The Shepherd and His Flock- Q&A with Nathan Stuart

By Suphada Rom 

Tablas Creek has a thriving animal program that is an essential piece of the organic farming practices here at the vineyard. We are thrilled to welcome Nathan Stuart, who brings years of animal experience to Tablas Creek and who will be managing and expanding the flock alongside additional responsibilities in the vineyard and winery. His first goal: get 100% of the vineyard grazed by our flock of sheep during the off season. Down the road, once we've built up the flock, we'd also like to have Tablas Creek organic lamb to be a more regular presence on the menus of great restaurants in the Central Coast.

Nathan usually can be found amongst the animals, with his trusty sheepdog, Maya, by his side.

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Where were you born and raised?
I was born on Spring Street in Paso Robles. I grew up in a little yellow house there.

So you've seen Paso Robles grow exponentially over the years. Did you always like wine and the wine industry? 
No, I actually went down to Mexico when I was 18, and lived there until about 5 years ago. I didn't really get into wine until I met Leslie (Many of you may know Leslie, as she is one of our stellar Tasting Room leads!) and from there, making wine in Mexico.

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Tablas Creek has an established animal program, but has room for growth. Where is it right now and where do you project it going?
The animal program has all the right ideas, just on too small of a scale to make the impact on the vineyard it could. We've got 120 acres under vine and for us to graze 120 acres, we need a lot more sheep than we have now. I'd like to have 150 ewes eventually, that will be used for breeding, giving us at least 200 lambs per year. Also, the sheep program (in contrast to the vineyard which is certified organic) is treated organically, yet not certified. I'd like to be certified by next year; we'll probably be the first certified organic sheep producers in the county.

We have diversity of species, with llamas, alpaca, and donkeys, which helps a lot. Each animal will eat different grasses based on preference. Keeping that diversity is important because if you only have one species, they would just focus on their favorite style, allowing for some other weed to grow out of hand. Then this good plant would never get a chance to catch up and re-seed. 

Why the focus on sheep?
Sheep, although tricky, are a great tool that can improve soil. Managing them well by moving them frequently throughout the vineyard and keeping them in higher concentration is the most incredible way to improve soil. And by improving soil you're acquiring/retaining carbon in the soil. For example, take the buffalo grazing on the Great Plains. They've created the best soil to this day for farmland. They would move quickly across the plains, never stopping or staying in one place, as they were being chased by predators. I plan to mimic nature by moving the flock every 2-3 days, as if they were being moved by predators.

The cool thing is that the sheep can go over and graze all the grass off and then put down 0.2 cubic feet of manure per day, per animal. Right now, we've got about 88 animals out there and they are contributing several cubic feet of manure on each block every single day. Everything that they eat, mainly cover crop consisting of vetch, peas, clover, and oats, they put back as much as 90% of the nutrients back into the soil. So they only keep up to 10% to stay alive and will also grow up to a pound a day, which is insane. That's pretty awesome, to me. 

What is your philosophy when it comes to animal management?
For animals, it would be very low inputs, and allowing for natural selection. My focus is going to be on breeding animals that are perfect for Tablas Creek's property. So over the next 5 years, through natural selection on the property, you end up with an animal that is very healthy and adapted to this place. Which is cool, because we'll have the best sheep for Tablas Creek. 

Is there one piece of your job that is particularly rewarding?
Well, when a ewe is having trouble birthing and I get to help her give birth and basically, help her save a lambs life. That definitely makes your day. To actually help life become is pretty amazing and I'm definitely on Cloud 9 afterwards.

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Sounds like you could have been a veterinarian in a past life! Would that be something you'd be doing if you weren't managing the animal program here?
Nah, I'd take Neil's job (Neil Collins is both our Vineyard Manager and Executive Winemaker)! Kidding, no, I'd be looking for another job like this. This is pretty much what I want to do. I guess it's a good sign if I can't think of anything.

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What do you like to do on your days off?
Surf! I normally go North of the grade, but somewhere between Los Osos and Las Blancas. I'm also kind of a geek on the computer and into videography. 

What is something that would be surprising for other people to learn about you?
I was the first American to get a diploma in Mexican real estate.

One last question; how do you define success?
Having peace and joy in your life. Both of those things can travel through suffering- you don't always have to be happy with where you're at to be at peace. Peace is one of those things that can translate through life, even in bad situations. 


Anxiously Awaiting Winter, When We Want it to Freeze

Vineyards in Paso Robles worry about frost every year. Springtime frosts can be devastating, killing the new growth and forcing the vine to dip into its reserves to re-sprout from secondary buds. We've lost around 40% of our crop from April frosts in years like 2001, 2009, and 2011.  I've written (more times than I care to remember) about the nightly worry we face between bud break (typically in late March) and mid-May, when our nights have warmed enough that we're out of the danger zone.

We're worrying about frost now. But not because we might lose production if it freezes.  Instead, we're worried that it hasn't frozen yet.  

Three weeks ago, most of the vineyard looked dormant.  Leaves were off varieties like Roussanne, Counoise, Grenache and Mourvedre, all of which worked late into the season to finish ripening their grapes, exhausting themselves in the process. The earlier grapes that had to expend less energy were brilliantly colored in typical autumn splendor.  All that's normal enough for late October.  But with the nice rain we received in mid- and late-October, many of these blocks have sprouted new growth. A Mourvedre vine behind the winery is a good example:

New Fall Growth in Mourvedre

Ironically, a lack of frost in the fall can have the same negative impact as a late frost in the spring, as a grapevine spends its stored energy on growth that won't be usable to ripen the fruit.  It will freeze, sooner or later, and this growth will die.  We'll come through and prune during dormancy, and when the vine sprouts for the 2017 season in April, it will do so with less vigor than it otherwise would have because of these depleted reserves.

Typically, this fall growth isn't a problem in Paso Robles, because we usually get our first frost more or less in conjunction with our first rain. But this year, the rain we've received so far has been tropical in origin, instead of moving south from Alaska with Arctic air behind it. 

That's not to say the rain we've received has been unwelcome; getting rain this time of year has meant that the cover crop is already well established and we're unlikely to see much erosion should we really get dumped on.  And drought, right now, is a bigger worry for us than a little pointless end-of-season growth.  It's going to freeze sooner or later; in a typical winter, we see 30 or 40 nights drop below freezing, and in December and January frost is a sure thing. 

But the scene below, as pretty as it is with bright green grass and autumn colors on the vines, isn't ideal. Each week we continue to see warm nights will sap a little of next year's vigor.  Winter can come any time it likes, please.

Nov 2016 Foliage + Cover Crop growth


Harvest 2016 Recap: Solid Yields, High Quality and a Furious End to our Earliest-Ever Vintage

And boom, after a flurry of activity last week, we're done with harvest.  Last to arrive, on Saturday, was a final pick of Grenache, but the final week saw 72.8 tons from a whopping six different grapes: Tannat, Counoise, Mourvedre, Roussanne,  and our small bock of Cabernet, in addition to the Grenache. And not just one pick of each.  We saw six different Mourvedre picks, five Grenache picks, and two picks each for Counoise and Roussanne.  This is not usually how things sequence out; in a normal year, we'd expect the last week to be dedicated to Mourvedre and Roussanne, while the other grapes are done.  No wonder our hard-working cellar crew was ready to celebrate:

Crew final bin

The compressed and overlapping picks were characteristic of 2016's harvest.  Because we plan to use each of our fermentation tanks and casks as many as 6 times each harvest, the shorter the total duration of the harvest, the more pressure we have on our available space.  But in the end, we managed to make it all fit, and were very happy with the quality we saw. But you can see from the below chart that it didn't follow a normal bell curve distribution, with a slow beginning and end.  Instead, after a modest start, we stayed busy, with at least 70 tons coming in all of the last five weeks. In fact, our last two weeks were our two busiest weeks in terms of tons harvested off the estate. In the chart, blue is purchased fruit for the Patelin program, and orange estate grown fruit:

Harvest by week - tons

Yields were much better than 2015, and even a little above the levels we saw in 2013 and 2014.  The increases were particularly noteworthy in the early grape varieties whose yields were so low last year, with grapes like Viognier, Vermentino, Grenache and Syrah all up 70% or more (of course, all those grapes were down at least 40% last year from our 2014 levels).  But even with the later varieties, on which we weren't expecting much of an increase, we saw some, with Roussanne up 11.9% and Mourvedre up 32%.  The complete picture, with 2014 added for some context:

Grape 2014 Yields (tons) 2015 Yields (tons) 2016 Yields (tons) % Change vs. 2015
Viognier 11.4 6.3 14.2 +125.4%
Marsanne 9.9 5.9 4.5  -23.7%
Grenache Blanc 31.9 22.0 30.6 +39.1%
Picpoul Blanc 7.5 5.0 7.7 +54.0%
Vermentino 17.3 8.7 19.0  +118.4%
Roussanne 42.8 42.0 47.0  +11.9%
Total Whites 120.8 89.9
123.0
+36.8%
Grenache 50.7 30.7 58.8  +91.5%
Syrah 38.1 21.4 36.8  +72.0%
Mourvedre 52.3 47.5 62.7  +32.0%
Tannat 15.4 9.8 12.3  +25.5%
Counoise 17.0 13.7 18.0 +31.4%
Total Reds 173.5 123.1
188.6 +53.2%
Total 294.3 213.0 311.6 +46.3%

Overall yields ended up at 2.97 tons per acre, right at our ten-year average.  Other years in which we've seen yields between 2.5 and 3 tons per acre have included 2003, 2004, 2007, 2008, 2013, and 2014, which includes many of our favorite vintages. Those crop levels seem to bring a balance of intensity and elegance that make the blending a pleasure in the spring.

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

Year Avg. Sugars Avg. pH
2007 24.42 3.67
2008 23.87 3.64
2009 23.42 3.69
2010 22.68 3.51
2011 22.39 3.50
2012 22.83 3.65
2013 22.90 3.63
2014 23.18 3.59
2015 22.60 3.59
2016 22.04 3.71

2016's average sugars were our lowest-ever at harvest. Nearly every grape saw declines in average sugar levels, though most were small; only Tannat and Grenache Blanc saw (slightly) higher average sugar levels than in 2015.  At the same time, we saw higher average pH levels than we have in the last decade, particularly in grapes like Roussanne and Mourvedre. I think that in this measurement is where you see the largest impact of our ongoing drought, as well as the impact of the warm weather starting mid-September.  This idea is borne out by the fact that the vineyard looks exhausted now, in mid-October, at a time when in many years it's still leafy and green.  Overall, it was a warm year, just a hair cooler than our warmest-ever year, 2014.  Every month except May was warmer than average, even with a cool stretch that lasted nearly a month between mid-August and early September.  The chart below summarizes (October's information is for the first 8 days, as we finished harvesting on October 8th):

Degree days - growing season final

We picked even more lots this year (114) than last, when we ran out of space on our harvest chalkboard.  This too was necessitated by the drought; we wanted to get the fruit off the healthiest vines while they had good acids, while letting the clusters that were ripening more slowly continue to accumulate sugar, even at the price of lower acids.  

Harvest chalkboard - finished

All this happened in near-record time.  At just 51 days between its August 18th beginning and its October 8th conclusion, this harvest clocks in at nearly a week shorter than average (our 10-year average is 57 days). The beginning was our earliest-ever, about two weeks earlier than normal, and the end our third-earliest, trailing just 2013 (by one day) and the warm, frost-reduced 2001 vintage (by 5 days).  We're done nearly three weeks earlier than normal, and will face our third Harvest Wine Weekend (coming up this weekend) in the last four years with no fruit left to harvest. 

In character, it's early to tell what things will be like, but two things give us good hopes for its prospects.  First is the overall similarity in sequencing, weather, and yields to 2014, which we consider our best recent vintage overall.  Second is the deep colors and intense aromas of what we've been harvesting.  Skins on our red grapes appear to have been very thick. Flavors should be intense.  One of the late-ripening Mourvedre clusters illustrates:

Late Mourvedre cluster

The last project for us for harvest 2016 is to make our first Roussanne Vin de Paille since 2012.  This traditional dessert wine-making technique involves drying newly-harvested clusters on straw, and only pressing and beginning fermentation when they have reached our desired level of concentration -- typically around 35°-40° Brix -- after about 3 weeks.  [For more details on how and why it's done, see our blog Vin de Paille: A Dessert Wine Making Technique for the Obsessed from a few years back]. We laid our last Roussanne pick, from Friday, down on straw in one of our greenhouses, and will spend the next few weeks tracking its progress.

Vin de Paille greenhouse

A closeup shows the natural honey color of the Roussanne, which will only get more golden as it dries:

Vin de Paille closeup

Now that the fruit is in, it's welcome to start raining any time.  There is a hopeful forecast that suggests our first rain of the season may come as early as this weekend.  Meanwhile, we're enjoying the autumnal views of the vineyard without having to worry that the cooler nights and the coming chance of precipitation may interfere with what, in a normal year, would still be harvest season.

Colorful owl box


Harvest 2016 at its midpoint: things heat up, literally and figuratively, in Paso Robles

On Friday, Neil came to me and said that according to their estimates, they'd reached the midpoint of harvest that day.  And looking at the numbers, that seems right to me.  We're done with Viognier, Vermentino, and Marsanne. We're nearly done with Syrah and Grenache Blanc. We're perhaps one-third done with Grenache, and have made a start at Roussanne. All the grapes for Patelin Blanc, most of those for Patelin red, and the majority of the Grenache for the Patelin Rose have been picked.  Off the estate, only Picpoul, Tannat, Counoise, and Mourvedre are untouched so far.  The cellar is humming, with both presses running, new fruit arriving, and barrels and tanks getting cleaned to make space for all the arrivals:

Craig on forklift through press

Our hopes that yields would be much improved over 2015 seem to be holding up.  Of the grapes that we've finished, we saw more than twice as much Vermentino and Viognier as we did last year.  Marsanne was down 25%. But with a couple of small blocks still to go, Syrah is already up 62%.  I'm not expecting the late grapes like Mourvedre and Roussanne to be up much from last year (after all, they were hardly down compared to 2014) but overall, we're likely to be up around 2014's levels, which would be great.

One big project last week was getting the Grenache in off of the dry-farmed, head-trained block we call Scruffy Hill.  It was quite a scene, on a cool, crisp day that felt more like late October than mid-September.  A big fog bank was sitting over the Santa Lucia Mountains to our west, and the day topped out at 71°F, a rare treat at this time of year. A few photos, starting with Vineyard Manager David Maduena overseeing things, fog bank clearly visible:

David

The fruit looked amazing, deep blue and plentiful on the widely-spaced vines:

Scruffy Hill Grenache vimne

It looked just as good back at the winery. The block produced about 25% more fruit than last year, at picture perfect numbers. Flavors were intense:

Grenache bins in front of empty bins

We had one more very cool day last Tuesday, when the sun peeked through the thick fog only at around 4pm, and the temps topped out at 65°F.  Then, a warming trend began, with each day 6-8 degrees warmer than the one before.  By this past weekend, we had two days around 100°F, and and all of a sudden, everything looks like it's ripe.  Looking at our daily highs compared to our 1981-2010 averages will help show the swing:

Aug-Sept Daily High Temps

Before this weekend, temperatures since August 10th had averaged 2.5°F below normal. The last few days have been a different story.  Still, while we're happy to have had a fairly moderate beginning to harvest, it's not a bad thing that it's heating up now.  The later grapes (like Mourvedre, Counoise, and Roussanne) have all been losing chlorophyll, and with it ripening capacity, over the last few weeks.  Having a warm stretch now, while the vines are still mostly green, will do more good than a similarly warm stretch three weeks from now. And with a grape like Mourvedre, which always struggles toward the end of the season, a little boost is just what the doctor ordered. A photo of the Mourvedre from late last week shows the autumn-tinged foliage:

Mourvedre mid-Sept

Looking forward, we've got one more hot day in the forecast tomorrow, and then it's supposed to cool off mid-week before warming back up again next weekend.  An alternating pattern like this often works out well for the cellar, as the cooler periods allow them to catch up on all the lots that have gotten ripe during the warm stretches.  Full speed ahead.


A Cool Stretch Lets Us Ease into Harvest 2016; Yields Seem Solid

The cellar is full of bins of fruit. Our white press is running all day pressing newly harvested Viognier, Grenache Blanc, Clairette Blanche, and Vermentino, and our red press has been working on the first loads of Syrah. Everything smells yeasty and spicy, with the tang of CO2 in the air. We are fully in the thick of harvest.  

Clairette in bins

After a very warm June, July, and beginning to August, cooler weather returned about two-thirds of the way through August, and it's been relatively cool ever since.  In fact, the first week of September has been significantly cooler than normal, with degree days down 24%.  We can complete one more month in the heat graph, and you can see that while August is usually about 20% warmer than June, this year it was cooler, though still a touch above our 20-year average:

Degree Days 2016 pct difference Sept

The cooler respite has been welcome, as there were lots of blocks that were getting close even a few weeks ago, and the cooler weather has allowed us to sequence them a little more gracefully into the cellar.  So far, we've picked about 163 tons of fruit, roughly evenly split between reds and whites.  The bulk of what we've brought in so far (about 70%) has been purchased fruit for the Patelin de Tablas program, both because many of the Patelin vineyards are in somewhat warmer parts of Paso than we are, and because the grapes that these wines are based on -- Grenache Blanc and Viognier for the white, and Syrah for the red -- are harvested on the early side anyway.  We're probably two-thirds done with Patelin.

We're really just beginning the estate harvest. The 50 tons we've picked so far has been mostly Viognier and Vermentino (14 tons each), Syrah (10 tons), Pinot Noir (7 tons) and Grenache Blanc (2 tons).  We've also picked most of our Marsanne, though we only got a ton in so far and are expecting yields on this grape to be down.  The other grapes offer hope for a more generous harvest, though.  In 2015, we only harvested 9 tons of Vermentino and 6 tons of Viognier, totals we've already surpassed with a little more still to come in. One Syrah block (our Syrah "C" clone) we picked just 2.63 tons last year and received 5.16 tons this year, nearly double.  Of course, we're comparing quantities to grapes that saw cripplingly low yields in 2015, so it's not like we're seeing a windfall of grapes.  But yields look a lot more like 2014 (when we ended up harvesting 298 tons off the estate, just a hair below our 10-year average) than like 2015 (where totals ended up at 215 tons only because our late-ripening grapes were down much less than our early ones).  So, while it's early, we're feeling cautiously optimistic about quantities.  If we do end up around 2014's totals, that would mean that we're about 17% done so far.

Quality seems super.  Our sugar and acid numbers are pretty close to textbook, and we're seeing deep colors and tasting vibrant flavors.  We don't see any impact from the two weeks of intermittently smoky weather caused by the nearby Chimney Fire, and feel pretty confident that the smoke wasn't thick enough or long-lasting enough to have left any residue on the grapes.

As for what's next, we're sampling virtually the entire vineyard this week, as well as all the remaining Patelin vineyards.  We're expecting most of the Grenache for us to press directly into the Patelin de Tablas Rosé before the end of the week, as well as more Syrah and Marsanne off our own estate, more Grenache Blanc for Patelin Blanc, and the first Grenache for our Patelin red.  The floor of the cellar looks like a painter's palette:

Samples

In the vineyard, even the latest ripening grapes have completed veraison and are looking (from the outside, at least) like they're ripe.  On the inside, however, grapes like Mourvedre (below) are still weeks, maybe even a month, away from being ready to pick.  Sugars are still in the mid- to high-teens, pH levels are still in the high 2's, seeds are still green, and flavors are not yet developed.  They may look great (and in fact, they make good eating) but we know we have to be patient.

Mourvedre on Vine Sept 2016

The pattern we've seen so far -- early budbreak, warm summer, then a cooldown as harvest approaches -- reminds us a lot of 2014.  Yields seem similar as well.  Given that 2014 is the best vintage in our recent memory, that's got to be a good thing.  Stay tuned.


Harvest 2016 Begins!

By Jordan Lonborg

The wine grape harvest of 2016 has begun. Early this morning, our first Viognier pick kicked off our estate harvest at Tablas Creek. Our first fruit (also Viognier, from Adelaida Cellars) for the Patelin program came in yesterday. Next week, we expect to bring in more Patelin Viognier from one of Derby's vineyards, Pinot Noir from the Bob Haas's vineyard for our Full Circle Pinot, and some Syrah from Estrella Vineyard for Patelin red. At this stage, we're sampling fruit on a daily basis from several Patelin vineyards and multiple blocks at Tablas Creek to stay ahead of the ripening curve. A few photos from this morning:

JL_harvest2016_david
Vineyard Manager David Maduena examines the Viognier block

JL_harvest2016_viognier_in_bin
The first bin of Viognier

JL_harvest2016_santos
Santos Espinoza -- a Tablas Creek stalwart since 1994 -- inspects the newly-harvested fruit

JL_harvest2016_miles
Our crew are joined for their early morning work by vineyard dog Miles

Our sampling process not only consists of running analysis on sugar concentration (typically measured in degrees Brix), pH, and acidity. At Tablas Creek our process is more holistic, and the numbers are guidelines rather than hard decision points. We walk the blocks, taste the fruit starting at the higher elevations, which ripen first, to decide whether or not to pick.  If the fruit does not taste right, we won't pick it. If a portion of the block is ready to be picked, we will make a pass through that portion of the block, often picking selectively, leaving less ripe clusters for a later pick. Later, when more of the block is ready, we'll make another pass. There are some blocks that will see up to four different harvesting passes. Each one of those passes is kept separate through fermentation, and ends up a separate lot when we start our blending trials in the spring.

For the most part, we will harvest at night. Most of the rest of the harvest is done in the early morning, when it's still cool. The cold nighttime temperatures allow for the berries to avoid oxidation while awaiting their delivery out of the vineyard and to the winery. Both selective picking and night harvesting are processes that take time, hard work and attention to detail. It is a testament to the willingness of our picking crew and our cellar team to go that extra mile that they embrace a process that creates more work, at awkward hours, because in the end it gives us the highest quality raw materials that allow our wines taste the way they do.

Despite the long hours, early mornings, and sore muscles that are undoubtedly on our horizon, I can say without question that this is our favorite time of year at Tablas Creek Vineyard. Harvest is the culmination of all the hard work, planning, and preparation that we've put in throughout the year. While we're biting our nails (February-May) watching our weather stations dreading frost, harvest is our motivation.  When we leave our toasty beds at 2am to turn on the various forms of frost protection we have on the ranch, harvest is our motivation. When we're spending six days a week pruning to stay ahead of bud break, harvest is our motivation. When we walk blocks checking on the various plantings on the property on a scorching Paso Robles summer day, harvest is our motivation.

So next time you are enjoying your next glass of Tablas Creek wine, I ask you to think of all the hard work it took to get that bottle to your table. Trust me, it'll taste even better.

Meanwhile, this is my starting gun. See you in November!!

JL_harvest2016_sunrise
This morning's sunrise, over Viognier.


Just how hot has the summer of 2016 been? More (and less) than you probably think.

I woke to a chilly morning in Paso Robles today, under an overcast sky that seemed equally composed of smoke and fog. The low this morning dropped into the upper 40s, and when I got to the vineyard it was still in the low 60s.  This is a change from the last two weeks, which have been very warm, with an average high of 98.2°, an average low of 57.2°, and six days that topped out over 100°F.

I was interested to research just how warm July was, compared to normal, and I was a little surprised that while it was on the warm side of average, it wasn't as warm, comparatively, as June.  Looking at growing degree days (a commonly used heat summation measure that accounts for both how much time is spent above a baseline temperature (typically 50°) and how much the temperature exceeds that baseline) we saw 689 degree days in June, about 10% above our 20-year average of 626.  The data is probably easier to make sense of in chart form:

Degree Days 2016 vs normal

As you can see, in a typical year, the heat peaks in July and August, with June and September still quite warm.  This year, July was indeed hot, and June nearly as much so: 34% more heat accumulation than normal, above our average July total. Looking at the difference vs. normal shows that dramatically:

Degree Days 2016 pct difference

What pushed June's degree days to such high levels? Two stretches of sustained heat, at the beginning and end of the month, were wrapped around a more moderate middle of the month. The beginning of June saw an eight day period from 6/1 to 6/8 with high temperatures in the mid-to-high 90s and lows around 50°, which isn't unprecedented but is still unusual that early in the year. And then starting 6/19 we saw twelve hot days in a row, with the lowest daytime high measuring 97.1°, nine days in triple digits, and three that topped out above 105°. That's hot, at any time of year.

Late July's very warm weather was balanced out by the first half of the month, which was just about textbook average for the season: two weeks with highs each day between the mid-80s and mid-90s, and lows between the mid-40s and mid-50s.  

And about those cold nights: one thing that bodes well for the vintage is that despite the warm days, we have still had more cool nights than the past couple of years -- 25 days in June and July that dropped into the 40s, vs. just 16 last year and 22 in 2014.

The net impact of the warm close to July has been an acceleration to the veraison that we saw start in mid-July. I took advantage of the cool morning to hike through the vineyard and get a sense of where the different grapes are sitting in their path to harvest. Overall, I think we're almost exactly at veraison's midpoint, with just as many berries now pink to red as there are still green.  Of course, that varies quite a bit by variety, and even within a variety, with cooler spots at the bottoms of hills typically quite a bit behind those same grapes at the tops of the hills.  I'll take them in the order in which we saw veraison start, beginning with Syrah, which I would estimate is at 90% versaison:

Veraison_2016_syrah

Next to go into veraison was Grenache, which I would estimate is about 50% through the process. Note that it was hard for me to get out of the grenache blocks to take photos elsewhere; it's such a beautiful grape, particularly at this time of year when a single cluster can look like a rainbow:

Veraison_2016_grenache

Mourvedre isn't far behind the Grenache, though I found it a lot less even, with many vines that still had small, bright green berries on every cluster even as there were some clusters that looked like they were almost all the way through.  Overall, I'd estimate Mourvedre is at 40% veraison, and the cluster below only slightly more advanced than the average:

Veraison_2016_mourvedre

Finally, Counoise, which is only going through veraison at the tops of the hills, and even there there are more fully green clusters than there are those that look like the one below. Overall, I'd estimate it's only at 10% veraison:

Veraison_2016_counoise

Of course, red grapes aren't the only ones that go through veraison, but it's hard to photograph the subtle changes that white grapes undergo. Two photos might give a bit of a sense. First, Roussanne, which is our last white to ripen, and in which I couldn't find any signs of the softening or turn from green to gold that would indicate that the process has started:

Veraison_2016_roussanne

Compare that to this shot of Viognier, which will likely be our first white to come in off our estate about three weeks from now:

Veraison_2016_viognier

Whether because of the cool nights, the (somewhat) better rainfall we got last winter, or the work we've been doing with biodynamics to make sure our vineyards are as healthy as possible, it seems like the vines are showing fewer symptoms of extreme stress than they were at this time either of the last two years.  And we're hopeful that we'll avoid another hot stretch at least in the near future; today's forecast is suggesting near- to below-normal temperatures over the next ten days.  If we can replicate the cool August weather we got in 2014, we'll be happy indeed.


An update from smoky Paso Robles

Many of you will be aware that there's a big fire burning in the Santa Lucia Mountains north of Big Sur and south-east of Carmel. The Soberanes Fire, which started last week, has grown to over 19,000 acres, and its plume of smoke is easily visible from space:

As you can see from the image above, most of the smoke is being pushed inland by the prevailing winds, but some is collecting in the Salinas River Valley, and was drawn up toward Paso Robles yesterday evening.  We ended up sleeping with our windows closed and the air conditioning on last night rather than have the house smell like old campfire.  This morning, I arrived at work to see a landscape with blurred edges and a grayish tint, instead of the normal crystal clear, deep blue sky (click on the image for a larger panoramic view):

Smoky panorama 2016

This isn't the first time we've seen smoky weather here at the vineyard, although we've been lucky to avoid any big nearby fires.  Back in 2008, two large fires put a high layer of smoke overhead, giving us the unusual perception of overcast summer days. This year's smoke isn't as thick, although it is closer to the surface.

If grapes are exposed to concentrated smoke over time, they can pick up an oily, smoky taste. This character (typically called "smoke taint") was an issue for many Mendocino and Sonoma wineries in 2008, and seems likely to be an issue for Monterey County wineries this year. That said, we don't think that the amount of smoke we're seeing now will have any impact on our harvest. It's only lightly smoky here, and the forecast is for the weather pattern to shift by the weekend to a more dramatic on-shore flow, which should draw fresh air off the Pacific Ocean, just ten miles west over the coast range.

Meanwhile, we're watching the vineyard go through veraison, variety by variety. Syrah was first. We've seen a few examples of Mourvedre around the vineyard in the past couple of days. And I got a photo of Grenache this morning, still more green than red, but on its way. Even in that photo, you can see some of the smoky haze against the horizon:

Veraison 2016 Grenache 3

Looking again at how advanced we are, I'm reassessing my prediction that we might challenge our earliest-ever harvest. What I'm seeing is more like 2013 or 2015 (roughly a week ahead of average) than it is like 2014 (roughly 2 weeks early). But there's still a long way to go, and a consistently hot August might push things up again. In any case, we know we're likely to see some fruit coming in the last week or ten days of August.

Look for more updates in coming weeks.


Mid-July veraison suggests 2016 threatens to be our earliest-ever harvest

When you spend two weeks away in late June and early July, as I did, the vineyard can look quite different when you return than when you left. When I left, most berries were still pea sized, bright green, and hard. When I got out into the vineyard yesterday, things had changed. The grape berries and clusters looked more mature.  The vines' deep green canopies contrasted dramatically with the midsummer blue sky. Quantities look respectable: perhaps somewhat smaller than average but better than 2015.  The vines look remarkably healthy, with really no significant visible effects of the week-plus of 100-degree weather we saw in late June.

And, when I got to the top of the Syrah block, as I thought I might, I found veraison.

Veraison marks the point where a grape stops accumulating mass and starts accumulating sugar. At the same time, red grapes start their color change from green, 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.] This landmark comes roughly six weeks before the onset of harvest, and gives us our best estimate for when harvest will begin. A few of the most advanced Syrah clusters:

Veraison 2016

So far, of our red grapes, only Syrah has shown any color change. And only on the tops of the hills, which are typically most advanced, and even there there are many more all-green clusters than there are those like the ones above.  A good example is the photo below, where a more advanced cluster on the left is visible next to another cluster on the same vine that is still entirely green:

Veraison 2016_2

The transformation between hard, sour green berries and sweet, soft, red berries takes some time, and when it starts depends both on how early the vine begins its spring growth and on how fast the ripening progresses, determined by the amount of heat and sun after budbreak. Looking at the chart below, from the Western Weather Group's Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance forecast, suggests that we shouldn't be surprised to be seeing an early veraison, given that 2016 is among the warmest years since 1997:

Veraison 2016 - Degree Days - Resized

While six weeks is a good basic guide for the duration between veraison and harvest, it's not totally constant, 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, last year's first veraison was noted on July 18th, but a warm August and a light crop load meant that we began harvest just 39 days later, on August 26th. The last ten years are compiled in the chart below:

Year First Veraison Noted Harvest Begins # of Days
2007 July 20 August 28 39
2008 July 23 September 3 42
2009 July 20 September 1 43
2010 July 30 September 16 49
2011 August 5 September 20 47
2012 July 25 September 5 42
2013 July 17 August 26 40
2014 July 9 August 23 45
2015 July 18 August 26 39
2016 July 13 ? ?

It's clear that we're looking at another early harvest this year. Even if things cool off dramatically -- and there's nothing in the long-term forecast that suggests they will -- we're almost certainly starting harvest in August.  Our longest-ever veraison-harvest interim, from the very cool (and plentiful) 2010 vintage, was 49 days. 49 days from July 13th is August 31st. If, instead, we see an interim like 2015 or 2007, both of which saw small crops and warm weather, we could start as early as August 21st. If we did, that would be our earliest beginning ever. I'm guessing we end up toward the early end of that range, but probably not right at the minimum, given that our crop levels look somewhat better than they did in 2015. But we'll see. 

What's next for the vineyard? We'll watch the different grapes go through veraison. While Syrah is almost always first, Grenache and Mourvedre won't be far behind. Counoise is almost always last. It's an exciting time, with the view changing practically daily. Meanwhile, expect our winemaking team to take some vacation and rest up for the coming frenzy, and while they're here to be getting the last of the year's bottling done so there's space in barrels and tanks for the coming crush.

But while none of this is a surprise, it's still a significant milestone. We now know how much sand is in the hourglass. And that it's been flipped over.


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.