A month ago, I felt like I was tempting fate when I characterized the 2018 summer as "benign". Well, so much for benign. July was the hottest month we've ever seen here at Tablas Creek, with an average high temperature of 96.5 and an average overall temperature of 76.5. Fourteen days topped 100, and only seven -- all toward the beginning of the month -- failed to get into the 90s. In terms of degree days, July saw us accumulate 844 degree days, fully 28% more than our average of 659. That's a big increase over what is already our hottest month:
Given the heat and the season, it really wasn't a surprise when I got an email from Neil on Monday with a photo of Syrah undergoing veraison. Veraison marks the point where a grape stops accumulating mass and starts accumulating sugar. More visibly, red grapes start their color change from green to purple, while white grapes take on more of a yellow tint. Both red and white grapes start to soften. [For more about what's happening chemically, check out this veraison post from the archives.] A few photos of Syrah clusters will give you a sense of what things look like now:
It's worth remembering that most of the vineyard is still totally green. Syrah is the first red grape to enter veraison, and I couldn't find even a hint of color on any of the others. And, that photo was from the top of our tallest hill, which is always more advanced than areas lower down both because they started earlier since their last frost was later, and because they're under more stress due to scarcity of water. But we know that once we see Syrah, the other grapes follow along in fairly short order.
One of veraison's principal values to a winery is as a marker: this landmark comes roughly six weeks before the onset of harvest, and gives us our best estimate for when harvest will begin. But, of course, six weeks is a rough average, and can be influenced by the weather that we get in the interim, as well as by the amount of fruit the vines are carrying. For example, in 2014 our earliest-ever veraison (noted on July 9th) was mitigated by a very cool August, and we started harvest 45 days later, on August 23rd. By contrast, 2016's first veraison was noted on July 13th, and combined with a very warm August to produce our earliest-ever beginning to harvest, just 36 days later. The last dozen years are compiled in the chart below, with each year linked to my blog post about that year's veraison:
Using the range of durations between first veraison and first harvest (36 to 49 days) we can have good confidence that we'll begin picking sometime between September 3rd and September 16th. I'm guessing we start toward the early end of that range, given the warmth of the summer so far and the relatively moderate crop levels we've been estimating.
Given the heat in July, it's worth addressing why the vineyard hasn't caught up more from the roughly two weeks late it was after flowering. I'd point the finger at two culprits. First, we did catch up a bit; I'd estimate that we're more like 10 days behind than the two weeks we were in early July. And second, grapevines photosynthesize optimally at temperatures between 30 and 35 Celsius (86 and 95 Fahrenheit). Two-thirds of our days in July got above 95 degrees, which means that the grapevines actually slowed down photosynthesis in the heat of the day as they closed the pores on their leaves to reduce dehydration.
What's next for the vineyard? We'll watch the different grapes go through veraison. Syrah will be followed by Mourvedre, then Grenache soon, and finally Counoise. In the cellar, we'll be getting the last of the year's bottling done so there's space in barrels and tanks for the coming crush, and starting the process of pulling out and cleaning all the tanks, barrels, and equipment we'll be using once harvest begins. Everyone will be storing up on sleep.
And now we know -- roughly at least -- how much time we have left before everything shifts into harvest mode. Stay tuned.
I feel like I'm inviting disaster just by typing this sentence, but it's been, well, benign so far this summer. I got back from two weeks in Europe, some vacation and some work, to find a vineyard significantly advanced over where it was in the first half of June. Vines that were just finishing flowering are now fully set, with early varieties nearly full-sized. The Grenache, below, looks fully formed, though the grapes will continue to grow a little and there's no hint of color change yet:
Fruit set looks good, with only minimal shatter, and the late rain that we received in March appears to have given the vines enough vigor to set a healthy crop. We will surely be dropping some fruit this summer.
The vineyard looks vibrantly healthy, with even stress-prone varieties like Roussanne and Mourvedre still fully green. This isn't a surprise; we've only had one day (June 22nd) top 100, and only 14 days reach the 90s. That may sound like a lot, but the average nighttime low since May 1st has been 46 degrees, and a couple of days in mid-June didn't even make it out of the 60s. More measurably, in terms of heat accumulation (as measured in Degree Days at the weather station in our vineyard) we're still below our 20-year average, with May 18% cooler than normal and June just 5% warmer than normal. I'm not sure if the health of the vineyard comes through in photographs, but it's (no pun intended) worth a shot:
Or, for another perspective, here's a shot from below the Counoise trellises, showing the clusters sheltering beneath their leafy canopy:
How does this compare to other recent years, and what does it mean for harvest? Well, our late-March budbreak, which kicks off the growing season, was about two weeks later than in most recent years, though more or less average looking at a 20-year perspective. The weather since then has been quite a bit cooler than the years since 2012, but again, more or less average looking at the 20-year scale. That's probably easier to make sense of in a graph. First, the heat accumulation (in degree days) this year versus two averages: one of all years since 1997, and the other looking at just the recent warm stretch that began in 2012:
You can see that our recent years (in green) have been quite a bit warmer than the longer-term average (in blue), whereas 2018 (in red) is cooler. That's perhaps even more dramatically illustrated by looking at 2018 in terms of percent difference from average. All three months we've measured this growing season have been between 8.5% and 15.5% cooler than the 2012-2017 stretch:
All this weather data just reinforces my thought that we're going to be seeing a harvest that's more like what we got used to in the 2000s (when we averaged 1069 degree days through June, nearly identical to this year's 1045) than what we've seen in the 2010s. The best comps to date are 2002, 2006, and 2009, all of which didn't see harvest begin until the first half of September. I'm not expecting veraison until we get close to the end of July. Of course, there's still a long way to go, and there is a hot stretch forecast starting next week. But we are at what's typically the hottest time of year, and it's still been moderate. So far, so good.
There are five viticultural markers that we use each year as markers: notable reference points that indicate where we are compared to other years. These are, in order:
Budbreak (typically late March or early April)
Flowering (typically May sometime)
Veraison (typically late July or early August)
First Harvest (typically late August or early September)
Last Harvest (typically late October)
Budbreak gave us the first sign that we were going to see a later beginning than recent years. Flowering, which we saw first evidence of in mid-May but which is still widespread as we get into the second week of June, is confirmation that we're looking at a growing season roughly two weeks later than what we've come to be used to since 2012. An example, from our Grenache block on Scruffy Hill in late May:
If you haven't seen grapevines flowering before, you can be excused for finding it underwhelming. It's not a showy process. Still, the tiny white fuzz-like flowers that appear on the clusters are the first stage of development of the berries. From this point on, if the berries are fertilized successfully, they'll grow in size and mass until veraison, at which point they stop growing but accumulate sugar and ripen the seeds within.
During flowering, you hope for consistent, sunny weather, with only limited wind and no rain. Cold or wet weather at this stage can produce incomplete fertilization, or shatter, where a cluster has a high proportion of unfertilized berries, looking snaggle-toothed and (often dramatically) reducing yields. Some varieties, most notably Grenache, are prone to shatter, while others are less so. This year, conditions have been good, and we are cautiously optimistic that shatter won't be a major issue. It's worth remembering that overall, conditions in Paso Robles are pretty benign compared to what grapevines face in most parts of the world.
2018 appears to be developing into something of a throwback. The rest of the years this decade have been pretty extreme at this stage. In our warmer years (like 2012, 2013, 2014, 2016, or 2017) May has felt like early summer, with multiple days in the 90's and even low 100's. In the chilly years (like 2010, 2011, and 2015) May has been more like April, with several nights dropping down into the 30's and most days topping out between the mid-60's and mid-70's. What we're seeing is something more in the middle. A quick line graph may help give you a sense. I've put the line for 2018 in red, to help it stand out:
You can see that the 2018 trend line falls in the middle, in a space that's largely unoccupied (in May, at least) this decade. So, what does this mean for the rest of the growing season?It's too early to be particularly definitive. It could develop into a year like 2015, where we ricochet between significantly warmer-than-normal months and significantly cooler-than-normal months. It could build like 2012 from a cool early season to a scorching August. Or it could settle in as a more uniformly cool or warm summer. But we do have a not-insignificant portion of the growing season behind us, and at this point we're about 2% below our average number of degree days through June 6th, and 28% below our maximum to date (2014). That cool weather, combined with a fairly late budbreak, suggests we're a couple of weeks behind most of our recent years, and unlikely to begin harvest before September. Of course, there's lots that's yet to be determined.
At this point, we're happy to be most of the way through flowering in good shape, with the vines healthy from the March rain we received and the lack (so far) of heat spikes, at the roughly one-third point of the growing season. And the vineyard smells great.
At the end of February, we were looking at a potentially disastrous winter, with less than five inches of precipitation. A major storm that arrived March 1st and dropped more than three inches of rain in 24 hours marked a major pattern shift, and the rest of March continued wet, finishing with nearly 12 inches of rain, our wettest March since we put in our weather station in 1996 and the sixth-wettest month in that time frame. Although April was dry, we're in a much better place than it looked like we'd be. For a visual sense of how the winter has shaped up compared to normal, I've put together a graph by month:
You can see what an outlier March is, at 295% of normal. Still, following six drier-than-n0rmal winter months, we will end this winter season at something like 70% of average, a total much more like what we saw during our 2012-2016 drought than the gloriously wet 2016-2017 winter:
Still, while it was a below-average rainfall winter, it's neither particularly troubling nor particularly unusual. It ranks 13th of the 22 winters since 1996. And it follows our very wet winter last year, which produced healthy vines and replenished our underground water sources. Historically, the first dry year after a wet stretch hasn't been particularly hard on the vineyard, thanks to the accumulated vigor and residual moisture, and has in fact produced some fabulous vintages like 1999, 2002, 2007, and 2012.
It's also important to realize that the fact that the rain came late will have an impact on the growing season. It's unusually green right now for mid-May, and that soil moisture is relatively plentiful close to the surface, easily accessible even to relatively young grapevines. A few shots should give you a sense of what things look like. First, one from mid-April, before the Mourvedre vines in this low-lying area had sprouted:
Next, this photo of new growth in Grenache, from about a week back:
Because the rain came so late and we wanted to give the cover crops as much time as possible to build organic matter, we're behind in getting them tilled under. The vineyard at my parents' house is a good example; the cover crops are nearly as high as the cordons:
The other implication of the late beginning of cover crop growth is that we weren't able to have the animals in the vineyard as much as we would have liked this winter, because there just wasn't enough for them to eat until the beginning of March. But we're planning to harvest the cover crops in sections of the vineyard where we weren't able to have them graze, to supplement their forage from unplanted portions of the property.
The late rain and the consistent sun in April has made for a spectacular wildflower season. The mustard is blooming, adding an electric yellow blanket nearly covering the head-trained Grenache vines:
And, of course, the California poppies are the stars of the show. Anyone who is planning a visit to Paso Robles this month is in for some spectacular scenery:
Big picture: we're feeling cautiously optimistic about things. We've received enough rain to feel confident that our dry-farmed vineyards will do fine through the growing season, and in a concentrated enough period to have positively impacted our well levels. Budbreak was later than in recent years, and we're now largely through the frost season, with only one frost event (the morning of April 17th), which doesn't look like it did too much damage. The vineyard looks healthy.
Given where we were in mid-February, I don't think we could have asked for anything more.
It's been a while since I took people on a photographic tour of what's going on in the vineyard. So, let's remedy that.
Spring is my favorite time in Paso Robles. The hillsides are green. The air is softer than it was during the winter, and the days warm and pleasant, but not yet the stark summer that can feel floodlit during the day. Nights can still be chilly, and we do worry about frost, but so far this spring we've had relatively stress-free nights and (other than a little testing) haven't even had to turn on our frost-protection systems. That's particularly nice because this week, both our winemaker and our vineyard manager are out representing the winery at Taste of Vail. Meanwhile, the vineyard is springing to life, with buds swelling, then opening, then bursting to leaf with remarkable speed.
But it's the explosion of color that is springtime in Paso Robles' calling card. The rain that came during the winter combines with the longer days to produce a month of proliferating wildflowers. The most visible of these flowers are the bright orange California poppies, our state's official flower:
Low to the ground, particularly in valley areas and those blocks where the sheep came through earlier in the winter and ate the taller grasses, you can find a carpet of tiny purple flowers covering the ground:
On hillsides, the wild mustard's yellow blooms give splashes of color that always make me think of a giant toddler let loose with a can of yellow spray paint:
Not all the growth is colorful. The green of our cover crop mix (oats, sweet peas, vetch, and clovers) combines with wild grasses to approach the height of the cordons where we haven't been able to get the sheep in to eat it down:
With bud break, we're approaching the end of the season where we can have our animal flock in the vineyard safely. We've moved them to the late-sprouting Mourvedre and Counoise blocks, including one easily visible from the winery itself. I love this photo, which shows the hillside with the sheep, the extent of the green growth, and the winery, complete with solar array, all in one shot:
The rain we got last month meant that (briefly, at least) Las Tablas Creek was running, and it filled up the lake on the new parcel we bought in 2011. We still haven't done anything about using that water to help frost-protect the vineyard, but seeing the lake full for the second consecutive year has rekindled our thinking about how we might:
But, of course, it's the vines that are the main event at this time of year. And the splashes of vibrant yellow-green are the most hopeful sign of all. While some varieties (like the aforementioned Mourvedre and Counoise, as well as Roussanne, Tannat, and Picpoul) are yet to sprout, early grapes like Viognier, Syrah, Marsanne, Grenache, and Grenache Blanc (pictured below) are already well out of dormancy:
This explosion of spring color won't last long. Soon, the weather will heat up and dry out, and we'll turn to getting the cover crop incorporated into the vineyard so the vines can benefit from its nutrition and don't have to compete with extra roots for available water. But if you're coming in the next month, you're in for a treat.
Two months ago, I was worried. January, normally our coldest month of the year, had seen only four nights drop below freezing. After one decent storm on January 8th and 9th, the rest of the month was dry, leaving us at just 20% of normal rainfall by month-end. We ended the month with a week of sunny days, each topping out in the mid-70s. The beginning of February was more of the same: ten days of sun in a row, each topping out between 75 and 81, with lows dropping down only into the 40s. I was worried we'd see our vines start to sprout in February, setting the growing season off to an unprecedentedly early start and leaving us an unconscionably long period of frost risk.
Thankfully, mid-February brought a change in the weather pattern. Although the second half of the month remained dry (the 0.28" of rain is just 6% of what we'd expect from our second-wettest month) it got cold. We finished February with ten straight frosty nights, all but one dropping into the 20s. Only one of those days made it out of the 50s. And then, in March, it began to rain. We've seen fifteen days this month with measurable precipitation, totaling 11.94" for the month and bringing us to 16.54" for the winter, roughly 75% of what we would expect on this date. The vineyard has transformed, green cover crop springing from the ground as though it was making up for lost time. Now that we've passed the spring equinox and are in the middle of a week of sunny, increasingly warm weather, it's not surprising that I saw the first signs of bud break when I got out into the vineyard yesterday. Our viticulturist Jordan Lonborg provided photographic evidence with a photo of a sprouting Viognier vine this morning:
Budbreak, as you probably guessed from the name, is the period when the grapevine buds swell and burst into leaf. It is the first marker in the growing cycle, a point when we can compare the current season to past years. Upcoming markers will include flowering, veraison, first harvest, and last harvest. And like harvest, budbreak doesn't happen for every grape simultaneously. Early grapes like Viognier, Grenache Blanc, and Vermentino tend to go first, followed by Grenache and Syrah, then later Marsanne and Picpoul, and finally, often a month after the earliest grapes sprouted, Roussanne, Counoise, and Mourvedre. And it really is just starting. Even Grenache, typically on the early side, was fully dormant everywhere except the very tops of the hills:
2017: Mid-March 2016: Very end of February 2015: Second week of March 2014: Mid-March 2013: First week of April 2012: Mid-April 2011: First week of April 2010: Last week of March 2009: Second week of April 2008: Last week of March 2007: First week of April
The timing of our cold and our rain was pretty much ideal. Grapevines (and all deciduous plants) pay the most attention to soil temperatures in deciding when to come out of dormancy. And wet soils retain cold better than warm soils. The double dose we received of cold and wet meant that despite the lengthening days, the vines' most important sensors were telling them that winter was still in effect, and sprouting would be a risk. And, in fact, budbreak does begin our white-knuckle season, since while dormant vines can freeze without danger, new growth is susceptible to frost damage. April frosts cost us roughly 40% of our production in both 2009 and 2011, and we don't feel truly safe until mid-May. So, we've still got more than a month to go before we can relax, and it will be a few weeks before our later-sprouting varieties and our lower-lying (read: more frost-prone) areas are out enough to be at risk.
But in general, if you could design a favorable winter weather pattern, it would look a lot like what we've seen recently. We'd ask for regular frosts and rain through the end of March, and then a switch to a warm, dry pattern thereafter. While we're always grateful for rain, since frosts tend to follow in the wake of frontal passages, the precipitation you get in spring storms isn't worth the risk of frost damage. And the current long-term forecast calls for the high pressure system that has dominated our area this week, bringing sun and increasingly warm days, to persist for a while.
That's just fine with us. Now that the first vines have begun to sprout, we'll see the scene in the vineyard change rapidly. Please join me in welcoming the 2018 vintage.
He strolls into my office, bright and bushy-eyed with his dilapidated Yeti in hand, no doubt on his fourth or fifth cup considering he’s been up with the sun. His stained brown Carhartts do little to hide the evidence of our lambing season that is currently going on here at Tablas Creek Vineyard. As intrigued as I am, I dare not ask about the exact origins of the stains because after all, I myself am barely through my first cup. Maya, one of his Border Collies, slinks in and flops down upon my feet. Already this is an interview I can get behind.
Nathan Stuart is our shepherd here at Tablas Creek, and one of the central figures in our recent co-branding with outdoor retail giant Patagonia Inc. We all know them for their unparalleled wizardry with all things fleece and Goretex, but they also represent something far beyond climbing gear and backcountry men with a penchant for beards.
Not only is Patagonia a leading example on sustainable, green business practices with their Footprint and Worn Wear programs, but they are also one of the leading corporate voices in the fight for preserving our lands for generations to come.
They are known for radical moves such as donating 100% of their Black Friday sales to grassroots nonprofits ($10 million in 2016 alone). And their recent fight with the federal government on behalf of our national parks. The fact that they are a B Corp -- a for-profit company that is using the power of business to solve social or environmental problems -- says a lot. Their mission statement is "Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis."
You could say we’re fans.
Late last year, we became one of the companies in the United States that Patagonia has been willing to co-brand with. Co-branding happens when two brands agree to join forces to share a product indicative of both their identities. Upon learning this, I was eager to unpack what the process was that led to this move by both our companies, as well as why we were chosen to be one of the companies to share brands on their gear and be able to resell it in our tasting room. I can also safely say, the Tablas crew has never looked more dashing battling the frosty morning winters here in Paso.
Basically it all boils down to two words: carbon sequestration.
If that phrase makes you scratch your head as much as it did me, have no fear because that is where our indomitable shepherd Nathan comes in, along with our Viticulturist and resident vine whisperer Jordan Lonborg to explain the science behind it. But first, some context.
Since our inception, Tablas Creek has made it a priority to farm with as positive an environmental impact as possible. We have been organic since the day our first rootstock touched the soil and certified Demeter biodynamic as of last year. As Nathan says in his characteristically blunt way, “at Tablas we were organic before it was popular. We’re certified biodynamic which is just taking that to the next level. We’re holding ourselves to a higher accountability and pushing to create something that goes beyond us.”
Our flock of some two-hundred sheep and alpacas, plus a llama and donkey or two, is the core of our vineyard's holistic management program. According to Nathan, "holistic management encompasses organic, biodynamic, mob grazing, rotational and regenerative grazing, and asks how we can best benefit the land. We use varied processes depending on the acres, so we are responding directly to the land and listen to what it needs from us to build the relationship." The sheep are moved every couple days to a new section of the vineyard, where they fertilize and till the soil, providing nutrients for our vines and controlling weeds. "The way we manage the sheep on our land is attempting to mimic the buffalo of the plains in centuries past" Nathan continues. The American plains were amongst the most fertile soils in the world, massive repositories of organic carbon, and the rotational grazing provided naturally by the vast, moving herds of American buffalo were a large part of why.1
While our grazing plan falls into Nathan’s sheepish hands, the care of the vines themselves is the responsibility of Jordan Lonborg, our Viticulturist. Upon joining the Tablas family in 2016, one of Jordy's first goals was to move forward with biodynamic certification. He broke down the soil and vine management in a way that didn’t leave my right-oriented brain spinning:
"We are creating a self-sustaining ecosystem right on the property. In order to do this we need to maintain the balance of the land. All of our grape skins, stems, and vine prunings are incorporated into our massive compost program and are returned to the soil on a yearly basis. We capture native bee swarms on the property and raise them to assist in pollination of our cover crops. There are large swaths of beneficial insect gardens planted throughout the vineyard to attract predatory insects, as well as providing a source of nectar and pollen for the honey bees in this arid climate. We also have an ever increasing raptor program on our acres as well. To enhance biodiversity we plant at least one fruit tree for every acre of grapevines on the ranch. Most importantly, we employ a group of 8-10 people throughout the entire year for vineyard work rather than hire random crews for labor as we need them. Our footprint is already smaller than most in this industry and we only plan on continuing to make moves to decrease it.”
So how do regenerative grazing and bee swarms and all these holistic processes tie into carbon sequestration? Carbon sequestration is the process of capturing atmospheric carbon dioxide and storing it in another form to help slow or reverse the accumulation of greenhouse gases, the vast majority of which are released by the burning of fossil fuels. Soil that is treated with anthropogenic fertilizers or pesticides is not able to accumulate or break down the organic matter that holistic soils can. Organic matter equals carbon in the soil, rather than the atmosphere. And there are other benefits. In Nathan's words: "Soil holds carbon. Carbon holds water. So if we hold more carbon in the soil instead of the atmosphere, we’re pulling more water out of the air. And water vapor is another greenhouse gas. Think of it like a holistic raindance if you will, which is attempting to slow the heating of our climate. The carbon is in the wrong place at the wrong time and we’re working on doing what we can to set us on the right path once again." Carbon sequestration is the key, ultimately, to reversing the most critical environmental impacts of the industrial revolution, and is the ultimate goal of the new wave of sustainable agriculture.
A short video that Nathan referred me to called The Soil Story by Kiss the Ground proved to be immensely insightful. Kiss the Ground is a nonprofit working on creating greater public engagement with the pervasive issue of global soil restoration. And not to mention their graphics guy has some serious skills.
Between our holistic approach to vineyard management and Patagonia's stalwart belief in the fundamental importance of sustainable green business practices, the co-branding is something we can all be proud of. When I asked Jordy why he thought the Patagonia co-branding made sense he replied,
"When it comes down to it, it’s about trying to be the best stewards of the land we could possibly be. I think that’s the bottom line of both companies, obviously there’s a profitability side to it and everyone’s got to be able to run a business and make money, but that’s not the reason we come to work everyday. We use our position in the wine industry to shed light on important sustainability processes. And in the end we do spend more money than most wineries to achieve that stewardship and I think Patagonia’s probably right along the same path."
Leslie Castillo, our Tasting Room Team Lead as well as the wife of our shepherd Nathan, and avid reader of everything Yvon Chouinard, was our point woman in reaching out and building our relationship with Patagonia. “I 100% believe in what we do here at the vineyard with our wines, and so I also wanted to start working with people and companies that are like-minded, people that care about the planet in an intentional way and not just for marketing. I see that in Patagonia.”
She, along with all of us here at Tablas who strive to uphold the ideals we think a business should embody, are fortified all the more by the decision to co-brand with a company such as Patagonia.
We are merely two companies amongst thousands in our respective fields. But we each try to do our part individually. If we can work together to accomplish more, we should.
Although we're all worried about the lack of rain, there is a more pressing concern. While December 2017 was very cold, with 20 frost nights, 2018 has been much warmer. January saw only five nights drop below freezing, and until two nights ago, February had seen zero, and 10 days in a row topped out at 75°F or higher. A February 8th Wines & Vines article on very early budbreak in Ojai sent many of the Central Coast winery folks I know scurrying, asking neighbors if they'd seen any signs of the same in their necks of the woods.
So, Sunday night's chilly weather, and the forecast for a week of frosty nights, was a relief to us all.
What a relief to have a nice frosty morning here in Paso Robles after three weeks of unusually warm winter weather. pic.twitter.com/3Y5uquznVx
Why would we worry more about the unusual warmth than the unusual dryness? Well, too much more warmth and we would be looking at budbreak in February, which would be the earliest we'd ever seen. And early budbreak puts us at increased risk of damage from spring frosts, which can come as late as early May. A bad frost typically costs us something like 40% of our production. It's been a while since our last bad frost -- 2011 was our most recent, with other similarly bad ones in 2009 and 2001 -- but I'm not anxious to repeat the experience. While a dry winter does have some implications on yields, typically it's not nearly as dramatic, at least not the first year of a drought. It would be a different calculus if this winter had followed a string of dry years, but for now, our wells are in good shape and the vines strong from last year's ample winter rain.
Of course, it's not like we get to choose. And since the main determinant of budbreak is warming soil temperatures, the lack of rainfall and the warm weather both have roles to play in the timing of when the vines sprout. Wet soils hold the nighttime cold much better than dry soils do, so a good soaking in the next few weeks would have the ancillary benefit of maintaining cool soil temperatures well into March.
In any case, while we're all hoping for rain, we'll be looking forward each morning this week to seeing a frosty carpet. We'll take what we can get.
Mostly, we grow grapes from the Rhone Valley. But there are exceptions. Vermentino, although found in areas near the Rhone (think Cotes de Provence, or Languedoc-Roussillon) isn't allowed in Cotes du Rhone or Chateauneuf du Pape, but has done great here at Tablas Creek. So too has Tannat, whose home in the French province of Pyrénées-Atlantiques can't even claim a border with the Rhone. In fact, it was Tannat's success here that sparked my dad's interest, nearly two decades ago, in the other grapes from southwest France. One of the most interesting of these was Petit Manseng, a grape which was, in its day, so admired that it made the only wine used to baptize a king of France.
Petit Manseng in the Old World Petit Manseng's ancestral home is in Jurancon, in the French department of Pyrénées-Atlantiques. This a mountainous region includes a small stretch of the rocky Atlantic coast and a larger stretch of the Spanish border, and most of it is high in the Pyrenees mountains. Culturally, it is a part of the Gascon community of Bearn, and borders the Basque-speaking region of Pays Basque that shares many cultural and historical ties to the Basque communities on the Spanish side of the border. Madiran, the main French home for Tannat, is just to the north-east.
There are three permitted grapes in Jurancon (Corbu and Gros Manseng are the others) but it is generally agreed that Petit Manseng is the finest of the three, and the most suitable for making the sweet wines that made the region famous. This character was so valued that Petit Manseng is noted as the only wine used to baptize a king of France: Henry IV, the founder of the Bourbon dynasty, in his native Navarre.
After several decades of disfavor, the sweet wines of Jurancon have returned to fashion since about 1970, and the acreage of Petit Manseng has increased correspondingly, from less than 90 hectares in 1968 (90 hectares was the combined plantings of Petit Manseng and Gros Manseng) to 1019 hectares in 2009.1
In addition to its ancestral home in Jurancon and the neighboring Pacherenc, Petit Manseng can be found in small amounts in Languedoc, Uruguay (brought by Basque settlers), Spain, and Australia. That said, its second-largest footprint worldwide is in Virginia, where its resistance to rot and tendency to achieve high sugars and retain acidity is valuable in the hot, often humid climate.
Petit Manseng at Tablas Creek In the early years of Tablas Creek, we were looking for a method to make dessert wines. The success we'd had with Tannat, another French Basque grape, piqued my dad's curiosity, and he made a visit to the Jurancon in 2003 to speak with producers and see if one of the grapes they use for their renowned sweet wines might be a good fit. He was struck by both the wines and the landscape, and arranged for Petit Manseng to be brought into USDA quarantine later that year. We received the vines in 2006, spent the next year propagating cuttings, and planted our first small vineyard block in 2007.
One of the Jurancon vineyards my parents visited in 2003
We were sufficiently intrigued by Petit Manseng's success in the early years that we planted another small block in 2011, although together they make up just 0.78 acres. Even in a productive vintage this light-yielding variety struggles to get to three tons per acre; the 2.18 tons we harvested in 2017 was our most-ever.
Petit Manseng in the Vineyard and Cellar Petit Manseng is so named for its small berries (Gros Manseng has larger berries). In the vineyard, it shows moderate to low vigor, with upright growth, and produces small clusters of small, loose, thick-skinned berries. Its superpowers are its capacity to achieve high natural sugar content without the benefit of botrytis while still retaining remarkable acidity, and its resistance to rot. Although the second ability isn't particularly useful here, in France -- where Petit Manseng is often left on the vine until December to achieve its high sugars -- and in Virginia -- where thunderstorms are a regular summer occurrence -- it's invaluable. In Paso Robles, where fall moisture and rot are rare and heat and sun are givens, its ability to maintain almost inconceivably high acidity even after months of hot, sunny days is more relevant. As an example, our first tiny harvest of Petit Manseng came in 2009. We had forgotten about the small block and when we rediscovered it in early November and measured the grapes -- three weeks after a 10-inch rainstorm rolled through -- they tipped the scale at an incredible 37° Brix (roughly 50% higher than our average sugar concentration at harvest) and a normal harvest pH of 3.3. We only had a few buckets worth of grapes, and didn't make that juice into wine that year.
The harvest numbers in 2009 would be ideal for making a sweet wine, but by the time we got our Petit Manseng into production, we had mastered the vin de paille technique for dessert wines, and instead decided to experiment with using Petit Manseng to make off-dry (semi-sweet) wines, which it's also used for in the Jurancon. To that end, in more recent years, we have picked our Petit Manseng at higher sugars than we would for a normal white (in the 26°-28° Brix range) while the wine still had very high acids (pH of around 3.0). We ferment it until it has about 50 grams/liter of sugar left, typically with an alcohol around 13.5%. Although that sounds like a lot of sugar, the very high acidity makes it taste much drier than the sugar reading would suggest, and the wines taste balanced. If you're interested in the ebbs and flows of how our thinking on this grape have evolved, check out the blog post Wrapping our heads around Petit Manseng, from last year.
Aromas and Flavors The flavors of Petit Manseng wines are rich but tangy, perfumed and tropical. It's possible to identify key lime, pineapple, mango, lychee and honey, as well as white flowers and green herbs. Due to its residual sugar and high acidity, Petit Manseng wines have tremendous ability to age. For food pairings, the literature nearly always suggests foie gras, which makes sense to me. Foie gras is hard on dry wines due to its richness, but unless the chef makes some very sweet accompaniment the sweet wines it's typically paired with can be overpowering. A semi-sweet wine with excellent freshness like Petit Manseng is a natural fit. We've also very much enjoyed it with salty cheeses and fruit desserts.
We are just releasing the 2016 Petit Manseng, if you'd like to try it for yourself. We only made 125 cases, not enough to send out to our club members, so you'll need to order it or ask the next time you're in our tasting room. If you do open a bottle (or have of a recent vintage), please share what you think.
Back in 2010, I had the pleasure of listening to John Williams from Frog’s Leap Winery speak at the Yosemite Vintners Holidays. Although the focus of his talk was on how underrated “off” vintages are with some age (or, if you prefer, how the tendencies which lead most writers to rate a vintage highly can often make the same wines short-lived) the conversation soon turned to his thoughts on Biodynamics, of which he has been one of California’s most vocal proponents. His take was that most of the things that receive focus for Biodynamics (think cow horns and lunar cycles) were little more than distractions, and what mattered in Biodynamic farming was that doing so reestablishes a plant’s ability to make sense of its environment and self-regulate. I found the whole talk fascinating.
In the last seven years, spurred in part by what I learned at John’s talk, we have been increasingly incorporating Biodynamic elements into Tablas Creek’s farming practices. We’ve been organic since our inception, and certified since 2003, so it wasn’t as though we needed to make a massive move away from chemical-intensive agriculture. But Biodynamics still requires a shift in mindset from organics. Organics tends to look for non-chemical alternatives to the chemical herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers that define modern industrial farming. And that’s a worthy effort. But Biodynamics, which begins with the assumption that you have eliminated chemical interventions already, is much more concerned with creating environments that are self-regulating, where even non-chemical interventions are mostly rendered unnecessary.
Our flock at work in the vineyard (photo credit: Brittany App)
So, we introduced our herd of sheep and alpacas into the vineyard. The animals fertilize naturally with their manure and graze down cover crops so we need to make fewer tractor passes to eliminate weeds. We started interplanting fruit trees and herbs, leaving sections unmowed, and planting other sections with flowering herbs, to attract and retain a diverse group of insect species that help control pests and keep soils alive and vibrant. We increased from a dozen to 39 owl boxes, to control gophers. We built beehives and captured a wild swarm to help preserve this valuable resource. And we redoubled our efforts to produce our own compost on site from our prunings and the grape must left over from fermentation, both to spread on the vineyard and to make into compost tea, to spray on the vines to combat mildew.
One of the hundreds of fruit trees we've interplanted in the vineyard
We made these changes partly because it made sense to us from a resource management standpoint – why not try to make our farm unit as self-sufficient as possible – but also because the idea of putting as little as possible from the outside onto our vineyard appealed to our ideal of terroir: the character of place that, reflected in wine, is the holy grail of winemakers around the world. We figure that the less that goes onto the vineyard that originates elsewhere, the greater the chance that we can allow the signature of our own land to show.
Lupines are some of the native wildflowers we encourage to grow between the vines
In the last seven years, as we’ve incorporated these new practices, I have come to believe that you can separate the tenets of Biodynamics into three broad sections. I list them in what I think is the order of their importance, which just happens to be the inverse order of what most laypeople (and maybe more important, mainstream wine journalists) tend to focus on with Biodynamics:
A broad subset that is basically just really good farming. This includes the prohibitions on chemical interventions (to preserve biodiversity and ensure that your soil is able to break down raw materials into nutrients your vines can process). And the efforts to turn a monoculture into a polyculture (to ensure a healthy diversity of insects and microorganisms in the soil and to ensure habitat for the natural controls for pests). And the focus on composting (to turn the by-products of your farming into nutrients for your crops).
Another broad subset that includes the micro-additions of Biodynamic preparations. This is where the cow horns come in. For example, some preps are made by packing various natural products (such as manure, or silica) into the hollows of the cow horns, letting them mature for some time. Other preparations are made with botanicals, such as stinging nettles, horsetail, or chamomile, which are then composted, fermented, or dried. Whatever the preparation, when applying it to your vineyard, you dilute it massively in water before spraying the resulting solution onto your vines. I think it’s safe to say that none of these actions will harm your crops, and they probably do a small amount of good. How much good can they do, when the prescription is to dilute 25 grams of manure in 13 liters of water (a ratio of 1:520)? Or 1/4 teaspoon of stinging nettle in 1 gallon of water (a ratio of 1:3072)? I have my doubts, although chemical reactions can happen at much lower concentrations than this. But at least, I’m confident any impact these actions have on the vineyard are going to be positive.
A subset relating to the Biodynamic calendar. Here I think things are on tenuous ground. While it is incontrovertible that the moon, at least, does have some impacts on Earth (think the tides), the moon’s gravitational pull on Earth is roughly 1/300,000th of the pull of the Earth. Might it impact things like sap flow? I guess, in a tiny way. But I have to think that the lunar impacts will be dwarfed by the other stimuli a vine is receiving from things like length of daylight and soil temperature. And as for picking, I think it’s even harder to make a credible case that what’s going on in the heavens is going to make a difference in the characteristics of the fruit you pick. On the other hand, waiting for the calendar (published months in advance) to tell you when to pick can cause some damage if you’ve ignored the weather, say, during a heat spike. I think that all this is really best ignored.
So, when we decided to pursue Biodynamic certification late last year, we didn’t know whether the powers that be at Demeter (the international organization that administers and protects the Biodynamic trademark) were going to view what we were doing as sufficient, or whether we’d learn that we’d need to make significant (and perhaps unwelcome) changes to our practices in order to qualify. We ended up deciding that if we needed to make changes in order to qualify for certification that we felt would jeopardize our vineyard or our wines, we wouldn’t lose much. After all, we’d done what we’d done so far without certification.
One of our 39 owl boxes that help attract the gopher's most effective natural predator
But it was still tremendously encouraging to learn that Demeter itself had come to the conclusion that if a winery focused on the elements that I grouped together in the “really good farming” bullet above, and made a credible effort at those I classified as “micro-additions of Biodynamic preparations” it was good enough for them. And so, we moved forward with the certification process.
And I do believe in certification. I think it’s great that many growers (and farmers) are pursuing organic or Biodynamic practices without any goal of becoming certified. The more people who are farming in an Earth-friendly way, the better. But at the same time, certification gives an outside validation that your practices aren’t lip service, and are being applied consistently and rigorously.
So, it is with pleasure and pride that I announce that Tablas Creek Vineyard is now Biodynamic certified. That includes the grapes we grow, the olives, eggs, and the vegetables in our staff garden, and even the lamb that we harvest a few times a year from our flock.
If this makes you happier about your choice to consume Tablas Creek, that’s great. If it doesn’t make any difference, that’s fine too. We’re confident that the proof is in the bottle.