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