Compost: Momma Nature’s Gift (A Step by Step Guide)

By Jordan Lonborg

Biodynamics has lots of facets, including applications of minerals, planting of flora, integration of fauna, and even reacting to celestial stimuli. But one of its most important components is one of the oldest, and one of the most practical for the home organic gardener. What is this magical tool? Compost, of course.

What, where, and how do you compost? I'm happy you asked. Essentially, when you compost, you are encouraging a natural process, and then using the beneficial byproduct of what in the wild would be a part of the yearly cycle of growth and decay that takes place in every stand of trees, every forest, and most of all, every jungle on the planet. Simply put, compost is the biodegradation, or breakdown, of plant material that falls to the ground in the form of leaves, fruit, branches etc. The second that material hits the ground, the breakdown begins. This food chain is often invisible, and frequently smelly, but without it, there is no life on this planet. Small insects and microorganisms begin to feed on the litter. As the litter is continuously broken down by various organisms -- insects that you can see with the naked eye, all the way to microscopic bacteria -- nutrient rich humus (not the cracker spread) is excreted. As the humus accumulates, beneficial bacteria and fungi begin to grow. These bacteria and fungi work in symbiosis with the root structures of living plants, allowing those plants to take in the nutrients that are contained in the humus.

Jordy compost closeupA closeup of our compost, with Mycelium, a white vegetative part of a fungus crucial for our compost teas

In a farm setting, where we try to recreate this natural process, there are many ways and forms of composting. At Tablas Creek, we utilize the process commonly known as wind row composting (long rows that are typically 7-8 ft. wide and 5-6 feet tall). When starting the pile, there are a few crucial steps/measures that need to be taken to create a biologically active environment. First and foremost is the carbon (dry, woody material) to nitrogen (“green” material or plant material that still has moisture within it such as pressed grapes or the rachis/stems of the cluster’s that had recently gone through one of the first steps in the winemaking process known as de-stemming). Ideally, this ratio should be 3:1, carbon to nitrogen. Our carbon source comes from all of the prunings collected from across the ranch. We put these through a chipper and add walnut tree wood chips from piles we kept after clearing the old walnut trees from the part of the property known as “Jewel Ridge” (this will eventually be our next dry farmed planting).

Jordy with compostHappy compost makes for a happy Viticulturist!

The carbon sources are collected and piled up throughout the winter months. During harvest is when the magic happens. As grapes are pressed and de-stemmed, we begin to incorporate the skins and rachis into the piles of woody material. The breakdown of the woody material and formation of humus begins at this point. When the green material starts to decompose, heat and moisture start to release, and microorganisms that feed on the woody material begin to feed and populate. At this point, it is crucial to monitor the temperature of the pile. The ideal internal temperature of a pile that is actively composting is 150-155 degrees Fahrenheit. When green material is incorporated into the pile in the beginning stages, decomposition of the green material can occur so quickly that temperatures within the pile can skyrocket. When a compost pile experiences prolonged temperatures of 170 degrees and above, anaerobic (oxygen deprived) conditions begin to form, which both suppresses the growth of of beneficial microorganism and allows other non-beneficial microorganisms to take their place. To prevent this from happening, we “turn” the pile.

Turning our compost pile has become what Neil Collins, Tablas Creek's most esteemed (OK, he's the only winemaker since inception), termed an “obsession” of mine. He is correct. Taking a 20” thermometer and inserting into a pile that is 8’ wide, 6’ tall, and 50 yards long, at this point in the year and reading temperatures that exceed 170-180 degrees absolutely blows my mind. Therefore, to encourage the beneficial microbiological activity within the pile, and with hopes of trying to get the temperature to stabilize at 150-155 degrees Fahrenheit, as the sun is coming up I hop in the loader, and begin to move the pile, scoop by scoop to an adjacent location. This process incorporates oxygen, decreases the temperature, and disrupts and any anaerobic activity that may be beginning to occur. It’s an amazing sensation when you start getting into the heart of this pile that is creating ridiculous amounts of heat, steam, and smells during cold mornings at sunrise. The aerobic, properly composting sections of the pile smell amazing. Like earthy, mulled cider to an extent. When you hit the anaerobic areas, they also smell amazing but would be considered more of a stench than anything. I’m still working on a descriptor, but think of a hot swamp. No bueno. During this point in the year/composting process, we turn the pile every 2-3 days. In time, the temperatures begin to stabilize and the constant need to turn the pile subsides. The microorganisms that have been digesting the woody material and in turn releasing the beginning stages of humus are in full effect. Beneficial fungi and bacteria begin to bloom at rapid rates. This is our happy place.  In nature, it can take many, many years for humus to even begin to form. A properly managed compost pile expedites that natural process. From last week:

Traditionally, we’ve spread the compost created on the farm throughout the vineyard and followed up with an implement known as a disc which incorporates the compost into the soil profile. But that's not the only way we use the compost. We have expanded our compost tea program: a process in which you take compost, soak it in a tank of water that is heavily oxygenated, and encourage the beneficial microorganisms to move off of the compost into solution. Next we add nutrients to the tea, and the compost's beneficial microorganisms (now in suspension in the water) begin to feed on these nutrients and extrapolate at a rapid pace. This finished tea is like a probiotic shake for a grapevine, packed with beneficial organisms, and can be injected directly into the soil profile through your drip system or applied to the vine leaves throughout the vineyard. If applied through the drip system, whatever organic matter resides in your soil profile will break down faster while foliar applications have shown to combat powdery mildew and provide nutrients to grapevines.

Composting is a necessary process that takes place on most if not all organic and biodynamic farms across the world. Yes, we could purchase organic fertilizers, but why would we want to, when composting means we reuse the waste generated on our farm, we produce a product that can be used in many ways to increase the fertility of our soil and the health of our vines, and we do it all without having to bring anything in from the outside, with all the trucking and greenhouse gas impact that implies.


Harvest 2018 at the 80% line: It looks like won't see November grapes, after all

As often happens in early October, the bigger picture of harvest comes into focus and you have a chance to check which of your early harvest assumptions are turning out to be true, and which false. This year, we're receiving validation of most of our important assumptions. Quality has been very high. Quantity has been solid: at long-term averages, or a little above. But timing? It appears that my prediction of a late harvest (one that lasts into November) is looking increasingly unlikely.  As we begin the week of October 15th, we're somewhere around 85% done. And while we still have enough Mourvedre, Counoise and Roussanne hanging that we will have fruit to pick during our upcoming Paso Robles Harvest Wine Weekend festivities (hooray!) I think the chances that we'll still have grapes on the vines a week later are dwindling rapidly.

This isn't a bad thing. We've had such good conditions ever since we began in earnest on September 10th that we haven't really had to push the harvest pause button.  In fact, until this past weekend, we hadn't had consecutive non-picking days since September 6th-9th, at which point we were only 8 tons in, or 1.6% of what we've harvested to date. Our week-by-week harvest log shows the relatively steady intensity of the last five weeks. We didn't maintain the pace of our busiest-ever harvest week (September 10-16, at nearly 133 tons) but we also haven't seen any real pauses, with each week since then falling between 59 and 104 tons:

Harvest Chart through October 14th

The weather has provided ideal conditions for this sort of harvest, with plenty of cool to moderate, sunny days and a few modest, short-lived warm-ups embedded within. Looking at the weather since our mid-summer heat wave broke on August 20th shows that we've seen 38 cooler-than-normal days and just 18 whose highs topped out above our long-term averages:

Daily High Temps 2018 vs Normal

That first warm-up between September 4th and 8th goosed the harvest into gear and produced our incredibly busy week, including most of our early-season grapes like Viognier, Syrah, and Vermentino. The second warm up (September 16-24) brought our mid-season grapes like Grenache, Marsanne, and Tannat into ripeness. Most of our late-season grapes like Counoise, Mourvedre, and Roussanne stayed out until it warmed up modestly last week, and some upper-80s weather that's forecast for later this week should give them the nudge they need to come into the cellar.

It's worth noting that for all that the graph above looks pretty spiky and dramatic, we've really had a very consistent season.  Only 2 days (both early in the harvest season) have topped 100, with just 5 more topping 95.  And only 3 days topped out in the 60s, with just 3 others topping out between 70 and 75.  That means that 43 of the last 56 days have seen  highs between 75 and 95, which are temperatures at which grapevines do a very good job of photosynthesis.

All the remaining vineyard blocks look ready, and in reality nothing is very far away.  If we were facing an early-season rainstorm, or a stretch that was forecast to get up into the 100s, we could pick everything and be happy with it.  But it's a luxury knowing that grapes like the Counoise pictured below can get another week or so of ripening in ideal conditions, and then be picked without stress:

Counoise rows

In the cellar, the pause we've seen the past few days has allowed us to get ready for the final push. We've been pressing off one red lot after another, to free up fermentation tanks and allow the wines to finish their fermentations in barrel:

Pressing October 15th

That brings us to another October ritual: cleaning barrels into which we'll put all this new wine to complete its fermentation. I love this shot I got this morning, of Cellar Master Brad Ely steam-cleaning barrels that will become homes for the newly-pressed red wines. Note his hat: last night got down to 41.9°F out here and there's a chance that some of the coldest pockets of Paso Robles might even see frost this week:

Steam Cleaning Barrels

But a frost, even in the off chance that it happens isn't a big deal at this time of year.  We'd keep picking nonetheless.  And conditions are forecast to be just about ideal, so we're feeling good about things.  So, with 10 days or so of harvest to go, even if it's no longer a coin flip as to whether or not we'll be picking in November (as I thought it would be two weeks ago) we can still use that coin to predict whether or not we'll have enough lines on our harvest chalkboard to fit everything this year. Let's hope it comes down heads!

Chalkboard Oct 15th


Harvest 2018 at its mid-point: moderate to good yields and outstanding quality under ideal weather conditions

After two intense weeks, the cellar is pretty much full and we're in a bit of a lull. The early grapes (think Viognier, Vermentino, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc, Syrah and Pinot Noir) are done or largely done, and while we've made a start with the mid-season grapes like Grenache and Tannat, there's still more out on the vines than there is in the cellar. Mourvedre, Roussanne, and Counoise are still a few weeks off. This ebb and flow is a good chance to let a few fermentations finish in what is a very full cellar: 

IMG_1555

The weather has been absolutely ideal, a bit cooler than normal, but with a few short warm-ups mixed in to give the grapes periodic nudges toward ripeness. And even during those warm stretches, the nights have been quite chilly, leading to some remarkable diurnal temperature swings. From the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance's weather stations this past Wednesday:

IMG_8272

The 48.5° swing that we saw at Tablas Creek was one of the smaller ones in the area. The Templeton Gap's swing was 57.8°, while the Adelaida West station, just a few miles away from us, was 62.3°.  That's remarkable, even here in Paso Robles where massive diurnal swings are commonplace. But it meant that even when it was hot, it was only hot for a few hours, with the vast majority of the day in the 85°-95° range which is ideal for grapevine photosynthesis. 

With the first handful of varieties harvested, we have the first chance to wrap our heads around yields.  It looks like yields are down from 2017, but still above the levels we saw during our drought. The varieties we've finished harvesting are down a total of 12.8%. Given that 2017 was up 21.8% over 2016's more or less average yields, we still seem like we're in good shape. The details on the grapes we've finished with:

Grape 2017 Yields (tons) 2018 Yields (tons) % Change vs. 2017
Viognier 18.9 14.4 -23.8%
Marsanne 13.8 11.8 -14.5%
Grenache Blanc 46.4 33.7 -27.4%
Vermentino 22.2 21.7 -2.3%
Syrah 41.5 42.6 +2.7%
Pinot Noir 8.7 7.9 -9.2%
Total so Far 151.5 132.1 -12.8%

In terms of timing, as September moves into October, we're still about two weeks behind what we have grown used to in the 2012-2017 run, and haven't picked up any significant ground since the beginning of harvest. We picked Syrah this year between September 14th and 25th.  Last year, it came in between August 31st and September 20th. The 2018 Viognier came in between August 31st and September 20th. In 2017, its range was August 30th to September 4th. By the end of September last year, we'd picked 90% of our Grenache. This year, we're only 24 tons in, or about a third of what we expect to harvest.  I'd give us less than a 50/50 chance of being done by the end of October this year. That's not particularly scary; in the 2000's we harvested into November more than half the vintages. But it's been a while. 

The quality has been outstanding so far: terrific flavors and ideal numbers from fruit that has looked like it could have come of the table at our local farmers' market. And the fermentations have smelled wonderful. We've been wishing for scratch-and-sniff Internet, so we can share more than just how nice fermentations (like the Pinot Noir pictured below) look:

IMG_8211

Looking forward, we expect to see a lot of Grenache and Tannat the next week or two, and we'll likely start cherry-picking Roussanne and Mourvedre, to get the ripest clusters into the cellar so they don't raisin while we wait for the majority of the fruit to reach maturity. Scenes like Saturday morning's, where Tannat bins spill from the crushpad onto our staff parking lot, will be commonplace:

IMG_8278
There is a little uncertainty in next week's forecast; the interaction between a Pacific low pressure system and the remnants of Hurricane Rosa will likely cause some showers on Wednesday.  But with the forecast predicted to warm up and dry out after, that's not a big deal.  At worst, we may not pick for a couple of days.  But if you're in the desert Southwest, this is something to prepare for:

Meanwhile, we'll enjoy the beautiful fermentation aromas in the cellar, and the colors of the grapes on the vines. And hope that the second half of harvest continues under equally good conditions as we've seen for the first half.


El corazón y el alma del viñedo Tablas Creek, David Maduena

By Jordan Lonborg

mas·ter (noun). A skilled practitioner of a particular art or activity.

It is not everyday that you encounter a master of a craft. Some of us may only get the chance to meet a couple in our lifetime. Few of us get the chance to work alongside one. For those of you that have not had the chance, it does not take long to realize the size of the shadow this person casts. For those of you that have, you’ll feel the words that precede this sentence.

It has been a privilege and an honor to work alongside David Maduena for the last three harvests. Although soft spoken, his mere presence demands respect. For 26 years David has worked the land at Tablas Creek. He remembers every vintage since 1992 (the year he started at Tablas Creek Vineyard) so clearly, it is almost unsettling. Whether the year had excessive amounts of rain (we should be so lucky), frost, heat etc., David remembers. All of the mistakes I and others have made, David remembers. Tonnages harvested, powdery mildew outbreaks, acres of each block, the spacing of the rows in said blocks, rootstocks, clones, and on and on, David Maduena remembers.

David has literally touched every vine on the property many times over. I’ve had conversations with him about certain blocks, rows, and even individual vines on the property, and his ability to recount the history of those blocks, rows and vines is truly awe-inspiring. An example that Neil told me: one day, a few years ago, David walked into the lab and said "there's some mildew in the Grenache". Neil asked him where, and he walked out to the quad and brought in one Grenache cluster that showed a little mildew. We never found another mildewed cluster that year. He'd found the one mildewed cluster, in a vineyard of 150,000 vines.

As Tablas grew, David was the man on the ground. Every ditch that had been dug for irrigation, David was there. When plants were being propagated in the nursery, David was there. Planting the vines that now make up the oldest and best blocks at Tablas Creek Vineyard? That was David. Grafting, fertilizing, pruning, shoot thinning, weeding, he's done all of that. Hard work is and has always been a stalwart in David’s life. He thrives on tough jobs. His upbringing sheds light as to why his hands, heart, and soul make him the amazing human he is today.

David is the second oldest in a family of fifteen children. He grew up in the rural hills of Durango, Mexico. Agriculture was not a profession for him and his siblings, it was a way of life. He has told me a few stories of those days that left my jaw wide open. The responsibilities he had as a young 13 year old will truly humble you to the core. I look at my 13 year old self and am stupefied as to how a person that age could provide for their family like David had been doing for his. Being the uncle of of 12 (soon to be 14) nieces and nephews that are closing in on that age, I’m even more amazed. At 15, David left Durango to come to the United States, for the chance to provide a future for his younger siblings and parents. I ask you to think about your 15 year old self, being faced with that decision. Myself and most others would not even be able to comprehend that choice at 15. David was able to. He left his parents, his sisters, his brothers, his cousins, his hometown, everything he knew and held dearly to his heart, to go 1000 miles away to a country that did not speak his language and did not understand his culture. All this at the age of 15. Once here he restarted a life, earned his residency, was hired, promoted, and promoted again at Tablas Creek, built a career, and started a family. He is the proud father of 7 amazing children and the lucky husband of a beautiful wife named Maggie (she is amazing).

In a country that was founded on immigration, founded on the “American Dream”, I cannot tell you enough how honored I am to work with a human being who so embodies that dream. He is the Vineyard Manager and a critical part of the success of this great winery. The vineyard crew he manages, the cellar team, accounting, administration, and tasting room staff respect him in a way that is nearly impossible to describe. The man is truly a living legend. I hope that everyone that reads this blog has had the chance to meet/work alongside a human that is a pure example of why this country is as great as it is.

David MaduenaDavid, preparing our old Chardonnay block (now Mourvedre and Counoise) for planting

Maduena YoungerDavid in a candid shot from the early 2000s

Hats off to you David Maduena. Thank you for being the bada** that you are. We all have a lot to learn from you and yours. There are no words for the amount of respect you have earned and deserve from all of us on the property. Tu realmente eres una leyenda viviente!

David with the years first pickDavid, overseeing the first pick of 2018: his 26th Tablas Creek harvest


Harvest 2018 Begins with a Whisper

A little more than a month ago, I predicted that the 2018 harvest would begin sometime in the first half of September.  I was almost right.  We actually got our first fruit -- a couple of tons of Viognier -- on August 31st.  About five tons of Viognier came in for our Patelin de Tablas Blanc on September 5th.  And then, this morning, we picked our first red grapes: 2.6 tons of Pinot Noir from my parents' vineyard:

Full Circle Pinot harvest - Team photo

How does this leisurely beginning to the 2018 harvest stack up against other recent years? Much slower. The first 11 days of the 2018 harvest saw 10.64 tons of fruit arrive in the cellar, which is just 16% of our average (67.34 tons in the first 11 days) this decade. The decade has included cool and hot vintages, early and late starts, and even in the years with the slowest starts we saw at least triple the amount of fruit arriving in the cellar during the first week and a half of harvest.  So, we really are seeing an outlier this year. The below chart will illustrate, and I've also tossed on the chart the date of our first Full Circle Pinot Noir harvest, for comparison:

Year Tons, First 11 Days Date of First Pinot Harvest
2018 10.64 September 10th
2017 156.06 August 29th
2016 83.41 August 23rd
2015 80.78 August 22nd
2014 40.48 August 28th
2013 81.67 August 23rd
2012 120.95 September 6th
2011 37.57 September 22nd
2010 32.03 September 28th

You can see, in addition to how unusual this slow start to harvest is, just how much later harvest has been this year than in other recent years. The first Pinot Noir pick is a good marker for us, because it always comes from the same small vineyard.  We're more than two weeks later than our 2013-2017 average, though not as far behind as what we saw the historically cool back-to-back 2010 and 2011 vintages.  

Although we've seen a brief warmup the last few days, it's been quite cool, overall, since mid-August, and we're forecast for more cool weather this and next week.  So, we may not see things catch up much.  That's not worrying, at least not yet.  Longer hang times are a good thing, as is the ability to pick at just the right moment, instead of being forced into a pick in the middle of a heat spike.  Of course, if we don't catch up at all, and finish harvest still two-plus weeks behind where we've been the last five years, there's a better-than-even chance we'll be harvesting in November. We wouldn't have thought that unusual a recently as a few years ago (between 2000 and 2011 harvest stretched into November six times) but it hasn't happened since 2011.  It does appear, as I wrote this summer, that we're looking at something of a throwback vintage

The slower start to harvest has meant that we've been able to get out and get good samples on most of our early blocks, and we like what we see.  Clusters are small but not tiny.  The vines appear healthy, recovered after the long mid-summer heat marathon.  Numbers are ideal for us at this stage.  And the fruit looks great.  A bin of Viognier looks fresh and clean:

Viognier cluster with Linneas hand

The fruit in the press smells great, like peaches and flowers, and the rich, yeasty scents of fermentation are beginning to permeate the cellar:

Viognier in press

And now that we finally have some red grapes in the cellar, we can really get things going.  Please join me in welcoming the 2018 harvest.

Full Circle Pinot harvest - bins and vines


What a difference a few weeks makes: From hot to cool as we wait for a delayed harvest

If you didn't know how beautiful a fog bank can be, you haven't spent a summer in Paso Robles.  Yesterday, I returned to the vineyard after a weekend in San Francisco to find that I'd somehow brought back the weather with me.  The daytime high was just 77°F. The night before dropped down to 43°F. And there was a big, beautiful fog bank sitting over the Santa Lucia Mountains to our west:

Fog bank August 2018

Now this weather pattern isn't shocking for us, even in the middle of the summer. Although we get plenty of hot days, we normally see a pattern that builds in heat, tops out over 100°F for a few days, then breaks and we see cooler weather with days topping out in the upper 70s or lower 80s for a few days before it starts to build.

But it was shocking in that this summer, we hadn't seen the breaks hardly at all.  In fact, between July 5th and August 19th -- a stretch of six and a half weeks --  the lowest high temperature that we saw was 87°, and the lowest low temperature we saw was 53°. We had 22 days top 100°F. Our average high was 98.8° and our average low 57.6°. 

Happily, things have changed over the last ten days.  Every one of the days since August 20th would have been the lowest high and the lowest low in the previous 6-week stretch. We averaged a high of 83.3° and a low of 48.5°. And the long-term forecast calls for continued moderate weather.  The vineyard appears grateful for the respite; the vines look a lot less stressed to me than they did a couple of weeks back.

In some ways, this year reminds me of 2015, where we had alternating cold and hot months all the way from budbreak in April to the close of harvest in October.  Although the periods have lasted longer this year, we are seeing the same cold-hot-cold pattern.  I'm hoping that yields aren't as scarce as they were in 2015, when we were deep in the throes of our drought and also saw cold, windy weather during the May flowering period that reduced crop loads on our early grapes by as much as 70%, but it's certain that they'll be down from our 2017 levels.  How much is still to be determined.  But in character, the 2015s were outstanding, so if that's our baseline, I'm not unhappy.

Because we've largely avoided the temperatures where grapevines photosynthesize optimally (between 85°F and 95°F) we're still trending behind on our harvest. We're thinking it might begin slowly at the end of next week.  And we're OK with that.  In my trek around the vineyard, I tasted berries from Grenache, Grenache Blanc, Tannat, and Roussanne, and none of them were anywhere near ripe.  In fact, most were still only partway through veraison, a month after I wrote about it.  A few photos will demonstrate.  First, Tannat, where you can see the characteristic blue-black berries intermixed with pink and even green berries at the top of the cluster:

Tannat cluster August 2018

Next, Grenache Blanc. It's harder to see veraison in white grapes, but you can see some berries with a yellow tint, while others toward the center of the cluster are still more green:

Grenache Blanc cluster August 2018

And finally Roussanne, which is still resolutely green, not showing any of the characteristic russet coloring that gives the grape its name:

Roussanne cluster August 2018

It's worth recapitulating how much later we are than other recent years. Four of the last five years, we'd already started picking off our estate as of August 28th, and the fifth (2017) we were just two days from beginning and had already received some Viognier for the Patelin Blanc.  This year? Not so much. We've gone from weather that was too cool to ripen grapes fast to weather that was too hot to gapes ripen fast right back to cool weather, with virtually no transition either time.  We're out sampling all our Patelin vineyards, but nothing is imminent. The cellar team has been scrubbing equipment from top to bottom, and everything is sparkling clean. We've installed some new mini-foudres for our white program. The table is set... we're just waiting for the guests to arrive.

Clean cellar with new foudres August 2018


Yes, July really was hot. But veraison still arrived late. What gives?

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:

2018 summer temps through July

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:

Veraison 2018 syrah 2

And:

Veraison 2018 syrah 3

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:

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 August 18 36
2017 July 20 August 30 40
2018 July 29 ? ?

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.


A mid-summer vineyard assessment suggests 2018 is looking like a throwback to the 2000s

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:

Vineyard Summer 2018 Grenache

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:

Vineyard Summer 2018

Or, for another perspective, here's a shot from below the Counoise trellises, showing the clusters sheltering beneath their leafy canopy:

Vineyard Summer 2018 Under Counoise

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:

Summer 2018 Degree Days Through June

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:

Summer 2018 Degree Days Through June vs Normal

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.


Flowering 2018: Might We Be Seeing Our First Moderate Vintage of the Decade?

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:

Flowering grenache on Scruffy Hill May 2018

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:

Average Temps by Month 2010-2018

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.

Flowering grenache on Scruffy Hill May 2018 2

We'll take it.


Assessing Winter 2017-2018 After March's Rainfall "Miracle"

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:

Rainfall Graph Winter 2017-18

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:

Rainfall by Winter 1996-2018

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:

Cover crop

Next, this photo of new growth in Grenache, from about a week back:

New Growth in Grenache

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:

Haas Vineyard Cover Crop

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:

Mustard and Head trained Grenache

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:

California Poppies

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.