The 11th annual Tablas Creek Vineyard pig roast dinner

By: Lauren Phelps
We hosted our 11th annual Pig Roast dinner on Saturday evening, August 15th and wanted to share some of the images and a bit of information about this event.  Over 120 guests joined us for a family-style meal on our terraced patio with wines paired from our cellar.  The meal was collaboratively prepared by our very own Winemaker, Neil Collins and local Chef, Jeffery Scott

Tablas_Creek_20150815_182833_2000It was a beautiful evening, and relatively mild for August in Paso Robles.  As the sun set behind the tasting room the breeze brought in cool marine air.

Tablas_Creek_20150815_193044_2000Our very own Darren Delmore and his brother who make up the duo, The Delmore Boys set the tone with their Americana guitar tunes.

Tablas_Creek_20150815_190304_2000Many Tablas Creek team members and their families attended the event including, Neil Collins, Chelsea Franchi, Jason Haas and Nicole Getty.

Tablas_Creek_20150815_190617_2000This year, Neil roasted the 350 pound estate-grown pig for over 12 hours using a modified iron-cross roaster with oak from our property. Chef, Jeffery Scott contributed incredible appetizers and sides using locally-sourced and organic ingredients.

TABLAS CREEK PIG ROAST

SATURDAY AUGUST 15th, 2015

CHEF JEFFERY C. SCOTT

 UPON ARRIVAL

CHILLED SUMMER MELON CUPS
GINGER CRÈME FRAICHE

  TABLAS ESTATE LAMB CRUSTADE
MOROCCAN SPICES, ROSEMARY HUMMUS

DINNER FAMILY STYLE

 HEIRLOOM TOMATO & WATERMELON
FRENCH FETA, SOFT HERBS, BALSAMIC CREMA

TOASTED PEARL COUSCOUS
PINE NUTS, SULTANAS, CURRANTS, FENNEL CONFIT

SHEEP’S MILK YOGURT TATZIKI

MASON JARS OF CAPONATA

HUSH HARBOR RUSTIC BREAD

________________

 EMBER ROASTED TABLAS CREEK ESTATE PIG

AMARETTO-APRICOT GLACÈ

 LOO LOO FARMS GARDEN PAELLA
PORCINI STOCK, LINGUICA, ROMESCO

 CUMIN GLAZED CARROTS & CHARRED SUMMER SQUASH
ROASTED GARLIC, LOCAL GOAT CHEESE, LEMON THYME

______________

BLUEBERRY-PEACH COBBLER

OLIVE OIL GELATO, CINNAMON BASIL

Tablas_Creek_20150815_184259_2000

We paired the meal with the 2014 Grenache Blanc, our 2014 Dianthus, the newly released 2013 Mourvedre and our flagship red wine, the 2011 Esprit de Tablas, that we brought up from the library.

Tablas_Creek_20150815_194257_20003

We'd like to thank all of the guests who joined us and invite you to view additional photos by Patrick Ibarra Photography on our Pig Roast Dinner Flickr Album

Also, we are thrilled to announce that the Cooking Channel's, Man Fire Food will be airing an episode on September 15th highlighting our pig roast dinners! We're really looking forward to watching it.

The date for the 2016 pig roast has not been set yet and we recommend periodically checking our Upcoming Events page for more details.  We give priority invitation to our wine club members and seating is very limited.


On the Rhone: a Post-Cruise Appreciation

By Robert Haas.  Special thanks to Jeffery Clark, who provided most of the photos.

I’m back in Vermont, basking in the afterglow of our Tablas Creek cruise of the Rhone. It was a ten-day celebration (including the optional three-day visit to Paris and Champagne) of great food and wine, organized by our partners at Food & Wine Trails.  By the end, new friends felt like old friends, and our 120-person group had made the S.S. Catherine ours.  On a personal level, I very much enjoyed sharing with the group the homeland of the Rhône varieties that we have nurtured at Tablas Creek Vineyard. 

About one half of our large group of adherents opted for the Paris-Champagne addition, July 30th-August 1st.  The Bel Ami Hotel was comfortable, nicely air-conditioned (needed in the hot weather France has been seeing this summer) and well placed around the corner from Paris landmarks on the Boulevard St. Germain, such as the Brasserie Lipp, and the cafés Deux Magots and Café de Flore.  

For the trip to Champagne, we arrived in Vrigny at the property of Roger Coulon, propriétaire-récoltant on the Montagne de Reims, with an hour and a half bus trip.  Coulon produces only about 90,000 bottles from his own vines.  His cellars were straightforward, simple but modern.  We tasted his wines.   They had an artisanal terroir character that I loved.  We enjoyed an excellent champagne lunch at his close-by restaurant, Les Clos des Terres Soudées.  He paired his various cuvées of champagne with each course.  We then visited the cellars of Taittinger -- quite a contrast -- with traditional old cellars cut deep into the Champagne chalk under Reims, followed by a tasting of their wines.  The visits were enjoyable and educational.  Some of us preferred the artisanal drier, richer style of Coulon and others the traditional "grande marque" style of Taittinger.

We had some time to spend on our own in Paris and then took the TGV from the Gare de Lyon in Paris to Avignon on the 2nd to join the rest of the cruisers boarding the ship.  On my first visits to pre-autoroute France in the 1950’s, that trip down the N7 took 10 hours.  The TGV made it in 2. 

Pont d'Avignon 2
The famous Pont d'Avignon

The voyage began with a short overnight sail to Tarascon, a little south of Avignon, from where there were interesting shore visits to Tarascon, a city that dates back to the late bronze age.  It has a riverside castle from the 15th century that is known as "The King's Castle" (Château du Roi René).

There was also a visit to Arles, which is close-by.  Arles is a fascinating city.  It was a Phoenician port by about 800 B.C., taken by the Romans in 123 B.C., and still is home to some of the best-preserved Roman remains outside Italy.  In modern times it was an attractive abode for Vincent van Gogh, who arrived there in 1888.  Many of his most famous paintings were completed there, including The Night Café, the Yellow Room, Starry Night Over the Rhône, and L'Arlésienne.

Arles amphitheater
The Roman amphitheater at Arles 

The centerpiece of the cruise was the stay in Avignon, which provided a base for twin cellar visits and delicious open-air lunches in the court of Château de Beaucastel.  It was fun to share the Beaucastel secrets with our group.  We were too large a group to all go at once so half the group went on the 3rd and half on the 4th.  Everybody got to taste from barrels and visit the old spotlessly clean cellars, as well as learn about Beaucastel's wine making.  Each day, those not on the Beaucastel visit got to tour the old city of the Popes with its palace and crenelated walls.

Cellars at Beaucastel
The cellars at Beaucastel

Lunch at Beaucastel
Lunch in the gardens at Beaucastel

Lunch menu
The lunch menu

BSH, RZH & FP
Barbara Haas, Robert Haas, and Francois Perrin at lunch

From Avignon we sailed north to Viviers, and then on to Tain- l'Ermitage. This stretch was during the day, so most of us assembled topside to enjoy the views and the passages through the écluses (locks).  I was fascinated by the ship's design, from the ballast tanks below that fill with water to the to the retractable pilot house, railings and awnings, all to lower the ship's profile in order to pass under low bridges across the Rhône.  

Lock
The lock at Viviers

On deck
Mind your heads!

Tain- l'Ermitage was a second highlight.   We received a very good tour of the Hermitage vineyard and a sit-down tasting of Chapoutier wines. We were also treated to an excellent lunch served with northern Rhône wines.  I was interested to see the upright cane and spur pruning of the Syrah, a pruning we have adopted at Tablas on "Scruffy Hill."

Neighbor Jaboulet
The remarkable hillside vineyards of the Northern Rhone

From there, we continued north to Lyon, passing the vineyards of Côte Rôtie and Condrieu on our port side just as we were served a dinner on board paired with wines of those very appellations from Maison Nicolas-Perrin

On day 5 of the cruise (August 7th, for those keeping track) we got to tour Lyon, a center of classical French gastronomy, and home to the remains of two side-by-side spectacular Roman amphitheaters: one for music and the other for drama.   In the evening we reconvened on the Catherine for a nice Tablas Creek cocktail party in the ship's lounge, followed by dinner in the dining room. 

Lyon marks the northern edge of what France thinks of as the Rhone Valley (though the river originates in Lake Geneva, in Switzerland).  But the cruise continued north to dock in Macon on the Saône, for an excursion to nearby Burgundy.  Many guests took a bus to Beaune, toured some of the vineyards of the Côte de Beaune, and visited the 15th century Hospices de Beaune, scene of the annual wine auction of wines from its vineyards.  We heard this was all wonderful.  However, Barbara and I, along with Neil and Marci Collins, instead took a car and drove through the vineyards of Pouilly-Fuissé and Beaujolais to visit an old friend Claude Geoffray, the 7th generation proprietor of Château Thivin in the Côte de Brouilly. 

Market Radishes
Radishes in the market in Beaune

From Macon we all sailed overnight back to Lyon where we debarked August 9th and went our own ways. 

Although the unusually hot weather was noticeable on shore visits, no one seemed daunted, and they proceeded as planned and seemed to be enjoyed by all.  The ship, of course, was well air-conditioned and the cabins very comfortable.  The food and service aboard was excellent, far exceeding my expectations, and the wines from Famille Perrin, Beaucastel and Tablas Creek set the scene.  We were definitely on a Food and Wine Trail.  Lots of good conversation flowed in the Leopard Bar before and after dinner. 

Cabin
The view from inside the cabin

We are already looking forward to our next cruise in 2017.


The Early Years of Tablas Creek

We recently received a treasure trove of photos from our original Nursery Manager, Dick Hoenisch.  He oversaw the initial phases of Tablas Creek, from developing and building our nursery to planting our first vineyard blocks to our initial harvests and ultimately the building of our winery in 1997.  He's remained a regular visitor and correspondent ever since, but even I had never seen most of the photos that he sent us.  As by the time I moved out here in 2002 the property had assumed more or less the shape it has now, these photos feel to me like a time capsule, and most definitely worth sharing.

So, without further ado, and with thanks to Dick, I'm sharing some of my favorites of the photos.  Dick gets pride of place in the first photo, posing next to two other firsts: our first vineyard truck, which we also think was the first thing ever to bear a Tablas Creek logo, in 1993:

Dick with truck

In 1993, nearly all the activity was confined to the grapevine nursery.  You can see our first two greenhouses, in which we kept and propagated the "mother vines" (those vines that came through quarantine, and whose progeny populate our vineyard and all the others who have planted our clones) and the small section of rootstock in the foreground:

First nursery buildings

Inside the greenhouses were the mother vines that we'd recently gotten out of quarantine from the U.S.D.A.  These are many of the same vines that you can see in pots today on the patio outside our tasting room:

Mother Vines

In 1992, we planted the top of our tallest hill to roughly two-acre blocks of the best quality California-sourced Rhone varieties we could find.  This photo, also from 1993, shows them at the time.  We have since grafted over the Syrah, Mourvedre, and Marsanne to French clones, though the Grenache (at the right) and Viognier (on the far side of the hilltop) remain.  I can't imagine how we farmed this, given that the road up to the top looks completely unimproved.  It must have been impassable all winter and most of the spring:

Original plantings, 1993

By 1995, we had come a long way in laying out the central part of the vineyard for planting, with vineyard on the hillsides and rootstock fields in the valley bottoms:

Vineyard Panorama 1995

We may not have had a winery yet, but by 1995 enough was going on in the vineyard and nursery that the Perrins and my dad were here for long stretches of the year.  I'm happy to see that, even if they had to do it at a plastic picnic table, they took the time to enjoy appropriate vineyard lunches.  That's my dad at left, with Dick in the middle and Jean-Pierre Perrin at right:

RZH, DH and JPP at lunch

Lest you think that the planting was easy, take a look at how much rock we uncovered just in digging the irrigation trench.  David Maduena, now our Vineyard Manager, is manning the backhoe:

Trenching

One of the cool early projects that I remember, since it took place in part when I was out here for a visit, was the 1997 construction of a beehive-shaped brick water cistern at the top of the property, which we still use as a fire suppression reservoir.  We dug into the hilltop, built the cistern, and then filled the earth back in:

Beehive cistern construction

The construction of the winery was, as you would expect, a major milestone for us when it was happening in 1997.  You can see its first framing stages in a photo from the spring of that year, from a vantage point more or less where our grafting and nursery education area is now:

Winery Framing 1997

We'd made quite a bit of progress on the winery building (back right) by the early summer, when we were planting the Chardonnay block that would produce our Antithesis each year between 2000 and 2011 (it was then grafted over to Mourvedre and Counoise):

Planting Chardonnay and Building Winery

The winery did get finished -- and, as seems axiomatic in winery construction, just a few days before the 1997 harvest began -- but the rest of the building was still being worked on as the grapes began to come in:

New winery

I'll leave you with one last photo, of the construction of the dry-laid limestone wall surrounding the original parking lot.  You can see clearly how little topsoil there is above the calcareous clay, as well as the work involved in the wall's construction:

Rock Wall

Thank you, Dick Hoenisch!


Veraison 2015 Suggests an Early September Start to Harvest

Although we've been distracted by the more unusual occurrence of last weekend's summer rainstorm, this week also has provided the annual milestone of veraison.  Veraison marks the point where the grapes stop accumulating mass and start accumulating sugar (and, more noticeably, change color from green to red). It is one of the landmarks of the season, not least because it marks a point roughly six-weeks before the onset of harvest. As usual, we saw veraison first in Syrah, closely followed by Grenache and Mourvedre.  A few of the more colored Syrah clusters are below (though it's worth noting that even in these, there are still as many green berries as red, and that most of the clusters in the vineyard are still totally green):

Veraison 2015 syrah

While we expect to start our red harvest with Syrah sometime in early September, Mourvedre is an outlier, with relatively early veraison but an unusually long time between veraison and harvest.  Although we're starting to see color in many of our Mourvedre blocks, we don't expect it to come in before October:

Veraison 2015 mourvedre 2

I had to go to the very top of our Grenache blocks to find any color, and even there it's still just beginning.  We expect this to start coming in sometime in mid- to late-September:

Veraison 2015 grenache

The transformation between hard, sour green berries and sweet, soft, red berries takes some time, and when it starts depends both on how early the vine sprouts and begins to grow (determined largely by the date of the last winter freeze) and on how fast it can photosynthesize (determined by the amount of heat and sun after budbreak).  Some years (last year, for example, which was warm and frost-free) it was easy to know that we'd see an early veraison; the question was just how early.  When you have a year, like this year, that is giving contrasting conditions (a budbreak two weeks earlier than normal, followed by a summer that has alternated hot and cold and is currently 5% behind normal in heat accumulation) it's less obvious, and we watch for veraison's signs more eagerly.  You can see from the chart below, from the Western Weather Group's Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance forecast, where 2015 sits in degree days compared to other recent vintages:

Growing Degree Days 2015 edited

The duration between veraison and harvest is not totally constant, and is determined by the weather that we get in the interim.  The chart below shows the two dates for our last eight harvests, with the year linked to my blog post about veraison that year:

YearFirst Veraison NotedHarvest 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 20 ? ?

July 20th forms the median of the data points above, and suggests a beginning of harvest also sometime near normal.  Based on the range of days that it's taken between first veraison and harvest (between 39 and 49 days) that suggests that harvest will begin sometime between August 28th and September 7th.  Given that our crop levels are relatively light this year, I'm betting that it will be toward the early end of that range.

It is noteworthy, I think, that we've recovered from a two-weeks-earlier-than-normal budbreak to a normal veraison.  That we've already achieved two extra weeks on the vine compared to an average year is a good thing, given that the longer that the grapes can stay in contact with the vines, the more opportunity they have to pull character and minerality out of the soil.

Now, we start waiting, but at least we know roughly how much time is on the timer.


Did 2.6" of rain in July really just happen?

Yesterday, we hosted a seminar on dry-farming.  In the rain.  In Paso Robles.  In July.

Levi lecturing

And it wasn't just a little rain, either.  As we were talking about how we've been working to plant increasing acres of vines without any irrigation infrastructure, and how we've been weaning even our established vines off of needing regular water, we were in the process of accumulating more rain -- seven times more rain -- than Paso Robles had received in any July day in its history.  In fact, we received four times more rain yesterday than Paso Robles has ever received in an entire month of July before.

Of course, July is the driest month of the year in Paso Robles, averaging less than 0.2" of rain for the month.  But residents of other parts of the country may not realize just how unusual summer rain is in the Central Coast of California.  Maybe a graph will help (from the useful site climate-data.org):

Climate-graph-paso

The unusual storm was caused by the remnants of Hurricane Dolores, which instead of remaining offshore or moving inland toward Phoenix (both more common paths for Pacific ex-hurricanes) wandered slowly and more or less directly north up California's coast, bringing unusually hot, moisture-laden air to parts of the state where humidity is almost totally foreign.  This moist, unstable air spurred a series of thunderstorms (themselves rare in this area) whose path took them directly over Paso Robles.  The town recorded 3.55", the highest total in the county and more than a quarter of the average annual rainfall the city can expect to receive.  It's also more than the town averages in any month during the year; for those of you who like me need a translation from the metric, 3.55" is more or less 90mm... about 10% more than Paso Robles receives on average in January, its wettest month.  We saw a little less rain out here than they did in town, but at 2.6" we still received more than we did all but two months (December and February) this past winter.

Given how much rain we received, and how fast it came down, you might wonder how the vineyard fared. It came through with flying colors. We rarely see much erosion here, due to the porosity of the clay-limestone bedrock, and we didn't see any in the vineyard. The little we saw was confined to a few vineyard tracks, where the occasional tractor traffic compresses the soils enough that water runs down rather than soaking in. From this afternoon:

Minor erosion

We don't anticipate any serious negative consequences from the rain. After a last round of showers and thunderstorms that are forecast to blow through this evening, it's supposed to dry out. It looks like we'll have a few sunny, breezy, relatively cool, low humidity days, and then it will warm up to normal for the season (highs in the 90s and lows in the 50s, with virtually no humidity).  This should serve to dry out the surface layer of the soil, and prevent too many weed seeds from germinating.  Plus, both the low humidity and the warm days will serve to prevent mildew from becoming a problem.

On the positive side, this is a time of year when the vines are nearly all under some stress.  A dose of rain now helps alleviate this stress, and gives the vines the energy to make their final push toward ripeness.  And the amount of rain that we received was enough to get through the topsoil and replenish the moisture in at least the upper layers of the calcareous bedrock, which will provide a reservoir for the vines over the next couple of months.  You can see how rich and soft the soils look after the rain, and also how void of erosion channels they are even near the bottom of a steep hillside:

Brown dirt

If the rain had come a month later, with some grapes nearly ripe, we would worry that the water might dilute the flavors and even cause grapes to swell and split.  But now, with veraison barely started, that's not a risk.

It's worth remembering that most other wine regions, including the Rhone, see summer rain.  The same chart as above, for Chateauneuf-du-Pape, shows that while rain is a bit less common in the summer than in other seasons, it's hardly rare:

Avg rainfall CdP

So, we'll enjoy the unusual moisture in the air, and feel thankful that we got it now and not during harvest.  If this is a precursor to what is sounding likely to be a strong el nino winter, so much the better.  I'll leave you with one final photo, taken in the middle of yesterday's rain, and looking more like an impressionist painting than a summer Paso Robles landscape:

Mist and rain


State of the Vineyard, Mid-Summer Edition

This has been an unusual summer.  We had the warmest late-winter/early-spring anyone can remember. This was followed by the coolest May in 20 years. Then June was hot.  July, so far, has been cool, and we've even had (very unusual for summer in Paso Robles) a couple of showery days.

Overall, the year looks about average in terms of heat accumulation.  At 1276 degree days to date, we're about 10% behind where we've been the last three warm years (2012-2014 average on July 14th: 1483) but 15% ahead of the cool 2010 and 2011 vintages (average on July 14th: 1112).  Through it all, the vineyard continues to look remarkably healthy.  

To get a sense of how healthy, I'll start with this panoramic photo, taken this week, overlooking olur main Grenache block.  It's worth expanding it; click on it (or any photo) to see it bigger:

Panorama over Grenache

All this variation in the weather, particularly the warm April and the cold May, suggests that we'll see a harvest that will begin early and end late.  The grapes that had sprouted by early April (like Viognier, Grenache and Grenache Blanc) were spurred on by the warmth and sun, and pushed canes already a foot long or more by the time it cooled off in May.  The later-sprouting grapes (like Counoise, Mourvedre and Roussanne) were barely out when it got cold, and didn't really start growing until things warmed up again in June.  This led to a period in mid-June where the early varieties had grapes that were already pea-sized while many of the late varieties were still flowering.

Things have evened out in the last few weeks, but you can still see remnants of the uneven beginning in the different cluster and berry sizes.  First, Syrah, from near the top of the hill.  The berries look nearly full-sized, but we haven't seen any veraison yet:

Syrah clusters

Grenache, too, has grown a lot, though we do expect some added mass before they start to turn red:

Grenache clusters

Mourvedre is still farther away from being ready, with the grapes still as much oval as round, and small, hard and light green:

Mourvedre clusters

This same week last year, I was already talking about veraison in Syrah and Mourvedre.  2014's veraison was about 2 weeks earlier than normal, and this carried through to a mid-August beginning to harvest. The fact that we're still not seeing veraison suggests that we're likely looking at a later start to harvest than the last few years, and I'm also expecting a significantly later finish.  Could we start in late August and finish in early November?  It seems likely, at this point, though a stretch of hot (or cold) weather could move that around.

Crop levels seem down a bit compared to the past couple of years.  Given that we're now four years into our drought, that's hardly surprising.  But it doesn't look like it will be dramatically reduced, and the vineyard looks healthier than it has in mid-July in years.  Roussanne often is showing signs of stress by now, with leaves starting to yellow.  Not this year.  I'll leave you with one final shot of our Roussanne, sheltering under a vibrantly green canopy and beginning its long, slow trek toward what will likely be a mid-October harvest:

Through Roussanne row


Photos of the Day (Week? Summer?): Celestial Meetings

The sky put on a show last night.  Not only was there a beautiful full moon, but Venus and Jupiter came together in a conjunction that takes place just once per year.  And the timing worked: the moon was rising in the east at the same time that the planets were setting in the west, keeping the moon's brilliance from obscuring the planetary show.

I got good photos of each (click on the pictures for larger versions).  First the planets, already clearly visible in the evening sky:

Planets - July 2015

And then the full moon, even brighter, though the background sky was still blue:

Full moon - Jul 2015

Yesterday afternoon, we were thinking that seeing the sky show was going to be a long shot.  We've been in an unusual summer weather pattern with a high pressure system located to the east of us drawing waves of subtropical moisture over California.  We have had clouds (a rarity for mid-summer) in the sky most of the week, gathering density enough twice (this past Saturday and yesterday) to provide a few sprinkles. The rain hasn't been enough to register at our weather station, or to affect the growing season, but those overcast days have provided a nice respite from what has been a hot stretch for us, with high temperatures mostly in the upper 90's and lower 100's, and unusually elevated humidity.

Still, when you know that there is going to be a performance in the night sky, you don't want cloud cover.  When it broke apart around sunset, it gave the feel of a curtain opening at a play.  

And the performance turned out to be memorable.


Through the glass doors: 360° views of Tablas Creek Vineyard, courtesy of Google

By Lauren Phelps

When you have a limited amount of time to visit a new place for example, how do you decide where to visit?  If you’re anything like me, you type the name of the location into Google and see what pops up.  Well, today if you Google "Tablas Creek Vineyard", a new feature is available that gives you an insider's look (literally) into the tasting room, tank room and surrounding grounds which should help visitors fine-tune their itinerary.

The new tool is a part of Google Maps, which has expanded beyond the basics of maps and directions in recent years.  First they added reviews of the businesses, through Google+.  Then, they added the option to "see photos", which are taken from our Google+ business page.  Now, they've added a new option, to "see inside":

Search Result_475

Once you've clicked on this option (try it here full screen, or use the smaller windows below), you can cruise virtually around the main tasting room, venture into the private and semi-private tasting rooms, and even wander our patio.  You can rotate your view 360° in any of the rooms or locations.  It's a fun and novel way to get a sense of what you'll see when you visit.  An interior view:

From the outside:

Another benefit of creating the virtual tour is the still photography that the team that Google sent out (Evolving Photography) took and uploaded to our Google+ account.  A few of my favorites are below:

Tablas Creek Vineyards 17
Tablas Creek Vineyards 27_475
In many ways, what Google did overlaps the Virtual Tour that we produced in-house a couple of years ago, though the virtual tour takes people out into the cellar and vineyard, and adds narration by our Winemaker, Neil Collins.  But the benefit of having this tour be a part of the Google page where people searching for us land is enormous.  Even though we love it, we've struggled to get more than a few dozen views per week on our virtual tour.  We're hopeful that lots more eyes will see Google's "see inside".

Our new view is part of a concerted effort by Google; Wine Spectator posted an article today noting that we're one of 78 wineries (and 10 breweries) in California for whom Google has completed this expansion of their "street view" footprint.

We hope that the Google Tour will join our Virtual Tour as interesting and useful tools that will give potential visitors another reason to visit Tablas Creek Vineyard.  Please, let us know what you think.


Dry-Farming in California's Drought, Part 2: Looking Forward to the Past

In the first part of this 3-part series on farming in California's drought, I looked at how our climate here in California differs in crucial ways from that in the Mediterranean, and what lessons we took from these differences in how we would choose to farm.  In this second part, I pick the story back up with how we planted and trained our vines in the early days to allow us to dry-farm them now, and what changes we've made in recent years as we adjust to what is likely to be a drier future.  The third part is more historical, looking at how grapevines -- which should be one of the easier crops to dry-farm -- came to be so widely irrigated in California.  If you missed Part 1, go read it now.  OK, welcome back.

In the Beginning

When we began planting, we used a hybrid of the planting methods of modern California and the traditional Rhone.  At Beaucastel, vines are planted head-trained but closely spaced on their relatively flat terrain.  They cultivate these vineyards using tall over-the-vines tractors as the spacing (roughly 1.5 meters square) doesn't allow tractors to pass in-between.  On our steep hillsides, these tractors wouldn't work, so we matched the overall vine density, but moved the vines into rows, planting more closely within the rows (3 feet) and spacing the rows either 8 feet or 10 feet apart, depending on our terrain. We achieve a similar vine density at around 1600-1800 vines per acre, but can cultivate mechanically, essential for our organic techniques:

Tournesol Tractor

Our decision to plant at similar density to Beaucastel was grounded in our initial belief that in our broadly similar environment we should use the techniques that they had developed over the years as a starting point, and then learn from our experiences here and adjust gradually over time.  

The first choice we needed to make was what rootstocks to use. Wine grapes need to be grafted onto rootstocks to be resistant to the root parasite phylloxera.  These rootstocks are descended from different species of American wild grapes, and have inherited differences in level of vigor, rooting configuration, tolerance for soil chemistry, and affinity for various varietals from their progenitors. [For a good technical overview of rootstock science, see this piece in Wines&Vines.]  

Modern fashion in relatively water-rich areas (including Napa Valley, which has a fairly stable water table on the valley floor) suggests the use of low-vigor, shallow-rooting rootstocks, to keep the vines from growing too much canopy and from setting high quantities of low-intensity fruit.  But it was clear to us that we should focus instead on higher-vigor, deeper rooting rootstocks because of the high-stress nature of our climate and topography.  We chose deep-rooting, relatively high-vigor rootstocks to graft to (principally 110R and 1103P).

Our next decision was if and how to irrigate the blocks we would be planting. After speaking to local growers, it became clear to us that in order to get our young vines through the dry summer months, we would need to be able to irrigate at least in the early years.  Grapevine roots grow down fairly rapidly, about a foot and a half per year when the vines are young, slowing as they age.  To determine the length of time we'd need to supplement, we did some trench cuts in the vineyard, digging down a dozen feet through the topsoil and the top layers of limestone, to see where the water was by late summer.  These showed that even with the water-holding capabilities of our calcium-rich soils, we needed to dig down 6-8 feet to find layers that still had moisture in September.  So, we figured we would need to irrigate for the first five or so years, if all went well, and if we were able to encourage the deep root growth that would eventually allow us to get the bulk of the root mass down where water could be found.

Our technique was infrequent but deep irrigation.  This should be intuitive.  Grapevine roots grow where water is present.  If you water frequently but shallowly, roots continue to grow near the surface, where water can be found.  If the only water to be found is deep, roots grow deep.  Watering infrequently (twice per summer, and eventually only once) but deeply causes the soil to dry out from the top down in between waterings, and encourages root growth in the deeper areas that have moisture.

It didn't work as smoothly as we had originally hoped.  We lost so many vines to gopher predation that we had to replant in some cases as much as 25% of our blocks with young vines.  These vines needed to be irrigated when they were young, and even longer, as they grew more slowly due to competition from the older vines nearby.  It wasn't until the wet years of 2005 and 2006 that we felt able to wean our established blocks entirely from supplemental irrigation, but when we did, we were rewarded by consecutive great vintages.

Now, we feel that our older blocks are able to go not just through a normal rainfall winter without needing to be supplemented, but can go one year into a drought cycle (as in the 2012 vintage) without needing additional water.  When we get multiple years into a drought, as we have been since 2013, we are able to supplement, again using the infrequent but deep watering that will discourage the vines from the bad habits of excessive shallow root growth.  We supplemented most blocks once in 2013 and twice during the 2014 vintage, and feel that these are going to be two of our greatest vintages ever.

Recent Adjustments

In addition to the continuing work that we've done easing our original plantings toward water self-sufficiency, the last decade has seen us look to even older models to plant vineyard in ways that won't need to be supplemented even in droughts.  As early as 2000, we had planted some of our low-lying blocks in relatively deep soils head-trained, dry-farmed.  These areas most resembled, to our minds, the terrain at Beaucastel.  We also looked at old vineyards in the Paso Robles area, many of which date back to the years before Prohibition.  These vines, mostly Zinfandel, were head-trained and widely spaced, and had made it nearly a century still in high quality production.  Our first block that we planted in this manner was the small block of Mourvedre near our front entrance, just to the east of where our tasting room is currently located.  We spaced the vines 8 feet apart in a square pattern (a density of 680 vines per acre).  A recent view of this block (with the vines and their solar panel backdrop) shows how well established they've become in the last 15 years:

Mourvedre with solar panels behind

The success of these never-irrigated vines encouraged us to plant most of our former rootstock fields in this manner between 2003 and 2005.  Though these worked well too, we weren't sure yet whether we could translate these successes to hillside blocks with less topsoil and less water.  In the end, it was the logistical challenge of getting well water pumped to our one block on the south (opposite) side of Tablas Creek that pushed us to give it a shot.  We planted that thirteen-acre block, which we call Scruffy Hill, head-trained and dry-farmed in 2006 and 2007. Scruffy Hill presented some new challenges.  It was (is) one of our most rugged blocks, on a very steep slope, with at the top just a foot or so of topsoil.  Cultivation was also going to be a problem, with slopes as steep as 35% making it unsafe to cultivate across the hills, so after speaking with locals we decided on a 12 foot by 12 foot diamond pattern, reducing the vine density to about 340 vines per acre and creating two mostly-vertical avenues we could use to cross-cultivate safely.  We weren't comfortable leaving these vines to fend for themselves entirely, so we bought several 5-gallon plastic buckets, drilled a small hole in the bottom of each, and then used our water truck to give each vine a single bucket of water in the late summer in years one and two. Scruffy hill is now thriving:

Scruffy Hill 2

We've also been experimenting with our rootstocks. The rootstocks that we have used, from the beginning, have needed to be relatively high in vigor and tolerant of Calcium.  This has meant that we use predominantly 1103-P and 110-R.  In recent years, we've planted a few blocks of Grenache on the famously deep-rooting St. George rootstock, the standard in California before irrigation, though in more recent decades largely replaced by lower-vigor, more shallow-rooted crosses.  We are hopeful that these experiments will allow us to develop healthier, more vigorous vineyards without needing supplemental irrigation.

The Upshot: Forward to the Past

All told, in the last decade we've planted over 30 acres head-trained, dry-farmed, in the manner vineyards would have been planted (per force) a century ago.  And while it may not be intuitive, in our recent dry years, the vines in these blocks have shown less signs of stress, and the production from these blocks has declined less, than in our trellised blocks.  But perhaps it shouldn't be so surprising that 340 vines in a dry-farmed acre can thrive with the roughly 15 inches of rain we've received each of the last four winters, while the 1800 vines planted in a trellised acre really need something closer to the 28 inches that is our average.  While a 24-hour irrigation session can keep them going through a dry summer, it's still not making up the difference between a normal rainfall winter and what we've averaged during our drought.

Would we make the same commitment to dry-farming if we needed 4 or more tons per acre off of our vineyard?  Perhaps not.  Our dry-farmed blocks tend to produce between 2 and 2.5 tons per acre, even in the most productive years. But given that we're only aiming for between 2.5 and 3 tons per acre even from our trellised blocks, we're not sacrificing much production.  And given how much less expensive it is to plant, prune, cultivate and thin 340 vines per acre than it is to do the same work on 1800, it may not be costing us more per pound of fruit even with the lower yields.

Even more important, the quality of the wine lots from these dry-farmed vines has been among the best in the cellar both of the last two years. Take into account that these are still among our youngest blocks and you can see why we feel it's a win-win situation for us, and why we're planning to plant our entire new parcel -- all 55 acres -- this way over the next decade.

So, if we're so happy with these old-fashioned techniques, how did the paradigm in California become so dependent on irrigation?  I explore the history in part 3.


Photo Essay: Spring in the Vineyard

This spring continues to be benign. After our scare in early April, we've had three weeks of beautiful weather, with lows between 36° and 45°, and highs between 57° and 82°.  The average low has been 39° and the average high 70°: really perfect spring weather.  We've accumulated 207 growing degree days so far, just above our 20-year average of 182, but well below the high of 274, set in 2013.

We haven't gotten much in the way of additional rain.  Despite some promising forecasts for much of last week, we received measurable precipitation only once, on Saturday, and then only 0.02".  But that's OK; rain at this time of year, unless it's significant enough to penetrate deep into the soil, is as much a nuisance as it is a benefit, since it encourages the regrowth of the cover crop that we're spending much of our time trying to bring under control.

The net result has been a beautifully even push from the grapevines of all different varieties.  I was here late in the day yesterday, and got out to take some photos in the late-afternoon light.  These are some of my favorites.  First, a photo of solar power, direct and indirect: a dry-farmed Mourvedre vine, with the solar panels we use to power the winery in the background:

Head-trained mourvedre and solar panels

Not all our varieties are out equally; Grenache (below, top), which is both first to sprout and one of the grapes that makes the most canopy is out quite a bit further than Mourvedre (below, bottom):

New Growth - Grenache

New Growth - Mourvedre

We have flower clusters, and though I wasn't able to find any actual flowering yet, it's surely going to be underway soon.  You can see a similar difference in the size and advancement of the clusters between Grenache (below, top) and Mourvedre (below, bottom). The background for the Mourvedre cluster is one of the solar panels, if you're wondering why it's gray:

Grenache cluster

Mourvedre cluster

The cover crop is indeed growing again, thanks to the inch of rain we received on April 7th.  This will mean a second pass through much of the vineyard, at least the parts that we'd mowed rather than disked or spaded:

Grenache hill with regrowing cover crop

Still, this is one of my favorite times of year.  We're largely past the risk of serious frost, particularly since our 10-day forecast doesn't show anything threatening.  It's not hot yet.  The still-green grasses on the hillsides give an overall air of softness that we won't have in a month, and that greenish brown is set against the yellow-green of the newly-leafed out grapevines and oak trees.  Knowing that we're off to an ideal start to the growing season makes it all the sweeter.  

I'll leave you with one last of my favorite photos, from our Scruffy Hill block, which gives you a sense of the landscape: vineyard in front, oak-studded hillsides in the background rising in increasingly rugged folds toward the south and west.  Cheers to spring, and to the incipient 2015 vintage.

Scruffy Hill