Dry Farming in California's Drought, Part 3: How We Got Here (and Where We Go Next)

I was struck by a quote from Tegan Passalaqua, the winemaker at Turley, in a recent article on JancisRobinson.com.  In an interview with Alder Yarrow, Tegan said "In a Mediterranean climate like we have, vertical shoot positioning and 3 by 6 vineyard spacing is basically farming hydroponically".

Hydroponic farming, with its overtones of bland supermarket tomatoes, seems an unlikely candidate to provide the intensity and ripeness that a winemaker would expect from California.  But in its essence, that the farmer is providing everything that a plant needs to bear fruit, I don't think he's far off.  It's worth taking a few moments to understand how grapevines came to be so widely irrigated in California.  In the first part of this 3 part series, I looked at how our understanding of California's climate dictated changes versus what had been done in the Mediterranean.  In the second part, I detailed how we have been farming our vineyard since the beginning to wean it off of irrigation, and what changes we've made in recent years to adjust to the likelihood of a drier future.  In this third part, I will explore how viticulture evolved in California to rely so heavily on irrigation.  If you missed the earlier parts, this article will make more sense after you've read them.

According to Jancis Robinson1, wine grapes were likely first domesticated from their wild progenitors somewhere near where modern-day Armenia, eastern Turkey, and north-western Iran meet, sometime before 4000 BC.  That area is a relatively arid climate, averaging around 400mm of rainfall per year (about 16 inches).  There, grapevines, along with similarly rugged crops like olive trees, were planted on dry, rocky hillsides where the more useful grain and vegetable crops couldn't survive.  This took advantage of grapevines' genetic predisposition to search out scarce water sources, delving dozens of feet deep if necessary.

By 2000 BC, wine grapes had been brought to areas around the eastern Mediterranean, including Egypt, Mesopotamia, southern Greece, Crete and the southern Balkans.  Expansion to areas north and west came over the next two millennia, brought by the exploring and colonizing Phoenicians, Greeks, and (later) Romans.  

High quality winemaking requires the concentration of flavors, achieved through stress on the grapevines and the maturity of fruit.  This happens naturally in the hot, dry climates where grapevines evolved.  But as viniculture moved north through Europe, into climates cooler and wetter than where wine grapes originated, the grapevines faced different challenges. Instead of not enough water, grapevines were challenged with too much water, threatening to dilute flavors.  And the cooler climes meant that lack of ripeness was a significant threat.  The solution to both these problems came in a new way of planting: spacing vines much more closely, so they competed against each other for the available water, and reducing the yield per vine so that the clusters ripened more rapidly.  For contrast, look at the differences in the old world.  An old vineyard in a warm Mediterranean climate (in the example below, Priorat, taken as a still from a promotional video on the Priorat DOQ Web site) might see grapevines three meters apart or more from their nearest neighbors (500 vines per acre, or less):


By contrast, a Burgundian vigneron in search of maximum concentration and character might plant grapevines as close together as one meter by one meter (over 4000 vines per acre), and reduce yields per vine from 20-30 clusters per vine to just 3 or 4.  The example below (from Wikimedia Commons) is of a vineyard near Gevrey-Chambertin, in Burgundy, where vines are so close together a tiny tractor can barely fit:


The net result is a can be a greater yield in tons per acre, with increased intensity and a better chance of getting the grapes ripe before the first frost.

It is perhaps useful to think of a grapevine as a small machine, whose roots act as pumps to wick water and nutrients out of the ground.  A vine's leaves absorb solar energy to power this machine. The water that is pulled from the ground is used during photosynthesis as the vine respires through the pores of the leaves, and is also trapped in the plant's tissues and fruit.  Planting more vines into a given plot of land requires more water for photosynthesis to be successful.  If there is enough (or too much) water, this extra density is beneficial and even important.  If there is not enough water, this extra density requires more irrigation to keep photosynthesis going.  And if irrigation becomes a major source of water for the vines, they change their root system to better capture that water source, growing more rootmass under the irrigation drips and less exploring deeper. 

So, is California's climate more like that of the Mediterranean, or more like that of Burgundy?  It depends on what you look at.  In terms of temperatures, you can find both, as evidenced by the success California's winemaking community has had with a a wide range of grapes, from the cool-loving Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir (with origins in the north of France) to the late-ripening Grenache and Mourvedre (with origins in the hot, dry Spanish plateau).  But in terms of rainfall, it should be clear that except for perhaps in extreme north and coastal regions, our total precipitation more resembles the warmer, drier Mediterranean. In fact, many parts of California receive significantly less annual rainfall than the classic Mediterranean climate.  Relatively arid areas like Priorat receive more rainfall than most of the Central Coast, and the rainfall distribution in Paso Robles actually looks more like the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon than it does like Priorat, let alone anywhere in France.  The fact that we receive nearly all our precipitation in the six-month period between November and April only adds to the stress on the vines, and the need for planning if we're going to try to grow grapes without having them dependent upon regular irrigation.

You might wonder why plantings of grapevines in California look more like those in Northern Europe than they do like those of the Mediterranean.  That they do is a relatively recent phenomenon.  A paper on vine spacing presented to the American Society for Enology and Viticulture (ASEV) in 1999 by two winemakers from Robert Mondavi Winery makes for fascinating reading.  Before the late 1980's, most vineyards in California were planted at around 450 vines per acre.  The first large-scale (35 acre) high-density (2170 vines/acre) planting came in Oakville in 1985.  Since then, the paradigm has shifted rapidly, as winemakers found that they could translate the higher density into earlier-ripening, more reliably yielding crops of good intensity.

The downside? It hasn't seemed like there was much of one. More reliable yields, more reliable ripening, and increased intensity all seem like a good thing.  If I find that many of the wines that come from high-density irrigated plantings have a sameness, a fruit-driven thickness and relative lack of soil expression, this doesn't seem to be a complaint shared by many.  And separating out the preference for increasingly ripe flavors that developed over a similar timeframe is difficult (many connoisseurs of Bordeaux, where irrigation is prohibited, have described a similar development over the last two decades). But these higher-density crops can only survive in most parts of California through the regular application of irrigation.  When that irrigation water was cheaply and easily available, the fact that our natural rainfall distribution more resembles the Eastern Mediterranean than Burgundy or Bordeaux didn't seem to matter much. From an environmental standpoint, planting an irrigated vineyard was often a responsible choice for a farmer, as the high efficiency of drip irrigation and the relatively little water that grapevines need compared to a crop like alfalfa offered sustainability in both resource use and economics. But with all of California's agricultural communities engaging in a new level of soul-searching after four years of drought, it's clear to me that the calculus is changing.

Perhaps the solution for a drier future begins with a look at the past.  The old vineyards planted by immigrants in the 19th and early 20th centuries, many of which survived decades of neglect during prohibition and continue to produce a century later, were planted with the densities common to the warm Mediterranean climates (from where, of course, most of the settlers came).  Given our success in recent years replicating these older planting styles, I would hope that one benefit to come out of our current drought will be a renewed interest in low density plantings on deep-rooting rootstocks, requiring at most a fraction of the water of "modern" vineyards. That the wines have turned out to be so good is icing on the cake. 

It doesn't get more sustainable than that.

1 Jancis Robinson's "Wine Grapes" (Penguin Books, 2012) is an incredible resource for anyone interested in the history or characteristics of different grape varieties.

Dry-Farming in California's Drought, Part 2: Looking Forward to the Past

In the first part of this 3-part series on farming in California's drought, I looked at how our climate here in California differs in crucial ways from that in the Mediterranean, and what lessons we took from these differences in how we would choose to farm.  In this second part, I pick the story back up with how we planted and trained our vines in the early days to allow us to dry-farm them now, and what changes we've made in recent years as we adjust to what is likely to be a drier future.  The third part is more historical, looking at how grapevines -- which should be one of the easier crops to dry-farm -- came to be so widely irrigated in California.  If you missed Part 1, go read it now.  OK, welcome back.

In the Beginning

When we began planting, we used a hybrid of the planting methods of modern California and the traditional Rhone.  At Beaucastel, vines are planted head-trained but closely spaced on their relatively flat terrain.  They cultivate these vineyards using tall over-the-vines tractors as the spacing (roughly 1.5 meters square) doesn't allow tractors to pass in-between.  On our steep hillsides, these tractors wouldn't work, so we matched the overall vine density, but moved the vines into rows, planting more closely within the rows (3 feet) and spacing the rows either 8 feet or 10 feet apart, depending on our terrain. We achieve a similar vine density at around 1600-1800 vines per acre, but can cultivate mechanically, essential for our organic techniques:

Tournesol Tractor

Our decision to plant at similar density to Beaucastel was grounded in our initial belief that in our broadly similar environment we should use the techniques that they had developed over the years as a starting point, and then learn from our experiences here and adjust gradually over time.  

The first choice we needed to make was what rootstocks to use. Wine grapes need to be grafted onto rootstocks to be resistant to the root parasite phylloxera.  These rootstocks are descended from different species of American wild grapes, and have inherited differences in level of vigor, rooting configuration, tolerance for soil chemistry, and affinity for various varietals from their progenitors. [For a good technical overview of rootstock science, see this piece in Wines&Vines.]  

Modern fashion in relatively water-rich areas (including Napa Valley, which has a fairly stable water table on the valley floor) suggests the use of low-vigor, shallow-rooting rootstocks, to keep the vines from growing too much canopy and from setting high quantities of low-intensity fruit.  But it was clear to us that we should focus instead on higher-vigor, deeper rooting rootstocks because of the high-stress nature of our climate and topography.  We chose deep-rooting, relatively high-vigor rootstocks to graft to (principally 110R and 1103P).

Our next decision was if and how to irrigate the blocks we would be planting. After speaking to local growers, it became clear to us that in order to get our young vines through the dry summer months, we would need to be able to irrigate at least in the early years.  Grapevine roots grow down fairly rapidly, about a foot and a half per year when the vines are young, slowing as they age.  To determine the length of time we'd need to supplement, we did some trench cuts in the vineyard, digging down a dozen feet through the topsoil and the top layers of limestone, to see where the water was by late summer.  These showed that even with the water-holding capabilities of our calcium-rich soils, we needed to dig down 6-8 feet to find layers that still had moisture in September.  So, we figured we would need to irrigate for the first five or so years, if all went well, and if we were able to encourage the deep root growth that would eventually allow us to get the bulk of the root mass down where water could be found.

Our technique was infrequent but deep irrigation.  This should be intuitive.  Grapevine roots grow where water is present.  If you water frequently but shallowly, roots continue to grow near the surface, where water can be found.  If the only water to be found is deep, roots grow deep.  Watering infrequently (twice per summer, and eventually only once) but deeply causes the soil to dry out from the top down in between waterings, and encourages root growth in the deeper areas that have moisture.

It didn't work as smoothly as we had originally hoped.  We lost so many vines to gopher predation that we had to replant in some cases as much as 25% of our blocks with young vines.  These vines needed to be irrigated when they were young, and even longer, as they grew more slowly due to competition from the older vines nearby.  It wasn't until the wet years of 2005 and 2006 that we felt able to wean our established blocks entirely from supplemental irrigation, but when we did, we were rewarded by consecutive great vintages.

Now, we feel that our older blocks are able to go not just through a normal rainfall winter without needing to be supplemented, but can go one year into a drought cycle (as in the 2012 vintage) without needing additional water.  When we get multiple years into a drought, as we have been since 2013, we are able to supplement, again using the infrequent but deep watering that will discourage the vines from the bad habits of excessive shallow root growth.  We supplemented most blocks once in 2013 and twice during the 2014 vintage, and feel that these are going to be two of our greatest vintages ever.

Recent Adjustments

In addition to the continuing work that we've done easing our original plantings toward water self-sufficiency, the last decade has seen us look to even older models to plant vineyard in ways that won't need to be supplemented even in droughts.  As early as 2000, we had planted some of our low-lying blocks in relatively deep soils head-trained, dry-farmed.  These areas most resembled, to our minds, the terrain at Beaucastel.  We also looked at old vineyards in the Paso Robles area, many of which date back to the years before Prohibition.  These vines, mostly Zinfandel, were head-trained and widely spaced, and had made it nearly a century still in high quality production.  Our first block that we planted in this manner was the small block of Mourvedre near our front entrance, just to the east of where our tasting room is currently located.  We spaced the vines 8 feet apart in a square pattern (a density of 680 vines per acre).  A recent view of this block (with the vines and their solar panel backdrop) shows how well established they've become in the last 15 years:

Mourvedre with solar panels behind

The success of these never-irrigated vines encouraged us to plant most of our former rootstock fields in this manner between 2003 and 2005.  Though these worked well too, we weren't sure yet whether we could translate these successes to hillside blocks with less topsoil and less water.  In the end, it was the logistical challenge of getting well water pumped to our one block on the south (opposite) side of Tablas Creek that pushed us to give it a shot.  We planted that thirteen-acre block, which we call Scruffy Hill, head-trained and dry-farmed in 2006 and 2007. Scruffy Hill presented some new challenges.  It was (is) one of our most rugged blocks, on a very steep slope, with at the top just a foot or so of topsoil.  Cultivation was also going to be a problem, with slopes as steep as 35% making it unsafe to cultivate across the hills, so after speaking with locals we decided on a 12 foot by 12 foot diamond pattern, reducing the vine density to about 340 vines per acre and creating two mostly-vertical avenues we could use to cross-cultivate safely.  We weren't comfortable leaving these vines to fend for themselves entirely, so we bought several 5-gallon plastic buckets, drilled a small hole in the bottom of each, and then used our water truck to give each vine a single bucket of water in the late summer in years one and two. Scruffy hill is now thriving:

Scruffy Hill 2

We've also been experimenting with our rootstocks. The rootstocks that we have used, from the beginning, have needed to be relatively high in vigor and tolerant of Calcium.  This has meant that we use predominantly 1103-P and 110-R.  In recent years, we've planted a few blocks of Grenache on the famously deep-rooting St. George rootstock, the standard in California before irrigation, though in more recent decades largely replaced by lower-vigor, more shallow-rooted crosses.  We are hopeful that these experiments will allow us to develop healthier, more vigorous vineyards without needing supplemental irrigation.

The Upshot: Forward to the Past

All told, in the last decade we've planted over 30 acres head-trained, dry-farmed, in the manner vineyards would have been planted (per force) a century ago.  And while it may not be intuitive, in our recent dry years, the vines in these blocks have shown less signs of stress, and the production from these blocks has declined less, than in our trellised blocks.  But perhaps it shouldn't be so surprising that 340 vines in a dry-farmed acre can thrive with the roughly 15 inches of rain we've received each of the last four winters, while the 1800 vines planted in a trellised acre really need something closer to the 28 inches that is our average.  While a 24-hour irrigation session can keep them going through a dry summer, it's still not making up the difference between a normal rainfall winter and what we've averaged during our drought.

Would we make the same commitment to dry-farming if we needed 4 or more tons per acre off of our vineyard?  Perhaps not.  Our dry-farmed blocks tend to produce between 2 and 2.5 tons per acre, even in the most productive years. But given that we're only aiming for between 2.5 and 3 tons per acre even from our trellised blocks, we're not sacrificing much production.  And given how much less expensive it is to plant, prune, cultivate and thin 340 vines per acre than it is to do the same work on 1800, it may not be costing us more per pound of fruit even with the lower yields.

Even more important, the quality of the wine lots from these dry-farmed vines has been among the best in the cellar both of the last two years. Take into account that these are still among our youngest blocks and you can see why we feel it's a win-win situation for us, and why we're planning to plant our entire new parcel -- all 55 acres -- this way over the next decade.

So, if we're so happy with these old-fashioned techniques, how did the paradigm in California become so dependent on irrigation?  I explore the history in part 3.

Dry-Farming in California's Drought, Part 1: Understanding California's Only-Sorta-Mediterranean Climate

Over the last few months, it seems like everyone I meet, whether locally or around the country, is wondering how we're doing in what our governor has termed a "historic drought".  Many are surprised to hear that while we're watching it warily, we think we're in OK shape.  And even more are surprised to learn that a critical reason why we think we're OK is that we've been increasingly investing in dry farming over recent years.  It seems counter-intuitive that farming without irrigation makes you better able to survive periods with less rainfall, but it is, we think, an important part of the answer.  In this three-part series, I'll look at California's drought from our perspective.  This first part will look at the differences between the Mediterranean climate and our climate here in California, and what lessons we took from that.  The second part looks both at how our original approach to farming has set our vineyard up to succeed through the last four dry years and what we're changing to adjust to what will likely be a drier future.  Finally, the third part looks back historically at how grapevines -- which should be one of the easier crops to dry-farm -- came to be so widely irrigated in California. 

We are, of course, inspired by Chateauneuf-du-Pape, the home of our founding partners at Beaucastel.  In Chateauneuf, as in most top winemaking regions in France, irrigation is prohibited.  This prohibition is enforced to prevent dilution and overproduction, and to encourage deeper rooting which should help wines express their region's terroir.  We came into our project believing that dry-farming would give us our best chance to express our terroir, although we were unsure whether we would be able to right away.

Chateauneuf-du-Pape receives, on average, 723mm (28 inches) of rain per year. The distribution is relatively constant, except for somewhat drier summers and somewhat wetter falls. Still, it can rain any time during the year. The chart below (which I found, along with the data above, on the useful site climate-data.org) shows the distribution of rainfall by month, with January (01) on the left and December (12) on the right:


Our area west of Paso Robles has received historically a similar amount of precipitation annually (about 28 inches) but it is much more heavily weighted toward winter, with May-October almost entirely dry:

Avg Rainfall by month at Tablas Creek

(Note that if you're looking at statistics for Paso Robles, you'll see that the town averages 14 inches of rain.  However, our weather station, here 12 miles west of town, has recorded over the last decade almost exactly double the rainfall measured in town, with very similar distribution.)

Otherwise, the climate is broadly similar, though somewhat more extreme here.  Average temperatures are a touch cooler here in summer and fall because of our cool nights, and a touch warmer in winter, because of our warm days.  Year-round we have a larger diurnal shift (the difference between the daytime high and the nighttime low) than does Chateauneuf, which produces more frosty winter nights and a greater chance of spring freezes, but also ensures that we maintain good acids during the growing season.  We receive a bit more sun.

Still, the primary difference between the two places, and the one that requires us to adjust most, is the distribution of the rainfall. We knew that we had chosen soils that were primarily calcareous clay, renowned for their water-holding capacity.  But still, it was clear to us that while we had enough rainfall on an annual basis to support dry-farmed grapevines, we would need to figure out how to get them through a five-month dry spell unlike anything they see in the Rhone Valley.  

What did we do?  Check out part 2.

Photo Essay: Spring in the Vineyard

This spring continues to be benign. After our scare in early April, we've had three weeks of beautiful weather, with lows between 36° and 45°, and highs between 57° and 82°.  The average low has been 39° and the average high 70°: really perfect spring weather.  We've accumulated 207 growing degree days so far, just above our 20-year average of 182, but well below the high of 274, set in 2013.

We haven't gotten much in the way of additional rain.  Despite some promising forecasts for much of last week, we received measurable precipitation only once, on Saturday, and then only 0.02".  But that's OK; rain at this time of year, unless it's significant enough to penetrate deep into the soil, is as much a nuisance as it is a benefit, since it encourages the regrowth of the cover crop that we're spending much of our time trying to bring under control.

The net result has been a beautifully even push from the grapevines of all different varieties.  I was here late in the day yesterday, and got out to take some photos in the late-afternoon light.  These are some of my favorites.  First, a photo of solar power, direct and indirect: a dry-farmed Mourvedre vine, with the solar panels we use to power the winery in the background:

Head-trained mourvedre and solar panels

Not all our varieties are out equally; Grenache (below, top), which is both first to sprout and one of the grapes that makes the most canopy is out quite a bit further than Mourvedre (below, bottom):

New Growth - Grenache

New Growth - Mourvedre

We have flower clusters, and though I wasn't able to find any actual flowering yet, it's surely going to be underway soon.  You can see a similar difference in the size and advancement of the clusters between Grenache (below, top) and Mourvedre (below, bottom). The background for the Mourvedre cluster is one of the solar panels, if you're wondering why it's gray:

Grenache cluster

Mourvedre cluster

The cover crop is indeed growing again, thanks to the inch of rain we received on April 7th.  This will mean a second pass through much of the vineyard, at least the parts that we'd mowed rather than disked or spaded:

Grenache hill with regrowing cover crop

Still, this is one of my favorite times of year.  We're largely past the risk of serious frost, particularly since our 10-day forecast doesn't show anything threatening.  It's not hot yet.  The still-green grasses on the hillsides give an overall air of softness that we won't have in a month, and that greenish brown is set against the yellow-green of the newly-leafed out grapevines and oak trees.  Knowing that we're off to an ideal start to the growing season makes it all the sweeter.  

I'll leave you with one last of my favorite photos, from our Scruffy Hill block, which gives you a sense of the landscape: vineyard in front, oak-studded hillsides in the background rising in increasingly rugged folds toward the south and west.  Cheers to spring, and to the incipient 2015 vintage.

Scruffy Hill

State of the Vineyard, mid-April Edition

Ten days ago, I was convinced that we were going to get clobbered by frost in the aftermath of a cold, wet Pacific storm.  All the conditions were in place: an early budbreak, a weather pattern shift, and a powerful late-season cold front with origins in Alaska that was heading unusually far south for April.

And yet we made it through.  It dropped into the low- to mid-30s eight of the first ten days of April (after seeing no nighttime lows below 38° in the second half of March) but our lowest measured low was 32.3° at the weather station in the middle of the vineyard.  Why did we survive what the forecast called "an exceptionally cool air mass overhead"?  We had just enough cloud cover the two nights after the storm came through (daytime highs 59° and 56°) to keep radiational cooling to a minimum, and by the time it cleared up, the air mass had warmed enough (daytime highs 67° and 70°) to keep our nighttime lows just above the freezing mark.

As a bonus, we got nearly an inch of rain, when every bit of rainfall we receive is welcome.  0.92" of rainfall doesn't sound like much, but over our 120 acres, the total volume is staggering: 2,997,829 gallons of water.  Not enough to make a dent in our drought, but it does give us that much more confidence (and we were already feeling pretty good) that our vineyard is well set up to make it through this year's harvest.

And things look great out there right now.  Every variety has come out of dormancy, and with less variation than normal.  We often have to wait nearly a month between when Grenache and Viognier sprout and when we see the beginning of growth in our late-budding Mourvedre, Counoise and Roussanne grapes.  But this year, the evenness across the vineyard, both between varieties and within blocks of single varieties, is noteworthy.  A few photos will give you an idea.  First, from the middle of our Grenache block, with Roussanne in the background:

Grenache and Roussanne blocks

A close-up of one of the cordons in our old Grenache block shows how far out things are: several inches, with tiny flower clusters already showing.

Grenache cordon

The clusters themselves are beautifully formed, and Viticulturist Levi Glenn thinks we may see our first flowering as early as May 1st:

New Grenache clusters

The main work now is getting the cover crop (both what we planted and the wild grasses that seed themselves) under control, so we protect the vines from competition for water.  A look through our Mourvedre block shows the new green growth in the middle of the vine rows, for which we can thank last week's rain, as well as the higher grasses growing amongst the vines themselves.  This shows the one downside of this late rain; we will have to re-mow or re-disk many of the blocks we thought we'd cleaned up already:

Mourvedre row

Many blocks, though, are still unmowed, and we're enjoying the last of what has been a spectacular wildflower season.  The purple flowers of our vetch plants are predominating:

Row with wildflowers

We're making sure to enjoy the flowers now, because the next few weeks will see this wild scene turn into something much more manicured, as our mower, disker, and spader turn the green at the surface into delicious organic soil for our grapevines:

Row newly mowed

We're still not out of the woods for frost; Paso Robles can freeze as late as mid-May.  But we've survived four dangerous weeks so far, and the ten-day forecast looks OK.  If we can get into May without any damage, we'll be able to relax somewhat.  So far, so good.

The Rare Time When a Rainy Forecast is Unwelcome

Overall, we've had a warm spring.  In an environment where winter freezes are normal perhaps one third of the nights between December and February, we saw just four below-freezing lows in January and three in February.  March saw only one night drop below freezing at our weather station, and that was March 1st.  Since March 10th, we've only seen four nights drop into the 30's, none below 38°.  The result of all this mild weather has been an early budbreak.

It has been dry, too.  Happily, November and December got us off to a good start on our winter rain, but January (0.23 inches total) and March (0.02 inches total) were very dry, and February (3.92 inches) only average.  So far for the winter, we've tallied a little over 13 inches of rainfall, which is better than the last few years, but still only about 60% of normal.

So, you'd think that today's forecast, which calls for a series of troughs to dig down south into California and bring likely precipitation next week to our area, would be welcome (image from the US Navy's Fleet Numerical Meteorology and Oceanography Center):

April 2015 rain forecast

You'd be wrong.

Not all rainfall in April is bad.  Last year, we got about an inch and a half of rain right at this time of year for which we were grateful.  It came as part of a tropical system that raised humidity levels and dew points, from the south Pacific, not from the Pacific Northwest.  Next week's forecast storms are going to be much colder, sliding down from Alaska and bringing with them a much colder air mass aloft.  We should be fine while there is cloud cover, but it is in the aftermath of April storm systems like these that we've seen damaging frosts in 2001, 2009 and 2011.  Those 2011 storms were so cold that they produced hail and snow at the vineyard during the day:


The cold April nights that followed (both April 8th and April 9th, 2011 got down into the low 20s) cost us, we estimate, something like 40% of our crop from the 2011 vintage.  And we had later budbreak that year; Mourvedre and Roussanne were relatively unaffected because they were still mostly dormant.  A similar event this year, with even our late-sprouting Mourvedre out around the property, would be devastating.

We're still hopeful that we won't see significant damage this year.  The air mass in that 2011 storm was so cold that even at the tops of our hills were several degrees below freezing.  That's rare.  No one is yet talking about a cataclysm.  And there are still several days before these systems arrive, and if this spring has taught us anything, it's to be skeptical of long-term forecasts that predict rain.  But we've been lucky the last two years to avoid frost entirely despite our earliest-ever budbreaks.  With the increasing agreement about these storms among different weather modeling systems, it seems like we'll face our first real test of the year.

Fingers crossed, please, everyone.

Budbreak, 2015: Early, like 2014. Cue the frost alarms.

By the end of last week, we'd seen significant budbreak at the tops of our hills among early sprouting varieties like Viognier, Syrah, Grenache Blanc and (below) Grenache.

Budbreak 2015 - 2

Budbreak each year starts the clock ticking on the growing season. It typically happens between mid-March and mid-April, depending on how cold the winter has been, and more specifically the dates of our last hard freezes.  Like 2014, this year saw cold weather early in the winter, but starting late January it's been unseasonably warm.  We did see temperatures drop into the high 20's in our coldest spots a couple of weeks ago, but even those nights saw our hilltops comfortably above the freezing mark.  To give you a sense of where 2015 fits within the context of recent years, I went back to look at when we first noted budbreak each of the last eight years:

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

So, we're more or less on track with last year, which was our earliest-ever recorded budbreak.  Last year, because of how early things were, I wrote that we were dreading the frost season even more than normal.  And this year is no different; we can have a frost here any time until mid-May, although every frost that has caused serious damage has come in April.  But it's interesting to me to note that the two years in the last nine that have seen seriously damaging frosts (2009 and 2011) didn't come in years with unusually early budbreak.  Hopefully, that bodes well for this year. The long-term forecast doesn't show anything particularly threatening frost-wise (though it also doesn't show any prospects for significant rain).  But there's still a month at least of white-knuckle nights in store.

It's important to note that I had to trek to the top of our hill and look in specific varietal blocks to find budbreak.  None of our Mourvedre, Roussanne, or Counoise vines are out, nor are even the most precocious varietals in low-lying areas, which did see early-March freezes.  This gradient between the tops and bottoms of our hills will likely play out all the way through the growing season, as the earlier-sprouting areas will also see earlier flowering, earlier veraison, and earlier harvest.

But for now, budbreak is a hopeful thing: the beginning of a season of growth, and the beginning of our work that will come to define 2015 for us for years to come.  Please join me in welcoming the 2015 vintage to Tablas Creek.

Budbreak 2015 - 1

Photo Essay: Green, Green, Green

Normally, the sign at the edge of our head-trained Mourvedre vineyard just outside our tasting room is to protect people from a twisted ankle, should they stray off the tarmac. Now, we're worried we might lose them in the cover crop!


The growth in the vineyard's green winter coat over the last month has been amazing to watch. Whether because of the three dry years which preceded this one, or because of the work we've been doing with soil fertility, or because of the year's relative warmth (or some combination) we've never seen a cover crop so lush.  Another view, looking up the hill behind the winery that we call Mt. Mourvedre:

Looking up mt mourvedre

Everything is growing. Yes, the cover crops that we planted are growing fast, but we're seeing lots of native grasses and wildflowers, like the mustards you see below:


The yellow of the mustard isn't the only hue on display.  We're also seeing our sweet peas flowering:

Sweet pea

And this pretty purple wildflower that grows low to the ground:

Purple wildflowe

And it is wet. Although it hasn't rained much since the 3.9" we received the first weekend of February, the soils are still loaded with moisture, as evidenced by the ubiquity of the water-loving plant miner's lettuce, which we barely saw the last two winters:

Miners lettuce

And, if you needed more evidence, either of the wet soils or of the hazards of trekking into the vineyard, check out my shoes after this morning's photography trip:


Now, our chief worry shifts to early budbreak. We've been reading about it from nearby regions, and were frightened to see photographic evidence of it getting nearer from our neighbors at Adelaida Cellars over the weekend.  We're typically a few weeks behind Adelaida and the other less-frosty vineyards at the tops of the hills to the east of us, and are still in a window where a few frosty nights would likely give us a reprieve rather than damage.  But barring a freeze, we're on track for an earlier budbreak than last year, when its mid-March arrival led me to write the blog Why we're dreading the 2014 frost season.

Fingers crossed, please, everyone.

Assessing the Impacts of Last Week's Rain

We're in a peaceful interlude between two significant storms.  The sun may be thin and wintery, but it's (mostly) out.  The rain that fell on Thursday and Friday is soaking in.  Another storm is on its way, but won't arrive until mid-day Monday.  We got 2.67" of rain in the storm -- a bit less than had been forecast, and quite a bit less than areas around the San Francisco Bay, which got drenched.  Still, this brings our total for the winter to 7.5 inches, above average for this early in the rainy season.

I took advantage of this break to get out into the vineyard and take some photos, and was struck by just how much greener it was even than early in the week.  A few photos will give you a sense:


As you can see, the cover crop is off to a flying start:


In terms of greenery, we're ahead of where we were in March of this past winter.  The sequence -- an inch on Halloween, to get things germinated, followed by 3 weeks of sun to encourage growth, followed by a week of gentle rain totaling over 3 inches -- was perfect preparation for our first heavy rains of the year, and meant that we saw virtually no erosion, and almost total absorption of the nearly 3 inches of overnight rain this week.  Even on Friday, there were only a few spots in the vineyard with puddles visible:


You can see in the above photo the deep ripping that we've done on hillsides in preparation for this winter. These cuts run horizontally across the hills and encourage water to be absorbed rather than to flow off downhill.

As the skies cleared Friday, we got some spectacular cloud shapes and colors:

Sunset 1  Sunset 2

Pink and blue sky behind oaks

Looking forward, on Monday we're forecast to receive a storm, similar to last week's if a bit weaker, that should provide another couple of inches, with a bit more Tuesday as the associated low pressure system moves inland.  Then a brief break before a smaller system comes through on Friday, after which it looks like we'll have dry weather through Christmas.  This December rain we've received is the best present we could have asked for.

Changing of the seasons

It's rare that in a single day you feel the changing of the seasons as dramatically as we did yesterday.  Last weekend was warm and sunny; it hit the mid-80's out here both Saturday and Sunday.  Even after the rain from a week ago, the overall feel was still of high autumn, even if the hillsides, if you looked closely, were softened and enriched by a new fuzz of green. 

Enter yesterday morning.  When I arrived at work, it was clear and sunny, if breezy and cool.  But by mid-morning, we had a fog bank cresting the Santa Lucia Mountains to our west:

Changing seasons fog bank

A few minutes later, the fog started rolling across the sky in wisps and eddies, producing a flickering landscape alternating between bright and gloom.  A few photos, first looking down south over the vineyard:

Changing seasons long view

and looking between two rows of Syrah:

Changing seasons syrah

By late morning we'd settled into a (really quite beautiful) semi-overcast condition, with bright skies but only occasional blue.  It brought out the fall colors in the vineyard quite remarkably.  Two views, both of which I recommend you click on to enlarge:

Changing seasons foliage 1

Tablas Creek Vineyard in Autumn

Finally, a picture that I posted on Facebook yesterday, but which I like so much I'm going to use it to finish this blog, showing the green shoots of cover crop, which thanks to the rain now snake between each row, ready to hold the soil in place when our serious precipitation arrives. Already the soil is darker and feels richer than it did just two weeks ago:

Fall colors and new cover crop 2014

Today, the sun has yet to peek through.  There is humidity in the air.  We're forecast to get some sprinkles this week, with two wetter storms to follow in the next 10 days or so.  We're so ready.