Addressing Syrah Decline (or, If You Change Your Mind...)

OK, maybe I should have picked a different title, just so that I wouldn't have ABBA running through my head for the rest of the day. But it seemed appropriate. 

Step 4 new growth 2

We have been concerned with low yields on our Syrah. Typically a pretty vigorous producer, our Syrah yields have declined more than the rest of the vineyard, from an average of 3.4 tons/acre between 2003 and 2008 to just 2.2 tons/acre since 2009. Some of this can be attributed to the frost years of 2009 and 2011, and the drought we've seen since, but even in the otherwise vigorous year of 2012 yields were just 2.6 tons/acre, and they declined all the way to 1.5 tons/acre last year. Low yields in Syrah are a particular concern because typically we prefer it with somewhat higher yields, which can soften its often-powerful tannins and increase its complexity by lengthening its hang time.

Our largest and oldest block of Syrah, on the western edge of our original property, seems most to blame. We attribute its decline to at least two issues. Much of the block is low enough, and on flat enough ground, that it gets frozen even when most of the rest of the vineyard escapes. While a grapevine generally recovers after a single frost, repeated frosts, year after year, can lead to significant vine mortality. And so it was in this block. Compounding its problems, that Syrah block has also shown significant symptoms of trunk diseases, where fungal infections get inside the bark and gradually choke off the vine's ability to nourish the new growth further down the cordon. This has led to additional vine mortality, as well as decreased yields in the remaining vines.

Although we think we've mitigated the trunk disease issue by switching that Syrah block to a new trellis system that produces new growth each year rather than relying on the same cordons, there are so many missing and weak vines that we have decided that the only real solution is to pull the block out and start over. But even with its declining yields, that block still accounts for roughly half our Syrah production each year. So we've been struggling with when to pull the plug over there and wait out the 4 years it will take to get the vineyard replanted and in production, and what to do to keep our Syrah crop reasonable in the interim.

Our solution: graft over a two-acre Roussanne block to Syrah, and get that in production before we pull out the old block. We've got plenty of Roussanne -- about 16 acres overall -- and often find in our white blending that we have surplus to what we really need. We looked in April at the different Roussanne blocks to see if we could find one that we wouldn't miss too badly if it went away. And there is such a block, which over the last several years has usually finished toward the bottom of our rankings in the blind varietal tastings that we do to start each blending session.

Step one in the changeover was to go through and cut off the tops of the existing Roussanne vines, which we did in early May. We then let the vines bleed for a few weeks to reduce the sap pressure that can interfere with the connection between the new buds and the existing trunk:

Step 1 saw off cordons

Next, we came through (the photo below is from mid-May) and cleaned up the vine tops, peeling back the bark to allow a clean graft:

Step 2 clean off bark

Then, two weeks ago, we brought in a specialist grafting crew to come through, cut little wedges out of each Roussanne trunk and shape Syrah buds to fit into the wedges, slot the buds in place and tape the graft unions together:

Step 3 graft and wrap

Now, 2 weeks later, the buds are starting to sprout:

Step 4 new growth

This year, we'll let the new bud grow into a cane, and over the winter we'll start to train it into the shape we'll want for the finished vine. We won't get any crop this year, but we will get a small crop next year and a full crop, supercharged by the 20-year-old vine roots, the year after. We did the same thing with our old Chardonnay block in 2013 -- grafting half of it to Mourvedre and half to Counoise -- and got a good crop off of that block last harvest. One of the Counoise vines today:

Final - Counoise ex-Chard 2

If you're interested in seeing this in action, check out the video we made in 2013 of that Chardonnay/Counoise changeover. The voice you hear is our former Viticulturist Levi Glenn, explaining: 

What will we do with the old Syrah block? We're not sure yet. Given its tendency to be frost prone, at least in the lower parts of the block, It's probably not ideal for the early-sprouting Syrah. But for something like Mourvedre? That seems like a slam dunk. Stay tuned.


Weekly Roundup for December 22nd: Drinking Better, Wine's Off Days, Anniversaries, and So Much Green

This week, as you've probably heard, was the last week of the holiday-buying season.  Yet in between the endless lists of the right wines for holiday gift giving were some truly interesting tidbits.  Our favorites of the week are below:

An amazing time-lapse video of the changing weather

  • We're just emerging from three weeks of wet weather into a drier pattern.  How wet?  Not overwhelmingly, by total precipitation; we got 7.75 inches over that stretch, an amount not inconceivable for a single winter storm on the coast of California.  But the distribution of that rain was remarkable: our weather station received measurable rainfall fifteen different days of twenty-two, with no more than two consecutive rain-free days.  With that rain came some beautiful clouds and lots of surface fog.  The time-lapse video captured by Biodynamic winery AmByth Estate, in the hilly El Pomar region just east of the town of Templeton, was pretty amazing.

And evidence of the rain's positive impacts

Adelaida Green  Frick ponds

  • The landscape here in Paso Robles has been transformed over the last few weeks.  The hillsides are electric green in the sunny interludes, and the cover crops are months ahead of last year.  The photo on the left, from Adelaida Cellars' Facebook page, gives a good sense of the new landscape.  We haven't seen any significant runoff or recharge of the ponds and lakes locally, unlike further north, where Frick Winery (in Dry Creek, Sonoma County) posted the dramatic changes to one of their local ponds on their Facebook page.  Hopefully, with the next series of storms, we'll see the same.

Another rain impact: bad tasting day?

  • I read with interest W. Blake Gray's post The Day Wine Tasted Bad on his blog The Gray Report.  He describes a day (pouring down rain) where he opened bottle after bottle, looking for one that tasted good.  We've had this happen to us in the cellar, where wines that we know we liked all started disappointing us in one way or another.  It seems to happen more often when the weather is changing, and we've learned to call it a day early rather than make irrevocable decisions on days like this.  There are believers who would attribute this to the Biodynamic calendar, but it's always seemed more plausible to us that it's somehow meteorologic.  In any case, Blake, you're not alone.  Read more »

A Year in the Life

  • Law Estate 2Congratulations to our neighbors Law Estate Wines, which celebrated the one-year anniversary of opening their tasting room this week.  If you haven't been to visit them yet, in their beautiful tasting room at the crest of Peachy Canyon Road, you should make a point to.  And when you do, please wish them Happy Anniversary.  (Meanwhile, it's worth following them on Facebook, where they routinely post some great photos.)

Food for Thought (Drink for Thought?): Drinking Better

  • Finally, a piece in LA Weekly's Squid Ink blog got some well-deserved play around the internet.  Drink Better Wine, Start a Revolution is a clarion call by author Besha Rodell to consumers to demand better from their wine retailers.  She concludes: "And so, Millennials of America, as well as anyone else who has found themselves drinking that bottle of Two Buck Chuck and realizing that you are basically only tolerating something that you know little about, not truly enjoying it, I implore you: Drink better wine. Make it imperative that Vons should have decent wine if they want your business. Or, better, hit up the small shops around town that really do all the work for you." Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. Read the article »

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 »

Harvest 2014 at the Midway Point: Very Like 2013, which is a Good Thing

We finally feel like we're in the middle of harvest.  Every day brings a mix of new fruit coming in, sample teams going out, both presses running as we press off fermented red lots and newly-harvested whites, winemakers on the sorting table and de-stemmer processing newly-harvested reds, and even the first outline of our rosés taking shape.  The harvest chalkboard is filling up!

Chalkboard 9.11

Happily, for our sequencing at least, the arrival of Patelin lots via truck have slowed to a trickle.  You can see in the chalkboard: the top of the board has mostly blue lots, indicating fruit from Patelin vineyards, while the bottom is mostly white, which denotes estate fruit.  It has been great not to have to worry about too much of our Patelin harvest once our estate fruit started coming in in earnest.  Here's some of what we know, so far:

The Patelin is mostly done.
We've received 126 tons of fruit for Patelin: 53 tons of white (mostly Grenache Blanc and Viognier), 45 tons of red (mostly Syrah, with a little Grenache), and 28 tons of Grenache that we've direct-pressed to make the base of the Patelin Rosé.  We're expecting another 25 or so tons of red, mostly Grenache and Mourvedre, and a few more tons of Mourvedre for the Patelin Rosé.

Harvest off our estate vineyard is heating up.
So far, four grapes are done.  The Haas Vineyard Pinot -- often an outlier -- was the first, on 9/3.  We completed our harvest of Viognier on 9/9 and Vermentino on 9/11, and picked our last Grenache Blanc this morning.  We're probably 80% of the way through Syrah, 40% through Grenache Noir, 25% through Counoise, 15% through Roussanne and Mourvedre, and are yet to start Marsanne (coming in tomorrow), Tannat, or Picpoul.  Still, we expect the year to end with Roussanne and Mourvedre, as usual.  Overall, we figure we're maybe 40% done with our estate, and expect to hit the halfway mark around the end of the week. This week has been the beginning of a Grenache onslaught.  It looks super: intensely colored, with beautiful flavors.

Grenache

The fruit that's still out looks great, too. 
A few photos.  First, Roussanne, starting to show the classic russet tint that gives the grape its name:

Roussanne on Vine 9-12

Next, Mourvedre, still fully inflated, sheltering under its canopy, and likely a couple of weeks away from coming in:

Mourvedre on Vine 9-12

Overall, the vineyard doesn't appear to be struggling as much as we thought it would given how dry it's been.  Sure, Roussanne is looking ragged, but it always does this time of year.  The Viognier made it, barely.  Mourvedre, which also often looks pretty haggard by the time it's picked, is holding up pretty well, as are Grenache and Grenache Blanc, and Counoise.

An early harvest? Not so much.
For all our worries that this would be an exceptionally early harvest, it turns out we're not actually ahead of last year's pace. Looking at the grapes that are done, we finished Viognier and Vermentino roughly a week later this year than last, the Haas Pinot at the same time, and Grenache Blanc one day earlier this year.  As of September 13th, 2013, we'd harvested 119 tons off our estate.  This year, it was 110 tons at the same date.

The cellar is a moving three-dimensional puzzle that needs a new solution each day.
The challenges in the cellar are logistical: how do we make enough of the right kind of space for the fruit that's coming in.  This means pressing off lots that have reached the extraction levels we want (typically about 10 days after harvest) and moving those lots into barrels, cleaning those tanks and then getting them ready to refill with new juice.

We've begun the process of assembling the Dianthus Rosé by bleeding off a tank of Counoise 24 hours post-harvest.  A 40-second video takes you through how it's done:

Yields look similar to 2013.
Of the grapes we've finished harvesting, Vermentino's yield is up about 10%, Grenache Blanc nearly identical, and Viognier's down 30% (largely due to wild pig depredation).  It looks like Syrah totals will be very similar to last year.  The grapes we're thinking might be lighter are Roussanne (which seems to be struggling more than most grapes due to the drought) and Grenache (whose berries and clusters seem small this year; check out the photo below). 

Grenache cluster in JCH hand

But overall, we don't expect big yield differences from 2013. Since we consider last year's yields of 2.66 tons/acre to be characteristic of our best vintages, having similar results this year would be just fine with us.  And the weather seems to be continuing to cooperate, with hot-but-not-scorching spells broken by stretches of cool weather that give us a chance to catch back up.  Fitting the pattern, it was hot over the weekend, but is forecast to cool down this week.  Even so, it looks like we've got maybe another month of harvest, at the outside.

So, looking ahead, that el nino they're now not forecasting for this winter?  It can arrive any time after October 15th.  If any of you have any pull with the weather gods, that is.


Finding Closure(s) in Portugal

By Chelsea Franchi

Here at Tablas Creek, we do things by hand and with care.  In the vineyard and the cellar, it's paramount that everyone feels pride for their work and I'd like to think that attention and consideration translates to the product in the bottle.  I certainly appreciate that I work in an industry that is focused on craftsmanship and old-fashioned elbow grease (that's food grade, of course) especially when so many things around us are produced via automation.  I should be clear that I don't have a problem with mechanized production for most items, and these days I tend to assume that large scale production facilities are manned by machines.  So it's nice to discover I'm wrong (every now and then).

Last week, I had the extremely good fortune to be invited on a trip to Portugal with a group of eight other wine industry professionals, hosted by our cork supplier, M.A. Silva.  The purpose of the trip was to tour around Portugal, watch the cork harvest, and see what a cork manufacturing facility does.  And in our spare time, educate ourselves a bit on the subject of Portuguese wines (*ahem*).  And before you ask, the answer is "yes".  I do know how lucky I am.  Truly, I do.

Just so you don't think I was sitting on the bank of the Douro drinking Touriga Nacional and eating bacalhau the whole time I was there, here are some bite sized facts you're welcome to pull out at your next cocktail party:

  • The cork tree is an oak
  • The first harvest of cork oak bark happens after the tree reaches about 25-30 years of age
  • A cork tree can only be harvested once every nine years
  • A single cork tree will live anywhere from 150-200 years (allowing approximately 14-15 harvests during its lifetime)
  • Harvesters of cork bark are the highest paid agricultural workers in Portugal, due to the highly skilled nature of the job

To see the cork harvest in action, we drove to the Alentejo region, which is held in high esteem for the quality of cork produced.  These forests are regulated and protected with rigorous standards, and it was clear, after spending just a  short time watching the harvest, that there is great respect for the land, the trees, the product, and the culture surrounding all of it.  I've never seen anything quite like a cork harvest.  I had a general idea of the process, but seeing it in action was one of the most fascinating and mesmerizing things I've ever witnessed.

By the time we pulled into the cork forest, the harvest crew was already well into their day.  There were workers everywhere - typically about two per tree.  One worker would scramble into the high branches and begin his work from the top while the other worker started in on the base and trunk.  Each worker carries a long-handled hatchet and begins carefully hacking a line into the cork bark.  If the cut is too deep, they risk killing the tree - hence the need for trained and experienced laborers.  From there, the bark is stripped off in long sheets where a tractor comes by to pick it up.

 

 

20140616_012805 20140616_012828
A freshly stripped cork tree (left) and the harvested cork bark (right)

20140616_013123Loading the cork bark onto tractors for transport out of the forest

20140616_020422Cork bark stacked and awaiting transport to the M.A. Silva processing facility

20140616_121231The grading and sorting area 

After the cork has dried, it's taken to a facility where it's sorted (by hand), graded (by hand) and sterilized.  All of this manual labor was an impressive sight to behold (we'd seen hundreds of workers by this point), but it was the next step that really surprised me.  I'd seen a piece of cut cork bark with wine corks punched out of it - in fact, we have one such model in our tasting room that I recommend asking about next time you're here (if you're into that sort of thing).  But to see how it gets to that point was a bit of a shock.  One worker cuts the cork plank into uniform strips while workers down the line punch the wine corks from the strip of bark.  Different workers choose different methods: some prefer to use an automatic punch tool that they manually feed, while others choose a foot pedal for increased control (as seen in the video below).  The reason I was so taken aback by this process was the knowledge that we purchase approximately 180,000 corks each year.  And every single one of those was punched by hand.

  

From there, each individual cork goes through a very thorough set of tests conducted by computers: checking density and visual aspects (including but not limited to: holes, pores, cracks, chips, hardwood, etc.) before going onto a conveyor belt where the presorted and computer inspected corks were inspected once more by two sets of human eyes.

It was a delight to see that we're not the only ones so concerned with putting in the effort to responsibly grow, harvest and produce our product.  To learn that others, especially those that have direct contact with our wines, respect and practice the same values was an incredibly pleasant surprise.  I'm not saying we're about to abolish screwcaps here at Tablas Creek.  I am, however, saying the next time I have the opportunity to pull a cork from a bottle of handcrafted wine, I'll certainly take a moment to appreciate the craftsmanship of the closure before turning my attention to what's in the glass.

20140619_152500Let's be real.  While I didn't spend the whole time drinking wine on the Douro, I did spend some time drinking wine on the Douro.


20 Seconds of Serenity in the Vineyard

It will come as no surprise to followers of this blog that it has been an unusual weather year. We started the year off dry and warm, in a season it's more typically cold and wet.  Then, in March, when it's usually drying out, it started raining.  The combination has meant that we didn't get much cover crop growth at the time of year when we typically see it, but just as we're getting ready to knock it down and give the vines unimpeded access to the soil's water and nutrients, it's growing like crazy.  On top of it all, budbreak was at least two weeks earlier than normal, and we've been incredibly fortunate to avoid a spring freeze. The result has been a rare combination of green hillsides and green vines in an environment where you typically have one or the other, but not both at the same time.

And, the wildflowers are blooming, spectacularly.

We're working as hard as we can to get the cover crop turned under so that the biomatter decomposes and enriches the soil, but because of our late start due to the late rain -- and our desire to get good cover crop growth to generate that biomass -- we're behind.  The result has been a beautiful color palette in the vineyard, like an impressionist painting.  This twenty second video was taken just outside our winery, and shows off the California poppies that are everywhere right now, as well as the foot-high oats that are a part of our cover crop and the new green sprouts on the grapevines.

We suggest that you repeat this video as necessary until you achieve serenity.


Reining In Harvest 2013

By Chelsea Franchi

I was standing in the entrance of the cellar on Monday with my hand wrapped around a steaming mug of coffee, watching as a storm rolled over the hills of Paso Robles and finally touch down on our vineyard.

And I had a smile on my face.  

I have a certain fondness for inclement weather, but typically at this time of year, weather like that can be panic inducing.  This year's a bit different, though, as all of our fruit is off the vine and resting comfortably, tucked away safely in tank and barrel.  You can almost feel, and sometimes hear, the soft, gentle crackle as the wines finish up their fermentation.

This cozy, mellow scene feels a world away from where we were just a few weeks ago.  We all knew harvest was going to be early, and it seemed as though we were all parroting the words "harvest is starting soon!" without thinking about what that actually meant.  And then harvest really did start early, and when it started, it was in earnest.  One moment we were leisurely prepping the harvest equipment and suddenly we were hit with a deluge of fruit, with the bulk of it flooding in at once and filling each of our available tanks in the blink of an eye.  We were forced to put our heads down and focus on the tasks directly in front of us and only on October 10th (the last day of harvest) did we dare to glance up and marvel at all we had accomplished in a rather short amount of time.

Harv13_PressWash
Cleaning up after a long day of pressing the pomace (or solids) of red wines

Harv13_HandSort
Hand sorting fruit before it gets pumped into a tank to ferment

Harv13_TankDrain
Draining off juice to add to Dianthus rosé

Not only is everything picked, it's also pressed, and so last Friday, the cellar crew grabbed a thief and a handful of glasses to taste through the wines of 2013.  Initially, we were giddy to be tasting through the cellar so early.  However, after the first few wines, the full weight of the situation settled in. Harvest 2013 is in the books.  And you know what?  It's good. The whites seem to have an exuberant quality. They dance across the palate with both brightness and gravity.  The reds are a bit more tricky to read at this stage. Across the board, during punch downs and pump overs, the lots of red were smokey, meaty and rich.  Now, in barrel, many of them are starting to show promise of an unfurling of fruit, spice and depth.  

Harv13_CellarTasting

I'm going to miss harvest a little bit (but trust me when I say that I can definitely wait until fall of 2014 for the next one).  The easy comraderie that comes with working with people so closely (and for so many hours) is a pretty unique perk of the job.  And this harvest, we had a cast of invaluable characters working alongside us.  I'd like to offer them a public thank you for all their hard work.  We couldn't have done it without them.

Harv13_Neil
Winemaker Neil Collins pulls samples from a barrel of Grenache Noir

Harv13_Levi2.jpg
Viticulturist Levi Glenn takes a break from the vineyard to feed the pigs

Harv13_David2.jpg
Vineyard Manager David Maduena enjoys a much deserved glass of Mourvedre - in a block of Mourvedre

Harv13_Tyler
Cellar Master Tyler Elwell pumps over a fermenting Syrah lot

Harv13_Madeline
Lab Technician Madeline Vanlierop-Anderson collects a day's worth of coffee mugs

Harv13_Craig.jpg
Cellar Assistant Craig Hamm demonstrates what forklifts are really for (lifting forks)

Harv13_ErichHarvest Intern Erich Fleck fills barrels with espresso in hand

Harv13_Jordan
Harvest Intern Jordan Collins pumps over a fermenting tank of red under the watchful (but sleepy) eye of the cellar mascot, Millie

Harv13_Gustavo
Above, Harvest Intern and Tasting Room Employee Gustavo Prieto takes a Tannat shower.  Below, Jordan and Madeline celebrate in a stop animation film of the last bin of Harvest 2013.

 

For the moment, I'm looking forward to the halcyon cellar days to come.  We'll finish cleaning up the mess that harvest left behind and then move forward with looking closely at what we have in the winery and monitoring the fermentation progress of our wines.  The storms have cleared - both the proverbial storm that came crashing through our cellar in the form of fruit, as well as the actual storm that came Monday.  I'm anxious now to see what those two storms yield. 


Off with Their Heads: We Graft our Chardonnay to Counoise and Mourvedre

By Levi Glenn

We have been accused of being part of the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) contingent, but that wasn’t true... until now.

Grafting Over - Contrast with Roussanne

Since 2000, we've harvested our two-acre Chardonnay block -- originally used to produce vine material for our grapevine nursery -- and used it to make our Antithesis Chardonnay.  We've always intended to graft that block over to the Rhone varietals that are our focus, and in our management review last year we decided the time had come to increase our acreage in the varieties that butter our bread, so to speak. Chardonnay is a challenge here, and while we're proud of the results we've achieved with this grape, its difficulties are significant. It sprouts so early that it's always subject to spring frosts; we've received a full crop off the block just three times in the fourteen years since it came into production. During the summer, Paso Robles is on the warmest edge of where Chardonnay can grow successfully. The cooler vintages (like the 2011 Antithesis that we just released) show excellent varietal character, the warmer years, we feel, less so. And we will have several new grapes to work with in the next few years from our importation of the full collection of Chateauneuf du Pape grapes. We felt that it was better to focus our attention on these new grapes such as Clairette, Bourboulenc, Picardin, Muscardin, Cinsaut and Terret Noir.

I'm sure some people will be sad at the prospect of Tablas not making our Chardonnay, and we understand that. We've come to love the wine too. But it's a good time to make sure that we're focused on our core mission, and we’re excited to have more Counoise and Mourvedre; each will get an acre of the former Chardonnay block.

The decision to re-graft a vineyard provides us with a couple of advantages over just pulling the whole block out and replanting. The infrastructure that is already in place like wires, posts, stakes, and drip-hose can stay in place, saving us potentially tens of thousands of dollars per acre. A newly planted vineyard would take 3-4 years to start bearing fruit, while a re-grafted vineyard only loses out on one year of production. But most importantly, the new vines take advantage of the old vineyard's root system, giving the vines the benefit of deep root penetration, greater resistance to drought and heat spikes, and the ability to concentrate all the character of the soils into the new grapes.

The process is remarkable to watch, with just a sliver of the new grape variety slipped into wedges sliced into the vine's trunk.  These new buds are then wrapped with tape to hold them in place, and we wait two to three weeks for the two plants' tissues to grow together.  The video below shows the whole, amazing process:

But grafting does have its own risks, especially with older and less healthy vineyards. Cutting off the top of the vine is a traumatic event in a grapevine's life, but grapevines are quite resilient, their inherent vigor showing in the suckers they push from their trunk while the new buds are connecting. The photo below shows a photo taken this afternoon, with the new buds starting to swell (under the white tape) while the trunk of the vine also pushes Chardonnay suckers. We'll rub these off once the new buds start growing.

Grafting Over - Buds Pushing

Having a specialized and experienced grafting crew is crucial to being successful. The best crews guarantee at least a 95% success rate, and from my experience they are often more effective than that. As you saw in the video, they make this look easy, but there is a real art to grafting. Already, a few of these little buds have started to push out their first little shoots, and by this time next year we will see little clusters of Mourvedre and Counoise starting to form.

So what’s the antithesis of Antithesis?


Balanced on the tipping point between winter and spring

This time of year in the vineyard is unique. The mild days, deep blue skies and warm sun give evidence of the summer to come, but the frosty nights, bright green cover crop and bare vines give evidence of the winter past.

It's one of the busiest times of year in the vineyard, as we finish the pruning, get the cover crop disked, spaded or mowed, and start our frost protection.  You can see the overlapping seasons and the work in progress more clearly now than at any other time of year.  A photo, taken from behind our spader, gives you a sense of the newly turned under earth (in front) and the areas we haven't gotten to yet (to the right):

Spader at rest

We need to bring the cover crop under control for a variety of reasons.  With the winter's rain and its associated risk of erosion largely in the rear-view mirror, it's time to eliminate the vines' competition for the soil's available water. It's also important to knock down the cover crop and allow the cooler air at the surface to drain downhill rather than having it pool around the vines and cause frost damage. Finally, returning the cover crop to the soil renew's the earth's fertility and provides nutrients for the vines to draw on the rest of the year.  Depending on how rich the soil already is we'll choose to either mow the grasses and leave them to dry or disk or spade them into the earth. All this has to happen in the next six or so weeks, and with 105 acres under vine, most of it on rugged hillsides, it's a long task.

I climbed to the top of the hill that overlooks our nursery buildings, where the contrast is stark between the unpruned Chardonnay vines with their thick cover crop and the pruned Roussanne vines, neatly spaded in the last week.  A one-minute video tells the tale better than the proverbial thousand words:

I'm sure we'll be sharing many photos in coming weeks and months of the newly sprouted vines and the 2013 growing season that is rapidly approaching. This is where it all begins.


Making Olive Oil In-House For the First Time

Our last harvest of the year is olives, which we typically pick in late November or early December.  In an ideal year, we might get some frosts before the olives are ripe, but we won't get any hard freezes, because if the olives freeze then they rot and aren't usable for oil.  Like the rest of the 2012 harvest, we got pretty much what we wanted for our olive crop, and were able to pick ripe fruit yesterday under sunny skies.

Olive branch dipped

Today, we processed the olives on site for the first time thanks to the marvelous mobile olive press from our friends Yves and Clotilde Julien of Olea Farm:

Olive mobile press yves and clotilde julien

Yves and Clotilde's press (which they've named "Mill On Wheels") includes components -- some imported from Italy and some made locally -- that wash the olives and separate them from any leaf or stem material, that crush the olives into paste, that separate the liquids from the solids, and finally that uses a centrifuge to separate the oil from the water.  I took a short video that tracks the process from the hopper full of olives through to the stream of olive oil pouring out of the centrifuge:

The oil will settle in our cellar for two months, and then be bottled: estate grown, certified organic Tablas Creek olive oil.  And it is already delicious; you could smell the rich, pungent aroma of fresh olive oil from outside the winery, even though we're processing the olives in our nursery, a few hundred yards away.  One more photo, because it's too good not to share: a single one of our Manzanilla olives, dipped in the oil made from the previous batch. Yum!

Olive dipped