Our Skeptic's Embrace of Biodynamics

Back in 2010, I had the pleasure of listening to John Williams from Frog’s Leap Winery speak at the Yosemite Vintners Holidays.  Although the focus of his talk was on how underrated “off” vintages are with some age (or, if you prefer, how the tendencies which lead most writers to rate a vintage highly can often make the same wines short-lived) the conversation soon turned to his thoughts on Biodynamics, of which he has been one of California’s most vocal proponents.  His take was that most of the things that receive focus for Biodynamics (think cow horns and lunar cycles) were little more than distractions, and what mattered in Biodynamic farming was that doing so reestablishes a plant’s ability to make sense of its environment and self-regulate.  I found the whole talk fascinating.

In the last seven years, spurred in part by what I learned at John’s talk, we have been increasingly incorporating Biodynamic elements into Tablas Creek’s farming practices. We’ve been organic since our inception, and certified since 2003, so it wasn’t as though we needed to make a massive move away from chemical-intensive agriculture.  But Biodynamics still requires a shift in mindset from organics.  Organics tends to look for non-chemical alternatives to the chemical herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers that define modern industrial farming. And that’s a worthy effort. But Biodynamics, which begins with the assumption that you have eliminated chemical interventions already, is much more concerned with creating environments that are self-regulating, where even non-chemical interventions are mostly rendered unnecessary.

170309-APP-104_wOur flock at work in the vineyard (photo credit: Brittany App)

So, we introduced our herd of sheep and alpacas into the vineyard. The animals fertilize naturally with their manure and graze down cover crops so we need to make fewer tractor passes to eliminate weeds. We started interplanting fruit trees and herbs, leaving sections unmowed, and planting other sections with flowering herbs, to attract and retain a diverse group of insect species that help control pests and keep soils alive and vibrant. We increased from a dozen to 39 owl boxes, to control gophers. We built beehives and captured a wild swarm to help preserve this valuable resource. And we redoubled our efforts to produce our own compost on site from our prunings and the grape must left over from fermentation, both to spread on the vineyard and to make into compost tea, to spray on the vines to combat mildew.

Orchard at Tablas Creek 2One of the hundreds of fruit trees we've interplanted in the vineyard

We made these changes partly because it made sense to us from a resource management standpoint – why not try to make our farm unit as self-sufficient as possible – but also because the idea of putting as little as possible from the outside onto our vineyard appealed to our ideal of terroir: the character of place that, reflected in wine, is the holy grail of winemakers around the world. We figure that the less that goes onto the vineyard that originates elsewhere, the greater the chance that we can allow the signature of our own land to show.

Budbreak and Wildflowers 2Lupines are some of the native wildflowers we encourage to grow between the vines

In the last seven years, as we’ve incorporated these new practices, I have come to believe that you can separate the tenets of Biodynamics into three broad sections. I list them in what I think is the order of their importance, which just happens to be the inverse order of what most laypeople (and maybe more important, mainstream wine journalists) tend to focus on with Biodynamics:

  • A broad subset that is basically just really good farming. This includes the prohibitions on chemical interventions (to preserve biodiversity and ensure that your soil is able to break down raw materials into nutrients your vines can process). And the efforts to turn a monoculture into a polyculture (to ensure a healthy diversity of insects and microorganisms in the soil and to ensure habitat for the natural controls for pests). And the focus on composting (to turn the by-products of your farming into nutrients for your crops).
  • Another broad subset that includes the micro-additions of Biodynamic preparations. This is where the cow horns come in. For example, some preps are made by packing various natural products (such as manure, or silica) into the hollows of the cow horns, letting them mature for some time. Other preparations are made with botanicals, such as stinging nettles, horsetail, or chamomile, which are then composted, fermented, or dried.  Whatever the preparation, when applying it to your vineyard, you dilute it massively in water before spraying the resulting solution onto your vines. I think it’s safe to say that none of these actions will harm your crops, and they probably do a small amount of good. How much good can they do, when the prescription is to dilute 25 grams of manure in 13 liters of water (a ratio of 1:520)? Or 1/4 teaspoon of stinging nettle in 1 gallon of water (a ratio of 1:3072)?  I have my doubts, although chemical reactions can happen at much lower concentrations than this. But at least, I’m confident any impact these actions have on the vineyard are going to be positive.
  • A subset relating to the Biodynamic calendar. Here I think things are on tenuous ground. While it is incontrovertible that the moon, at least, does have some impacts on Earth (think the tides), the moon’s gravitational pull on Earth is roughly 1/300,000th of the pull of the Earth. Might it impact things like sap flow? I guess, in a tiny way. But I have to think that the lunar impacts will be dwarfed by the other stimuli a vine is receiving from things like length of daylight and soil temperature. And as for picking, I think it’s even harder to make a credible case that what’s going on in the heavens is going to make a difference in the characteristics of the fruit you pick. On the other hand, waiting for the calendar (published months in advance) to tell you when to pick can cause some damage if you’ve ignored the weather, say, during a heat spike. I think that all this is really best ignored.

So, when we decided to pursue Biodynamic certification late last year, we didn’t know whether the powers that be at Demeter (the international organization that administers and protects the Biodynamic trademark) were going to view what we were doing as sufficient, or whether we’d learn that we’d need to make significant (and perhaps unwelcome) changes to our practices in order to qualify.  We ended up deciding that if we needed to make changes in order to qualify for certification that we felt would jeopardize our vineyard or our wines, we wouldn’t lose much. After all, we’d done what we’d done so far without certification.

FoliageOne of our 39 owl boxes that help attract the gopher's most effective natural predator

But it was still tremendously encouraging to learn that Demeter itself had come to the conclusion that if a winery focused on the elements that I grouped together in the “really good farming” bullet above, and made a credible effort at those I classified as “micro-additions of Biodynamic preparations” it was good enough for them.  And so, we moved forward with the certification process.

And I do believe in certification. I think it’s great that many growers (and farmers) are pursuing organic or Biodynamic practices without any goal of becoming certified. The more people who are farming in an Earth-friendly way, the better. But at the same time, certification gives an outside validation that your practices aren’t lip service, and are being applied consistently and rigorously.

So, it is with pleasure and pride that I announce that Tablas Creek Vineyard is now Biodynamic certified. That includes the grapes we grow, the olives, eggs, and the vegetables in our staff garden, and even the lamb that we harvest a few times a year from our flock.

If this makes you happier about your choice to consume Tablas Creek, that’s great. If it doesn’t make any difference, that’s fine too. We’re confident that the proof is in the bottle.

Biodynamic Certification


Harvest 2017 Recap: Fast Start and Finish, Solid Yields, and Plenty of Concentration

Last week, with the threat of our first rainstorm on the horizon -- key word here is threat, as it didn't pan out -- we brought in the last lingering blocks of Mourvedre, Roussanne, and Counoise.  And then, all of a sudden, we were done.  Sure, there are a few lots we're still waiting for, as they sit concentrating on straw in our greenhouse. But the picking, at least, is through. No wonder our cellar crew was ready to celebrate:

Lunch on day of last pick

The harvest came in two large waves, with a significantly less busy stretch in between.  The first surge was kicked off by a record heat wave that sent temperatures soaring over 102°F nine days in a row in late August and early September, and included the majority of our purchased grapes for the Patelin de Tablas wines.  The slow interlude corresponded with nearly three weeks of temperatures more than 5°F cooler than normal. When, by early October, things heated up again (modestly this time) most of the late-ripening grapes on our estate were nearly ready, and we had a pretty continuous run between October 2nd and October 19th, picking 16 of 19 days in that stretch. You can see the double-peaked workflow in the chart below. In the chart, blue is purchased fruit for the Patelin program, and orange estate grown fruit:

Harvest by Week - End

Yields were the best we've seen since the twin vintages of 2005 and 2006, up about 20% from 2016. On the one hand, this should be unsurprising, given that we got good rainfall last winter after five years of drought. But you still never know, and midway through the summer, we were all thinking that harvest was going to be at average or slightly above average quantities.  To have it among our most productive vintages ever was somewhat of a surprise. The complete picture:

Grape 2017 Yields (tons) 2016 Yields (tons) % Change vs. 2016
Viognier 18.9 14.2 +33.1%
Marsanne 13.8 4.5  +206.7%
Grenache Blanc 46.4 30.6 +51.6%
Picpoul Blanc 9.7 7.7 +26.0%
Vermentino 22.2 19.0  +16.8%
Roussanne 41.7* 47.0  -11.3%
Total Whites 152.7 123 +24.1%
Grenache 73.1 58.8  +24.3%
Syrah 41.5 36.8  +12.8%
Mourvedre 72.9 62.7  +16.3%
Tannat 20.5 12.3  +66.7%
Counoise 18.8 18.0 +4.4%
Total Reds 226.8 188.6 +20.3%
Total 379.5 311.6 +21.8%

Overall yields ended up at 3.62 tons per acre, about 20% above our ten-year average.  Other years in which we've seen yields around 3.5 tons per acre have included 2005, 2006, 2010, and 2012, which includes some of our favorite vintages. Like 2005 (the vintage that this reminds me the most of) this year followed a multi-year drought, and the obvious health of the vines suggested that they were able to ripen the relatively healthy yields with concentration and character.

*If you're wondering why Roussanne has an asterisk, there are two reasons. First is that there's still a little Roussanne concentrating in our greenhouses, to be added to the total. It won't amount to much (a ton, more or less) but it's there. The second reason is that it's worth noting that at least some of the decline comes because we pulled out an acre or so of Roussanne this winter. We also pulled out a couple of acres of Syrah, but the Syrah total is augmented by the fact that the year before, we grafted over about two acres of Roussanne to Syrah.  So, Roussanne has seen a bit of a double-whammy in recent years. We'll be planting some more Roussanne soon.

Another way that you can get a quick assessment of concentration is to look at average sugars. Since 2007, the average degrees Brix and pH:

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
2017 22.87 3.74

You'll note that 2017's sugars saw a rebound after the lower levels in 2015 and 2016. This is a sign of the health of the vines. The higher pH levels seem to have been a result of the stress that the early-harvest heat wave produced, as well as a reflection of the overall warm summer.  In the 2017 growing season, only May was cooler than average, with April, June, and July particularly warm.  Overall, 2017 was our second-warmest year ever, just a hair cooler than 2014 and about 10% warmer (measured in degree days) than our 20-year average. The chart below summarizes (October's information is for the first 19 days, as we picked our last significant block on October 19th):

2017 Degree days vs Average

We picked even more lots this year (124) than last, and we ran out of space on our harvest chalkboard.  Note the number of times that you see Roman numerals after a pick, particularly toward the end of harvest: those are the blocks that we picked multiple times:  

Full Harvest Chalkboard

The duration of harvest -- 54 days -- was exactly at our average this millennium. Both the beginning (August 30th) and the end (October 23rd) were a little earlier than our average since 2000, but not by much: about 4 days.  That said, we started later than we have since 2012, and finished later than 2013, 2014, and 2016. The fact that 2017 saw a later budbreak than recent years pushed everything into a more normal time frame than we've seen recently, but it was still a warm year.

In character, it's early to tell what things will be like, but so far, we're excited. I asked Winemaker Neil Collins to sum up the vintage based on his tastings, and his response was, "full, and great structure, and lovely acidity... just what we wanted it to be."  Given that Neil, like most winemakers, tend to focus on the shortcomings they see in the immediate aftermath of harvest, this is a pretty resounding endorsement.  We'll know more, of course, in coming weeks.

The last project for us for harvest 2017 is to make our first Vin de Paille "Sacrérouge" since 2014.  This traditional dessert wine-making technique involves drying newly-harvested Mourvedre clusters on straw, and only pressing and beginning fermentation when they have reached our desired level of concentration -- typically around 35° Brix -- after 2-3 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]. The Mourvedre we'll be using for this project is currently sitting on the straw, and we expect to bring it in and start fermentation later this week. 

Vin de Paille Mourvedre

Now that the fruit is in, it's welcome to start raining any time.  Meanwhile, we're enjoying the autumnal views of the vineyard without having to worry that the cooler nights and the likelihood of future precipitation -- our first chance, it appears, may come as early as the first few days of November -- might negatively impact our harvest.

Foliage


Harvest at the Three-Quarter Pole: A Return to a More Normal Time Frame, with Solid Yields

Late last week, we welcomed our first major picks of Roussanne and Mourvedre into the cellar.

Roussanne in tank

Mourvedre in tankAnd with that, the home stretch of harvest officially began. There will be a lot of harvest chalkboards that look essentially like this one over the next couple of weeks:

Harvest chalkboard Roussanne and Mourvedre

Where we are, one week into October, is remarkably similar to where we'd expect to be, if we were predicting at the beginning of the year.  We're done with early grapes like Viognier, Vermentino, Syrah, Marsanne, and Grenache Blanc.  We're mostly done with what we consider mid-harvest grapes like Grenache and Tannat.  And we're just getting into our late grapes, Mourvedre, Roussanne, and Counoise.  Given that we're comparatively heavily planted in these late grapes, we still have more fruit out than many of our neighbors.  Still, we expect to be harvesting pretty steadily for the next two weeks, and to be done before the end of the month.  If this seems late, it's likely a matter of perspective, because most of our recent years have been early.  While 2013, 2014, and 2016 were all done by mid-October, our average finish date of harvest this millennium has been October 29th.

With the first complete blocks harvested, we've been able to get the animals back into the vineyard.  Right now, they're in the head-trained vines on our Scruffy Hill block, visible from Vineyard Drive if you're coming in from the south:

Animals back on Scruffy

Although we're where we'd expect to be in the harvest sequence, it hasn't always been smooth getting here.  Harvest began with a significant heat wave that sent temperatures soaring over 102°F nine days in a row.  We then got nearly three weeks of temperatures more than 5°F cooler than normal. In the last two weeks, temperatures have been more or less normal for the season, without any noteworthy heat waves, and with only one day significantly cooler than normal, a bizarrely chilly October 3rd where the sun didn't break through the fog until noon and the day topped out at 64°F:

Avg Temps 2017 vs Normal Sept Oct

For the month of September, we had 11 days warmer than seasonal averages, and 19 days cooler than average.  Even with the heat wave that began the month, our average high was 86.3°F, two degrees cooler than average. These cooler days allowed the vines to recover from the stress of their early-season heat wave, and allowed the cellar to free up tanks and get ready for the next push.  A graph of the harvest by week shows the ebb and flow. Normally, you'd expect a sort of bell curve, with thin tails at the beginning and end and the busiest weeks in the middle.  Not this year:

Harvest by Week

In terms of yields, with a significant number of grapes done, things are coming into focus.  It looks like yields are up from 2016, and a bit above average for the first time since 2012.  The varieties we've finished harvesting are up an average of 32.9%, with the most noteworthy recovery from Marsanne, whose yields had been so depressed by the five years of drought that we were getting less than one ton per acre last year:

Grape 2017 Yields (tons) 2016 Yields (tons) % Change vs. 2016
Viognier 18.9 14.2 +33.1%
Marsanne 13.8 4.5  +206.7%
Grenache Blanc 46.4 30.6 +51.6%
Picpoul Blanc ? 7.7 ?
Vermentino 22.2 19.0  +16.8%
Roussanne ? 47.0  ?
Grenache 73.1 58.8  +24.3%
Syrah 41.5 36.8  +12.8%
Mourvedre ? 62.7  ?
Tannat 18.3 12.3  +48.8%
Counoise ? 18.0 ?
Total so Far 234.2 176.2 +32.9%

Even with the higher yields, sugars are up a bit this year, which is a sign of the health of the vines.  Thank you, rainy winter!  The growing season, the yields, and the character and numbers of the grapes at harvest remind us most, so far at least, of 2005: also the first wet year after a string of dry years, with a long growing season and a relatively cool harvest period.  We aren't likely to go as late as we did that year -- November 7th -- but if we get a similarly robust vintage, we'll be happy. 

Meanwhile, we'll enjoy the last couple of weeks of grapes on the vines. By the end of the month, we'll have to wait another year for views like this:

Counoise on the vine early October


Why Paso Robles is So Well Suited to Late-Ripening Grapes

This morning, when I got back to the winery after a week on the road, my first order of business was to check in on how harvest was going. I was happy to learn that things picked up a bit last week. After more than two weeks of chilly fall weather, it had warmed back up, with eight days of perfect ripening weather: daytime highs between 83°F and 93°F, and lows between 41°F and 51°F.

And still, when I asked Chelsea how she was feeling, she responded, "this is definitely the first October 1st I can remember where we haven't been stressing about tank space."  Although harvest picked up from the glacial pace it was in mid-September, we are still waiting on most of our Marsanne, Roussanne, Mourvedre and Counoise.  Why? Blame the cold nights. Here's Neil, this morning, next to our first pick of Mourvedre. It was 52°F at 8:30am:

Neil looking chilly

We're used to this here, but most of the Mediterranean world is finishing up harvest about now. Beaucastel's Facebook page (for example) shows that they brought in their last fruit on September 29th:

It's not like this year is an outlier for us, either.  Over the last 15 years, we've averaged a last pick off the estate on October 29th, and our earliest-ever finish was October 7th in 2013.  Six times in those 15 years we were still picking in November. 

To explain why grapes take so long to ripen in Paso Robles, I'll have to detour briefly into some basic plant physiology. Bear with me here, or just skip to the end of the bullet points if you'd like the conclusions without the chemistry. There are a number of different processes which limit a grapevine's ability to photosynthesize at low temperatures. These include:

  • The tendency of plants to close their stomata (pores in the leaves) in response to cold, limiting respiration and the uptake of CO2
  • Carboxylation (sorry for the long, technical term) is the first stage of photosynthesis, whereby CO2 molecules are turned into an acid known as 3-PGA. Carboxylation efficiency declines as temperature declines
  • The electron transport capacity of plants is reduced at low temperatures
  • An enzyme known as Rubisco, essential to the first step of carbon fixation in photosynthesis, is inefficient at low temperatures

So, in essence, at cold temperatures, plants take in less CO2 and are less efficient in turning the CO2 that they do take in into the starches that fuel both plant growth and fruit ripening.  Grapevine ripening proceeds most efficiently between 30°C and 35°C (86°F and 95°F).  It drops dramatically below 25°C (77°F), and reaches zero at 10°C (50°F).  A summary graph from a technical paper published in Plant, Cell, and the Environment shows the combined effects pretty clearly:

Figure-7-CO2-saturated-maximum-rates-of-photosynthesis-meanSE-of-Semillon-leaves-as

For context, take a look at the temperature curve for the most recent 24 hour period:

Temperature C by Hour early October

You can see that while it did get warm, topping out around 30°C (86°F) yesterday afternoon, it only lasted until sunset just after 6pm.  By 8pm it was already down to 20°C (68°F). It bottomed out at 6.4°C (43.6°F) at 6am and wouldn't rise back up above 20°C until noon today.  So, over the last 24 hours, our vineyard spent 5 daylight hours over the 25°C temperature at which photosynthesis happens efficiently (2pm-6pm yesterday). Five other daylight hours (9am-1pm today) saw temperatures at levels where some photosynthesis can happen. Two daylight hours (7am-8am today) saw no photosynthesis at all because it was too cold.  And for 12 hours the sun was below the horizon. 

We are far from the only, or even the most extreme, location in Paso Robles.  The temperature grid from the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance shows other areas that dropped near freezing last night.  Most show diurnal temperature swings of 40°-50°F. 

Temperature Grid October 2nd 2017

So, what does all this mean? That once you get into the end of the growing season here in Paso Robles, it's hard for grapevines to do too much photosynthesizing. That's a benefit, because you can get the last little bits of ripening on your late-ripening varieties slowly, so they continue to build complexity without accumulating too much sugar.  In general, the longer your grapes can stay on the vine before they get to the ripeness levels you want, the more complexity your wine has.  That's why a generally accepted bit of wine wisdom says that the best examples of different grape varieties can be found at the northern limit of their ripening range. So, the best Sauvignon Blancs tend to come from the Loire, and not Bordeaux. The best Pinot Noir tends to come from Burgundy, and not the Languedoc.  And the best California Chardonnay tends to come from cool coastal pockets where the fog slips in from the Pacific, not from the Central Valley.

Of course, at some point, you do need to get things ripe.  Grapes that don't make it to good ripeness produce wines that are green and bitter: no one's idea of a pleasurable drink. But here too Paso Robles has an advantage: that we don't tend to get our first serious rain until mid-November.  If we need to wait, we wait.

Hopefully, this particular waiting game is over for a while. But if it's not, I'm still confident we'll be OK. Thanks, Paso Robles.


A cool interlude slows down Harvest 2017 as we reach its mid-point

Ten days into the 2017 harvest, our winery crew was looking harried. Seven consecutive 105°+ days produced an avalanche of fruit. Right as we were genuinely wondering what we would do if the heat kept up, the weather broke, and now, two weeks later, it still hasn't really put itself back together. Take a look at our high temperatures compared to seasonal averages:

Avg Temps 2017 vs Normal

Since the heat wave broke on September 4th, we've had only two days above our seasonal averages, and the average high (84.1°) has been more than five degrees cooler than we'd expect.  At first, there was a bit of a backlog of fruit ready to pick, but by the time we got to this past weekend, we were back in waiting mode:

Harvest chalkboard interlude

To have a slower period like this in mid-September is a luxury. We've been able to free up tank space ahead of the next wave of fruit we know will be coming, and we've been able to spend a lot of time out in the vineyards testing, waiting for the right moment.  And the pace really has slowed.  After 110 and 142(!) ton weeks to start harvest, last week saw just 54 tons arrive at the winery, and we've only picked 16 tons so far this week.  

So, with 322 tons received, we're at or just past the mid-point on our harvest, based on our estimates. And now that we've finished picking some of our early grapes, it gives us a chance to assess where yields are compared to what we'd expected and compared to other years.  And things look solid. The 19 tons of Viognier we picked was up about 33% compared to 2016.  Vermentino (22 tons) is up about 15%. We're not quite done with Syrah, but the 33 tons we've picked is close to last year's 37 tons. The 4.7 tons of Marsanne we picked is almost identical to last year's 4.5 tons, though still very low.  Overall, I'm guessing we end up slightly up from last year's numbers, but not by much.

The cellar has been its usual dance, with fruit coming in (albeit at a more moderate rate) while other tanks are fermenting away and yet others are being pressed off to make space. One fun consequence has been that we have Grenache Noir, Grenache Blanc, and even Grenache Rose fermenting at the same time.  Check out the colors:

Three colors of grenache

The colors aren't only inside the winery. Outside the vineyard, it's starting to look -- as well as feel -- like fall.  As the vines start to lose chlorophyll, the autumn oranges and reds come out.  It's more dramatic on some grapes than others, but Syrah and Mourvedre are particularly lovely.  This Mourvedre vine is from right outside the winery; anyone coming to visit in the next few weeks should see a scene very much like this:

Mourvedre head trained

So, where are we, at harvest's mid-point?  Largely done with our Patelin picks, with the exception of some Mourvedre and a little Grenache and Syrah. Off our estate, we're done with our early whites (Viognier, Vermentino, Marsanne) and mostly done with Grenache Blanc and Syrah. We've made a start on Grenache, and today got our first Tannat into the cellar. Next week, we'll turn in a serious way to Grenache, and maybe get started on the later-ripening Roussanne, Mourvedre and Counoise.

It feels somehow appropriate that we've filled in the left-hand column of our harvest chalkboard. With the forecast set for it to warm back up next week, it feels like we can dispense with the halftime entertainment and get on with the second half.

Chalkboard Sept 21

We'll be back for the second half kickoff, after this break.


Harvest 2017 Update: A Start Like an Avalanche

Many years harvest starts gently, with a pick every few days as our vineyard and cellar crew ease into harvest. Not in 2017.

Harvest 2017 Bins of Grenache

On August 25th, we brought in the first Viognier grapes for our Patelin de Tablas Blanc. August 29th saw the Pinot Noir come in from my dad’s property in the Templeton Gap. And then, on August 30th, the floodgates opened. We got the first pick of Viognier off our own estate, and the first Grenache Blanc for the Patelin Blanc, more than 17 tons combined. The next day saw more Viognier for Patelin Blanc and our first Vermentino and Syrah off the estate, 13 more tons. The first day of September saw 50 tons enter the cellar, one of our busiest days ever: three different Syrah blocks off our estate, plus Grenache Blanc for Patelin Blanc and Grenache for Patelin Rosé. September 2nd (a Saturday) brought in 20 more tons of Viognier and Grenache. Sunday the 3rd was a much-needed day of rest, but Labor Day Monday was a labor indeed, with 29 more tons, evenly split between Syrah for the Patelin red and Viognier, Syrah, and Grenache off the estate.

All told, just over one week into harvest, we’ve brought 147 tons of fruit into the cellar. How unusual is that? It’s unprecedented. Looking back over our last several harvests, I don’t see a single week where we brought in over 100 tons.  And it’s even more unusual for so early in the harvest season; look at how much fruit we harvested in the first ten days the last decade:

Tons of Fruit by Harvest

Now there were a few vintages in here with smaller crops (2009, 2011, 2015), and before 2010, we didn't have as much early fruit because the Patelin program -- mostly based on earlier ripening grapes like Grenache Blanc, Viognier, and Syrah -- didn't exist yet. But still, that's quite a beginning. What caused this avalanche of fruit? A ten-day long stretch of some of the hottest weather Paso Robles has recorded.  For the nine days beginning August 25th and ending September 2nd, the lowest high temperature we recorded at the vineyard was 102.3°F. Seven days topped 105°, and we reached a scorching peak of 111.5° on September 2nd. During this period, seven different days broke the all-time record high for that day at the Paso Robles Airport.

It's not that 100+ days are unusual in Paso Robles. We average about 15 of them per year. But to have so many, back to back, right as the grapes are approaching ripeness, has a dramatic impact.

You might well be wondering how the vines held up through this heat wave. The answer is really pretty well. The overall health of the vineyard, thanks to the generous rainfall we received last winter and the ongoing focus on soil nutrition provided by our vineyard team and our Biodynamic program, has been outstanding. The canopies are notably lusher than in recent years, with some blocks looking like jungles. All this leaf area helps shade the clusters and keep them from singeing in the blazing sun. And it helps the vines photosynthesize. In other years, when we’ve seen hot stretches, the vines shut down photosynthesis to conserve water, and the only progress you see – if you can call it progress – comes from the grapes dehydrating, when sugars and acids both rise as water evaporates, while seed and skin tannins stay green. At the extreme, this can produce wines that are tannic, alcoholic, and green: not a good combination.

But this year, we saw ripening continue (and in fact accelerate) through the heat wave. Sugars went up, acids came down, seeds turned from green to brown, and flavors developed nicely. What was remarkable was the rate at which this happened, with some blocks jumping 1-2° Brix a day. So the windows in which we needed to pick to have grapes in balance were shorter. In conditions like these, you have to have the capacity to get the fruit off the vines as it ripens, and be prepared in the cellar for them all to come tumbling in at once.

And tumble it did.

It’s probably not a coincidence that I fielded three separate inquiries from journalists last week about whether we were able to find the picking crew we needed. Farm labor is, after all, scarce in California anyway, between the high cost of living and the competition with other crops. And the hostile turn the national immigration climate has taken in recent months has added additional stresses.  I have never been more grateful for the decision that we made back in 1996 to give our field crew year-round employment. And yet even with the fruit we contract for as a part of the Patelin program, our growers have been able to find the picking crew they need. So while everyone I talk to is concerned about the future availability of vineyard crew, it seems like for this year at least, it's not yet at a crisis point.

The quality of what has come into the cellar looks good. Sugars are a touch higher than we’ve seen in recent years, with Viognier and Syrah both coming off the vineyard between 24° and 25° Brix, whereas in recent years 22-24° Brix was more normal. But acids are good, balance seems on point, and the flavors are luscious and focused.

Despite the heat-accelerated first week, the start to harvest was not that early. An August 30th beginning off the estate is almost exactly what I projected a month ago, and less than a week ahead of our long-term average. This comparatively normal start time (after several years of mid-August beginnings) is thanks in part to the later beginning to the growing season from the wet, relatively cool winter, and in part to the cool stretch that we saw in mid-August. It’s hard to remember now, given the week long inferno we just experienced, but between August 14th and August 23rd our average high was 82°F and our average low 53°F, with some genuinely fall-like days.

Looking forward, we’re hoping that things slow down a bit now that the heat wave broke on Monday.  Typically, at harvest time, the cooler interludes allow us some breathing room, in which we can press off lots and free up the tanks filled during the previous hot stretch.  This week has been moderate, with days in the upper 80s and nights in the 50s. The long-term forecast predicts more of the same. That's absolutely fine with us.

Meanwhile, if you see a winemaker out at a bar in the next few days, buy them a drink. They’ve earned it.


Photos of each Rhone grape as harvest nears, and an updated harvest assessment

I've spent a lot of time the last week or two out in the vineyard. Some of that is because I was gone for a chunk of July and wanted to make sure that I understood what had happened in my absence. Some of that is because we've had several visitors who wanted to get their shoes dusty and see where things really come from. And part of it is that we're close to (maybe just a day or two away from) launching a beautiful new mobile-responsive Web site, and I've been looking for great images to populate the site with.

One of the results has been an ongoing Twitter thread where, each evening, I've posted one close-up cluster photo, working through all the grapes we have growing in the vineyard. That's been fun, but now that I have them all, I thought it would be fun to share them all here on the blog. We have a larger portfolio to work with than we did the last time I did this (in 2014). This year, our three newest grapes, Terret Noir, Clairette Blanche, and Picardan, are ready for their photo ops. So, without further ado, in the order we expect to pick:

Viognier

We expect to get our first estate Viognier into the cellar this week.  It's looking ready, berries are softening, and it's sweet. And the vines themselves look bursting with health, with some canes ten feet long. Off we go!

Viognier

Vermentino

Vermentino, with its distinctive coloration and citrusy aromas, typically vies with Viognier for first into the cellar. This year, it seems a little behind, but we should still see it the first week of September.

Vermentino

Syrah

We expect to get our first Syrah in a couple of weeks. This cluster (whose photo I took two weeks ago) still shows a couple of green berries, but in my walk this morning I didn't see any green in Syrah, and the berries were starting to soften. With this week's hot weather, we're not far out. 

Syrah

Marsanne

We're looking forward to better yields off our Marsanne, which have been punishingly low the past two years. This year's crop looks better, and the honeydew melon flavors that come through in the wines already in evidence in the berries. We're likely to see this mid-September:

Marsanne

Grenache Blanc

Grenache Blanc will likely take a while to pick, given that we have it planted in a number of different places and that how advanced it is seemed pretty variable to me as I walked around the vineyard.  We'll likely start in early September, but might not see it all in until the end of the month:

Grenache Blanc

Clairette Blanche

Clairette ripens typically in the middle of the cycle, and we'll expect it in late September sometime. But it already looks good, with the acidity that makes it so valuable as a blending component in evidence: 

Clairette

Grenache

Grenache is always surprisingly late to go through veraison, and even now, a week after I took the photo below, it's not hard to find pink berries in the Grenache blocks. At the same time, they've already accumulated a fair amount of sugar, and Grenache seems to take less time than most grapes between full veraison and harvest. We should see our first Grenache lots in mid- to late-September, but our last lots not until mid-October. 

Grenache

Picardan

I'm guessing a bit here, given that we've only harvested Picardan once.  But it came in fairly late last year, and we expect to bring it in right at the September/October cusp most years. 

Picardan

Tannat

Tannat is easy, in lots of ways. It is relatively late to sprout (protecting it from our spring frosts), it's sturdy and rugged in the vineyard, it ripens evenly, and it harvests right in the middle of the cycle, typically in early October.

Tannat

Terret Noir

We're still learning about Terret, but given that it tends to be high in both acid and tannin, and low in sugar, we try to wait it out. We should be getting it in in early October.

Terret

Picpoul

Picpoul, which gets its name from the root word for "to sting" is renowned for its ability to retain acidity. And our climate and soils here in Paso Robles exaggerate this tendency. So, as nice as it looks in this photo, we're a long way from when we expect pick it in early- to mid-October.

Picpoul

Roussanne

Roussanne is a little like Grenache Blanc, in that we'll likely pick it over a month or more.  I expect that we'll see our first "cherry pick" lots of the ripest clusters before the end of September, but might not see the last lots until late October.

Roussanne

Counoise

The cluster below is unusually advanced for the vineyard; our average Counoise cluster is only about 50% through with veraison.  And it doesn't hurry even after it's done; we expect to wait until mid-October to pick.

Counoise

Mourvedre

We have a lot of Mourvedre out there, in various stages of ripening.  Some, like the photo below, are mostly through veraison.  Others are still half green. And even once it's through veraison, Mourvedre takes longer than any of our other grapes to get to ripeness, so we probably won't see the first picks until early October, and the last until late October or early November.

Mourvedre

A quick note about this week's hot weather and an updated vintage assessment

Although we've brought in a little fruit for our Patelin de Tablas program (well, only Viognier for the Patelin Blanc so far), we haven't yet picked anything off the estate.  But given that it's forecast to reach 105 every day this week, things are going to move fast.  It's not ideal to have this blast of hot weather during harvest, but we think the vineyard is as well prepared for it as it could be, given the health of the vines and the vigor from last winter's generous rainfall.

Even with the speedup spurred by the heat, we're still looking at our latest onset of harvest since 2012, and nearly two weeks later than our earliest-ever start, last year.  My assessment that we were going to start about a week earlier than our 15-year average (September 4th) seems right on target.


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:

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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