Grapes of the Rhone Valley: Picardan

Wednesday morning, we bottled our tiny (70 case) production of Picardan.  What's the big deal?  Well, this grape is one of the rarest in the world, with a total footprint of only a couple of acres.  And this bottling is likely the first 100% Picardan -- made anywhere -- in a century or more, given its general application as a blending grape.  It's so rare that we're working really without a road map; even our Perrin partners don't vinify it on its own. If that's not enough to get a Rhone geek like me excited, I don't know what is.

PICARDANHistory
Picardan is rare nowadays, but its first mention in the historical record from 1715 talks about it being "very common", with "greenish, sweet and soft berries".1  It was cultivated under various names, including Araignan Blanc, Oeillade Blanche, and Gallet, in much of the south of France.  The twin 19th Century plagues of powdery mildew and phylloxera appear to have dealt it a blow from which it never recovered2, and as of 2008 there was just over an acre reported in all of France. In fact, there is some debate as to whether it has survived a separate grape at all, as many of the samples that were selected for testing turned out to be either Clairette or Bourboulenc.3  Nevertheless, it is recognized in the official Chateauneuf-du-Pape regulations as a distinct grape, and the Perrins had enough confidence in its distinctiveness to supply us with a cutting when in 2003 we decided that we wanted the complete collection of Chateauneuf-du-Pape varieties.

Picardan's name comes, apparently, from the same root as Picpoul: the French verb piquer ("to sting"). That said, it is not the same as Pacardin (note the different spelling), a white blend of Clairette Blanche and Picpoul Blanc that was widely exported from the Languedoc in the 17th and 18th centuries.  Nor does it have anything to do with the French region of Picardy, a district north-east of Paris (including the Somme) that saw some of the most famous battles of World War I. Confused yet? Because of the confusion with the name, and the grape's scarcity, even the small amount of literature that's out there on this rare grape is suspect.  So, we really are breaking new ground here.

We have Picardan not because of any particular expectations for it, but because we wanted to complete set of Chateauneuf du Pape grapes to evaluate. We took cuttings from Beaucastel in 2003, brought it into quarantine at UC Davis, and it spent seven years in quarantine at U.C. Davis before being released to us in late 2010, propagated, and in 2013 planted into a half-acre block at the extreme western edge of our property.  Our first production of Picardan off of these vines came in 2016.

Picardan in the Vineyard and Cellar

Picardan buds out in the middle of the spring cycle, making it somewhat less prone to damage in our spring frosts than early budding grapes like Viognier and Grenache Blanc. Its vines show moderate vigor, although they tend to hang a heavy crop, which we've had to thin the last two years.  The vines seem to struggle in areas where there is relatively little topsoil and the limestone layers are right at the surface.  Now this is true of all vines to some extent, but Picardan's reactions seem more pronounced to us, with significant variations in vigor between the lower down areas where the topsoil is deeper and the higher vines forced to contend with calcareous soils just a few inches below the surface.  We're not sure yet whether the vines will overcome this with more age, or not, but we'll be keeping an eye on it.

The canes are relatively thin, and the clusters small to medium sized and fairly loose. Berries are also medium sized and have an oblong shape. Although it is head-trained in Chateauneuf du Pape, the thin canes suggest that it might struggle in the wind, and we planted our small block double-cordon on trellis.  It ripens just past the middle of the harvest season, after grapes like Viognier, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc, and Syrah, typically right as we're starting Grenache Noir.

As with any new grape, our initial picking decisions are educated guesses, and in 2016 we experimented picked our Picardan on September 22nd at 22° Brix and a pH of 3.6, all numbers pretty close to our targets for whites. We will experiment this year with a slightly earlier picking, to capture a bit more acid, but think we got a nice balance of richness and freshness.

Ultimately, we expect Picardan to join our blends. That said, we always bottle new grapes on their own the first few vintages, so that we can wrap our heads around them and so we can show them to other people and get their feedback.  So, it was with no small excitement that we bottled California's first-ever Picardan last week:

Picardan in bottle

We'd like to give the wine a couple of months to recover from its recent bottling, but look forward to releasing it this fall. If you're in our wine club, keep an eye on your monthly emails. 

Flavors and Aromas
Picardan is on the nose reminiscent in many ways of a softer take on Picpoul; in our newly-bottled 2016 I found aromas of chamomile, mint, and a little chalky minerality. On the palate, soft, rich, and peachy, with a sweet/tangy crystallized pineapple note. The finish was the brightest part of the experience, with flavors of Meyer lemon zest and key lime pie leavening the richness.  We have absolutely no idea how the wine will age, but are looking forward to finding out.

Footnotes

  1. Jancis Robinson, Wine Grapes, HarperCollins 2012
  2. P. Viala & V. Vermorel, Ampelographie, Vol VI, Jeanne Lafitte 1991 Reproduction of 1905 Edition 
  3. Harry Karis, The Chateauneuf-du-Pape Wine Book, Kavino, 2009

Veraison 2017 suggests an early, but likely not record-breaking, harvest

I returned on Wednesday from three weeks away to a significantly changed vineyard landscape. When I left, we were through flowering but many of the grape berries were still pea sized, bright green, and hard. It looked like early summer. Fast forward three weeks and the grapes are much more mature. While almost all the grapes are still green, many varieties are full-sized. The white grapes -- except for Roussanne -- don't look all that different than they will at harvest. And, when I got to the Syrah block, 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. One of the most advanced Syrah clusters shows the beginnings of this color change:

19944260_10155116174572415_3635325097682258526_o

It's important to note that this cluster is exceptional. Even at the top of the hills, most of the Syrah clusters are green. Go even halfway down the hills (where it's cooler, since cold air sinks at night) and there's no color change to be found. And as for the other grapes, only in Mourvedre could I find even a hint of veraison, and that took some searching. The cluster below is about the most advanced I could find:

20170721_103051

Although it may seem like wineries mark veraison as a moment, it's probably better understood as a continuum, with the percentage of berries that show the telltale signs. By that measurement, I'd say we were 5% through veraison in Syrah, 1% through in Mourvedre, and 0% in Grenache and Counoise. So, we've got a ways to go. But still, when we first note veraison is one of the five major signposts in the vineyard year, each of which helps us know how it compares to other years. Veraison is the third, after bud break and flowering, but before first harvest and last harvest. 

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 13th, and combined with a very warm August to produce our earliest-ever beginning to harvest, just 36 days later. The last ten 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 ? ?

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 August 25th and September 7th. If I had to lay bets, I'd guess we start toward the early end of that range, given that it's been a very warm summer so far and we've already made up ground from bud break that was two weeks later than 2016. 

What's next for the vineyard? We'll watch the different grapes go through veraison. Syrah and Mourvedre will be followed by Grenache soon, and Counoise a bit later. The white grapes have already started veraison -- though it's not something easily shown in photographs -- with Viognier and Vermentino well underway and the others soon to follow. It's an exciting time, with the view changing practically daily. I'll be posting regular photos of veraison's progress on our Instagram page. 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.

So while veraison doesn't herald anything immediate, it's still a significant milestone. The timer has been set, and we now know -- roughly -- how much time is on it.


Grapes of the Rhone Valley: Clairette Blanche

Terret Noir isn't the only new grape that we're getting to explore right now. In that same batch of imports, we brought in a white that is fairly widely planted in the Rhone Valley but new to California.  Clairette Blanche (pronounced Kleh-RHEHT BLAHNSH) is a grape that was once one of the most widely planted white grapes in the south of France, and while acreage has declined, is still used in a variety of ways, including as a component of the Rhone's best-known sparkling wine.

Clairette lithoHistory
Clairette is an ancient grape, first mentioned in the historical record in 1575 and famous as a component (along with Picpoul Blanc) of the renowned Picardin white wine that was widely exported from the Languedoc in the 17th and 18th centuries.1  Then, as now, it was valued for its adaptation to hot, dry climates; it can be picked early to show freshness and minerality, or can be left on the vine for a richer, more alcoholic result. As recently as the late 1950s there were more than 34,000 acres planted in the south of France, and while acreage has declined to some 6,000 acres now, it is still a major component of the white wines in the Rhone, the Gard, the Var, and the Drome.  In Chateauneuf du Pape, it is the second-most-planted white variety after Grenache Blanc, with about 175 acres planted2 and is actually enjoying a bit of a moment right now, with a growing number of Chateauneuf-du-Pape producers turning to it to produce wines with more freshness and minerality.

Although it is rarely acknowledged as a varietal wine in France, it is the only variety permitted in the appellation Coteaux de Die, in the Drome region east of the city of Valence. Curiously, it is not the lead grape in the sparkling wine "Clairette de Die", which must be at least 75% Muscat. Up to 25% Clairette is permitted, and it is used to provide "elegance and finesse" to the otherwise intensely floral Muscat grape.3

Clairette Blanche's name is somewhat redundant, as "claire" means clear, fair, or bright, and "blanche" means white. There is a pink variant (Clairette Rose) that is not widely planted, so much so that for most French winemakers, they simply refer to the white version as "Clairette". For the Francophiles out there, Clairette is one of very few French grape names that is feminine.  Most grapes are masculine, and the white variant is "Blanc". Because Clairette is feminine, the adjective white becomes "Blanche".

In 2003, we decided that we wanted the complete collection of Chateauneuf-du-Pape varieties, and took field cuttings from Beaucastel of the seven grapes we had not yet imported. Clairette Blanche was one of these.  It spent seven years in quarantine at U.C. Davis before being released to us in 2009, propagated, and in 2010 planted in a half-acre block at the extreme western edge of our property.  Our first release of Clairette off of these vines came in 2014.

Clairette Blanche in the Vineyard and Cellar

Clairette Blanche is relatively late-budding, and therefore less vulnerable than most of our white grapes to the spring frosts that are the chief weather hazard we deal with each year.  It grows vigorously and very upright, and produces large, oval grapes. Its upright growth pattern means that it can be head-trained (and typically is in France) but we planted our small block double-cordon on trellis.  It ripens in the middle of the harvest season, after grapes like Viognier, Marsanne, and Syrah, and typically right as we're finishing Grenache Blanc and starting Grenache Noir.

As this grape is new to us, in 2015 we experimented and picked our block twice: once in mid-September (at 21° Brix and a pH of 3.6) and once late in the month (at 22.8° Brix and a pH of 3.9). We found that the grape lost more than it gained with the later harvest, picking up some additional richness but at the cost of the citrusy expressiveness we liked from the earlier picking.  To give more richness to the earlier picking, this year we fermented Clairette in neutral oak and stirred the lees regularly, and feel like this treatment gave us the best of both worlds: freshness and expressiveness, but also richer mouthfeel.

Clairette

As we do with our new varieties whenever we're in our first few years of production, we have bottled our Clairette Blanche on its own in 2014, 2015 and (just last month) 2016. That said, we expect it to ultimately be a blending grape most years. We were excited to be able to source in 2016 some Clairette from a nearby vineyard to include in the 2016 Patelin de Tablas Blanc. It's only 3% of that wine, but its citrus character fits in nicely with the Grenache Blanc that leads the blend, and its modest alcohols moderate the higher-sugar Grenache Blanc and Viognier components.

Flavors and Aromas
Clairette Blanche is quite pale in color (it name means "clear white" after all), and on the nose reminiscent in many ways of Picpoul; in our newly-bottled 2016 I found aromas of pineapple, key lime, and mint. In the mouth, it stands right on the edge between sweet and tart, with flavors of kaffir lime, green plum, and lemongrass. The finish is clean and slightly nutty, with an anise note. If you are interested in trying it, we will be releasing our 100-case production of the 2016 Clairette Blanche at the end of the month.

Footnotes

  1. Jancis Robinson, Wine Grapes, HarperCollins 2012
  2. Harry Karis, The Chateauneuf-du-Pape Wine Book, Kavino, 2009
  3. Clairette-de-Die official Web site, June 2017

43" Of Rain: The Good, The Bad, and What It Means for the 2017 Vintage

By Jordan Lonborg

As of now I am sure you are all aware of the phenomenal winter we experienced in California. The snow pack in the Sierras is record setting. Lakes and reservoirs are at capacity in the northern two-thirds of the state. Mammoth Mountain is expecting to be open through July (and possibly the entire year). Lastly, our beloved Senior Assistant Winemaker, Chelsea Franchi, will reach her personal goal of skiing 40 days this season (you read that right) even as a weekend warrior.

The Rain

Lake Ramage
The lake on our new property has been dry since 2012... but has water now.

At Tablas Creek, we received close to 43" of rain this year. There are reservoirs that are still full in our Adelaida region that I didn't even know existed. Until April, there were spots in the vineyard where water was literally bubbling out of ground squirrel burrows. Las Tablas Creek, the seasonal watershed from which we get our name, hadn't flowed since 2012, but started in December and didn't stop until three weeks ago. It was a rain season that will be remembered by those who live and work in the Adelaida for years come. After 5 years of intense drought, what does this mean for our vineyard?

Amazing Vigor in the Vineyard

Viognier
The bushiness of this Viognier block is out of control!

This is only my second summer as Tablas Creek's Viticulturist, so my history here is limited. That said, vigor is vigor. It is unmistakable. Schooled or not, novice or expert, anyone could walk into the glorious property that I am fortunate enough to call my office and recognize the extreme growth that is occurring at this moment. If you were to stretch out some of the shoots in our Viognier, Syrah, and even our head trained Grenache, they may remind you of NBA Finals hero and the Warriors' own Kevin Durant and his wingspan (if you are unfamiliar with my line of reasoning, I urge you to look him up. He defies human anatomy). Some canes are easily ten feet long. We have pulled wires up twice in some blocks and still it feels as if you are walking in downtown NYC and its endless sky scrapers. This is true even with varieties (like Viognier, pictured right) where you're normally thrilled with modest vigor.

Jordy Vermentino Leaf
A Vermentino leaf, with baseball cap for scale. Normally leaves are barely half this size.

One of my favorite quotes is from a local vineyard consultant: "as vineyard managers we aren't farming vines or even fruit, to be successful, we farm leaves." Forty-three inches of rain makes growing leaves easy. During the growing season, the canopy acts like a solar panel. As the vines go into dormancy post harvest, the chlorophyll within those leaves is drawn back into the plant and is stored as energy for the following season. But until harvest, these leaves are the engine that drives the vines' ability to ripen fruit.

Fruit Set Looks Good
I was worried that the cool spring we've had would mean that the fruit clusters wouldn't develop properly. Physiologically, a grapevine relies on many factors to develop the pollen tube required for proper fertilization of each berry. But in general, cold weather is bad news. A chilly May -- when most of our early grapes are in bloom -- in 2015 produced painfully low fields in some varietals. Pollen tubes were not able to develop quickly enough, and the result was widespread shatter: berries that were not fertilized and therefore fell off the rachis (stems). But it looks like we largely avoided shatter this year, as we apparently tiptoed above the temperature line that can be so disastrous during that crucial period in May. Fruit set looks good.

Unusually High Mildew Pressures
So, vine vigor is through the roof, we have had had a great fruit set, all is good right? If only farming was that easy! With the good comes the bad. Extreme vigor in a vine means extra shoots and leaves (canopy), and all this growth can create the perfect environment for a fungal disease known as powdery mildew. Mildew isn't usually a huge problem for us, because by the time we have significant canopy growth, our daily high temperatures are above the range (70-85F) where mildew thrives, and it's usually so dry that all fungal diseases struggle to get established. Unfortunately, these are the exact temperatures that we have seen in the Adelaida since bud break, and all the moisture in the ground has meant that evaporation has given the mildew spores enough moisture to get established.

Powdery mildew can  affect both leaves and fruit. Some varieties such as Syrah, Tannat, and Mourvèdre are fairly resistant. Others like Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, and Grenache Noir are fairly susceptible. Heavy infestations require fruit drop to prevent the disease from spreading. Realizing the conditions were perfect, we knew the threat of powdery mildew was on our doorstep and we have been diligent in protection. As a certified organic property, we have used all available tools allowed (various oils and forms of sulfur) to protect and have been extremely successful in doing so.

As of now, we have found only a couple of very small pockets of of the fungus and have treated accordingly. Here's an area where the longevity of the team at Tablas Creek pays off. David Maduena, Vineyard Manager at Tablas Creek since the 1990's, has such a deep understanding of where the outbreaks occur, literally to the vine, that he can know with confidence where to look. It's an amazing asset.

More Shoot (and Cluster) Thinning Required
Just because the vine has lots of vigor and wants to set lots of crop doesn't mean that we will let it. If we were to just let the vines go, we would be allowing a micro-climate to form within the canopy creating a breeding ground for the aforementioned fungus. Vines will always push non-count buds that are in between positioned spurs. More often than not, the shoots will not have fruit on them. It is imperative that we go back through the vineyard as early as possible to remove these shoots to create space and airflow through the canopy. There has been so much vigor this year (read: so many extra shoots) that the removal of this growth is taking twice as long as it should in some blocks. This sets off a chain reaction. By spending more time in one block, we are delayed from entering another block that needs to be thinned. The longer you wait to thin, the more energy each vine wastes on shoots that will be removed. In another year, we could have hired extra crew to supplement our full-time team. Unfortunately, with this year's labor shortage in California, our ability to do so has been limited, and we're still playing catch-up.

Shoots are not all we are removing. We will have to thin more fruit this year as well, in order to make sure the grapes the vines produce have good concentration, and in order that vineyard blocks ripen as evenly as possible. (A vine with 20 clusters will ripen them more slowly than a vine with 10 clusters, which makes picking decisions difficult.) Typically, we like to limit our vines to two clusters for each shoot, or 12 clusters per vine for most of our trellissed blocks. For vines that may be diseased and have shorter shoots, we may thin to 1 cluster per shoot. This year, there are blocks on the ranch that are carrying three clusters per shoot! We are in the process of removing the clusters, which is easily one of the hardest decisions for any farmer.

The Future: Groundwater
Up until this point, the vines are largely working with the water that's in the topsoil. And that's been plentiful. But as the summer progresses, what will be important will be how well the water has made it down into deeper layers. This is our own small reflection on the importance of groundwater, which is hands-down the biggest ongoing water issue in California. Are the basins recharging? I cannot speak for California or our neighbors, but as far as Tablas Creek is concerned, our water table has jumped from 48 ft. when we first dug one of our wells in the middle of the drought to 27 ft. as of today. That is a considerable jump. Water has clearly percolated.

Prognosis
We are excited about the prospects of an extremely wet year. Yes, it has its challenges. We will need to be more diligent in controlling our yields, and in watching for mildew. We are a bit behind in getting the cover crop turned under and the vineyard looking manicured. But it's a pleasure to have these be the challenges we're facing, instead of the challenges of the last five years, where we were wondering how to keep the vines going until they can finish ripening their grapes. With three months to go until harvest, we have every expectation that it will be an excellent vintage.

Long View From Head-Trained Grenache
Just look how healthy everything is!

Grapes of the Rhone Valley: Terret Noir

I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one here at Tablas Creek who thinks that one of the most fun things I get to do is to work with new grapes. In some cases, these grapes are ones that are pretty well known in France, but new to California. There, we have a frame of reference, and what's fascinating is where our versions do (and don't) line up. Vermentino and Picpoul Blanc would fit that category. In other cases, we start working with new grapes that have been little used in France in recent decades, and we get to make discoveries without really knowing whether what we're making is true to what the grape "should" be like. That's a different sort of fun. Terret Noir, which we planted in 2010 and have been harvesting since 2013, fits into that category.

Terret noir lithoHistory
Terret Noir is an ancient grape from the Languedoc, one that like Grenache or Picpoul has three color variants (Terret Blanc and Terret Gris are the others). It is first noted in the historical record in 1736, when it was noted for generous production ("Terret noir: produit beaucoup")1.  Never very widely planted (unlike Terret Gris, which a half century ago showed more than 20,000 acres in Languedoc, much of it used to distill into vermouth) Terret Noir's acreage has declined in recent years, down to some 460 acres in 2008, nearly all in Hérault, the French département that surrounds the university town of Montpellier. Even in Hérault, Terret Noir produces less than 2% of the 900,000 hectoliters of wine the region produces annually2, and is typically blended into the more-planted Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan, Grenache, and Mourvedre.  Although it is one of the permitted varieties in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, it is barely planted there, with just over two acres planted as of 20093.

The grape was valued for its productivity, its freshness, and its moderate alcohols. In his authoritative ampelography from 1910, P. Viala writes of Terret (translation by my dad), "it produced an abundant harvest that could reach 80 hectoliters per hectare [6 tons per acre]. It was prized on the hillsides because, aside from its fertility, it brought qualities of lightness and freshness of bouquet to the strong and acid varietals (Grenache, Espar, etc.), and to which it married perfectly".

In 2003, we decided that we wanted the complete collection of Chateauneuf-du-Pape varieties, and took field cuttings from Beaucastel of the seven grapes we had not yet imported. Terret was one of these.  It spent seven years in quarantine at U.C. Davis before being released to us in 2009, propagated, and in 2010 planted in a half-acre block at the extreme western edge of our property.  Our first production off of these vines came in 2013.

Terret Noir in the Vineyard and Cellar
Terret Noir is valuable in part because it is late-budding, and therefore less vulnerable to the spring frosts that are the chief weather hazard we deal with each year.  It grows vigorously, and produces large, oval, pinkish red grapes that look more like table grapes than they do like a darkly pigmented grape such as Syrah or Mourvedre. Its upright growth pattern means that it can be head-trained (and typically is in France) but we planted our small block double-cordon on trellis.  It ripens relatively late in the growing season, about a week before the very end of harvest each of the last three years. This puts it in timing in synch with grapes like Mourvedre and Counoise.  

At harvest, it is relatively modest in sugars (we've picked it between 21.0° and 21.6° Brix each year) and mid-range high in acids (pH between 3.6 and 3.9). The skins are light in pigment and the berries large, so it is not a grape that picks up much color during fermentation.  In fact, the first year we fermented it, after two weeks it still looked like a rosé, so we kept it on the skins for another week, at which point it hadn't picked up much more color but had accumulated quite a bit of tannin.  We have since gone back to a more normal 2-week maceration, accepting the lighter color but keeping the tannins modest.

Ultimately, we expect this to be a blending grape, and in fact beginning in 2016 will be using it in a blend with Syrah and Grenache (for that full story, see here). In a blend, its spiciness, herby savoriness, and low alcohols provide a moderating effect on the more powerful, deeply fruity Syrah and Grenache, while those darker grapes give to Terret substance.  On its own, as we've bottled it in 2013, 2014, and 2015 vintages, it is reminiscent of pale color, fairly tannic grapes like the Jura's poulsard.

Flavors and Aromas
Terret Noir is pale garnet red, with spicy, lifted aromatics of dried herbs and wild strawberries. On the palate it shows a persistence surprising for such a pale red wine, with crunchy red fruit like pomegranates and red currants, complex notes of black tea and dried roses, good acids, and some grippy tannins on the finish. We have no idea how it will age, and the literature doesn't provide much insight here. If you are interested in trying it, we just released our 2015 Terret Noir, and we hope you'll let us know what you think.

Terret Noir 15

Footnotes

  1. Jancis Robinson, Wine Grapes, HarperCollins 2012
  2. Sud de France WineHub, http://www.suddefrancewinehub.com/en/terroirs/igp-pays-dherault-2/
  3. Harry Karis, The Chateauneuf-du-Pape Wine Book, Kavino, 2009

If you build it they will come: Owl boxes, owls, and gopher management

By Jordan Lonborg

For those of you who garden, have fruit trees, a few grapevines, or even a vineyard, pocket gophers can be your nemesis. They will burrow in your garden, sometimes taking entire plants underground with them. The will feast on feeder roots of young trees and/or vines, killing the plant. A garden, orchard, or vineyard is paradise to the pocket gopher. They have water (from irrigation) and an actively growing root system as a food source. We may have lost close to 500 one-year-old vines last year due to gophers. The most effective way of dealing with pocket gophers is to physically trap and kill them. This process takes practice, skill, and time. Even then, at the end of the day you may find yourself looking like Carl Spackler (Bill Murray from Caddyshack) with holes all over your yard, no gophers trapped, and feeling very frustrated (no C4 please!).

Enter Tyto Alba, commonly known as the barn owl. This raptor has your back. Here at Tablas Creek, as part of our pest management program, we have built and erected owl boxes throughout vineyard in the last two growing seasons. To be exact, on the 120 or so planted acres (10 of which are just rootstock) there are 38 owl boxes! From just about any point in the vineyard you’ll notice the rectangular shaped houses that are painted barn door red with the Tablas leaf painted on all sides. It was my goal to have one box every 100-150 yards throughout the entire vineyard, and we've been putting up boxes steadily over the last two years. Being certified organic, outside of trapping, biological control -- read predators who will eat them -- is our only other option. Note the heavy traffic this one's door has seen:

IMG_4147

Every January, barn owl males go in search for suitable nesting locations. To attract females, they begin bringing back rodents to their nest to prove that they can provide enough food for a clutch, or a family of owls. The females will lay between 6-8 eggs in a season, an eggs every 2-5 days. When the last egg has hatched, she begins hunting with the male until late May or early June when the owlets fledge or leave the nest. With a full clutch and a strong food source, a nesting pair can conservatively take around 500 small vertebrates back to the nest to feed their young. Barn owls are extremely efficient hunters and can be voracious when it comes to consuming pocket gophers and other vertebrate pests. Other than gopher remains, I have found the skulls of ground squirrels, song birds, snakes, and even crows in these. Check out the gopher skull I picked up under the above box:

Image1

If you have gopher issues and are interested in building owl boxes for your property, check out this link for step-by-step directions on how to build your own… I have personally built over 150 of them and they are very successful. The link provides all steps needed. I will happily answer any and all questions; leave them in the comments or give us a call at the winery.

Owls are amazing hunters. But I'm not suggesting you rely solely on owl boxes to solve your pocket gopher issues. Look at barn owls as free labor that work while you sleep.  If you do decide to build a few of your own, I leave you with a quote…. “In the immortal words of Jean-Paul Sartre, 'Au revoir, gopher'” –Carl Spackler aka Bill Murray in Caddy shack


One last gasp of winter amid spring's progress

Over the last week, we've seen what feels like the last gasp of winter.  Two storms have come through, the first dropping about an inch and a half of rain (a lot for April; our long-term average for the entire month is just 1.86") and a couple more are expected this and next week. We've had several other days with significant cloud cover, and two nights where we got down around freezing, though we think we escaped any damage to the new growth.  At the same time, the days are lengthening and the sun is warm, the vines have all come out of dormancy, and we're getting the cover crop turned under where the animals weren't able to do it for us. It's a point in time where the view in any given vineyard block changes daily.  A few photos will give you a sense.  First, one taken on Friday 4/7, during our rainy day, with the cover crop and vines a mix of winter green/brown and summer gold/green:

Misty April 2017

In the areas where the animals last grazed in February (or earlier) the grasses are knee-high and starting to turn gold. This view, with high grass and new growth, is going to be short-lived, as we need to bring the cover crop under control for a variety of reasons.  The winter's heavy rain and its associated risk of erosion are largely in the rear-view mirror. With our always-dry summer on its way, we want to eliminate the vines' competition for the soil's available water. Returning the cover crop to the soil renews the earth's fertility and provides nutrients for the vines to draw on the rest of the year. Finally, it's important to knock down the cover crop to allow the cooler air at the surface to drain downhill rather than having it pool around the vines and cause frost damage. From the head-trained, dry-farmed "Scruffy Hill" block yesterday:

Scruffy Hill April 2017 2

Within a few weeks, all this growth will be turned under and decomposing in the topsoil, while the vines begin their trek toward harvest.  Last April 27th, I spent a morning taking photos on Scruffy Hill.  The difference from the photo above is dramatic, but not likely much different from what you'll see in two weeks:

Scruffy long view

The April rainfall pushed us over 40" and made this winter our second-rainiest ever.  We still have a chance to catch 2004-5, which at 42.85" is our wettest since we installed our weather station in 1996:

Rainfall by winter as of 2017

And yes, if you were wondering, the 2017 vintage is underway. The Grenache vines on Scruffy Hill already have tiny flower clusters forming:

Flower clusters April 2017

I'm sure we'll be sharing many photos in coming weeks and months of the new growth and the 2017 growing season. This is where it all begins.


Picture Tells a Thousand Words: Animal Edition

We are just finishing the time of year in which we can safely have our animal herd out in the vineyard. With the continued progression of budbreak, even our latest-sprouting grapes are starting to push buds. Leaves are not far behind. So, we've moved the animals to two vine-free sections of the property: the new parcel on the other side of Tablas Creek, and a smaller area in the middle of the vineyard where we pulled out some struggling Syrah and Roussanne vines, and which we are letting lie fallow this summer.

Still, it's not hard to see the impact of the animals on the blocks in which they spent time, particularly at the fence lines which mark the dividers between grazed and ungrazed areas. I snapped a photo of one of these borders yesterday, halfway up the hill of Mourvedre that's behind the winery:

FullSizeRender-7

Five days ago, the entire hillside looked like the prairie. Now, the bottom dozen rows (beginning at the middle of the frame above) look like they've been neatly mowed. It took the animals just two days to graze their enclosure down to a few inches. They spread manure throughout the block. And we didn't have to use an ounce of fuel or a single tractor pass to accomplish either goal.

This is the second time this winter that this block has been grazed by our flock; we moved them down the hillside in January. So, even the tall grass on the uphill side of the fence line is regrowth after an initial grazing, fueled in part by the fertilizer left behind on the animals' first pass.

It is this efficiency -- that we can use natural processes instead of artificial ones -- that makes Biodynamics so appealing. We're creating a more complete, more resilient ecosystem by building biodiversity, and saving ourself the costs (and side-effects) of having to buy (and spread) fertilizer, and of having to drive through the vineyard (and compact the soil with a tractor) mowing. The other benefits -- better water retention, no erosion, more topsoil, and the occasional lamb chop -- just tilt the cost/benefit calculation further in the right direction.

I drive by a few vineyards each day on my way into work whose soils look dead. Between the herbicides they use to keep weed growth down and the soil compaction created by the tractor work, even this winter's ample rainfall couldn't make grasses grow. The difference between soils like that and what you see above couldn't be plainer. Do you think this difference will impact the grapes that grow there, and the wines that result? You bet it will.


Budbreak 2017: A Return to a More Normal Time Frame

After our very wet beginning to 2017, I was hopeful that we'd see a delayed start to the growing season, at least compared to the past couple of years.  But after a chilly beginning to March, including frosts 5 out of the first 7 nights, we got a very spring-like two-week stretch starting March 8th, with sun, no frost, and consistent days in the upper 70s and low 80s. So, it wasn't a total surprise when I got a photo from our viticulturist Jordan Lonborg with a photo of a sprouting Grenache Blanc vine on March 13th:

Budbreak 2017

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.

Budbreak isn't uniform. Different grape varieties sprout at different times, just as they ripen at different times.  On a ramble out through the vineyard today, there were several grapes that were out significantly, including Grenache Blanc (unsurprisingly), Viognier, Vermentino, and Grenache (below):

Budbreak 2017_grenache

By contrast, our later-budding grapes like Roussanne, Counoise, Mourvedre and (this year, at least) Syrah are still mostly or entirely dormant. This Counoise block is just down the hill from the Grenache block I photographed above, without a green sprout in evidence:

Budbreak 2017_counoise

While this year is two weeks later than our record-early 2016, it's still on the early side historically: tied with 2014 and 2015 as our second-earliest in the last ten years:

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

Weather_west 2017 tempsWhy was this year still relatively early, when other recent wet years like 2010 and 2011 were two weeks or more later? It turns out that this winter, while it was wet, wasn't really that cold. Normally, in California, the two go together, as the clouds that bring the rain also limit the ability of daytime temperatures to rise out of the 50s. But most of our storms this winter were relatively warm, of the "pineapple express" or "atmospheric river" variety originating in the South Pacific waters near Hawaii. And most of the cold weather came early, with 32 of our 41 below-freezing nights coming November-January. The graphic to the right shows that most of San Luis Obispo County was on the warm side of average, historically. (It, and a great explanation behind the data, come from Daniel Swain's must-read blog Weather West.) Click on it for a larger view.

While budbreak always feels hopeful, it also comes with a certain degree of risk. Dormant vines can freeze without danger, but new growth is susceptible to freezing; April frosts cost us roughly 40% of our production in both 2009 and 2011. And we can receive frosts here in Paso Robles all the way into early May. So far, we've avoided anything damaging, and the medium-term forecast doesn't look too threatening. But we've still got more than a month to go before we can feel safe.

Still, it's hard to feel too apprehensive when there is so much life springing into visibility around you. Please join me in welcoming the 2017 vintage.


January set the table for a wet winter. February brought us home.

At the end of January, I wrote a blog announcing that January 2017 had become our wettest month ever.  But at that time, we were only at 23.88" for the rain year (July-June), which while better than in recent years was still below our 20-year average, albeit with nearly half the rainy season still to come. I concluded that while we were very happy with what we'd received so far, "we've got a long way to go to climb out of the hole the last five years of drought has put us in".

February continued the winter's remarkable attack on our long-term drought, adding another 12.56" of rain to the tally, roughly 250% of what we'd get in an average February. By month:

Winter Rainfall 2016-17 March

How rare are back-to-back 10+ inch rain months?  Since our weather station went in during the summer of 1996, this is the first time.  In fact, we've only once before had two 10+ inch months in a single rain season: December of 2010 and March of 2011.  Otherwise, the closest we've come to these back-to-back wet months was a 13.5" month in December of 2004 followed by a 7.5" month in January of 2005, en route to our wettest-ever year at 42.85".  At 38.41" winter-to-date, we're not far from that now:

Winter Rainfall 1996-2017

You can see the impact of the 30" inches we've received (!) in 2017 in ways both more and less obvious. The vineyard is wet, with springs welling out of many of our hillsides. Las Tablas Creek is running cheerfully through its valley, for the first time since spring of 2012:

Tablas Creek Valley

The lake, which the previous owners made by damming up the creek, which we have visions of tapping to help with our frost protection in the spring, is full for the first time since 2011, complete with ducks:

Lake Ramage

The drought is significantly ameliorated, according to the United States Drought Monitor. In fact, San Luis Obispo County is almost entirely free of drought, upgraded to the lowest "abnormally dry" classification, when at the beginning of the fall it was split between "severe drought", "extreme drought", and "exceptional drought":

Drought monitor changes - v2

So, are we truly out of the woods? I wouldn't go that far. There are still enormous pressures on groundwater. While out here aquifers recharge quickly, compared to most other California regions, it's still early to declare us free from worry. I know that we're going be as careful as ever in how we develop our vineyard. The water in the ground will certainly give the head-trained, dry-farmed vines we're planting this winter on our new property an easier go of it. And we're unlikely to need to irrigate even the close-spaced established blocks this growing season. That's all good. But this year's wet winter doesn't change the likelihood that our climate is going to be gradually getting warmer and drier with climate change.

While we're grateful for all this water, we've also been happy to have the sun in recent days. The ground is so saturated, and so soft, that until the last 10 days or so it's been impossible to get into the vineyard to prune. We're still behind, but making good progress, and feel confident that we'll get everything done before budbreak.  I like this panoramic shot, taken between two Mourvedre rows where our crew left off at lunchtime: pruned, uphill on the left, and as-yet-unpruned, downhill on the right. Click on it to expand:

Pruned Unpruned Panorama

About that budbreak. At this time last year, we'd already seen budbreak in several of our early-sprouting grape varieties. This year, we've been having frosty mornings for most of the last two weeks, which combined with the water in the soil, seem to be convincing the vines to stay dormant a bit longer.  It seems likely that we're going to be back to a more normal start time to the growing season -- late March or early April -- rather than the exceptionally early beginning that we've seen the past few years. That is comforting. But as to whether it insulates us from a damaging frost, we'll have to see.  We've been lucky to avoid frosts these last few years, despite the early onset to the growing season. But the last two years which produced bad frost events (2009 and 2011) both saw late budbreak, in April rather than March.

Is it possible that a cold spring, which leads to a late budbreak, may also put you more at risk for a post-budbreak frost? It doesn't seem far fetched. But we'll still take every dormant night that we can, and shorten the frost season as much as possible. Fingers crossed, please, everyone.