Near-End-of-Harvest Assessment: A Furious September, Moderate Yields, Quality High

In the vineyard, things are starting to look genuinely fall-like:

Fall foliage 2

And in keeping with the visuals of the season, we're on the tail end of our harvest craziness, something like 85% done.  As of the beginning of this week, we'd harvested 386 tons: 237 from our estate and another 149 for the Patelin.  What was left was one good block of Mourvedre (picked today), scraps of the other reds (all of which should be cleaned up by the end of this week), our three small blocks of Tannat (likely to be harvested this and next week), and a good chunk of Roussanne (which will likely be picked in waves into the middle of October; more on that later). 

The pace at which we harvested fruit off our estate in September was remarkable.  After a relatively slow beginning to harvest (which I discussed on the blog) things picked up serious steam the first week of September, and are only now starting to slow down. It's perhaps easiest to look at it graphically, showing tons of fruit, estate and Patelin, per week:

Harvest 2014 by week

In many ways, this vintage is shaping up like 2013: it's been a warm year without many heat spikes, we've picked 10 days or 2 weeks early on average, it's a slightly below-average vintage for yields, and looks very high for quality.  But unlike 2013, our shortest harvest in a decade, we're likely going to see a more normal full two months between the first and last fruit off our estate.  Still, August's slow beginning and October's gradual taper will together account for less than 20% of the harvest, meaning our September peak was one of our busiest periods ever. How busy? The busiest week of 2013 saw us bring in 58 tons off of our estate.  Even in 2012, our largest crush ever, no week ever reached the 79 tons we harvested the week of September 15th.  And the week of September 8th had already filled the cellar with 70 new tons of fruit.

So, it's not surprising that we felt buried by grapes.  We've managed to fit everything into the cellar (more of a challenge than you'd think, given that we typically use a fermentation tank for 5 or 6 sequential lots at harvest -- leaving each lot in the fermenter for some 10 days -- and having nearly all our fruit come in during a 30-day sprint effectively halves our fermentation space).  Between the couple of new upright wooden tanks we added last year and a few open-top stainless steel fermenters we hadn't used in a few harvests, we've made it work.  The cellar, though, is as full of different fermentation tanks as I've ever seen it:

Full cellar

Yields look very similar to last year.  Of the non-Roussanne whites, we've harvested 68.7 tons.  Last year saw us bring in 65.4 tons.  Of the Rhone reds, at week's beginning we'd brought in 134.5 tons.  Last year we finished up with 151.5, but we estimate we've got another dozen tons or so that will trickle in, meaning we'll end up very close to last year's totals.  Maybe up a touch in Syrah and Counoise, and down slightly in Mourvedre and Grenache. 

The real question for us is Roussanne.  This always-challenging grape is being difficult even by its standards this year.  We've gone through our principal Roussanne blocks twice already, picking just the ripe clusters, netting a little over 10 tons.  We have another selective pick scheduled for tomorrow, and are expecting another 4 tons or so.  Still, we're a long way from done.  Last year, we harvested 44 tons of Roussanne, accounting for about 40% of our white production.  This year, there are a higher than normal number of Roussanne vines that are starting to shut down due to stress, which means that the clusters they carry are ripening more and more slowly.  We think that we'll still be able to harvest much (most?) of what's out there, but assuming that all of it will come in seems unreasonably optimistic.  We're hoping for 30 tons, total.  It seems unfair that the Roussanne looks as nice as it does on the vines, taunting us with its amber beauty despite not being ripe: 

Roussanne mid-September

So, we wait on Roussanne, and on Tannat, which is looking good but still mostly not quite there.  The colors of its foliage, though, suggest that the time is near: 

Tannat on the vine

In terms of quality, we continue to be excited by what we're seeing.  The berries seem unusually small, the flavors and colors correspondingly intense.  The grapes are a bit riper than they've been the last few years, but in good balance.  It's looking (dare I say it) a lot like 2007.

And that has to be a good thing.

Photo of the Day: Bounty of Harvest

Today we were given a glorious reprieve: a cool, overcast morning with even a little drizzle, courtesy of a cut-off low pressure system currently meandering down the California coast.  Given how much fruit is ripe on the vines or nearly so, this cool day (and the similarly cool day forecast for tomorrow) give us a great chance to get caught up on our harvesting without the pressure of knowing that each hour of warmth and sunlight means that yet another block is ready to come in.

All this doesn't mean that we're pausing; we've harvested several blocks today (Roussanne, Grenache and Mourvedre) and have several more similar pickings on tap for tomorrow.  It just means that we can pick what we know needs to come in and not worry too much that in the time it takes us to pick those blocks, several more are reaching critical ripeness.

All this is pretty standard for the peak of harvest, which I think, looking back, we'll say happened this week.  We're done with all our whites except Roussanne, nearly done with Syrah, and have made a good start on Roussanne, Grenache and Mourvedre.  Counoise is still mostly hanging, but we have to be around 50% done with our estate.  And walking around the vineyard supports this: there are nearly as many vines picked clean as there are still heavy with fruit.  And we've made at least one pass through many of the blocks that do still have fruit, taking what's ready and leaving the slower-ripening clusters to hang longer.

One grape that is nearly finished is Syrah.  We have some left only in two places, both down near Tablas Creek and because of the tendency of cold air to sink among the coldest spots in our property.  Walking past one of them, I saw a shot I loved, which just calls out about the bounty of the season.  I was happy the photo came out as well as it did.  Click on it for a larger version; it's worth it.

Bounty of Harvest - Syrah

May your harvest seasons be going as well as ours.

Harvest 2014 at the Midway Point: Very Like 2013, which is a Good Thing

We finally feel like we're in the middle of harvest.  Every day brings a mix of new fruit coming in, sample teams going out, both presses running as we press off fermented red lots and newly-harvested whites, winemakers on the sorting table and de-stemmer processing newly-harvested reds, and even the first outline of our rosés taking shape.  The harvest chalkboard is filling up!

Chalkboard 9.11

Happily, for our sequencing at least, the arrival of Patelin lots via truck have slowed to a trickle.  You can see in the chalkboard: the top of the board has mostly blue lots, indicating fruit from Patelin vineyards, while the bottom is mostly white, which denotes estate fruit.  It has been great not to have to worry about too much of our Patelin harvest once our estate fruit started coming in in earnest.  Here's some of what we know, so far:

The Patelin is mostly done.
We've received 126 tons of fruit for Patelin: 53 tons of white (mostly Grenache Blanc and Viognier), 45 tons of red (mostly Syrah, with a little Grenache), and 28 tons of Grenache that we've direct-pressed to make the base of the Patelin Rosé.  We're expecting another 25 or so tons of red, mostly Grenache and Mourvedre, and a few more tons of Mourvedre for the Patelin Rosé.

Harvest off our estate vineyard is heating up.
So far, four grapes are done.  The Haas Vineyard Pinot -- often an outlier -- was the first, on 9/3.  We completed our harvest of Viognier on 9/9 and Vermentino on 9/11, and picked our last Grenache Blanc this morning.  We're probably 80% of the way through Syrah, 40% through Grenache Noir, 25% through Counoise, 15% through Roussanne and Mourvedre, and are yet to start Marsanne (coming in tomorrow), Tannat, or Picpoul.  Still, we expect the year to end with Roussanne and Mourvedre, as usual.  Overall, we figure we're maybe 40% done with our estate, and expect to hit the halfway mark around the end of the week. This week has been the beginning of a Grenache onslaught.  It looks super: intensely colored, with beautiful flavors.


The fruit that's still out looks great, too. 
A few photos.  First, Roussanne, starting to show the classic russet tint that gives the grape its name:

Roussanne on Vine 9-12

Next, Mourvedre, still fully inflated, sheltering under its canopy, and likely a couple of weeks away from coming in:

Mourvedre on Vine 9-12

Overall, the vineyard doesn't appear to be struggling as much as we thought it would given how dry it's been.  Sure, Roussanne is looking ragged, but it always does this time of year.  The Viognier made it, barely.  Mourvedre, which also often looks pretty haggard by the time it's picked, is holding up pretty well, as are Grenache and Grenache Blanc, and Counoise.

An early harvest? Not so much.
For all our worries that this would be an exceptionally early harvest, it turns out we're not actually ahead of last year's pace. Looking at the grapes that are done, we finished Viognier and Vermentino roughly a week later this year than last, the Haas Pinot at the same time, and Grenache Blanc one day earlier this year.  As of September 13th, 2013, we'd harvested 119 tons off our estate.  This year, it was 110 tons at the same date.

The cellar is a moving three-dimensional puzzle that needs a new solution each day.
The challenges in the cellar are logistical: how do we make enough of the right kind of space for the fruit that's coming in.  This means pressing off lots that have reached the extraction levels we want (typically about 10 days after harvest) and moving those lots into barrels, cleaning those tanks and then getting them ready to refill with new juice.

We've begun the process of assembling the Dianthus Rosé by bleeding off a tank of Counoise 24 hours post-harvest.  A 40-second video takes you through how it's done:

Yields look similar to 2013.
Of the grapes we've finished harvesting, Vermentino's yield is up about 10%, Grenache Blanc nearly identical, and Viognier's down 30% (largely due to wild pig depredation).  It looks like Syrah totals will be very similar to last year.  The grapes we're thinking might be lighter are Roussanne (which seems to be struggling more than most grapes due to the drought) and Grenache (whose berries and clusters seem small this year; check out the photo below). 

Grenache cluster in JCH hand

But overall, we don't expect big yield differences from 2013. Since we consider last year's yields of 2.66 tons/acre to be characteristic of our best vintages, having similar results this year would be just fine with us.  And the weather seems to be continuing to cooperate, with hot-but-not-scorching spells broken by stretches of cool weather that give us a chance to catch back up.  Fitting the pattern, it was hot over the weekend, but is forecast to cool down this week.  Even so, it looks like we've got maybe another month of harvest, at the outside.

So, looking ahead, that el nino they're now not forecasting for this winter?  It can arrive any time after October 15th.  If any of you have any pull with the weather gods, that is.

Harvest 2014 slowed with a cool second half of August, but is picking up speed

It often happens in harvest that you get your first burst of fruit and then enter a lull, where it seems like half your vineyard is sitting there almost-but-not-quite ready.  Because you're into the routine of daily punch-downs, and you've broken out your harvest equipment, it seems like you should be in the full swing of harvest, but when you look back at the totals you realize you were really in a holding pattern.  That was our story for the second half of August.

That story ends today.

First, a quick recap of what we've seen the past two weeks.  Our first few days, where we welcomed 30 tons of Patelin fruit between August 13th and 15th, were busy indeed.  But the next two weeks saw a slower pace, with another 47 tons of Patelin fruit spread over the period.  This included 8 more tons of Grenache Blanc and 12 more tons of Viognier for Patelin Blanc, 12 more tons of Syrah for Patelin, and 15 tons of Grenache Noir for the Patelin Rosé.  We've also been guiding the early red lots through their fermentations, keeping the skins and juice mixed by pumping them over (or in some cases, using compressed air to inundate the cap of skins) twice a day:

PumpOver Syrah

More exciting, we saw our first harvest off our estate, with 2.8 tons of Viognier on August 23rd and another 2.8 tons two days later.  We also made a first pass through the Pinot Noir at the Haas Vineyard, for our Full Circle:

Pinot in bins

And, we've been out in the vineyard every day, taking samples and assessing whether or not blocks are ready:

Sample buckets

The pause during the second half of August was not surprising, in retrospect, because it turned out to be quite cool for us, historically.  Most days topped out in the 70's or low 80's.  Between August 15th and August 31st we accumulated just 304 degree hours (a common agricultural measurement of heat), 20% less than either 2012 or 2013 and 5% cooler even than the cool 2011 and 2010 harvests.

That cool weather ended over the Labor Day weekend, with five days topping 90, and the vineyard has responded as you would expect.  Samples we took yesterday suggested that Viognier, Vermentino, Syrah and even one block of Mourvedre were ready to pick, and we're now entering the period where sequencing what gets picked and pressed, and in what order, becomes a daily challenge.  Knowing this fruit was coming, we pressed off four upright tanks of Syrah yesterday, so they're ready and waiting for the new arrivals:

Emptied upright

We've already run two press loads of Vermentino today, and will try to squeeze in (pun intended) two more of Viognier.  We've got another picking of Pinot Noir on the way, and will in all likelihood see close to 100 tons this week alone.

Happily, the heat has already moderated (forecast high for today: upper 80's) and we're supposed to have another cool week this week.  This will give us a chance to catch up, and slow down the vineyard's progress a touch.

In terms of character, the grapes look very much like they did last year: intense yet balanced, with thick skins and dark color, moderate sugar levels, and good acidity.  So far, so good.

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.