Harvest 2014 begins: How our earliest-ever start also has longer-than-average hangtime

This Wednesday, August 13th, we welcomed sixteen tons of Syrah into our cellar, marking the beginning of the 2014 harvest.  These bins were from Estrella Farms, in the warm heartland of the Paso Robles AVA, and will form the juicy core of our Patelin de Tablas.  The fruit looked terrific, and the numbers were textbook: 23.5° Brix and 3.39pH.


The next day, we got four more tons of Estrella syrah and our first white: a little over seven tons of Grenache Blanc from Coyote Moon Vineyard, on a vineyard that we had grafted over to Grenache Blanc specifically for the Patelin Blanc up near the town of San Miguel.  This fruit looked great too, with intense flavors, modest sugar levels and great acidity: 21° Brix and 3.38 pH.

Grenache Blanc in bins

The two locations have in common that they are from areas of the AVA that are on the warmer side.  We think we're still a week away from harvesting anything off of our estate vineyard.  For our planning in the cellar, it's great that we're seeing this slug of fruit before anything else.  The roughly 30 tons of fruit is about 20% of what we're expecting for our Patelin, and to have it already safely put away before we're also dealing with the much more complicated harvest off our estate is a gift.  It also allows us to break in our wooden upright tanks and start building the population of native yeasts in our cellar.

This mid-August beginning feels early, but it's not unprecedented.  Yes, August 13th is the earliest that we've ever had fruit in the cellar, but it's only one day earlier than 1997, when the lot of estate Syrah that we harvested on August 14th was the first fruit we crushed in our newly-built winery.  Given that the fruit we've welcomed so far this year comes from warmer parts of Paso, I'm not sure even that we'll break our modern record for our earliest picking off our estate, August 23rd in 2004.

More than the calendar date when we start harvesting, what we look at as important is the length of the ripening cycle, and of course the balance and intensity of the fruit.  Because we saw such an early budbreak this year (two and a half weeks earlier than average) an estate harvest that begins ten days earlier than average, as this one appears poised to, actually gives us hang time about a week longer than normal.  And the fruit conditions that we're seeing so far bear this out: the fruit is intensely colored and perfumed, with beautiful deep flavors and acids exactly where we'd like to see them.

So, it's early yet.  But we couldn't ask for a better beginning.

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

I returned this week from two and a half weeks on the east coast to find a vineyard landscape transformed.  In what was a sea of green we now have new colors: pinks, reds and purples in our red grapes, as well as the first hints of gold in our white grapes. 

Long View with Grenache

These transformations are normal for early August, and while I stand by my prediction that harvest will be a couple of weeks early, the changing colors don't mean that harvest is imminent.  In fact, I was a little surprised to see that even in the earliest-ripening grapes we weren't through veraison.  To give you all a sense of what things look like now, I snapped representative photos of each of the main Rhone grapes, red and white.  I'll go through them in the order in which we expect them to come in, starting with Viognier, the only grape I tasted that seemed pretty close.  Note the golden color; I'm figuring maybe two more weeks before we start picking:


Next, Marsanne, which was still quite green by comparison to the Viognier:


Our first red will almost certainly be Syrah, but even there I still found a few green berries and the grapes didn't taste nearly ripe.  We will likely see some Syrah from warmer parts of Paso for our Patelin wines as early as late next week, but I don't expect much off our own property before the end of August:


Grenache Blanc made for very good eating -- about the sugar/acid balance of table grapes, for now -- but that's far less than the concentration that we look for at harvest.  You can see in the photo below that it's also still tautly inflated.  We'll look for the grapes to soften quite a bit more before we pick, likely starting early September.

Grenache Blanc

There's often a gap between the early grapes above and the late grapes below, so I wouldn't be surprised to see a pause in early-mid September when much of the Viognier, Marsanne, Syrah and Grenache Blanc have come off, but we're still waiting on our later grapes.  Grenache, typically next in line, is still less than halfway through veraison, and while it does ripen pretty quickly once it finished veraison, I'd still expect it to be late-September before much Grenache is coming in:


Counoise is always our last grape to go through veraison, later, even, than Mourvedre, although Mourvedre's unusually long time between veraison and ripeness means that we typically harvest Counoise first.  Many Counoise vines were still entirely filled with green clusters, and the photo I got is on the advanced side for the Counoise blocks as a whole.  The grapes were also still quite hard and sour, even those that had turned purple:


It's not usually possible to take a good photo of white grapes in mid-veraison, but I managed it in our Roussanne.  Note the differences in color between the grapes that are still green and those that have begun to take on the russet color that gives Roussanne its name.  All the Roussanne grapes were still crunchy, though those with the russet tint were starting to get sweet, while the green ones were still sour.  We're likely more than a month out from even our first Roussanne pick, and I expect a significant portion of our Roussanne harvest not to happen until October:


Finally, Mourvedre, which is as usual taking its time getting through veraison.  It often starts before Grenache (and always before Counoise) but it's typically the last to finish veraison. We've come to expect to wait another 6 weeks between full veraison and harvest, when most grapes take 4 weeks.  We might start to pick in the very end of September, but October will see the bulk of it:


Overall, and even after the two weeks of warm weather that just concluded (eleven consecutive days between 7/23 and 8/2 that reached the 90's, with the last three topping 100) the vineyard still looks to be in remarkably good shape.  The Viognier was showing signs of some end-of-season stress, but it only has another couple of weeks to go.  I saw a little sunburn damage here and there, mostly in Syrah, but less than we see most vintages.  And the weather forecast for the next week is perfect: highs in the upper 80's or low 90's, and cool nights in the upper 50's.  That's about as good as it gets for Paso Robles in August.  If all continues as we're seeing it, I think we're in for another terrific vintage.

Veraison two weeks early suggests a late-August beginning to harvest

This week, we've seen the first hints of veraison in our Syrah and our Mourvedre.  One of the most advanced Syrah clusters is below, alongside other clusters that like most of the vineyard are still totally green:

Veraison 2014 - syrah

Veraison is an exciting time visually, but its implications in the work that we do, at least in the short term, are limited.  Practically speaking, it means that we no longer have to worry about powdery mildew, and so can end our sulfur, copper, and compost tea sprays.  Otherwise, we continue the work we've been doing in the vineyard, start to thin clusters to get to our desired yields, and rest up knowing that harvest is just around the corner.

Physiologically, what is happening inside each grape during the veraison process is that the grapes have stopped adding mass and begun the changes that accumulate sugar.  Like all fruit-bearing plants, its goal is to distribute its seeds far and wide, and the flavors are designed to peak at the time when their seeds are at maximum fertility.  An animal snacks on the berries, distributes the berry's seeds in its waste, and the seeds grow into new plants. 

The transformation between green, hard, sour berries and sweet, soft, red berries takes some time, and when it starts depends on that year's weather: both how early the vine sprouts and begins to grow (determined largely by the date of the last winter freeze) and how fast it can photosynthesize (determined by the amount of heat and sun after budbreak, as well as the vine's crop load).  Given this year's early budbreak and the lack of spring frost, we expected this year's veraison to be early.  The question was, how early.  It turns out that despite the drought and a relatively warm summer so far, it's taken a relatively normal amount of time between budbreak and veraison.  In degree day accumulation, 2014 has so far been one of our warmer years, though not as warm as our warmest years like 1997, 2001 and 2013 (weather data taken from the Western Weather Group's Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance forecast):

Degree Days through July 9 2014

Budbreak, as I noted in a blog piece in mid-March, was about two and a half weeks earlier than normal.  We were exceptionally lucky to avoid frost given the two full months of frost risk that this early budbreak left us with.  But avoid it we did, and the vineyard has been progressing steadily ever since.  But compared to when we've first reported veraison in other years, we've actually regressed a bit toward normal.  Those dates are in the below chart, with the year linked to the blog piece I wrote that year talking about veraison:

YearFirst Veraison NotedHarvest Begins# of Days
2007 July 20 August 28 39
2008 July 23 September 3 42
2009 July 20 September 1 43
2010 July 30 September 16 49
2011 August 5 September 20 47
2012 July 25 September 5 42
2013 July 17 August 26 40
2014 July 9 ? ?

This year's budbreak is about two weeks in advance of our eight-year average.  Based on the range of days that it's taken between first veraison and harvest (between 39 and 49 days) that suggests that harvest will begin sometime between August 16th and August 27th.  Given that the years when it was closer to 50 than 40 days were in the unusually cool vintages of 2010 and 2011, I'm betting that it will be at the early end of that range.

It is interesting to me that it has taken slightly longer than average for us to go from budbreak (two and a half weeks early) to veraison (two weeks early).  This seems to me to be a good thing, given that the longer that the grapes can stay in contact with the vines, the more opportunity they have to pull character and minerality out of the soil.  This suggests to me that our crop levels aren't as low as we worried they might be three years into our drought, and provides confirmation of what we're seeing in the vineyard: that crop levels are similar to last year, and in some blocks high enough that we're starting to go through and thin out some of the clusters.

So, where does this leave us?  About where we were before.  We're still thrilled with the health of the vineyard, which looks as good as we can remember for mid-July.  And knowing that we're entering the home stretch with above-average hang time so far eases some worries that we had about the early start to harvest.

Now, the waiting starts.  But at least we know that the timer has been set.

Veraison in June? Not so fast, in Paso Robles at least.

In his blog this week, the Wine Spectator's Tim Fish reports that regions as diverse as Contra Costa, Santa Lucia Highlands and Santa Maria Valley are already seeing veraison: the point at which red grapes start turning color, and all grapes stop growing in size and turn to accumulating sugar.  [For a good overview of the science behind veraison, check out this blog piece from 2007.] Since veraison typically means harvest is six weeks away, this news is pretty stunning.  Harvest in early August?  In coastal California?

I was quoted in the article, that we hadn't seen veraison here and didn't think we were that close, although we do expect an early start to harvest more or less in line with last year's late August beginning.  Saxum's Justin Smith, just down the street from us, was even more surprised, commenting, "Whoa, are you serious?"  I really didn't think we were that close, so I decided to go out and get representative photographs of each of our grapes, to check in on their progress.  What I saw reinforced my belief that we're on a more or less normal trajectory: on the early side, like 2013, but nothing hugely different.  I'll share the photos I got, and then explain my thoughts on why I think we're not seeing some of the very early ripening of some of our neighboring regions. 

First, the whites, beginning with Viognier (left) and Marsanne (right):

Viognier Marsanne

Then, Roussanne (left) and Grenache Blanc (right):

Roussanne Grenache Blanc

Next, the reds, starting with Grenache (left) and Counoise (right):

Grenache Counoise

Next, Syrah:


And finally, Mourvedre:


Even the earliest-to-ripen grapes like Syrah and Viognier are showing pea-sized berries, not yet even fully round, still bright green and seemingly a long way away from turning red.  In last year's blog piece on veraison, I went back to 2007 and found our first signs of veraison over the last seven years had ranged from July 17th (2013) to August 5th (2011), with an average date of July 25th.  Will this year threaten last year's earliest-ever veraison?  Perhaps.  But that's still a month away, and I'm not expecting to see it much before then.

Why would we in Paso Robles, which people typically think of as a warm region, be seeing veraison so much later than "cool" regions like Santa Maria and Santa Lucia Highlands?  The hint to the answer is in investigating what those two regions have in common with Contra Costa, but not with us: a relative lack of below-freezing temperatures.  All three regions are relatively open to the Pacific, and are therefore moderated by the ocean's unchanging cool -- never cold, and never warm -- water.  Although our vineyard sits only ten miles from the Pacific, Paso Robles is not coastal in that way.  The southern end of the Santa Lucia Mountains sits solidly to our west, unbroken at about 3000 feet.  This barrier keeps out most of the moderating influence of the Pacific, and allows us both to cool down and heat up more than the aforementioned regions.  In the summer, this gives us warm to hot days and cool to cold nights, often with a swing of 45 degrees or more.  In the winter, we see a swing nearly as large, with days in the 60's and 70's, and regular freezes at night.

These freezes are often a risk, as we can be damaged by frost as late as mid-May.  Happily, we escaped this year.  But in the late winter or early spring, a frost can have the useful impact of delaying budbreak and the onset of the ripening cycle, while more moderate regions can actually get an earlier start.  Typically, the difference between these regions isn't huge: a matter of a few weeks.  But this year, when we barely got below freezing after a cold December, the more moderate regions didn't at all.  How close were we to a similarly early start?  I'd point to the nights of February 4th and 5th, both of which got down to 29 degrees here.  That doesn't sound like much, but it meant that even with the warm weather that followed, our budbreak didn't start until mid-March.  The more coastal regions didn't get a frost after December, and I remember driving through the Santa Maria Valley in the second half of February and marveling that their vines were already showing green.

What will the impact be on the quality of the wines this year?  It's unclear.  Typically, you'd like your vines to have as long a ripening cycle as they can, but there's little evidence to suggest whether it's better or worse for things to start (and end) later than it is for them to start (and end) earlier.  I'm not sure it will have a big impact.  It is nice harvesting when it's cool, as it gives the grapes some protection against oxidation on their trip from vine to winery, and this cool is more likely in October than August.  So, to that extent, I'm happy we're not exceptionally early.  But in any case, I'm grateful enough that we got through our early spring without any frost damage -- and received March's generous rainfall -- that I'll take a slightly early veraison in stride.

With an early flowering, we start the clock on the 2014 harvest

There are annual milestones we look at that help us gauge the progress of each harvest, of which flowering is the second. Budbreak (when the buds sprout) is first, but unreliable in our climate as an indicator of harvest time because of the frequency of spring frosts. Veraison (marked by color change) comes in July or August, and typically means we're looking roughly 45 days to harvest. And, of course, first pick and last pick, at which point you've set the dates that will define your vintage.

Flowering provides our first indicator of harvest dates, though there remains a great deal of variance that will be determined by the crop levels and our summer weather.  The typical rule of thumb suggests 100 days from flowering to harvest, which we've found to typically be an underestimate in our cold-night climate.  But figure a little under four months, and you're probably around an average for us.  That suggests that we're looking at harvesting some of our early grapes (think Viognier, here) around late August, with the harvest unfolding after that.

Grapevine flowering is not particularly spectacular.  The flower clusters assume a fuzzy look but otherwise don't show any particular color.  A few photos will give you an idea.  First, a view of several Grenache clusters, in context of their vine:

Flowering 2014 - grenache long view

Next a close-up of Grenache, in full flower.  Note the little white fuzz, which are the blooms.

Flowering 2014 - grenache close up

Grenache is early to sprout and early to flower, but takes an unusually long time between flowering and veraison, and between veraison and harvest, so while it's at the same stage as Viognier (below) now, we expect to harvest a month later than we do Viognier.  Note also how much smaller the Viognier cluster is than the Grenache cluster.  That won't change.

Flowering 2014 - viognier

Finally, a photo of the other grape I found in flower, Marsanne.  Marsanne isn't quite as early as Viognier, but is close.

Flowering 2014 - marsanne

At the same time as these grapes are in flower, we have varieties like Roussanne and Mourvedre that are just getting fully sprouted.  As you might expect, both of these grapes bring up the rear of harvest, typically not coming in until mid-October.

The vineyard's health looks terrific, and the flowering (which can be disrupted by rain, excessive heat, or strong winds) seems to be proceeding under good conditions, today's few unexpected sprinkles notwithstanding.  It's been breezy, but nothing too extreme.  It's been cool the past couple of days, but no frost.  Next week is supposed to warm up, but doesn't look like it's supposed to get dangerously hot. 

From these early indications, we're expecting an early harvest, similar to last year's. If we can replicate 2013, we'll happily take it.

20 Seconds of Serenity in the Vineyard

It will come as no surprise to followers of this blog that it has been an unusual weather year. We started the year off dry and warm, in a season it's more typically cold and wet.  Then, in March, when it's usually drying out, it started raining.  The combination has meant that we didn't get much cover crop growth at the time of year when we typically see it, but just as we're getting ready to knock it down and give the vines unimpeded access to the soil's water and nutrients, it's growing like crazy.  On top of it all, budbreak was at least two weeks earlier than normal, and we've been incredibly fortunate to avoid a spring freeze. The result has been a rare combination of green hillsides and green vines in an environment where you typically have one or the other, but not both at the same time.

And, the wildflowers are blooming, spectacularly.

We're working as hard as we can to get the cover crop turned under so that the biomatter decomposes and enriches the soil, but because of our late start due to the late rain -- and our desire to get good cover crop growth to generate that biomass -- we're behind.  The result has been a beautiful color palette in the vineyard, like an impressionist painting.  This twenty second video was taken just outside our winery, and shows off the California poppies that are everywhere right now, as well as the foot-high oats that are a part of our cover crop and the new green sprouts on the grapevines.

We suggest that you repeat this video as necessary until you achieve serenity.

Wildflowers in the Vineyard: More Than Just Pretty Faces

By Lauren Cross

Thanks to the late rainstorms we had recently, it is now wildflower season here at Tablas Creek!  One of the many benefits of our organic and biodynamic property is the prolific wildlife that lives symbiotically throughout the vineyard. We leave sections of the vineyard to our native vegetation because of the insect and microbial life these plants support, and these section, particularly, burst into flower in April and May. Guests to our upcoming spring festivals are in for a treat!  I took a long hike through the vineyard and was happy to find dozens of unique wildflowers.  Here are a few of my favorite photos.


I found this first pea flower in the cover crop near the lambing barn.  It is so exciting to see all of the tall crops between the vines- a few months back before the rain storms there was just bare soil and now the cover crop and flowers reach almost four feet!


I found this tall buttercup flower blowing in the breeze farther in the vineyard behind the old nursery greenhouses.


Finding this flowering Salvia was the best surprise of the day.  It was nestled in under an oak tree just passed the gate into our new unplanted property. 


 I love the intricacies of this wild Primrose with the delicate white star shaped center. 


The bees are happy it is wildflower season too! The California poppy it's feasting on is our state flower, and always our most visible sign of spring.


This thistle is my favorite shot of the day.  I love the texture and how the flower is just beginning to open up.  It reminds me of the 2014 vintage just beginning in the vineyard: new growth just before flowering and all of that potential just waiting to be realized.

A rainy (and not-frosty) March gives hope for the 2014 growing season

As the last raindrops fall from today's minor weather system and we turn toward a warmer forecast for next week, it seems like a good time to assess this spring's conditions so far, and start to look forward to its impact on the 2014 vintage. Today's sprinkles were the last of four rainy days this week that together dropped about an inch and a half of rain at Tablas Creek. Our rainfall total for the winter has grown to nearly 10 inches, still a far cry from our norm of 25+ but so much better than the 2.5 inches we'd accumulated by late February.  When the sun comes out, it really does feel like spring.

The vineyard is electric green, making up for lost time thanks to the newfound moisture in the soil.  These two photos, both taken from the top of our oldest Grenache block, will give you a sense of how the landscape has changed in the last month.  First, from Wednesday:


Next, from exactly a month earlier (March 2nd) just after our first big rain of the winter:


It's not just the cover crop that's growing; as you can see from the top photo the vines are well along too.  As was clear in mid-March -- when we noted that budbreak was beginning at least two weeks early -- the vineyard has decided that spring is here and it's time to get moving.  Grapes like Grenache (mentioned earlier) and Viognier (below) are furthest along but even the late-budding Roussanne and Mourvedre are past the point where they could withstand a serious freeze.


As for frosts, so far we've dodged successfully.  The last few nights were chilly (down into the mid-30's) but despite the cold air mass aloft, the nights stayed just cloudy enough to keep temperatures above freezing.  We're expecting one more cold -- but probably not frosty -- night tonight, and then a warming trend is supposed to push temperatures into the mid-80's by the middle of next week.  Each night that we avoid a frost is meaningful; if we have, for example, a 5% chance of a nightly freeze on March 15th, decreasing steadily to near zero on May 15th, every two weeks that we avoid a frost roughly doubles our chances of making it out unscathed. The math involved carries some oversimplistic assumptions (chiefly that each night is an independent variable, unconnected with the nights around them, which is clearly untrue) but it's still illustrative, and shows the chance of avoiding a frost every night for 60 nights at just 20%.  If we have to avoid just 45 nights, our chance of escaping rises to 39%, while if we have to avoid just 30 nights it rises to 64%, and at 15 nights it's all the way up to 88%.  This shows the enormous benefits of avoiding frost in the first 15 nights of budbreak, which should be intuitive: each day later in the year brings more daylight hours, shorter nights, a more northerly jet stream, greater heat accumulation and a correspondingly lower chance of a nightly freeze.

The net result, if I've lost you in the technical paragraph above, is that we're exceptionally grateful to have avoided a frost for the last three weeks.  We're a long way from out of the woods, and I'd still estimate our chances of escaping entirely at less than 50/50, but it's looking less desperate than it did three weeks ago.

In the vineyard, the late rain means that we're behind on getting the cover crop under control.  Until recent days, there wasn't a cover crop to speak of, and we're happy to see it finally growing, but it does mean that we'll be weeding later into the year than we're used to, and that the late moisture makes it more likely that we'll need to make multiple passes through some blocks.  For example, the block containing the head-trained Mourvedre vine pictured below, which was spaded before this week's rain, will certainly need to be re-weeded:

Head-trained mourvedre April 2014

Unfortunately, our sheep, alpacas, llama and donkeys will be less use than normal in our weeding efforts this year.  The late rain meant that there wasn't much for them to browse until recently, and since our animal herd will happily eat the new shoots off the vines, the early budbreak will soon force us to move them to unplanted sections of the property. Their impact there will still be beneficial, but even in a normal year there exists a six-month stretch where they're exiled from the producing vineyard, so extending that term by additional months is unfortunate.

Still, we're very happy to see the vineyard looking as good as it is, given the conditions it faced this winter.  And it is looking very good.  The vines look healthy and even, the vigor seems surprisingly good given that last year was dry and this winter even moreso, and it's clear that our care in reducing crop levels preemptively last year has had positive benefits in the vines' health this year.  The last month has been just what the doctor ordered: wet and not frosty.  If we see the same thing in April, we'll have cause to feel fortunate indeed.

Why we're dreading the 2014 frost season

Last week, we saw budbreak in our Grenache, Grenache Blanc and Viognier blocks.  This week, it's been joined by most of the other grapes, with only Roussanne and Mourvedre still fully dormant.  It won't be more than another week or two before they look like the Grenache below, photographed this morning:


Back in 2008, I wrote the blog post Budbreak is terrifying, but hopeful in which I talked about the combination of anticipation and fear that comes with the early beginning to a new growing season.  The anticipation should be obvious: it's the kickoff to the vintage, a time when the dormant vines spring to life and grow visibly day by day.  The fear comes because we rarely make it through April without some sort of a frost, and nighttime temperatures can drop below freezing as late as mid-May.

In an ideal world, we'd see frosty nights reguarly through mid-March, well interspersed with winter storms.  Sun between these storms is fine, as long as it drops below freezing a couple of times per week.  Then come the end of March, we'd see the season transition to sunny and mild, leading to budbreak some three weeks later and leaving us only a few weeks of high frost danger.  If it sounds like wishful thinking, it largely is, though what I outlined fits the pattern of the 2012 vintage pretty well.

If 2012 sits at one end of the spectrum -- I wrote about budbreak on April 17th -- this year sits at the other end.  This winter started off cold and dry but beginning in January we saw nearly two months of sun and warmth. Since January 1st we've only seen four nights drop below freezing, most recently the nights of February 4th and 5th, neither of which were frigid, dropping down only to 29 degrees.  Then, starting February 24th, we saw twelve consecutive days with lows bottoming out in the 40's and 50's, dropping only once in that stretch into the (high) 30's.  What does a month of non-freezing weather, capped by nearly two weeks of active warmth and ample sun tell the grapevines?  That spring has arrived, and it's time to get moving.

Looking back at the records I can find, this is the earliest we've been talking about budbreak.  Last year we reached the stage we're at now the first week of April.  2012 was late, as detailed above.  2011 saw budbreak the first week of April (and we got clobbered by consecutive nights in the low-20's the next week). 2010 was the last week of March. We should have been safe in 2009, with budbreak not until the second week of April, but we got hit hard by frosts April 25th and 26th. 2008 was the last week of March. 2007 was early April, delayed by our coldest winter on record.  So, in the last eight years, we're roughly ten days earlier than the next-earliest budbreak, and two and a half weeks earlier than average.

What do those two and a half weeks mean?  A very small chance of avoiding frost entirely, given that we've got two full months having to get lucky every night.  And a significantly increased risk of serious frost damage, given that we've got nearly six weeks when temperatures could drop into the mid-20's.

There are positive examples to look to, most notably 2010, which saw a late-March budbreak followed by six weeks of non-freezing weather.  But I think there is a greater chance of us seeing significant damage from frost than there is of us escaping unscathed.  And unlike in 2009 and 2011, when Roussanne and Mourvedre were still largely dormant at the time of our serious frosts, we're unlikely to have our most-planted and most important grapes dodge this year's bullet.

2014 was the first year we've ever bought crop insurance, spurred by the drought.  Though the drought still looms, our late-February/early March rain has mitigated those fears somewhat.  Now we turn our worries to two full months of frost risk.  Here's rooting for the insurance company.

After our recent rain, reassessing California's drought

Since last Wednesday, we've received 5.71 inches of glorious rain.  It was nicely spread out, starting with two inches the first day, followed by thirteen hundredths the next, then another two inches Friday, another inch Saturday, and finally a half-inch yesterday.  That meant it nearly all soaked in, rather than ran off.  Essentially, it was just what the doctor ordered. 

For those of you keeping score, the last week more than doubled our rainfall for the 2013-2014 winter.  We've now topped 8 inches and are at about 40% of normal for this date... a much better-looking figure than the 15% of normal we were at a week ago.

And the landscape has been transformed even over the last week.  The palette of hard, dry grey-browns has been replaced by softer outlines and lush greens, ethereal in the softer light filtered through air with moisture in it.  From this morning, looking south from the top of the vineyard:

Mar 02 View over vineyard

And looking north from roughly the same spot:

Mar 02 View down through Marsanne 2

Of course, these landscapes are more like what we'd normally expect to see in December than those we typically see in March.  Compare the above photos, taken this morning, with the below one, taken last March 6th:

2013 March 6th

We expect the cover crops to explode into rapid growth, now that they have had some rain. So, within a month or so, it will likely be hard to tell that the rainy season started so late this year. But start late, it did.

Stepping back to look at the bigger picture, we're now much happier about the prospects for a healthy vineyard for the 2014 growing season.  We've been able to stop supplementing with drip irrigation, and to get back to focusing on pruning for the upcoming season.  But because the soils were so dry, and absorbed the water so efficiently, the rain didn't do much to replenish the many ponds, lakes and reservoirs in the area. The percentage of capacity at our two local reservoirs barely budged over the last week, with Lake Nacimiento's level increasing 33 inches (from 21% capacity to 23% capacity) and Lake San Antonio's level increasing just 5 inches, remaining at 5% capacity.  And most smaller ponds and reservoirs showed little more improvement.  Las Tablas Creek, after five days of rain, was still dry this morning, without even a trickle running:

Mar 02 View of Las Tablas Creek

If the surface ponds and lakes showed so little improvement from the rain, the ground water is likely to be even less affected.  On the positive side, most vineyards won't need to draw as much on their wells and reservoirs, for a month or two at least, which should allow them to recover somewhat.  But in order to make a significant impact on the drought-writ-large, we'd likely need three or four more storms like the one we saw last week. While we can still expect some precipitation until the end of April, catching up even to an average year is not likely.

And here's where we see one other benefit of the largely dry-farmed vineyard we've developed over the last two decades.  The vines are trained to be self-sufficient, and will benefit more from the new water that is now being stored in the bedrock than vines whose root systems have been trained to look for water near the surface, under their drip lines.  So, they'll look where there's water, while vineyards who rely on irrigation will be forced to draw on underground sources that didn't see much help from the storm.

In better news for California, areas around and north of the Bay Area not only got a good soaking from this storm, but got significant rainfall (5-12 inches) the week of February 3rd and look like they'll continue to get significant rainfall this week from a plume of tropical moisture that stretches across the pacific from Hawaii to northern California. The North Coast is likely to be above 50% of normal year-to-date rainfall after this week, and snow accumulations in the Sierra Nevada are, while still low, not as critically low as they were a month ago.

So, while no one in California is declaring victory over our drought, and while it seems that the local stresses on our water supplies are unlikely to be much ameliorated -- let alone solved -- by this storm, we're now feeling at least OK about our prospects for getting our vines through the ripening cycle without them running out of water, and it seems that California's drought has gone from critical to severe.  And that's something to celebrate.