The Shepherd and His Flock- Q&A with Nathan Stuart

By Suphada Rom 

Tablas Creek has a thriving animal program that is an essential piece of the organic farming practices here at the vineyard. We are thrilled to welcome Nathan Stuart, who brings years of animal experience to Tablas Creek and who will be managing and expanding the flock alongside additional responsibilities in the vineyard and winery. His first goal: get 100% of the vineyard grazed by our flock of sheep during the off season. Down the road, once we've built up the flock, we'd also like to have Tablas Creek organic lamb to be a more regular presence on the menus of great restaurants in the Central Coast.

Nathan usually can be found amongst the animals, with his trusty sheepdog, Maya, by his side.

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Where were you born and raised?
I was born on Spring Street in Paso Robles. I grew up in a little yellow house there.

So you've seen Paso Robles grow exponentially over the years. Did you always like wine and the wine industry? 
No, I actually went down to Mexico when I was 18, and lived there until about 5 years ago. I didn't really get into wine until I met Leslie (Many of you may know Leslie, as she is one of our stellar Tasting Room leads!) and from there, making wine in Mexico.

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Tablas Creek has an established animal program, but has room for growth. Where is it right now and where do you project it going?
The animal program has all the right ideas, just on too small of a scale to make the impact on the vineyard it could. We've got 120 acres under vine and for us to graze 120 acres, we need a lot more sheep than we have now. I'd like to have 150 ewes eventually, that will be used for breeding, giving us at least 200 lambs per year. Also, the sheep program (in contrast to the vineyard which is certified organic) is treated organically, yet not certified. I'd like to be certified by next year; we'll probably be the first certified organic sheep producers in the county.

We have diversity of species, with llamas, alpaca, and donkeys, which helps a lot. Each animal will eat different grasses based on preference. Keeping that diversity is important because if you only have one species, they would just focus on their favorite style, allowing for some other weed to grow out of hand. Then this good plant would never get a chance to catch up and re-seed. 

Why the focus on sheep?
Sheep, although tricky, are a great tool that can improve soil. Managing them well by moving them frequently throughout the vineyard and keeping them in higher concentration is the most incredible way to improve soil. And by improving soil you're acquiring/retaining carbon in the soil. For example, take the buffalo grazing on the Great Plains. They've created the best soil to this day for farmland. They would move quickly across the plains, never stopping or staying in one place, as they were being chased by predators. I plan to mimic nature by moving the flock every 2-3 days, as if they were being moved by predators.

The cool thing is that the sheep can go over and graze all the grass off and then put down 0.2 cubic feet of manure per day, per animal. Right now, we've got about 88 animals out there and they are contributing several cubic feet of manure on each block every single day. Everything that they eat, mainly cover crop consisting of vetch, peas, clover, and oats, they put back as much as 90% of the nutrients back into the soil. So they only keep up to 10% to stay alive and will also grow up to a pound a day, which is insane. That's pretty awesome, to me. 

What is your philosophy when it comes to animal management?
For animals, it would be very low inputs, and allowing for natural selection. My focus is going to be on breeding animals that are perfect for Tablas Creek's property. So over the next 5 years, through natural selection on the property, you end up with an animal that is very healthy and adapted to this place. Which is cool, because we'll have the best sheep for Tablas Creek. 

Is there one piece of your job that is particularly rewarding?
Well, when a ewe is having trouble birthing and I get to help her give birth and basically, help her save a lambs life. That definitely makes your day. To actually help life become is pretty amazing and I'm definitely on Cloud 9 afterwards.

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Sounds like you could have been a veterinarian in a past life! Would that be something you'd be doing if you weren't managing the animal program here?
Nah, I'd take Neil's job (Neil Collins is both our Vineyard Manager and Executive Winemaker)! Kidding, no, I'd be looking for another job like this. This is pretty much what I want to do. I guess it's a good sign if I can't think of anything.

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What do you like to do on your days off?
Surf! I normally go North of the grade, but somewhere between Los Osos and Las Blancas. I'm also kind of a geek on the computer and into videography. 

What is something that would be surprising for other people to learn about you?
I was the first American to get a diploma in Mexican real estate.

One last question; how do you define success?
Having peace and joy in your life. Both of those things can travel through suffering- you don't always have to be happy with where you're at to be at peace. Peace is one of those things that can translate through life, even in bad situations. 


Harvest 2016 Begins!

By Jordan Lonborg

The wine grape harvest of 2016 has begun. Early this morning, our first Viognier pick kicked off our estate harvest at Tablas Creek. Our first fruit (also Viognier, from Adelaida Cellars) for the Patelin program came in yesterday. Next week, we expect to bring in more Patelin Viognier from one of Derby's vineyards, Pinot Noir from the Bob Haas's vineyard for our Full Circle Pinot, and some Syrah from Estrella Vineyard for Patelin red. At this stage, we're sampling fruit on a daily basis from several Patelin vineyards and multiple blocks at Tablas Creek to stay ahead of the ripening curve. A few photos from this morning:

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Vineyard Manager David Maduena examines the Viognier block

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The first bin of Viognier

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Santos Espinoza -- a Tablas Creek stalwart since 1994 -- inspects the newly-harvested fruit

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Our crew are joined for their early morning work by vineyard dog Miles

Our sampling process not only consists of running analysis on sugar concentration (typically measured in degrees Brix), pH, and acidity. At Tablas Creek our process is more holistic, and the numbers are guidelines rather than hard decision points. We walk the blocks, taste the fruit starting at the higher elevations, which ripen first, to decide whether or not to pick.  If the fruit does not taste right, we won't pick it. If a portion of the block is ready to be picked, we will make a pass through that portion of the block, often picking selectively, leaving less ripe clusters for a later pick. Later, when more of the block is ready, we'll make another pass. There are some blocks that will see up to four different harvesting passes. Each one of those passes is kept separate through fermentation, and ends up a separate lot when we start our blending trials in the spring.

For the most part, we will harvest at night. Most of the rest of the harvest is done in the early morning, when it's still cool. The cold nighttime temperatures allow for the berries to avoid oxidation while awaiting their delivery out of the vineyard and to the winery. Both selective picking and night harvesting are processes that take time, hard work and attention to detail. It is a testament to the willingness of our picking crew and our cellar team to go that extra mile that they embrace a process that creates more work, at awkward hours, because in the end it gives us the highest quality raw materials that allow our wines taste the way they do.

Despite the long hours, early mornings, and sore muscles that are undoubtedly on our horizon, I can say without question that this is our favorite time of year at Tablas Creek Vineyard. Harvest is the culmination of all the hard work, planning, and preparation that we've put in throughout the year. While we're biting our nails (February-May) watching our weather stations dreading frost, harvest is our motivation.  When we leave our toasty beds at 2am to turn on the various forms of frost protection we have on the ranch, harvest is our motivation. When we're spending six days a week pruning to stay ahead of bud break, harvest is our motivation. When we walk blocks checking on the various plantings on the property on a scorching Paso Robles summer day, harvest is our motivation.

So next time you are enjoying your next glass of Tablas Creek wine, I ask you to think of all the hard work it took to get that bottle to your table. Trust me, it'll taste even better.

Meanwhile, this is my starting gun. See you in November!!

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This morning's sunrise, over Viognier.


The swarm, the hive, and Tablas Creek honey

By Jordan Lonborg

[Editor's Note: With this article, we welcome our new Viticulturist Jordan Lonborg to the Tablas Creek blog. He joined us in February and will be leading our vineyard team and our biodynamic program, including a new beehive program that he describes below.]

Every March, as flowers start to bloom, honeybees that have successfully overwintered begin the foraging process. The bees start to collect tree resin or propolis which is used to strengthen hives structurally; pollen, which is converted to protein;and flower nectar, which is converted to carbohydrate (honey). The honey and pollen are essential food sources and determine the strength and size of the colony. On years that we receive enough rainfall for a strong wildflower bloom, another process takes place. The phenomenon known as swarming.

Honeybees are a fascinating species. It is this process that fascinates me the most. In early spring, when wildflower nectar flow is at its peak, the workers are able to sense that the queen that overwintered with them starts to lay fewer eggs. In response, the workers then start to build queen cells within the hive. These cells are not your typical hexagonal shape we are so used to seeing. A queen cell is a cone-like structure that is built vertically through the hexagonal worker cells. Once the queen deposits eggs into the queen cells, the colony starts making preparations to split the hive. Scout bees begin to search for a suitable location for a new hive site. The scouts have been known to search up to 30 miles away from the hive in search of a new hive site. This is where the bee keeper (read: yours truly) steps in and encourages these bees to make their new home in a place where they can help us.

Swarm catchers come in all shapes and sizes. There are three essential characteristics that successful swarm catchers will share. First, there will be a secure cavity with one entrance. Second, they will have a piece of pre-existing honey comb that you obtain from either one of your previous hives or from another reluctant beekeeper in your area. Lastly, a small vial containing honeybee pheromone to attract the bees to the catcher itself. Here at Tablas, we used 16” compressed flower pots that were mounted to a square piece of plywood. Three of the four drain holes were plugged with foam insulation. We then hung these swarm catchers strategically (near plants that are blooming and close to a water source) anywhere from 6’-16’ off the ground. An example:

Swarm catcher

Then, you wait. It could be anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of hours until you catch a swarm, but when you do, you know, and it’s exhilarating.

Swarms can contain anywhere up to 10,000 to 40,000 bees. When they select the swarm catcher as a suitable hive location, a literal cloud of bees surrounds the catcher until the queen either lands on the catcher or in the catcher, and the rest of the colony follows. As an observer, the bees are fairly docile at this point, fully engorged with honey, and with a one track mind. Those who are daring enough can walk into the middle of this cloud and experience something few have. It is one of the rare times you can work with bees with no real fear of getting stung. Once all bees have entered the catcher, preparations are to be made for the hiving of your newly caught swarm either that evening or the following morning. Another close-up view:

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So far, this year at Tablas Creek Vineyard, we have captured 3 swarms, and successfully hived all of them. We started the bee project for a few reasons. For one, it is in line with the bio-dynamic and organic practices we follow here on the property. Also, it is important that we enhance the biodiversity at Tablas Creek any way we can. Whether it is planting fruit trees throughout the vineyard, incorporating animals into our farming practices, or, keeping bees to help pollinate our cover crops, a biodiverse farm is a healthy one. Lastly, without honey bees, the human race would cease to exist. I guess you could say we are just doing our part to ensure the continuation of one of the most important species on the planet.

Part two of the honeybee blog: Hiving the swarm and maintaining the colony… To be continued…

Jordan Lonborg, Viticulturist and resident beekeeper


Shatter explained: A perfect flower, but not a perfect bloom

By Levi Glenn

Every year there is a one- to two-week period when the vineyard smells wonderful. That's when you know bloom has arrived. It's not the unbelievably effusive smell of an orange grove in full blossom. Or the sweetly intoxicating blue bush lupine, a beautiful native wildflower we see each spring. The scent of a vineyard in full bloom is a bit more understated, elusive even. It's got a sweet floral note underscored by a deeper earthy character. The smell is fleeting, as is bloom. At least in most years.

Mourvedre in full bloom
A Mourvedre cluster in full bloom

Simply put, bloom is the window of time in which each individual flower pollinates itself. Grapevines have what is referred to as a perfect flower. Many crops require both male and female plants to produce fruit. A male flower's pollen is moved by wind (and often aided by honeybees) to help find its way to a female flower. Perfect flowers -- including grapes -- can self-pollinate. That is, unless something goes wrong. 

In our area, weather during bloom is typically optimal for even fruit set: warm, dry, not too much wind. 2015 has been a bit different. After a historically warm first four months and a correspondingly early emergence from dormancy, May was unseasonably cool. We had quite a bit of wind, and the fog produced by the onshore flow seemed relentless. There were even a couple light rain events. Wind can blow the pollen away, and rain or fog can make the flower cap stick. Both result in an unfertilized flower. With optimal conditions, bloom can be as fast as a week. This year, we have seen some blocks take close to a month to complete flowering. When a flower doesn't turn into a berry for whatever reason, we call that shatter (or coulure in french). When this is widespread over a vineyard, crop loss can be severe. The two examples below are the two ends of the spectrum.

 Full Grenache Cluster
A fully-fertilized Grenache cluster

Shattered Grenache ClusterA Grenache cluster with lots of shatter

Aborted BerriesUnfertilized Grenache berries

In addition to the Grenache -- which is known as a shatter-prone variety -- we have seen some shatter in Syrah.  But it's not even across the entire vineyard.  Grenache from warmer blocks that flowered first, during warm weather in late April, set quite well. Grenache from cooler, lower-lying parts of the vineyard that didn't get around to flowering until May show more shatter.  The Mourvedre and Roussanne that are finishing in our warm weather now don't show any signs of shatter. 

The conditions during bloom can dictate crop levels not only for this year, but also for next year. The 2016 inflorescence (cluster) is being formed right now whithin the bud located inside this years shoot. Growing conditions this year can affect how many clusters (typically one to three) will be inside next year's buds, and what size they will be. As an example, weather during the 2014 bloom period was ideal, so we saw some shoots with three clusters on them this year.

Mild-to-moderate shatter in a variety like Grenache isn't always a bad thing. This variety tends to produce large, often dense clusters. The berries that are on the interior of the cluster aren't exposed to sunlight and can therefore stay pale in color, producing correspondingly lighter wines. With some shatter, the more open clusters receive more even light exposure, creating darker and more concentrated wines.  Looser clusters also reduce clusters' susceptibility to mildew, to which Grenache can be prone.

And, of course, bloom is just the beginning.  Crop level and quality are affected by the full season's weather conditions, and we adjust what we do in the vineyard depending on what we see.  Blocks with shatter, or fewer buds per shoot, will need less, or even no, thinning to produce top quality fruit.  The more productive blocks give us more options, but are also more work.

Overall, our unusually cool May appears to have reduced the amount of crop in some varieties, but crop levels on average don't look that different from 2013 or 2014. Given that our last two years produced perhaps the highest-quality back-to-back vintages in our history, knowing that crop levels this year are comparable is a good early indicator of quality.  Stay tuned.


Winterizing the vineyard as we wait and hope for rain

By Levi Glenn

The falling leaves mark the commencement of the “slow time” of the year in the vineyard. Harvest is in the rear-view mirror. All the grapes have been fermented and the wines are resting comfortably in their respective vessels, yet one last series of tasks needs to be completed. We have come to call this winterization, and it has nothing to do with new wiper blades or antifreeze. Our tasks include ripping the soil, discing, applying compost, seeding cover-crop, and spreading straw bales. In a normal year it’s a race against the clock. The rain usually arrives at some point in November (we’ve only received 0.59 inches so far), after which it becomes a lot harder to get our tractors into the vineyard. With the tractors darting around the property, it can almost look choreographed. One tractor will broadcasting compost, a second closely behind with a disc to incorporate the compost and aerate the soil, and a third tractor bringing up the rear with seed drill to sow our cover-crop. It takes us close to a month to finish it all up, and that’s when we can really sit down and take a breather.

On a good portion of our vineyard we use our Yeomans Plow. This consists of a three-shank ripper and a roller behind it. There seems to be no end to benefits of this tool. We use it to break-up soil compaction, which is caused mostly by our long, dry summers, but contributed to by our tractorsand even the winter rainfall, depending on the physical composition of the soil. It simultaneously aerates the root zone allowing the roots to breathe and spread more easily, and it trims surface roots forcing the roots to grow downwards instead of into the row middles (allowing us to dry-farm more effectively). On our steepest head trained, dry-farmed blocks we also use it for erosion control. By ripping across the hill, any run-off that may occur sinks down the trenches left by the shanks, allowing us to retain water rather than having it run off down hill. The only drawback to this tool is the amount of rock that it pulls out of the soil, that we then have to remove by hand. The Yeomans has become an invaluable tool in the vineyard.

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The Yeomans Plow mounted to the tractor.

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Newly ripped ground in a young dry-farmed Grenache block

Organic compost is at the very center of our nutritional program at Tablas Creek Vineyard. For many blocks this is the only fertilization they receive for the entire year. Our application rates vary from 2-5 tons/acre. This may sound like a huge amount, but an acre is a big area, and as you walk behind the spreader you can see only a scattering of compost on the ground. We make around 100 tons of compost each year from own property. We collect all the vine prunings from the vineyard and run them through a wood chipper, then throw in all the pomace from the winemaking process, and lastly add green waste from tree trimming. All of these ingredients are put into a pile and turned every couple months. Microbes in the raw materials break down all this organic matter into compost, which takes close to a year to finish. We can’t make enough compost ourselves, so we purchase another 250 tons from organic sources to supplement our own. The compost gives the plants a little boost of nitrogen, which helps their growth, but just as importantly introduces an immense quantity of microbes. Even better, compost has a time-release effect, and not all the nutrition will be used up right away. This year’s compost will feed the vines for 3 years, and since we apply every year, the vines receive a compounding effect.

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A spreader full of organic compost ready to be applied.

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50 Tons of newly delivered organic compost.

Throughout the whole estate vineyard we seed cover-crop. We use a seed drill, which creates a small furrow in the soil and drops a selected amount of the seed a couple inches below the soil surface. The seed mixes we use are mostly made up of legumes, but also have some barley and other grasses. Legumes have the unique ability to pull nitrogen from the atmosphere and process it and actually put it back into the soil. The grasses are mostly for erosion control. As the seeds start to germinate, their roots penetrate into the soil and help hold onto the little topsoil that we have. Perhaps the most beneficial aspect of cover cropping is harnessing the immense amount of greenery that grows between the vine rows. Once we till this cover crop back into the soil in the spring we increase the percentage of organic matter in our soil. Organic matter improves soil nutrition, water holding capacity, microbial activity and soil structure. Increasing organic matter in soil is what farmers refer to as “building soil”. With different seed mixes we get different flowers that bloom and attract good bugs, and the more species of plants the more diversity of microbes we have in our soil.  A side-benefit is that a cover-crop allows us to choose the plants that grow in the winter, and cut down on invasive and troublesome species of weeds such as yellow starthistle.

Seed mix Seed bag
Left, a handful of cover-crop seed. The round ones are legumes and the oval ones are grasses.  Right, organic Soil-Max seed mix

Cover popping
Newly-germinated cover crop in January 2013

Cat + seeder
A Catapilar D-6 with a large seed drill on our new property

We only have one last thing to do before we are fully buttoned-down for winter. On the steeper dirt access roads between vineyard blocks, winter rainfall can cause serious erosion problems, but plowing across the slope or planting with cover crops aren't really feasible. So we spread straw in a thin layer across these areas. The straw slows down the water, and helps distribute the force of the heavy rainfall. Only the steepest of spots are in jeopardy. Once it rains a couple times, grass germinates and grows up through the straw, further reinforcing these sensitive areas.

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Standing at the top of New Hill, straw in place. December 2012

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Straw protecting the avenue between the French grenache and Mt. Mourvedre from erosion. January 2013

Just a week ago we finished up with all of our various winterization tasks. The winter slumber can now begin. It's on to building more rock walls and waiting for the rain. Even with average rainfall from here on out, we will most likely still suffer some drought conditions in 2014. As of today we are at just 16% of normal rainfall. This is making most growers quite axious right now, in a time that would usually be the more restful. It wont be until February that our next big task of pruning begins. Hopefully between now and then all of our erosion control efforts actully get put to use. In any case, the rest will be much appreciated.


Counting sheep (and losing sleep)

By Levi Glenn

Most of my mornings start with counting sheep. You herd that right.

Raising sheep in an area that borders so much wild land means that we have to keep a close eye on the herd. The predators that populate this area are quite formidable, the most dangerous being the mountain lion, followed by bobcats and coyotes. The current herd consists of 40 sheep, so in the morning, even with the security of our movable electric fence, we must make sure that there are in fact 40 still running about. There are various ways we protect the sheep, the most dissuading being the guard donkeys, Fiona and Dottie. Donkeys are quite protective and have a particular disdain for canines. Five alpacas are a second line of defense, watchful and noisy. When we move the animals to a new area to grazing, the electric fence comes with them, which provides another element of protection: 6,000 volts of electricity is a memorable deterrent. We haven't lost a single sheep (knock on wood) but we know that there are things out here that would love a mutton snack. Coyote predation is one of the main reasons that commercial sheep ranching is becoming a rarity in many areas of California. The herd, Dottie in front, in the vineyard this spring:

Animal herd

As cute as the sheep are, they are here to do a job. Our herd removes the unwanted weeds from underneath the vines and within the vine rows. By having them in the vineyard we get a wealth of benefits. It reduces at least two tractor passes in any given block, so a reduction in biodiesel use, total man hours, and tractor repair costs. As they eat, they are simultaneously fertilizing the vineyard, and that nutrient cycling happens without any human effort, reducing the total amount of compost we have to purchase and the labor to apply it. And the time that we spend with the animals in the vineyard gives us another perspective on what else we need to be paying attention to.

The sheep can only be in the vineyard when the vines aren't growing. This period usually extends from mid-November to mid-April, depending in the growing season and how early the winter rainfall arrives. The herd can graze down two acres of vineyard in one week, so in 4 months they can cover 30-40 acres of vineyard. Doing some math shows that one full grown sheep can eat roughly one acre worth of weeds during that timeframe, and a little more math would suggest that a herd of 100 sheep should be the magic number for us to be able to graze them across the whole vineyard each year.

Since the herd can only be in the vineyard for this time, not only do we need to find somewhere else to put the sheep, but also provide something else for them to eat. Every year we plant cover crop in the vineyard rows, and some of those seed mixes contain more legumes and others more grasses. In spring of 2012 we noticed a block that had a particularly tall barley cover crop growing. We harvested the barley by hand, left it to dry in the field, and tied it up into small bundles. We use this to feed when there is no grass left for grazing. It’s a great example of adhering to the single farm unit and trying to produce as much of what we need from our own property.

Fifteen lambs were born at Tablas Creek this year, ten ewe lambs and five ram lambs. The males are usually castrated a few days after birth, as this is the most humane time for this to be done and avoids the problem of them fighting for dominance when they reach adulthood. These males (called wether lambs) can be kept to grow the herd, or can be sold at auction once they reach market weight. Ewe lambs are more valuable since they will become mothers once they reach sexual maturity. This happens from 6 to 12 months of age. We want them to reach full size (generally over a year old) before they breed to lower pregnancy risks later on. Ewes that came from a twin birth have a higher chance of having twins themselves, which can be valuable as it will help grow the herd faster.

Our first lamb was born in mid-December 2012, a ram lamb named Percy. He will become the patriarch of the herd. He’s grown quite large in the last eight months, now weighing over 100 pounds. Percy will be taking over for his father Gordy, once he has reached full maturity. He is a half Dorper and half Katahdin. Both breeds are hair sheep, meaning they actually don't have wool, but lose their hair in the summer months and grow it back as the weather becomes cooler in the late fall. These breeds are known to have good meat characteristics and are very hardy. One ram is capable of breeding 30-50 ewes. Selection of the ram is quite important since he is essentially 50% of the genetic makeup of the herd. Percy has already shown good qualities as a future ram, with heavy muscling and a small head to he will pass down to his offspring, easing issues during birthing.

Father son

Shawn Dugan introducing Gordy to his son Percy

Young Percy

Young Percy

Percy Today

Percy this week

Molly was our first ewe lamb born, and she has unique markings.  I fed her by hand from when she was a few days old, and she is quite friendly. Her name was crowd-sourced: we started by asking the employees at Tablas Creek for nominations, and put the top choices out to our Facebook followers. I think her name is rather fitting.

Molly

Young Molly

The ewe lambs were recently removed from the herd and weaned from their mothers for the first time, to prevent them breeding this year. After a few trying days it seems that these lambs have made the adjustment to their separation and are only concerned with the feed bucket.

Stop Staring

Inside lambing barn this week, Molly on left.

This experimental animal project, now almost two years old, has been a smashing success. I’ve described the more practical reasons for having them around, but what we didn’t expect was the effect it would have on our own employees. Not a day goes by there isn’t someone that wants to go see the animals or wants to share stories of the silly antics of the multi-species herd. It brings people out into the vineyard more often, and gives them a deeper tie and connection to our estate. Our customers have also responded. Not long ago we hosted an event where we had a walking tour of all of our different creatures here at Tablas. Families, some with children, some without, were able to interact with all the sheep, donkeys, pigs, goats, chicken and humans. It even got written up as a blog piece by KCET TV in Los Angeles. This has all shown me how much joy these animals can bring to people of all ages, and it’s something that I get the privilege to experience every day.

Inner barn

Late afternoon light inside lambing barn


Off with Their Heads: We Graft our Chardonnay to Counoise and Mourvedre

By Levi Glenn

We have been accused of being part of the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) contingent, but that wasn’t true... until now.

Grafting Over - Contrast with Roussanne

Since 2000, we've harvested our two-acre Chardonnay block -- originally used to produce vine material for our grapevine nursery -- and used it to make our Antithesis Chardonnay.  We've always intended to graft that block over to the Rhone varietals that are our focus, and in our management review last year we decided the time had come to increase our acreage in the varieties that butter our bread, so to speak. Chardonnay is a challenge here, and while we're proud of the results we've achieved with this grape, its difficulties are significant. It sprouts so early that it's always subject to spring frosts; we've received a full crop off the block just three times in the fourteen years since it came into production. During the summer, Paso Robles is on the warmest edge of where Chardonnay can grow successfully. The cooler vintages (like the 2011 Antithesis that we just released) show excellent varietal character, the warmer years, we feel, less so. And we will have several new grapes to work with in the next few years from our importation of the full collection of Chateauneuf du Pape grapes. We felt that it was better to focus our attention on these new grapes such as Clairette, Bourboulenc, Picardin, Muscardin, Cinsaut and Terret Noir.

I'm sure some people will be sad at the prospect of Tablas not making our Chardonnay, and we understand that. We've come to love the wine too. But it's a good time to make sure that we're focused on our core mission, and we’re excited to have more Counoise and Mourvedre; each will get an acre of the former Chardonnay block.

The decision to re-graft a vineyard provides us with a couple of advantages over just pulling the whole block out and replanting. The infrastructure that is already in place like wires, posts, stakes, and drip-hose can stay in place, saving us potentially tens of thousands of dollars per acre. A newly planted vineyard would take 3-4 years to start bearing fruit, while a re-grafted vineyard only loses out on one year of production. But most importantly, the new vines take advantage of the old vineyard's root system, giving the vines the benefit of deep root penetration, greater resistance to drought and heat spikes, and the ability to concentrate all the character of the soils into the new grapes.

The process is remarkable to watch, with just a sliver of the new grape variety slipped into wedges sliced into the vine's trunk.  These new buds are then wrapped with tape to hold them in place, and we wait two to three weeks for the two plants' tissues to grow together.  The video below shows the whole, amazing process:

But grafting does have its own risks, especially with older and less healthy vineyards. Cutting off the top of the vine is a traumatic event in a grapevine's life, but grapevines are quite resilient, their inherent vigor showing in the suckers they push from their trunk while the new buds are connecting. The photo below shows a photo taken this afternoon, with the new buds starting to swell (under the white tape) while the trunk of the vine also pushes Chardonnay suckers. We'll rub these off once the new buds start growing.

Grafting Over - Buds Pushing

Having a specialized and experienced grafting crew is crucial to being successful. The best crews guarantee at least a 95% success rate, and from my experience they are often more effective than that. As you saw in the video, they make this look easy, but there is a real art to grafting. Already, a few of these little buds have started to push out their first little shoots, and by this time next year we will see little clusters of Mourvedre and Counoise starting to form.

So what’s the antithesis of Antithesis?


Tablas Creek is a finalist for 2013 Best Winery Blog!

WBA_Finalist_2013We are proud to have been named a finalist for "Best Winery Blog" at the 2013 Wine Blog Awards.  This is the sixth consecutive year we've been honored as a finalist, and we've taken home the trophy twice, in 2008 and 2011.  We'd love to make the 2013 awards a three-peat.

This year's finalists include several past nominees and two former winners, and is I think the strongest field to date. If you aren't reading them, you should: they're all compelling glimpses inside the world of a winery, from vineyard to cellar to market:

It seems an appropriate time to look back at some of my last year's most memorable blog posts. If you missed them, or you're a new visitor to the blog thanks to the recent nomination, it's an admittedly idiosyncratic selection of the posts that resonated most with me, with a brief explanations of why for color.  If you're a regular reader, hopefully you'll find some old friends here.  I am particularly proud that this is our most collaborative effort to date, with great posts by several members of our team supplementing my own work. In chronological order:

  • Seeing red -- and green -- in Santa Fe In which National Sales Manager Darren Delmore stakes his claim as the Hunter S. Thompson of the Tablas Creek blog. If you don't feel like you're in Santa Fe with him, check your pulse.
  • When wine tasting, step away from the carafe The post that got the most echoes this year, with excerpts or links posted on scores of other social media sites and the complete article reprinted in several wine associations' newsletters. Why the buzz? We made some simple experiments that showed that when you rinse your glass with water, the next wine is diluted 7%, with some effects you'd predict and some you might not.
  • Harvest 2012: The End of the Beginning I could have chosen any of Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi's posts; they're all beautifully written and illustrated with her terrific photographs, and give an amazing glimpse into the psyche of the cellar. But this one stood out for how raw it was, reflecting the exhaustion and elation of the end of harvest.  Maybe my favorite post of the year.
  • In which we dig ourselves a hole, on purpose Viticulturist Levi Glenn digs into the results of a soil survey on our new parcel conducted by a Cal Poly class.  If you're a soil junky, or just want to understand some of the complexity of what's there when you get below the topsoil, Levi makes this detailed, complex picture compelling and comprehensible.
  • Is the bloom off the user review site rose? I take a look at the number of reviews we and some other comparable wineries around us have been receiving from Yelp! and TripAdvisor, and come to the conclusion that we're in the middle of an industry-wide slump in review authorship. It was fun to see other wineries chime in on what they were seeing, confirming our suspicions.
  • Surviving consolidation in the wholesale market A preview of a talk I gave to the Unified Grape and Wine Symposium in Sacramento, in which I represented smaller wineries and shared some of the essentials of keeping yourself viable in a crowded, noisy market with an ever-shrinking number of wholesalers and an ever-growing number of wineries.
  • The costs of state alcohol franchise laws  I only put up one post this year focusing on the labrynth of legislation a winery has to navigate to get its wares to market, but it was an important one and will preview, I think, the next frontier of court challenges to state-sponsored restraint of the wine trade.
  • Can I get an ice bucket for my red?  A post I'd been thinking about for a while that also seemed to resonate with audiences, deconstructing the myth that red wines show best at room temperature and whites should be served cold.
  • When Terroir Was a Dirty Word A recent post by my dad that dives into the surprising history of the meaning of terroir.  You may not have realized that as recently as the 1960's, it was a bad thing for a wine to taste of terroir.  I certainly didn't.

As always, the winner will be determined 50% by the votes of the expert panel of judges who culled the nominations to the five finalists, and 50% by the votes of the public.  I encourage you to browse the finalists, and if, at the end, you believe us worthy, we'd be honored to receive your vote (Vote here).  Voting ends this Friday, May 24th.


In which we dig ourselves a hole, on purpose

By Levi Glenn

It's been a little over a year since our purchase of our new parcel.  The property is just to our south: 150 acres of rolling oak woodland, a walnut orchard (now removed), and a fair amount of the creek from which we take our name. There are probably only sixty plantable acres and the rest will be left in its natural state. And while there's nothing visible above-ground yet, we're making progress toward planting this beautiful piece of land. The first stage was to find out what we have below-ground, and what we found confirmed our belief that this is indeed going to be a great piece of vineyard.

We knew there were rocks. Lots of rocks, but more importantly white rocks. Limestone rocks. Just how many of these rocks? How does one find out?  Invite 13 aspiring soil scientists come to your soon-to-be vineyard and dig a bunch of holes with a backhoe. Using this process, these students turned holes in the ground into this beautiful multicolored soils map:

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Before I get too far along I would like to send out a big thank you to the Cal Poly Soil Resource Inventory 431 class of Spring 2012, along with the enthusiasm and guidance of Dr. Thomas J. Rice. They found a lot of rocks. (They also presented their findings to us in a professional and succinct manner that should make their professor and university proud.)

The main tool a soil scientist has is a soil pit. They dug 41 different soil pits -- typically straightforward holes in the ground 5-6 ft. deep -- across the new property. Grapevine roots can reach down 30 ft., but a 5-6 foot pit gets you the majority of the root mass. Then you assess the layers (technical term: horizons) in the soil. To give you a sense of how we use this data, let's look at one soil pit in the Calodo series. A photo is below, followed by its soil analysis.

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The team identified three distinct horizons in the pit: Ap (the top 20 centimeters), Bk (the next 26 centimeters) and Crk (the next 44 centimeters). Below the Crk horizon the team found bedrock. Each horizon is identified by composition, color, texture, plasticity, and pH. Here are the details:

Ap— 0 to 20 cm (0 to 8 in.); gray (10YR 5/1) gravelly clay loam, very dark grayish brown (10YR 3/2) moist; moderate medium granular structure; moderately hard, firm, sticky and plastic; common very fine and fine roots; violently effervescent, many nodules (20.02% CaCO3); slightly alkaline (pH 7.44); clear wavy boundary.

Bk— 20 to 46 cm (8 to 18 in.); gray (10YR 5/1) very gravelly clay, very dark grayish brown (10YR 3/2) moist; moderate medium granular structure; slightly hard, very friable, sticky and plastic; common very fine and fine roots; violently effervescent, many nodules(32.77% CaCO3); slightly alkaline (pH 7.62); clear wavy boundary.

Crk— 46 to 90 cm (18 to 35 in.); fractured limestone (59.48% CaCO3); moderately alkaline (pH 8.07).

If you're wondering about the term "violently effervescent", it refers to how a soil scientist tests for calcium carbonate, or CaCO3. When testing a soil for CaCO3 levels, you pour Hydrochloric Acid on the rocks and if they start to bubble, their calcium carbonate content is sufficiently high to qualify as limestone.

Summarizing the information above, you can see the increasing clay and CaCO3 concentration as you go down away from the surface, until you ultimately hit the bedrock. This continuum traces the transition from the surface -- where you're likeliest to find organic matter -- to bedrock, which is nearly 100% limestone.  Even better, most of the rock fragments are small pieces of calcareous shale that are easily broken apart by grapevine roots.

For us, the highlight of the above technical information is one number: the 59.48% CaCO3 in the Crk horizon. I have never seen another soil with this high a CaCO3 percentage. CaCO3 is the chemical composition for limestone, the white rock that is so well suited for wine grapes. [Read the Why limestone matters for wine grape growing post from 2010 if you'd like a refresher on its importance.] The Calodo soil series has the highest concentrations of CaCO3, and the Linne soil series also has high concentrations, but tends to be deeper with more clay. These two soils make up the main ridge on our new vineyard property, the teal and yellow colors on the soil map at the top of the page.

There are a total of 8 different soil types that the research team found. They vary widely, from rocky limestone to deep alluvial clays. This will allow us to match each soil type to different varieties. Grenache, for example, is capable of surviving in extreme drought conditions, which help to tame its often excessive vigor, so it's suited to rocky limestone-strewn hilltops like ours, pictured below. 

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Roussanne on the other hand needs a little more nutrition and would prefer a little more moisture, so it will likely be suited to some of the flat lowlands (think the green lower-lying areas toward the outside of the propery) that have a more clay and better water retention. Ultimately this gives us more information to make better choices when it comes time to plant.

This ridge is first place we are going to plant on the new property. Grenache and Mourvedre are the most likely candidates. We typically assume that the tops of our hills produce the best grapes because of the low yields that the difficult, rocky soils enforce, but hilltops also have the advantage that they won’t freeze. Anywhere there is a slope, cold air drains downward, to be replaced by warmer air from above. Last year I recorded a 10 degree temperature difference from the top of this hill to the bottom. Planting should start in 2014 if all goes to plan. We will start with 5-10 acres and plant a little bit more each subsequent year.

The crew is eager to get started planting, but the day-to-day farming of this property will present its own challenges. We have already ripped the soil to break up compaction, but in doing so we brought an immense number of large rocks to the surface. Those had to be removed before we seeded the hill with cover crop. We know we'll continue to battle the rocks since any time we cultivate it brings more of them to the surface. But the sheer steepness of the property will be the hardest thing to deal with. With slopes from 25-45% on over half of the hill, it will take our most seasoned tractor drivers to tackle this terrain. You can see below the topographical map. The closer the contour lines are, the steeper the slope:

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We were fortunate to have not just one soil expert but 14 of them to help us navigate the complexities of our new property. Thank you to Dr. Rice, all your students, and Cal Poly for putting so much time and effort into this project.

Photo

Soil Scientists: Samuel Bachelder, Gregory Beaudreau, Eric Boyd, Michael Founds, Laurie Fraser, Aaron Keyser, Jeanette McCracken, Stephen Nolan, Scott Pensky, Natalie Rossington, JaquelineTilligkeit

Soil Scientist and Lead Editor: Emilie Schneider

Project Leader: Thomas J. Rice, Ph.D., C.P.S.S.


Compost Tea: a Power Shake for the Vineyard

By Levi Glenn

A few years back we started to make and apply compost tea in the vineyard. It was an effort to try to improve our soil, a central theme in organic farming: improve the soil and the plant will follow. Compost tea contains two important soil improving components: nutrition and soil microbes. Microbes are microorganisms that help us in many ways, but most notably by breaking down organic matter (slowly decaying carbon compounds) into yet smaller particles and ones that plants can readily consume. You could see it as basically freeing up nutrition that already exists in the soil. It’s a process that isn’t completely understood, but is definitely going on below our feet. Amazingly, there are an estimated 500 billion microbes in one pound of soil. Yes, that’s billions with a B. What I’m describing is just the one part of the soil food web, one where microbes, worms, nutrients, plants and animals all interact. The more of this life we have in our soil, the healthier the plants that grow in this soil should be. A diagram below (found in the soils section of the USDA's Web site) illustrates:

Compost_tea_life_cycle

The complex (and only somewhat understood) interactions in living soil are the main reason why modern chemical farming practices tend to be counterproductive over the long term. Synthetic herbicides kill the weeds above ground, but their effects are farther reaching than this: they also kill off the microbes as well as impacting the food supply for the worms and insects that create a living, vibrant soil belowground. Chemical pesticides have similarly profound impacts underground. That’s at the heart of why we farm organically.

In addition to the microbial component of compost tea, additional benefits include increased growth through improved nutrition, better soil structure, and disease suppression. The tea can be sprayed on the leaves as a foliar fertilizer, or applied directly into the soil through our irrigation lines and drips. One function we’ve been particularly intrigued by is compost tea’s ability to suppress powdery mildew. Spraying compost tea on our grapevines has allowed us to significantly reduce the amount of sulfur we use as a natural fungicide.

Compost_tea_old_makerWe’ve been making compost tea for years, using a simple system we built ourselves (right).  We would then use the tea in two ways.  We would load the brewed tea into sprayers and apply it directly to the leaves to inhibit mildew, and we would run it through our irrigation lines to build up our soils.  This year we took the plunge and bought a 500-gallon commercial compost tea brewer (below).

Compost_tea_0002

Brewing takes roughly 24 hours to complete. We start with worm castings, compost and fish bonemeal powder.  Worm castings (below, left) are a fancy term for worm dung, a highly refined source of nutrition. The compost we’re using (below, middle) is made on the property out of our vine prunings, green waste and manure. The fish bone meal (below, right) provides a much needed source of phosphorous in the vineyard and is an additional food source for the microbes in the brewing process. 

Compost_tea_0005

These three ingredients are put into a wire mesh cylinder (below, left), which is placed into water to steep. Below each cylinder are powerful bubbling aerators (below, right) that help to saturate the mixture and provide oxygen to the microbes. There are also smaller aerators that go inside the cylinders to further promote an aerobic environment.

Compost_tea_0003 Compost_tea_0001

Before the brewing, the bacteria, fungi, and protozoa in the “tea” are in somewhat of a dormant state. By creating the right environment for these microorganisms by adding water and oxygen to their environment, keeping them at an optimal temperature, and providing an accessible food source, their numbers grow exponentially during the brewing process.

When we’re done, we have 500 gallons of what looks like a weak batch of coffee, but is actually a microbe-rich elixir, a liquid soil of sorts.  And no, you wouldn't want to drink it, any more than you would want to chew on our soil:

Compost_tea_0006

When we brew a new batch, if we’re curious what’s in it, we can send a sample off to the lab. The analysis the lab runs shows us the total number of bacteria and fungi in the tea, and the proportion between the two. Some plants prefer a higher concentration of bacteria in the tea, like vegetable crops, where as vines and trees do better with a fugal dominated tea. After a few trial batches we’ve been getting consistently good lab results and are confident in our process. 

While there is often notable benefit from even short-term compost tea use, we hope that longer-term use will provide exponentially greater benefit.  Our principal vineyard challenge is Paso Robles’ harsh vineyard environment: the same thing that makes the grapes we grow such good raw materials for winemaking.  Paso Robles is so dry and sunny in the summer, so cold in the winter, and has such a great diurnal swing in temperature year-round.  Plus, our topsoil is relatively thin and rocky.  It’s not easy maintaining the health of our vineyards in this climate, and doing so is the reasoning behind almost every decision we make in the field.  Applying compost tea at significant volumes, over a matter of years, should help our grapevines to continue to flourish even as the neighbors who are farming more conventionally have to replant because their vines are exhausted. 

So now we’re farming wine grapes, olives, sheep, and microbes. I can’t wait to see what we’ll be growing in the future.