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:

Snow_2011_0001_1

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!

Sign

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:

Mustard

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:

Shoes

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:

AfterTheRain_2

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

AfterTheRain_1

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:

AfterTheRain_3

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.


Photo Essay: After the Rain

Last weekend, we received a glorious and much-needed 1.17 inches of rain.  Much of this came Friday night (Halloween) which wasn't great for the kids out trick-or-treating, but for those of us desperate for a wet winter, the rainfall was a treat indeed.  In between Saturday's showers, Lauren Cross got some great photos that captured the feel of that day beautifully: skies still mostly cloudy, soil colors deepened to warm blacks, sparkles of light from the drops of water still clinging to the vines and wires.  I wanted to share some of my favorites.  First, a look up one of our hills, with a great view of the changing skies:

Looking over Counoise

Next, a close-up of a second-crop cluster, wet with raindrops from one of Saturday's many showers:

Close up

I love the brighter feel (as well as the colors the light brings out) of this shot of our chicken coop, caught when the clouds parted and the sun snuck through:

Coop

And finally, the shot we take so often, looking over Roussanne and Tannat blocks to the colors of Grenache Blanc and Syrah behind:

Over Roussanne

Our early rain has, if nothing else, put us all in a good mood as we get to watch the hillsides start to turn green.  With all the fruit safely in the cellar, the cover crop seeded and compost spread in the vineyard, it can get serious any time it likes.


Autumn Vineyard Photo Essay

The grapes are all off the vines.  The days are shorter, with a lower sun angle.  We just avoided our first frost of the year here last night, and tonight is supposed to be just as chilly.  The weather pattern is transitioning, and each storm front makes it a little further south.  On Saturday, we actually got a few sprinkles.  Next weekend we're forecast to see measurable precipitation.  It's all hopeful for a vineyard (and a region) struggling under three years of drought.

In the near term, the vines are responding to the changing season by losing chlorophyll and letting the colors hidden by the green all year come out.  It doesn't last long, but it's spectacular while it does.  Here are a few shots I got this morning, starting with a photo from the center of our head-trained Tannat block, looking up at Grenache Blanc (on the left) and Syrah (on the right):

S & GB behind T

A closeup of some of the Tannat leaves:

Tannat leaves

And one of the Tannat second crop clusters, that never ripened enough to be harvested, and are now food for our local birds:

Second Tannat crop

In the vineyard, we're applying compost, so that as the rains come this winter, it will be absorbed into the soil and provide for next year's nutrition.  That compost sits beside one of the casualties of the late-summer fruit thinning we do to ensure that what we harvest has good concentration:

Compost & Cover Crop

I was struck by the complimentary colors of the vineyard and those of the new chicken coop we've installed in a section of head-trained Roussanne.  I love the "max occupancy" note painted above the door:

Henhouse

And finally, one more photo of the vineyard itself, this time looking up through Syrah, which I think catches the feel of this newly rebalanced season, neither summer nor winter yet, lacking the vibrant green of active growth but before the incipent frosts take away the leaves entirely, and feeling somehow both cool and warm at the same time:

Through Syrah

If you have the chance to make it out to Paso Robles in this season, you're in for a treat.  It never lasts long, but it's a wonderful backdrop while it's here.


Harvest 2014 Recap: Yields up 5.2% (though still below average); Quality excellent

On Wednesday, October 15th we picked the last batch of Roussanne off of our estate.  And just like that, we're done picking for the year.  It doesn't feel like we're finished, as we're still pressing off bins of reds, the cellar still smells like crush, and the vineyard's colors are still more green than gold -- it is only mid-October, after all -- but there's no more fruit to pick.  From Wednesday:

Last Day of Harvest

As we've progressed through this harvest, we have been comparing it to similar vintages with relatively low yields and high quality, like 2003, 2007 and 2013.  Now that everything is in, we have a chance to look quantitatively and see whether these comparisons have merit.  Of course, there are things that can't be easily measured (think color, or thickness of skins) but knowing how much fruit you have and how ripe it is, overall, gives us a good tool for knowing what the vintage will be like.  And it's not surprising; yields per acre and ripeness at harvest tell you critical things like skin-to-juice and sugar-to-acid ratios.

Somewhat to our surprise, given that we're in our third year of drought, yields were on average actually up a little from 2013. For our principal grapes:

Grape2013 Yields (tons)2014 Yields (tons)% Change
Viognier 16.7 11.4 -31.7%
Marsanne 8.2 9.9 +20.7%
Grenache Blanc 25.4 31.9 +25.6%
Picpoul Blanc 5.2 7.5 +44.2%
Vermentino 15.1 17.3 +14.6%
Roussanne 44.5 42.8 -3.8%
Total Whites 115.1 120.8
+5.0%
Grenache 48.7 50.7 +4.1%
Syrah 32.5 38.1 +17.2%
Mourvedre 57.3 52.3 -8.7%
Tannat 12.3 15.4 +25.2%
Counoise 13.9 17.0 +22.3%
Total Reds 164.7 173.5
5.4%
Total 279.8 294.3 +5.2%

Most varieties are up a bit, with the exceptions of Mourvedre and Roussanne, our two latest-ripening varieties, and the two grapes most susceptible to late-season stress-related devigoration.  So, it's perhaps unsurprising that both showed declines in this dry year.  The third grape to see a decline (Viognier) came from a much more discrete cause: we had several nights of break-ins by wild pigs toward the beginning of harvest, and they of course went straight for Viognier, the ripest (read: earliest-ripening) grape.

Overall yields ended up at 2.78 tons per acre, which is still just below our ten-year average of 2.9 tons per acre.  Other years in which we've seen yields between 2.5 and 3 tons per acre have included 2003, 2004, 2007, 2008, and 2013, all of which have been excellent and have been aging very well.

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

Both of these measures show the subtle differences between 2014 and a year like 2013, corroborating what we noticed: that the level of lushness this year (our highest average sugars since 2009) was counterbalanced by good acids (better than all our recent vintages except the historically cool 2010 and 2011 vintages).  It also suggests that the narrative we're hearing from many California appellations -- that acids were extremely low this year, requiring significant intervention in the cellar -- didn't hold true for us.  Finally, it's a good indication that we were able to keep up with the pressure in mid-September, when so much of the vineyard seemed like it was ready, and that we got fruit off the vine while it still maintained natural freshness.

In character, we see many similarities to 2013, with the characteristic dark color and intense flavors of a low-yielding vintage, but with a little more overt fruit than the more savory 2013s.  Fans of the lusher style our wines featured in the 2007-2009 period will likely find many similarities.  Clusters and berries were very small, which means that skin-to-juice ratios were high on our red grapes.  My dad holds up a cluster each of (from left) Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre from late-September, when all three were arriving in the cellar simultaneously:

004

Of course, it's early to make predictions on flavors, so stay tuned in the spring, when we'll dive into the vintage's character in preparation for our blending trials.

At 53 days between its August 23rd beginning and its October 15th conclusion, this harvest clocks as a bit shorter than average (our 10-year average is 56 days) and our finish was one of our earliest on record, preceded this century only by last year's October 7th end.  It joins 2013 as our only vintages where we finished harvesting before the Paso Robles Harvest Wine Weekend.

Our main challenge, as things finished up, was Roussanne, and it's with this notoriously finicky grape that I think the meticulous work of our vineyard team will show the most.  Roussanne, even in the best of conditions, tends to ripen unevenly, requiring that we go through each block multiple times to pick what's ripe and give the other clusters some more time to mature.  Roussanne is also the variety most prone to stress-related devigoration, where the leaves lose chlorophyll and ripening slows toward the end of harvest.  Not every vine is affected to the same degree, so you can have mostly-green vines next to those that are largely yellow, with predictably faster ripening on the greener vines.  In this exceptionally stressful year, we knew we would have to be willing to go back repeatedly through our Roussanne blocks if we hoped to get most of the fruit harvested in good condition.  But even by Roussanne's normal standards, this year was a slog.  As an example, we made a first pass through the Roussanne block we still call our "New Hill" (since it was planted in 2000 rather than 1995-1997) on September 4th.  We made our next passes on September 18th and October 2nd.  Still, nearly half the fruit remained.  We went through again on October 7th, and a final pick -- our last pick of the harvest -- on October 16th. It's a good thing Roussanne is so rewarding in the cellar.  If it weren't, no one would deal with its quirks. The culprit, looking deceptively placid in early October:

Roussanne mid-September 2

 

And while we're early to be done with harvest, the cooler nights and the shorter days are beginning to bring out the fall colors in the vineyard.  I take a photo from this vantage point nearly every year because it shows two grapes that both color up in the fall: Tannat, in the foreground, and Syrah, on the hillside behind.

Fall foliage 2

Now that we're done with picking, we're able to get our animal herd back into the vineyard.  They can clean up any second crop clusters we left behind, as well as start getting some natural fertilizer into the soil in advance of what we're hoping will be a wet winter.  Dottie, one of our guard donkeys, is enjoying a snack of Marsanne before it goes dormant: 

Dottie back in the vineyard

And as for that rain, we're feeling hopeful that the series of Pacific fronts that have blown through Paso Robles over the last two weeks -- dry though they were, this early in the season -- bode well for winter. In many years, it's still hot and summer-like in mid-October.  These last two weeks have felt like fall.  If that promise carries through to real rain, we'll all have reason to celebrate.