilled under in the next few months:

Sadie in the cover crop

The alternating sun and rain has made for what is shaping up to be a spectacular wildflower season.  The mustard is blooming, adding an electric yellow blanket that contrasts dramatically with the still-dormant Mourvedre vines:

Mourvedre in Mustard

And the California poppies are starting to come out. Anyone who is planning a visit to Paso Robles in the next couple of months is in for some spectacular scenery:

Poppies

So, 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, though not enough to materially improve the groundwater reserves.  The vineyard is early by historical averages, but no longer alarmingly so.  We've negotiated the first 3 weeks of what will have been an unprecedentedly long frost season successfully, though there are still 6 weeks before we feel safe.  

Given where we were three weeks ago, I'll take it, gladly.


Eat Drink Tablas Hits the Road. First Stop, Vermont for Chicken Sofrito!

Last week, I had the absolute pleasure of having (and making!) lunch with two of my dear friends, Rick and Susan Richter. Whenever I go home to Vermont, I am always sure to check in with them, whether it is over a cup of tea or a glass of wine. Rick and Susan are remarkable in a number of ways- they challenge my intellect with inquisitive questions and conversation, while nourishing my stomach with incredible food and wine. I remember the first time I met them- I was their server and it was only after I described a grilled leg of lamb served with a white bean puree and salsa verde did they look at me and say, "Do you like food? Because from the way you talk about it, you've got to be passionate about it!" And we've never looked back! I went further than just being their server by catering a few events out at their home, after which I was brought as a guest to a Tablas Creek tasting, where I met the Haas family. They introduced me to Bob & Jason... and as they say, the rest is history. I sometimes sit back and smile as to how I am now a full-time and vibrant member of the sales and marketing team. It's just too cool!

IMG_1786
A behind-the-scenes look: Rick taking a photo of me taking a photo of the food and wine! By the way, is this really considered work?!

Rick and Susan's home is wonderful, so as much as we like to go out for extensive four hour dinners, I love to cook at their home. They've got a kitchen that chefs dream of- sinks made for prep and cleaning, a spacious island, and any kind of kitchen tool imaginable. Yes, I'm gushing a little, but only because it is a truly special place to both cook and eat. We decided to make a wonderful favorite of mine that I keep in my arsenal of recipes- chicken sofrito. I've always used the recipe from Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi. I love his cookbooks for the smart delivery of the recipes (you're never not busy!), the pictures, and the extensive family and cultural stories. This particular recipe takes all of an hour and a half and involves just a small handful of ingredients. It is a simple and comforting meal that will check a lot of boxes, even for the pickiest of eaters- it's essentially chicken and potatoes, taken up a notch.  The use of turmeric and sweet paprika give warm spices, without heat. I should also mention its essential to fry the potatoes and garlic before adding them to the pot- it's crucial that they get a nice crispy exterior. This ensures that the potatoes absorb the braising liquid along with holding their shape for the last 30 minutes of cooking. And finally, I threw in a few handfuls of kale at the end for a bit of color. Here are some photos from our cooking endeavor:

Prep Ingredients
 All of the ingredients you'll need for the dish

Seasoned Chicken 1
Sprinkling turmeric on the paprika coated chicken... I'm getting hungry!

Chopping Onions Closer
Phase 1: Chopping potatoes and garlic, getting them ready for their deep fry!

Frying Potato
Phase 2: Crispy potatoes and garlic... Eater's discretion, you and your home will be intoxicated by the pungent aroma of, well, fried garlic and potatoes!

Adding Potato to Pot
Adding those crispy and crunchy bits to the pot- 30 minutes more until the grand debut!

Add Kale
Handful(s) of kale added to the pot during the last five minutes of cooking- it will wilt down perfectly.

Plate from above
Almost ready to eat- just a spritz of lemon and the wine, of course!

IMG_5967
The final product with our Esprit de Tablas Blanc.

Like I mentioned before, this dish is so wonderfully simple and completely satisfying. After having made this dish several times in the past, I decide to pair it with our 2013 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (71% Roussanne, 21% Grenache Blanc, 8% Picpoul Blanc). Roussanne, the leading grape in this blend, is our primary and most important white grape on both the property here and at our sister winery, Chateau de Beaucastel. A truly beautiful blend that confounds even the primarily red wine drinkers- it's rich and viscous in the mouth with a perk of fresh acidity on the finish. We were all in agreement that the pairing was wonderfully balanced in terms of both structure and acidity, and that the warm spices of turmeric and paprika was accented by the warm notes of the wine. On the nose, there are rich notes of peach pit and highly fragrant honeysuckle, and my favorite, nutmeg. This wine tastes of grilled peaches with those subtle warm spices becoming more evident, along with some perfectly ripe nectarine. I absolutely love this wine with this dish- this will be the third time I've enjoyed it with a Tablas Creek white. The last time I made it, I tried it with a 2008 Roussanne and it was honestly one of the best food and wine pairings I've produced. The acidity was present, but toned, and the years in the bottle had concentrated the flavors of honey and nuts. If you have the patience, try this dish with an older vintage Esprit de Tablas/Beaucastel or Roussanne, but if not, do not fret- it is wonderful with young Roussanne, too, and proof that a single dish can satisfy both picky eaters and sophisticated foodies.

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 other resources:

  • Our 2013 Esprit de Tablas Blanc is our featured wine of the month- meaning it is offered at 10% off for retail consumers and 30% off for VINsider wine club members! You can order it at the feature price until the end of this month by clicking here. On top of all that, orders that include 6 or more total bottles of Esprit de Tablas Blanc (or Rouge) will enjoy shipping included at no charge! (What are you waiting for?!)
  • Tempted to taste an older vintage Esprit de Tablas/Beaucastel Blanc? Come join us for a Reserve Tasting, where you'll have the opportunity to taste through two vintages of our Esprit de Tablas/Beaucastel Blanc, along with several other vintages of our Esprit de Tablas/Beaucastel. Learn more here or e-mail visit@tablascreek.com

Recipe for Chicken Sofrito reprinted with permission from Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, copyright © 2012. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.


Budbreak 2016: Our Earliest Ever

Yesterday, I got out in the vineyard to hunt for signs of budbreak. It has been an exceptionally warm, sunny February, with weather we'd more associate with April.  And as I suspected, the vineyard had noticed.  Please join me in welcoming the 2016 vintage:

Budbreak 2016 - 1

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.  If you're thinking that this seems early to be talking about budbreak, you're right.  We have never before seen budbreak in February.  Last year, I wrote about our then-earliest-ever budbreak on March 16th (though it was maybe a week more advanced than what I saw yesterday).  To give you a sense of where 2016 fits within the context of recent years, I went back to look at when we first noted budbreak each of the last eight years:

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

Although budbreak is still limited to Viognier (our earliest budding variety) and to the warmer tops of the hills, we know it won't be long before the other grapes join in.  I expect to see Grenache, Grenache Blanc, Vermentino and Syrah in the next week or so, followed by Tannat, Marsanne, and Picpoul a week or two later.  We likely won't see the late-budding Counoise, Roussanne, and Mourvedre until the second half of the month, and sections toward the bottoms of our hills (where cold air settles at night) maybe not for a little while after.

While budbreak is a hopeful sign, it's also the beginning of a period of increased risk.  During winter dormancy, the vines are not susceptible to damage from below-freezing temperatures. Once they've pushed new growth, they are.  Because we can receive frosts here in Paso Robles all the way into early May, this means we have at least two months of white-knuckle nights to get through.  We've been fortunate in recent years, with our last damaging frost in 2011.  It seems very unlikely, given the earliness of this year's start to the growing season, that we'll continue our run of good luck.  That said, a late budbreak is no guarantee of safety, and in fact may be an indicator of increased risk, since it was likely cold weather that delayed the budbreak in the first place.  Both 2011 and 2009 (our two recent frost years) saw April budbreaks, which were followed in short order by frosts that cost us something like 40% of our crop.

Looking forward, we have something of an unusual weather pattern developing.  Later this week, our string of warm, dry weather will be ending, and conditions more typical of El Nino will be setting back in.  This morning's agricultural forecast suggests that the jet stream will direct a series of strong, wet, not too cold storms toward California starting this coming weekend.  Early predictions are that we could receive several inches of rain in the first two waves Saturday and Monday.  What's more, they're using one of my favorite California weather terms to describe the long-term forecast: that the "storm door will stay wide open" through the middle of March.

As long as we're receiving these sorts of storms fueled by the relatively warm waters of the south Pacific, we're likely to be at little risk of frost.  If it's enough to make a good dent in our groundwater deficit, that would be a double bonus of massive proportions, and make the sharing of photos like the ones below more joyful and less terrifying.  I'm all for that.

Budbreak 2016 - 2

Budbreak 2016 - 3


We celebrate a respite in what's been a warm, dry February... with rainbows

Yesterday evening, a decent storm passed through the Paso Robles area.  It hadn't been forecast to drop too much rain (we were expecting a half-inch or so) but it turned out to be better than that.  Between 6pm and midnight, we received just over 1.5" of rain, and with the wind whipping up gusts to 37mph it felt like winter for the first time in a few weeks.

Until yesterday, February has been dry and (after a cool first few days) warm.  Beginning February 7th, we saw 10 consecutive days that reached at least the 70's, three times climbing into the 80's.  Only three times in that stretch did the nighttime lows drop below 40°, and our last freezing night was February 5th.  It's still early, but it really felt like spring, and as we watched the local almond trees burst into bloom, we were dreading the arrival of an exceptionally early budbreak.  The wildflowers were starting to bloom in the vineyard.

What's more, despite the promise of our ongoing El Nino conditions, we had dropped behind even a normal year, with the Paso Robles Airport at 90% of average winter-to-date precipitation. February is typically very wet here in Paso Robles: our second-rainiest month, just after January.  At Tablas Creek, an average February provides about 5 inches of rain for us, or about 20% of our annual total.  So, to have the first half of the month provide zero precipitation is a significant missed opportunity, and was particularly disappointing after January (6.65", or 124% of normal) got us off to a good start.

This morning, when we arrived at the vineyard, we were greeted by a remarkable double rainbow.  Two views:

PanoTwitter

and

Square

Looking forward, we have a week of dry weather forecast before we're supposed to return to a wet weather pattern for the end of the month.  What we really need is a few of the big soakings that used to be the norm in winters here, where we might see 3-5 inches of rain in a storm.  It's not that we've received -- at least not before the last few weeks -- consistently fair weather. That was the problem the last two winters: a persistent ridge of high pressure that deflected storm activity well to the north.  December 2015 saw 12 days with measurable rainfall (albeit for a total of just 1.39"), while January 2016 added a whopping 20 days with some rain.  But many of these storms seemed to just miss us, with areas to the north (and even a few times, areas to the south) getting drenched, while we saw more modest totals.

Last night's storm was one of the first all winter to exceed its predicted totals.  May it not be the last.


Braised Short Ribs: a Cold-Weather Pairing Fit for Rain or Snow

By Suphada Rom

When I think of braised meats, I am immediately brought back to my childhood. I’m not sure many people can say that, but it’s true for me. My winters growing up in Vermont were spent waking up at the first sign of light, bundling up in multiple layers, and making my mark on freshly fallen snow. Only when the sun had set, or when my second set of gloves was oversaturated, would I find myself making the trek indoors. Immediately upon entering my house, I’d be greeted by the warmth radiating out of our baseboard heaters and the intoxicating smell of braised meats in the oven. This week in Paso Robles, we may not have experienced extreme winter snow, but we did get torrential rain. Looking outside, the oak trees are slumping slightly with the relentless nature of the storm, and the grass is impossibly green. When it rains here, it pours, and in celebration of the much-needed saturation, I've got the perfect dish to warm you up from the inside out.

12EBFA shot

While scrolling through my library of both digital and written recipes, I remembered how much I love this recipe for Braised Short Ribs (a recipe of Dan Barber, of Blue Hill at Stone Barns, via Food52 website). Although the beef may be the meat of the dish, the sauce is what gets me. I love a sauce that is deeply rich while maintaining some acidity, like in this recipe. Most braised short rib recipes use only red wine, but Dan Barber uses both red wine and Madeira. The combination of both types of wine contributes light fruit character with a rounded nutty flavor. Another ingredient that makes this dish unique is the use of tamarind concentrate. Tamarind paste is the secret ingredient that you’ll learn to love because of its tangy and sour nature. Found in most Asian markets, tamarind paste contains 12% tartaric acid (a little goes a long way!).

Tamarind paste

A couple pieces of advice for making this dish: I beg and plead for you to go above and beyond the braising time of four hours. Given that the meat is cooking at such a low temperature in a completely sealed Dutch oven, there will be little evaporation to be had, just the eventual breakdown of the fat (also known as flavor!) on the meat and increasing tenderness. Whenever I braise anything, there is all the time in the world to clean your home all while being engulfed by the intoxicating aromas being emitted from the kitchen. It would be ideal to make the dish one day and serve it the next; you’ll have more of an opportunity to scale off the layer of fat on top, lending to a cleaner sauce. The other tip I have is that in step one of the dish, you season thoroughly and get a complete sear on the pieces of meat. I recommend seasoning about 10-15 minutes before they meet the hot pan. Enough critique, here are the results from our braising efforts:

Meat and mirepoixThe set up; having everything prepped is key!

  Meat and mirepoix 3
The browned short ribs getting cozy with the mirepoix

13CTFA addition

Adding a splash of our 2013 Cotes de Tablas for good measure

12PNFA Shot

The finished product with one of the wines, our 2012 Panoplie

The wines we chose were collectively based on Mourvedre, the most important grape at both Tablas Creek and at our sister winery, Château de Beaucastel. Mourvedre brings incredible approachability at a young age, with rich mid palate tannins and outstanding dark fruit, meat, and earth character. We had a few options in terms of wine pairings, so naturally, we tried them all (all in the name of research, of course). Our wine choices were our 2012 Esprit de Tablas (40% Mourvedre 30% Syrah 21% Grenache 9% Counoise), 2008 Esprit de Beaucastel (38% Mourvèdre 30% Grenache 26% Syrah 6% Counoise), 2012 Panoplie (70% Mourvedre 20% Grenache 10% Syrah), and 2013 Mourvedre. We were quite pleased with all the wines, as they each brought vintage character and appeal. To be honest, it was a bit of a toss up- we loved the balsamic-y nature of our 2012 Esprit de Tablas, and that was only more focused and evident in the 2008 Esprit de Beaucastel. The 2012 Panoplie has this wonderful rare steak character, that brings out the tender meat of the dish while complimenting the depth of flavors found in the sauce. Our 2013 Mourvedre, young but approachable, brought refreshing tangy character. This was a situation where the wine let the dish take the spotlight, whereas the other wines were very much a part of the entire meal.

Make this recipe and do yourself a favor and go ahead and double it- because as good as this recipe is with whipped potatoes, it is a force to reckoned with in shredded short rib taco form the next day (I ate them too quickly to post a photo!). 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 other resources:

  • Feeling like you want to taste these wines? Come join us for a Reserve Tasting, where you'll have the opportunity to taste through vintages of our Esprit de Tablas/Beaucastel along with our exclusive Panoplie. Learn more here or e-mail visit@tablascreek.com
  • You can order the 2012 Esprit de Tablas here, or find it in distribution throughout the country.
  • You can order the 2013 Mourvedre here.
  • The 2012 Panoplie and 2008 Esprit de Beaucastel were part of our wine club shipments allotted to VINsiders and Collector's Edition Vinsiders, respectively. Learn more about our VINsider and Collectors Edition wine clubs here.

 


En Primeur: a Tablas Creek tradition since 2003

By Lauren Phelps

Today, we were joined by many of our most enthusiastic wine club members for our annual futures tasting, which provides the first opportunity for anyone outside the cellar to taste (from barrel) our newest vintage of Esprit de Tablas and Panoplie.  

Group
Our Cellar, Newly Decorated for the Holidays

For a little background, 13 years ago we began offering wine en primeur, which is a time-honored French tradition most often associated with first-growth Bordeaux estates. In outstanding vintages, valued customers are offered the opportunity to secure a limited quantity of sought-after wines at a special price in advance of bottling and subsequent general release.

Info
The Tasting List

Our focus today was on the 2014 vintage, which we have felt since blending may turn out to be one of our best.  We showed our two top red wines from the vintage, the Esprit de Tablas and Panoplie, each of which was blended this past spring.  They have been resting in foudre until this morning's tasting, and are only about halfway through their barrel aging; they'll remain in foudre until bottling next summer.

Bottles
The Wines

Jason Haas provided a bit of context for the tasting by summarizing how 2014 compared to other recent vintages, while Viticulturist Levi Glenn and Winemaker Neil Collins dove into the details of the challenges and opportunities that 2014 presented in the vineyard and cellar.  Finally, Robert Haas shared his thoughts on how these wines have come together and express themselves, and where they may go in the future.

The 2014 vintage produced wines that are notably luscious, but with good tannins behind them. Jason compared it to 2007, a similarly intense vintage with plenty of fruit balanced by substantial but ripe tannins.  We think that the wines will be impressive young (they showed very well today) but will also be among the most ageworthy we've made.

Neil
Neil (foreground) and Levi (behind) speak to the group

Bob
Founder Robert Haas

We find that often the most interesting topics are raised by the participants in our events, and very much enjoyed the lively question and answer session that followed the vintage discussion and tasting.

Wreath
A wreath hangs on a Roussanne tank

Because we feel it is important to taste these wines both on their own and with food, we asked Chef Jeffery Scott to make a dish that would pair well with them.  He chose a coq au vin, braised in syrah, and we contributed the 2008 Esprit de Beaucastel out of our library to give guests a chance to see how a (relatively) mature version of the wine might look. [Editor's note: we're working with Chef Jeff to get the recipe, or at least a version that doesn't require a 3-day preparation of the stock, and will post it here on the blog if and when we do.]

Yum
Chef Jeffery Scott's delicious coq au vin

We hold this tasting every year, always in early December, if you're setting your calendars for next year. And if you missed the tasting,  you haven't missed your opportunity to buy the wines at their futures-only discount. Members interested in ordering wine en primeur should contact our Wine Club team no later than Monday either by email at vinsider@tablascreek.com or by phone at 805.237.1231 x36.

Mavis
Mavis


Photos from the Gathering Storm

Yesterday, we had our second (small) storm of the winter come through Paso Robles.  Late Sunday night, the main frontal boundary pushed through the area, dropping about 4/10" of rain on us and similar amounts across most of the Paso Robles region.  Yesterday, the storm's low pressure center moved over us, producing another 2/10" of rain in a few discrete cloudbursts.

I went outside around mid-day to get a photo of the approaching storm, hoping for a shot (or even a video) of the first drops of rain.  Instead, when I got into the middle of the vineyard, a small hole opened in the clouds overhead, and I ended up with about twenty minutes of beautifully illuminated sunlit vineyard foreground, and impressive swirling dark grey clouds in the background.  As the skies opened up:

From truck looking west

A few more favorite photos are below, starting with the one I ended up posting to our Facebook page, looking up our main hill across our Grenache and Mourvedre blocks.  As always, click on the images to see them larger, and visit us on Instagram for more visual treats:

November Storm Gathering over Tablas Creek

From the top of that hill, the contrast between the vines and the skies was even more dramatic, and looked to me like a movie set:

Movie set vines

The sky was a show in itself:

The sky

But the light was equally friendly to the autumn colors.  I like the feel of this photo, looking down through our oldest Grenache block down over the center of the vineyard:

Autumn Long View 2015

Back at the winery, autumn was definitely in the air, with puddles on the crushpad, leaves swirling, and a chill that promises frost the next few nights:

Winery and puddles

This is a firmly wintery pattern we're in at the moment.  We're getting modest storms every week or so (each of the first two have produced about a half-inch, with another similar one forecast for a week from now) and cool days and cold nights in-between.  I've had frost on my car most mornings the past week, though the vineyard has until now escaped with temperatures in the mid-30's.  That's likely to end over the next few nights, which is a good thing.

There are the first inklings of a real winter storm, that might -- hopefully! -- produce multiple inches of rain, forecast for the end of next week (around November 19th).  If so, great.  But whether the serious rain starts sooner or later, these mini-storms are perfect ways to begin our winter, because they'll allow our cover crop seeds to germinate and hold the soil in place once the rain really gets going.  We can't wait.


Harvest 2015 Recap: Mourvedre and Roussanne (somewhat) to the Rescue

The last two days, we picked the last batches of Roussanne off of our estate.  This makes in one case six passes through a single block, harvesting what's ripe, leaving the rest to ripen a bit more, and repeating every week or two.  In a year like 2015, when yields are so low that you treasure every single grape, the extra investment is worth it.  And, it seems like this extra care has been warranted, as our latest-ripening grapes have turned out to be the ones whose yields are down least.

Last Pick Chalkboard

Two weeks ago, before the Counoise, Mourvedre and Roussanne harvests were quite done, it looked like every grape was going to be down between 40%-50%, as we'd seen in the earlier varieties.  But these last three grapes came in much better, down 19%, 9% and 2% respectively, which leaves us overall with an estate harvest that's down 27.6%: serious, but better than the 40%+ that we'd feared.  The details:

Grape2014 Yields (tons)2015 Yields (tons)% Change
Viognier 11.4 6.3 -45.1%
Marsanne 9.9 5.9 -40.3%
Grenache Blanc 31.9 22.0 -31.0%
Picpoul Blanc 7.5 5.0 -33.0%
Vermentino 17.3 8.7 -49.4%
Roussanne 42.8 42.0 -1.8%
Total Whites 120.8 89.9
-25.6%
Grenache 50.7 30.7 -39.5%
Syrah 38.1 21.4 -44.0%
Mourvedre 52.3 47.5 -9.1%
Tannat 15.4 9.8 -36.6%
Counoise 17.0 13.7 -19.4%
Total Reds 173.5 123.1
-29.0%
Total 294.3 213.0 -27.6%

We had speculated at the beginning of harvest that while the drought was playing a part, a big piece of the lower yields on the earlier-sprouting varieties was the cool, wet, windy May that impacted these grapes' abilities to set fruit during flowering.  The weather in June, when Counoise, Mourvedre, and Roussanne flowered, was benign.  Knowing that these grapes were down roughly 10% while the earlier grapes were down an average of 40% suggests that in fact the majority of the blame should go to the May weather rather than to the four dry years.

Overall yields off our estate ended up at 2.01 tons per acre, which is (barely!) our lowest ever, just a hair below the 2.03 tons per acre we saw in 2009's drought- and frost-reduced crop.  If the intensity is comparable to 2009, then we're in for a treat when we get to the blending stage this spring.

Looking at average sugars and pH at harvest gives a quick way of measuring a year's ripeness.  Since 2007:

YearAvg. SugarsAvg. 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

I think that in this measurement is where you see the largest impact of the drought.  The sugars look more like the cool years of 2010 and 2011 than they do like the warmer years we've seen before and since.  And, of course, until late August, this year was actually cooler than our 10-year average.  For a more graphical look at how the 2015 vintage progressed, take a look by month at the accumulation of degree days out here at Tablas Creek.  As you can see, we alternated between warmer-than-average stretches and cooler-than-average stretches:

2015 Degree Days vs Average

The difference between normal and 2015 is even more dramatic when you look at it as a percent change.  May saw fully 30% fewer degree days accumulated than our eighteen-year average, October so far has been more than 40% above normal, and only June was within 10% of normal:

Temp Pct Chg vs Average

The above graph gives a hint as to why we think we saw relatively modest sugars for our latest-ripening grapes. While warm weather is good for ripening, hot weather actually causes the vines to shut down photosynthesis, and you don't get the same sugar accumulation you do when it's more moderate. We had three separate heat spikes at the end of the ripening cycle.  Hence our last two lots of Roussanne, which despite an exceptionally long hang time averaged only about 19° Brix. Yet the flavors were good, the grapes and clusters looked good, and we expect to find a happy home for all the lots we brought in.  A few Roussanne clusters, from last week, illustrate the russet tinge that gives the grape its name:

Roussanne Clusters

I mentioned at the beginning of this piece that we had gone multiple times through even more of our blocks than normal, to maximize our quality while getting as much yield out of this reduced crop as possible.  We will keep these lots separate until we start to consider our blending options in the spring.  And boy will we have a lot of options.  You can see on our harvest chalkboard that around the end of September, Madeline (who maintains this chalkboard) realized that because we were picking so many blocks multiple times we were ending up with enough lots to warrant doubling up lots per line.  Even so, she ran out of space in mid-October:

Final Chalk Board

In character, it's early to tell what things will be like, but the combination of very low yields and moderate sugars/acids suggests we are working with a vintage unlike any we've seen in our recent memories.  Clusters and berries have been very small all year, which means that skin-to-juice ratios were high on our red grapes.  Flavors should be intense.  Some of the last-harvested lots of Mourvedre illustrate:

2015-10-13 15.04.57

At 63 days between its August 26th beginning and its October 28th conclusion, this harvest clocks in at a week longer than average (our 10-year average is 56 days) and about average in terms of start and finish dates.  This is a far cry from many growers to our south, who started and finished nearly a month ahead of us.  I'll have some additional thoughts on what made Paso's experience of the 2015 harvest unique in an upcoming blog.

I had speculated mid-summer that our dry-farmed, wide-spaced blocks looked like they suffered less in the drought than our traditional trellised, close-spaced blocks.  And it looks like this turned out to be the case, as we got 13.90 tons off of our Scruffy Hill picks, down less than 1% compared to last year's 13.94 tons.  Our other head-trained, dry-farmed blocks showed a bit of a decline, down 9.8% to 17.32 tons, but still held up better than the closer-spaced blocks.

Now that the fruit is in, it's welcome to start raining any time.  We've been preparing the vineyard for this rain, seeding our cover crop, spreading compost, and putting out straw in areas that might be prone to erosion.  A storm that looked like it might hit this week dissipated before it got here, but there's another in the forecast for early next week.  Bring on el nino.


We Help the Vineyard Don Its Autumn Coat

This is the time of year when things start to slow down enough that you take new stock of what's around you.  Harvest is mostly done (look for more on this later in the week).  The days are getting quite short, and the nights notably cooler.  The quality of the light changes with the lower sun angles, with richer yellows to the sunlight.  And the vineyard is responding, with the vine leaves losing chlorophyll and the yellows, oranges, and reds emerging for their brief autumn before everything fades to brown with the first frost.

A Mourvedre vine will give you an idea.  We're done with our harvesting here, although as you see there is the occasional second-crop cluster remaining.  These will provide treats for our animal herd as we get them back out in the vineyard.

Mourvedre colors_med

Though the bright green of summer fades in all cases, not every grape's foliage colors up so dramatically, as you can see from Roussanne, below, which turns more yellow than red.  Roussanne is the only grape for which we have any significant crop remaining on the vines:

Roussanne banner_mid

Even as we finish up this year's harvest, we're getting the vineyard ready for winter. This means seeding the cover crop that will hold the soil in place during our (hopefully) torrential el nino rains this winter, and putting out the compost that we've been making all year.  The compost spreader, poised and ready:

Compost Spreader_mid

It hasn't come close to freezing yet -- our lowest nighttime low this fall has been 42° -- but we typically get our first frost night sometime between late October and mid-November.  These frosts are a good thing for the vines, in that they force them into dormancy. Right now, relieved of their crop and with warm sun still available, many of our vines (like the Tannat vine below) have started growing new leaf growth at the end of this year's canes:

Tannat regrowth_med

In this climate, a grapevine's late-season growth serves no purpose, as the energy and carbohydrates needed to fuel the new growth will be lost at first frost and would be better stored in the root system for next spring.  So, bring on our chilly nights.

As for the weather outlook, we've had some cool, unsettled weather over the last few days, including 0.08" of rain on Thursday (we posted a video of one of these cloudbursts on our Facebook page) and daytime highs in the mid-70s.  It's supposed to warm up a bit over the next week, before a series of fronts start to weaken California's high pressure and are predicted to eventually open California to the westerly rain-bringing winds.  If all goes as planned, we'll welcome our first winter storms around Halloween.

I'll leave you with one final photo, which feels to me even more fall-like than the others.  I took it near our straw-bale barn, in the bowl at the center of our vineyard.  We have trained the Mourvedre vines there up high to allow cold air (that in the spring can bring damaging frosts) to more easily drain underneath them.  One second-crop cluster remained, among mostly-brown leaves and a nascent cover crop.  Soon enough, the whole vineyard will look like this:

Fall Mourvedre Cluster_med