Weekly Roundup for December 6th: When We Got Wet, Learned How to Drink, and Chose Wine over Beer

Our biggest story over the last week has been rain.  We've received measurable amounts each day since last Sunday, totaling 3.6 inches at our weather station out here.  Even better, that rain has come spread out, with five different days producing between 0.48 inches and 1.19 inches.  The distributed nature of the rainfall has meant that it's all soaked in and we're seeing virtually no runoff.  And after a break this weekend, there's more rain on the horizon for late next week.  In this week's weekly roundup, we start with a look at our recent rain, and move back in time from there.

Our Rain, In Perspective
CA Precipitation vs Normal 4nov-4dec14

  • Despite the wet week, the Central Coast is only slightly above historical norms for this time of year, according to an interesting piece by SpaceRef, which used NASA data to plot California's rainfall from space.  The above graphic, showing average daily precipitation compared to normal for the Nov 4-Dec 4 period, is just one cool map in the article. Read more »

The Origins of Human Alcohol Consumption, Revealed

  • According to a new study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, our ability (relatively unique to humans and other great apes) to digest ethanol came about 10 million years before we started to produce it ourselves.  The genetic mutation allowed us to derive more nutrition from the fallen fruit our ancestors were scavenging off forest floors at the time. Read more »

Celebrating Repeal Day: December 5th

  • 81 years ago on Friday, the ratification of the 21st Amendment ended Prohibition and re-legalized the sale of alcohol in the United States.  I quite enjoyed George Yatchisin's exploration of California's Wine History on KCET, which looks at how the vineyards that survived prohibition did so, and some of the repercussions we're still feeling today.

Beauty Shot of the Week: Castoro's Rainbow

Castoro rainbow

  • One consequence of this week's rain was widespread rainbows.  I tried but failed to take some good shots out at Tablas Creek, but this photo from Castoro Cellars' Facebook page is spectacular.  If you don't follow them already on social media, you should: their photography is consistently beautiful. I particularly love this time of year, with the hillsides turning greener by the day and the air soft and cool. If you haven't been out to Paso in the winter, it's wonderful, and wonderfully different from summer's stark, crisp precision.

Food for Thought (Beverage for Thought?): a Growing Trend Toward Wine and Away from Beer

  • Wine preferenceThe Washington Post published an interesting article comparing the changes since 1992 of Americans' preferences between beer, wine, and hard alcohol.  I think that the headline ("The Great Beer Abandonment") overstates the case a bit, but the trends for wine (right) are clearly healthy.  Not only are young people preferring wine more than the previous generation did, but each generation's wine preference continues to grow steadily as its members move through their 30's, 40's and 50's.
  • Those continued trends are why I've thought that some of the recent hand-wringing within the wine industry about the rise of craft beer is misplaced.  In fact, I'd think that for a craft winery (the term doesn't really exist, but should) seeing craft beer's increasing importance in the market would be encouraging, as younger consumers who are exposed to the creativity and individuality of craft beers would already have much of the vocabulary to understand wine.  This idea probably deserves a full blog post.  Stay tuned.
  • Finally in this vein, I found the snapshot of the current American wine consumer, published this week by Wine Business Monthly, worthwhile reading.  It showed the growth of (but still relatively small penetration of) social media in wine purchase decision-making, the continued popularity of grapes we don't think much about like White Zin and Pinot Grigio, and the relative unimportance to consumers of wineries' environmental practices.  A good reminder of the work there still is to do! Read more »

Weekly Roundup for November 23rd, 2014: Natural Wine, Ancient Rocks, Knobbly Fruit & Thanksgiving

This week's Weekly Roundup is highlighted by a great thought piece on what makes wine "modern" or "traditional", and whether either of these have a relationship with the idea of "natural wine".  We've included a couple of our favorites of the many Thanksgiving wine recommendations omnipresent at this time of year.  And, of course, we check in with some members of our community who are doing cool stuff.  As always, please share in the comments what you like, and what you'd like to see different.

The bounty of (our) harvest

Artisan photo of quinces

  • We kick off this week's column with a gorgeous photo from Artisan Restaurant.  We've partnered with them on several dinners over the years, including one early this year which featured lamb from our property.  Their photo on Instagram (above) of some knobbly bright yellow quinces from one of our trees caught our eye.  We dropped some off there because we had many more than we had any idea how to use, and wanted to get them into capable hands.  This photo isn't an isolated event; there's beautiful stuff worth following on all of Artisan's social media feeds.  If you're wondering why we grow quinces (along with apples, pears, cherries, plums, peaches and apricots) they're a part of the increased biodiversity we've been working to integrate over recent years.

Something in the (ancient) water

  • Halter fossilOur neighbor Halter Ranch posted a great photo (right, or on the Halter Ranch Facebook page for a high-resolution version) of one of the fish fossils that they found in their rocks and integrated into their winery building.  It's a great reminder that the soils that sit under our vineyards (and much of west Paso Robles) were deposited as seabed in the Miocene period (10-20 million years ago). These were lifted above the surface in the creation of the Santa Lucia Mountains quite recently, by geologic standards.  My dad wrote a great blog piece about our soils' history in 2011, if you're interested in learning more.

The 2014 Harvest

Is there a holiday coming up?

  • Thanksgiving is the American holiday most dedicated to eating and drinking.  Yet, many traditional Thanksgiving foods aren't naturally friendly to many of the most popular American wines, given their questionable affinity to oak and high alcohol.  Happily, Rhones, both red and white, make classic pairings, and it's always a pleasure waiting for the pre-Thanksgiving wine columns suggesting Rhones as an accompaniment.  I thought Laurie Daniel's Rhones for Thanksgiving column for the San Jose Mercury News was particularly good this year, and was pleased to see that our 2012 Cotes de Tablas ("bright fruit with savory notes of wild herbs") was one of her suggestions.
  • We weren't mentioned, but I still really liked Eric Asimov's Thanksgiving recommendation that the wine you choose should "Refresh the Palate". He highlights versatility and energy as two characteristics to look for in your Thanksgiving wine, and recommends an eclectic mix. I'm not sure I could find many of the wines he and his panel recommend (there are rewards for living in New York City, after all) but I do know that I agree completely with his basic advice. Read more »

An event to look forward to

  • This week, the Paso Robles Rhone Rangers announced the details of their 2015 Paso Robles Rhone Rangers Experience. In the last seven years, this event has become a showpiece for the Rhone movement here, and it's a remarkable value: just $85 for the full slate of events, including a nine-wine seminar (this year led by the Wine Enthusiast's Matt Kettmann), a vintners lunch catered by Chef Maegen Loring, a grand tasting featuring some 50 Paso Robles Rhone wineries, and a silent auction that benefits the Rhone Rangers Scholarship Fund.  There's a $35 ticket for just the Grand Tasting, too. Details & tickets »

Food for Thought (Beverage for Thought?)

  • Finally for this week I wanted to point you to a blog that is writing some of the most consistently interesting and erudite pieces in the world of wine today.  Elaine Brown of Hawk Wakawaka Wine Reviews this week tackles the questions raised by the ambiguity inherent in the definition of "natural wine".  We fall in her category 3 ("Wine growers and/or makers that use organic and/or biodynamic viticultural practices and/or less interventionist cellar techniques with few additives but do not define themselves with the movement of Natural wine") and are often dismayed by the reductive arguments on either extreme of the debate. Her conclusion -- that what matters is "if we’re trying to listen, and have a conversation" seems right on to me. Read more »

Weekly Roundup for November 16th, 2014: AVAs, Local Achievements, Veterans Day, Direct Shipping and Uncovering the Obscure

Last week, we debuted the Weekly Roundup, news from around the wine community that we thought worth sharing with you.  It's an admittedly eclectic mix, but we feel each thing that we've chosen warrants few minutes of your time.  It's also a work in progress, so please share in the comments what you like, and what you'd like to see different.  This week's list:

Some Great Press for Paso Robles and our new AVAs

  • The Tasting Panel's Anthony Dias Blue visited Paso recently, just before Sunset's Savor the Central Coast in September. His article concludes with an exciting evaluation of our great town: "this sleepy region, once home to a few obscure, under-the-radar wineries, has transformed itself into the most exciting wine region in California".  The article also recommends wines from 15 top Paso Robles wineries, including our 2011 Esprit de Tablas Blanc and 2012 Mourvedre. Read more »
  • On of our favorite blogs for the week came from Wine Spectator editor Mitch Frank, whose piece Wine Can Be So Complicated — And That's OK was a notably thoughtful musing set against the background of the recent approval of 11 new AVAs here in Paso Robles.  His conclusion -- that "while wineries, and journalists, need to work hard to make wine inviting for newcomers, that doesn't mean erasing what makes wine like few other beverages—it comes from someplace specific" sums up our thoughts pretty well.  I'm quoted in the article, and submitted a comment with a few more of my thoughts on the subject. Read more »

Something from Tablas Creek

  • RZH in the Navy It was fun on Veterans Day to see the tributes to the many veterans in the wine community flowing through our social media feeds (for the intersection of the #wine and #veteransday hashtags on Twitter, check out this link).  We posted this 1944 Navy photo of Robert Haas, all of 17 years old at the time.  A sincere thank you to him and to all the many veterans and servicemembers, current and past, who have impacted our lives so substantially.

A Glimpse Behind the Scenes into the Business of Wine

  • Wine marketer, expert blogger and consumer advocate Tom Wark was interviewed by ReasonTV, and the 3-minute video that resulted is posted on YouTube.  I spend a fair amount of time trying to shine some light on some of the more convoluted and counterintuitive laws that govern how wine is sold around the United States in my Legislation and Regulation series.  Tom's opening salvo: that "the only way to get them to begin to be repealed and reformed is to bring them to light" is absolutely spot on. Watch the interview »

Some Landmarks from our Neighbors

Paso Robles Beautiful

Cass - fall foliage

  • We've been posting lots of photos of our fall foliage.  The photo above, which our friends at Cass Winery posted on their Facebook page, is one of the most impressive we've seen.  Too good not to share!

Food for Thought (Beverage for Thought?)

  • We'll conclude this week with an article by Lettie Teague in the Wall Street Journal, entitled Dark Horse Wines: Great Finds in Odd Places.  As a winery who chose what was, at the time, an odd place (Paso Robles) to make odd wines (southern Rhone-style blends), we find comfort in her conclusion that because gatekeepers will naturally tend toward the conservative, "wine drinkers themselves must ultimately be the ones to pursue the unexpected, to eschew the tried-and-true".  She also suggests 5 wines, including one (a Pinot Noir from South Africa) imported by Vineyard Brands.  Read more »

Changing of the seasons

It's rare that in a single day you feel the changing of the seasons as dramatically as we did yesterday.  Last weekend was warm and sunny; it hit the mid-80's out here both Saturday and Sunday.  Even after the rain from a week ago, the overall feel was still of high autumn, even if the hillsides, if you looked closely, were softened and enriched by a new fuzz of green. 

Enter yesterday morning.  When I arrived at work, it was clear and sunny, if breezy and cool.  But by mid-morning, we had a fog bank cresting the Santa Lucia Mountains to our west:

Changing seasons fog bank

A few minutes later, the fog started rolling across the sky in wisps and eddies, producing a flickering landscape alternating between bright and gloom.  A few photos, first looking down south over the vineyard:

Changing seasons long view

and looking between two rows of Syrah:

Changing seasons syrah

By late morning we'd settled into a (really quite beautiful) semi-overcast condition, with bright skies but only occasional blue.  It brought out the fall colors in the vineyard quite remarkably.  Two views, both of which I recommend you click on to enlarge:

Changing seasons foliage 1

Tablas Creek Vineyard in Autumn

Finally, a picture that I posted on Facebook yesterday, but which I like so much I'm going to use it to finish this blog, showing the green shoots of cover crop, which thanks to the rain now snake between each row, ready to hold the soil in place when our serious precipitation arrives. Already the soil is darker and feels richer than it did just two weeks ago:

Fall colors and new cover crop 2014

Today, the sun has yet to peek through.  There is humidity in the air.  We're forecast to get some sprinkles this week, with two wetter storms to follow in the next 10 days or so.  We're so ready.


Photo Essay: After the Rain

Last weekend, we received a glorious and much-needed 1.17 inches of rain.  Much of this came Friday night (Halloween) which wasn't great for the kids out trick-or-treating, but for those of us desperate for a wet winter, the rainfall was a treat indeed.  In between Saturday's showers, Lauren Cross got some great photos that captured the feel of that day beautifully: skies still mostly cloudy, soil colors deepened to warm blacks, sparkles of light from the drops of water still clinging to the vines and wires.  I wanted to share some of my favorites.  First, a look up one of our hills, with a great view of the changing skies:

Looking over Counoise

Next, a close-up of a second-crop cluster, wet with raindrops from one of Saturday's many showers:

Close up

I love the brighter feel (as well as the colors the light brings out) of this shot of our chicken coop, caught when the clouds parted and the sun snuck through:

Coop

And finally, the shot we take so often, looking over Roussanne and Tannat blocks to the colors of Grenache Blanc and Syrah behind:

Over Roussanne

Our early rain has, if nothing else, put us all in a good mood as we get to watch the hillsides start to turn green.  With all the fruit safely in the cellar, the cover crop seeded and compost spread in the vineyard, it can get serious any time it likes.


Autumn Vineyard Photo Essay

The grapes are all off the vines.  The days are shorter, with a lower sun angle.  We just avoided our first frost of the year here last night, and tonight is supposed to be just as chilly.  The weather pattern is transitioning, and each storm front makes it a little further south.  On Saturday, we actually got a few sprinkles.  Next weekend we're forecast to see measurable precipitation.  It's all hopeful for a vineyard (and a region) struggling under three years of drought.

In the near term, the vines are responding to the changing season by losing chlorophyll and letting the colors hidden by the green all year come out.  It doesn't last long, but it's spectacular while it does.  Here are a few shots I got this morning, starting with a photo from the center of our head-trained Tannat block, looking up at Grenache Blanc (on the left) and Syrah (on the right):

S & GB behind T

A closeup of some of the Tannat leaves:

Tannat leaves

And one of the Tannat second crop clusters, that never ripened enough to be harvested, and are now food for our local birds:

Second Tannat crop

In the vineyard, we're applying compost, so that as the rains come this winter, it will be absorbed into the soil and provide for next year's nutrition.  That compost sits beside one of the casualties of the late-summer fruit thinning we do to ensure that what we harvest has good concentration:

Compost & Cover Crop

I was struck by the complimentary colors of the vineyard and those of the new chicken coop we've installed in a section of head-trained Roussanne.  I love the "max occupancy" note painted above the door:

Henhouse

And finally, one more photo of the vineyard itself, this time looking up through Syrah, which I think catches the feel of this newly rebalanced season, neither summer nor winter yet, lacking the vibrant green of active growth but before the incipent frosts take away the leaves entirely, and feeling somehow both cool and warm at the same time:

Through Syrah

If you have the chance to make it out to Paso Robles in this season, you're in for a treat.  It never lasts long, but it's a wonderful backdrop while it's here.


Harvest 2014 Recap: Yields up 5.2% (though still below average); Quality excellent

On Wednesday, October 15th we picked the last batch of Roussanne off of our estate.  And just like that, we're done picking for the year.  It doesn't feel like we're finished, as we're still pressing off bins of reds, the cellar still smells like crush, and the vineyard's colors are still more green than gold -- it is only mid-October, after all -- but there's no more fruit to pick.  From Wednesday:

Last Day of Harvest

As we've progressed through this harvest, we have been comparing it to similar vintages with relatively low yields and high quality, like 2003, 2007 and 2013.  Now that everything is in, we have a chance to look quantitatively and see whether these comparisons have merit.  Of course, there are things that can't be easily measured (think color, or thickness of skins) but knowing how much fruit you have and how ripe it is, overall, gives us a good tool for knowing what the vintage will be like.  And it's not surprising; yields per acre and ripeness at harvest tell you critical things like skin-to-juice and sugar-to-acid ratios.

Somewhat to our surprise, given that we're in our third year of drought, yields were on average actually up a little from 2013. For our principal grapes:

Grape2013 Yields (tons)2014 Yields (tons)% Change
Viognier 16.7 11.4 -31.7%
Marsanne 8.2 9.9 +20.7%
Grenache Blanc 25.4 31.9 +25.6%
Picpoul Blanc 5.2 7.5 +44.2%
Vermentino 15.1 17.3 +14.6%
Roussanne 44.5 42.8 -3.8%
Total Whites 115.1 120.8
+5.0%
Grenache 48.7 50.7 +4.1%
Syrah 32.5 38.1 +17.2%
Mourvedre 57.3 52.3 -8.7%
Tannat 12.3 15.4 +25.2%
Counoise 13.9 17.0 +22.3%
Total Reds 164.7 173.5
5.4%
Total 279.8 294.3 +5.2%

Most varieties are up a bit, with the exceptions of Mourvedre and Roussanne, our two latest-ripening varieties, and the two grapes most susceptible to late-season stress-related devigoration.  So, it's perhaps unsurprising that both showed declines in this dry year.  The third grape to see a decline (Viognier) came from a much more discrete cause: we had several nights of break-ins by wild pigs toward the beginning of harvest, and they of course went straight for Viognier, the ripest (read: earliest-ripening) grape.

Overall yields ended up at 2.78 tons per acre, which is still just below our ten-year average of 2.9 tons per acre.  Other years in which we've seen yields between 2.5 and 3 tons per acre have included 2003, 2004, 2007, 2008, and 2013, all of which have been excellent and have been aging very well.

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

Both of these measures show the subtle differences between 2014 and a year like 2013, corroborating what we noticed: that the level of lushness this year (our highest average sugars since 2009) was counterbalanced by good acids (better than all our recent vintages except the historically cool 2010 and 2011 vintages).  It also suggests that the narrative we're hearing from many California appellations -- that acids were extremely low this year, requiring significant intervention in the cellar -- didn't hold true for us.  Finally, it's a good indication that we were able to keep up with the pressure in mid-September, when so much of the vineyard seemed like it was ready, and that we got fruit off the vine while it still maintained natural freshness.

In character, we see many similarities to 2013, with the characteristic dark color and intense flavors of a low-yielding vintage, but with a little more overt fruit than the more savory 2013s.  Fans of the lusher style our wines featured in the 2007-2009 period will likely find many similarities.  Clusters and berries were very small, which means that skin-to-juice ratios were high on our red grapes.  My dad holds up a cluster each of (from left) Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre from late-September, when all three were arriving in the cellar simultaneously:

004

Of course, it's early to make predictions on flavors, so stay tuned in the spring, when we'll dive into the vintage's character in preparation for our blending trials.

At 53 days between its August 23rd beginning and its October 15th conclusion, this harvest clocks as a bit shorter than average (our 10-year average is 56 days) and our finish was one of our earliest on record, preceded this century only by last year's October 7th end.  It joins 2013 as our only vintages where we finished harvesting before the Paso Robles Harvest Wine Weekend.

Our main challenge, as things finished up, was Roussanne, and it's with this notoriously finicky grape that I think the meticulous work of our vineyard team will show the most.  Roussanne, even in the best of conditions, tends to ripen unevenly, requiring that we go through each block multiple times to pick what's ripe and give the other clusters some more time to mature.  Roussanne is also the variety most prone to stress-related devigoration, where the leaves lose chlorophyll and ripening slows toward the end of harvest.  Not every vine is affected to the same degree, so you can have mostly-green vines next to those that are largely yellow, with predictably faster ripening on the greener vines.  In this exceptionally stressful year, we knew we would have to be willing to go back repeatedly through our Roussanne blocks if we hoped to get most of the fruit harvested in good condition.  But even by Roussanne's normal standards, this year was a slog.  As an example, we made a first pass through the Roussanne block we still call our "New Hill" (since it was planted in 2000 rather than 1995-1997) on September 4th.  We made our next passes on September 18th and October 2nd.  Still, nearly half the fruit remained.  We went through again on October 7th, and a final pick -- our last pick of the harvest -- on October 16th. It's a good thing Roussanne is so rewarding in the cellar.  If it weren't, no one would deal with its quirks. The culprit, looking deceptively placid in early October:

Roussanne mid-September 2

 

And while we're early to be done with harvest, the cooler nights and the shorter days are beginning to bring out the fall colors in the vineyard.  I take a photo from this vantage point nearly every year because it shows two grapes that both color up in the fall: Tannat, in the foreground, and Syrah, on the hillside behind.

Fall foliage 2

Now that we're done with picking, we're able to get our animal herd back into the vineyard.  They can clean up any second crop clusters we left behind, as well as start getting some natural fertilizer into the soil in advance of what we're hoping will be a wet winter.  Dottie, one of our guard donkeys, is enjoying a snack of Marsanne before it goes dormant: 

Dottie back in the vineyard

And as for that rain, we're feeling hopeful that the series of Pacific fronts that have blown through Paso Robles over the last two weeks -- dry though they were, this early in the season -- bode well for winter. In many years, it's still hot and summer-like in mid-October.  These last two weeks have felt like fall.  If that promise carries through to real rain, we'll all have reason to celebrate.


Why River Cruise?

By Larry Martin

[Editor's Note: Larry Martin is President of Food & Wine Trails, Tablas Creek's travel partner on our 2015 Rhone River cruise, which will be highlighted by a special visit to Beaucastel.  We asked him to contribute a first-hand account of what cruise-goers might expect should they join us next year.  For all the details on the August 2-9, 2015 trip, which will begin in Avignon, end in Lyon, and include many historical and oenological visits along the way, visit foodandwinetrails.com/tablascreek2015]

Our luggage was stolen from our rental car before we boarded our cruise; my wife twisted her knee and then got ill, so imagine my surprise when she said she wanted to do the same cruise again, “this time to get it right.” That’s a testament to how much we loved our first river cruise along the Rhône.

LM - Cruise Ship
The Uniworld Catherine, Cruising

River cruising has exploded in popularity, and it’s now difficult to find a cabin during high-season as these cruise fill up months and months in advance.

Food & Wine Trails does not sell what we haven’t personally experienced, so because so many of our winery clients have been asking us about river cruises, we’ve now cruised on five different ships, on three rivers with three different cruise lines.

Each was as great as our first trip on the Rhône but fortunately without the calamities. Here’s why: Whether from the deck or the sliding glass door in my cabin, there was always something to see, from steep vineyard hills and medieval castles to picturesque villages.

LM - Castle and vines
Medieval castle, viewed from the Rhone

LM - Gordes
The famously picturesque hilltop village of Gordes

LM - Hermitage
M. Chapoutier's terraced hillside vineyards at Hermitage

The small scale of river ships, which typically carry less than two hundred people, explains much of their appeal, as they offer more intimacy than ocean-going ships. On a river ship, you don't need a GPS device to find the lobby or the dining room. The staff is much more attentive and friendly. There are also plenty of opportunities to immerse oneself into the region and with the locals. Because the ships dock right in town, it’s easy to take off on one of the bikes the ship carries, or drop into bars and coffee shops at night.

LM - Lyon
Lyon, from the Rhone River

So after our first cruise, we cruised on the Danube, the Garonne (Bordeaux), the Volga and decided last year to return to the Rhone, and to cruise with our favorite cruise line: Uniworld. 

Why you might ask? Because the trip begins in Provence, one of France’s most beautiful regions, and ends in Lyon, France’s most important food city.  Each visited village and city was filled with history and charm, made all the more beautiful by the unique light that has inspired such artists as Picasso, Renoir and Van Gough. And for a wine lover, this particular cruise offers two special additions: One it traverses or visits five major wine regions; Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas, Crozes-Hermitage, Hermitage and Burgundy. And two, you’ll be the guests of the Perrin family for lunch, owners of one of the most important wine estates in the region.

022
Beaucastel, behind the famous gobelet-trained vines of Chateauneuf-du-Pape

So what else does one need? A great ship, and Uniworld’s newest ship the Catherine is considered by many to be the world’s best river cruise ship.

LM - CdP Lock
On the Rhone, entering the lock at Chateauneuf-du-Pape

The only thing that I found lacking was time, because with all the great scenery, history and food and wine to explore, I never found enough of it. I guess I’ll have to return for a third time.


Near-End-of-Harvest Assessment: A Furious September, Moderate Yields, Quality High

In the vineyard, things are starting to look genuinely fall-like:

Fall foliage 2

And in keeping with the visuals of the season, we're on the tail end of our harvest craziness, something like 85% done.  As of the beginning of this week, we'd harvested 386 tons: 237 from our estate and another 149 for the Patelin.  What was left was one good block of Mourvedre (picked today), scraps of the other reds (all of which should be cleaned up by the end of this week), our three small blocks of Tannat (likely to be harvested this and next week), and a good chunk of Roussanne (which will likely be picked in waves into the middle of October; more on that later). 

The pace at which we harvested fruit off our estate in September was remarkable.  After a relatively slow beginning to harvest (which I discussed on the blog) things picked up serious steam the first week of September, and are only now starting to slow down. It's perhaps easiest to look at it graphically, showing tons of fruit, estate and Patelin, per week:

Harvest 2014 by week

In many ways, this vintage is shaping up like 2013: it's been a warm year without many heat spikes, we've picked 10 days or 2 weeks early on average, it's a slightly below-average vintage for yields, and looks very high for quality.  But unlike 2013, our shortest harvest in a decade, we're likely going to see a more normal full two months between the first and last fruit off our estate.  Still, August's slow beginning and October's gradual taper will together account for less than 20% of the harvest, meaning our September peak was one of our busiest periods ever. How busy? The busiest week of 2013 saw us bring in 58 tons off of our estate.  Even in 2012, our largest crush ever, no week ever reached the 79 tons we harvested the week of September 15th.  And the week of September 8th had already filled the cellar with 70 new tons of fruit.

So, it's not surprising that we felt buried by grapes.  We've managed to fit everything into the cellar (more of a challenge than you'd think, given that we typically use a fermentation tank for 5 or 6 sequential lots at harvest -- leaving each lot in the fermenter for some 10 days -- and having nearly all our fruit come in during a 30-day sprint effectively halves our fermentation space).  Between the couple of new upright wooden tanks we added last year and a few open-top stainless steel fermenters we hadn't used in a few harvests, we've made it work.  The cellar, though, is as full of different fermentation tanks as I've ever seen it:

Full cellar

Yields look very similar to last year.  Of the non-Roussanne whites, we've harvested 68.7 tons.  Last year saw us bring in 65.4 tons.  Of the Rhone reds, at week's beginning we'd brought in 134.5 tons.  Last year we finished up with 151.5, but we estimate we've got another dozen tons or so that will trickle in, meaning we'll end up very close to last year's totals.  Maybe up a touch in Syrah and Counoise, and down slightly in Mourvedre and Grenache. 

The real question for us is Roussanne.  This always-challenging grape is being difficult even by its standards this year.  We've gone through our principal Roussanne blocks twice already, picking just the ripe clusters, netting a little over 10 tons.  We have another selective pick scheduled for tomorrow, and are expecting another 4 tons or so.  Still, we're a long way from done.  Last year, we harvested 44 tons of Roussanne, accounting for about 40% of our white production.  This year, there are a higher than normal number of Roussanne vines that are starting to shut down due to stress, which means that the clusters they carry are ripening more and more slowly.  We think that we'll still be able to harvest much (most?) of what's out there, but assuming that all of it will come in seems unreasonably optimistic.  We're hoping for 30 tons, total.  It seems unfair that the Roussanne looks as nice as it does on the vines, taunting us with its amber beauty despite not being ripe: 

Roussanne mid-September

So, we wait on Roussanne, and on Tannat, which is looking good but still mostly not quite there.  The colors of its foliage, though, suggest that the time is near: 

Tannat on the vine

In terms of quality, we continue to be excited by what we're seeing.  The berries seem unusually small, the flavors and colors correspondingly intense.  The grapes are a bit riper than they've been the last few years, but in good balance.  It's looking (dare I say it) a lot like 2007.

And that has to be a good thing.


Drying Mourvedre Grapes for Vin de Paille "Sacrérouge"

We don't make our vin de paille dessert wines every year.  First, the grapes need to be in great shape before they're put on the straw, or they rot rather than drying, making some vintages unsuitable for the technique.  Second, Americans don't buy large quantities of sweet wines, so we don't need to make that much.  (Perhaps I should more accurately say that while many Americans like their dry wines with some sweetness they don't buy large quantities of truly sweet wines.)  And third, given that the setup and winemaking are pretty labor-intensive and that the wines age effortlessly, more wine less-often gives us efficiency.

So, it's exciting that today we're beginning the process of making our first Vin de Paille  "Sacrérouge" since 2010. The process is interesting, I think.  The grapes (in this case, Mourvedre) are harvested into picking baskets, but not then dumped into half-ton bins for transport, because the weight of the grapes on top is enough to bruise the grapes on the bottom and encourage rot.  Instead, the baskets are carried by hand -- or loaded onto the back of a flatbed and driven -- down to our greenhouse:

Sacrerouge bins

Then, they're laid out on the straw, as demonstrated by Juan Gomez below:

Sacrerouge

The grapes will spend two or three weeks on the straw, dehydrating gradually in the greenhouse heat, until they're semi-raisined, at which point we'll pick them back up and transport them to the winery for foot-crushing (they're too dense at this point to run through a de-stemmer or to get a punch-down tool through) and eventual fermentation.  If you're wondering why these wines are usually expensive, this makes three times that they have to be handled plus some pretty labor-intensive daily cellar work.  But the reward is worth it: a sweet wine that has freshness, isn't overly alcoholic (reds typically in the 13% range, whites in the 9%-10% range), and has concentrated minerality and varietal character, not just sweetness.  But that's still several weeks away.  For now, we'll be watching the drying grapes as we finish the rest of harvest.  One more photo, for those of you interested.  One of our greenhouse benches is nearly full, with another to go:

Sacrerouge on benches

If you're interested in more technical explanation of how the vin de paille process works compared to other common techniques for making sweet wines, or photos of the grapes further along in their drying, check out my blog post from 2010: Vin de Paille: A Dessert Wine Making Technique for the Obsessed.