43" Of Rain: The Good, The Bad, and What It Means for the 2017 Vintage

By Jordan Lonborg

As of now I am sure you are all aware of the phenomenal winter we experienced in California. The snow pack in the Sierras is record setting. Lakes and reservoirs are at capacity in the northern two-thirds of the state. Mammoth Mountain is expecting to be open through July (and possibly the entire year). Lastly, our beloved Senior Assistant Winemaker, Chelsea Franchi, will reach her personal goal of skiing 40 days this season (you read that right) even as a weekend warrior.

The Rain

Lake Ramage
The lake on our new property has been dry since 2012... but has water now.

At Tablas Creek, we received close to 43" of rain this year. There are reservoirs that are still full in our Adelaida region that I didn't even know existed. Until April, there were spots in the vineyard where water was literally bubbling out of ground squirrel burrows. Las Tablas Creek, the seasonal watershed from which we get our name, hadn't flowed since 2012, but started in December and didn't stop until three weeks ago. It was a rain season that will be remembered by those who live and work in the Adelaida for years come. After 5 years of intense drought, what does this mean for our vineyard?

Amazing Vigor in the Vineyard

Viognier
The bushiness of this Viognier block is out of control!

This is only my second summer as Tablas Creek's Viticulturist, so my history here is limited. That said, vigor is vigor. It is unmistakable. Schooled or not, novice or expert, anyone could walk into the glorious property that I am fortunate enough to call my office and recognize the extreme growth that is occurring at this moment. If you were to stretch out some of the shoots in our Viognier, Syrah, and even our head trained Grenache, they may remind you of NBA Finals hero and the Warriors' own Kevin Durant and his wingspan (if you are unfamiliar with my line of reasoning, I urge you to look him up. He defies human anatomy). Some canes are easily ten feet long. We have pulled wires up twice in some blocks and still it feels as if you are walking in downtown NYC and its endless sky scrapers. This is true even with varieties (like Viognier, pictured right) where you're normally thrilled with modest vigor.

Jordy Vermentino Leaf
A Vermentino leaf, with baseball cap for scale. Normally leaves are barely half this size.

One of my favorite quotes is from a local vineyard consultant: "as vineyard managers we aren't farming vines or even fruit, to be successful, we farm leaves." Forty-three inches of rain makes growing leaves easy. During the growing season, the canopy acts like a solar panel. As the vines go into dormancy post harvest, the chlorophyll within those leaves is drawn back into the plant and is stored as energy for the following season. But until harvest, these leaves are the engine that drives the vines' ability to ripen fruit.

Fruit Set Looks Good
I was worried that the cool spring we've had would mean that the fruit clusters wouldn't develop properly. Physiologically, a grapevine relies on many factors to develop the pollen tube required for proper fertilization of each berry. But in general, cold weather is bad news. A chilly May -- when most of our early grapes are in bloom -- in 2015 produced painfully low fields in some varietals. Pollen tubes were not able to develop quickly enough, and the result was widespread shatter: berries that were not fertilized and therefore fell off the rachis (stems). But it looks like we largely avoided shatter this year, as we apparently tiptoed above the temperature line that can be so disastrous during that crucial period in May. Fruit set looks good.

Unusually High Mildew Pressures
So, vine vigor is through the roof, we have had had a great fruit set, all is good right? If only farming was that easy! With the good comes the bad. Extreme vigor in a vine means extra shoots and leaves (canopy), and all this growth can create the perfect environment for a fungal disease known as powdery mildew. Mildew isn't usually a huge problem for us, because by the time we have significant canopy growth, our daily high temperatures are above the range (70-85F) where mildew thrives, and it's usually so dry that all fungal diseases struggle to get established. Unfortunately, these are the exact temperatures that we have seen in the Adelaida since bud break, and all the moisture in the ground has meant that evaporation has given the mildew spores enough moisture to get established.

Powdery mildew can  affect both leaves and fruit. Some varieties such as Syrah, Tannat, and Mourvèdre are fairly resistant. Others like Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, and Grenache Noir are fairly susceptible. Heavy infestations require fruit drop to prevent the disease from spreading. Realizing the conditions were perfect, we knew the threat of powdery mildew was on our doorstep and we have been diligent in protection. As a certified organic property, we have used all available tools allowed (various oils and forms of sulfur) to protect and have been extremely successful in doing so.

As of now, we have found only a couple of very small pockets of of the fungus and have treated accordingly. Here's an area where the longevity of the team at Tablas Creek pays off. David Maduena, Vineyard Manager at Tablas Creek since the 1990's, has such a deep understanding of where the outbreaks occur, literally to the vine, that he can know with confidence where to look. It's an amazing asset.

More Shoot (and Cluster) Thinning Required
Just because the vine has lots of vigor and wants to set lots of crop doesn't mean that we will let it. If we were to just let the vines go, we would be allowing a micro-climate to form within the canopy creating a breeding ground for the aforementioned fungus. Vines will always push non-count buds that are in between positioned spurs. More often than not, the shoots will not have fruit on them. It is imperative that we go back through the vineyard as early as possible to remove these shoots to create space and airflow through the canopy. There has been so much vigor this year (read: so many extra shoots) that the removal of this growth is taking twice as long as it should in some blocks. This sets off a chain reaction. By spending more time in one block, we are delayed from entering another block that needs to be thinned. The longer you wait to thin, the more energy each vine wastes on shoots that will be removed. In another year, we could have hired extra crew to supplement our full-time team. Unfortunately, with this year's labor shortage in California, our ability to do so has been limited, and we're still playing catch-up.

Shoots are not all we are removing. We will have to thin more fruit this year as well, in order to make sure the grapes the vines produce have good concentration, and in order that vineyard blocks ripen as evenly as possible. (A vine with 20 clusters will ripen them more slowly than a vine with 10 clusters, which makes picking decisions difficult.) Typically, we like to limit our vines to two clusters for each shoot, or 12 clusters per vine for most of our trellissed blocks. For vines that may be diseased and have shorter shoots, we may thin to 1 cluster per shoot. This year, there are blocks on the ranch that are carrying three clusters per shoot! We are in the process of removing the clusters, which is easily one of the hardest decisions for any farmer.

The Future: Groundwater
Up until this point, the vines are largely working with the water that's in the topsoil. And that's been plentiful. But as the summer progresses, what will be important will be how well the water has made it down into deeper layers. This is our own small reflection on the importance of groundwater, which is hands-down the biggest ongoing water issue in California. Are the basins recharging? I cannot speak for California or our neighbors, but as far as Tablas Creek is concerned, our water table has jumped from 48 ft. when we first dug one of our wells in the middle of the drought to 27 ft. as of today. That is a considerable jump. Water has clearly percolated.

Prognosis
We are excited about the prospects of an extremely wet year. Yes, it has its challenges. We will need to be more diligent in controlling our yields, and in watching for mildew. We are a bit behind in getting the cover crop turned under and the vineyard looking manicured. But it's a pleasure to have these be the challenges we're facing, instead of the challenges of the last five years, where we were wondering how to keep the vines going until they can finish ripening their grapes. With three months to go until harvest, we have every expectation that it will be an excellent vintage.

Long View From Head-Trained Grenache
Just look how healthy everything is!

If you build it they will come: Owl boxes, owls, and gopher management

By Jordan Lonborg

For those of you who garden, have fruit trees, a few grapevines, or even a vineyard, pocket gophers can be your nemesis. They will burrow in your garden, sometimes taking entire plants underground with them. The will feast on feeder roots of young trees and/or vines, killing the plant. A garden, orchard, or vineyard is paradise to the pocket gopher. They have water (from irrigation) and an actively growing root system as a food source. We may have lost close to 500 one-year-old vines last year due to gophers. The most effective way of dealing with pocket gophers is to physically trap and kill them. This process takes practice, skill, and time. Even then, at the end of the day you may find yourself looking like Carl Spackler (Bill Murray from Caddyshack) with holes all over your yard, no gophers trapped, and feeling very frustrated (no C4 please!).

Enter Tyto Alba, commonly known as the barn owl. This raptor has your back. Here at Tablas Creek, as part of our pest management program, we have built and erected owl boxes throughout vineyard in the last two growing seasons. To be exact, on the 120 or so planted acres (10 of which are just rootstock) there are 38 owl boxes! From just about any point in the vineyard you’ll notice the rectangular shaped houses that are painted barn door red with the Tablas leaf painted on all sides. It was my goal to have one box every 100-150 yards throughout the entire vineyard, and we've been putting up boxes steadily over the last two years. Being certified organic, outside of trapping, biological control -- read predators who will eat them -- is our only other option. Note the heavy traffic this one's door has seen:

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Every January, barn owl males go in search for suitable nesting locations. To attract females, they begin bringing back rodents to their nest to prove that they can provide enough food for a clutch, or a family of owls. The females will lay between 6-8 eggs in a season, an eggs every 2-5 days. When the last egg has hatched, she begins hunting with the male until late May or early June when the owlets fledge or leave the nest. With a full clutch and a strong food source, a nesting pair can conservatively take around 500 small vertebrates back to the nest to feed their young. Barn owls are extremely efficient hunters and can be voracious when it comes to consuming pocket gophers and other vertebrate pests. Other than gopher remains, I have found the skulls of ground squirrels, song birds, snakes, and even crows in these. Check out the gopher skull I picked up under the above box:

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If you have gopher issues and are interested in building owl boxes for your property, check out this link for step-by-step directions on how to build your own… I have personally built over 150 of them and they are very successful. The link provides all steps needed. I will happily answer any and all questions; leave them in the comments or give us a call at the winery.

Owls are amazing hunters. But I'm not suggesting you rely solely on owl boxes to solve your pocket gopher issues. Look at barn owls as free labor that work while you sleep.  If you do decide to build a few of your own, I leave you with a quote…. “In the immortal words of Jean-Paul Sartre, 'Au revoir, gopher'” –Carl Spackler aka Bill Murray in Caddy shack


East Coast Roots and West Coast Vines- Q&A with Viticulturist Jordan Lonborg

By Suphada Rom

Recently I was able to sit down with our Viticulturist Jordan Lonborg to learn a little bit more about this New England native's transition to California living. Jordan plays a key part in the organic and biodynamic farming program here at Tablas Creek, as well as being chief liaison with the growers we partner with for fruit for the Patelin program. He's often seen traipsing throughout the vineyard with his dog Miles (named after Miles Davis).

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Where were you born and raised?
I was born and raised in Scituate, Massachusetts, a little beach town about 30 miles south of Boston.

How did you get into wine?
I've always loved wine and was exposed to it at a younger age. When I married Molly (Assistant Winemaker at neighboring Halter Ranch), she took me to another level with the wine experience. 

What is your role as the Viticulturist?
I'm here mainly to improve the overall health of the vineyard while maintaining that level of health moving forward. We're using different pruning techniques, fertilizing tactics, and cover crop choices. I think that's the big role for me. Also, the customer relations with our growers for the Patelin program. I work towards maintaining those relationships, while also trying to help them farm a bit friendlier and moving them from a conventional mindset to more biodynamic in terms of farming.

Jordan and Small Fish

Can you talk a little about biodynamic farming and what you're contributing the vineyard?
Having a diverse ecosystem is amazing. You go into any sort of thriving natural setting, you don't see monoculture. You see a plethora of insects, plants, and animals. One thing I noticed though, when I first got here was that there was no bee program, which is part of the whole biodynamic philosophy. I jumped on that immediately! Bees are essential to biodynamic farming- they pollinate the cover crop we grow on the off season. [Editor's note; see Jordan's post from April about our new bee program The Swarm, the Hive, and Tablas Creek Honey.] 

Me, I'm most passionate about the farming aspect of biodynamics. I think having a diverse ecosystem is amazing. Biodynamics recreates what happens in nature. It's not easy- there's more work involved but it just makes sense. I'll go out in the vineyard and see the animals grazing on cover crop. They're providing tillage and nitrogen, taking away work that otherwise humans would be doing. Otherwise, we'd be running tractors and burning diesel to accomplish the same thing. 

What is your biggest challenge out in the field?
My biggest challenge is coming from a conventional farming background and transitioning to a highly sustainable property. With conventional farming, your toolbox is very big. If you see an issue arise in the vineyard, you can respond with a heavy duty fertilizer, spray, or application. Here at Tablas, that toolbox is small, so it forces you to think outside the box. You can't just band-aid the situation, you have to ask the why's, the how's, and what-can-we-do's. 

Jordan and Molly

What do you find most rewarding about working here at Tablas Creek?
Like I said, it's a really magical property. You have the activity with the animals, which you don't have in many places. Everything feels alive and vibrant. The minute I went on my first tour with Neil, my mind was just made up. You go up on Scruffy Hill, a completely dry farmed block of the vineyard, and there are vines on the top of that hill that were planted 6 years ago; and I've seen vines that have been irrigated and fertilized that are a quarter of the size of those plants! We are fortunate to have the soil type and we get the annual rainfall we need to make dry farming possible. Seeing that was, hands down, one of the coolest things I've ever seen. It just clicked.

If you weren't a viticulturist, what would you be doing?
That is a very good question! I could see myself teaching. When I was at Cal Poly, I helped manage the deciduous orchard on campus and had a lot of interaction with students. Since I was a little older than the other students, my professor set me up with a role to take the lead on a lot of our enterprise courses. On the other hand, I could also say I'd could just be fly fishing on a river for the rest of my life.

Besides the extreme sport of fly fishing, what do you like to do in your spare time?
Work on my yard. We have a lot of acreage that I care for. Any chance that we get, we try to kayak- we're on the ocean a lot. Then just exploring Paso, really. Trying to taste as many wines in the area as we can.

Jordan and Big Fish

Do you have any favorite wineries?
I love Halter Ranch. The wines at Terry Hoage (TH) are amazing, and of course, Tablas Creek. I just love how new and different the wines are in Paso. Outside of Paso, Ridge is insane. Molly is from Mendocino, so we'll always hit up wineries along 128 there, which are just phenomenal, as well.

What would people be surprised to know about you?
I didn't always know this is what I wanted to do. I found agriculture when I was 26 and working on a farm in Mendocino, and just kind of fell in love with agriculture. 

Finally, how do you define success?
Happiness! Bottom line. If you're not happy with what you do every day and you don't go to bed happy, then you're not succeeding in life. It's not the money, or status, or your belongings. It's just whether or not you're happy.


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.

V56
The Yeomans Plow mounted to the tractor.

Ripped 2
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.

Trekker spreader
A spreader full of organic compost ready to be applied.

Pile
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.

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

Straw 2
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?