Budbreak 2016: Our Earliest Ever

Yesterday, I got out in the vineyard to hunt for signs of budbreak. It has been an exceptionally warm, sunny February, with weather we'd more associate with April.  And as I suspected, the vineyard had noticed.  Please join me in welcoming the 2016 vintage:

Budbreak 2016 - 1

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.  If you're thinking that this seems early to be talking about budbreak, you're right.  We have never before seen budbreak in February.  Last year, I wrote about our then-earliest-ever budbreak on March 16th (though it was maybe a week more advanced than what I saw yesterday).  To give you a sense of where 2016 fits within the context of recent years, I went back to look at when we first noted budbreak each of the last eight years:

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

Although budbreak is still limited to Viognier (our earliest budding variety) and to the warmer tops of the hills, we know it won't be long before the other grapes join in.  I expect to see Grenache, Grenache Blanc, Vermentino and Syrah in the next week or so, followed by Tannat, Marsanne, and Picpoul a week or two later.  We likely won't see the late-budding Counoise, Roussanne, and Mourvedre until the second half of the month, and sections toward the bottoms of our hills (where cold air settles at night) maybe not for a little while after.

While budbreak is a hopeful sign, it's also the beginning of a period of increased risk.  During winter dormancy, the vines are not susceptible to damage from below-freezing temperatures. Once they've pushed new growth, they are.  Because we can receive frosts here in Paso Robles all the way into early May, this means we have at least two months of white-knuckle nights to get through.  We've been fortunate in recent years, with our last damaging frost in 2011.  It seems very unlikely, given the earliness of this year's start to the growing season, that we'll continue our run of good luck.  That said, a late budbreak is no guarantee of safety, and in fact may be an indicator of increased risk, since it was likely cold weather that delayed the budbreak in the first place.  Both 2011 and 2009 (our two recent frost years) saw April budbreaks, which were followed in short order by frosts that cost us something like 40% of our crop.

Looking forward, we have something of an unusual weather pattern developing.  Later this week, our string of warm, dry weather will be ending, and conditions more typical of El Nino will be setting back in.  This morning's agricultural forecast suggests that the jet stream will direct a series of strong, wet, not too cold storms toward California starting this coming weekend.  Early predictions are that we could receive several inches of rain in the first two waves Saturday and Monday.  What's more, they're using one of my favorite California weather terms to describe the long-term forecast: that the "storm door will stay wide open" through the middle of March.

As long as we're receiving these sorts of storms fueled by the relatively warm waters of the south Pacific, we're likely to be at little risk of frost.  If it's enough to make a good dent in our groundwater deficit, that would be a double bonus of massive proportions, and make the sharing of photos like the ones below more joyful and less terrifying.  I'm all for that.

Budbreak 2016 - 2

Budbreak 2016 - 3


Establishing Deep Roots - Q&A with Vineyard Manager David Maduena

By Lauren Phelps

It was with great pleasure that I sat down with Vineyard Manager David Maduena to find out more about his 24-year career at Tablas Creek.  David is the longest-tenured member of our team, beginning as a part of our first crews working to establish the nursery and vineyard programs.  He's normally a man of few words, and it was a treat to find out more about him and to learn from him how Tablas Creek has changed in the almost quarter-century he has been here.

David3_800
I found a filing cabinet full of old photos, still on slides.  This one is David circa 1994.

Where were you born and raised?

I was born in Durango City, Mexico and lived there until I was 15 years old. I came to Paso Robles when I was 15 and lived with my parents and siblings.

Can you tell me a little about how you started working at Tablas Creek?

I started working in the local vineyards all around the area- a week or two here and there. I helped plant and add irrigation lines to Mount Mourvedre in 1992. I began working permanently here in 1993 when we started building the quonset huts and expanded the nursery project. [Editor's note: we published an archive of photos from those early years, one of which shows David manning a backhoe for an early irrigation trench, late last year.]

What is your general vineyard management philosophy?

I always look to do the best for the vineyard. I deal with a lot of different things in the vineyard from gopher control to managing a crew of between 7 and 30 people and I just try to keep everything in control.

What do you think about organic farming?

I think organic is good, it helps to not put a lot of chemicals in the soil- everything is natural so you’re not killing the soil, you’re helping it. And it’s better for the crew, they don’t have to wear special protective gear to keep them safe.

What’s your biggest challenge as a Vineyard Manager?

The biggest challenge is to take care of everything out there. I have to deal with a lot of different people and it’s not easy to find a good way to talk to the crew. Some supervisors are mean to the workers but that’s not good for them and not good for us.

How do you spend your days off?

I like to play soccer or basketball with my kids. I have 7 kids and they are always playing something. I spend most of my time off with my family.

If you weren’t growing wine grapes for a living, what would you be doing?

I went to school to learn to become an electrician or I’d like to do welding. I think that would be fun and I have some skill for those things.

What do you like about working at Tablas Creek?

I like working with nice people that’s the main thing. I feel comfortable here.

How do you define success?

Success to me is to make progress in life. You start from the bottom, like I did. I was just a normal worker, now I’ve been here so many years that they trust me and made me a Vineyard Manager and now I have more responsibility and take care of the whole place. I think that is success.

DavidFamily


Photos of the Day: Hand-Grinding Quinces

We've picked all our grapes, and our olives.  The stone fruits like peaches, nectarines and plums are long past.  The vineyard is largely dormant after several frosty nights last week, and the cover crop sprouting.  But there is one type of fruit tree that still had fruit hanging: our quinces.  A quince, if you haven't had one, looks like an oversized, lumpy lemon, but tastes like a tart, crunchy apple.  In texture, it's harder and less juicy than an apple.  Quinces are a part of the same family as apples and pears, and have some resemblances to each, but they are honestly not great eating solo, so are typically used in one of two ways.  You can juice them, and either enjoy the taste -- like freshly pressed cider, but zestier -- or ferment it into a sparkling cider.  Or you can cook them down into paste or jelly, at which point it's a great accompaniment to cheeses.

Both of these seem like good ideas to us, so we'll try splitting our production between the two uses.

Of course, we only have two trees, so we're not talking about industrial quantities here.  Cellar Master Craig Hamm brought in the hand-cranked press that his family used to make homemade apple cider, and he and Gustavo Prieto spent a good chunk of the morning grinding up the pieces of quince by hand:

Pressing Quinces

Looking down into the mouth of the grinder produced a cool image, like spun gold.  You can see the pieces of quince at the bottom, being slowly ground up:

Quince grinder

Because of the woody texture of the quinces, all this was a lot of work.  But the results -- once Gustavo has cooked down the quince mash, and once Craig and the cellar team have fermented the roughly 5 gallons of juice -- will hopefully be worth the effort.  

By the way, if you're wondering what we're doing growing two quince trees, they are a part of our biodynamic program. We've spent the last several years building as much diversity as we can into the vineyard.  Viticulturist Levi Glenn, who oversees the program, wrote a super introduction a few years back: Animal Farm: The Benefits of Biodiversity in the Vineyard.

As for the quinces, stay tuned!


Harvest 2015 Recap: Mourvedre and Roussanne (somewhat) to the Rescue

The last two days, we picked the last batches of Roussanne off of our estate.  This makes in one case six passes through a single block, harvesting what's ripe, leaving the rest to ripen a bit more, and repeating every week or two.  In a year like 2015, when yields are so low that you treasure every single grape, the extra investment is worth it.  And, it seems like this extra care has been warranted, as our latest-ripening grapes have turned out to be the ones whose yields are down least.

Last Pick Chalkboard

Two weeks ago, before the Counoise, Mourvedre and Roussanne harvests were quite done, it looked like every grape was going to be down between 40%-50%, as we'd seen in the earlier varieties.  But these last three grapes came in much better, down 19%, 9% and 2% respectively, which leaves us overall with an estate harvest that's down 27.6%: serious, but better than the 40%+ that we'd feared.  The details:

Grape2014 Yields (tons)2015 Yields (tons)% Change
Viognier 11.4 6.3 -45.1%
Marsanne 9.9 5.9 -40.3%
Grenache Blanc 31.9 22.0 -31.0%
Picpoul Blanc 7.5 5.0 -33.0%
Vermentino 17.3 8.7 -49.4%
Roussanne 42.8 42.0 -1.8%
Total Whites 120.8 89.9
-25.6%
Grenache 50.7 30.7 -39.5%
Syrah 38.1 21.4 -44.0%
Mourvedre 52.3 47.5 -9.1%
Tannat 15.4 9.8 -36.6%
Counoise 17.0 13.7 -19.4%
Total Reds 173.5 123.1
-29.0%
Total 294.3 213.0 -27.6%

We had speculated at the beginning of harvest that while the drought was playing a part, a big piece of the lower yields on the earlier-sprouting varieties was the cool, wet, windy May that impacted these grapes' abilities to set fruit during flowering.  The weather in June, when Counoise, Mourvedre, and Roussanne flowered, was benign.  Knowing that these grapes were down roughly 10% while the earlier grapes were down an average of 40% suggests that in fact the majority of the blame should go to the May weather rather than to the four dry years.

Overall yields off our estate ended up at 2.01 tons per acre, which is (barely!) our lowest ever, just a hair below the 2.03 tons per acre we saw in 2009's drought- and frost-reduced crop.  If the intensity is comparable to 2009, then we're in for a treat when we get to the blending stage this spring.

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

YearAvg. SugarsAvg. 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

I think that in this measurement is where you see the largest impact of the drought.  The sugars look more like the cool years of 2010 and 2011 than they do like the warmer years we've seen before and since.  And, of course, until late August, this year was actually cooler than our 10-year average.  For a more graphical look at how the 2015 vintage progressed, take a look by month at the accumulation of degree days out here at Tablas Creek.  As you can see, we alternated between warmer-than-average stretches and cooler-than-average stretches:

2015 Degree Days vs Average

The difference between normal and 2015 is even more dramatic when you look at it as a percent change.  May saw fully 30% fewer degree days accumulated than our eighteen-year average, October so far has been more than 40% above normal, and only June was within 10% of normal:

Temp Pct Chg vs Average

The above graph gives a hint as to why we think we saw relatively modest sugars for our latest-ripening grapes. While warm weather is good for ripening, hot weather actually causes the vines to shut down photosynthesis, and you don't get the same sugar accumulation you do when it's more moderate. We had three separate heat spikes at the end of the ripening cycle.  Hence our last two lots of Roussanne, which despite an exceptionally long hang time averaged only about 19° Brix. Yet the flavors were good, the grapes and clusters looked good, and we expect to find a happy home for all the lots we brought in.  A few Roussanne clusters, from last week, illustrate the russet tinge that gives the grape its name:

Roussanne Clusters

I mentioned at the beginning of this piece that we had gone multiple times through even more of our blocks than normal, to maximize our quality while getting as much yield out of this reduced crop as possible.  We will keep these lots separate until we start to consider our blending options in the spring.  And boy will we have a lot of options.  You can see on our harvest chalkboard that around the end of September, Madeline (who maintains this chalkboard) realized that because we were picking so many blocks multiple times we were ending up with enough lots to warrant doubling up lots per line.  Even so, she ran out of space in mid-October:

Final Chalk Board

In character, it's early to tell what things will be like, but the combination of very low yields and moderate sugars/acids suggests we are working with a vintage unlike any we've seen in our recent memories.  Clusters and berries have been very small all year, which means that skin-to-juice ratios were high on our red grapes.  Flavors should be intense.  Some of the last-harvested lots of Mourvedre illustrate:

2015-10-13 15.04.57

At 63 days between its August 26th beginning and its October 28th conclusion, this harvest clocks in at a week longer than average (our 10-year average is 56 days) and about average in terms of start and finish dates.  This is a far cry from many growers to our south, who started and finished nearly a month ahead of us.  I'll have some additional thoughts on what made Paso's experience of the 2015 harvest unique in an upcoming blog.

I had speculated mid-summer that our dry-farmed, wide-spaced blocks looked like they suffered less in the drought than our traditional trellised, close-spaced blocks.  And it looks like this turned out to be the case, as we got 13.90 tons off of our Scruffy Hill picks, down less than 1% compared to last year's 13.94 tons.  Our other head-trained, dry-farmed blocks showed a bit of a decline, down 9.8% to 17.32 tons, but still held up better than the closer-spaced blocks.

Now that the fruit is in, it's welcome to start raining any time.  We've been preparing the vineyard for this rain, seeding our cover crop, spreading compost, and putting out straw in areas that might be prone to erosion.  A storm that looked like it might hit this week dissipated before it got here, but there's another in the forecast for early next week.  Bring on el nino.


We Help the Vineyard Don Its Autumn Coat

This is the time of year when things start to slow down enough that you take new stock of what's around you.  Harvest is mostly done (look for more on this later in the week).  The days are getting quite short, and the nights notably cooler.  The quality of the light changes with the lower sun angles, with richer yellows to the sunlight.  And the vineyard is responding, with the vine leaves losing chlorophyll and the yellows, oranges, and reds emerging for their brief autumn before everything fades to brown with the first frost.

A Mourvedre vine will give you an idea.  We're done with our harvesting here, although as you see there is the occasional second-crop cluster remaining.  These will provide treats for our animal herd as we get them back out in the vineyard.

Mourvedre colors_med

Though the bright green of summer fades in all cases, not every grape's foliage colors up so dramatically, as you can see from Roussanne, below, which turns more yellow than red.  Roussanne is the only grape for which we have any significant crop remaining on the vines:

Roussanne banner_mid

Even as we finish up this year's harvest, we're getting the vineyard ready for winter. This means seeding the cover crop that will hold the soil in place during our (hopefully) torrential el nino rains this winter, and putting out the compost that we've been making all year.  The compost spreader, poised and ready:

Compost Spreader_mid

It hasn't come close to freezing yet -- our lowest nighttime low this fall has been 42° -- but we typically get our first frost night sometime between late October and mid-November.  These frosts are a good thing for the vines, in that they force them into dormancy. Right now, relieved of their crop and with warm sun still available, many of our vines (like the Tannat vine below) have started growing new leaf growth at the end of this year's canes:

Tannat regrowth_med

In this climate, a grapevine's late-season growth serves no purpose, as the energy and carbohydrates needed to fuel the new growth will be lost at first frost and would be better stored in the root system for next spring.  So, bring on our chilly nights.

As for the weather outlook, we've had some cool, unsettled weather over the last few days, including 0.08" of rain on Thursday (we posted a video of one of these cloudbursts on our Facebook page) and daytime highs in the mid-70s.  It's supposed to warm up a bit over the next week, before a series of fronts start to weaken California's high pressure and are predicted to eventually open California to the westerly rain-bringing winds.  If all goes as planned, we'll welcome our first winter storms around Halloween.

I'll leave you with one final photo, which feels to me even more fall-like than the others.  I took it near our straw-bale barn, in the bowl at the center of our vineyard.  We have trained the Mourvedre vines there up high to allow cold air (that in the spring can bring damaging frosts) to more easily drain underneath them.  One second-crop cluster remained, among mostly-brown leaves and a nascent cover crop.  Soon enough, the whole vineyard will look like this:

Fall Mourvedre Cluster_med


We wind toward the close of a high quality but painfully low-yielding 2015 harvest

I snuck out yesterday morning to get some photos of the ever-diminishing portions of the vineyard that still have grapes on them. One block that I particularly wanted to see was Syrah, given that it was scheduled to be picked in the afternoon.  It was looking suitably autumnal:

Last Syrah pick

We're pretty much done with everything except Roussanne and Mourvedre, and even Mourvedre is more than two-thirds picked.  This week we'll be cleaning up the parcels we've harvested already, going through to get the bottoms of the hills, the cool pockets, and the slightly less ripe clusters we left behind on our main picks.  After that, we'll just be waiting on Roussanne, which is doing its normal late-season swoon, with leaves turning yellow and ripening slowing to a crawl.  It will get there, but it will take its time.  Overall, we're probably about 85% done.

It is clear to us now that our hopes for near-normal yields on our late grapes like Roussanne and Mourvedre will not come to pass.  They may be down a little less than the 50% reduction we saw in early grapes like Syrah, Vermentino, and Viognier, but they'll still be down something near 40%.  This will make the 2015 harvest our smallest ever in yield per acre, and our smallest estate harvest in tonnage since frost-diminished 2001, when we had 45 fewer acres in production.

I'll have more details in an upcoming harvest recap, but we're already conducting triage, doing our best to figure out what we're going to do to adjust to the tiny yields.  Grapes we're used to having comfortably enough of to include in a wine club shipment and still have a few hundred cases to sell after (think Vermentino) won't even make enough to get a bottle to each club member.  We'll be making a lot less Dianthus rosé (and by a lot less, I mean like 85% less) because (firstly) the red grapes don't need any further concentrating at 1.5 tons per acre, and (secondly) we felt that dedicating the 3800 gallons we'd need to make the same 1600 cases of Dianthus we did in the 2014 vintage would leave us unable to make many of our red wines.  As I said, triage.

Still, there are three saving graces at the moment.  First, we feel lucky to have gotten reasonable quantities of wine (down only slightly compared to normal) in both 2013 and 2014, and it's becoming increasingly clear to us that those two vintages are the best back-to-back vintages in terms of quality in our history.  Second, we have the Patelin de Tablas program, and we've been able to find some terrific additional sources for all three colors and keep our production more or less where we wanted it. Third, the quality of the 2015 vintage looks comparable to the last two years.  If there's not much of it, at least it will be stunning.

One last photo, of Mourvedre sheltering under its canopy.  Not long now, and photos like this one will be history, for another year.

Mourvedre on the vine


Harvesting under the stars

By: Lauren Phelps

I arrived at the vineyard today at 4:00 AM in the crisp morning air to photograph the "night harvest" of one of our last blocks of Mourvedre.  Our crew used only head-lamps and the lights from the tractors to harvest which was challenging to photograph and made for some very interesting and rewarding shots.  

Group Tractor Row

Row Pick

Toss_cube

I found our 17-person harvest crew deep in the vineyard at a newly planted block of head-trained, dry-farmed Mourvedre on the parcel we call Cross-hairs. This block was part of an experiment that we're excited about, using some very old-fashioned, deep-rooting rootstocks in high stress parts of the vineyard.

Head Trained Sunrise

This block of about 3 acres (there are also 3 acres of Grenache) was planted in 2013 and is now on its third harvest (in vineyard jargon, "third-leaf"), which is the first year you expect to pick any fruit, though only a small amount even in the best of situations, which 2015 has not been.  Given the drought and our low yields overall this harvest, we were pleased that the crew was able to pick about 3/4 of a ton. The quality looks excellent!

Leaf_cube

Just as the crew was finishing up the sun began to rise over the mountains.  What a treat!

Fruit In

This is our third year harvesting in the very early morning.  Night harvesting is great for the fruit; picking them at lower temperature protects them from oxidation and allows the fermentation to start more gradually and predictably.  It's also better for our harvest crew than picking in the heat of mid-day.

I absolutely love getting out into the vineyard for these photo excursions; I felt like a National Geographic photojournalist on-site documenting an ancient, rarely seen event.  And it's true, it is not very often that we get an in-depth look into the process of harvesting, especially in the dark.  I feel honored to witness and become a part the crew that is responsible for hand-harvesting the fruit that will soon become the next vintage of Tablas Creek wine.


The man behind the beard: Q&A with Winemaker, Neil Collins

Editor's Note: This interview begins a series that we hope will help readers get to know the key people at Tablas Creek a little better. We're starting, appropriately, with Winemaker Neil Collins, who has made every vintage of Tablas Creek except 1997, when he was working at Beaucastel. If you have questions for Neil, please leave them in the comments.

By: Lauren Phelps

Neil is the Executive Winemaker and Vineyard Manager at Tablas Creek Vineyard and a busy man. He also makes the wines for his own label Lone Madrone, which is run by his sister Jackie and his wife Marci, and a growing line of traditional styled hard apple ciders (Bristols Cider) which you can taste at his new cider bar in Atascadero.  Neil’s blend of respect for tradition and willingness to experiment is integral to the spirit of Tablas Creek. We were proud to learn that he was named 2013 San Luis Obispo County Winemaker of the Year in an award voted on by his peers. 

I recently sat down with Neil and asked him a few questions about his life, what brought him into the wine industry and his vision for the future of Tablas Creek.

Winemaker Neil Collins Summer 2012

Neil, can you talk a bit about where you were born and what brought you to the States?

I was born and raised in Bristol England, the south-west of England. At that point there weren’t any vineyards, not really anyone making wine, a lot of wine was being consumed but traditionally it was not a wine country, now there is a lot of good wine and cider. I came to the States just to visit my sister Jackie in Santa Barbara for a six-week vacation and I never really left.


Can you tell us about how you met your wife Marci?

So when I ran out of money on my vacation and had to get a job I started working in the kitchen at a restaurant my sister opened with some friends of hers, it was called the Paradise Café in Santa Barbara. Then six months after I started working there, Marci started working in the kitchen and that’s where we met, we met in Paradise.


What began your interest in working with wine and what were your first experiences?

I was working in restaurants and began getting intrigued by wine and its production. The original intent was just to do a year in the cellar; harvest to harvest, to learn so I could understand wine better for the restaurant business. After the year long stint, I just kept going.  I started with Wild Horse during the 1991 harvest because the building at Adelaida was still in construction, so even though I got my job offer from Adelaida, I worked one harvest with Ken Volk at Wild Horse. Then after harvest in January of 1992 I moved to Adelaida where I stayed until March of 1997 working along side John Munch.  Then I went back to England for 6-months, then to France to Beaucastel for a year and finally to Tablas Creek.


Which winemakers have inspired you the most?

Paul Draper (Ridge Vineyards) has done an incredible job sticking by a great style. He makes great wine, very traditionally and he has stuck by that, his winemaking is meticulous and thorough and they ave great character. Obvously Jacques Perrin who is an inspiration to all of us here, Claude from Beaucastel, and of course I have an immense amount of respect for Ken Volk and John Munch (Le Cuvier), Josh Jensen (Calera), Bob Lindquist (Qupe). Ken Volk was instrumental since my first harvest and he was a great person to learn from because he incredibly throughout and diligent and super meticulous so it was a great foundation because I learned everything the right way. And then Munch is completely the opposite and willing to try anything, experiment and push things to the edge; which the two of those combined is fantastic because you get the complete spectrum and I can take the best from both.

Which is your favorite wine region?

At the moment? It changes, as of today I would say I really like the wines of the Loire Valley, the whites from Alsace and I like Gigondas a lot.

Have you been more drawn recently to whites or reds?

It’s seasonal; there are so many factors like the environment and food. I do like whites, they’re very intriguing. They’re much more transparent, less to hide behind. When they’re beautiful, they’re beautiful. There’s an elegance and balance with whites that’s not easy to accomplish and when it is achieved… well, when it’s really good it’s really good.


What is the story behind Tablas Creek En Gobelet?

So, that started with a desire to plant head-trained vines because we were interested in getting the Grenache to perform a bit better and since most of the great Grenaches of the world that I’m familiar with are head-trained vines, it seemed like a good connection. And then, that paired with our desire at Tablas Creek to make wines that are very reflective of this estate, my opinion would be that dry-farmed, head-trained vines are the purest expression of the given piece of land. So with all of those things combined that would be where the first plantings of head-trained vines came from.  We actually started with Mourvedre, not Grenache, in 1999.  When that kind of worked, we planted Scruffy Hill and it has proved, at least so far for us, to be a great way to farm and has produced very interesting wines that are unique and different from the other wines that we make.


What is the vision for the recently acquired 160 acre parcel?

The vision for the new property is very much inspired by the success of Scruffy Hill and it’s very similar terroir-wise. It has everything you could want; it’s steep, it faces in every direction and thre’s a kind of knoll in the middle. It’ll be planted 5 to 10 acres a year, at this point, all in the head-trained, dry-farmed style. That’s what we’re planning to start in the spring of 2016 with Grenache, Mourvedre and a little Roussanne.


How has the drought affected the vineyard?

It’s a concern, if it doesn’t rain this year, we’re anticipating that it will, but if it doesn’t, we’ll assess whether or not we’re going to plant the new property. We were going to plant late this summer and we decided that it just doesn’t make sense to get vines started in these conditions. So we put it off until spring of next year. Hopefully we’ll see some rain. We don’t need a lot, but we need something. Planting a dry-farmed vineyard in the 4th or 5th year of a drought is daring business.


Does the possibility of El Nino erosion concern you?

We’ve ordered more cover crop seed than usual and we’re going to get it into the ground earlier than normal. We’re going to get the compost in earlier as well. We’re bringing in more straw than we normally do to put on the steeper roadways. None of this is going to hurt if it doesn’t pan out to be what everyone says it will be.

NeilMarci


2015 International Grenache Day - The Cellar Crew Harvests Grenache

By Lauren Phelps

Today is International Grenache Day and enthusiasts are connecting all over the world and coming together to celebrate this unique grape. (For a fun overview, check out the #GrenacheDay hashtag on Twitter.) We celebrated by harvesting a half-acre block of our vineyard that was originally planted by our VINsider Wine Club members back in 2003.  The hands-on seminar focused on planting and vineyard care and gave members an opportunity to make an impact on the vineyard and wine we’re working with today.

Early this morning, Viticulturist Levi Glenn and his trusty vineyard dog Mavis collected samples from the block we call Grenache Noir Wine Club Head Pruned -- GNWCHP for short -- to test whether the lot was ready to pick.

Mavis Samples

Mavis is convinced; let's see what Neil Collins, Vineyard Manager and Executive Winemaker has to say.

Neil Sample

Neil used a refractometer to asses the sugar levels on the Grenache sample and decided we could harvest this block of estate Grenache.

Group Pick

Our cellar crew enjoyed a welcomed break from processing fruit and got to feel the sun on their faces as they picked Grenache in the vineyard this morning.

Grenache

The fruit looked spectacular and although yields looked light on this block, quality is fantastic!

Grapes with Hammer

We picked .75 tons from the head-pruned, dry-farmed lot.

Chelsea forklift

What a way to celebrate #Harvest2015 and International #GrenacheDay!  Cheers!


Mid-September Harvest Update: Why harvest started earlier than we predicted... and why our frighteningly low early yields may soon improve

Harvest, pushed by the last week of hot weather, has started to move fast.  We've brought in nearly 80% of the grapes for our Patelin de Tablas wines, and nearly finished our early white grapes (Viognier, Vermentino, Marsanne) here off the estate.  Tuesday, we picked our first estate reds, with two lots of Syrah. The harvest board is growing:

Harvest board 9.11.15

You'll notice that most of the entries on the board are in purple chalk, indicating that they're from purchased fruit. This reflects that most of the vineyards that we buy from for the Patelin wines are ahead of our own estate.  It's also a reflection that the grapes on which we base our Patelin wines (Grenache/Viognier for the white, and Syrah/Grenache for the red) ripen at the earlier end of the spectrum, while our two most important grapes for our estate wines (Roussanne and Mourvedre) ripen late.

Why harvest began earlier than we'd predicted
In my veraison post and harvest preview,  I predicted an early September start to harvest based on our date of first veraison and the range of times in recent years between veraison and harvest.  (The exact range I'd predicted was between August 28th and September 7th.)  Instead, we began picking Viognier off our estate on August 26th. Why? First, August was the warmest on record in San Luis Obispo County. Second, our VIognier harvest was exceptionally light.  Off of 5.8 producing acres, we harvested just 5.5 tons, less than half of last year's pig-reduced crop.  The tiny yields weren't unexpected, but they are unprecedented, and it's unsurprising that the combination of low yields and hot weather resulted in our shortest-ever time between veraison and harvest.

Our only other estate grape to come in in August was Vermentino, which had its own yield issues.  We've only picked one block (our cross-hairs, or CH block) but that block, which produced nearly 10 tons last year, yielded just 3.71 tons this year.  If not for these two low-yield-accelerated blocks, my prediction for an early-September start to harvest would look better.

Ongoing concerns on yields
We've known since our first Patelin lots of Viognier arrived that the grape was going to be scant, due to the third year of drought and cool, wet weather when it was flowering. Vermentino, though, was a bit of a surprise, and when it came in so light, it started a mild panic in the cellar.  We do have two other (smaller) blocks of Vermentino still to be picked, but it's now an open question as to whether or not we'll have enough even to supply a wine club shipment for 2015.

And yet, some things look fine
There are a few elements that are allowing us a glimmer of hope despite the painfully low yields on the grapes we've mostly picked.  

First is that the cold, unsettled May that we believe impacted the yields of the early-flowering grapes does not appear to have had the same impact on the later grapes like Roussanne, Mourvedre, and Counoise.  These June-flowering grapes look, from our vineyard surveys and our cluster counts, to be more or less in line with last year's yields.

Second is that the head-trained, dry-farmed blocks look fine.  I was out on Scruffy Hill yesterday, which is all head-trained and dry-farmed, and the yields looked quite healthy, both in Grenache (below, left) and Mourvedre (below, right):

Scruffy Grenache

Scruffy Mourvedre

 

Third, quality looks super. It's easier to tell at this stage on the reds, where you can look at thickness of skins and depth of color, and the first estate reds we've gotten have been dark, chewy, and flavorful. The initial bins of Syrah off the estate, below, show it well:

Syrah in bin

Fourth, there are some Patelin vineyards whose yields have been fine, with excellent quality.  Take, for example, the Estrella Syrah that came in on 8/21 and 8/22.  We'd been hoping for 25 tons, to form the chunky, meaty core of the Patelin red. The vineyard was productive enough that they were able to get us 31 tons.  This has helped us mitigate the fact that many other vineyards are seeing lower (and often dramatically lower) yields.  This Syrah, in the press, looks and smells great:

Syrah in press

Looking forward
The next few weeks will give us a much clearer sense of what 2015 will look like on our own vineyard. We're picking Grenache today, and it looks like we'll have a steady stream of estate lots (Syrah, Grenache, Grenache Blanc, our first Roussanne, and maybe even a little Mourvedre) coming in shortly. Stay tuned.